Eating Busan

This past week, Alex and I took a short trip to Busan. You might remember our Seoul trip from last year, and all the fun we had then. We were naturally excited to see a different part of Korea this year and while there was a disappointing lack of honey toast in Busan, we nonetheless had another incredible experience.

The Busan trip was a bit short notice. We’ve been saving all our money to ship things back to Canada (and to splurge on all the Sailor Moon goodies we can while we’re here) so when it was decided that we should take one last Asia trip while we were still in the area, we did so with not a lot of money and absolutely zero planning. Money was so tight, in fact, that we were almost resolved that this should just be a writing retreat wherein we did nothing but stay in our hotel and maybe window shop if our legs needed a stretch. Fortunately we managed to find enough cash hidden between the couch cushions to avoid this depressing fate and I’m happy to report that we were able to enjoy Busan, even on a tight budget.

When I say we did zero planning, that’s a bit of a lie. We tried to plan. We got the flights and the hotel all worked out, of course, but when it came down to deciding what the hell we were going to do when we got there, we discovered that all the recommended sights (parks, temples, museums, etc) there are in Busan are all literally an hour drive out of the city. Having only one full day to stay there, it put a bit of a damper on our plans to have to choose only one thing to see, if we wanted to see anything. In the end we decided to keep to the local area around our hotel, and sadly abandoned thoughts of going to the modern history museum, the beautiful ocean side temple, or the passport petting zoo (they have a fennic fox and a bearded dragon!)

The first thing that we noticed after getting off the plane is how incredibly friendly the people of Busan are. This isn’t to say that the people of Seoul or Kyoto aren’t friendly, but comparatively, the people we met in Busan went out of their way to help us. Since we didn’t really plan anything beforehand, we didn’t have any conveyance to our hotel after we got off the plane. Alex’s plan was just to take the subway. We found a nifty sightseeing subway map at the airport, but it unfortunately didn’t give much information by way of stops, and the characters on Alex’s subway map didn’t match up with the characters on the metro map. While we stood there, trying to understand the various rainbow of lines and understanding precisely zero Korean, we were approached by a man who asked us where we were trying to go. He obviously had places to get to himself, but he took ten minutes to explain the map to us, help us find our transfer points and then led us to the correct platform. He then transferred twice with us, helped us buy the tickets for the various lines before finally transferring to a different line himself.

Admittedly, I was getting a bit nervous at around the second transfer. Being a woman, there’s always the fear in the back of the brain that a guy being nice is expecting a reward, and in a foreign country where we don’t speak the language or know the customs so well, misunderstandings can be especially problematic (it has happened a few times in Japan already). I hate that I have to give these thoughts consideration because I do want to take people’s kindness at face value. Fortunately in this case it was kindness for kindness’s sake, and to be fair, he also took pains to avoid looking like a creeper. He left the train ahead of us and lingered near the ticket booths for us to arrive, and never looked like he was trying to follow us. In short, he was in every sense a gentleman, and we were very grateful for his help.

The hotel was a short walk from the train station, which was nice because it was raining and we were tired, and just wanted to relax for a little while. Those who remember my rants about the Ibis Hotel will be disappointed to learn that, aside from some suspicious stains on the carpet, Aventree was a delightful hotel with friendly, helpful staff and beautiful, comfortable rooms. The room was spacious with a working, modern touch screen panel controlling the air conditioning and the lights. There was plenty of snazzy counter space with a big desk and a nice lamp to work with. The bathroom was large, clean and came equipped with multiple soaps, shampoos and conditioners, a high pressure shower and motion sensor lighting. The beds (ah, the beds!) were very comfortable, with two feather pillows and a down feather comforter that I seriously considered stuffing into my suitcase before we left. But best of all, our room had an (inaccessible) closed balcony which filtered out the noise of the busy street below. In short, we were very well situated in Busan, as compared to Seoul.

Furthermore, the staff at Aventree were very kind. As soon as we unpacked our things we noticed that we had forgotten to bring our outlet adapter (see, no planning above). We went to the lobby to ask if they knew of an electronic store nearby where we could buy one and the hostess just gave us one to borrow, on the condition that we return it when we checked out. So that saved us some money, and we were only too thankful to take it. On our way out to explore the city, however, we noticed a sign on the interior of the elevator advertising the extra amenities of the hotel. Adapters, it read, were available for a $10 deposit. I don’t know if the hostess forgot to ask for the deposit, or simply decided we looked honest enough to be trusted, but we were pretty happy to be given the adapter deposit-free.

As we arrived in Busan in the late afternoon there wasn’t much that we could do that day except walk around and eat. Having not eaten breakfast or lunch that day, food became our first (and only) concern. Fortunately, the area that we stayed in is nothing but cafes, restaurants, beauty stores, iphone shops and street food. The problem wasn’t finding food, it was deciding what kind of food we wanted, or, in Korea, what kind of meat we wanted. And this is important because in Japan, meat is rare and expensive, and you always feel some bit of buyers remorse when you eat it, but in Korea it’s a dietary staple. I have yet to eat a meal in Korea that didn’t feature meat as its main course.

We settled on a chicken place that looked good, and were greeted by a server who seemed both unsettled and amused to speak English with us, but we got some jokes out between the three of us while he explained the menu. We ordered a basket of five-ways potatoes and some sweet and spicy garlic chicken and a cheese fondue on the side.

There aren’t any proper adjectives in the English language to describe how good that meal was. The potatoes were delicious, first off, but it’s hard to go wrong with fried potatoes. The chicken was absolutely to die for, and we were glad that we only ordered one dish, because it was huge. Even two starving foreign women couldn’t finish it off together. The fondue was out of this world. It was a whole new cheese experience for me, and even after we couldn’t fit anymore chicken or potatoes into our pie holes I considered eating the fondue just as it was, instead of leaving it behind. That’s how freaking good this place was!

Eventually we rolled ourselves out of the restaurant and did a bit of window shopping. We didn’t buy much, having not a lot of money, but just exploring the streets of a new place was enough fun for us. We wandered back to our hotel at around eight and settled in for a relaxing night in our comfortable room.

The next day we found ourselves a cafe that served real bagels and cream cheese and a delicious mocha frappe and planned our day. There was so much we wanted to see, and so little time to see it, but since the bookstore alley was in our neighbourhood, it was the first thing on our list. After wandering a while through art alley, we came to this tiny wedge between streets that is a used bookstore lover’s paradise. The shops are tightly packed together, with floor to ceiling books. Even in the rain the books were out on display. Naturally, most of them were in Korean, but we found one store that had a pretty large selection of English books, and it was really, really hard not to spend all of our money there, especially since it was packed with art and history books, which are special favorites of ours.

After that, we went wandering around and found a covered food market which was an absolute treat to our foreign eyes. All sorts of foods were there, from vats of kimchi to halved hogs to live turtles. Most of it smelled absolutely amazing, and we regretted instantly that were were only going to be there for one more day. We spent a long time wandering in and out of the stalls. Alex was especially excited (and disappointed) to find a flower shaping cotton candy stall, but despite visiting it three times at various times of day, and having all its lights on, we never actually found the vendor.

We did find the trick-eye museum though, which was a lot of fun, despite a lot of the exhibits requiring some pretty amazing feats of acrobatics to pull off good pictures. Since it’s a permanent installation, there were a lot fewer people there than at the exhibit at the Aeon mall in Kyoto.

Night found us once again on the search for delicious food. We wandered through pig’s feet alley, which admittedly smelled amazing, but the pig’s feet themselves were too large of a commitment for us to want to attempt trying. We settled on a nice looking barbecue restaurant that had a bunch of happy, laughing young people in it. We managed to snag the last table available. The hostess brought us the small menu and we ordered pork belly, something called Boston butt, and marinated beef ribs, along with some pickled side dishes and romaine lettuce and kimchi. It was supposed to be cook it yourself, but the hostess was nice enough to help us out when we started struggling. Again, the taste was beyond description. Just amazing, all around. It was a bit expensive, but very satisfying. As we left, the hostess gave us a package of exfoliating face wipes as a gift, which was very nice of her.

Even though we packed ourselves full of pork and beef and butt, we weren’t satisfied, and so we stopped for a sweet cinnamon pancake, the likes of which we tried for the first time at the Korean festival in Kyoto last year. From there we popped on over like a pair of bar hopping drunks to a bubble tea cafe, where we brought our stomachs to the bursting point. I should note that here was when we noticed that this song had been stalking us for the entire trip:

Listen to it, seriously. You won’t be disappointed

The next day we had our breakfast at the hotel, but by that time my poor stomach had been so abused by the amount of food I’d shoveled in it that it really wanted no part in breakfast, or in the cafe we went back to for extra caffeine. In fact, it was mostly interested in walking the calories off, so we went up the outdoor escalator to Busan Tower and the park surrounding it. It’s actually a nice little retreat from the main part of the city. We bought passes to go up to the observation deck, and to the model ship museum below it. There turned out to be lots to do at the tower, but we didn’t have time to see it all. It was off to the shuttle bus, and then to the airport.

We stayed only a few short days in Busan, and didn’t move out of the ten block radius of our hotel, but we still did a ton of stuff, and consider it one of our most memorable trips outside of Japan.

Liquor Mountain: We Also Sell Liquor

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Liquor Mountain is a chain liquor store throughout Japan that sells… well pretty much everything you can think of to put in your mouth. Except that. I can read your thoughts internet pervert. Put them away, we’re here to talk about food. Of course Liquor Mountain sells booze (mountains of it, to be exact) but behind the racks of wine and whiskey and innumerable varieties of flavored liqueurs, Liquor Mountain also offers the hungry shopper an entire grocery store worth of domestic and foreign foodstuffs. This discovery is especially tragic as Alex and I are cutting back on our twenty-something snacking habits, and we’re leaving Japan for good relatively soon. The knowledge that this wealth of interesting, international food has been literally a 10 minute walk from our house all this time is heartbreaking.

What kinds of food does Liquor Mountain sell, exactly? I’m glad you asked because I ran around a local Liquor Mountain, dodging store employees so I could bring you pictures of the offspring of a liquor store and an import grocery store.

If you’re like me and you like touring shops clockwise, then the first thing Liquor Mountain has to offer is an impressive full wall of whiskey, both import and domestic. Seriously, I had no idea this many varieties even existed. It’s like walking into a whiskey history museum. It’s incredible, and I don’t even like whiskey that much.

Their wine and champagne selection is just as impressive, taking up over four full aisles and another wall. Wine has been growing on me recently, though I still sneak some orange juice into a glass of white when no one’s looking.

The first sign you get that Liquor Mountain is more than it seems is when you pass their deli section. The brain tries to rationalize seeing smoked franks, bacon and cream cheese between the wine and craft beer sections; what if someone is putting on a wine and cheese party? And drunks are second only to pot heads when it comes to late night snacking. It’s not all that strange, really, that a liquor store might want to stock up on some party essentials and boost their revenue a little bit.

But then you turn around and run into a wall of imported curry mixes and pickles. “What in the world sort of party is this?” you ask yourself, as this wine and cheese (or whiskey and sausage) event seems to be turning in the direction of early-morning gastrointestinal distress rather quickly.

So you turn the corner and take comfort in the bottled beer section, and that familiar malty smell, only to be immediately confronted with Italy’s entire history of pasta on one side, and coffee, tea and breakfast cereals on the other around the next bend. You turn around and test the air behind you for some sign of the wormhole that must connect this liquor store to the grocery across town but no, there’s no dimensional disruption. You’re in the same liquor store. “Ok,” you reason. “Ok, people need coffee and tea to combat a hangover. That’s not so bad. And… and pasta helps cure diarrhea, that’ll be useful after all that whiskey and curry.” But the breakfast cereal throws you for a loop, so you quickly rush to the next aisle.

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Condiments! An entire aisle of condiments greets you, followed by three aisles of snack food and juice. All you wanted was a case of beer and now your cart is loaded up with an entire week’s worth of groceries! And the store seems to go on forever, with no end in sight. You might have to bust open a jar of coconut oil, just for the calories to make it through to the end!

Soon Liquor Mountain returns you to the realm of your expectations, and gives you a spirits aisle. On one side Japanese and on the other, imported. I was happy to find Havana Club here, which is far and away my favorite rum out of an admittedly tasty selection. There is also quite the assortment of ume-shuu, which I also have a bit of an attachment for. The amount of flavored liqueurs and novelty alcohols is astounding. One almost wishes one was an alcoholic for the ability to taste and mix with all of them, because no healthy amount of alcohol consumption over a lifetime would ever allow anyone to try that many samples.

From here, Liquor Mountain tapers back off into a regular liquor store, save for packs of dried fish decorating the ends of every aisle. In case you’re wondering, that’s a pack of squid and cheese jerky up there. Yup.

IMG_3033There’s a large selection of soda water for spicing up all those mixed drinks;

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All the fixings you need for making your own fruit liquor at home;

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A variety of Nihon-shuu (Japanese clear grain liquor);

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What the hell, give me an entire four liters;

More beer and canned cocktails;

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And on your way out, why not pick up some marshmallows?

Spending half an hour in Liquor Mountain makes me wonder why anyone does their grocery shopping anywhere else. There’s enough alcohol and snack food in there to keep me comfortable throughout a zombie apocalypse, that’s for sure.

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The results of a single liquor store run.

Footnote:

Because today is my birthday, and because my wonderful friend Amber likes to send me giant bottles of liquor for every year I take another step closer to the grave, tonight I will be indulging in great quantities of alcohol which I may or may not post pictures of here. Stay tuned.

Corner Dwellers

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I love Sumikko Gurashi. These adorable little characters are just one set among San-X’s many popular icons. Chubby and round, these simply drawn cartoon animals scream, “I am cute, buy me!” In the already kawaii saturated Japan, they’re nothing special. Yet the characters of Sumikko Gurashi are a lot more complex than just a couple of cute faces. Underneath their button eyes and hopeful smiles is a surprisingly introspective commentary on the Japanese and their culture.

If everything in Japan has a mascot then the characters of Sumikko Gurashi are the icons of Japanese introversion. The name literally translates to “corner living,” referencing the characters’ love of being in the corner where it is calming. The characters of Sumikko Gurashi are the dictionary definition of kawaisou (pitiful). They’re shy, they’re self-conscious, and sometimes they pretend to be something they’re not because they’re not sure who they really are. But even though they represent character flaws, each one in its own way is so optimistic and so darling that you can’t help but love them. There’s something charming about a person (and by extension a culture) that can be open about the negatives as well as the positives. It makes them more endearing and trustworthy.

The reason for this could be similar to why we finding blushing individuals cute. Some scientists believe that blushing may be a non-verbal social communication to indicate our regret for messing up. The theory goes that when we make a social misstep, our involuntary blushing signals to observers that we understand we made a mistake and are sorry for it. People who blush are seen in a more positive light by their peers after the fact, giving some weight to this theory that blushing is a physical means to show genuine remorse.

If we think better of people who blush to show their contrition for a social mistake, perhaps we are also endeared to those who can admit they are flawed. That openness and honesty creates a trust bond through which further connections can be made. That San-X created Sumikko Gurashi as a commentary on some of the more negative traits in Japanese cultural personalities makes us, the observers (and consumers) look at them and sigh, “Aww, you’re not so bad, Japan,” followed by a lightening of the wallet. At least in my case.

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Who are these blushing characters, wearing their hearts on their sleeves? There are many characters in the series but these are the ones I could find information on:

nekoNeko (cat) is very shy. Actually, I’ve found this to be pretty typical of every cat I’ve come across in Japan, from the felines at the Cat Café to my own friends’ pets. I’ve yet to meet a single cat in Japan who wanted to interact with people. Sumikko Gurashi’s Neko loves to face inward into the corner, and shuns contact with other people.

pengin?The green penguin, Pengin? doesn’t know what he is, exactly, and honestly, neither did I when I first saw him. I thought he was a kappa (water goblin), and apparently so did he. He used to wear a plate on his head to make himself look more like a kappa, and I always see him pictured with cucumbers, a kappa’s favorite food. Pengin? is aware of his uncertain identity, and so punctuates his name with a question mark.

tonkatsuTonkatsu is probably my favorite of the Sumikko Gurashi characters. Japanese tonkatsu is a breaded and deep fried pork cutlet, served as the main meat portion of a meal. The character Tonkatsu is a crumb, left over and forgotten after the whole tonkatsu meal has finished. Only his nose is actually meat, forever unwanted and uneaten. I told you the characters were pitiful. At least he has a friend—a little fried shrimp tail, also uneaten. (Who eats the tail of fried shrimp?)

shirokuma2Shirokuma the polar bear is very out of place among his kin. He likes warm things, and so ran away from the North Pole to warmer climates. He packed his things in Furoshiki (travel bag) another sentient character in the Sumikko Gurashi world. Shirokuma however, is still rather cold-hearted, and is afraid of strangers. You can find him sipping warm tea in the corner, alone.

Other minor characters include the tiny grey dust bunny who is just overjoyed to have other people in the corner with him, the left over tapioca balls at the bottom of the bubble tea cup, Nisetsumuri who is a slug wearing a snail shell for appearances, and Zassou, a weed who dreams of being in a beautiful bouquet. And the cast continues to grow: a lizard and a sparrow were also recently added.

Like most people approaching thirty who have a desperate desire to reconnect with childhood, I spend a lot of time in the toy store and there is no shortage of Sumikko Gurashi goods for me to buy. I now have a whole Sumikko Gurashi stationery set, ready to take with me to university when the time comes. (Don’t judge. If you could be in fifth grade again you would.)

In the end, we are all flawed beings. No one is perfect, and having a cute and cuddly character around to remind one of that fact is very comforting. If a shy cat, a socially anxious polar bear, a penguin in the grips of an identity crisis and a tonkatsu crumb can be adorable and sought after, then surely a thirty year-old with a perhaps unhealthy attachment to cute things can be as well.

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Corner Living: It’s calming here.

Now that I’ve admitted one of my strange personality quirks, why not share yours?

D.N.A. Novella Released!

The wonderfully talented and incredibly hard working Alex Hurst has just released the first installment of her science fiction, illustrated novella series, ‘D.N.A.’ With beautiful, original illustrations, this superhero origin story is a perfect read for those sitting in between the next summer blockbuster. She’s having a give away on her blog right now, so if you’re interested, go check it out!

Taiken Japan: Equestrian Festivals in Kyoto

Kyoto, more than any other major city in Japan, is teaming with living history. You can’t walk five minutes without bumping into a shrine, a temple, a historical landmark or someone dressed in traditional clothing. Kyoto prides itself on keeping close ties with its history, and this fastidious keeping to traditional festivals and pageants informs of that.

Some of the most exciting festivals to watch in Kyoto are the equestrian festivals: traditional horse races, mounted archery and acrobatics, all with a military or spiritual background–sometimes both. Admission is free and open to the public. You can read all about them all in my Taiken Japan article, here. Count them as just one of many must see events in Kyoto throughout the year.

Tangent Reviews: Lontar, The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction

This week I reviewed the fourth issue of Lontar, a speculative fiction journal out of southeast Asia. They publish poetry and prose under 10,000 words from southeast Asian authors, many of whom have won awards in their home countries and abroad. The subject matter varies through the science fiction spectrum, but the journal is an enjoyable read. Of the five prose stories included in the fourth issue, I reviewed four of them (Tangent doesn’t review reprints): the stories by Eliza Victoria, Andrew Cheah, Kate Osias, and Ng Yi-Sheng. You can find my review here.

If you’re interested in Lontar’s content and would like to support them, you can follow their blog here, and purchase this and the three previous issues of their bi-annual journal.

A Nobel Prize Winner and a Tattoo Artist Walk into a Bar and All the Women Start Crying

This week during my usual slate of time in which I do my best to lose all faith in humanity by perusing the Internet news, I read a blog post by Jane Marie who was denied a neck tattoo and, to put it mildly, was unhappy about it. In fact, she was so unhappy about it that she wrote a scathing rant against the artist, Dan Bythewood, in the tone of, “Can you believe this dickish man wouldn’t ‘let me’ have a neck tattoo?”

The crux of her displeasure is that she, being a near 40 adult female is perfectly capable of making her own decisions as to what to do with her own body. In this she is, of course, absolutely right. Where she is wrong is the assumption that her adult decision and a fistful of dollars entitles her to a tattoo. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t, and the belief that it does draws a line in the sand between the casually tattooed and the culturally tattooed—that is to say, those who treat tattoos as an accessory and those who treat them as a lifestyle.

Now here’s the thing: tattoo artists, being as diverse a group of people as anyone else, each have different ideological lines that they are willing to cross. This particular artist does not like to work on visible areas (hands, necks, faces) of people who are not already heavily tattooed, those who are not clearly invested in tattoos as a lifestyle. Which is fine, this is the position of lots of artists. There are also artists who are willing to cross that line in certain circumstances, as Jane Marie herself admitted. (She later went to an artist who had apparently worked on her before, who agreed to the neck tattoo after giving her a similar caution to the one Dan tried to express.)

Jane Marie wanting a neck tattoo as a casually tattooed 40 something isn’t a problem. Dan denying her the neck tattoo isn’t a problem. There wouldn’t have been a problem at all if the exchange had ended there. But instead of acting like the autonomous adult that she wishes to be respected as, Jane Marie took events to the next level.

She cried sexism:

Dan: “A neck tattoo on someone without a lot of tattoos is like lighting a birthday candle on an unbaked cake.”

Stunning analogy, right? I wonder: Does Dan know what an analogy even is? And then suddenly I’m fighting back tears because, as Dan has already correctly assessed, I’m just a feeble-minded, hysterical girl. And then I ask the next thing that pops into my head.

Me: “Would you say this to a guy?”

Dan luh-hiterally paused, looked askance, and said with a slight nod, unconvincingly, “Yeah.”

Then he asked if we were ready to get started on the other tattoos, and I was so infuriated I cannot remember exactly what I said but it was something to the effect of, “Are you fucking kidding me? I’m not going to give you money after that, let alone have you touch me or put art on my body!” And then we walked out.

Pause for face-palm.

Ok, I understand being upset and disappointed about not being able to do something you’re really excited about. We’ve all been there. But for a woman whose whole argument for getting the thing she was denied is that she’s a big girl who can make her own decisions, she sure doesn’t act like it.

The real kicker though is the tacit accusation of sexism, which is a stretch to say the least. Unless I’m missing something in both Jane Marie’s and Dan’s accounts of how this all went down, nothing was said to suggest that Dan was acting in malice against her sex. By using sexism in her argument, Jane Marie highlights the massive frivolity with which feminism is sometimes employed, which further discredits the spirit of the movement at a time when social justice backlash is becoming aggressively and viciously vocal.

Her stunning overreaction also cements the notion that we women are unable to contain or control ourselves, an idea that is still so prevalent in society that Nobel-Prize winning biologist Tim Hunt felt it would make a good joke for a dinner gathering hosted by the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations:

 …let me tell you about my trouble with girls…Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.

Pause for second face-palm.

 Hunt’s official and unofficial statements are in conflict, of course. In one account he says he was nervous and said the first, ill-advised thing that came to his head. In the other he says that he was speaking more from truth than in jest. Whichever version you believe has more weight, the more pressing problem is the worldview that not only incubated this, but allowed it to continue to thrive into the 21st century, a time when women are still vocally calling for recognition and equality. Even if this was nothing more than innocent, jittery word vomit, something in what he said apparently didn’t seem at all sexist to him, otherwise why in the hell did he say it at a gathering hosted by female scientists? That he was apparently so blind to how his comments might be taken shows a flabbergasting level of societal disconnect and male privilege that is heartbreaking from a feminist perspective.

Women have taken immeasurable pains in the past and present to be recognized as humans and professionals whose thoughts and opinions matter, especially in STEM fields and still, still we find ourselves as the butt of some bro-scientist’s sexist joke about Lady Emotions.

If ever there was a time to fling around indignant feminist rage against someone being offensively patronizing, this was it. Yet, in contrast to Jane Marie’s rant, female scientists responded in humor with the #distractinglysexy Twitter campaign, proving that some of us can control our raging Lady Tears, even when others choose to make a mockery of us.

Taiken Japan: Arima Onsen

A little while back I took up my first freelance writing job with Taiken Japan, a Japanese travelogue site where foreign residents in Japan write about all the fantastic little things they find here. Not that it’s hard. Japan is filled with so many treasures, big and small, that even living here for five years I’ve only just scratched the surface.

Still, there are a few places that have touched such a soft spot in our hearts that Alex and I have visited them more than a few times while living here, even though they are somewhat out of the way and a pain to get to. In fact, that they are out of the way and a pain to get to might be precisely why we like going there. Tourists–even Japanese tourists–are comparatively rare, and the atmosphere is quiet and quaint, just the sort of place a writer might like to go for a few hours of relaxing escape to hammer out a few more pages.

Arima onsen is perhaps my favorite of these little weekend getaways that we’re fond of. An onsen is traditionally a natural hot spring, but the word can also mean water that is pumped out of a natural hot spring and used for a public bath. Arima is a hot spring resort town near Kobe that is absolutely filled with small town charms and delights. To read more about Arima, check out my Taiken article here.

And if you can’t wait, here’s a little gallery of pictures to give you a taste of just how charming this hot spring town is:

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On Packing One’s Life

IMG_2627One of my very first posts on this blog was a happy introduction to my bookshelves. Therefore, it is with a heavy heart that I bring you this image today. A photo of empty bookshelves is truly heartbreaking, especially knowing that these three were once full of great books.

But with the clock ticking on our final year in Japan, preparations for the move back are starting early. As much as I love to come home to shelves heavy with books, I’m in agreement with Alex that the books need to be shipped first, while we still have the money to do it.

Pretty much as soon as we decided that we were moving back I adopted a ‘no book left behind’ policy. Alex tried to fight this at first, but in this I’m firm. I can’t part with a book. Not one book. Not even the books I really didn’t enjoy. I would feel their loss acutely, if even one of my literary herd vanished. At least we both like books enough to place them as first priority of the things we move.

IMG_2626So yeah, boxing up our life of the past five years began last month and it has been hard on both of us. Being in our late twenties, this was really our first time living on our own, living together, making it work as adults do. It’s always hard to uproot oneself from one place to another. As items from the house you’ve become so familiar with begin to disappear, it really hits home that you’re leaving, that this place that has been a part of you for the past however many years is truly going to be left in the past. All of life is a transition, but I can’t think of anything else that more clearly expresses that, all at once, than moving. We must dismantle and pack every aspect of our lives, both material and memorial, from the last five years and ship them off to another country. Each box that is taped up and sent off leaves the house we’ve called home a little emptier and a little colder. Soon we’ll be standing in its shell. A soulless body ready to accept another family after us.

And I’m sorryIMG_2628 to get all sappy and poetic with this, but it’s hard to put these emotions into words. When packing started, Alex and I both fell into melancholy. Since Alex did the packing herself she experienced it more strongly. I think I’ve mostly been mentally and emotionally avoiding the issue, though moving is coming whether I’m ready for it or not.

We have moments of excitement, of course. We’re going to be stepping into a new stage in our lives: grad school and publishing for her and finally finishing my degree for me. Turning an eye toward the future helps keeps our spirits up while we prepare to say good bye to far too many happy memories in Japan.

And really, that’s what makes this the most difficult. The books will be waiting for us when we get back to Canada. I have no doubt that we’ll be able to make a life just as good if not better than the one we’ve made here. Together, Alex and I have managed to overcome some huge hurdles and carve out a very comfortable life. No, I’m not worried about the future, but what can I say? The present is pretty damn awesome as well. Japan has been and continues to be good to us. When the day comes, I’m going to be terribly sad to close this chapter of our lives. I’m not ready to leave, but some changes have to be made before one is truly ready.

So goodbye for now books. So long bookshelves. Farewell to our time in Japan. It’s been swell. I’ll miss you, but it’s time to move on.

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10 Ways Writing Is Like A Martial Art

With my third try for 3rd dan in kendo coming up in a little over a month, a lot of my time, energy and stress is going toward studying and training, leaving me with little left over for writing or blogging. That isn’t to say that I’m not thinking about my keyboard mashing. In fact, the more I train, the more I realize that the two pursuits are painfully similar.

10. Everything You Think You Know Is A Lie

Some time before you decide to start writing, each of your favorite authors is to you like some sort of superhuman word god. Such beauty, such incredible evocative power defies simple descriptors like skill, practice and back breaking perseverance. No, these people are just born great. Words flow from their fingertips effortlessly. Whole books are born from their minds in the span of a single night’s worth of dreaming. They transcend humanity. They make it look easy. In fact, they make it look so easy that you can do it yourself, right?

Wrong. Oh, so wrong.

Which isn’t to say that you can never reach that level of awesomeness, but rather what you see on the page isn’t an accurate representation of all the hours upon hours of work and struggle that went into just a single book. And then there’s what accumulated before that in toilet water manuscripts and rejections. Anyone can write a book these days, writing a good book can take years, even before that book is a twinkle of inspiration in the author’s eyes.

Similarly, do you know how long you have to wait to even attempt 8th dan in kendo? Ten years. The governing body of the sport requires you to train for at least ten years after achieving 7th dan before attempting the exam for the highest rank, and even then you are almost guaranteed to fail on your first try. Watching high ranking kenshi fight is like watching a bird fly. It’s so natural you wonder why they even bother to test at all. Then you attempt what they do and you move like an elephant with five feet. It should be easy! Jump forward and hit the other guy on the head. Nothing in the world could be simpler. But what you don’t know when you first start out is that each seemingly simple motion is dictated by a series of very precise, very complicated rules. It’s not as simple as just hitting someone on the head. The angle of every joint in your body, which part moves first, and where each part ends up all factor into determining whether or not that hit is valid. For a beginner, adapting to all these rules is a lot like fishing with a paper net which inevitably means…

9. You Will Rage Against The Rules Until You Understand Them

Almost every novice writer I know (myself included) has had a moment of, “they just don’t get me!” Whether it’s a staunch defense of adverbs or a passionate speech in favor of clichés, at one point or another we all want to justify something we have produced, even when it’s objectively terrible. Rules like “no head hopping” and “no Mary Sues” and “mercilessly destroy passive voice” start to feel like The Man trying to stifle your creativity. It’s art, it’s all about being special and unique and breaking the rules. If you want to write, “Jane woke up suddenly. She blinked her eyes lazily while scanning the room abstractly before happily barking, ‘It was all just a dream!'” then damnit, who are they to tell you you’re wrong?!

It takes effort to move past this egotistical stage. A lot of writers never do. Those who can suddenly find themselves in the equally difficult situation of finding fault in everything. All at once those heroes, those god-like writers who were once your idols now wear their stains of ignorance all over their once clean white shirts. How dare this award winning author change the point of view mid-scene?! It’s a cardinal sin of writing! You’ve been told as much on countless rejection slips! And this one here is choking the life out of the story with exposition. It’s interesting exposition, but the sin of exposition is still there! It’s unfathomable that these people are published and you are not!

The final stage of this, of course, is realizing that the rules are only there to help you understand the elements of good writing. They aren’t carved into stone tablets as the fifty (or more) commandments of writing. Some of them are more valid than others and what’s more, literature is a living, evolving beast. Styles and tastes differ between generations as much as they differ between editors. Gradually you begin to recognize that knowing how and when to break the rules is just as important as knowing the rules themselves, but one must come after the other.

When I first started kendo I had to re-learn how to move. They way we step and the way we swing our arms is so completely counter-intuitive to how usual, every day motion works that it’s like being reduced to an awkward toddler all over again. Teachers and senior kenshi bombard us from all sides with rules: feet parallel; heel to toe, one fist apart; heels off the ground–that’s too high–back straight, shoulders down, arms rounded and relaxed; legs straight, knees unlocked; now hold this stick in both hands a fist away from your belly button and shuffle forward without bobbing up and down. After two months of that it’s no wonder that half the people who start, quit. “I can’t move like that! My body doesn’t bend that way! If my legs are straight, how am I supposed to move forward?” The rules are endless, complicated and impossible to integrate in the first half a year of training. You start to wonder what’s the point of sticking to them when you can just as easily reach your target by leaning forward with your arms instead of crossing the distance from the hips.

And oh boy, when you first notice that one senior kenshi who fights with his left foot at a thirty degree angle, you can feel the rage build up, ready to blow out your ears in a comical gush of steam. You want nothing more than to pull that guy aside and correct him, as he has corrected you. You start to notice all the little ways people get around the rules and still end up making completely valid hits. That one guy who never has his shinai in the center manages to score against you every. Single. Time. What the bleeding F?! Obviously it’s time to ask around and try some of these things out for yourself. That’s when you discover…

8. It’s A Lot Of Painful Trial And Error

Having a stack of style guides, a shelf full of writing reference books and even a mentor is great, but until you put words on the page yourself, you’ll never know what you’re truly capable of. The unfortunate reality is that when you start out, what you’re capable of is mostly finger painting vague hieroglyphs in poop and poster paint on colorful construction paper. Alright, that was an exaggeration, but I challenge you to look back on your earliest writings and not feel that it’s not at least a little true. Having just established that writing rules are a bullshit road map, what you’re left with is discovering how to write on your own. Picture entering a pitch black room. Your goal is to reach the door on the other side, but there are walls and bottomless pits all over the place, god knows where, but they’re around somewhere. Occasionally, someone a little farther than you along the path lights a match and holds it aloft until it burns out. If you’re extremely lucky, there will be people stationed next to the worst traps who will paddle your ass and say, “That way stupid.” Aside from that, though, you get no other guidance. That’s what it’s like teaching yourself how to write.

Sometimes every word you lay down in a day feels like the most godawful thing to ever be aborted out of the English language. It can feel like you’re spinning your wheels and getting nowhere but deeper into the dung pile. Suddenly everyone around you is achieving overnight success and you can’t get your story past, “One day, Jack woke up.” You might sit at your desk and pull the words out one at a time with the same excruciating pain of waxing your entire body in sequential three inch squares. You’ve received your forty-ninth form rejection and your tears have literally been replaced with whiskey. Banging your head on the keyboard in despair creates a deeper literary masterpiece than the entirety of what you’ve accomplished to date.

It is torture.

But the more you fail the more you learn. After a while you start to prize the personalized rejections more than the acceptances. For every time you fall flat on your face, you learn to tie your shoe laces a little tighter. The criticism hurts and no one is ever going to tell you otherwise but you get a little better each time. Every critique that tears your work apart, every book you read critically, every time you analyze a passage that just isn’t working, you’re adding to your toolbox and eventual success, no matter how far in the distance that is. But it takes failing first. It takes writing something and throwing it to the wolves. It takes blood, sweat and tears.

Here are some fun stories from my eight years of practicing kendo: I once literally coughed blood into my face guard. I had my toe stomped on so hard that the nail split right down the center resulting in more blood than you’d think possible from a single digit. My entire right forearm turned black from the number of times it was hit. I’ve had strings of bruises trailing along my upper arm that looked as though I lost a fight with a tennis ball machine. My ribs have been purpled to such an extent that even “I fell down some stairs” wouldn’t be enough to explain them. They hurt, of course, but for each cluster of bruises I get, I learn to be more careful. I learn to move faster, to guard better, to block more effectively. Theory is great, practicing and muscle memory are wonderful, but until you actually fight someone you never know where you’re deficient. The bruises are physical reminders of where I need to improve. They’re badges of achievement along the way.

Oh, and if all those sound like off putting injuries to you, let me say that I’ve gotten off easily. One of the senior kenshi in my club broke his ankle at a tournament this year. In the past, a guy straight up died when an improperly maintained shinai splintered and stabbed him through the eye. We wear protection, but it’s by no means fool proof. Kendo is a semi-contact sport in which the entire premise is to hit the other guy with a flimsy piece of wood. Accidents happen, and when you’re trying to get an edge on an opponent or improve your technique, pushing yourself beyond the limits of your body is not an unheard of outcome. Especially when you consider that…

7. Fixing One Problem Collapses The Whole System

So you’ve been writing for a while now. You’re pretty comfortable with the rules, with style and with your burgeoning voice. You’ve even reached the point where you can identify some of the prominent problems in your own prose. Great! Congratulations. Now you have to fix them.

Around this time you’ll make the unhappy realization that not only does one plot hole cause your entire Jenga tower to wobble, but fixing it requires you to deconstruct the entire thing. There’s a lot to be said for simply sitting down and writing whatever comes to your mind. It’s a good way to get the ideas on the page without the nagging concerns of, “does this sound OK?” or “is this even English?” The problem with this technique is that you then have to decode it in the editing stage, which can be daunting when you read through your work and find gems like, ‘she knifed at him.’ (WTF, brain?) You’ll find that when you start making changes to one part of your story, it’ll necessitate changes in other parts, as though the entire thing is just a web woven by the world’s laziest spider. It’s maddening to have to go back over the entire thing with a fine toothed comb to make sure it all makes sense after an edit. What’s worse is when you start to get so familiar with your story that you either make changes in your head or skip over the mistakes altogether because the vision you have is perfect in your little thought bubble. Once you start editing what you thought was a solid story, you find that the whole thing is as unstable as a five year-old with a fist full of Pixy Stix.

In all the Japanese martial arts that I’ve practiced (three) the common saying between them is “fix one thing, break three” (or five, or ten, depending on how cynical the teacher is). As soon as you start to get comfortable with your own ability and all the new ways that you had to teach your body to move, someone will come along and give you a single correction. It could be as simple as adjusting the height of your arms or the tension in your belly. But that one correction will undo everything else you’ve worked for. Suddenly you’ve got two left feet, your arms don’t know how to arm anymore, and you’re trying to move your body like you’ve just received it for the first time. This, of course, leads to even more corrections of your suddenly flailing technique and before you know it you’re back to the very start, all over again. It has to be one of the most frustrating feelings in kendo, but it is an incredibly necessary one. “Back to basics” is what our teacher used to say. The continuous return to the fundamentals of the sport is what keeps our bodies, our minds and our techniques sharp. Once you understand that you realize…

6. The Most Valuable People Are The Ones Willing To Break You

If you want someone to praise your work, go ask your mom. (The exception being my own mother who told me that my latest story was boring and unoriginal. I love you, Mom.) The need for people to be objectively critical of our writing is key to our success. Sure, it feels great to be told that your story is incredible and that your prose is flawless and evocative, but you also need people to tell you that your characters are two dimensional and your conflict doesn’t go anywhere. You need people who will stab your work through the heart, bleed it out and then beat you over the head with its corpse. You need people with the guts to tell you that you’re doing it wrong. Finding critiquers, beta readers and editors can be challenging because of the need to find that perfect individual who 1) can understand what you’re trying to do, 2) knows what the hell they’re on about and 3) will lay it out for you clearly and without mercy where your problems are. It takes a lot of searching to find the perfect fits. You’ll discover very quickly who is reliable and who isn’t and once you find that perfect reader, hold on and never let go. Shower them with gifts, kiss their feet, name your first child after them. One perfect critiquer is worth more than fifty praise-givers.

I have a bully in my kendo club. He mercilessly taunts and corrects me, doesn’t pull his hits, gives no quarter if I’m injured and won’t stop a fight until I land a good hit, even if I’m too tired to know which way is up or down. When we fight the tension between us is truly life or death.

He is my favorite person of all to practice with.

Fighting with the people who will go easy on me because I’m a woman, or because I’m a foreigner, or because I’m lower rank is a welcome relief at times, but I improve the most from people like my bully who push and push and push until I either break or get better. Despite how painful it is, I need the push. I need the sink or swim mentality. Being told, “You landed some good hits today” is wonderful, but what I really look forward to at the end of practice are the teachers who say, “Here is what you’re doing wrong.” But receiving criticism is only half the battle because…

5. Learning How To Deal With Blows Is Crucial

The cold fact of the matter is that the world is a cruel place, and having barfed a collection of words into it doesn’t automatically make you immune from cuts and jabs. After you’ve recovered from the hard truth as laid out by your fantastic beta readers, after you’ve fixed all that you can fix and there’s nothing more you can do for your word-baby, it must be sent out to be judged. To editors, in all likelihood your work is just another number in the pile. Having done slush reading in the past, I can say honestly that there’s no biased animosity toward authors who submit, even when it seems that the author took the term, ‘submission guidelines’ a little too loosely. Having received rejections in the past, I can say honestly that they feel like a slap in the face. Reading those infamous lines, “Sorry, we’re going to pass on this one” feels like the worst sort of personal attack. Clearly there is just something about your face that the editor didn’t like because the story is fine.

I don’t think any one of us who receives rejections has escaped the “But–Grrr–It’s not fair” reaction, and it’s perfectly understandable. It’s also one of those things best screamed into a pillow rather than violently ejected onto the Internet. It hurts, yes, but throwing a tantrum isn’t going to change anything other than damaging your professional credibility. It likewise isn’t helpful to dwell on how much rejections (and criticisms) hurt. Making mistakes, being called out on them and then most importantly learning from them is the only way to improve.

And in case you believe that self publishing gives you an easy out from these hits to the ego, let me say that reviewers–especially independent ones–are merciless. Editors at least have a professional obligation to be courteous in their rejections. Reviewers have no such leash and have every right to say whatever they damn well please about your writing. I think by this point it goes without saying that you should never, never, never contact a reviewer to dispute a review. Please, just don’t do it.

In kendo, all the bruises and bleeding don’t stop just because you improve a little. Senior kenshi and teachers just find more creative ways to whack you on the places with the least amount of protection. Eventually, you just stop feeling it when it happens. The nerves numb to the blows and you develop this curiously thick hide, like a layer of callous between your skin and your muscle. Even being hit on the elbow or the wrist joint doesn’t hurt enough to slow me down these days. It’s a combination of being used to the feeling and needing the uninterrupted focus to continue fighting that dulls the pain enough to reach my goal, even if that goal is just to keep going until the clock runs out. It’s a hard thing to teach yourself, to ignore the pain and continue. But when the hits are inevitable, the pain becomes a part of the experience and with practice, eventually it falls off the radar. The difficult thing, though is not throwing in the towel after the first dizzying blow, and that’s why…

4. Your First Success Will Always Be Not Quitting

My writing sucks. Why am I doing this? I’ll never be a writer. I should just quit now. Hands up those of you out there who have had some variation of this thought at some point throughout their professional career. I’m going to assume it’s most, if not all of you for the purpose of making this argument work, and also because my hypothetical readers always think exactly the same things that I do. A career in writing might be harder now than it has ever been. The rise of digital media and self publishing means that the pool of writers and their work is expanding faster than my waistline over Christmas vacation. Competition for contracts with agents and traditional publishers is fierce, and it seems like the goal posts for what is ‘in’ in the literary world are always changing. The temptation to throw your hands in the air and embark on a more lucrative occupation (like an alpaca farm) is high, but you know that old adage about outrunning a bear? How you don’t have to be faster than the bear, only faster than your poor friend who you trip in cold blood so that the bear has some other warm, screaming body to tear into while you get away without consequence? Writing is a lot like that, except that the bear is time. You don’t have to write a perfect literary masterpiece straight out the gate. You don’t have to get that six figure deal on the first try, or the second, or the third, or the tenth. You just have to outlast all the others who will give up before you. Time will wear down their resolve until you’re stepping over the corpses of broken dreams to reach for the top. Perseverance is the name of the game. And sure, some people have a longer road to walk than others, and it’s an exhausting, sometimes soul crushing journey but if you want it badly enough, you’ll get there. One small step at a time, you’ll get there. But there will be days when you have to convince yourself that it’s worth it first, and believe me, you are your own worst enemy.

I can’t tell you how many times in almost a decade of kendo that I’ve asked, Why do I do this to myself? exhausted, dripping with sweat, every muscle in my body screaming for rest, dizzy from dehydration and the inability to breathe. Sometimes the only answer to that question is “because,” but if that’s what it takes to get you up and fighting again, take hold of it and don’t let go. After every crash the desire to give up gets stronger. Every plateau in skill makes it harder to find a reason to keep fighting. Five kenshi in a row have beaten my ass so thoroughly that I wonder what I’ve been doing with my life for the past eight years. So why keep going? Because. Because this is what I do. Because this is what I enjoy. Because…

3. When It’s Bad, It’s Very, Very Bad, But When It’s Good, It’s Euphoric

Losing really sucks, even when the only other competitor in the race is yourself. Writing is a very solitary activity when it comes right down to it, and when you’re sitting there, staring at a blinking cursor reminding you like the impatient tap of a foot that you haven’t written a word in two hours it can feel like falling imperceptibly down a bottomless pit. If Facebook is to believed (why are you checking Facebook? Get back to writing!) all your friends are off skydiving, having orgies and experiencing life in fantastic ways that you can only dream of. Or not, since the quietly blank page in front of you is proof that you haven’t dreamed up one goddamn thing. Go ahead, bang your head against the desk, drink a seventh cup of coffee, make a house of cards. Nothing is going to break this writer’s block. You’re done. You’re finished. All the words you once had in you are gone. The well of ideas is dry. There’s nothing left to do but let yourself hollow out into a husk of has-been or never-was.

Then, one day you wake up and the words are falling like rain. Like champagne rain. The drought is over. Your fingers can’t keep up with all the wonderful new concepts and characters, bursting out of your skull like a double rainbow. You can’t remember why you were ever worried. Run out of ideas? Ha! The thought is laughable. See, you’ve written three thousand in an hour and a half. You’re unstoppable. Your genius is palpable. You’ve got a good feeling about this one. It’s going to go somewhere. It’s one to be proud of.

This roller-coaster of highs and lows is maddening. When you’re on top you can’t see the climb it took to get you there. You’re too pleased with occupying a creative high place to remember all the struggles that came before it. Conversely when you’re experiencing a down period, those moments when the words came easily feel utterly unobtainable. They must have been someone else’s memories implanted into your brain. Even, “I did this once, why can’t I do it again?!” isn’t very comforting.

Here in Japan, summer is my worst enemy. As a Canadian, I was born and conditioned in a cool climate. Summers back home are dry and don’t reach much higher than thirty-two degrees Celsius in an average year. In Japan, summer has made it its mission to destroy me. Temperatures in July and August soar up to thirty-seven degrees Celsius with humidity than can reach as high as seventy percent on a cloudless day. Under these conditions, life becomes a series of mad dashes to the next air conditioned location. Unfortunately for me, none of the places where I practice kendo have air conditioning. When things get really bad they open some windows and maybe turn on an electric fan. Even the venues that do have air conditioning aren’t sufficient when you’ve got upwards of five hundred people screaming and sweating within them. Clouds of perspiration become their own, indoor weather patterns.

In the five years that I have lived here, I’ve noticed a disturbingly consistent trend: In the fall and winter I’m unstoppable. My energy is high, my body moves the way I command it to, and I’ve got an endless reserve of spirit to keep me going. In the summer, however, I move like I’ve got an elephant on my back. My legs are rooted to the ground and my arms feel like they’ve got twenty pound weights attached to them. The air is so thick I feel like I’m drowning, and if I don’t drink at least three liters of water a day, I will have a hangover the next morning, even without the aid of alcohol. It is so disheartening to move like the wind one week, and like frozen molasses the next. What’s worse is that there’s nothing that can be done about it except to suck it up and pretend that you’re not suffering in your own personal hell. But if you can hold onto the feeling of bliss when everything else is falling apart you come to a point where you realize that…

2. The Struggle Is Real, But So Is The Pay Off

“We’re happy to inform you that your story has been accepted for publication.” Wait, you should read that again. Happy. Your story. Accepted. Publication. Oh sweet cinnamon, you did it! You finally got someone to buy your work. It took weeks and months and years. It took gaining twenty pounds and giving yourself carpal tunnel. It took forgetting what sleep and the kiss of your significant other feels like but damnit it was worth it! You’re going to be published! You! You never thought you’d see the day and yet here you stand, triumphant.

It’s in these moments that you forget everything that came before this point. All the tears and heartbreak, all the hours spent editing, all the previous rejections and stamps of NO GOOD you’ve seen in bright red on your manuscript. All that is behind you, and when you look back you realize that not only could you do it all again, but you will, because there is no greater feeling than the one you’re feeling now. The one where all your hard work has come to fruition. You are now a published author. Congratulations.

In kendo there are many little things that are big triumphs. The first time a teacher is legitimately surprised when you score a point on them, the first time (or really any time) you pass a test, even being invited on the team for a tournament is a big deal. Every little triumph pushes your ambition a little further toward that highest point, whatever that might be for you. Like writing, once you taste that instant of success, the difficulties you endured along the way suddenly seem insignificant. It’s alright to take a moment to revel in this small victory. Pat yourself on the back and raise a glass, and while we’re on the subject…

1. Everyone Is Drunk And You Will Be Too

Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac. Truman Capote, Edgar Allen Poe, Dorothy Parker, Dylan Thomas and O. Henry. Back in the day, all the great writers were alcoholics. So much so that a bottle was almost as important as a typewriter. Even today you’ll hear successful writers talk about their nightly drinking habits with the same casual tones as if they were describing the weather. What is it about alcohol that seems to drive the creative spirit? Honestly, I don’t know, but a shot after each rejection certainly helps get the ball rolling, I’m sure. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that alcohol (beer in particular) helps stimulate creativity. Because alcohol lowers your inhibitions and removes a lot of the pesky worries that can freeze a writer up, the brain has more power available to it to devote to building the foundations of a story. There’s also something to be said for putting yourself in an altered state of mind just to slap the brain awake from what might be a stagnant state. Now, I’m not about to advocate substance abuse here, but if a glass of red wine a night is healthy for your heart, certainly a pint of beer a day can give your brain a nice boost. Just, maybe don’t drink yourself to death.

I had done kendo for all of three months when I first learned that the actual hitting people with sticks part is only half of what kendo is. The other half is getting roaring drunk after practice (and secretly hoping the teachers pay). This comes largely from the drinking culture of Japan, where company men (and less frequently women) work long hours and then must wine and dine clients and colleagues until all hours of the night. Drinking in Japan is both an obligation and a pastime, and politeness demands that if you are invited for a drink your only excuse for declining is to be dead or dying. If it’s the latter you’re still obligated to take part in a single draft beer before crawling home to write out your Will.

Admittedly, an ice cold mug of beer is exceptionally wonderful after practice, and taking the time to laugh with and get to know the people you are routinely caned by goes a long way toward making the experience more enjoyable. During practice there isn’t a lot of time to chew the fat with other kenshi. Staring at your opponent through a heavy, metal grill doesn’t do much to put a human face on the people you’re practicing with either. But once again, beer comes to the rescue and shoos away those inhibitions until even the shiest of kenshi are cracking jokes. In fact, drinking is so integral to kendo life that at multiple dojo and in two different countries I have heard it referred to as “second practice.” We drink, have fun, compare bruises and then the next week we do it all again. This sport is great.