Thursday, November 10, 2016

Researching a Novel in Japan

Entrance to the Meiji Shrine Inner Gardens in Tokyo

Konichiwa from Tokyo! With both of our kids at college, I was free to join my husband on a two month sabbatical to Japan. I apologize for not updating my blog regularly, but it has been a busy transition. In June I signed with a new literary agent, Sara Crowe. Since receiving her excellent editorial notes, I've been revising a young adult novel set in Maine while planning a new YA novel set in Japan. Henry and I have now been here for three and a half weeks. Given the political situation in the USA, I alternate between homesickness and feeling sick of home.

Japan 1101 class photograph by Anna Aridome. 

It's a big responsibility writing about a country that is not your own culture. Although my brother is married to a Japanese woman and they speak that language with their kids, I knew only a handful of words. In late August I enrolled in Japanese 1101 at Bowdoin College, where my husband teaches Japanese Politics. The US Department of State recommends 800 hours of instruction to become proficient in a romance language but 1,800 hours of class for Japanese or Chinese. Japanese has three alphabets. After five weeks of instruction, my class had only mastered two: hiragana is phonetic and katakana is for foreign words/names. Those two are easier than the kanji imported from China. Sentences contain all three alphabets. Most student would take two years of Japanese before junior year abroad or a summer internship. We had a fabulous teacher, but I needed to work twice as hard to keep up with these gifted young linguists. Never have I done anything more difficult. 

My husband speaks Japanese so he took care of the logistics for our trip. We spent our first ten days in hotels, recovering from jet lag and waiting for our apartment to be available. Henry chose the Hotel New Otani in Tokyo because he knew I'd love its garden (above and below). 

Our sabbatical is doubling as an anniversary celebration for us and this hotel is also a popular wedding site. Sometimes the bride and groom dress in both traditional and western dress. The couple above gave me permission to take their photo. Except for holidays and weddings, most Japanese people dress in western clothing and live in western style apartments in cities. 

Tokyo from the Hotel New Otani. The green space is the Akasaka Palace grounds and mostly closed to the public.

I grew up in Manhattan and lived two years in London, but Tokyo is the most urban place I've ever experienced. There are few trees on sidewalks and fewer public parks. Even my limited knowledge of Japanese has been useful as I venture out alone in Tokyo. My iPhone with a Japanese SIM card is my map and dictionary. Simple chores like shopping for groceries and reading signs or menus are challenging. Swimming laps is an extra workout with my phone and phrasebook in the locker room. People try to be helpful but most speak limited or no English. This is my third visit to Japan, but I still feel unprepared. I continue to study the language on my own.

Can you find the moon in Shibuyu?

There are manga museums and teen hangout spaces to explore so I keep pushing beyond my comfort zone. The flashing neon lights, dense crowds and busy roads can be overwhelming. Imagine Times Square on steroids with a more homogenous population. There are few immigrants, expats or foreign tourists (most are Chinese) so we are a curiosity in our residential neighborhood of Shibuya. 

We found our airbnb apartment through a friend of a friend. The rooftop apartment with its balcony garden is an ideal writing retreat. Bird song wakes me in the morning and the tatami room is a soothing space to unwind after work. The remainder of the apartment is western style, although the bathtub talks and the toilet spritzes water and plays music. My brilliant husband deciphered the kanji to change the toilet's tune from Pachelbel's Cannon to traditional Japanese koto music. Like we new empty-nesters don't already feel like newlyweds in a tiny apartment!

The control panel for our toilet
In our new home we prepare mostly Japanese food, except at breakfast. I was very proud to read the katakana for fruit granola, which I found at 7-Eleven. In Japanese, milk translates to cow juice, but often they use our English word written in katakana. A Japanese breakfast is rice, pickles, miso soup and green tea or coffee. At the hotel buffets, I often combined both. 

As I struggle to adapt to my new environment and language, I'm gathering first hand experiences for my novel. Plus writing in English now seems easy by comparison! Later I'll blog about our trip to Okinawa (below) and to other places that I'll be visiting soon for research. Due to my travel and work schedule, I'll be posting irregularly. I update more frequently on twitter and Facebook.

Blogwatch: I'm looking forward to catching up with my blog buddies now that Google Blogger has reinstated my blogroll. The loss of those links for weeks was another reason I stopped posting. Blogging is meaningless without the community. It's nice to be back online!

Next Japan sabatical post: Temples & Gardens of Kyoto at Peak Foliage


Jenn Jilks said...

You've been missed, but your photos on Facebook have been wonderful. I am enjoying it vicariously!

Stacy said...

I was happy to see a new post from you. Enjoy the rest of your time in Japan. I hope your research is productive.

A Cuban In London said...

Fascinating post. It is so good that you are learning Japanese. It shows a respect for their culture that I am sure it will flow through in your writing. Great photos as well.

Greetings from London.

Rose said...

What an adventure! I do envy you being able to see REAL Japanese gardens. I'm so impressed, though not surprised, by your learning the language. Learning a language that uses another alphabet has to be the hardest of all. Enjoy your stay in Japan! (And maybe things will settle down in our country by the time you return--I hope.)

Amanda Summer said...

How exciting for you, Sarah, to be living in Japan, and to take advantage of the experience to be inspired to write a new novel! Enjoy your stay, and please catch us up on where you are with the publication of your current novel when you can.

thecuecard said...

Wow great post Sarah! Thanks for sharing your travels. You are very brave to try to make your way around the city - where not many understand English. The Japanese language sounds very difficult. I hope you get a lot out of your 2 month stay. You haven't missed anything admirable in the USA. What a devastating election, ugh! I hope you stay inspired by your book research and writing. Will you be home by Christmas? take care.

Sarah Laurence said...

Jenn and Stacy thanks so much!

A Cuban in London, your multilingual posts inspired me.

Rose, I'm working on a Kyoto/Nara temple and gardens blog post now that we're back in Tokyo with access to wifi again. I do hope the political situation improves when we return. Our Japanese friend joked that we should apply for political asylum. Tempting!

Amanda, my Maine novel is not yet on submission to publishers. I hope to start writing the Japan novel soon. I'll certainly share any good news here. Thanks for your interest and support!

Cue, yes we'll be back home in Maine before the winter holidays. The time is going fast!

troutbirder said...

I think I'd been more than a little intimidated by wandering off on my own through such a large and different city and culture...:)

Sarah Laurence said...

troutbirder, it took me weeks to build up the courage to take the subway on my own due to the language barrier but all went well.

tina said...

What a lovely water garden! That waterfall is spectacular. And oh, the lovely and sedate koi. Looks like fun!!