Saturday, January 05, 2008

Books to Read

Okay, I made a line/stack of books to read this year. I still have several ordered and coming and invariably I'll discover more down the road that I want to give a gander. Here they are:

I have just finished the blue book on the far right, Nathan Englander's The Ministry of Special Cases. Wow.

I first heard about Nathan when his collection of short stories (For the Relief of Unbearable Urges) came out. I refused to buy it because of the tacky (I thought) title. But then I began to read interviews and reviews and finally I saw a picture of the man.

So, I'll admit I bought it because I had an instant crush on him. My gosh look at the guy! I'm all about noses and long hair. As it turned out that book was and remains the most outstanding collection of short stories I've ever read, hands down. He became my favorite author and I had to buy a second copy because I read and re-read the first one so thoroughly it was literally coming apart at the seams. He makes me cry and laugh consistently, even when I know it's coming. He's a writer who not only writes for story but takes care of every single word. It could be written no other way.

Ten years later and he looks like this....

...still very easy on the eyes, and he has out his first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases. It was a fantastic book, btw. While his short stories are more explosive and tight -- the way short stories are supposed to be -- he is still a gem. I cannot wait see what he writes next. I hope it doesn't take ten years.

As for all those other books, I really don't know where to start. Right now I want to dive into each and every one of them.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy Year of the Rat

Well, we did the bell ringing at midnight and even managed to make it to the first sunrise of the year. We went to the beach -- a different place than we usually go -- and discovered all these happy-noisy dancers with enormous flags. You can only see one flag in this picture, but there were about five in all. They'd stop after every song to say nice things to the sun and wish everyone a happy New Year.

Here's a shot of Mount Fuji. You can see how many people turned out and one of the fires they build. There were dozens of fires, by the way. One got out of control and that was exciting to watch for awhile, everyone screaming and running around.

Here is what the first sunrise looked like. Some birds flew by to make it a better shot for me. I thought that was nice.

And here is what my new camera's zoom lens can do.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

New Year's Eve

My absolute favorite part of New Year's Eve is called joya no kane. It takes place at midnight in Buddhist temples all over Japan, a kind of ringing in the New Year. Or more correctly, a ringing out of the 108 sins of mankind.

We go to a temple up on a hill near our house at about eleven thirty. It's peaceful, cold, and very, very dark. But we're bundled up and have flashlights. We survive the short hike from the parking lot to the main temple to find that the monks have built fires in barrels to keep everyone warm and I suppose provide a little light.

This picture was taken two years ago. J and a barrel fire. They feed the fires with Japanese cedar so they smell lovely.

The monks and their wives prepare vats of steaming hot amazake, a sweet drink made from fermented rice, as well as have readied numerous bottles of rice wine and hundreds of small porcelain cups. In the picture below you can see that they are offering everyone drinks. The light in the background is on the tower where the big bell is hung.

After our warming beverages and some small chat with the monks, we line up at the bottom of the tower. By midnight there is quite a line.

The ladder leading up to the narrow platform we must balance on to ring the bell is a tad shoddy and ill lit. The head monk, however, always provides illumination in the form of a large goose-shaped light. It never fails to crack me up. Just as we enter the building and make our way up the ladder, there stands a goose (or a duck) with a light bulb up its butt. The cutest darned thing. So Zen, I think.

When midnight strikes a group of local taiko drummers take off all their clothes, begin playing and we're allowed to go up and take a swing at the bell. We climb back down and let the next person/family go up.

Now the bell is only supposed to be rung 108 times, one for each human passion or sin. But again, the head monk is a hoot and doesn't count or hand out numbers. Instead, he just lets us have at it until the last person is done.

Here is a different temple. But you can feel the mood. Our temple is darker and the bell is on the second floor of a small tower. No snow either.

Oh, here is J (two years ago) enjoying some too-hot amazake. He's sleepy.

After we ring the bell we go home, get three to four hours sleep, and then I wake everyone's asses up at five AM to go see the first sunrise of the New Year. Here, we again pile into the car and head to the beach. Invariably, there are already dozens of people there milling about -- teenagers in tight groups trying to keep warm, old men building beach fires and getting drunk on sake and trying to invite the teenage girls to join keep warm. The mood is far from the relaxed mellowness of the night before. It's more high tension giddiness if anything. Everyone gazes across the ocean and waits for the sun to come up. When it breaks the horizon or line of clouds a cheer goes up and some tipsy old fellow makes a toast to the New Year and makes us all "BONZAI!" three times. By us I mean everyone on the beach. He's quite insistent.

Oh, and before I forget, for your first dream of the New Year there is an old Japanese saying:

"Ichi fuji, ni taka, san nasu", which means it is good luck to dream of Mount Fuji, a hawk or an eggplant. The most felicitous dream would be that of Fuji, next the bird, then the vegetable.