Book Review: Emperor Of The Eight Islands

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4-star

Title: Emperor Of The Eight Islands

Author: Lian Hearn

Series? Yes. 1 of 2.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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Book Depository


Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from Hachette Australia in exchange for an honest review.

Lian Hearn returns in top form with Emperor Of The Eight Islands. Once again, she seamlessly weaves Japanese myth and history into a brand new tale. This is a first in a series, and it features a sprawling epic, with much of the novel feeling like a prelude to an even grander story. I am already clamouring for more.

EmperorEightIsland

Your life is not your own. You will die to one life and rise to another, to become what you are meant to be.

Continue reading “Book Review: Emperor Of The Eight Islands”

Japan Blog Series: 5 Books You Should Read Before Going To Japan

JapanBlogSeriesFive

I am finally back from holiday and fighting the post-holiday blues. I will be slowly catching up on comments – although I caught the Tsum Tsum fever while I was away, so it may take longer than usual XD PS Does anyone play it? Add me on LINE, the username is aentee!

Meanwhile, I’d like to give you guys some recommendations of books you should read before or after you go to Japan – just to give you a slice of what the country has to offer! I am still reading some of these books myself, as a way for me to wean off my vacation. Thank goodness for books and their ability to transport you! Continue reading “Japan Blog Series: 5 Books You Should Read Before Going To Japan”

Japan Blog Series – Book Review: Ink by Amanda Sun

2stars

Title: Ink

Author: Amanda Sun

Series? Yes. 1 of 3.

Rating: 2/5 stars

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Book Depository


Note: This is a pre-scheduled post. I am currently on holiday. Apologies for delays in commenting back!

Reading this book was like watching a checklist of of i) preconceptions of Japan via anime/J-drama and ii) a stereotypical paranormal romance. There’s very little here that’s innovative, although I did enjoy the incorportation of Shinto mythology and religious ideals in the text.

Ink-review

The plot of this book is nothing to write home about, you’ve seen it a dozen times before if you’ve read YA Paranormal romance in their heydays of 2008-2010. Except, of course, it’s set in Shizuoka. There’s an ordinary girl who doesn’t quite fit in, and a handsome and mysterious boy who’s more than he seems. They fall inexplicably in love, though there’s very little interactions leading up to these undying declarations. Throw in a flimsy reason to keep them apart, some unrepentant baddies, and a ex-girlfriend – there’s your recipe to a run-of-the-mill story. Continue reading “Japan Blog Series – Book Review: Ink by Amanda Sun”

Book Review: The Peony Lantern

peony lantern

3star

Title: The Peony Lantern

Author: Frances Watts

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Series? No

Booktopia

Goodreads


Note: This is a pre-scheduled post. I am still on vacation. Apologies for any delay in commenting back!

This is part of the small list of books I read in preparation for my trip to Japan this year. The Peony Lantern follows the life of a commoner turned lady in waiting in 1800s Japan. It makes for a breezy, yet somewhat forgettable read. The tale is penned by an Australian author, yet the research into traditional Japanese culture is sound. This is a great first look for any teenagers interested in Japanese history.

PeonyLantern

The Culture

I think where this book excelled was definitely in the research into Japanese culture. In fact, The Peony Lantern was less book and more a love letter to Japan. I could feel that the author was enamoured with the country (a sentiment I share!). You can read all about the research Ms Watts did for the book here.

The story carries us through a full year, letting the reader experience a piece of Japan’s love for seasonal changes and celebration. It starts at the beginning of summer, evocative in its imagery of the rain season (called tsuyu). The book then follows through to those muggy summer days, vibrant with the colours of irises, hydrangeas and firework. We then get the luscious autumn scenes, dressed up in gold and reds through chrysanthemum and maple leaves. Finally, we get the intimacy and mystery of snowy winter; seen through frost and steaming bowls of oden.

Through Kasumi’s inexperienced eyes, the readers also get to see her first glimpse at ikebana, painting, and ukiyo-e. The book is a crash course in all that foreigners celebrate about Japanese culture. You know: geisha, sashimi, beautiful sweets and tea ceremonies. However, I did not get the sense that the author was misappropriating the culture – just that she loved Japan very much and wanted to share her experiences. My knowledge of the Japanese culture is limited to my short holidays there and specialised books or website – yet from what I could surmise, the information conveyed were accurate.

The Story and Characters.

Unfortunately, in the book’s zeal to display Japan and all its many faces – it forgot its human characters somewhere along the way. While Edo was a character unto itself, the same cannot be said for Kasumi, Misaki, and the rest of the cast. Kasumi, our main character, was an bland vessel through which the reader viewed Japan. She never lifted off the page and became a real person. Kasumi’s conflicts felt like a check box of: love interest, ‘passion’ in painting, and her relationship with her mistress, Misaki. While Kasumi’s father touted her as the disobedient and free-spirited child – she sadly did not live up to his snide remarks.  All I learned of her was a sleepy curiousity and a love for art of all kind – both a necessity of the plot.

I did find her mistress, Misaki, a lot more engaging, as was the mystery surrounding her. However, given the neo-Confucian societal structure of Edo Japan, I find her situation quite farfetched. I don’t want to risk spoiling the ending for those interested to check out the book – but needless to say, it is wishful thinking.

The actual story itself is a part mystery and part political intrigue, however – there was not enough content or investment on the heroine’s part to make the storyline engaging. I did enjoy the fact that the story is a loose retelling of the Japanese Ghost Tale:  The Peony Lantern – the reimagining has a great feminist spin that I appreciated!

I would say that this book is 60% a crash course in Japan culture, and maybe 40% plot. Take that as you will, though I personally enjoyed it because my main draw to this story was Japan.


A Tour Through Japan

As I did during my previous posts, included in this post are photos of my travel, in relation to this book!

We left the Kiso Valley. I had thought I’d be sad as we moved further and further away from my home, and I was a little, but more than that I was entranced, my eyes travelling over new landscapes: the sight of the sacred Mount Fuji from the Shiojiri pass; the bleakness of the Asama plateau, so wide and flat, the desolate air broken by the porters from Oiwake singing a song about the inn of the moon and flowers. Then Mount Asama, the mighty volcano, so unlike the comforting embrace of the mountains in my valley. I saw lakes and bustling towns and the grand Korigawa shrine, and crossed a wide river on a ferry boat: my first time on the water.

Hakone

‘Tell me about Hakone,’ I urged. Her expression became rapturous. ‘It was so beautiful, Kasumi — I wish you could have seen it.’ She described the blazing autumn colours of the forested hills, the view across the lake to the sacred peak of Mount Fuji.

Lake Ashi

I didn’t pass through the Kiso Valley region in Japan, so my journey was a little different to Kasumi’s own. I did attempt to glimpse at Mt Fuji by traveling through Hakone. Unfortunately, I did not get to see the elusive Mt Fuji – the sky was clear and blue everywhere BUT over the mountain top!  Damn you, condensation laws and physics!  However, like Kasumi, I did get to travel on a ferry across Lake Ashi – which was stunning. It was liberating seeing the azure sky, emerald mountains, and open water – especially after spending a week in the concrete metropolis of Tokyo.

‘I know. They boil it in the hot springs and it turns the shell black. But eating it will bring you seven years of good luck.’ ‘Thank you.’ I cradled the egg in my palm, touched that Misaki had thought of me on her travels. What would seven years of good luck mean for me?

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I also had the famed blackened eggs at Owakudani valley in Hakone. Misaki is right, they are touted to increase longevity – although once cracked they’re just ordinary boiled eggs. I remember this batch of 5 costing us 700Y! There are also many other gimmicky foods sold in this area: such as black ramen and egg flavoured ice cream – I was not brave enough to try either, so I cannot report on their taste!


A series of stepping stones led to a small stone bridge, which we crossed into a cool glade of ferns, at its centre a large stone lantern covered with moss… Whoever had designed the garden had ensured there was a colour for every season, I noted. It was like the world in miniature.

Kinkakuji

The gardens in Japan are resplendent, each plant carefully curated to mimic nature. My favourite is the garden surrounding Kinkakuji: The Golden Pavilion. The temple lies in a middle of a completely still pond, filled with koi fish. There are numerous little rocky islands in the pond, rumoured to represent Japan’s many islands. It’s a beautiful space for quiet contemplation, if you could ignore the gaggle of tourists behind you. It took me ten minutes to get this particular shot, this temple is so popular it would be packed whatever time of day you arrive – but the view is completely worth it.

I am also going to visit Kenrokuen and Korakuen when I go back to Japan this year. They are famed to be 2 of the 3 leading gardens in Japan, so I will be sure to share photos if I am able to get reliable wifi!


Book Review: Geisha – A Life

4-star

Title: Geisha- A Life

Author: Mineko Iwasaki, Translated by Rande Brown

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Series? No

Goodreads

Book Depository


NOTE:  This is a pre-scheduled post. I am still on vacation. Apologies in any delay in commenting back!  Thanks for visiting 😀

In my last post, I looked at the infamous Memoir Of A Geisha by Arthur Golden. Today, I look at the autobiography of the woman who inspired it all: Mineko Iwasaki. This book provides the Western world with a rare insight into life as a geiko of Gion, through the eyes of someone who once stood at the top of the flower-and-willow world.

Geisha-of-Gion

Karyukai means “the flower and willow world.” Each geisha is like a flower, beautiful in her own way, and like a willow tree, gracious, flexible, and strong.

Geisha-of-Gion-Likes

  • First and foremost, I loved how this book gives us an insight into the lives of geiko (the Kyoto term for geisha) in Gion Kobu, and it goes a long way to dispelling the myths surrounding their profession. Iwasaki revealed the intense training in all the arts, especially of traditional dancing, she underwent as an apprentice. I knew the all geisha and geiko studied hard, but having their day documented gave me a newfound respect for these artists.
  • As I’ve mentioned numerous times in this blog series, I adore Kyoto. This book gave me an insight to Kyoto of days gone-by, where the streets of Gion was filled with traditional shops instead of tourist souvenir shops. I also love the sense of history in sights that endured through time in Kyoto, such as the ever-present Kamo River, to the magnificent theatres of Minamiza and Kaburenjo. It makes me appreciate these sights more to know how much they meant to the people of Gion.
  • It’s a bit voyeuristic, but I enjoyed seeing the life behind the walls of ochaya and okiya, which I would never get to see otherwise. As you might know, geiko only entertain the wealthy and well-connected elites of this world. Instead of paying thousands of dollars for the pleasures of an ozashiki, I paid $10 for this Kindle ebook to whet my appetite instead.

Geisha-of-Gion-Dislikes

  • While I enjoyed the book when I read it, I found it very difficult to remember the content of the book due to the nature of its layout. Iwasaki jumps through life events at an irregular pattern, she would be speaking of her afternoon walks in clear details – then proceed to gloss over an important dance recital. The scenes changed at random intervals, it looks like the book underwent very little editing.
  • Iwasaki documents her life from the time she was three years old, and tries to convince her readers that she decided to leave her parents and become a geiko all on her own… AT THREE! She also details event from this period from her life with startling clarity – one that makes me wonder at the authenticity of these passages. I personally don’t remember anything from my life at three years old, let alone make a huge decision like choosing to be sold to an okiya!
  • It may be a cultural barrier, but I found Iwasaki’s attitude quite off-putting. She striked me as incredibly sheltered and privileged, yet utterly clueless. There’s a passage where she claims she does not fart. Another passage where she commands a junior member of the okiya to rub her feet, and feels no remorse for it. This finally culminates in a scene where she slashes the coat of her lover’s wife, holding more resentment for the woman than for his infidelity.
  • I also found that the writing was very sterile. The book was written as a defence to Arthur Golden’s misappropriation of geisha and their world. Iwasaki mainly showed the world how great she was as a geisha, we never got to see much of her struggles. I felt very disconnected from her.

Nonetheless, this book offers a unique insight into a part of the Japanese culture most people won’t have access to. If you’re interested in the karyukai, I would highly recommend this. I also recommend it to those who have read Arthur Golden’s book, to get another (more realistic) perspective on things.

Geisha-of-Gion-Sights

Yasaka Shrine lies nestled in the foothills of the Higashiyama Mountains, the chain that flanks the eastern border of Kyoto. The Gion Kobu, to the west of the shrine, is about one square mile in size. The district is crisscrossed by a neat grid of manicured lanes. Hanamikoji (Cherry Blossom Viewing Path) runs through the center of the district from north to south and Shinmonzen Street divides it east to west.

Higashiyama2
Nestled within the Higashiyama district lies some of Kyoto’s best preserved historical districts. Japan Trip 2014.

These are some of my favourites streets to wander in Kyoto, with wooden houses intermingled with shops peddling souvenirs to catch the enthusiastic tourist (I am totally one of those tourist, my home is still littered with a million cute things I have no use for). Be warned that these streets do get quite busy, so I advise an early morning or late afternoon visit! Meander through and ogle at fans, teapots, ceramic wares, traditional dolls, music boxes – you’ll be rewarded by free samples of tea and sweets along the way 😉

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An enduring symbol of Kyoto: Yasaka Pagoda

I love the sight of Yasaka Pagoda, widely touted in travel pamphlets and blog pages as a symbol for Higashiyama. It stands tall, a mark of history and culture against a backdrop of modern electrical wires and wide-eyed tourists.

Seasonal appropriateness is paramount. The canons of traditional Japanese taste divide the year into twenty-eight seasons, each of which has its own symbols. Ideally, the colors and patterns on the kimono and obi reflect the exact season, nightingales in late March, for example, or chrysanthemums in early November

Kimono

There are loads of kimonos to be seen in Kyoto, it’s little wonder – with rental shops being ubiquitous in the city. I couldn’t tell which wearer were native Japanese and which were tourist! I liked seeing personality it added to the hubub of people, and hey – it could hardly be cultural appropriation if the Japanese themselves endorse it?! I hear ladies get to ride Kyoto’s buses for free if they’re in kimonos. What are your thoughts on tourists dressing up in traditional garments of another country?

And in the canal is cold, clear water, water that comes down from Lake Biwa in the north. The water rushes through the canal as it flows towards the Nanzenji aqueduct. It courses through the aqueduct, past the miles of cherry trees lining the banks, and then down into the main waterway of Kyoto. It continues past the zoo and the Heian Shrine, runs along Cold Spring Avenue, and finally empties into the Kamogawa River, where it streams towards Osaka and out to the open sea.

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Part of the mentioned canal, running through Philosopher’s Path
Philosopher's Path
Teddy bears fishing in a stream along Philosopher’s Path

This stream of water is ever-present in Kyoto, through the Kamo River, the Shirakawa stream, and in the canal that rushes pass Philosopher’s Path and its surrounding temple. My friends and I wandered aimlessly down Philosopher’s Path one quiet afternoon, discovering hidden temples along the way.

Due to our poor planning, we arrived at closing time and most places were deserted. We also did not know the name of most of the places we visited, and had to Google it when we got home (fail, I know, but the reverse engineering of our trip was sort of fun!). Philosopher’s path is a charmer, lined with arts and craft stores, such as the ones advertising via the teddy bears above! There also seems to be a small community of stray cats along this walk, I still wonder about the fate of these animals – and hope to see them again this year!


I hope you’re enjoying my recaps, I want to update them with more recent pictures when I am in Japan, but that’s pending on internet connection AND time XD

Book Tag: Nostalgic Book Review Tag

Note: I am still on vacation, this is a pre-scheduled post. Apologies in advance for any delays in commenting back!

MoaG
Geisha Image from Freepik, other edits by me.

Thank you to the talented CW of Read, Think, Ponder for creating this tag and for tagging me! It allows me to revisit one of the most memorable reads from my high school days. It also fits nicely into the current Japan theme of the blog. There are also some photos from my trip to Kyoto last year at the end of this post!

How the Tag Works
In this tag, you will be reviewing a book you read three or more years ago (if you started reading less than three years ago, tell us about your first book). The best part: you will be reviewing the book purely from memory. I hope you all have fantastic memory (because I certainly don’t)!

Japan Book Blog Series: A Bibliophile’s Guide To Japan

Travel-Guide-Japan

As you might know, I’m taking a small break from blogging as I’ll be in Japan on vacation for three weeks! I am super excited for this holiday, especially as it’s my first overseas trip with my partner. I did not want to leave the blog completely abandoned – so I’ve decided to leave a couple of Japan related book posts scheduled. This is the first of them!

I am certainly not alone when I say that I love going to bookish location in new places. Yes, the books may either be i) the same as the ones I get back home OR ii) in a language I don’t understand – but that doesn’t take away my sense of wonder. Here are a couple of recommended bookish touristy things you could do in Japan! I’ve been to some of these, and plan to visit the others. I hope to update my posts with up to date pictures as I go along.

Also! My holiday will be well underway by the time this post is published, so I apologise for lack of commenting until I am back. Continue reading “Japan Book Blog Series: A Bibliophile’s Guide To Japan”

Novella Review: Silently and Very Fast

Silentlly and Very Fast

5star

 Title:  Silently and Very Fast

Author: Catherynne M. Valente

Rating: 5/5 stars

Series? No. Novella.

Goodreads

Book Depository


Note: This is a pre-scheduled post. I am currently preparing for my holiday. Apologies in any delays in commenting back!

After reading the excellent The Melancholy of Mechagirl, I wanted to finish and end my Japan Book Blog Series with tales from this collection. Catherynne Valente describes it best:

For foreigners, Japan is a Roschard painting… Everything looks like magic when you don’t understand it.

I am no exception, I look with Japan with a lot of expectations coloured by Western cultures and views. Nonetheless, I want this blog series to reflect the culture and traditions of the country as closely and respectfully as possible. As a foreigner, I will never truly understand it. I don’t want to exoticise, romanticise, or misappropriate in any way – but if I err, please, forgive me and give me a gentle nudge!

SilentlyandVeryFast Review

This following story is partly set in an alternate and futuristic Hokkaido. I’ve never been to Hokkaido, but I’ve never been to the dreamscape described in Silently and Very Fast either – both are places I wish to experience once in my lifetime (though the former is infinitely more possible than the latter).


Let’s start by setting something straight: I am going to be very biased in this review. Most voracious readers would find naming their favourite author a challenging task. Certainly, it’s no easy feat when there’s no shortage in wondrous worlds and talented writer who creates them. However, if you asked me, I would name Catherynne Valente within a heartbeat. For me, her mastery over words define lyrical and visual writing. The stories she writes pushes at the boundaries of conventional storytelling. Her proses colourful, dark, ornate – fairy tales of the modern age. She can create worlds, crumble expectations, and leave me thinking about her tales for days.

Silently and Very Fast lives up to my immense expectations of her writing. I read it as part of her The Melancholy of Mechagirl short story collection – it was the longest and most challenging of these stories, I thought it deserved a review of its own. While the story is deeply rooted in metaphysics and recurring monomyths, it was also endlessly creative and surprising. Continue reading “Novella Review: Silently and Very Fast”