A Day in “Coedo” Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture

Just half an hour from Ikebukuro is Kawagoe, a town in Saitama that is affectionately nicknamed “Coedo” or “Little Edo” for its resemblance to the Edo era. Many old buildings and landmarks untouched by war and fire still stand, and it’s a lovely place to visit for a day trip.

Unlike other hotspots like Senso-ji Temple and Kyoto, Kawagoe didn’t have many foreign tourists at all. Saitama, the prefecture just north of Tokyo, is often overlooked by visitors, but I recommend Kawagoe for its peaceful atmosphere.

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Though a bit of a trek from the station, the attractive part of town is worth the walk. The cute buildings and the shouts of stall staff hard at work gave the streets a nostalgic atmosphere.

The Time Bell is a must-see; its chime is one of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan.

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On every street, there was something to do or see, whether it was coffee, ice cream, or traditional toys to take home.

Walking around was thirsty work, so we stopped for a Coedo beer. Right opposite is a unique-looking Starbucks if you prefer coffee.

After exploring, we stopped for some food. My husband managed to bypass all the expensive touristy places and found a charming hole-in-the-wall ramen shop run by a little old lady. She had money all over the wall from visitors from various countries, and she only served one dish: shoyu (soy sauce)-based ramen, a signature type of noodles for this region.

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This delicious and hearty bowl of ramen, plus a small bowl of rice with a little umeboshi plum, came to just 500 yen!

We also went to visit some temples, though I didn’t take any pictures aside from the enormous torii gate.

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If you ever get the chance to visit Kawagoe, please do! It involves some walking, but it’s a really beautiful and peaceful area without the crowds you get at some other places.

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A Short Break in the Japanese Countryside

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a town in Nagano Prefecture called Okaya. I lived there from 2014 to 2016 and hadn’t been there since, so it was great to be able to go and hang out with my friend and get some fresh air.

I love Tokyo, but stepping off the bus into the quietness of Okaya “city” was peaceful. There were so few people! I went to a nearby shop to browse the clothes and ended up finding some amazing deals, such as a skirt for just 200 yen.

The old man at the cashier wasn’t the usual moving-at-the-speed-of-light-to-serve-you-as-fast-as-possible like you’d see in the capital, but he slowly and carefully cut off the tags and input the amounts in the till at his own pace. I, with nothing to do except kill time to wait for Alex, found myself smiling as I watched him take his time.

I had a cold while I was there so unfortunately, I couldn’t really smell the fresh air, but I saw the sky, heard and saw frogs, and enjoyed the peace of few people. And this was festival week; it was actually crowded for the area at the time!

Though we didn’t go to the festival in the evening when it kicked off properly, I watched Alex try his hand at a shooting game.

Alex’s house was a twenty-minute walk from his station, and trains from Okaya only went every hour or so. There were houses, rice fields, and amazing views of the hills. I found myself gushing like a city girl seeing grass for the first time.

I was only there for two nights, so I didn’t get to do or eat everything I wanted, but it was a wonderful time nonetheless. I got to catch up with old friends I hadn’t seen in years and have a short break from the business of Tokyo. Next time, I hope I can stay for a lot longer.

My First Japanese Manga Comic: Tsubaki-Chou Lonely Planet

Over my years of living in Japan, I’ve been asked many times if the reason I like this country is because of anime (cartoons) or manga (comics). This is a common reason for people to visit Japan. Even if you’re not into these things, it’s likely you’ve watched some anime in your lifetime, whether it be Dragonball, Pokémon, or Sailor Moon.

I always answered “no.” I watched Death Note when I was a teenager and was crazy about Pokémon as a kid, but they weren’t the reasons I decided to live in this country.

I studied Japanese at university and often pick up new words and phrases during my time living here, but I never really got to a higher level of Japanese. I can’t read newspapers or novels and I wouldn’t be able to pass any JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) level higher than intermediate. As an English teacher and writer, I don’t need any language test qualification so never really had the motivation to study.

Manga comics were always intimidating. How would I be able to read an entire book in Japanese? How would I navigate the seemingly complicated up-down left-right reading style? Despite seeing thousands of manga books in shops and whatnot, I never picked one up.

I get bursts of motivation to study, however, and bought Tsubaki-Chou Lonely Planet for 400 yen in a book shop.

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It sat on my shelf for ages, but I don’t like having books and never reading them. I forced myself to study the first two pages, taking notes of words I didn’t know. It took a while. Then my husband let me read it to him. There was furigana above the kanji (sort of pronunciation guides) so it didn’t take as long as it would have if it had been a manga aimed at adults.

After about a quarter of the way through, I got used to how to read it and started enjoying the story. Not worrying too much about understanding every single word, I read it on the train and finished it in just a few days.

The Story

Fumi Ono is determined to help her father get out of debt and applies to be a live-in housekeeper. When arriving at the house on Tsubaki Street, she’s amazed to find the writer who lives there isn’t a friendly old man as she’d expected, but a slightly strange, young, grumpy person who turns out to be Kibiki, the writer.

At first, they don’t get along. Kibiki-sensei is grouchy and doesn’t seem happy to have the young Fumi around. However, their relationship develops.

This reads like a typical romance in Japan but it was touching nevertheless. Lines like “you live here, so you’re my responsibility. I will protect you” tugged on the heartstrings. The story was really funny, as well; their bickering and the art style portraying shock or discomfort had me giggling.

Fumi is a cool character. She’s 16, polite, hardworking, and determined to be independent. When a local panty snatcher steals her underwear from where it’s hanging, she fiercely tries to confront him herself, before Kibiki-sensei shows up to help.

I think I consider myself a fan of manga now. I learned many new words and my reading speed has improved. I’ll definitely be buying the next installment of this light-hearted romance.

Japanese Word of the Week: 約束

Every Thursday, we’ll be looking at a Japanese word, including its kanji and examples of use.

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Kanji: 約束
Hiragana: やくそく
Roman letters: YAKUSOKU

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English Meaning

Promise, appointment

Kanji Used

  • 約 (promise, approximate) [N3]
  • 束 (bundle, manage) [N3]

Example Sentences

  • すみません、約束がありますのでパーティーへ行けません。 / Sorry, I have an appointment so I can’t go to the party.
  • 彼はお約束を破った。/ He broke his word.

Ōfuna Kannon-ji Temple, a Less Crowded Alternative to Daibutsu

Daibutsu, the giant Buddha statue in Kamakura, is a great tourist attraction. Last time I went there, though, the effect was ruined a bit because there were so many tourists. Since I was a tourist too, we couldn’t really complain, but the gift shop and wandering foreigners sort of cheapened the experience of seeing the lovely old statue and shrine garden.

Today, though, one of my students introduced me to a giant statue in Ōfuna, which is right near Kamakura, just four minutes on the Yokosuka line from Kita-Kamakura Station. Kannon-ji had no people at all except the staff, and one other person showed up as we were leaving. It’s a real hidden gem.

By Japan’s standards, this temple is fairly new. It was completed in 1960 after generous donations from local people. Entry is 300 yen and you have to walk a little slope and some steps to reach it.

You can actually see the statue’s head from Ōfuna Station, so it isn’t hard to find at all. There isn’t much else around to see or do in this area, however, which might be a reason why people don’t really visit.

As with many of Japan’s temples, shrines, and holy places, it was beautifully taken care of. There were many flowers and little statues on the way up.

There was a really local vibe to the place. There was a little community centre nearby and the quiet feel of the countryside all around. That being said, you know you were still close to the city because of the slightly muffled sounds of the train station.

You could see the statue, which represents the white-robed Guanyin Bodhisattva, peeking to say hello before the final stairs.

We’d made it!

There was a place to offer incense sticks and a handwashing area. Inside, there was art done by local children, a small shrine, and hundreds of little wooden statues made by visitors. You can also make your own for 1,200 yen. They were really good!

If you’d like to experience Ōfuna Kannon-ji Temple and avoid the crowds, head to Ōfuna Station and cross the bridge. You can see the statue’s head on your way and you’ll find a slope flanked by red flags leading up.

I don’t know if the temple is usually busier and we happened to arrive on a quiet day, but it’s definitely worth a visit either way!

Japanese Word of the Week: 褒美

Reading

Kanji: 褒美
Hiragana: ほうび
Roman letters: HOUBI

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English Meaning

Reward, prize

Kanji Used

  • 褒 (praise, admire) [N1]
  • 美 (beauty) [N3]

Example Sentences

  • テストの成績が良かったらご褒美に、ゲームを買ってあげる / If you get good exam results, I’ll buy you a new game.
  • 犬が新しい芸を覚えたから、ご褒美をやったんだよ / The dog learned a new trick so I gave him a reward.

Japanese Word of the Week: 発音

Reading

Kanji: 発音
Hiragana: はつおん
Roman letters: HATSUON

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English Meaning

Pronunciation

Kanji Used

  • 発 (departure, discharge) [N4]
  • 音 (sound) [N4]

Example Sentences

  • 英語を上手に話したい場合は、発音記号を勉強した方がいいと思います。 / If you want to be able to speak English well, it is recommended that you study phonetics.
  • 私の発音は決して完全ではない。 / My pronunciation is far from perfect.

Japanese Word of the Week: 総理大臣

Reading

Kanji: 総理大臣
Hiragana: そうりだいじん
Roman letters: SOURI DAIJIN

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English Meaning

Prime minister

Kanji Used

  • 総 (whole, total) [N2]
  • 理 (logic, arrangement, justice) [N4]
  • 大 (large, big) [N5]
  • 臣 (subject, retainer) [N2]

Example Sentences

  • 総理大臣が辞任しました。 / The prime minister has resigned.
  • 日本の総理大臣は安倍晋三です。 / The prime minister of Japan is Shinzou Abe.

Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Misery” by Stephen King

I love Stephen King, and Misery was the next on my list. It was very similar to Gerald’s Game, which I loved.

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“Paul Sheldon is a bestselling novelist who has finally met his number one fan. Her name is Annie Wilkes, and she is more than a rabid reader—she is Paul’s nurse, tending his shattered body after an automobile accident.

But she is also furious that the author has killed off her favorite character in his latest book. Annie becomes his captor, keeping him prisoner in her isolated house.”

Boy, was I in for a ride. We’re catapulted straight into the confusion and deliriousness that was Paul Sheldon’s accident, the mad pain of his shattered legs, and the feeling of utter entrapment as the crazy Annie Wilkes gushes over Paul’s writing, rages over his murder of her favourite fictional character, and punishes his ‘bad’ behaviour. This isn’t a slowly-but-surely, maybe she’ll let me go soon before realising something is wrong; no, this is a full-on, immediate, she’s crazy and I’m never getting out of here scenario.

I adored this book, which had me by the throat for the few days it took me to finish. Stephen King’s poetic delivery of mad ramblings, clever metaphors, and references to memories and private jokes are just a step above other writers. I usually detest things that are too popular (I didn’t watch Game of Thrones until 2019) but I’m definitely a King fan (maybe not his number one fan, though…)

Some hilarious quotes that had me chuckling:

“Her temper had apparently gone on vacation. But… it could arrive back unexpectedly at any moment, bags in hand: Couldn’t stand to stay away! How ya doin’?

“No phone call to the ambulance service: ‘This is Annie… I’ve got a fellow here, looks a bit like King Kong used him for a trampoline.’”

“And what then? A kamikaze dive out onto the back porch? A great idea. Maybe he could break his back, and that would take his mind off his legs for a while.”

Annie was a truly terrifying character. She wasn’t just insane, but unpredictable, remorseless, yet still human; an excellent recipe for a King villain. I can’t say much more without having to add a spoiler warning, but her acts and Paul’s reactions and trauma were flawlessly written. I think this might be my favourite King story so far.

Five stars for Misery!

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Get Misery on Amazon US
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Book Review: “Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is a Japanese author who, so I’ve heard, is one of the most famous and well-loved writers in the country. At writers’ club, my friend Jennifer handed me a copy of Murakami’s first novel, Norwegian Wood (“Norway no Mori” in Japanese), and said, “give it a try” with a smile.

81lnnTBF8dL“Toru, a serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. As Naoko retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman. 

A magnificent coming-of-age story steeped in nostalgia, Norwegian Wood blends the music, the mood, and the ethos that were the sixties with a young man’s hopeless and heroic first love.”

The story follows Toru Watanabe, a young college student who reconnects with an old friend from school, Naoko, with whom he shares a sad past: his best friend and Naoko’s boyfriend, Kizuki, committed suicide at seventeen. They’re both desperately trying to move on, moving from Kobe to Tokyo to move somewhere they know nobody.

I loved the writing style in this book. It read very much like an autobiography, sometimes with Stephen King-like digression, with minute details that were somehow pointless yet fascinating at the same time. What did it matter what he was wearing that day or the fact that the drink he chose from the vending machine was a Pepsi? Yet it gave the story much more depth, like Toru was really talking to me about the sad events of his college days.

Toru himself was nothing really special. He was quiet, often not articulating how he felt, was average-looking, had a simple schedule. And yet I felt inexplicably drawn to this unremarkable man and his unremarkable life.

Though at times I found the plot slow and sex was mentioned far, far too much in painfully unnecessary detail, the story touched me very deeply. A black cloud seemed to hang over the whole thing – Toru’s dorm, the apartments and bars he visited, the characters we met. Almost everyone was messed up mentally some way or another, no one more so than Naoko, who sometimes got so bad she heard voices and couldn’t put pen to paper to write to Toru.

I’m glad I’ve lived in Japan long enough to understand many of the subtle cultural differences. The way people speak to each other, their behaviors, and even a mistake someone made (buying cucumbers instead of kiwi fruit; in English, it doesn’t make much sense, but in Japanese, cucumber (kyuri) and kiwi fruit (kiwi) sound very similar, thus potentially explaining the mistake). That gave it a more realistic edge that I’m glad I could experience.

I finished the book feeling depressed and a little frustrated. I personally disliked the final scene, seeing it as a bit strange that after everything, two characters found that cause of action to be best. Many other readers, such as on Goodreads, also mentioned that they disliked it. Usually, I’d give a book three stars for the reasons listed above, but I know in my heart I’m not going to be able to forget this book easily. Not the descriptions, not Toru’s melancholy nor the poignant memories, nor the quiet romance of Naoko.

I give Norwegian Wood four stars out of five, but now I feel I have to watch a comedy to feel better after such a heavy tale.

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