21 April 2014

Ryoma {Things I love}


If you asked someone in the know to list the top 5 heroes of Japanese history, Sakamoto Ryoma would most definitely be on that list.  You can't travel far in Japan without finding tourist attractions dedicated to him, even in places with which he only had a passing connection.  His popularity peaked a few years ago when the historical drama, Ryomaden, aired in Japan.

What made Ryoma a hero?  I think the thing that captured people's hearts was his ability to bring people together.  He started life as the typical son of a samurai family, but apparently was a bit of a sissy-boy.  You can see the drawing in the collage above of him as a bed wetting kid.  His older sister, quite a character herself, taught him to man up and he made quite a name for himself in kendo, traveling to Edo (Tokyo) to study more - quite an arduous journey as well as a huge honor.

One of his biggest achievement was working to get the enemy Han (states) of Satsuma and Choshu to join forces to peacefully overthrow the Shogunate.  Using his incredible charisma and statesmenship, Ryoma convinced the two Han to work together then asked the Shogun to step down peacefully rather than fight a war.  That's a very simplified summary of the fascinating life of Sakamoto Ryoma - it's definitely worth reading more or watching the drama if you are at all interested in Japanese history.

Interesting facts about Ryoma:
  • When he fled from his home town of Kochi, he asked the family of one of his retainers for a loan to tide him over. He never repaid that money but the family still have the promissory note he gave them - that must be worth a small fortune today.
  • Ryoma was apparently married to the daughter of his kendo teacher in Edo yet later married another woman (with whom he had the first "honeymoon" in Japan). 
  • Ryoma was one of the first samurai to carry a gun. Every museum dedicated to him (and there are a lot - 4-5 in his hometown and others throughout the country) has a replicator of that gun but no one can tell me where the original is. 
I'm sure that not all of the noble deeds attributed to Ryoma were done by him.  History creates heroes and then assigns deeds of ordinary men to him.  Still he's an interesting man that broke free of the bonds of a very tightly controlled society and changed his country forever.


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19 April 2014

Quilt {Things I love}


My friend Tim made me this quilt. A lot of the fabric in it comes from pyjama tops I owned.  I usually just wear the bottoms with a singlet and the tops sit in my wardrobe unworn.  I've learnt to just buy bottoms now.

There is something really comforting about having a quilt a friend made for you, with stories tied up with the fabric itself.  It adds a layer of warmth to your life, not just your bed.

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18 April 2014

Polar Bears {Things I Love}

I love bears.  They are so freaken cute that I just want to hug them but I think of all the bears, I love polar bears the most.  They are amazing animals.

Photo from Polar Bears International
If someone said they went out and clubbed a polar bear to death, you'd think they were a total jerk and probably never talk to them again, yet everyday people do things unthinkingly that increase global warming and help destroy the polar bear's habitat.  

At the moment, Polar Bears International are running a campaign for people to stop idling their car unnecessarily (ie. more than 10 seconds).  I can feel pretty smug about this because I don't have a car but I am always trying to find ways to cut back on the resources I use so that it not only helps the polar bears but the entire world - and my wallet too.  

People get all gung-ho about Earth hour.  I don't.  I don't turn my lights out or do anything special because all the hours are earth hours.  Making consistent efforts to reduce your resource usage and continuous efforts to find ways to cut back are better than doing something for an hour a year then going back to bad habits.

Wow, this post sounds a bit preachy but I think the polar bears are worth saving.*

* I think animals and insects that aren't cute are worth saving too.

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16 April 2014

Nagasaki


Nagasaki was historically the gateway between Japan and the rest of the world. Even when Japan was locked up from the rest of the world, Dutch and Chinese traders were allowed into certain, heavily guarded areas of Nagasaki.


It's also an incredibly beautiful city, a natural amphitheatre build around a gorgeous bay.


While the first thing that comes to mind for most people when you mention Nagasaki is the atomic bombings of World War II, it's the earlier history that fascinates me. When Japan first reopened to trade with the outside world in the 1800s, Nagasaki was one of the first ports opened. Because the country had been forced to deal with the West for the first time in 250 years, it meant a time of upheaval in the national consciousness. It became a time of rapid change and revolution.


For a short time, Nagasaki was the centre of this revolution as a place where various Japanese clans mixed with Westerners, mostly to buy guns and other weapons,


I started working on a novel set in this time a while back. It keeps getting put on the back burner while I work on other projects - and trust me, any project is easy compared to historical fiction - but I intend to get it finished this year.

This as yet untitled novel tells the story of a young woman who is forced to move to Nagasaki with her brother after she is involved in a scandal.  An adventure outside the bounds of the Westerner colony means she gets to see parts of Japanese life normally closed off to her and to meet some of the local people.  One of these chance meetings gives her a way out when her brother's bungles mean financial disaster.  Another puts her in risk of her life.

Here's an excerpt:



Ichiro dragged me along a dusty street lined by buildings that looked like temples.  I'd liked to have slowed down so I could see more and question him more about these heathen religions but instead we hurried along and all I saw was a blur of orange gates and buildings with strangely curved roofs.  The repetitious drumming and chanting provided a beat to the speed of our endeavour.
Then Ichiro turned to lead me up a path of wonky stone steps.  Luckily overhanging trees provided the path with some shade.  Huge orange gates – technically not gates like we'd understand them but, I'd been told, that was the name for the structures with two vertical poles and one or two poles across the top - the same as the ones at the temple, arched over the path as though the temple extended up the hill, around the curves and into infinity. 
At random spots, the orange gates were intercepted with stone ones, rough and weathered and with green moss growing over them.  Above them, the sky was the perfect shade of cornflower blue and pretty purple flowers bloomed at the side of the path.  In the distance, I could hear the trickling of a stream and the occasional cark of a crow.  It would all be all so lovely if it wasn't so hot.
The houses of unpainted wood we passed differed greatly of course from the houses of the settlement and I'd have liked to have been able to watch how the native women went about their daily business, how they washed and cleaned.  Was it that much different to us?  I did see one woman leaning out the window of an upper floor beating what looked like a big quilt in much the same way we'd beat a rug.  She stared at us.  I guess a white woman rushing by in billowing skirts wasn't part of her normal scenery.
Finally we stopped and I got a chance to take in the brilliance of Nagasaki harbour below us, the water sparkling in the sun and the boats under sail coming into the harbour filled with cargo.
On the hill opposite, I could see the imposing structure of Mr Glover's house, the grandest house in all of the settlement, towering over the town like a prince's domain with the one grand pine tree beside it.  How Edward envied that home but, when I looked at it, I just thought of all the care and maintenance it would need.  I had no desire to be mistress of a house requiring so much upkeep.
Hills enclosed the town and kept it snuggled closely to the sea.  Beyond the hills was Japan.  The real Japan.  This port settlement seemed like a place apart, as though we were in the antechamber of the kingdom, leaving a calling card and never being received.  Although it was an awfully pretty antechamber.




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15 April 2014

Meat {Things I Love}


Apologies to any vegetarians for the pics, but meat is awesome.  And, when it comes to meat, the best way to eat it is Korean BBQ style.  Not only do you get succulent slices of pork belly and other meaty delights, you get a wide array of side dishes including, if you are lucky, the super delicious black beans (my favourite).

My biggest regret in life is that I didn't actually get to experience Korean BBQ when I was in Seoul.  I wasn't nearly gutsy enough to go to a BBQ place on my own especially since most only do courses for 2 people or more.  That didn't stop me from pressing my face up against the window, like the Little Match Girl, if the Little Match Girl salivated over meats.

I will return to Korea and I will get to eat BBQ.  In the meantime, I will try to eat BBQ any chance I get at home.

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