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Sports Day in Japan (or, watch kids go crazy on a field)

Every year, Japan celebrates undoukai (運動会). It’s a holiday that celebrates sports and health awareness, and it usually involves children competing in very simple intramural events. While we were in Kyoto this past October, we were lucky enough to attend Ave Maria School’s undoukai. Friends and families cheer on the competing students, and it’s a great lot of fun to watch these young athletes excel…or, at least, yell their little lungs out with excitement.

You can learn the straight facts about undoukai from Wikipedia, so I thought I’d share our personal experiences.

Saturday, October 10, 2014, we set off from our house in Otani to Ave Maria School in Yamashina. Ave Maria School is a kindergarten/primary school, with three sets of class ages: 2, 4, and 6. My nephews* are in the 4-year-old class.


Taking the field at Ave Maria

Those kids love to march while swinging their arms.

There’s a cardboard rocket tower in the back, with the word “がんばって (ganbatte)” written on it. “Ganbatte” means, very basically, “Do your best,” and we heard a lot of it that day. Especially during all of the fun little contests, like this ball-to-basket toss.

For these little ones, the contests weren’t all that complicated. Most of them were some variation on a race. It didn’t matter, though. Watching kids run across a field is pretty much comedy gold any time.

While the students were very excited to compete, they also stayed pretty orderly. You know, for 4-year-olds.

SportsDay3The colored caps were used to keep the different “teams” straight…as well as to help families and friends keep track of where our particular kids were at any given time.

Undoukai is just as much a celebration of school pride. Here’s the 6-year-old class marching band performing semafore.

They’re not Army-Navy game caliber, but pretty good for 6-year-olds. Am I right?

My nephews had a great time participating in their first undoukai (this is the first year they’re enrolled in a formal school). They did well in the giant ball race – they’re twins, so they got to be together for that one – and their obstacle course races. At the end of the day, everybody gets a celebratory lift from their parents!


Parents resting their backs until the kids arrive.

I’m so glad we got to experience undoukai with family while we were there, especially since we were only in Japan for two weeks. It was a great time!

I almost forgot! We also had scrumptious obento (lunch box) made by my cousin that day. You’ve got to keep your body well-fed if you want to compete at the top of your game, after all!

SportsDayFoodHow do you celebrate sports and wellness in your family?

* I call them my nephews, but, actually, they’re my cousin’s boys. It’s just easier for me to refer to them as “nephews” instead of “second-cousins.”

From Japan to the Yucatan

Okay, so I didn’t actually go to the Yucatan. But, I did go to Japan recently!

The last time I’d been to Japan was back in 2012. I’d gone with my family and my parents. We wanted to do that again, but my dad passed away earlier this year. Both my mom and I decided it would be a nice way to honor my dad’s memory by making the trip he would have done. And, when you lose someone close to you in your life, you realize that the joys of life shouldn’t be put off. So, off to Japan we went!

I’ve been to Tokyo, but I went to university in New York City and I’ve traveled extensively across the country, and I’ve learned that every big city is pretty much like any other. I much prefer my mom’s quieter hometown of Kyoto.

Kyoto is the old capital of Japan. It was spared bombing during World War II, so there are many castles, shrines, temples, and other historical buildings that were eft intact through the last several centuries. The Japanese people are very aware of their history, and one will, on any given day, find many national tourists flocking to those castles, shrines, and temples. Of course, that doesn’t mean Kyoto is stuck in the past. There are many parts of it that are very modern.


Modernity in Kyoto (the roof of Kyoto Station)

I said, modern. I didn’t say it’s necessarily pretty.


Shrine up the street from our house

As opposed to this quiet little shrine, which was located up the street from our house in Ōtani, just one stone stairway off of a fairly major thoroughfare. The village of Ōtani is located Yamashina ward, essentially a suburb of Kyoto. There isn’t much to do in Ōtani proper, but that’s okay, because it’s always nice to get back to a quiet home base. Plus, we had this view outside our balcony:


Sunrise in Ōtani

For any kind of bustling action, we went first into Yamashina proper, only three stops away on the Keihan Keishin train line. One of the very first nights we were there, in fact, Yamashina had its festival of lights and street vendor fair! You can’t see it very well, but there were lots of people there, from all over Kyoto and the surrounding wards, sampling huge cooked kaki (oysters), takoyaki (fried octopus balls – that’s octopus, vegetables, and eggs fried into little balls, not octopus scrotum), okonomiyaki (vegetable or pork pancake), kara age (fried chicken), “bifu-and-chizu” (beef and cheese), sake, and beer. (Just so you know, drinking alcohol on the street is generally not allowed. Especially not at those prices! This was a special occasion.) Most options were under 300 yen, too, which made for a very nice opportunity to try something different.


Yamashina street fair


Actually a restaurant oyster. But they were this big even at the street fair.

Yamashina is also home to the pancake house (okonomiyaki house?) where we stop for our first night every time we arrive. I don’t know whether their taps are phenomenal or we’re always so relieved to be in Japan after that 11-hour flight, but the Yebisu beer there always tastes like the best beer ever!

One of the best things about Japan is their ultra-reliable public transportation systems. The trains run like clockwork over there. They have to, with billions of passengers using them every single day! Since we were living out in the suburbs, we had an 8-minute walk to our local train stop, where we took the train to Yamashina, or Kyoto Shiyakushomae, or any number of locations. Yeah. We rode a lot of trains. More often than not, as a way to get something to eat. 🙂


The Kintetsu Limited, one of the more luxurious train lines in Japan.

We eat a lot when we’re in Japan. Every stop, eating. Always something different, always something scrumptious. I’m going to be posting a lot of food pictures for the next few weeks as I cover our Japan trip, so if you’d rather be spared all the sumptuous details, you may want to look away for a while. (Like I am, as I keep my head down with this year’s NaNoWriMo project.)

Next time, I’ll talk about undokai, Japanese Health Awareness and Sports Day. Until then, happy writing, happy reading, and happy eating!

The Write Place

I recently read an article on “Why You Should have a Messy Desk,” and it got me to thinking about my work space. I often write where and when I can. That tends to be on my laptop or in my notebook, sitting in a chair or sofa somewhere in the house. There are times when I need to retreat, though, to get away from everything and truly concentrate. For those times, I go to my writing room, and my trusty kotatsu.

A kotatsu is a small table with a heater built underneath. Mine looks like this:

kotatsu1This version of my kotatsu is much cleaner than it tends to get later in the colder months. Right now, I’ve just pulled it out from under about four piles of laundry. My scanner and portfolio are missing, too, because my husband made me put everything away when we had company a few months back. (No, I haven’t pulled them out since then. I haven’t really drawn since then, either, sadly. But that’s a lament for another day.)

The kotatsu might look like any other table…until you look under the blanket:

kotatsu2That’s the neat little electric heater that makes everything under the blanket oh-so toasty. It’s a memory I have from childhood years in Japan that I was excited to recapture when I learned I could purchase a kotatsu here in the US. (And I could afford the purchase, of course.)

The heat isn’t constant – it activates and deactivates on a regulated timer, based on your heat setting – but the blanket keeps the space warm. It’s not so energy efficient as a fireplace, but it’s more convenient than heating the whole house, especially when I’m alone. It’s pretty spacious under there, too. I’m short, so I can stretch my legs out, but even my six-foot-tall husband can get comfy underneath. He just can’t stretch out like I can. The only bad part about our kotatsu is that one of our cats seems to have a sixth sense for when I turn the thing on. And then, even I can’t stretch out as much as I’d like:

kotatsu-catThere’s a specific warning on the kotatsu packaging that you should not let pets sleep under the lamp, because it can get quite hot…but you can’t keep a cat from heat. If you ever get a kotatsu, just turn it off when you step away for any length of time. The heat dissipates, and your cat will become chilled again. Probably miffed, too, but I can’t help you with that.

Do you have a special place where you like to work?

Living in an Immaterial World

I’m back from Japan, where I had a lovely time with both my intimate and my extended family. We ate, drank, walked the touristy route I always walk whenever I visit (the mountain trails at Arashiyama; the shopping maze at Kawaramachi dori; the delectable tempura at Yoshikawa Inn), as well as our usual visits to friends in Tsu (where, this year, we saw the Ama divers at Toba) and Sanda (where we always get treated to the most scrumptious home barbecue). While I did all this, though, in the back of my mind, I was still thinking about the men and women of Fearless.

The story takes place mostly in the fictional village of Harbram, based loosely on lovely Porthtowan, along the north Cornwall coast, where I have extended family on the other side. It’s more than a stone’s throw from Kyoto, of course, but the principles of writing it are the same ones I took for writing characters in Japan.

The cliffs at Porthtowan, inspiration for Harbram

First, there’s nothing quite like immersing yourself in the culture of your characters, especially your main character. Not everyone can indulge in a two-week vacation in their MC’s culture or experience it firsthand, but there are ways around that. Read up on your subject: history, lifestyle, idiosyncrasies; the Internet is a bountiful and endless source of information about this sort of thing (also many times erroneous, so do be certain to double-check your resources). Talk to people who live the lives of your characters, in experience, background, even outlook. With so much programming out there, it’s likely you can even find some television shows or movies about your subject! (Be mindful of artistic license with this one, though.)

All this is to say, you don’t have to rely solely on your imagination to create the world in which your characters live. Many times, you shouldn’t rely only on your own brain, because you will probably be missing out on a lot of important facts or details that can end up making or breaking your story. (I cringe every time I read a story set in Japan where characters do not take off their shoes before entering the house!)

There’s a lot of information available at your fingertips. Use it to build a full, lush, beautiful world in which your characters will play, dream, cry, and live.

Porthtowan’s Mount Hawke footpath, the inspiration for my Crow’s Point path.

What techniques do you use to create your characters’ world?