Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tanuki in the Garden

You do not need a guide to savor Japan. American travels with no more Japanese than "thank you" and "goodbye" can check into hotels, ride the trains, and read the wealth of English-language tourist information available from the Japan National Tourism Organization.

For those who want a richer experience, however, you can hire a guide and there is an organization of volunteer guides, the Association of Independent Tourist Assistance in Japan, that will help you. On one of my trips several years ago, a sweet, middle-aged Japanese woman stopped my wife and me on the Nara train platform to ask if she could be our guide for the day. Always skeptical (and speaking enough Japanese to get around without help), I was reluctant to put us into the care of a stranger. But she looked harmless, she had an official looking badge, and we took a chance. It was wonderful. She took us to gardens and sites we could not have gotten into without her.

A guide can point out small things that you might simply overlook. The picture above is a statue of a tanuki, a raccoon-dog, a creature in Japanese folklore, and statues of which, like this one, you often see outside noodle restaurants. The legendary tanuki is mischievous and jolly, a master of disguise and shapeshifting, but somewhat gullible and absent-minded. The tanuki has eight special traits that bring good fortune: a hat to protect against trouble; big eyes to perceive the environment and help make good decisions; a sake bottle that represents virtue; a big tail that provides steadiness and strength until success is achieved; over-sized testicles that symbolize financial luck; a promissory note that represents trust or confidence; a big belly that symbolises bold and calm decisiveness; and a friendly smile.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Where to Go in Kyoto

One of the problems with Kyoto as a travel destination is that there's too much. Too many temples, too many shrines, too many famous (or non-so-famous) sites. It is possible, of course, to hit the most famous—the Golden Pavilion, the Ryoanji rock-and-raked-sand garden, Nijo Castle, and Kiyomizu Temple—in a weekend, but then you've missed the Silver Pavilion, the Daitokuji Monastary's rock-and-raked-sand garden, the Imperial Palace, and Tokufukji.

For my tourists in the novel, I wanted to introduce them to some of the less crowded spots, and one of the places that has blown away everyone I've brought them to is the bamboo forest between Tokufuji, the giant Zen temple, and Okochisanso, the villa of a silent-film star Okochi Danjiro. It is totally foreign, absolutely lovely...and free.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Places in Fiction

Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels never appealed to me because we don't know where they're set. It's an unnamed big city, not New York, not Chicago, not Los Angeles. I was mildly put off by Lorri Moore's A Gate at the Stairs because while we can infer that it takes place mostly in Madison, Wisconsin, Moore coyly does not identify the midwestern college town. I'll gladly give her a pass, however, because she writes so well.

I prefer novels—generally—in which imaginary people move through real places: John Rebus in Edinburgh, Lew Archer in Los Angeles, Guido Brunetti in Venice. I also enjoy the occasional novel in which real people move through real places; I'm currently reading Susan Sontag's incredible The Volcano Lover. Not to mention (but I'll mention it anyway) I can enjoy stories of imaginary people moving through imaginary places--much science fiction.

All of which is to say that in my books, I want to use real places. Getting Oriented: A Novel About Japan is set in Kyoto, Hakone, Nikko, and Tokyo. The tourists visit famous shrines, temples, and sites (some of them have been famous among the Japanese for hundreds of years), all of which you could visit today. Unfortunately, you cannot stay in the hotels and ryokan (Japanese-style inn) where my group stops.

There is, as far as I know, no Maruyama Koen Hotel in Kyoto. There is, however, a famous park, Maruyama Koen ("koen" means "park"), and that's how I named my imaginary hotel. The tour spends a night in Hakone, a resort area south of Tokyo in the mountains, so I named my imaginary inn Yamanaka, which means "among the mountains." In Nikko, they stay at an inn I named Takiguchi—"top of the waterfall." And I simply put the Ichigaya Grand Hotel across the street from the Ichgaya train station in Tokyo. In other words, no real hotels were harmed in the making of this novel.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Getting Oriented, The Cover

My novel, Getting Oriented: A Novel About Japan, is now available on CreateSpace. I know from my experience as a magazine editor and as a business book writer that the cover is the most important element in engaging potential readers. If the cover looks amateurish, if they cannot read the type, few readers will take the next step which is to read the blurb about the book or pick it up and read the first couple pages.

Getting Oriented is, on one level (the most superficial) the story of a 12-day tour in Japan. The group begins in the old capital, Kyoto; travels to a traditional inn in Hakone, a resort area in the mountains south of Tokyo; spends a night in Nikko, the site of the most lavish temple complex in the country; and winds up in Tokyo. How do you illustrate the diversity of traditional and modern Japan?

My friend Susan Brier, who is a brilliant graphic artist, and I talked about various possibilities. I wanted something that said "Japan" and, ideally, something that said "travel." After discussing the options, we came up with the idea of a bullet train (something my characters actually ride during the course of the story) passing Mt. Fuji. Susan was able to find a color photograph of exactly that and, without having to manipulate the picture, use it as the cover. I believe both the book's front and back covers reflect the quality I wanted the book to represent. I will be interested to hear what, if anything, readers say.