The Queen’s Alchemist (Short Story)

Fictional writing sample: The Queen’s Alchemist
Genre: Fantasy

 

 

The Unwilling

Theo didn’t know what to do, so he ran.

His gasping sobs were lost under the thundering rumble of the earth, the icy wind’s howls above and the shrieks of dying soldiers echoing through the ravine. Rocks tumbled from the mountainside like leaves in autumn, crashing into campsites. Theo’s freezing feet were blistered in his too-tight boots. The terrible, pained gurgles of the wounded left to be trampled haunted his thoughts as he ran.

The battle was over. The Giants had won.

One of the foul creatures lumbered up to him, covering the half-mile between it and Theo in just a few short seconds. The Giant’s silhouette shrouded Theo in darkness, grey against the shimmering, red-stained snow. A small head was between hunched, hairy shoulders, like a shivering vagabond, and long arms outstretched. Theo screamed, jumped blindly, and narrowly dodged a hairy hand.

The monster roared. Arrows shot past Theo, and he gazed up in disbelief. Someone was here to save him!

He staggered to his feet as his saviour, a knight clad in Atharron’s colours of grey and white, wielded a bow on a bay stallion. Theo didn’t look back; to do so would mean certain death. He sprinted towards the sanctuary of the south camp. Tears frozen on his cheeks, icy breath caught in his chest, Theo knew the thundering rumbles and sounds of crunching bones would haunt him for the rest of his days.

 

The Messenger

Uldrid’s bow was so low that the tip of his long nose was close to touching his silk-clad knees. “My Queen of Atharron,” he purred. “The Dragons must smile upon you, for you are more beautiful than the brightest of stars.”

The tiniest pinch of snow flittered from his moustache and floated to the carpet, where it melted in the warmth of the coal fire.

Queen Cassandra was the epitome of perfection. Her cerulean gown rippled from the throne like a waterfall, and her cascading auburn hair was like fire, illuminating her pale face. Rose lips pursed at Uldrid’s flattery; his appearance barely brought good news.

“Speak,” she said coldly.

Uldrid straightened, and his sunken eyes met hers. He was conscious of the guardsmen, in their grey and white winter armour, clutching spears as their eyes fixed on each stiff move the man made. Uldrid cleared his throat, and gave a weak smile.
“I’m afraid King Roderic remains good on his threat, my lady,” Uldrid stammered.

Queen Cassandra’s knuckles tightened beneath her silver sleeve cuffs. “It’s a threat now, is it?” Her voice sent a chill through the warm room.

“The Giants’ War isn’t his greatest concern. He maintains that Atharron has better harvests, better fortunes, and their Queen…”

Don’t…” Queen Cassandra’s fist slammed against the vase beside her throne; it tumbled to the floor and smashed. “…speak to me of their Queen!”

“A thousand apologies, my Lady,” Uldrid gave another sweeping bow. “But forgive me for saying what I must. Queen Anaya is still angry that your father – Gods, forgive me, the late King of Atharron – married her off to King Roderic, leaving his throne to you.”

“The immediate threat is the Giants in the north,” Queen Cassandra said, her voice trembling ever so slightly. “We cannot afford civil war with my sister’s kingdom.”

“Your wisdom sees no ends, Your Worship.” Uldrid simpered. “As War Counsellor, I shall see personally that King Roderic’s threats remain only that – threats.” He gave a third, flamboyant bow and hastened from the room.

Queen Cassandra shifted uncomfortably on her throne. To think that her own sister would betray her! She had no doubt that King Roderic had no say in this; he was Queen Anaya’s trophy, the Fourth Kingdom’s bloodline. Anaya had always been a jealous, selfish swine. Queen Cassandra smiled smugly to herself. Father always favoured me.

 

The Executioner

The young man who stood trembling on the trapdoor was barely old enough to have grown the first hair on his chin. A small crowd were gathered, murmuring quietly, as clouds above were heavily pregnant with rain; rather fitting for that morning’s execution.

“Theodore Bartholemew Ashencroft, you have been found guilty of abandoning your post at Irving’s Foothold, leading to the death of seventy-three Atharron soldiers.”

Theo gave a hoarse sob as the dirty rope was tied loosely round his neck.

“This includes the great Knight James IV of Northwind, the good Queen Cassandra’s Giant Slayer and a tragic loss to Atharron. You are hereby sentenced to death for treason and abandoning your brothers without permission.”

A series of tutting and whispers rushed through the crowd of onlookers. The Executioner’s steel mask was barely an inch from Theo’s pale cheek. The rope smelt of sweat and dust.
Theo looked towards the heavens, his tear-streaked face taking in for the last time the grey storm clouds that threatened thunder. As the last of the accusations rolled off the announcer’s tongue, and the Executioner’s large fist snapped the handle to release the trapdoor, Theo could have sworn the enormous silhouette of a Dragon flashed in the stormy sky.

 

The Queen’s Alchemist

Queen Cassandra watched from her balcony, forcing her trembling hands to steady. It was her first public execution, and the sight of Theo’s thin, convulsing body shudder into death made her feel sick to her stomach. Did it usually take this long for the poor souls’ last breath to escape their bodies? The crowd cheered as the first of rain sploshed onto the streets below.

After several moments where Theodore Bartholomew Ashencroft’s body shuddered to its final silence, his head limp, the crowd dispersed, already bored, their mundane lives continuing after only a moment of entertainment.

Queen Cassandra exhaled, and realised how tightly she’d been clenching her fists. A guard either side of her got to their feet, and she followed, her emerald robes flowing behind her like seaweed in an ocean. The winter air was damp, and the heaviest of the rain came as they reached the pearl balcony doors.

Queen Cassandra maintained her refined, queenly posture as she made for the royal quarters. Guards bowed, their armour clinking steel as she passed, and her slippers tapped on the carpeted corridor. When her guard closed the door behind her, the strong demeanour disappeared. Queen Cassandra buried her face into her silk gloves and wept.

“My lady?”

Queen Cassandra almost jumped out of her skin at the soft voice from the corner of the room. She quickly straightened and dabbed at her eyes, although she knew, with a sinking heart, that the speaker had already seen her weakness.

A young man stepped from the shadows, and her heart slowly calmed back to its usual rhythm.

“I’m sorry if I frightened you,” the Queen’s Alchemist whispered. She responded with a sad smile, and reached for him with trembling hands. There was no one in Atharron she’d rather see right now.

“Are you all right?” The young man lit a floating candle with a wave of his hand, and Queen Cassandra’s large, stained eyes watched, half in fear, half in admiration. “I am now,” she whispered back, as she grasped his fingers in hers.

“There is no need to be scared, my lady. What is it you fear?”

“Nothing, I’m…” Cassandra rubbed her arms, which suddenly stippled with goosebumps. “I just witnessed my first execution.”
“Ah,” the Alchemist gave a sympathetic sigh. “Yes, it can be rather… disturbing the first time.”

He gently pulled his hand from hers. The warmth of the candle flickered close to Cassandra’s face, filling her with a sudden peace. “I know the teachings say that magic is evil, but…” she watched as the Alchemist smiled, lighting more candles around the room with a wave of his fingertips. “I can’t imagine my life without you.”

“We have been best friends for all your life, my Queen. I cannot imagine any kind of life without you, either.”

Cassandra sat with a sigh onto the four-poster bed. Without her guards, her advisors and that beastly Uldrid, the pretence was gone. It was as if an enormous weight of the whole of Atharron had been lifted from her shoulders.

“I am weak,” she uttered eventually, unable to stop her voice from trembling. All the responsibility, all the pressure of ruling was finally flooding from her. Her voice shook as she spoke in a half-whisper. “I’m not fit to rule Atharron. Perhaps my father was wrong. He should have made Anaya queen.”

“My dear Cassandra,” the Alchemist took the queen’s chin in his slender hand and turned her tear-streaked face to look at him. “Your father, the good King before you, made a fine choice choosing your pure heart and marrying your sister to King Roderic. You are a beauty unlike any other, an inspiration to us all, and a fine leader of this great kingdom.”

Queen Cassandra felt her Alchemist’s warm breath on her face, and her eyes half-closed, under his spell. But he drew away, his cool fingers withdrawing, and the crimson cloak he always wore floating behind him, slowly, as if underwater.

“Something happened earlier.” Queen Cassandra sniffed.
The Alchemist didn’t turn round, and the pattering rain on the window drowned out any sound he might have made in response.

“I felt angry. Angrier than I’ve ever been. I broke a vase.” Cassandra shuddered at the memory of her high-pitched, angered shriek when she’d lost her temper at Uldrid. “That has never happened before. I don’t have a temper, yet I frightened my guards. I frightened myself.”

“Pressures can overcome us all, my Lady. Even a Queen,” the Alchemist reassured her. His head was still turned, however, and she didn’t see him smile.

 

The Forgotten

From the makeshift shelter, it was difficult to tell if the howling in the mountains was a hungry pack of wolves or just the wind. A dead horse lay half-buried in the snow, its legs twisted at odd angles and its frozen eyes black and lifeless.

Three shivering soldiers sat hunched beneath a hill of snow, which they’d gathered up with calloused, cold fingers. From the Giants’ side, it looked like just another mound of snow on the white landscape. They hoped.

James growled in pain, and tried to conceal it by biting down hard on his leather glove. The soldiers either side of him threw him anxious looks. Despite the howling snowstorm, any human sound could carry and reach the ears of their enemies. Burning pain throbbed in James’ left leg; it had succumbed to frostbite after ice had broken beneath his step, and he was loath to take off his boot and assess the full damage. He imagined raw, blackened skin, perhaps toes missing; it was difficult to tell, for anything below his ankle was completely numb, rendered useless for walking.

“They’re not coming back for us,” the youngest soldier muttered, his teeth chattering so badly he had to push his jaw into his folded arms to stop them.

“They think we’re dead,” James agreed, glad for a chance to speak and ignore the burning agony in his leg. “What’s your name, son?”

“Garred, sir.”

The soldier at James’ right side gave an impatient snort. “Great time for introductions,” he muttered. He was clean shaven, and shivered under his helmet.

“A man’s last moments should be comfortable, and with friends,” James shot back, wishing they could at least build a fire.
The ground rumbled, sending flurries of snow tumbling around them from the shelter. The soldiers glanced at each other in alarm, but James sighed, almost glad that it would soon be over.

“Your name, boy!” James hissed through clenched teeth at another young soldier.

“Harry,” the bald-faced boy whispered.

A second rumble.

“Well, Harry, Garred,” James IV reached for his bow, trying to steady his trembling, freezing fingers. The younger men watched as the Giant Slayer pulled an arrow from his back. Another rumble shook the ground beneath them – closer, louder. “Are you ready to fight for Atharron one last time?”

Garred gave a quiet sniffle. “We’re going to die.”

“Aye,” James was unable to stop a wild smile stretching from ear to ear, “fighting for our kingdom. There is no finer way to go, gentlemen.”

A roar rumbled above them, and the soldiers trembled. The shadow turned the white snow a dark grey, and the stench of body hair and skin almost made them choke.

“For Atharron!” James IV roared, and aimed his bow upwards. The surrounding soldiers gave brave war cries and bounded from the shelter, wielding frozen swords. The arrow whistled through the air but the angry bellow of the Giant made James’ heart sink. His arrow had missed its target. His vision was becoming blurred, and he was vaguely aware of Garred and Harry bravely fighting in their last moments. James struggled to his feet, and almost collapsed under his useless foot. No! I will not die sitting on my arse.

Arrows at his back and a lion’s roar in his heart, James glanced back through the mountains, where the tiniest of glows on the horizon showed Atharron, his Lady’s kingdom. “For Queen Cassandra!” he bellowed. He barely heard his own war cry above the overwhelming crashing of battle with what was left of the Giants.

 

The Traitor

Rain pelted the dark streets as a hooded figure darted through an alleyway. He dodged a large pile of waste, ignoring the weak yapping of the stray dog that was always sniffing around there, and stopped beside a dark door. He rapped on it four times, each consecutive knock faster than the last, and a flap in the door opened almost immediately.

“Avenite,” was the whispered password, and the flap snapped shut. The door opened, and the cloaked man slipped inside.

The room was dark save for the small, flickering fire in the corner. At first glance, it would seem as if the room was empty. The Alchemist lifted his hood from his head, sighing as rain flecked from the cloak and dripped to the floor.

Using the light of the fire, a young man sat in the corner of the room, scribbling onto a piece of parchment. His eyes were oddly glazed and two hovering, identical stones glowed in front of him, casting pale green light onto his gaunt face.

Seeing again, Cornelius?” the man beside him asked, his long, red beard almost touching the parchment as he leaned over to see.

“Don’t… touch!” Cornelius snapped, his quill scratching so fast on the parchment it was almost a blur.

“Any news from the castle?” asked a dark-skinned man, sitting on a leather armchair in the corner. As the Alchemist’s vision grew used to the darkness, he made out Krim’s silhouette.

“Uldrid has delivered the rumours to Queen Cassandra,” the Alchemist replied, pulling the wet cloak from his shoulders. “She believes that her sister is plotting to overthrow her throne. With that and the threat of the Giants in the north, I think they’ll barely notice we’re gone.”

Krim chuckled. “Queen Cassandra will definitely notice you’re gone,” he remarked.

The Alchemist smirked. “The silly girl doesn’t even realise I’m hypnotising her most of the time.” He imitated her in an exaggerated, high-pitched voice. “‘I frightened my guards. I frightened myself.’ She really believes that she can be Queen of this wretched kingdom.”

“Let her keep it,” Krim yawned and cracked his knuckles. “The scouts have confirmed a safe passage to the east. We’ll be out of here in no time.”

“Good,” the Alchemist picked at the rug with his long fingers. “And one step closer to…”

“Immortality,” Krem finished the sentence for him, a hungry look in his eyes.

“The answer is to the eastern lands of Theldiniya. I just know it. Once we’re there, we will see the Dragons, take their power, and become kings ourselves.”

The Alchemist grinned. “Once Kouzel gets back, we’ll take our spies and march.”

 

The Test

Kouzel groaned. Pain ripped through his body and his bloodied fingers gripped the granite. Why was it so rough? Did they make it like this on purpose?

No. He couldn’t get distracted now. Kouzel stopped to catch his breath, his hands tight on the rock, his legs bent awkwardly to find crevices in the wall. Ice-cold night wind whipped at his body, threatening to throw him from the plinth.

No one said the Test would be easy, but Dragons above, no one warned him it would be this hard.

Kouzel didn’t know how far up he was. He didn’t dare look down, for fear or dizziness might send him tumbling to his death. What he did know was that he’d been climbing up the Staff of the Gods for hours. All night, he’d gripped the rough rock, pulling himself upwards towards the sky. It was ironic how it was named the Staff, since magic in Atharron was considered evil.

The journey to the Staff of the Gods had been tiring enough. Atharron was far from the Staff, as the enormous natural structure would send a shadow over the royal castle. Now Kouzel dared look around him, sweat almost blinding his gaze, and the kingdom’s glow glittered, awaiting his return. Though why would they wait for him? He was cursed with magic, the ultimate crime in the eyes of Atharron. The only reason Queen Cassandra had granted him this test was because he had concealed his cursed gift so well.

Kouzel groaned. Pain shot through his hands all the way to his shoulders. He couldn’t waste energy by stopping and admiring the view. He had to press on. Had to reach the peak of this accursed Staff.

Kouzel gritted his teeth as he found new footholds in the rock. He reached upwards, ignoring the hot blood that ran down his wrists. Clouds floated around him. The wind was strong, but at least the rain had stopped. He shuddered to think how slippery the rock would be in the rain.

He climbed farther. Kouzel felt as if his arms were about to pop from their sockets. Stabbing pains ripped at his muscles and crimson ran from his palms to his elbows. The wind howled above, like a Dragon roaring in welcome. The Staff wouldn’t defeat him. Kouzel could do this.

His heart almost jumped from his body when his hand slipped, leaving him dangling by one hand. He scrabbled at the wall, found a safe ledge and heaved rasping, terrified breaths. His heart pounded in terror, his bleeding hands throbbing with pain and he clutched at the rock, sobbing aloud. He was going to die… he was…

No! Kouzel gave a growl, and he wiped his bloodied hands on his tunic, first the right, then the left. With the last of his strength, Kouzel reached for the next of the rock above. Tiredness threatened him. Taking long, raspy breaths, he struggled upwards. The cold wind soothed his hot skin, even while it threatened to freeze the sweat that ran down his face.

Just a little longer.

Agony tore through his cramping muscles. His legs felt like they had turned to lead. Desperate fingers reached upwards…
Nothing, only air. No more rock. He’d reached the top!

Kouzel fought against the weakness relief brought as he scrambled upwards, gripping the mercifully flat rock of the top. He’d reached the peak. He’d done it.

He lay flat on top of the world, his chest heaving, his bloodied hands stinging and every muscle in his body aching. Finally, Kouzel’s eyes opened, and the white wisps of cloud floated above him, congratulating his victory. A smile stretched across Kouzel’s face. He sensed a warm, orange glow. Struggling to sit up, he shielded his eyes from the bright horizon where the morning sun had risen to greet him.

The wind had dropped, losing much of its earlier power. Kouzel got to his feet, a new strength filling his body as he gazed to the east, where the morning sun melted away the clouds and brought a new day, heralding the magic-cursed man’s victory. From here, the land stretched before him, more beautiful than anything he’d ever seen in his life. There it was, the east, where his fellow magic-cursed brothers said sat a land where magic would be not only accepted, but worshipped.

Theldiniya.

Green hills were bright under the morning sun’s smile, greeting Kouzel with open arms. Kouzel looked down at his hands, almost unrecognisable under the blood and fragments of rock, but he felt the powerful magic at his fingertips. No longer would he be forced to hide his gift from Atharron’s magic-hating law. He and his alchemist brothers would venture with their armies to Theldiniya, start new lives, be accepted…

And as if to roar in approval, the enormous silhouette of a powerful Dragon rose into the sky, larger than the hills and even the sun itself. Kouzel watched in mixed horror and thrill as the beast circled the sky, darted through the clouds on powerful, scaled wings, and disappeared into a flash of bright light.

It was a sign, Kouzel knew it. He would abseil down this Staff of the Gods and take his tale of victory straight to his brothers. A new age would dawn for Alchemists – no, ‘Alchemist’ had a negativity to it, like some kind of witch doctor. Kouzel smiled as he let the wind caress his hot face. He and his brothers were to be Mages. Kings. Gods.

Thus would begin their road to immortality.

Is This the Best Ramen in Tokyo?

I like ramen. My husband likes it even more. This versatile and delicious noodles in broth dish can come with a variety of soup bases and toppings. It’s the classic drunk man’s food, and there are hundreds of ramen restaurants in any Japanese city.

I’ve eaten a lot of ramen during my five years in Japan. Roppo Ramen in Nagano Prefecture’s Chino City was always good. Kagetsu in Musashi-Kosugi has become our “local” ramen since it’s a short walk from our apartment. But damn, the best I’ve ever had is, and always will be, Ore-Ryu Ramen in Daikanyama, Shibuya.

Tucked in a small street between an American pizza place and a standing takoyaki, Ore-Ryu is a short walk from my husband’s office. Now we’re staying there while our apartment’s water and electricity supply gets fixed after its damage from Typhoon 19, we had the opportunity to eat there again.

It’s just as great as I remember. I’ve never once been disappointed with a dish in Ore-Ryu, whether I’ve ordered a salt or miso base, got chashu pork or soft boiled egg, or decided to order a side of gyoza dumplings or not.

We went there last night during an evening of drinking in Shibuya. Man oh man, Ore-Ryu is the best.

They serve this amazing fried chicken as a side, but like in the dish above, you can get it directly in the soup. These amazing spicy noodles were only around 1,000 yen, a standard price for ramen but very reasonable for this bowl of perfection.

I also got gyoza on the side.

*Happy slurping noises*

If you know a better ramen place in Tokyo, do let me know. I’m a sucker for this amazing dish.

How to Get There

For all ramen lovers, Ore-Ryu is about a ten-minute walk from Daikanyama Station on the Toyoko Line, or around a 20-minute walk from Shibuya Station on the JR Yamanote line and the Den-en-Toshi, Hanzomon, Toyoko, and Fukutoshin Subway lines.

Ore-Ryu is actually a chain, so there are more branches in Tokyo, but I don’t know if those ones are as good. The chef at the Daikanyama branch is a damn culinary genius.

The address is below (I tried to link the Google Maps URL for it, but computer said no).

Oreryu Shio-ramen Daikanyama branch

1-3 Sarugakucho

Shibuya City,

Tokyo

150-0033

https://goo.gl/maps/2D4gDd3bcCxdFj469

Man, my mouth’s watering just thinking about it. Guess who’s going again for lunch?

Book Review: “Kingdom of Souls” by Rena Barron

Kingdom of Souls has been hyped all year by HarperCollins and was released a couple of weeks ago. I liked the snake designs in the early promotional art (perhaps a silly reason to buy a book) and pre-ordered it. Did it live up to the hype?

*Please be aware this review contains some spoilers.

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“Magic has a price—if you’re willing to pay.

Born into a family of powerful witchdoctors, Arrah yearns for magic of her own. But each year she fails to call forth her ancestral powers, while her ambitious mother watches with growing disapproval.

There’s only one thing Arrah hasn’t tried, a deadly last resort: trading years of her own life for scraps of magic. Until the Kingdom’s children begin to disappear, and Arrah is desperate to find the culprit.

She uncovers something worse. The long-imprisoned Demon King is stirring. And if he rises, his hunger for souls will bring the world to its knees… unless Arrah pays the price for the magic to stop him.”

The first thing I noticed was this book was written in the present tense. The damn present tense! If I’d known, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. Even though other books written in this style such as Divergent and Girls With Sharp Sticks turned out to be great, I don’t voluntarily buy books written in this style as I find it annoying. No matter, I thought, you’ll get used to it.

Things I Liked

  • There were many good points to Kingdom of Souls. The culture was written beautifully; Barron used inspiration from West Africa, and the use of a desert environment, tribes, and witchdoctors was a welcome change to the usual fantasy settings we see.
  • Though Arrah wasn’t the most interesting character I’ve ever come across, she did have self-doubt and fear that made her real. I’ve come across too many female main characters who are forever fearless and witty even in dire situations, so it was nice to see Arrah reacting to her environment in a realistic way.

Things I Didn’t Like

  • Unfortunately, this list is longer. There were many things in this debut novel that didn’t make sense. Apparently, Arrah gives up ten years of her life to perform magic. Nobody seems to notice that she jumped from 16 years old up to 26 years old overnight, not even her sort-of boyfriend, servants, or her own father.
  • The shoddy writing style. Some descriptions were written with flair while others fell flat. Forgivable for a first novel, but this was represented by the same agent who got one of my favourite books of all time, The Queen’s Rising, on the shelves, so I’m wondering what kept the agent hooked.
  • A white person is referred to as being “cursed with pale skin that is sensitive to sunlight.” Umm, OK? Racism is bad, guys, no matter who it’s against.
  • The unneeded romance. Many people seem to think a teenage character NEEDS a romantic interest. With everything going on and the despair all around, it felt silly at times to suddenly drop everything for heart-pounding near-kisses from her cardboard cut-out character boyfriend.
  • The choppy pacing. Some scenes happened lightning-fast whereas other times there were pages and pages where nothing of interest happened.
  • There were too many characters to keep track of. I often had to stop and remember who was who. They didn’t have their own voices or personalities, with the exception, perhaps, of Arrah’s grandmother. For this reason, I didn’t feel affected when characters died or were in mortal peril.
  • The double standard on victim-blaming. A male character is raped (tricked by a demon into thinking it’s someone else) and is constantly blamed for it. Rape is rape, and if the same thing had happened to a female character, no doubt the writer would have handled it very differently.
  • The overall dark tone of the book. I’m a lover of dark fantasy, but there is often a tone of despair and no hope at all in this novel that made me unmotivated to keep reading.

All in all, I wasn’t a fan of this one. I’ve come across a couple of debut books now where I’ve just thought “meh.” Maybe it’s my own fault for falling for the hype that these big companies push. Two stars for Kingdom of Souls, which was a real slog to get through towards the end.

2stars

 

A Trip to Hokkaido: Cool Weather, Ramen, and Warnings of Bears

I’d never been to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island, before. My husband Ken organised a two-night stay in Sapporo and a bunch of activities for us to do. Hokkaido is much cooler than the rest of Japan, and its largest city, Sapporo, is home to the annual Snow Festival in February and the nationally popular Sapporo beer.

We went in September, of course, so no snow for us, but at an average of around 21 degrees Celsius every day, it was a gorgeous break from Tokyo’s scorching summer.

We got a free KitKat on the plane!

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What struck me about Hokkaido the most was how friendly the people are! Everyone had a big smile on their faces and went out of their way to help us out. In contrast to Tokyo, where people sort of keep to themselves and blanch at the thought of talking to strangers, I felt welcome in Sapporo.

The First Day

We started with some miso ramen in Chitose Airport, since our flight was in the morning and we arrived at lunchtime. Lucky me, they thought the piece of pork I got was too small so I got one extra!

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We ventured into the city, Ken taking care of everything so I could just stroll and enjoy the sights. Of course, the train station didn’t look much different from Tokyo’s, but in a way that was nice. I felt safe while at the same time exploring a new place.

Our hotel was a business hotel, simple and cute, but in a fantastic location – within walking distance of Sapporo Station and all the fun nightlife things to do there.

In our first day alone, we managed to visit the famous Clock Tower…

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Take a peek at the park and its Autumn Festival… 

And, of course, explore the downtown area. We managed to do an hour and a half of karaoke for only 600 yen each! If you find yourself in Sapporo and want cheap karaoke, it’s called Karaoke Heart Beat.

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The Second Day

On the second day, we took a train up to Otaru and rented a car to Shimomui Kaigan, a pretty cape on Hokkaido’s west coast. Though we bumped into a tour group, it was still quite quiet compared to the madness of Tokyo’s crowds, and we could enjoy the rocky beach comfortably.

Ken’s sharp eyes even spotted a cute little lizard basking on the wooden fence!

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After getting back, we felt we needed to explore more, so we took a side path up a hill and came across a lighthouse. Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of it.

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I liked the lighthouse so much that I decided to draw it!

We wanted to go farther, but the sign was somewhat off-putting…

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After, we went to the Nikka Whisky Factory.

The story of Nikka Whisky is really cute; Masataka Taketsuru visited Scotland to learn about how whisky was made. While living there, he met a shy Scottish girl called Rita who he ultimately married. She joined him in Japan and supported his dream of becoming a whisky producer. She settled into her life in Japan and made friends with the people there. Eventually, they found success in Hokkaido. Their love story is inspiring.

The factory itself also had a lot of information on Scotland, which was wonderfully nostalgic. We got our share of souvenirs from the shop there, too.

The Third Day

Our flight wasn’t until 9:00pm on our last day, so we still had plenty of time to look around before we had to fly back to reality. We visited Hitsujigaoka, or “Sheep Hill,” to find a statue of William Smith Clark, an American professor and colonel in the American Civil War, who coined the phrase “Boys, be ambitious.”

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There was a small Snow Festival museum where we could see past designs for the festival. It’s really amazing that they could make such intricate shapes with just snow. 

After, we went up Mt. Moiwa on a ropeway. Since we didn’t want to pay extra for the nature car, we walked up to the top (only took about ten minutes – well worth going up for free). We even managed to spot a shy little squirrel on the way. There were some nice views on the top and the weather was perfect for light hiking. 

Lastly, we managed to fit in a visit to the Shiroi Koibito Chocolate Factory! Hokkaido is well known for its white chocolate biscuits and it’s a common souvenir to take home.

Though we only arrived an hour before closing time, there was still time to have a look around. The outside area was very pretty, inspired by Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. We got souvenirs, of course, and even managed to see some of the workers producing the famous little biscuits.

We managed to get a LOT done in just three days, and it was a wonderful trip. Maybe one day we’ll be able to visit in the winter and witness the wonder that is the Snow Festival. For now, though, I’m glad we went in summer and enjoyed the comfortable weather.

Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

Outlander was another recommendation from my Mum, who is a real book nerd. Somehow, the TV show (now on Netflix) had passed me by until now. A novel about Scotland and time travel, you say? Gimme, gimme!

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“1946, and Claire Randall goes to the Scottish Highlands with her husband Frank. It’s a second honeymoon, a chance to learn how war has changed them and to re-establish their loving marriage.

But one afternoon, Claire walks through a circle of standing stones and vanishes into 1743, where the first person she meets is a British army officer – her husband’s six-times great-grandfather.

Unfortunately, Black Jack Randall is not the man his descendant is, and while trying to escape him, Claire falls into the hands of a gang of Scottish outlaws, and finds herself a Sassenach – an outlander – in danger from both Jacobites and Redcoats.

Marooned amid danger, passion and violence, her only chance of safety lies in Jamie Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior. What begins in compulsion becomes urgent need, and Claire finds herself torn between two very different men, in two irreconcilable lives.”

Our main character, Claire, is a war nurse vet on her second honeymoon with her husband, from whom she’d been separated for years. During their trip to the Scottish Highlands, she accidentally falls through time, awaking in the 1700s and unable to return.

What I noticed first was the sheer length of this book. At over 280,000 words, it’s much longer than the average first novel. I found that the first quarter was fairly slow, yet still interesting enough to keep my attention. Outlander is beautifully written, with a perfect blend of witty dialogue and breathtaking descriptions.

I enjoyed exploring Scotland, first in the ’40s and then in the 18th century, from the charming castles to the heather on the mountains. Even if the story moved slowly at first, Gabaldon’s gorgeous writing style kept me hooked.

What I like most about this book is that it’s very historically accurate. Though of course featuring fictional characters, Gabaldon did her research. I’d recently got done watching Braveheart only to find it lacked much historical accuracy at all, so Outlander was a pleasing contrast.

By the second half of the book, I was fully invested. Claire is tangled up in the dangers and politics of the time. Jack Randall, obviously the main “baddie”, is a totally evil and corrupt redcoat, and Gabaldon is exceptionally gifted at making us hate him! Jamie was my favourite character (I am definitely not alone on this), from his honour and bravery to his affectionate use of the word “Sassenach” (English person) when referring to Claire.

Another thing I adored was the use of Gaelic! The language of my childhood is rarely used in books or TV, yet is used frequently throughout the story. Now I’m watching the TV show too, and it’s pure nostalgic bliss to witness its use.

The last quarter of the novel was so explosive and packed full of action and passion that my rating went from four stars to five. Immediately after turning the last page, I whipped out my phone and ordered the next novel in the series, Dragonfly in Amber.

If you love historical romance, Scotland, and excitement, I highly recommend Outlander!

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Get Outlander on Amazon UK
Get Outlander on Amazon US

I Absolutely Hate Competition

I’m a big fan of the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate games. Many people suggested I go to a local tournament where I could improve and not have to suffer through the downsides of online input lag.

At the tournaments (I attended three), I lost far more than I won. My enthusiasm quickly evaporates. After a few losses, I tilt, then I don’t try. Why bother, when I know I’m going to lose anyway?

The fact is that I despise competition.

I feel humiliated when I lose, and guilty if I win. Why make someone feel that all their hard work has gone to waste by snatching a win from them? What have I done to deserve that? Yet when I’m the one who’s losing, it’s like a confirmation that I’m a failure. I left the last tournament in tears, leaving the victorious winners behind with a heavy heart, accepting I’ll never improve at such a fast-paced competitive game.

So I quit Smash. And my life is a lot better for it.

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Does that mean I’ll miss out on things in life? I don’t work hard on this blog because I hate competing against other websites. Every day, I feel like quitting my dream to be a fiction writer because the competition has never been fiercer. I don’t play any sports or PVP games because I despise going against a fellow human.

The fact is that I’m a lot happier working with people instead of against them.

I know I’m using video games in many examples here, but stay with me. There’s another game series, Monster Hunter, where players connect online to fight together against the in-world monsters. A cooperative game, players give each other advice and items to beat the monsters and clear quests. Although Monster Hunter isn’t my favourite game of all time, I always left feeling happy and satisfied – exactly how you should feel after playing a game. There was no PVP competition; in fact, we united to defeat enemies together.

If you hate competition, it might just be because you’d rather work with people instead of against them. And there’s nothing wrong with that. This world is too full of competition, and not only in sports and games but in everyday life – job interviews, selling products, even love. Who has time for all that? I’m working towards building others up, not tearing them down. So should we all.

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.