Cool Compound – 初耳


Short and simple today. 初耳 (はつみみ) is a nice quick way to say that you’ve heard something for the first time. Makes sense, right?



is 40% more efficient than this:


And 初めて聞いた (the pattern I always used that now makes me think of an Eastern-European-accented “First time I hear this!”) I think should really only be used as a modifier, i.e. 初めて聞いたとき.

1Q84 Postmortem


Well, my 1Q84 review is online. I can’t say enough about the guys at Néojaponisme. They did a fantastic job helping me turn my thoughts on 1Q84 into a cohesive article. Major props to Matt over at No-sword.

This is as good a time as any to give a postmortem on my 1Q84 predictions and add a few thoughts about the book. Some very vague spoiler-ish type material is included, but nothing too critical; still, read at your own risk.

Prediction 1: It’s going to be a monster.

Verdict: Yes

This was a gimme prediction. I needed one to guarantee I didn’t embarrass myself with a bagel. At 1055 pages it’s gigantic, but we all knew that going in; that was one of the few things Murakami DID reveal about the novel. Ben Dooley at The Millions noted that The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is longer, but only when you take into account Wind-up Bird’s belated third volume. It still only edges out 1Q84 by a meager 100 pages or so. If Murakami adds a third volume to 1Q84, it will easily crush Wind-up Bird.

That said, unless Murakami adds a 700 page third volume with 20 new characters and lots of action, Wind-up Bird will still feel longer. There are more characters and more things happen. And there are no coddamn “Little People” in Wind-up Bird (this will make more sense in a few years). 「ほうほう」と俺が言う。

Prediction 2: He will not re-work a previous short story or novel.

Verdict: Yes

Alright! I’m really happy I got this right, but as mentioned in the prediction, I was hoping he would incorporate something old. Using old material forces him to edit and refine. He’s had a lot of success with that technique (Hard-boiled Wonderland, Norwegian Wood, Wind-up Bird, Sputnik Sweetheart), perhaps because it’s the only form of editing he’s getting. In a college class, I once heard a professor compare the relationship between author and editor in Japan to one of sensei and student – the editor accepts the manuscript from the writer and thanks him deeply before taking it straight to the press.

And this book feels like it could lose some weight. If, say, it had been edited down into one volume, then he could have written a kick-ass second volume to wrap things up. But he takes his sweet time, dragging six months of calendar time in the novel out over 1000 pages.

Prediction 3: World War II will be a theme.

Verdict: No

What a terrible call. The answer was sitting there right in that section of the article I quoted, but I didn’t realize it. Murakami does not use WWII as a theme, but he does use religious cults as a theme. Yes, there is one section in the novel where WWII is mentioned, but it’s brief, not fully connected to other sections of the novel, and there is nothing about the brutality of Japanese soldiers in the Pacific. More about the cult topic below.

Prediction 4: It’s going to be great.

Verdict: No

Well, points to me for being optimistic, but this is not one of Murakami’s better works. I think it’s clear from the beginning of my review that Murakami’s best year was 1985. That five-year period from ’82 to ’87 (A Wild Sheep Chase to Norwegian Wood) is just incredible, and ’85 is, in retrospect, the peak. For whatever reason, his post-Norwegian Wood novels have been all over the place, including Wind-up Bird. That’s one thing 1Q84 did to me – it has changed my opinion of Wind-up Bird. I remember enjoying it the two times I read it, but looking back at it through this most recent novel, it seems more like an unstable collage of randomness, not unlike Kafka on the Shore. In all three novels, there are discussions of WWII that don’t really fit in with the rest of the novel. Wind-up Bird is the strongest of the three, but it’s nowhere close to Hard-boiled Wonderland in terms of construction. Murakami’s technique seems to be much stronger on a smaller scale, like afterdark or A Wild Sheep Chase. Hard-boiled Wonderland seems to be an exception since he had to revise an old work and admittedly rewrote the ending after his wife didn’t like it. (Rubin mentions this on page 115 of his book, referring to the supplement to the Complete Works).

Prediction 5: There will be a flush of short stories later this year.

Verdict: Unknown

We’ll have to wait and see what he produces next, but I imagine that he’s already at work on something. He’s a machine.

Prediction 6ish: The Aum attack will be a theme.

Verdict: Kind of.

After seeing Dmitri Kovalenin’s livejournal and his commenter’s research showing that 1Q84 is some kind of weird gene-thing, I brought up the fact that the Aum attack could be a topic. Well, cults definitely take up a good part of Book 1, but not for the reason we thought – sarin gas has nothing to do with the book. So I’m giving myself half a point here. It seems like Murakami tries to address the cult mindset, combine that with the idea of a similarly powerful groupthink situation, and the fuck everything up with some weird fucking moral quandary (that involves baby-raping, no less). (Yes, baby-raping. Well, more like statutory “rape.” But that can be our little secret until the translation comes out.)

The cult theme, however, gets dropped for the most part in Book 2, so I guess this should really only be a quarter of a point, which means…

2.25/5 = EPIC FAIL! (Although I could end up 3.25/6 depending on how his short stories pan out.) Oh well. It was fun. It pains me even to think it, but Murakami may be losing a step. But hey hey hey, don’t think about that, let’s look at one of his old short stories!

“The Twins and the Sunken Continent” is a great little short story. It was almost unreal to sink back into that same mellow tone courtesy of Murakami’s infamous boku. I started reading the story a year and a half ago but didn’t get around to finishing it until earlier this year. Some bloggy blog blog type thoughts:

– There’s this amazing scene where boku has returned to his office after seeing the photo of the twins. The place is a mess, but before he starts cleaning he chills out with a cup of coffee that he is forced to stir with a pen because the spoons are dirty. Such a simple scene, but it’s one of my favorite parts of the story, I think because the physical mess of the office mirrors his mental confusion, and he just kind of sits with it for a few moments, quietly enjoying a cup of coffee, before he begins to pick up the pieces.

– I’ve always been jealous of how Murakami narrators can just throw down their cups of coffee. The boku here has one at a cafe, and then two more, maybe three, in short order back at the office. And if he was visiting a client, you can bet that they probably served him a cup, too! Hard-boiled Wonderland has that great scene where he drinks a thermos of coffee and eats sandwiches with the old scientist. I start twitching after two cups and then go into an extreme crash an hour or two later, which is why I normally drink coffee in the afternoons, tea in the morning. Sometimes I wish I could drink coffee like boku, but maybe it’s healthier that I can’t.

– I find it very interesting that Murakami decided to write about his old boku after writing Hard-boiled Wonderland. As mentioned in the article, he wanted to go back and see the character again (along with the Sheep Man) after finishing Norwegian Wood (which resulted in Dance Dance Dance). “The Twins and the Sunken Continent” shows that it wasn’t just a one time thing. For the first 10 years of his career, it was a pattern that mirrors the way he goes from long novels to short stories.

– Loss is the main theme that this story shares with 1Q84. It’s kind of spooky how similar the language is. In both case he’s using 失われている. It’s a stranger choice of words in 1Q84, and I think Murakami uses it purposefully to stand out. It will be very interesting to see how it gets translated. In “The Twins,” it’s much more natural.

– Also interesting that Murakami uses the Sun and the Moon as his poles of reality in “The Twins.” In 1Q84, there is a very similar metaphor at play, and a change in the poles signifies a drastic change in reality.

– The dream discussion sequence is also classic Murakami – a character desperately trying to use language to explain something that is totally unreal but vital. If you look back through his works, I’m willing to bet that every single one uses storytelling in this way somehow. This is probably why he’s so much stronger in the first person – Murakami, I think, has strong doubts about the ability of language to accurately describe reality, or unreality, but that struggle is interesting, and it’s something that almost all of us have experienced at some point.

– There’s also an interesting music connection that I failed to mention in the review. In 1Q84, Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” comes up, and actually the novel itself is structured in the same way – two volumes of twenty-four. (Someone far smarter than I am will explain what this means. A scary thing to think about is the fact that there are actually 96 pieces of music in “The Well-Tempered Clavier” – both prelude and fugue for each major and minor key. Is Murakami going to write another 1000 pages?) In “The Twins,” boku puts on a piece of lute music by Bach as he cleans his office.

– Reading this story, I got the feeling that the twins weren’t real people. They seem much closer to Murakami’s poor aunt from the story “A Poor-Aunt Story” – a physical representation of an emotional state, one that is different for everyone. Rubin argues that the poor aunt stands for “everything unpleasant that we push out of our minds by subtly suggesting things we ought to know but have managed to suppress” (Rubin 60). (There must be some long German word that has the exact same meaning. Anyone? Bueller?) The twins, then, represent an idealized past, one that is lost and can never be reclaimed. Life with the twins was easy – boku had a pleasant life at home uncomplicated by sex; simply compassion and warmth. The twins with another man look different because to that man the situation that makes him feel the same as boku did is different. The two of them feel the same emotion, but they require different input for them to get to that emotion. The twins are the physical representation of that emotion.

On second thought, they could also represent a point in life where one is finally comfortable being alone (but lonely) in the world, assuming that the twins weren’t real people and that boku was living alone. This may require further more sober contemplation.


(Graphic courtesy of Ian Lynam and Neojaponisme.)

Review – コーヒーもう一杯 (One More Cup of Coffee)

The Japan Times has a short profile/interview of How to Japonese/me online today! Apparently they will be publishing it in the actual newspaper on Wednesday.

In the interview, one of the questions they ask is what Japanese books are good to read in order to improve spoken Japanese. Well, Murakami’s great and easy to read, of course, but I realized that manga are probably better than fiction since you are basically reading a script with visual cues.

One of my favorite manga is Naoto Yamakawa‘s 『コーヒーもう一杯』 published by Enterbrain. Yamakawa writes short coffee-themed manga and publishes one story a month in 月刊コミックビーム. The stories get collected into annual volumes which he intersperses with short prose poem type stories, also coffee-themed. He begins his first volume with one of these, explaining the title of the collection:

“One More Cup of Coffee” is the title of a song from Bob Dylan’s 1976 album Desire.
I started listening to Bob Dylan when I was a high school student, always listened to him after that, and listen to him even to this day.
When I first heard him I thought, “What the hell is this?” But as I kept listening, I got into the habit of listening to him and really came to like his music.
To give you an idea of how much I like him, sometimes I get on a train, see his name on a hanging advertisement, and get so surprised I almost lose my shit.
But when I look closer it doesn’t say Bob Dylan; it says things like volunteer (ボランティア) or body line (ボディ・ライン).
Beyond the title, this manga has no connection with Bob Dylan, but there are many pages I drew while listening to Bob Dylan.

The introduction perfectly captures the feel of the collection – coffee, like Bob Dylan’s music, is something that might take time to get used to, but once you start to enjoy it, it’s hard to live without. And because coffee is a daily ritual, it ends up being strongly connected to other experiences: people you went to coffee with, conversations shared over coffee, the intricate ritual of brewing coffee. The collection diagrams coffee as a social experience in modern Japan.

Brewing coffee is the theme of the first story of the collection:

But it’s also a love story. The young man making coffee in the image teaches the other man how to make coffee, which puzzles him since he already taught him how when working as his assistant. Through the flashbacks we realize that the young man Mameta (豆太; Yamakawa often uses 豆 in his names as a joke, since it’s the character for “bean”) had a crush on Aoyama’s girlfriend Motsumi. At the end of the story after the two have coffee, Mameta walks Aoyama to a cigarette vending machine where they buy Hope cigarettes, and Aoyama confesses that he’s split with Motsumi. Mameta returns to his small apartment, brews another batch of coffee and sits down to process everything that happened while enjoying a cup:

Yamakawa’s unique, warm drawing style is perfectly suited to the content. The stories are all sort of sad, strange and even nostalgic, but it’s a nostalgia for the present day – Yamakawa’s portraits of urban Japan are so romantic that they approach simulacra. He loves the coffee shops:


Used bookstores:




And streets of Japanese cities:


The illustrations in this series are a refreshing change from the kind of manga that gets translated and shipped abroad. I’ll take the back alleys of Shinagawa-ku over the bright lights of Shibuya any day of the week. I do frequent Dry Dock, after all, which I think is the closest I’ve come to a コーヒーもう一杯-esque location in the flesh.

I discovered the series while hunting for manga to read on a flight. I was actually looking for SOIL, also published by Enterbrain, but since they didn’t have it, I went for コーヒーもう一杯, and I’m sure glad I did. It’s perfect plane flight or train ride manga: the stories are short and manageable, fun to read, and beautiful to look at. Highly recommended.

Bonus link! Yamakawa has his own blog, through which I discovered that Volume 5 of コーヒーもう一杯 is the final volume. Probably for the best. All of the stories are good, but Volume 1 was by far the strongest.

How to Kyoto, Briefly

I went to Kyoto last weekend and thought I’d write down a few thoughts:

– Use the bus. The bus network is extensive, well-air-conditioned and cheap if you use a daily bus pass. The Japanese you are looking for is 一日乗車券 (いちにちじょうしゃけん), and the passes can be purchased at convenience stores or directly from a bus driver. The locals use these, too – I saw several kids using them over the weekend.

– A couple of itineraries that work with the buses:
1. Kinkaku-ji → Ryoan-ji → Ninna-ji → bus back to Kawaramachi Shijo to eat and recover
2. Sanjusangendo → Kiyomizu-dera → Ginkaku-ji → Gion → bus back to Kawaramachi Shijo to eat and recover

– Set aside plenty of time for Nijo Castle. Ideally it’s the first thing you see in the morning.

– When you get to your tourist destination (e.g. temple, museum), the first thing you should do is check the departing bus times. Figure out where you’re heading next and check the bus sign to see when your options are. The buses don’t run as frequently as subways and trains in Tokyo, and knowing the departure times can help you maximize the sights you can see in a day.

– That said, knowing when to use the subway is helpful. I’ve only ever used the subway once so I can’t say anything for certain, but that one line that runs east to west can be pretty handy if you’re looking for a quick way to get across town.

– Sanjusangendo is the most underrated temple in Kyoto, which means it ranks high on the short list of underrated temples in all of Japan. Not that it gets ignored – many people love the place, and there are always lots of visitors. But when people think of iconic temples in Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera and Kinkaku-ji are always the first two listed. Personally I think Kinkaku-ji is disappointing. Other than the Golden Pavillion itself, there is hardly anything else exciting about the place. If Ryoan-ji weren’t so close, I think it would be extremely overrated. Kiyomizu-dera is nice, but the crowds can be a drag. So can the hill. Sanjusangendo is an excellent combination of scale (1000+ statues), beauty (the statues are just incredible, especially considering how old they are…if you stare at them long enough, they look like they are about to jump over the railing and attack something), and size (the Kannon in the middle is pretty sizable). Highly recommended. The National Museum across the street, however, can be skipped.

号外 – Kurodahan Press Translation Prize

A small bonus post today to make up for the skimpy post earlier. Kurodahan Press is having a translation contest. The story for translation is titled 「メルクの黄金畑」 by 髙樹のぶ子, and can be found in her collection titled 『fantasia』. It’s only 15,000 characters long and the deadline is in October, which means you have plenty of time. Professional translators usually translate somewhere from 2000 to 5000 characters a day depending on the type of material. Literary translation should probably take a little longer, but still, the finished product will only end up being somewhere around 8000 words or so. The prize isn’t that much money (30,000 yen), but the winner will get published, it’s a great way to promote Japanese literature, and it would be good goal to set if you are an upper-level intermediate student or lower-level advanced student.

Definitely plan on tossing my hat in the ring. I picked up the book of stories last week and have only paged through the contest story, but it looks like a neat little book of travel stories set in Europe. Fun!

Cool Kanji – 日食


A pretty obvious post for today – the kanji for solar eclipse. It’s pronounced にっしょく, and I guess literally means “eat/swallow the sun.” Pretty cool stuff.

I found this link on how to enjoy the eclipse in Japan via a friend’s shared sites on Google reader. Remember, don’t look straight at the sun or you’ll end up like Radioactive Man. Looking straight at rain clouds, on the other hand, will do nothing to you but may ruin the day of small children with giant expectations.

クリーム ≠ cream

Well, at least not always:

クリーム = cream2

cream      = cream1

The Japanese クリーム often refers specifically to the whipped variety that goes on top of cakes or inside tasty treats, most notably the シュークリーム. I often see this romanized on packages as “chou cream” for whatever reason. For those of you who can’t read Japanese, it actually sounds like “shoe cream,” which is a funny thought.

The Japanese and English Wikipedia entries are subtly different. In English, whipped cream is only listed below under “Other cream products,” whereas in Japanese whipped cream gets its own section and the photo at the top of the entry is a photo of a bowl of whipped cream.

I rest my case.

しばらく (Updated)

One of the recent themes of this blog has been alternate versions of basic phrases. In the past I’ve given nuanced versions, but today it’s just a straight up replacement. 久し振り (ひさしぶり, most often as 久しぶり) is the phrase that everyone knows, and it can quickly be replaced with しばらく, which literally means “a little while.” A couple of notes:

– Thinking about しばらく made me realize that leaving the です off of 久しぶり probably sounds really weird and unnatural to Japanese people. For whatever reason, 久しぶり feels like it can stand on it’s own (possibly because of that adjective-like り・い sound on the end?), whereas しばらく, to me, does not. Nice reminder not to drop your copulas.

– I think this is an old people phrase. Useful if you like to add to your 渋い aura.

– しばらく is also often used as an adverb. “Do something for a little while.” しばらく何かをする。しばらく休みましょう being a nice one. 久しぶり can also do this, but needs a にon its end. I believe both of them can act as adjectives with the assistance of の.

Update: – Matt’s comment made it clear to me that there is a slight difference between the adverbs. When used alone in the “long time no see” sense, 久しぶり implies a positive verb (久しぶりに会う。) whereas しばらく implies a negative verb (しばらく会っていない。). Very cool.

Cool Toy – Lost Kubrick Figures

As I kid I collected lots of figures. It all started with G.I. Joe, but I expanded into Marvel when they started releasing some of the awesome characters from X-Force. Fortunately my interest died off before I could get too excited about anime. Still, ever since coming to Japan, I’ve always thought the Kubrick line of toys is really cool. The figures are small, cubed versions of popular culture themes – movies, TV shows, comics – and you don’t know which character you get until opening the box. The name is a homage to director Stanley Kubrick, but it also puns on キューブ, the Japanese word for cube. Medicom Toy, the makers, have a cool website where you can get updates on new releases and limited editions.

I was showing a friend around this past weekend and we went by Kiddy Land in Harajuku:

where I came across this cool LOST Kubrick set!:

The side shows that you have chances of getting Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Sayid, Hurley, Locke or Charlie:

And the back suggests that you might also be able to get Desmond and all his wonky eyeballness:

I was hoping for Locke but ended up with Hurley, one of rare ones. Not too shabby:


Cool Links – Beer Resources

Not much time for an update today, so you’ll have to entertain yourselves with the ridiculous amounts of great beer information at Chuwy’s blog Drinking My Brains and Homebrewjapan’s blog…er Homebrew Japan. They both have impressive tolerance (and deep wallets!) and know heaps about beer. Love Chuwy’s comments on Pivo at Pivovar (still need to get there), and I wish I’d known about this incredible list of resources when I lived in the countryside.