Early morning run

I usually go running as the sun is setting. The other day, though, I got up early. It was a national holiday, and the weather was unseasonably warm and sunny, so I thought why not make the most of it?

I’m lucky enough to live in a traditional castle town. The castle is just a short drive away, and is surrounded by woodland, parkland and a moat. It’s the perfect place for a morning run.

I do a lot of writing while I run. Not physical writing of course, but mental writing. I get so many ideas for my latest novel or story. Things that seemed impossible to work out when sat at my desk suddenly make sense while I’m running. It must be a mixture of the physical movement, rhythm and fresh air. Sometimes I compose haiku as I run. They tend to just pop up in my head more or less complete.

I’m currently in the planning stages of my second novel. I got some good ideas for it the other day. Now that spring is on its way, I’m going to try and get out in the mornings more. Running at sunset has its benefits (beautiful views for one), but there is something special about a morning run, especially through woodland. The scent of the trees, the cool air, the light, the quietness before the day wakes – they all add up to create a special moment, and put me in a positive and creative mood for the rest of the day.

Oh plum blossoms!

東風 吹かば 匂ひをこせよ 梅の花 主なしとて 春な忘れそ

When the east wind blows

let it send your fragrance,

oh plum blossoms;

although your master is gone,

do not forget the spring.”

Sugawara no Michizane

COVID in rural Japan

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My family and friends back home often ask me how I’m coping in lockdown. They keep forgetting that, in the area where I live, there is no lockdown. I live in one of the least populated prefectures in Japan. My home is in the main city, which has about 200,000 people. That sounds like a lot, but the city is made up of villages that merged about 15 years ago, so it is spread out and very rural. You only have to drive for about ten minutes or so out of the city centre and you are in rice fields. A little further, and you are in the mountains, or by the sea, in one of the fishing villages.

We have had about 200 COVID cases in total. I think there are about two active cases. There are no restrictions on our movements, although we are told not to go to other prefectures, and to refrain from going out unnecessarily. Most people abide by the recommendations, so restaurants and bars are suffering. So are hotels. The city is popular with tourists, and they have mostly stayed away.

I don’t go out with my friends at night, but apart from that, my life is going on as normal. I can move around freely. I wear a mask, as does everyone (and I mean everyone!) and disinfect my hands at the entrance to shops when I enter and when I leave, but that is about it. Maybe if the number of cases rises, the situation will change, but at the moment, everything seems normal, especially compared to what I hear about back home and see on the news. Living in rural Japan can have its challenges, like isolation and loneliness, but at times like these, I’m glad to be living in this small corner of the world.

Mirror – Sylvia Plath

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I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful ‚
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl

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How did I get this far in life without reading this book? The first section is tough reading, as Frankl describes life in concentration camps. The second section explores his philosophy of logotherapy. I have a strong interest in existentialism, and found the way he combines this thought with psychotherapy fascinating.

His idea of the existential vacuum, in which the sufferer, out of boredom mostly, feels that life is meaningless resonated with me. I have been in the vacuum many times throughout my life. I am prone to bouts of existentialist despair. The protagonist in my first novel is trapped in its depths. Is there a way out? Yes, according to Frankl.

Despite its deep subject matter, it is an uplifting book. There is meaning, even in suffering, if we are prepared to give meaning to it. We can’t always choose what happens to us, but we can choose our attitude towards it. Suffering is an inevitable part of life, and the way a person responds to it gives meaning to his life. This reminds me of the end of The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Through revolt of the absurd, Sisyphus gives his life meaning. We have to give our lives meaning, but how? These two books give us a lot to think about.

What is the meaning of my life? Why am I living? What am I aiming for? What do I want my life to look like? How can I find peace and meaning in suffering, day-to-day troubles, and periods when life isn’t going well? Frankl had some good advice for anyone pondering these questions.

Favourite quote from Man’s Search for Meaning: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

Story Engineering

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Over the years, I’ve started writing novels, only to give up part way through. I thought that novel writing was not for me, that I was more suited to short stories. I found plot development difficult, and my stories never seemed to go anywhere.

Then I watched a video on YouTube (I think it was by Joanna Penn) which talked about the book Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. I bought the book and read it, and read it again. It gives clear directions on how to drive a story forward – sections and plot points that you have to hit, in addition to character development techniques and much more.

I applied the concepts to my novel in progress, mapping the story out according to the sections and points highlighted in the book. Once I’d done this, the writing was easy. I never got lost. I knew exactly where I was going and where the story was heading. I wrote one draft of the novel and then spent some time tidying it up. I often hear about novelists writing draft after draft. I didn’t need to do that. I had a well-structured story with all the bits in the right places from the first draft.

I have no affiliation with the book Story Engineering, or its author, but I recommend it if you are struggling to write your novel. I’m now applying the concepts to my second novel, which has been swimming around in my head for about five years. I’m finding the story is coming to life as I place incidents in the story in the right places. And that is what it is becoming – a story. Before, it was just a jumbled mess. I’m going to take my time to make sure I have the structure firmly in place before I start writing it. That will make the writing process a lot easier.

Strangers

I could see into your bedroom window
from my seat on the bullet train,
even though I was travelling at 170 mph,
I could still catch the picture on your wall,
your beige shirt hanging from the curtain rail
and you,

standing in the middle of your room
staring out at the speeding train,
and I wondered if you could see me
sitting in carriage five,
forehead pressed against the window,
eyes straining to catch glimpses
of whole worlds like yours
through the falling dusk.

(Copyright 2021 Heather Dixon)

Half a life

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I’ve spent almost half my life in rural Japan. When I arrived over 20 years ago, I declared that I was never going to leave. Something about it made me feel like I was home. I don’t know what that “something” was, but I never felt it in my hometown in the UK.

I blinked, and the years passed. Life kept me busy, I worked – taught English, translated, wrote, published, I studied, I paid my taxes, health and pension premiums, saw my friends every now and then, practiced and taught karate, went running, joined gyms. I got on with the business of leading a life.

Now, as I find myself approaching the “half a life” milestone, I have started to think…what if….what if I packed up and left? What if I just walked out of my life, and into a new one? I could start one anywhere – my hometown, London, Paris, Seoul, Moscow, Hong Kong…. I could go anywhere. What’s stopping me?

Apart from feeling a Sartrean anxiety because of the freedom I have, I feel like, well, I feel like this is where I’m meant to be. I go running along the lake in the middle of the city at sunset and can’t bear the thought of the sun setting and me not being there. Of life in the city going on without me. And what about my friends? They would get on with life as normal. I would probably see them on Facebook, and the odd occasion when I visited. I would miss so much in this beautiful place that I have called home for so long.

Another reason is that I have permanent residency here. It took a long time to get that. I had to put in the years. Could I possibly hand the card over and walk out of the country, without an ounce of regret? No, definitely not. I also have built my financial life here. My pension is here, my investments are here, my businesses are here. I have a lot to lose financially. Sure, I could start again, but I have the feeling that I have left it too late.

Friends who have left after a long period in the country have all gone through adjustment periods which last 1-2 years. Can I afford to do that? Do I want to do that? Which raises the question – what on earth would I do if I left? I got on the plane at Heathrow 21 years ago as a monolingual. I’d be boarding the plane out of Japan as a bilingual. So I guess I’d do something Japanese-related. But what?

I think I’ve reached the age and the time spent here when people start to question what they are doing with their lives. I have the feeling that it is now or never. That I have to make a decision one way or the other. I am free to choose. How lucky am I, that I get to choose what to do with my life? I think, deep down, I have already made the decision. But still, I think….what if…..?

The novels of Matsumoto Seicho

A few books from my Matumoto Seicho collection

Whenever a learner of Japanese, who has reached a certain level of proficiency, asks me to recommend an author or work, I always recommend the works of Matsumoto Seicho. When I tell Japanese people that I am a fan of his books, they always say “kurai!”, which means “dark”.

“Dark” is a good way to describe Matsumoto Seicho’s writings. They deal with the darker side of postwar Japan. Matsumoto was a prolific writer, known mainly for his detective and mystery stories. His books are page turners. There is nothing I like more than curling up with hot drink and a good Matsumoto Seicho mystery. He never fails to surprise me with his plot twists!

Apart from the fact that Matsumoto’s books are engrossing, they are also quite easy to read. A lot of them were serialised, so he recaps a lot throughout the story. You always know where you are, and what’s happened. This can get a bit repetitive at times, but it doesn’t detract from the story, and is a big help for learners of Japanese.

The first novel I read by Matsumoto Seicho was Suna no Utsuwa. It has been translated into English with the title Inspector Imanishi Investigates. People recommended this book to me when I was learning Japanese because some of the action takes place in the prefecture where I live.

If you enjoy “dark” postwar social realism, which shines a light on the murkier side of society, you’ll love Matsumoto Seicho.

Start with his most famous work 点と線 (Ten to Sen), then move on to ゼロの焦点 (Zero no Shoten), 時間の習俗 (Jikan no Shuzoku), 砂の器 (Suna no Utsuwa), and 砂漠の塩 (Sabaku no Shio), or any other of his many works. (And there are many – he published more than 450 works, including novels, short story and non-fiction.)

Matsumoto Seicho was born in Kyushu in 1909, and was more or less self-educated. He died in 1992. Despite the years that have passed since his death, I have never met a Japanese person who hasn’t heard of him. Quite a few of his works have been turned into films or TV dramas, which has raised his popularity.

If you are around the N2 level on the JLPT, you should be able to manage his novels. I started reading him when I had passed 2nd grade on the old JLPT. He sometimes uses obscure kanji, but you can just gloss over those and try to follow the story. I find extensive reading (not using a dictionary and aiming for overall understanding) to be a great way to build fluency. If you are looking to get into Japanese literature, why not give Matsumoto Seicho a try?

Never awake…

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“I’m almost convinced that I’m never awake. I’m not sure if I’m not in fact dreaming when I live, and living when I dream, or if dreaming and living are for me intersected, intermingled things that together form my conscious self.

Sometimes, when I’m actively engaged in life and have as clear a notion of myself as the next man, my mind is beset by a strange feeling of doubt: I begin to wonder if I exist, if I might not be someone else’s dream. I can imagine, with an almost carnal vividness, that I might be the character of a novel, moving within the reality constructed by a complex narrative, in the long waves of its style.”

From The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa and translated by Richard Zenith