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Category: Japan

Reading Shion Miura

This morning I sat in my van outside work crying the good kind of tears – the tears brought out by a gorgeous novel. I can count on one hand the books that have made me cry. This morning’s offering was The Great Passage, a novel by Japanese author Shion Miura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. It’s the third novel by the pair I’ve read in the last week, and each has been a gem of humanity and compassion and insight.

The Great Passage is about a small team of people putting together a new Japanese dictionary. The book takes place over the course of 15 years and follows the ups and down in the lives of the team members, primarily centered around Majime, the head of the dictionary department. Does that sound like the description of a book that could bring you to tears? But there’s something about the way Miura find the souls of her characters. The writing is never overwrought. It’s simple and beautiful, allowing the actions and words of the humans in the stories to carry the weight.

My introduction to Miura came about a week ago, when a website randomly recommended her book The Easy Life In Kamusari. I’d never heard of Miura or the novel, but for some reason I decided to read it. It’s the story of a high school student from Yokohama (where I once lived) who, upon graduation, gets sent by his parents to the countryside to work for a small forestry company. He doesn’t want to be there and knows nothing about the work, but over time he’s won over by the quiet beauty of the area and its people.

I then read the sequel, Kamusari Tales Told At Night, a series of vignettes told by the same character about the deepening of his relationship with the remote mountain area in which he finds himself, and the mystical beliefs of the people who live there.

I can’t recommend these books highly enough. Miura is brilliant, and Carpenter’s translations are masterful. In particular, her work in The Great Passage is so impressive, being as it’s a book about the Japanese language and Carpenter must make it intelligible to English-language readers while retaining the under-the-microscope look at Japanese that is the hallmark of the book. Quite the achievement.

Find yourself a copy of one of these and slip into a world of small details and real human emotions.  

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Arboreal coinkydink

This week I read this short, wonderful book called The Easy Life In Kamusari by Shion Miura. I read a translated version. It’s about a city kid who graduates from high school in Yokohama, and his parents then ship him off to work for a forestry company in a remote area. A kind of tree called a Zelkova tree plays a role in the book. I’d never heard of that kind of tree. Today I used an app to identify the kind of tree beside which I park each night. Of course it’s a Japanese Zelkova tree.

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POEM: Natsukashii (2)

Natsukashii (2)

I remember driving up a mountain road so narrow
that when we met a truck coming the other way,
we had to go in reverse until the road widened
enough to pull off and let the truck pass.

I remember the whole town gathered on the temple grounds
as 1991 became 1992, everyone taking a turn
at grabbing the big mallet and pounding the mochi
that would be eaten on New Year’s Day.

I remember the three high school girls on their bikes
catching sight of me on a side street, screaming,
then whipping their bicycles around to pedal
furiously in the opposite direction.

I remember walking house to house, dressed
as a demon, throwing beans through open doors,
shouting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!”
then it was back to the tea shop and Hidetaka’s smile.

I remember playing Shoko’s piano late at night
while everyone else was asleep, trying to play
very quietly so as not to awaken anyone,
enjoying my first house with a piano in it.

I remember miso soup with little clams,
beef tongue cooked by Sanriku‘s chef,
those little pure-sugar candies at tea ceremony,
the constant availability of steaming hot rice.

I remember the backyard cookout, “American-style,”
with me in my Mickey Mouse sweatshirt at the head
of a long table filled with school friends
and teenaged cousins who came for the occasion.

I remember lying on the couch, head in Reiko’s lap,
feeling a little lost and a little lonely,
taking comfort in this second mother
who treated me like one of her own children.

I remember Mizuho’s plaid sport coat,
or at least I think I do, and Teto’s head
popping out of a food container, and Vulfi’s
upturned tail and eager expression.

I remember filming videos around town with Kazuhiro,
who seemed so much more sophisticated than I was,
with his international friends and command of English
and his TMN and Southern All-Stars albums.

I remember the person I was when I went back home,
and how he had changed from the boy who’d arrived,
not speaking a word of Japanese, overwhelmed and confused,
and how this new young man would never be the same.

/ / /

11 May 2022
Pittsfield MA

(Note: I forgot that I’ve already written a poem called “natsukashii,” which you can read here.)

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POEM: Cucumbers

for Jennifer

In a life filled with so many memories
that I’ve had to delete many to save space,
I long ago decided to keep the cucumbers.
You know the ones I mean.
We’d get off the train at Ichigao Station,
walk past the outstretched arms of Colonel Sanders
and enter the grocery store.
Near the exit doors on the far
side of the store stood the smiling man.
I remember him having graying hair
that was a little long for a Japanese man his age.
He wore an apron, and he sold his
cucumbers in clear plastic bags.
The cukes were long and thin.
They snapped when you bit into them,
and the water inside tasted like mountains.
We’d eat them on the bus on the way to our apartment,
sometimes finishing the whole bag on the short ride.
I’ve never tasted cucumbers like those since.
I hold onto them and refuse to let go.

/ / /

4 May 2022
Pittsfield MA

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POEM: A Poem About Tea

A Poem About Tea

There’s an electric kettle at the office,
so I made a cup of green tea.
Nothing special, just a bag.
The kettle has a window in the side
so you can watch the magic happen.
And it is magic.
I didn’t grow up drinking tea.
My parents and grandparents
were coffee people.
It was living in Japan that
introduced me to “the taste
of dried leaves boiled in water.”
As a teetotaler (teatotaler?)
who doesn’t drink coffee either,
tea was my entry into a more adult world.
Tea requires a bit of preparation,
some particular tools,
and ends in a special vessel.
Later I lived behind a tea shop.
The first time I entered I was overwhelmed.
So many colors and flavors and textures!
Tea with little flecks of gold.
Tea that looked like yard clippings.
Tea with hefty price tags.
Later still I studied tea ceremony,
learned the minute details
of offering tea as a sign of respect.
This morning, though, it was just a bag
from a brand that advertises
on baseball games.
Poured from a shared kettle
into a travel mug whose origin
I can’t even dimly recall.
Just a container of tea
on my desk under the fluorescent lights.

/ / /

25 April 2022
Pittsfield MA

(NaPoWriMo Day 25)

The bit in quotation marks is by Douglas Adams.

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POEM: Japanese Punk On The Corporate Wheel

Japanese Punk On The Corporate Wheel

Got my uniform on again. Now, in addition to being
embarrassed by the fact of it, I’m also embarrassed
by the fit. I’ve lost twenty-five pounds and look like
a kid in my father’s clothes. And if there’s one thing
I no longer want to wear, it’s the legacy of my father.
Either of them. Anyway to cut the taste of defeat
I control the music. Me and my Bluetooth speaker
against the world, or at least the office. Right now
I’m playing the Japanese punk band Chai at a volume
that can only be called inconsiderate. I know. But
there are times when four young women screaming
in unison in Japanese is the only thing that will
shove the darkness back a few steps so I can get
a full breath in.

/ / /

Jason Crane
7 January 2020
State College PA

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Finding JAPAN

OK, so I need to tell you a crazy story.

From 1991-92, I lived in northern Japan. Although I lived far from the other exchange students in my program, I did see them occasionally for Rotary events. When I did, we tended to sing the title track from Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi’s album JAPAN. I adore this album, which came out in ’91 and features folks like Roy Bittan (E Street Band) and Arnold McCuller (Phil Collins, Lyle Lovett, James Taylor). This song means a lot to me, and the album means a lot to me too.

Last year I lost everything I’ve ever owned — my entire record and CD collection, all my books except my poetry books, most of my photos from my entire life, my journals … everything. Included in that loss was my copy of JAPAN.

The other day, Elaine and I were working at Webster’s and taking things out from under some bins. She came across a box of world music CDs and handed one to me, asking if I could read it. Against every possible chance, it was a copy of Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi’s JAPAN. I was absolutely stunned. There’s no reason at all for this CD to be in Webster’s. It’s a 23-year-old CD that came out in Japan and, as far as I know, wasn’t released in the US.

I took it from her with trembling hands and my heart pounding. Then I ran over to the CD player and cranked up the first track. I stood there for the whole six minutes with it blasting through the store, I’m sure confusing our customers.

Life is weird and unpredictable and often wonderful. And I have JAPAN back.


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POEM: my first night in Japan


my first night in Japan
(for the Inoue family)

I slept for twenty-four hours
at least that’s how I
remember it happening

then we had miso soup with
tiny clams in the bottom
of each wooden bowl

we were seated around
a dining room table
on regular chairs

all things I’d been told
not to expect to find
10,000 miles from home

it was my host mom, brother
two sisters and me;
obaasan ate in her own room

we brought her a tray, some
for her, some for the shrine
to her late husband

it was when we put our hands
together to remember him
that I fell in love with Japan

19 November 2013
Oak Street


POEM: smoke from a new stick of incense

smoke from a new stick of incense

fills the cold room
with the scent
of a Japanese temple
or the small room
on the second floor
I used to meditate in
the one I had to unlock
with a kitchen knife

9 November 2013
Oak Street

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POEM: rainy season


rainy season

the walkway to the laundry is flooded
following days and days of rain
it’s pouring now, in fact
so I’ve opened all the windows
to let in the sound
my first full summer in Alabama
reminds me of Japan
flower petals covering the stones
wearing my outdoor sandals
to haul the bag of laundry back inside
when I arrived here last year
it was in the middle of a drought
I hiked to a waterfall but found
a trickle (and even that’s generous)
this is the part of the poem
where the metaphor goes

6 July 2013
Auburn AL

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POEM: walking with Basho


walking with Basho

morning and evening
someone waits at Matsushima!
one-sided love

I know how she feels
though there are no pine trees
outside my lonely window

viewing the moon
no one at the party
has such a beautiful face

they are all lovely
in a way I find hard to describe
the scent of tea from the kitchen

in the world outside
is it harvesting time?
the grass of my hut

indoors all day
birdsong as I read the paper
sun warming the room

speaking out
my lips are cold
in autumn wind

I want to kiss you
though I know I can’t
so I picked two yellow flowers

I didn’t die!
the end of a journey
is autumn nightfall

if I am not stronger
at least my feet are toughened
by the stones on this path

from this very day
erase the inscription with dew
on the bamboo hat

starting out again
through the tall grass
where no one has blazed a trail

25 February 2013
Auburn, AL

/ / /

I first read the work of Japanese poet and travel writer Matsuo Basho in 1991, when I was living in northern Japan, in a town he’d once passed through. I’ve been inspired by his style and his daring ever since. The italicized sections of this poem are haiku poems written by Basho. The non-italicized sections are mine. If you’ve never read any of Basho’s travel journals, I recommend Back Roads to Far Towns: Basho’s Oku-No-Hosomichi (Ecco Travels).

I’ve written about Basho before

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