I’m extremely happy to report I had a short, slightly scary story published on HalfHourtoKill.com called “Tsumi.” You can read it here.
In Japanese, 罪 “tsumi” means “to sin”, but there are kanji for the word “sparrowhawk” that looks like this 雀鷂 and is also read as “tsumi.”
I am now kicking myself becuase I didn’t record where I read this, but I read somewhere that there is actually a shrine in Japan dedicated to a sparrowhawk that, in a legend, did the things I described in the short story. I just loved the idea that a village decided to dedicate a shrine to the hawk in the hopes of appeasing its vengeful soul. If I can ever find again where I read about that legend, I’ll add it here.
I listened to the soundtrack of the latest rendition of Dune while writing the story. If you feel so inclined, please put the soundtrack on while you read the story.
The feel of the shrine I described in the short story comes from an actual shrine I stumbled across while hiking one day in Japan. I was following quite a few people on a well-worn path when all of a sudden to my left there was the entrance to a silent, empty shrine. I managed to take a photo of it, which is above, but I didn’t have the courage to actually explore the shrine. It was just too eerie, and no one else hiking the mountain even seemed to acknowledge it.
Maybe these types of creepy, empty shrines are all over the place to the point where hikers ignore them out of boredom, but it certainly stuck out to me.
Not quite so long ago, Japan used to have a plethora of overnight trains with beds so you could wake up at your destination. The advent of the Shinkansen bullet train basically did away with them. Now, your options are plane, bullet train or overnight bus.
While there are still luxury hotel trains running, only one overnight train remains that runs every night out of Tokyo Station: The Sunrise Express.
The overnight train offers a few compartments and something called the “nobi nobi” seats, which are basically rectangles of hard carpet with no walls separating one space from the next.
I got the sense this train is like the Disneyland among train enthusiasts. Tickets go on sale one month in advance, and the compartments sold out within seconds.
As I’ve never ridden overnight on a train, I was curious about the experience. Through sheer luck, I managed to book a bunk bed compartment that would take me all the way from Tokyo to Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture.
I think the bunk bed compartment is perfect for one person and probably a bit of a squeeze for two people (despite there being bunk beds) as the compartment offers about 5 centimeters between the sliding door and the beds in terms of standing space. You can transform the bottom bunk into a place with two little seats and a tiny table, which made it nice to wake up and have a place to have breakfast.
Overall, I liked the experience, but sleeping on the top bunk was harrowing–each curve, each sudden stop made me wonder if that would be the moment I get thrown from the top bunk and hit my head on the little shelf next to the bed below. I didn’t get much sleep, and my body was convinced I was still on the train well into the next day.
Still, I got to see a lovely sunrise, and it was absolutely a unique experience I won’t soon forget. I don’t think I want to ride on it again, or at least for a while, but I’m glad I got to try it out.
In Japan, you’re not likely to wander into a grocery store and find the same fruit available all year round. The only exceptions I’ve ever noticed have been bananas and kiwifruits.
Japan’s grocery stores seem to very much be about the seasons when it comes to produce. I think if you do happen to wander into a posh grocery store, maybe you can find blueberries in the winter, and I’ve noticed a recent trend of mikan (kind of like clementines or mandarin oranges) that were grown in greenhouses being available in the spring, but for the most part, you roll with the seasons, too.
That means my window of opportunity for eating nectarines is about four weeks, if I’m lucky. Nashi pears are longer, but the price goes up as time wears on until they disappear entirely from the shelves.
At first, I hated this system. I came from a place where you could buy the same fruit all year round thanks to the sheer vastness of the U.S., and now I was being forced into a system where fruit is not only extremely expensive, it’s only available for certain parts of the year. It felt confining.
However, as time has gone on and I’ve lived here as long as I have, I’ve started to sort of enjoy the limited time. I appreciate the fruit more, definitely, but it also helps depict the changing of the seasons without the need to put up decorations in the grocery store. For example, I know it’s autumn because apples and mikan are in every grocery store, along with persimmons. Without the need for fake fall leaves pinned up on the walls, I know it’s autumn.
I’m having a taste of autumn with these fruits, and I have to say I like it. If only I could find some decent apple cider somewhere, I’d be all set.
I don’t know what it is, but every person from Japan I’ve ever met has reacted to seeing a squirrel the same way most would to a celebrity.
Squirrels are extremely rare in Japan – the only time I ever spotted one in the wild was in an old city called Kamakura. I snapped the photo above mostly because I couldn’t believe how the people around me were reacting. This single squirrel attracted about twenty people to the base of the tree it was in, all with their cellphones pointing upward.
The few times I’ve gone to America with some Japanese friends, they’ve all gone crazy at squirrel sightings. I’m not sure what it is about squirrels that entrances them so much other than the fact they’re so hard to find in Japan.
I personally have memories of my grandfather guarding his birdfeeder from squirrels with a supersoaker in hand. I grew up thinking of squirrels the way many in Japan also think of pigeons – kind of annoying but a source of entertainment every now and then.
Seeing the way my friends have revered the tenacious squirrel, however, has made me see them in a new light. I think the next time I do go to America, I might end up taking too many photos of them, too.
So here is a list of where all I have managed to find books.
Disclaimer: I know the internet means you can just download books onto Kindle and such, but I’m only interested in physical books in this entry.
Most Expensive Options
Kinokuniya in Shinjuku – stored behind Takashimaya Times Square in Shinjuku, Tokyo, this “annex” used to house books on all floors, with foreign-language books taking over one of the upper floors. Today, the bottom floors have turned into an affordable interior store called Nitori, while the foreign-language floor remains. This has quite a few options for you to enjoy, but expect to pay about double what you would in an English-speaking country.
Maruzen in Otemachi – Just across from Tokyo Station’s north side, this is an ever-dwindling supply of foreign-language books (mostly English, from what I’ve ever seen). I can’t help but notice more and more of the floor housing the books is being taken over by people selling arts and crafts, which is fine, but I miss the books. Again, expect to pay about double what you normally think you should.
National Azabu – This is a “foreign” grocery store in a wealthy neighborhood of Tokyo with a second floor dedicated to household items, toys and books. They also have quite a few magazines, though nothing like Kinokuniya can offer. Again, jaw-dropping prices for literature.
Amazon.co.jp – They have a fairly wide selection of books, but so far I haven’t found any for what I think is a decent price.
Maruzen book sales- The store I mentioned above, and other Maruzen stores, sometimes will have foreign books on sale. The Maruzen store near Tokyo Station used to have a massive foreign-language book sale right in the New Year, but I’m not sure if they’re still doing it. If you speak Japanese, then feel free to check this events list for when it might happen again.
Infinity Books – This bookstore seems to be relatively cheap. It might depend on the book you’re after, though. It’s an entire bookstore just for foreign-language books.
Bookoff – This is a bookstore selling used books only. You can also bring your books here and try to sell them, though don’t expect to make much money off of anything. I think if you go into major Bookoff stores in Tokyo and major cities around Japan, you should find a decent foreign-language section with books nicely on sale. I would like to use this space to brag I found a children’s encyclopedia with a retail value of about $60 selling for $5 at a Bookoff.
Major libraries – It certainly never dawned on me when I first started living here, but a lot of large libraries in major cities here have decent English-language sections. I’ve even been able to get a hold of recent editions of National Geographic at a few libraries near me. Making a library card should be free, but if you don’t speak Japanese, it could prove a challenge.
Today feels like summer never even happened here. It’s about 24 C, dark and gloomy as Typhoon No. 11 heads toward us.
September is the month of typhoons in Japan, and the season can go into October. One day (like yesterday) it’ll be in the 30s, the next day dark and cool. This is the season of sinus migraines and aching joints as the air pressure wildly fluctuates.
I think in terms of off-seasons, September is the perfect chance to visit Japan (whenever it finally is more open to people from abroad), but typhoons are always going to be a risk if you do visit around now.
Typhoons can wreak havoc on the infrastructure here, meaning train lines shutting down (Shinkansen bullet trains are usually the first to stop if the wind picks up too much) and mad dashes for busses, taxis and rental cars.
For me, the best option is to keep a sharp eye on typhoon forecasts (Japan Yahoo! Weather has a typhoon tracker, which I usually use) and try to plan things around it. Of course, typhoons will suddenly change direction or move slower than predicted (or faster) so September can be a month of sudden changes in plans.
So far, the most I’ve done for typhoon preparedness while living here has been to stock up on water (sometimes I’ve just left the bathtub water in the tub when I know a typhoon is coming, just in case) and move my outdoor plants under a roof our condo’s terrace has. I know people who own houses here have storm shutters they use for their windows when typhoons come.
Getting to work during a typhoon is never pleasant – I used to bike ride to one of my jobs, which meant I have been stupid enough to bike ride during a typhoon to work. If you can, try not to go out during one. That being said, I do know a lot of companies expect you to find alternate routes to work should your usual line gets shut down.
Typhoons are fairly common in Japan so unless it’s an unusually nasty one, not many people I know tend to think much of them beyond an annoyance.
The best thing to do when a typhoon hits is to have a nice supply of food and water in your apartment/house/hotel/hostel and such and just try to wait the storm out indoors.
Japan prides itself on its clean and usually prompt train options. It’s how the vast majority of people living in or around Tokyo get to work every day.
Still, take one look at the train map for Tokyo, and you might see why a lot of people find using the system overwhelming. Here are a couple of tips to follow to hopefully make your trip easier.
Japan has a series of companies who own and operate the various train lines in the nation. Probably one people know most is Japan Rail (JR). They have lines running all over the country, with maybe their most famous one being the Yamanote Line, which runs in an oddly shaped circle around Tokyo.
Tokyo also has Tokyo Metro, Keisei Lines, Keio Lines, and probably a few more I have forgotten about. Osaka and other major cities will have their own train lines as well.
How to use the trains
Surprisingly, this depends on where you are and what station you’re using. For the most part, though, the station will have a little ticketing machine where you can buy your tickets. I highly, highly recommend buying a Pasmo or Suica card, which is a card you can charge money on.
Otherwise, you have to look up at a map above the ticketing gate or use a train app to determine what amount you need on your ticket.
For example, if you’re just going from one station to the next, you look up at the map above the ticketing machine and find the station you’re trying to get to. It will have a number underneath it, which is how much it will cost you to get there from where you are. So you need to buy a ticket that has that amount.
Most ticketing gates have an English option.
Once you get your ticket or card, use the ticketing gates. All of them will have a little pad onto which you touch your card, and only some of them will have a little slot into which you need to put your ticket if you went the paper ticket route, so keep an eye out for which one you need to go through (again, I can’t recommend a Pasmo or Suica card enough).
Next, you need to know what the name of the last stop is for the direction you’re going in. To know this, either just ask someone working at the station (they usually have an office near the ticketing gates for just such questions, and just tell them what station you’re trying to get to), or find a map that lists all the train stations in one direction or another depending on the platform. They should be listed near the entrance to the platforms. Look at the map and figure out what the last stop is.
For example, you want to go to Shinjuku Station in Tokyo and you’re at Kanda Station. You find a map that suggests the fastest way would be using the JR Chuo Line, which cuts through the lopsided circle the Yamanote Line makes.
You see two platforms for the Chuo Line: One headed toward Tokyo Station and the other toward Otsuki Station.
Shinjuku Station is in the Otsuki Station direction, so you want to get on the train bound for Otsuki Station.
All announcements will be read in Japanese and English, with some lines and companies adding other languages like Mandarin Chinese and Korean. If the names sound confusing, it can help to look below the names at the two-letter and number box and remember which one you’re trying to get off at. It will be announced during the English announcement time on the train.
If you have a Suica or Pasmo, you can easily switch from the JR company line trains to Tokyo Metro and other company lines.
Manners on the train
Here are some of the big things to know about when using the trains.
Especially during weekday rush hour (mornings and evenings), don’t talk on your phone.
Don’t be loud on the trains.
People here are still wearing masks everywhere, so wear them on the trains, too.
Try not to sit down unless you’re especially tired. If you are, then don’t sit in priority seating unless you: 1. Have small children with you. 2. Are pregnant. 3. Have an injury. 4. Have a heart condition. 5. Are old.
When the train arrives at the station and you are still on the platform, go off to the left or right of the train doors as they open to give space for people getting off the train. They get off first, then you get on.
If you plan on exclusively traveling by train while in Japan, I recommend getting something like the JR Rail Pass, which you can only buy before you come visit. The pass gives you unlimited use of any JR line train while you’re here and is only available to foreign tourists.
If you don’t feel like committing to something like that, though, JR and other companies like Tokyo Metro offer day passes at almost all ticketing gates (and there’s an English option). These passes, of course, mean you can only use that company’s lines for the entire day so make sure you don’t buy a Tokyo Metro pass and then hop aboard the Yamanote Line.
If you plan on visiting Japan in the summer, unless you plan on staying up north like in Hokkaido or Aomori, you can expect temperatures to be in the mid-30s C here for most of the summer and even into autumn in some parts.
I’ve been to the following two major cities in Japan during the summer, and I have a few tips.
Tokyo: With so many streets lined with buildings rather than trees, it’s a concrete oven in the summer.
To try and survive, I recommend getting some items that will help cool you down from an 100-yen shop like Daiso (they have neck scarves you douse in water that cool your neck and fans). Also, feel free to roam department stores or electronics stores for no other reason than to bask in their AC.
Kyoto: This is like Florida in a heat wave. The heat just hits your lungs like you’ve run into a wall. This is all because Kyoto is in a valley surrounded by mountains, making it a little bowl that lets heat and humidity just sit there. At least Tokyo is near Tokyo Bay in some areas, allowing for a sea breeze every now and then.
If at all possible, try to avoid Kyoto in the summer. Kyoto is the place to go in the autumn and spring. If you can’t avoid it, however, I survived with those 100-yen items mentioned above and by making a beeline from one convenience store to another. I used to love admiring the ice cream section of each store for no other reason than it’s the coldest section of the store.
Most temples and shrines, unfortunately, don’t have AC, which means your risk of heat stroke greatly rises. I have found the river near Arashiyama can be a nice respite from the heat, at least, but Kyoto will suck the soul out of you if you stay outside for too long in the summer.
As I mentioned earlier, I really love connecting short stories together. I love the idea of stories that stand alone but can also be fitted into a series.
To that end, this is a story that follows “The Burning Bones,” published in 2020. That story focuses on the grief the husband feels at his wife’s funeral, while this story follows their oldest daughter, who carried the photo of her mother out the door after her mother was cremated.
I also have to say I like writing stories about older people. I think that thanks to media and the internet doing a fantastic job making it difficult for older people to connect to other generations, too many people in younger generations write off the older generations.
I wonder how many people think “Well, she died in her 90s so that’s fine.”
Grief is still grief, and none of us, I think, are really ready to say good-bye to people we love, no matter how old they are.
One of Japan’s newspapers called The Asahi Shimbun published an opinion piece this morning where one of their reporters talks about their experience watching former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s funeral procession through the streets of Tokyo after he was gunned down on Friday.
The reporter writes they are reminded of a quote from an essay by Kamo no Chomei during the early 13th century: “The flowing river never stops, and yet the water never stays the same.”
What, I thought, a profoundly perfect way to describe loss.
There have been times in my life where I have wondered how people can go about their day despite a great tragedy, and I think that quote does such a fantastic job explaining the mindset.
Personally, I think the quote can describe the Japanese societal psyche quite well in times of disaster.
I’ve been in Japan during the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, devastating typhoons, the pandemic, and now this senseless shooting of a former leader.
Each time, I’ve seen the dark shadows seem to cross the public mind, but people continued as best they could in the circumstances.
Japan has a long history of tragedy on a national scale–mostly natural disasters. I think they have perfected the art of trying to continue moving forward despite devastating circumstances.
I was reading several news sites from abroad describe how the shooting will forever change Japan, and I think perhaps beneath the surface of society here, that might be true to some extent. It won’t be overtly apparent, however.
Personally, though, I think many people here will simply add this tragedy to the list of tragedies kept in the nation’s spirit and keep going anyway.