Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood (HarperCollins)

What does a former executive of a multi-national corporation like Microsoft have to do with Asia?  Everything!  After spending nearly nine years in the fast lane, with almost all of that time heading up the ladder at Microsoft by working long hours and foregoing extended holidays, John Wood thought it was about time to slow down just a little and take an extended break from the rat race.  His vacation led him to the mountains of Nepal where there were no phones, no internet service providers, no meetings, no commutes and absolutely no connection to the rest of the business world.

On the first day of his three- week trek in the Himalayas, at a small lodge, an eight- year- old boy offers Wood a drink.  Wood asks if they have beer. The boy replies yes, and rushes off to get him a bottle of Tuborg, as if he ran the lodge himself, then apologizes for the beer being warm— but he has an idea!  He asks Wood to wait for ten minutes as he takes the bottle to the nearby river and submerges it into the cold water spawned from glaciers.

Wood says to a local man who watched this exchange in amusement, “Who needs a refrigerator?” This quip begins a conversation that will change Wood’s life.

Pasupathi, the man whom Wood meets at the lodge, is the “district resource person for Lamjung Province,” whose job is to find resources for seventeen isolated schools. The children are eager to learn but there is no money to invest in schools or school supplies.  Some villages have a primary school which teaches only up to Grade 5; if students want to continue their education, they have to walk two hours to the nearest secondary school.  However, families are so poor that children are needed to help with farm work which helps to account for Nepal’s nearly 70% illiteracy rate. Pasupathi says to Wood, “I am the education resource person, yet I have hardly any sources”.

Wood asks to see the school that Pasupathi is on his way to visit and the next day the two men set off on a three-hour trek. At the school Wood is shown a first-grade class with nearly 70 students in a room that can hold barely half that number.  He is taken to eight more classrooms all crowded with eager students who stand in greeting and yell “Good morning, sir” in unison, using perfect English.  The final room Wood sees has a sign on the door that says SCHOOL LIBRARY.  However, the room is empty except for an outdated world map on the wall that still shows countries like the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Yugoslavia.  In his most polite manner, Wood says, “This is a beautiful library.  Thank you for showing it to me.  I have only one question.  Where, exactly, are your books?”

The few books the school has are locked in a cabinet so the students won’t damage them. The library features “The Lonely Planet Guide to Mongolia”, “Finnegan’s Wake”, an Umberto Eco novel in the original Italian, and other books forgotten or abandoned by backpackers.  Wood asks the headmaster how many students are enrolled in the school and is informed there are 450!  The headmaster notices Wood’s surprise and says, “Yes, I can see that you also realize this is a very big problem.  We wish to inculcate in our students the habit of reading.  But that is impossible when this is all we have. Perhaps, sir, you will one day come with books” And this is where the story begins.

Back in his room after his long trek, the thought of those 450 kids without books will not leave Wood’s mind and he sends an e-mail to all his friends on Hotmail. The message is short and simple. He has found a school that needs books and desks. He will donate the desks.  Please send books, he asks—and he gives his parents’ address for his friends to send what they can.

Wood tells his parents to expect the arrival of several hundred books—he soon receives a message from his father that says 3000 books have arrived with more coming every day—come home and help us with this. Wood obeys.

Such is the beginning of “Books for Nepal”.  Wood gives up his position at Microsoft and begins to build a nonprofit organization from the ground up, learning how to sell himself and his  ideas to gain sponsors and how to run fundraising events. His business background is an asset; “Books for Nepal” is so successful that Wood expands into Vietnam, Cambodia, India, and Laos. He changes the name of his nonprofit as it grows beyond Nepal, and so sprouts “Room to Read.”

Anybody who loves books as much as I do will find this book inspirational and thoroughly absorbing. Those who want to support “Room to Read” can find more information here.  by Ernie Hoyt

世界のどこかで居候 by 中山茂and 坂口克 (人力社)「Sekai no Dokokade Isourou」by Shigeo Nakayama and Katsumi Sakaguchi (Jinrikisha)

“Isourou” – a difficult word to translate in English.  I went through a number of dictionaries searching for a word that would closely describe the form of travel that that author Shigeo Nakayama and cameraman Katsumi Sakaguchi created.  I also checked with a few online dictionaries and most of them gave the same answer – “to lodge” or “lodging” which is close to what the two were doing but not exactly.  A closer approximation would be “home stay”, but “home stay” usually applies to students and these two are far beyond their university years.  One online dictionary gave the exact definition of what they were doing – “lodger who pays nothing for room and board”, but the other definitions that followed were “freeloader” and “sponger”. So the closest translation of the book title would be Lodging for Free Somewhere Around the World.

Four years!  Eight countries!  Nakayama and Sakaguchi traveled around the world between the years 2004 and 2008.  They set a standard rule for lodging with strangers.  They would stay for no more than a week.  They would not schedule their trip to coincide with any events or festivals, and they would not ask for anything in return, only for the families to live their everyday lives as if they weren’t there.  They would sleep in the same rooms, eat the same foods, and work in the fields with their hosts.  And there would be no guide or interpreters during their stay.

Choosing how long they would stay with each family was another factor they had to decide before leaving.  In Nakayama’s own words, “if the stay is too short, it wouldn’t be considered lodging.  If the stay is too long, we would be wearing out our welcome.”  One week seemed perfect.  As Nakayama also says, “the first day you would be considered honored guests.  The second day, the children would start to get used to you, by the third day, it would make no difference if you were there or not”.  It was Nakayama and Sakaguchi’s goal to reach this point, at which time they believed that the families would start telling them their true thoughts, feelings, and desires.

Nakayama says every country seems to have a distinct smell.  For example, Korea has the smell of kimchee.  France has the smell of cheese.  Thailand has the smell of fish sauce.  Egypt has the smell of antique books.  For Mongolia, Nakayama says that the country’s odor is of feet!  And this is the first country where their “lodging for free” experiment would start.  The first family they lodged with were nomads living in a yurt on the great plains two hours away by jeep from the capitol of Ulan Bator.  A few years before, the Mongolian government had given this family the ownership and responsibility for watching over one hundred head of livestock. The family was well-known in the area for being one of the few that included a yak in their herd.  As to the reference of “smelling like feet”, Nakayama says it came from the various homes airing out their socks that most families wear for a week or more.  In Mongolia, it is the custom to build a new yurt for newlyweds, and during their weeklong stay, Nakayama and Sakaguchi would help build one for the son of their host family who had recently gotten married.

The next country where they “lodged without paying for room or board” was on the Saudi peninsula of Yemen.  The first thing they learned about this country is that there is no true government.  Of course there is a central government based in the capital of Sana’a, but its main purpose seems to be dealing with foreign affairs.  Yemen is a tribal country and an Islamic society.  It took Nakayama and Sakaguchi a little while to get used to the qat- chewing(similar to the coca leaf of South America but the qat is legal in Yemen), Kalishnikov- carrying men, who also were equipped with a jambiya (dagger with a short curved blade).

Following Yemen, the pair lodged with tribesmen in Papua New Guinea, stayed with a family in Ladakh, in the state of Kashmir in India, spent a week in the Atlas Mountains and another week lodging with a family living in the Sahara Desert in Morocco.  They also lived with a family whose home was in one of the floating villages of the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia.  The final country where they became lodgers was in Nepal, at Galegaon, a community known for its village tourism and adventure trekking.

Sakaguchi’s full color pictures, along with Nakayama’s illustrations of the various homes around the world that sheltered these travelers make this one entertaining book.  They  give us a peek at what ordinary life is like in some of the most unlikely places.  Overcoming language barriers, eating unfamiliar foods, they give us a small glimpse into how diverse the cultures of our world really are.  The pair discovered that people are alike everywhere. All whom they stayed with welcomed their guests as family once they became accustomed to the novelty of having strangers lodge in their homes, which I think says a great thing about humanity.  by Ernie Hoyt

(This book is only available in Japanese.)

Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa (Riverhead Books)

In a world where few corners contain a road less traveled, Bhutan is still not a key destination  on the backpacker trail. It is famous for its beauty and its spot on the happiness index, which is just another way of evoking Shangri-La.

When Jamie Zeppa went there as a volunteer English teacher, she detested the place. A chicken effortlessly demolished her high-tech flashlight, the gas stove terrified her, and the children she taught all seemed to have the same name. She lived on cookies and counted the days before she could escape back home to Canada, but her small students had other ideas. Taking her in hand, they brought her fresh food, taught her to use a pressure cooker, and helped her learn to love the village life. Then she was transferred.

In a university setting, Jamie has all the comforts she has learned to live without, from a garden apartment to sliced bread. Her students are all fluent in English and fall into her own age-group. As she helps them discover the intricacies of Macbeth, they give her inklings into the political disruptions that lurk beneath the idyllic surface of the country she has learned to love.

People from the north of Bhutan mistrust the southern Bhutanese, many of whom have roots in Nepal and carry that culture with them. Differences in dress become deadly divisions for some, with Bhutan's "national dress" becoming a symbol of the country's culture and traditions. In Bhutan, Jamie learns, there is "not a dress code but a dress law." And speaking the Nepali language is considered a act of sedition.

Terrified of having its culture and language over-run by people from another country, Bhutan tightens its restrictions and what was a rift becomes a Situation. There is talk of separatism and some of Jamie's students leave the university to fight the "anti-nationals." There are rumors of torture and students who were imprisoned for treasonous acts return to class, "looking years older."

"This is not about democracy or human rights, I think...I have not heard one person speak of mediation or negotiation or even the listening that is necessary for understanding. There is no recognition of any overlap, any common ground...it is a case of two solitudes."

"I love the view," Jamie observes, "but I would not want the life." And then she falls in love, with a man who speaks Nepali when he talks in his sleep, and the life she is reluctant to take becomes in some way hers forever.

This is a love story, but not one between two people. It is a common theme of how a Western woman falls in love with an Eastern country--yet there is nothing common about the thoughts and perceptions and images that Jamie Zeppa brings to this. Her book is one that illuminates on many levels--spiritual, political, cross-cultural.

When she takes the refuge vows that show her commitment to following the path of Buddhism, Jamie realizes, "The practice is the practice...For the rest of my life." Her book plainly reveals how that practice has enhanced her life in Bhutan, in Canada, with the man she loves or without. Reading her words will burnish the perspective of any woman who has fallen in love with an Asian country--or yearns for the chance to do this.

Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love and Language by Deborah Fallows (WalkerBooks)

"One spring day in Beijng, I was trudging home from the local market with bags of bright vegetables and fresh, soft tofu. Few people were out, and my eyes were on the ground to watch my step around the minor rubble and broken bits of pavement. It was not a pretty walk. Then I heard it, sotto voce but clearly distinguishable above the whine of nearby traffic, "Hello, I love you. Buy my jade. I love you!"

This paragraph makes me see and feel and breathe Beijing every time I read it--and I feel a mixture of envy and gratitude surging toward the woman who wrote it.  A linguist who has a Ph.D in linguistics, Deborah Fallows decided to study Mandarin during the three years that she spent in China--and lived to tell the tale in a collection of perceptive and sparkling essays about a country that can be puzzlingly opaque to those without a knowledge of its language.

She is a woman whose descriptive talents are as sharp as her powers of observation and sense of humor. Whether she's prowling through a Beijing weekend "dirt market," watching people bargain for jade, agate, lapis and"petrified-looking walnuts," or shopping at a Wal-Mart "with touches like duck carcasses hanging from hooks," she discovers unexpected dimensions through the language she has painfully and painstakingly learned. The abrupt and brusque delivery of requests in Mandarin troubles her until she learns how to soften this impact with a double verb, and when finding out the reason why 4 is shunned and 8 sought after in China, she also understands why clocks are never given as wedding gifts.

Using a faulty tone when satisfying her craving for cheese in a Beijing Taco Bell leads her to a thoughtful exploration of why Chinese people hear tones while Westerners don't, and her explanation of the word renao (hot and noisy) is a brief and brilliant dissertation on life in China.

Chinese, Deborah Fallows says, is one of the most difficult languages to learn; it took, she says, " a good eighteen months before I pummeled enough in my head to accumulate a critical, usable mass of vocabulary." Once this is acquired, she is able to use language to help her in a traditional Chinese custom, breaking the rules, as she assures a security guard at the Beijing Olympics that a forbidden Toblerone bar is actually her much-needed medicine.

Looking at China through its language allows Fall0ws to look at a certain amount of the country's psychology: why "please" and "thank you" are infrequently used among close friends and are actually considered impolite; why "I love you" is seldom voiced; why pronouns are often omitted in speech. And she learns at a Beijing conference from "one exasperated Chinese participant," what the ordinary Chinese person really wants--"a flush toilet, a refrigerator, and a colour TV."

It'a possible to spend time in China--or at least Beijing--without knowing any Mandarin, but Deborah Fallows makes it clear that the more language we acquire, the more at home we will feel, "if just for a little bit, in this extraordinary country."  by Janet Brown

English by Wang Gang (Penguin)

We may all be familiar with the old adage, "Don't judge a book by its cover", but we should also include a new saying as well, "Don't judge a book by its title!"  "English" may sound rather bland; it may even be mistaken for a text book for ESL students and left untouched.  If this is the case,  readers will miss out on one of the best novels I've read this year.

This is Wang Gang's first novel to be translated into English from the Chinese.  The story is loosely based upon the author’s own life as he remembers living through China's Cultural Revolution.  The hero and the narrator of the story is twelve-year old Love Liu who lives in China's remote northwest region in a small village called Urumchi and now relates the novel through his adult perspective.

The story starts out with Love Liu's teacher Ahjitai entering the classroom with tears running down her face.  Love Liu describes her as a "double turner", which in Urumchi means that "the mother is Uyghur and the father is a Han Chinese, or the other way around." She was also the most beautiful woman in all of Urumchi.

The previous year, the class had stopped learning Russian and Ahjitai, being part Uyghur, had taught the students a bit of Uyghur.  But boys being boys, they didn't really care about the languages, they just enjoyed having a teacher as beautiful as Ahjitai...and now she was leaving.

The following day, Love Liu is surprised to see a well dressed man at school and quickly surmises that this man is the new English teacher.  His name is Second Prize Wang and he has just arrived from Shanghai.  But what really catches Love Liu's eyes is the navy blue book Second Prize Wang is holding, an English dictionary.  And with Love Liu's desire to learn English and to speak it well, a friendship grows between Love Liu and his teacher, much to the annoyance of his neighbor and competitive classmate Sunrise Huang.

Love Liu becomes obsessed with the dictionary as he tries to persuade Second Prize Wang to let him borrow it.  When his teacher refuses, Love Liu devises a plan to steal it.  But his plans fail as he almost gets caught—and discovers that his teacher Second Prize Wang is in love with Ahjitai.  He unwittingly lets his neighbor Sunrise Huang know, who gets jealous and tells the authorities that yes, Second Prize Wang had touched her during the private lessons he had been giving her.  As this is China during the Cultural Revolution, the slightest rumor or innuendo of misconduct can result in harsh punishment.  In the case of Second Prize Wang, Sunrise Huang’s false confession to the authority results in Second Prize Wang being sent to a labor camp. He was already under suspicion as an outsider, and  has no way to prove that Sunrise Huang has lied.

I don’t want to give away the ending of such a great book so you will have to read this to find out what happens to Second Prize Wang.  Will he die in the labor camp?  Will he ever be free again?  Will Sunrise Huang tell the truth to the authorities?  And what of Love Liu and his determination to own the navy blue English dictionary?   Finding the answers to these questions  makes reading this book well worth the effort.  by Ernie Hoyt

The Earthquake Bird by Susanna Jones (Picador)

The Earthquake Bird

“Early this morning, several hours before my arrest, I was woken by an earth tremor.  I mention the incident not to suggest that there was a connection – that somehow the fault lines in my life came crashing together in the form of a couple of policemen – for in Tokyo we have a quake like this every month.  I am simply relating the sequences of events as it happened.  It has been an unusual day and I would hate to forget anything…”

What a great opening for the story told by Lucy Fly – an Englishwoman from Yorkshire who currently works as a translator in Tokyo and has just been arrested in connection with the disappearance of another British woman – Lily Bridges.  The police have discovered a torso in Tokyo Bay believed to be part of the remains of Lily Bridges and the last person to be seen with the dead woman was none other than Lucy Fly.  There was an altercation between the two as well, according to a witness.

Although a friend of Lucy’s tells her to act normal when being questioned by the police, she is not all that cooperative, as she does not want to implicate her friend and lover Teiji.  The mystery takes on a whole new life as the police continue to question Lucy. Slowly she divulges to us, the readers, why she left her home and family in the first place.  How she became friends with Lily.  And then with Teiji.  And how their three lives intertwined.

What brought Lily together with Lucy was the fact that they were from the same area in England—although Lucy wasn’t really thrilled with hanging out with someone from her old neighborhood, as she moved to Tokyo to get as far away as she could from her roots. Still, Lucy couldn’t help but like Lily, who had a friendly and positive attitude towards life.

Lucy seems resigned to the fact that she’s guilty of something. She may not be directly implicated in Lily’s death and mutilation, but somehow she feels responsible for it.  Could the usually reserved Lucy really be a killer in disguise?  Why is she being so uncooperative with the police?  Does she really have something to hide?  Or does she just not care what is going to happen to her?  The outcome may surprise you and might make you rethink your position on the power of love.

This debut novel set entirely in Japan is the kind of story that stays with you long after you have finished reading the book.  At first, I was undecided in featuring this title or not, but after much thought, and seeing how the story stayed with me for a while, it was clear to me that other people will enjoy it as well.  by Ernie Hoyt

UFO in Her Eyes by Xiaolu Guo (Vintage Books)

UFO in Her Eyes

Chinese science-fiction?  I didn't know what to expect when I picked up this title,but Guo, who is also a filmmaker, writes quite an interesting story.  It's hard for me to say if it accurately portrays life in a small rural Chinese village but the book allows me to imagine the events as they unfold.

In a rural area of Hunan province in a small town called Silver Hill Village lives a peasant woman named Kwok Yun.   "On the twentieth day of the seventh moon" or September 11, 2012 while riding her Flying Pigeon bicycle, she claims to have seen a spinning plate in the sky, a "UFThing." She reports the incident to the village chief, Chang Lee, who reports the incident to officials in Beijing, who send Beijing Agent 1919 and Hunan Agent 1989 from the National Security and Intelligence Agency to investigate the matter.

The agents start their investigation by interviewing Chang Lee, then her secretary, then Kwok Yun (who appears to be the only witness to the UFO), and then the other peasants who live in the village.  Unfortunately for Beijing Agent 1919, he cannot understand the village’s dialect and the peasants cannot understand his Chinese. This frustrates him to no end as he does not even want to be in this back water town and feels his time is being wasted.  He is condescending and a bit rude, which made me speculate this probably reflects the current attitude of the Chinese government towards the general population.

Kwok Yun tells the agents that on the day she saw the UFO, she heard someone crying for help in the fields nearby, where she found a yellow-haired foreigner who had been bitten by a snake.  Taking him to her home, she saved him from certain death.  Agent 1919 then grills her on why she took the foreigner to her home and didn’t immediately report it to the village chief.  Kwok Yun replies there was no time to report it; she had some children help her take the foreigner to her home where he recovered and left unnoticed.  But the appearance of the foreigner seems to have to no conection with the sighting of the UFO.

A year later, the village receives a letter from a foreign country, written by the man who had been bitten by the snake.  Of course the villagers, most of whom are illiterate, have to take the letter to the village teacher to have him translate it.  In gratitude for the help he received from the children and the peasant woman whose name he doesn’t know, the foreigner has sent a check for  $2000 which he asks that the village use for their school.

The village chief, who only thinks of the betterment of her community, uses the money to repair the school and suggests that the UFO sighting should be used as a tourist attraction to enable the village to catch up to the 21st century.  She also begs the teacher to start giving lessons to Kwok Yun, since she has become a local celebrity.

Soon the village is provided with an annual stipend from Beijing and builds a UFO museum.  Kwok Yun gets married to the teacher and moves to the city.  The local butcher who could not keep up with the newly introduced standards of modern hygiene has his shop closed, spends his days muttering about the changes, and kills Hunan Agent 1989.  The owner of the rice fields where the UFO was first sighted has his land taken away to make room for the new museum.  And Beijing Agent 1919 continues to keep an eye on Kwok Yun for the rest of her life.

This is the story of what becomes of a small village when an inexplicable event happens and the government gets involved.  But it also gives a feeling of what life might be like in a rural Chinese village when residents try to improve their lot with limited resources, and what happens when their home turns into a modern city.  I couldn’t help wanting to see the village modernize while knowing that this would cause it to lose its rural charm—  time to hit the road to China.~by Ernie Hoyt

Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam by Kim Fay (ThingsAsian Press)


Sometimes I think American women travel to discover the taste of good food and to rediscover "The Art of Eating," as M.F.K. Fisher termed it in her classic volume of travel, cookery, and enjoyment. When I first discovered that book, I carried it with me and read it every chance I got--waiting at doctors' offices, at soccer practices, at traffic lights. A friend saw me with it and asked, "Doesn't that title frighten you?"

She was a woman who was substantially overweight; I was a woman who was constantly on a diet, but M.F.K. gave me an inkling of what food and eating could be.  I didn't discover that art until I went to Thailand where eating was an act of pleasure, not one of guilt, shame,and fear.

Although I am sure that Kim Fay's relationship with food was much less troubled than mine, it is quite clear from her book that she discovered how much immense pleasure comes from good food that is freshly prepared and eaten in the company of friends during her four years of living in Vietnam.

Missing this dimension to her daily life when she went back home to the states, Kim returns to Vietnam with her photographer-sister to explore that country's food--its history, its preparation, its flavors, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. The result is a wonderful mixture of travel memoir,  food literature, and cultural history, served up with a generous helping of humor and a number of tantalizing recipes.

Kim and her sister Julie are joined by Kim's friend Huong, a fashionable and opinionated woman with a stunningly healthy appetite and a talent for finding the best places to fulfill her ravenous desire for good food. The three of them roam through cooking classes and restaurants, from Vietnam's finest hotels to roadside stands, learning to cook regional classics  while enjoying other dishes that they soon want to learn to cook.

Talking to chefs and organic farmers, connoisseurs of fish sauce and women who learned the importance of food through experiencing past famine, Kim Fay is adept at illuminating a country through the food that it prepares. Her love for Vietnam is obvious and her skill at describing who she meets, what she sees, and what she tastes as she travels from one end of the country to another makes her readers love it as well.

Through her eyes, Vietnam is revealed in all of its colors and flavors and textures. from "the opal blue" of its tropical twilight to "the sweet seep of sugar cane' that infuses the taste of ground pork, from the colonial splendor of the hillside retreat of Dalat to a cozy household kitchen with its "dented pots, daggerlike knives, and faded plastic spice containers",  from world-famous chef  Didier Corlou to the "Julia Child of Vietnam."

Although she generously provides clear instructions on how to prepare claypot fish, banana flower salad and fresh spring rolls, along with lesser-known dishes,  Kim Fay has written far more than the usual food memoir. She has infused the art of eating in Vietnam with its history, its culture, and more than a few damned good stories.  Read her book, laugh, and then book your own culinary odyssey to Vietnam, with your copy of Communion tucked securely into your suitcase. Bon appetit! ~by Janet Brown

Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential by Brian Ashcraft with Shoko Ueda (Kodansha)

Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential If you’ve been to Japan, you’ve seen them. If you have plans to visit, then you will see them no matter where you go.  From Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the far south, you cannot escape them.  They are the sailor-suited Japanese schoolgirls!  They are the trend-setters, the queens of fashion, girls who are not quite children and not yet adults, who are not tied down to a marriage or career and have the most disposable income of anyone in the country.  To understand a major portion of Japanese pop culture, you must understand “how teenage girls made a nation cool.”

This book is not just about Japanese schoolgirls, it’s about how they have become an international symbol of cool.  You will find sailor- suited characters in the anime of “Sailor Moon”, “Evangelion” and “Blood : The Last Vampire”, the kung-fu fighting women of “Street Fighter”, and as an assassin in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”.  Gwen Stefani sings about them in “Harajuku Girls.”

It’s not only in anime and video games where you will find young women dressed in sailor suits – this book covers Japanese pop-idols, cult movie actresses, and even the history of the sailor suit itself.  Although the sailor suit was originally created as a school uniform, girls would wear them outside school hours because they are also cute and fashionable.  There are even companies that create “nanchatte” sailor suits (fake sailor suits) that aren’t affiliated with any school and do a fair amount of business.

However, one of the most interesting chapters to read about is the Japanese pop idol industry.  You will find that music producers purposefully dress the idols the way they do to create an image that sells records (CDs now).  The idol boom may have started in the 70s, but it was the brainchild of Yasushi Akimoto in the 80s with his creation of Onyanko Club, an all-schoolgirl group.  Not all the group members were talented as singers or dancers but as long as they looked cute, they gained fans who worshipped them like goddesses.  (Ashcraft and Ueda could write a whole other book about the fan boys (or otaku) themselves.

The late 90s spawned another pop idol group called Morning Musume, who was discovered during an audition for a TV show when the producer was looking for a new vocalist for his band.  Instead, his new creation went on to become quite successful so he spent more time producing other idol groups as well – most of them being spin-offs from Morning Musume which started as a five-piece group, expanded to eight, then sixteen (with members graduating into other groups or going solo, and new members joining.)

Currently, the most popular idol group is AKB48 – another creation of Yasushi Akimoto.  The concept is creating idols you can meet.  With the explosion of the world of otaku, with anime and maid cafes putting Tokyo’s Akihabara on the map, the group’s name, as you might guess, was inspired by Akihabara.  The 48 is the number of members (give or take ten or so).

It's not only idols that wear sailor suits –Japanese schoolgirls are also used in a lot of commercials selling everything from packages of kimchee to buying insurance. Businesses hire schoolgirls for focus groups to get feedback on their products.  But it’s the fashion industry where their influence is the strongest.

The Tokyo Girls Collection is held twice a year.  Its more than just a fashion show – it’s a fashion festival.  The Paris and Milan and New York Collections may be prestigious, but it’s the Tokyo Girls Collection which can garner the biggest crowd – nearly 23,000 at the last one held.  The concept is different from regular fashion shows; the clothes the models wear can also be bought on the internet via the cell-phone at the event itself.  I’ve seen this event covered on the news a couple of times and you would think the women who attend it are lined up for a concert given by their favorite pop star; some even spend the night in line.  To me, it’s mind-boggling.

Although this book does a fair job of covering most aspects of teenage schoolgirls, including controversial subjects such as enjo-kosai (paid dating), it seems every chapter could spawn a book of its own.  It is light but entertaining, filled with many pictures and drawings and includes quotes from real teens that the authors have interviewed on the streets.  It may not give you the lowdown on the entire history of Japanese pop culture but it will educate you on how a young generation of schoolgirls continue to make Japanese people cool!~by Ernie Hoyt

マイ・アイズ・トウキョウ [My Eyes Tokyo] by 徳橋 功 (Isao Tokuhashi) 「幻冬舎 ルネッサンス」 (Gentosha Renaissance)

My Eyes Tokyo As an expat who has lived in my adopted city of Tokyo for the past fifteen years, I am always fascinated by other people's perception of Japan-- Tokyo in particular.  Apparently, Tokuhashi shares my interest and decided to explore this topic through the stories of the people who were willing to talk to him.

In the prologue, Tokuhashi mentions that he had lived in a small town in California for a short time and realized how much of Japanese culture had already penetrated America - Hondas and Toyotas running along the freeway, Panasonic or Sony stereos in people's homes, kids playing video games on Nintendo, the popularity of anime such as Pokemon, Sailor Moon and Dragonball.

But then his roommate would ask him questions like, "Do you speak Chinese?", "What color are the signal lights in Japan", "Are there really more bicycles than there are cars?"  Tokuhashi thought if these questions cropped up in a state like California with a large second generation Japanese population and a lot of Asian exchange students, then probably this indicated that  the majority of Americans really know nothing about his home country.

With his experience in America, Tokuhashi decided it would be a great idea to let Americans and other foreigners know what the "Now" of Japan is like.  But introducing Japan from a Japanese perspective would probably not attract anybody's notice.  This is where Tokuhashi had his epiphany.  Why not have foreigners living in Tokyo tell their own stories?  Why did they choose to live in Tokyo and how do they perceive the city?

Tokuhashi then set up a website called "My Eyes Tokyo" in which he interviewed foreigners living in Tokyo and then spread the stories around the world in English.  This book is a small compilation of some of those interviews.  The book shares the stories of people from countries such as Senegal, Turkey, Bolivia, Israel, France, Algeria, as well as the United States.

Their stories are vast and varied.  There is the Algerian who owns and runs a Japanese soba shop.  A Frenchman who owns and runs a Japanese specialty tea shop.  A Turkish man who performs rakugo. A Brit who sets up an International Theatre Troupe.  An American who launches the first Food Bank in Japan.  Also featured are musicians and singer-songwriters.

Tokuhashi's idea is to show the "now" of Tokyo as seen by the expat community, believing that they probably see things that the normal Japanese either takes for granted or has just plain forgotten about.  The interviewees all seem to share the opinion that the younger generation of Japanese don't know how great their country is.

As  one of the many who have  decided to live here, I can tell you there is more to Tokyo than just karaoke, anime, or electronics!  Trust me, and if you ever make it to Tokyo, I will gladly be your unofficial guide.~by Ernie Hoyt

Four Pairs of Boots : A 3,200 Kilometer Hike the Length of Japan by Craig McLachlan (Japan Publications Trading Co.)

Four Paris of Boots Being an expat living in Tokyo, I love exploring my adopted city.  If I had more free time, I wouldn’t mind exploring the countryside as well. I have even had fantasies of walking the entire length of Japan, although I do not think I have the stamina or strength to indulge in such an endeavor.  However, there are some people who have.

New Zealander Craig McLachlan is one such person.  Inspired by Alan Booth's "The Roads to Sata" in which Booth walks the length of Japan from the northernmost point of Cape Soya in Hokkaido to the southernmost point of Cape Sata in Kyushu, in 1993 when McLachlan is 31 years old, he walks the entire length of Japan in 99 days from the opposite direction, starting south in Kyushu, then keeping towards the coast of the Sea of Japan as he makes his way to Hokkaido.  The reason he gives in undertaking such a task is simple, "To go in search of the real Japan". On his nearly three- month hike, McLachlan goes through four pairs of boots, giving the name to the title of his book.  The kanji on the cover of the book, 靴四足 (kutsu yon soku) also translates to “four pairs of shoes” or “boots” in this case.  As to his finding the “real Japan”, that’s for you, the reader to decide.

Fortunately for McLachlan, he can speak Japanese and has no trouble communicating with the local population, even though he suffers his share of animosity and outright prejudice. But he says the kindness he’s shown outweighs the negative experiences. He’s offered rides on many occasions but politely refuses, explaining that he wants to complete his entire journey on foot and accepting a ride would be cheating.  Some of the people whose rides he turns down come back and bring him food or drinks and tell him to “ganbatte!” – to do his best.  Others offer him a place to spend the night and some even walk with him for a short distance.  However, there are times when the weather is so bad that McLachlan does accept a few rides but he always returns to the spot where he had stopped walking.

I imagine it’s no easy feat, (pun intended), to walk an entire length of a country--even a country as small as Japan or New Zealand.  I doubt that my feet would think either country were small if I even attempted to walk either one.  But at least I don’t rely on driving to the neighborhood market anymore as I did when I lived in the States.  However, on my days off I try to walk around a different neighborhood a week in my adopted home of Tokyo.  It may not be the length of the country, but it will have to suffice for my pair of legs.~by Ernie Hoyt

Tigers in Red Weather: A Quest for the Last Wild Tigers by Ruth Padel (Walker)

TigersinRedWeather When the man she has loved for five years inexplicably bows out of her life, Ruth Padel takes her badly bruised heart on a long journey. Traveling from the Indian subcontinent to Siberia to Southeast Asia, she immerses herself in the world of tigers, exploring their habitat, their habits, and their tenuous grip on survival.

Padel begins her quest with a literary love of tigers, a few facts, and a longing to learn more about an animal that is often seen through a veil of mythology and misconception. In her first journey to a tiger forest in Kerala, she sees no trace of the creatures that she seeks, but she leaves with the understanding that tigers are an essential part of Asia's environment. Tigers survive only in healthy forests, and these forests, Padel says, "hold Asia together." It says in the Mahabharata (5th century BCE), "The tiger perishes without the forest and the forest perishes without its tigers." This truth resonates with Padel in the twenty-first century and is the underlying theme of her travel through countries that are the homes of wild tigers.

Wherever she goes, Padel finds forests that are for sale, that become diminished as the worldwide hunger for logs increases. The animals and people living among the trees become adversaries, competitors for shrinking territory: tigers kill livestock when natural prey dwindles and people safeguard their property by killing tigers. The argument of how to balance the needs of both groups divides people within nations and within families, including Padel and her own brother.

Tigers also fall prey to the myths and legends that surround them. Their bones, flesh, blood and skin are all valuable commodities in the global marketplace, sold to people who hope to gain a portion of the tiger's strength or beauty. Tiger balm, Padel points out, is a substance based on camphor and eucalyptus that can be safely used by the most fervent environmentalist, but its universal appeal is based "on what people want." In Nepal she is told, "Real tiger balm... cures arthritis, joints, knees, rheumatism. It is here, for those who know."

People are not always the enemies of tigers, and Padel's narrative is filled with stories of men and women who respect (and work to preserve) the natural world. Debby, a British environmental adviser in Indonesia who is "kept sane through black humour and a taste for lunacy"; Yevgeny, a Siberian tiger biologist who writes poetry but has "never dared write one about a tiger"; Ullas in Bangalore, a writer and tiger conservationist whose work "is a beacon" to some and has led others to set fire to his office; and the dukun, the Sumatran shaman, who gives Padel a "guardian spirit-tiger" as a protector—these are only a few who illuminate and give hope in this book.

A poet and a scholar, this descendant of Charles Darwin employs both of these disciplines to enchant and inform her readers. She places facts and images side by side as skillfully as she blends her personal memories with her observations of the tigers' world, a world that, she convincingly argues, must be saved in order to preserve our own. The book ends with a generous collection of poems that Padel has quoted throughout her travels, the names of people who helped her along her way, and the addresses of organizations that accept financial contributions to support the protection of wild tigers.~by Janet Brown (published originally by Waterbridge Review)

At Home In Japan : A Foreign Woman’s Journey of Discovery by Rebecca Otowa (Tuttle Publishing)

At Home in Japan

As the subtitle states, this is one woman’s journey of discovery in which she learns what living in Japan is like.  In my opinion, most people who think of moving to Japan either consider the twenty-four hour metropolis of Tokyo or the kuidaore (eat until you drop) city of Osaka.  However, this is the story of how Otowa finds herself in a 350-year- old farm house in rural Kyoto where she has lived for the past 30 years.

Otowa, a California native whose family immigrated to Australia when she was in her teens, never thought she would live anywhere but Australia or the States.  Then she finds that she enjoys studying the Japanese language which leads her to major in Asian studies at a university in Kyoto. Here she meets her future husband, who once traveled alone to Australia and loved it.  Through a mutual acquaintance, he learns that a girl from Australia is studying in Kyoto and goes there to meet her. He and Otowa hit it off right away and they marry four years later.

Otowa says she didn't know what she was getting herself into.  For one thing, her fiancé is the chonan (eldest son) of a very traditional Japanese family. This means it is his responsibility to take care of his parents, their farm house and their land.

Otowa has to learn a lot of unwritten rules. As an American, she finds some of them quite annoying, such as the wife is the last one to use the bath.  Even her wedding is planned by her future in-laws who tell her that it would be rather difficult to have her parents participate, so she has a stand-in for her father at her own wedding.  Otowa says at that time she was still naïve and a little intimidated by the entire process--now she regrets not speaking her mind back then.

But Otowa grows to love Japan and traditional country life.  She feels she’s becoming more Japanese while the younger generation of Japanese are becoming more westernized.  Otowa shares with us her experiences of traditional Japanese life such as making omochi (rice pounded into a glutinous mass and served with the traditional New Year’s meal called osechi) Enjoyinghanami (cherry blossom viewing) in the spring and tsukimi (moon watching) in the fall.  Serving and drinking tea in a tradition called sado which roughly translates to “the way of tea”.  Taking part in, and explaining, the ritual of  a traditional Japanese funeral..  She shares with us both her happy and sad moments, along with certain nuances of living in Japan, as if she were talking to us as friends.

She describes her relationship with her family, friends, neighbors and the various deities that live in the old farmhouse. When she first saw her husband’s house, she admits she was taken aback.  The house was built sometime in the 1600s and expanded as the family has grown.  Showing some pictures of her husband’s family and home that were taken in the 1800s, she reveals that the house hasn’t changed much over the centuries.

As my own grandmother’s house is a very traditional Japanese house as well, I found that I could relate to Otowa’s descriptions of spending the winter under a kotatsu (small table with a heater underneath), stoking the fire for the bath, being afraid of falling in the toilet that was only a hole in the ground (or so I thought as a child), walking up the steep stairs to the second floor, playing “Perfection” (popular game back in my youth) with my cousins along a wooden corridor that looks out to a small garden.  Reading Otowa’s book reminds me of my childhood and makes me long to go visit my grandmother’s house once again.~by Ernie Hoyt

Ivan's Ramen by Ivan Orkin (Little More)

Ivan Ramen

If you’re an expat living in Tokyo like me, one of the first things you will probably fall in love with is ramen.  It’s the fast-food of Japan.  There are over 5000 ramen shops to choose from in Tokyo alone.  But Ivan Ramen has something that no other ramen shop has in Tokyo, or perhaps even in Japan.  Ivan Ramen is the only ramen shop in Tokyo that’s own and run by an American – Ivan Orkin.  What makes this story so amazing is that Ivan did not even know how to make ramen before he started his restaurant.

This is his story of how he followed his dream.  Ivan takes us back to his roots in New York City where he was born in a small Jewish neighborhood.  His father was a lawyer, while his mother enjoyed hobbies such as painting and photography.  They had a house-maid who did all the domestic chores and left his mother with free time to pursue her favorite activities.  As the family was pretty well off, one of Ivan’s earliest memories was of his parents taking him to different restaurants.  Even at a young age, it was these trips to various restaurants that would mold Ivan into what he is today.

Ivan’s first introduction to Japanese cuisine is at 15 when he works part-time as a dishwasher at a Japanese restaurant called “Tsubo”.  It’s here where he gets his first taste of Japanese cuisine starting with tamagokake gohan. This is plain white rice that’s topped with a raw egg and perhaps a dash of soy sauce, and is not on a regular menu.  Ivan has such fond memories of working here and with the Japanese staff that he decides to study Japanese in college.

In college, he becomes fascinated with ramen after going to the movies and watching Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo”, and if you get a chance to watch the movie, you may become a ramen convert yourself.  After graduating, Ivan makes his first trip to Japan as a teacher of English, a job where he found no satisfaction.  Realizing that he enjoys cooking,  he returns to the States and enrolls in the prestigious Culinary Institute of America.  Back in the States, Ivan longs to eat the ramen he tasted while in Japan but the only place to get good noodles in New York at this time is in Chinatown.  Eating the noodles there, he has an epiphany--to move back to Japan and start his own ramen shop.

With the help and support of his Japanese wife, he heads back with  her to the Land of the Rising Sun.  But Ivan as yet does not know the first thing about making ramen.  Fortune shineds upon him as he finds someone to teach him the skill he needs.  Soon, Ivan decides to open his own ramen shop.  This is much easier said than done.  First off, a lot of people say he is crazy to even attempt such an adventure.  Others say there was no way that an American could run a successful ramen shop.  Even with all the pressure and negative responses, Ivan follows his dream with determination.  With his wife and two friends, Ivan finally opens his shop in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward near Rokka Koen Station.  News of an American owning and running his own ramen shop in Tokyo brings in curious customers.  His shop gains popularity from word of mouth and becomes a big hit in the ramen community.

Being a ramen fan myself, I most definitely had to go to Ivan Ramen.  I can assure you that the pictures in the book are as eye-pleasing and appetizing as the real thing.  This is probably the only ramen shop in Tokyo where you can also order hand-made ice cream from their menu.  Ivan’s concept is to have a family-friendly atmosphere where you can dine on delicious ramen, using only uses fresh ingredients which he buys locally.  He also makes his own noodles at the shop.  In fact, his kitchen space is twice as large as the dining space where he continues to experiment with new menu ideas.  If you get a chance to visit Tokyo and crave ramen for lunch, Ivan Ramen is a must-stop on your itinerary.

Chinese Lessons: An American, His Classmates, and the Story of the New China by John Pomfret (Holt)

lessonsSixty-three history majors graduated from Nanjing University in 1982. One of them was an American, 25-year-old John Pomfret, who went to China in 1980 to learn the language and to attend university there as an exchange student from Stanford. How Pomfret's life was transformed by his youthful decision, leading him to become a journalist in China, where he met his wife and started a family, is an interesting story. It is overshadowed, however, by stories that are far more compelling: the lives of four men and one woman who were his classmates. All  of the people who opened their lives to Pomfret had lived through the Cultural Revolution and had seen how Chinese social values were turned upside down during that time. Daybreak Song's father was a Red Guard, and Big Bluffer Ye learned how to play the system by watching his father do the same. Old Wu, whose parents were killed by Red Guards when he was 15, later denounced them in order to become a Communist Party member. Little Guan, whose father was sent to a re-education camp for four years, spent her early adolescence working in the rice fields as a "class enemy." Book Idiot Zhou, who was on a Red Guard team, admitted, "I did what I was told and, being eleven, I liked it." "You need to understand this," he told Pomfret, "to understand where we've come from."

All five entered the University in 1978, when private businesses began to sprout, foreigner students appeared in their classes, and Gone with the Wind was so popular in its Chinese translation that students took turns reading it  in shifts. Daybreak Song's popularity with Italian girls launched him into a love affair that led to marriage and a life in Italy after graduation. Big Bluffer Ye joined the Communist Party with dreams of making Nanjing modern and prosperous; after graduating and becoming a bureaucrat, he was able to transform a neighborhood into a Las Vegas-inspired shoppers' paradise. Book Idiot Zhou, to augment his earnings as a teacher, began a business that collected human urine and extracted enzymes that were used in pharmaceuticals. Little Guan married the man she had chosen two days after graduation, refusing a job assignment to be with her husband and make a family and a home. Old Wu, Pomfret says, was doomed to "a lifetime of humiliation," writing censored history and investigating the "antiparty" activities of university colleagues.

As China becomes more affluent, so do Pomfret's classmates. Old Wu learns to use the Internet, takes driving lessons, and sends his daughter to school in Australia. Big Bluffer Ye has an Audi and a chauffeur. Book Idiot Zhou owns a Volkswagen and a brick house that he has built in his ancestral village. Daybreak Song, living in Italy, is a highly paid sportswriter for a Chinese newspaper. Little Guan, a widow, owns her own apartment, has invested in a bar, and has embarked upon an e-commerce business venture with her son.

Through his personal history and that of his classmates, Pomfret has provided a look at China that is both intimate and illuminating. Few people would have been able to write this book; many will be grateful that John Pomfret did.~by Janet Brown (previously published in another form by Waterbridge Review)

Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me by Lisa Feinberg Cook (Downtown Press)

Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me Before some people, especially Japanophiles, are offended by the term J.A.P., Cook uses the term to describe herself -- a Jewish American Princess--one who is used to having things her own way, to driving her red Jetta around town, to having her weekly pedicure/manicure and to meeting  her girlfriends for drinks and fun.   However, this entertaining memoir is of a year that changes Cook's life as she becomes a newlywed and less than a week later moves to Nagoya, Japan with her new husband who ha a job waiting for him there.

I knew I would be both amused and annoyed by this book, as I could tell from the first paragraph that Cook was going to be in for a major culture shock.  During her first year in Japan, her attitude is so Ameri-centric and selfish, it borders on being hysterical (from this expat's point of view anyway).  Her husband's contract is for two years which Cook at first doesn't consider a long time until she gets a wake-up call when she arrives in Japan on a blistering hot day. Unlike the bustling metropolis of Tokyo or the history-filled city of Kyoto, the city she finds herself in is Nagoya.

Cook does not speak the Japanese language. Does not have a job.  And although the school her husband works for provides them with housing, she has to learn to do things she never imagined herself doing.

Her first transition into domesticity is doing the laundry.  In her first attempt it takes her almost four hours to do a light load.  The machine becomes her only friend-- and adversary--for the first few months. But sitting around doing nothing aside from the laundry can lead to stress and Cook takes up a habit she hasn’t had in a long time – smoking.

Through some of her husband’s contacts, Cook is introduced to a woman who offers her a teaching job at a local school.  As Cook has taught in the States, she’s happy to accept the job which gives her another taste of culture shock.

In Los Angeles, Cook got from one place to another in her red Jetta which she loved. In Nagoya she has to use something she thought she would never experience –public transportation. To get from her house to the school, she has to take a bus to the train station, make two transfers, then take a short walk to where the school is located.  It is here that she learns what crowded really means!  She also learns how it feels to be different and strange.

Cook spends two years in Japan but writes only about her first year.  In an interview included at the end of the book, she mentions that in her second year, things weren’t as challenging and she fell into a familiar routine.  It’s a great story about change--maturing from a single life in Los Angeles to married life in a foreign country and the experiences that come with it.

As an expat who moved to Japan from the States myself, I could laugh at--and relate to-- a lot of Cook’s stories  Unlike her, I had knowledge of the language as well as experience living here before moving here permanently  I was hoping she was going to write about her second year as well, but the story of this first year is enough to keep you entertained and will put a smile on your face.~by Ernie Hoyt, Tokyo resident

An Indian Attachment by Sarah Lloyd (Eland Books)

22This title has that crisp, acerbic ring that characterizes the novels of Anita Brookner, and at first seems an odd choice of name for a book about a young Englishwoman who spends two years with the Punjabi villager with whom she falls in lust, if not love. The title's restraint particularly resonates when readers consider that this adventure took place at the end of that emotionally extravagant decade, the '70s. Sarah Lloyd is easily seduced by beauty and the glory of a Sikh warrior's unleashed mane  of hair is too much for her. She cuts her Indian pilgrimage short, finds the village of the man who intrigues her, and moves into his family's home. It's an unlikely venue for a woman who loves the "chaos and electric energy" of the Calcutta streets but then there is "that hair," plus the opportunity to enter "rural life, the real India, the one I had come to find."

This woman knows how to travel hard and that skill serves her well in her new home. Sarah Lloyd is the kind of traveler who is happiest when staying in a gurdwara, "a large communal hall with windows all around" that is open to anyone, feeding and sheltering all who enter it without charge. If this is your idea of hell on earth, keep reading--this state of overcrowded, public bliss is where Sarah Lloyd lives for the next two years.

She is an artist and the one image of Jungli, the man whom she lives with, is a drawing she has done of his profile. This is perhaps the only clue the reader is given about the feelings Lloyd has for Jungli--he is gorgeous and her drawing of him is very reminiscent of the drawings of desert nomads  done by T.E. Lawrence to embellish his Arabian classic. Like Lawrence of  Arabia, Sarah Lloyd is enchanted with her idea of the country that has taken her in, and by extension with the man who has made it possible for her to live there in the way she feels is most authentic.

The beauty that nourishes Sarah is hard to pinpoint in the surroundings she has chosen but she is quite lyrical when she finds it. Delighted by a profusion of "English wildflowers" she discovers in Amritsar, she catalogs them in a tumble of poetry that evokes Midsummer Night's Dream. "Everything was so perfect," she writes of Jungli's village, "the clear early morning, the smell of damp wheat, the flowers in the verges, and the sky flecked with birds."

But Eden does not come without flaws and Lloyd is smart enough--and observant enough--to notice them and chronicle them with the same exactitude that she uses for the unexpected splashes of beauty. The lack of privacy, the dearth of sympathy, the realization that village life has no place for individuality is all noted and explained without whining or sentimentality. Understanding that she is "a guest" who during her visit  "remained an outsider," Lloyd watches without judgment and--even more impressively--without self-consciousness. Never in her chronicle of her two years in rural India does she indulge in the wild paranoia that frequently strikes expats in Asia. What people think of her, she seems to have sensibly concluded, is none of her business. Instead, she decides, when it comes to this new life, she has "a lot to unlearn."

As she unlearns, she describes it all on paper. She acquires language so she can have her questions answered, and when she and Jungli leave his family's village to enter a religious community presided over by an enigmatic saint, her questions proliferate. She has a household to run, provisions to buy, dung to collect. Even though she shares a hut with another couple, she is forced to become house-proud. And she is given a new identity. Without the buffer of foster-parents and their defined place in their community, Sarah Lloyd is known by Jungli's name--when her new neighbors talk about her,  they call her "Pritam Singh's."

But truly this is who she never becomes--if anything or anyone possesses this woman, it is India,  not the man who gave her a life there. At the end of their time together, it is Jungli who receives the reader's sympathy as Lloyd  dismisses him in the book's final sentence, "I knew with absolute certainty that Jungli would love me until his death."

カレーになりたい!by 水野仁輔 [I Want to be Curry!] by Jinsuke Mizuno (理論社(Rironsha)

I Want to be Curry (1) This is not a curry cookbook, although there is one curry recipe at the very beginning of the book. It is also not a guide book to the curry shops of Tokyo.  It's a book about Mizuno’s love for all things curry-- his early curry memories, his first overseas trip to the home of curry--India, and his descriptions of visits to all the curry shops and curry he's tried in Japan. He has become a member of Tokyo Curry Bancho, has sponsored curry events, has collected boxes of retro curries and miscellaneous items related to curry, and, he informs us, has accumulated enough curry items to open his own curry museum.

The book opens with Mizuno asking his readers, “When was your first kiss?”  He imagines the responses given, but says, “No, no, no.  Not your first kiss with a person but your first kiss with curry”.  He writes as if he is talking to us, persuading us to share with him our own curry memories.

He tells us the first thing that comes to his mind is a large elephant, as he describes his parents taking him to a place where a woman was singing in a language he had never heard before.  The place was Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture and the name of the restaurant was  “Bombay,” specializing in Indian curry.  The elephant that he recalls was part of the store’s sign.

All this at the tender age of five--but from this beginning, he was hooked.  He tells us when he was in Junior High, that he would save some of his allowance so he could treat himself to curry at “Bombay” which became his favorite curry shop.

As Mizuno grows older, he leaves his home town to go to university in Tokyo and is no longer able to get his weekly fix of “Bombay” curry. Mizuno then buys a guide book to curry shops around Tokyo, goes in search of a curry that has the same flavor as “Bombay,” and starts to work part-time at an Indian restaurant.

After trying nearly 1000 curry shops (and there really are quite a few in Tokyo), he comes across a place called “Delhi” which serves the curry of his memory.  He learns that the owner of “Bombay” got his start here and is amazed that he could pick this one restaurant out of the thousands to find the same flavor as that of his first love.  This sets him on a serious path to becoming Tokyo’s Curry Bancho (loosely translates to “Curry Boss”).

Realizing that being serious about curry means checking out the roots of the food, Mizuno travels to India where he learns that not all Indian curries are the same.  Traveling to all the major cities of India, he experiences the various curries throughout the country.  With the knowledge he gains from this, he continues to experiment with his own style of curry.

Mizuno doesn’t just sample the curries made in restaurants, he tries the vacuum-packed brands as well.  Japan has an incredible amount of ready-made curry packages, some only available in the prefectures that make them.  If you’re as much a  curry lover as I am, then Mizuno’s memories makes for some non-stop reading fun – and will make you hungry for curry as well.--By Ernie Hoyt

This is the first of Asia By the Book's reviews of books that have not yet been translated into English--but that we hope will soon be available to readers of English, as well as (in this case) Japanese!

Exploring Hong Kong: A Visitor’s Guide to Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories by Steven K. Bailey with photographs by Jill C. Witt (ThingsAsian Press)

My favorite guidebooks are the ones that give me the background and the little tips that make me feel like a resident when I am visiting, so naturally I look for guidebooks written by people who have lived in the place they write about. While in Hong Kong recently, I was given a copy of Exploring Hong Kong, began reading it at night in my hotel room and gobbled it in one sitting—it is that sort of book—informative, conversational and absolutely gorgeous. From the clarity of its maps to the beauty of its photographs to the satisfying weight when held in the hands, it is a lovely object as well as a very good book indeed.

9781934159163-AMZN (2)

What Exploring Hong Kong is not is a laundry list of hotels and restaurants and shops; what this book gives you are neighborhoods--ways to explore them, how to reach them and what to enjoy when you get there. It offers the conventional sightseeing destinations and then gives pointers that only a resident would know—the exact details of how to ride the Travelator, the most challenging way of hiking down Victoria Peak, where to find a tiny piece of Thailand in the shadow of Kowloon Walled City Park, the best vantage point for viewing the nightly Symphony of Lights,  which of Kowloon’s street markets is the place to buy “hell money,” where to find pink dolphins off the coast of Lantau Island and where to go surfing on the island of Hong Kong

The natural world is still alive and well in Hong Kong and its environs, Bailey tells his readers, and a large portion of his book tells how to enjoy this little-known facet of one of the world’s great cities. Wild boars, feral cattle, macaques, packs of dogs that resemble Australia’s dingoes are some of the wildlife that visitors may encounter when they leave the sidewalks behind, and mountain climbing, kite flying, and tent camping are offered as alternatives to Hong Kong’s more urban pleasures. Ancient walled villages and “a windswept island of ghosts” are  easy  to reach and explore when readers are provided with Bailey’s careful and lucid instructions.

Perhaps the most invaluable information provided by Exploring Hong Kong is found in its first chapter, Traveling Around Hong Kong: An Instruction Manual, which explains why Hong Kong’s biggest bargain is its Octopus card. But as a devoted eater, I am most fond of the hints on where to find the best egg tarts, where to drink the highest form of available caffeine, tea mixed with coffee, where to find Five Flowers Tea, and where migrant Filipinas find their favorite comfort food.

Whether you will be in Hong Kong tomorrow or are planning to visit “someday,” Exploring Hong Kong is essential reading. Bailey and Witt, who launched their series with Strolling Macau, say their latest wanderings have been in Hanoi, with a guidebook to that city coming soon. I’m ready to go…--by Janet Brown

Tokyo Vice : An American Reporter On The Police Beat In Japan by Jake Adelstein (Pantheon Books)

Tokyo Vice

“Either erase the story, or we’ll erase you.  And maybe your family.  But we’ll do them first, so you learn your lesson before you die.”  An ominous beginning to a true story told by an American reporter who worked the crime beat for one of Japan’s best known newspapers – the Yomiuri Shinbun (the Japanese paper, not  its English- language equivalent) which has a circulation of more than ten million a day.

The man who threatened him was a yakuza enforcer whose boss was Tadamasa Goto – a leader of the notorious yakuza gang, the Goto Gumi--and the subject of a story Adelstein was working on.  The yakuza boss had gotten a liver transplant at the Dumont-UCLA Liver Cancer Center for which Goto allegedly spent nearly a million US dollars. Some say the amount was actually three million and that some of the money was sent from Japan to the US through a casino in Las Vegas.

What made this a scoop to Adelstein was the question of how the man was able to get into the States.  He was on the watch list of U.S. Customs and Immigration, the FBI, and the DEA.  He was blacklisted – he should not have been able to set foot in the country.  And how did he become a priority for a liver transplant?

However given an ultimatum by Goto’s enforcer, Adelstein chose the path most of us would probably have also taken – he did not report the story.  Unfortunately, this decision would come back to haunt him.

There are a lot of books about Japan’s mafia – the yakuza, written by former yakuza members and people who have infiltrated the various gangs, including Yakuza Moon, written by the daughter of a former yakuza boss.  But Adelstein’s book isn’t just about the yakuza – it’s about the underside of Tokyo, in which the yakuza play a big part.  It’s about the Tokyo you won’t read about in any guide books.  It’s about the seamier side of life in one of the world’s biggest metropolis.

Adelstein takes us on his journey from becoming a student at Sophia (Joichi) University, to extending his studies of the Japanese language, to taking the “entrance exam” for the Yomiuri Shinbun, which is “kind of a newspaper SAT”. “If your score is high enough, you get an interview, and then another, and then another.  If you do well enough in your interviews, and if your interviewers like you, then you might get a job promise.”  Not only did Adelstein do well and pass all his interviews, apparently his interviewers liked him and told him to report for duty the following month or so.

As a cub reporter, Adelstein is first sent to Saitama Prefecture which people jokingly refer to as the New Jersey of Japan.  As he works closely with the police, he gets his feet wet by working on stories such as a juvenile using a bestselling book titled “The Perfect Manual of Suicide” for its intended purpose, a murder case of a snack-mama in Chichibu, and another murder case by a dog breeder in Saitama.  Finally, Adelstein gets transferred back to Tokyo, to Shinjuku Ward’s Kabukicho District – the Red Light Area of Tokyo where he is to work with the Tokyo Police Vice Squad.

The cases he writes about while working in Shinjuku make his Saitama stories seem mild in comparison.  One of his biggest news pieces was the Lucy Blackman story, a foreign woman who was raped and dismembered with her body parts hidden in a cave. He also wrote about the ATM thefts where the criminals would use a truck and a jackhammer and take out the entire machine in just a few minutes.  But when Adelstein uncovers the story of the nearly impotent Japanese government not doing anything about human trafficking, the book really picks up steam and reads like a non-stop thriller.

Although Japan is still safer than most countries in my opinion, it is not totally devoid of violence and crime.  And one cannot really tell the difference between a yakuza and a hard-working salaryman as the yakuza also have their hand in a lot of legitimate businesses.  It still amazes me that the yakuza can have their own businesses when the police know they’re guilty of racketeering, loan-sharking, human-trafficking, extortion and other crimes.  But still I love living in my adopted country.--Review written by Ernie Hoyt