International best-seller Haruki Murakami has a new short story collection out, entitled Men Without Women. To celebrate, here is an excerpt from his essay “So What Shall I Write About?” published in the Japanese literary magazine Monkey Business. In it, Murakami muses on what it takes to become a novelist by analyzing his own methods and experience, and he gives us a glimpse into his creative process. Although Murakami has published numerous essay collections in Japanese, little of his short nonfiction is available in English. This essay was translated by Ted Goosesen, and it, and this issue of Monkey Business, are a treat.
We are─or at least I am─equipped with this expansive mental chest of drawers. Each drawer is packed with memories, or information. There are big drawers and small ones. A few have secret compartments, where information can be hidden. When I am writing, I can open them, extract the material I need and add it to my story. Their numbers are countless, but when I am focused on my writing I know without thinking exactly which drawer holds what and can immediately put my hands on what I am looking for. Memories I could never recall otherwise come naturally to me. It’s a great feeling to enter into this elastic, unrestrained state, as if my imagination had pulled free from my thinking mind to function as an autonomous, independent entity. Needless to say, for a novelist like me the information stored in my “chest” is a rich and irreplaceable resource.
…Remember that scene in Steven Spielberg’s film E.T. where E.T. assembles a transmitting device from the junk he pulls out of his garage? There’s an umbrella, a floor lamp, pots and pans, a record player─it’s been a long time since I saw the movie, so I can’t recall everything, but he manages to throw all those household items together in such a way that the contraption works well enough to communicate with his home planet thousands of light years away. I got a big kick out of that scene when I saw it in a movie theater, but it strikes me now that putting together a good novel is much the same thing. The key component is not the quality of the materials─what’s needed is magic. If that magic is present, the most basic daily matters and the plainest language can be turned into a device of surprising sophistication.
First and foremost, though, is what’s packed away in your garage. Magic can’t work if your garage is empty. You’ve got to stash away a lot of junk to use if and when E.T. comes calling!
When I arrive in the marble lobby of the high-rise to which I’d been directed, I pass back and forth in front of what appears to be a jewelry store before finally realizing it is Sembikiya. Dark, polished wood and sheer curtains line the walls, and sparkling chandeliers shaped like exploding snowflakes twinkle overhead. Glass display cases hold meticulous rows of fruit tended by prim women in starched black uniforms and berets ready to share anecdotes about the sweetness of the pears ($19 each), or Sekai-ichi apples ($24 each). Middle-aged women with Chanel bags and teased up-dos inspect plump, jade-colored Seto grapes swaddled in crisp white paper, while their husbands admire the altarlike case of muskmelons at the center of the floor, each one perched on its own wooden box lined with mint-colored paper ($125 each).
Leigh Ann Henion was drawn to archery by her grandfather’s passion for it. She travels to Japan to improve her archery skills by learning Kyudo — a form of archery that is one of Japan’s oldest martial arts. In her short yet intense course, sensei Kazuhisa Miyasaka helps her realize that achievement with the bow and arrow comes only after mastering one’s mind.
We have not talked about the fact that, when our grandfathers were alive, our nations and families were adversaries. Or that when I asked him to introduce kyudo in just a handful of days, I was making an impossible request. But we both knew.
Miyasaka touches my arm, tightening my actions like the precise folds of origami. My projectiles hit sand, nearer and nearer the target. Until. Twack. I pierce paper. The target is so far away I’d need binoculars to see exactly where my arrow rests.
I’ve achieved an obvious goal. But my release felt no more important than my stance, this arrow no more special than the one sent before it. I arrived in Japan hoping to understand why hitting a target isn’t the most important part of this tradition. Now, I know the closest I’ll come is the realization that it doesn’t matter to me whether I hit.
When I hear the target rip again, from a second arrow, I realize that I had not been listening for it.
Miyasaka has been recording my final day with a video camera. He turns my attention to a flat-screen television, which seems out of place in front of the chalkboard where he sketches feather patterns. When he pushes play, I see a woman I do not recognize. She moves through the stages of kyudo form with deceptive ease. At one point, she closes her eyes.
When I see the pale cocoons of my eyelids, I think to myself: Seriously? I remember none of it.
Miyasaka looks out at the target and says, “You did that yourself. You have real skill now.”
But the sound of my target-slaying was not one of accomplishment.
It was a signal that, as long as I’m alive, I will not be done.
The theme cafe is one of the more viral-friendly aspects of Wacky Random Japan, and there are three major subcategories within it. First, and perhaps the most popular theme cafe export, are the animal cafes, most of which are less cafes than indoor petting zoos. The beverages are an afterthought, and an awkward one at that — it’s actually pretty hard to sip your Hitachino Nest Ale, the owl logo pointed out toward the camera, when you have an actual owl on your shoulder, no matter how on-brand. Second are theme restaurants, which are full-service restaurants where the decor, the menu, and the servers’ outfits all revolve around a certain aesthetic, and usually a pretty mall-goth one at that: the Vampire Café, the Prison Restaurant, the (many) Alice in Wonderland cafes. Lastly, there are the maid cafes and their descendants, including the butler cafes and the Macho Café pop-up, where the servers — and their, uh, service — are the stars.
The frivolity and almost willful pointlessness might seem like a leftover from the ’80s bubble era, but the contemporary theme cafe continues the lineage of Western-style cafes that emerged in the 1920s. After “modern” hangouts with names like “Café Printemps” had established themselves in Tokyo among the intellectuals and artists, they began to diversify for a growing middle class; “Europe” was the original theme of Japanese cafes, but once Western-style eateries became more of a norm, new establishments had to step it up. “Rather than small eating and drinking places with tables set with white tablecloths and Parisian or provincial German decor,” writes Elise K. Tipton, a professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Sydney, “the leading cafés became huge multistoried buildings glittering with neon lights, colored glass windows, light-reflective metallic surfaces, and rich furnishings.”
I couldn’t quite figure out why Japanese listeners had come to appreciate and savor the blues in the way that they seemed to—lavishly, devotedly. Blues is still an outlier genre in Japan, but it’s revered, topical, present. I’d spent my first couple of days in Tokyo hungrily trawling the city’s many excellent record stores, marveling at the stock. I had shuffled into the nine-story Tower Records in Shibuya (NO MUSIC NO LIFE, a giant sign on its exterior read), past a K-pop band called CLC, an abbreviation for Crystal Clear—seven very-young-looking women in matching outfits, limply performing a synchronized dance, waving their slender arms back and forth before a hypnotized crowd—and ridden an elevator to a floor housing more shrink-wrapped blues CDs than I have ever seen gathered in a single place of retail. I had been to a tiny, quiet bar—JBS, or Jazz, Blues, and Soul—with floor-to-ceiling shelves housing owner Kobayashi Kazuhiro’s eleven thousand LPs, from which he studiously selected each evening’s soundtrack. I had seen more than one person wearing a Sonny Boy Williamson t-shirt. I had heard about audiophiles installing their own utility poles to get “more electricity” straight from the grid to power elaborate sound systems. What I didn’t know was what about this music made sense in Japan—how and why it had come to occupy the collective imagination, what it could offer.
I stood on a corner under my $11 umbrella, glad it wasn’t a $5 umbrella. I laughed out loud. What else could I do? After about five minutes, a teenage girl emerged from the mist. She was wearing headphones and a surgical mask. Surgical masks are very popular in Japan. They are supposed to be all about protecting yourself and other people from disease, but they’re also worn to indicate a lack of sociability, with which I theoretically sympathize but at this particular moment found inconvenient. No fool, the girl started to cross the street before she reached me, and I shouted “Excuse me, excuse me” and then even ran after her. She did not break stride. She did not even move her eyes.
If you have utterly humiliated yourself but no one is around to witness your humiliation, is it possible it has indeed not taken place? Asking for a friend.
Some people think the film I co-directed, “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides,” is a paean to loving Japanese mothers. When one interviewer suggested as much to me and fellow director Karen Kasmauski, we exchanged a look that said, “Shall we tell him the truth?” The film, titled after a Japanese proverb, is about strong women, for sure. Warm and loving mothers? No.
They either tried, or were pressured, to give up their Japanese identities to become more fully American. A first step was often adopting the American nicknames given them when their Japanese names were deemed too hard to pronounce or remember. Chikako became Peggy; Kiyoko became Barbara. Not too much thought went into those choices, names sometimes imposed in an instant by a U.S. officer organizing his pool of typists. My mother, Hiroko Furukawa, became Susie.
Even at their most decadent, food cultures contain traces of the scarcity that helped shape them — and in few places more so than in Hiroshima. At Roads and Kingdoms, Matt Goulding follows the origin story of okonomiyaki, the harmoniously messy pancake that has become a staple of post-war Hiroshima cuisine, through the unlikely career of Fernando Lopez, the Guatemalan chef who’s mastered it.
Lopez and his wife were determined to bring the flavors of Phoenix and Santa Fe and El Paso to the people of Hiroshima. The only problem was that no one in Japan had ever heard of Southwestern food.
After presenting his plan to a local builder, the contractor told Lopez bluntly, “I don’t build restaurants that fail.”
Lopez and his wife shuffled through ideas — pizzeria, bistro, sandwich shop — but nothing felt right. Eventually the conversation turned where conversations in Hiroshima normally turn when the subject of food comes up: okonomiyaki. “Why don’t you open an okonomiyaki restaurant?” friends and family started to ask.
Why not open an okonomiyaki shop? Let’s consider the reasons: Because Lopez was born seven thousand miles away, in one of the roughest cities on the planet. Because he didn’t look Japanese, speak Japanese, or cook Japanese. Because okonomiyaki isn’t just a pile of cabbage and noodles and pork belly, but a hallowed food in Hiroshima, stacked with layers and layers of history and culture that he couldn’t pretend to be a part of. Because even though they might accept an Italian cooking pasta and a Frenchman baking baguettes, they would never accept a Guatemalan making okonomiyaki.
Limiting access often increases desire. I call this the velvet rope effect. Some of the appeal is psychological. Some of this is a quality differential. On The New York Times Style Magazine blog, Rafil Kroll-Zaidi writes about proxy services which help Western shoppers navigate the Japanese online marketplace and buy the goods retailers refuse to sell outside Japan. Language is only one of the barriers here. The other is disinterest. Many Japanese clothing and lifestyle companies simply don’t want to sell their products overseas, and not just the boutique limited edition items either, but, as Zaidi put it, “a single pair of the 20,000 available units of the megabrand’s standard-issue jeans.” Zaidi’s piece ran in May 2015.
I turned up a number of forbiddingly impersonal and expensive proxy services before seeking direction from nerds on sneaker forums. The proxy service I chose is called SpeBid, run through a creaky community-style message board by a half-Japanese half-Nigerian man named Spencer (or Spe). For $30 a year plus arcane surcharges, Spe buys, bids on and reships wonderful stuff to “subscribers” all over the world. Per Jay Gatsby, “I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall”; but a proxy never proffers anything you don’t already know you need.
Matcha ─ you’ve read about its health benefits, you’ve seen it in chic cafes sold as bright green lattes and iridescent bubble teas. Consumed in Japan since the 12th century, it’s suddenly trending in America. So what is it and where does it come from? In Serious Eats, food writer Matthew Amster-Burton provides a rare look inside matcha’s complex, multi-step production process. With his usual good humor, Burton takes readers through a factory in southern Japan and details the stages of production, from the tea fields to the leaves’ drying to the creation of tencha, the shaded leaf that eventually gets pulverized between stones. It’s a fascinating look inside one of the world’s most rarified and ancient beverages, and an education for those who just know matcha as that stuff in green ice cream.
I asked if I could taste a leaf. “Go ahead,” said Toshimi Nishi. I pulled one off and stuffed it into my mouth. It was tough and fibrous and tasted like, well, a leaf. How does anyone taste this and decide it’ll make good tea?
Toshimi Nishi can. He’s more like a chef than a corporate suit. He’s the man in charge, but he has an encyclopedic knowledge of tea. And he can learn a lot by tasting a raw leaf: the variety of tea bush, the quality, the time of year. Spring-harvested tea is considered higher quality than late-season tea. It was now July, hot and humid even in the mountains. Specialized tractors with spindly legs and deadly blades on the underside stood by, ready to give the rows of tea a haircut during the next harvest.
We got back in the car and headed for the factory. “Do people at the factory drink tea all day?” I asked Takahashi.