Sunday, 20 May 2018

Travel Guides - Japan

My recent trip to Japan was a long time in the making.
I've been wanting to go ever since I studied Japanese at school.

I'm not sure why I didn't prioritise it earlier in my travelling career, except for the vague notion that I've had that I should do the bigger long-haul trips to Europe and the America's in my younger years and save the shorter, closer-to-home trips for later.

Certainly there was no jetlag before, during or after our time in Japan (not like our trip to Cuba and Mexico 18mnths ago where I was shattered for the entire first day in Cuba and for several days again when we finally got home).

We started planning Japan about a year ago.
We knew we wanted to catch some blossom time, but it also had to fit around our work schedules, B17's HSC exam timetable and Mr Books club football commitments.

I patiently waited until August 2017, though, for the latest Lonely Planet Japan to be published before really getting into the nitty gritty of the planning.

At work we're regularly asked which is the best travel guide.
Every trip I take, I decide to do a thorough comparison, to help me answer this question, but every trip leaves me with even more indecision than before I started. There are simply too many variants involved - the type of holiday you want, the author of the particular guide, your mood, the country you're visiting etc.

After Vietnam, I felt that the LP was good for the day-to-day on the ground stuff, like where to get tickets, how much they cost, how to get to and find the various places and what plugs, visas and shots you might need. I found the Eyewitness books good for the history of the country (great to read on the plane) as well as highlighting favourite venues to visit with maps and great colour pics. The Wallpaper city guides had great walks, a focus on the architecture (& shopping, although I've always ignored that section) and good suggestions for drinks and meals. The Trip Advisor app was our main go-to for restaurants and experiences at this time. Their rating system helped to narrow down the often overwhelming choices available.

In Cuba the LP helped us to work out where we actually wanted to go. It was such an unknown adventure, we didn't even know where to start. Yet it was the Eyewitness guide that filled in the gaps for some of the smaller towns that we stayed in. In the bigger towns and cities, the LP walks were a fabulous way to orient ourselves and to see a great cross-section of the area. In Havana, I grew frustrated with the LP because of how they divide the city up into the various suburbs for what to see and do, but then put all the sleeping, eating and drinking sections together at the end. When I'm staying in Centro Habana, I want ALL the stuff associated with Centro Habana to be together. I don't want to have to flick around trying to find a good place to grab a rooftop cocktail! Which is where the Wallpaper Guide came in handy again. Cuba is also where we embraced AirBnB for the first time. All but one of our stays was found on the app.

In Mexico, the Eyewitness guide had fabulous maps and walks around most of the ancient sites. As did the Moon Guide, but everything in the Moon guide was catered for American tourists only, from giving all the prices in US dollars (as opposed to the Mexican peso!) to where to find American food and other places that American likes to hang out together. Useful only for helping us to cross off certain places to not go to for dinner or to hang out! It also had some odd comments that we found skated very close to offensive.

With all this under my belt, I thought that for Japan we would use the LP to plan some of the bigger stuff as well as do their walks, use the Eyewitness Travel Japan for the history and iconic sites, AirBnB for accommodation and Trip Advisor for food.

For the record we have never knowingly stayed in a LP recommendation for accommodation. I have looked at their options over the years, but they're either too expensive or not actually anywhere near where we want to be. Back in my pre-internet, pre-app, backpacking days, the LP did help me track down YMCA's and Youth Hostels. But now I prefer a quieter, cleaner, cosier form of accommodation, embedded in the local community, which is why AirBnB has been perfect for us. 

We take the time to read all the reviews and comments. We look for English speaking hosts, and factor in things like distances public transport, restaurants and other things to see and do. We adjust our expectations for every country we travel to. We take the time to find places that sound like they will suit us and meet our needs and we leave honest reviews that take into account all these factors. Cuba and Japan are two very different countries which demanded two very different styles of travel, yet AirBnB worked beautifully for us in both. 

Trip Advisor used to be great, but the current filters are not very useful and keep going back to the default ones they want you to use. It is still handy to check out nearby restaurants and experiences when you first arrive in a new city, but it's getting harder to sort out the ads from the genuine reviews. I still write honest reviews, but I've become warier. Most of our Japan eating experiences came from friends, our AirBnB hosts or the good old-fashioned serendipitous walk by.

The LP helped me to narrow down my choices about where to actually visit. When I first sat down to fill in the blanks for our 3 week trip, I was overwhelmed - the new edition was so thick with options. So I started with the lovely colour top 25 photographs and a piece of paper. I wrote down which of the iconic sites and places I really wanted to see. Then I read through the 'First time in Japan' and the "If You Like' sections. Each chapter then had a small box of highlights for that region/city.

Sadly, I barely used the Eyewitness guide at all. I found the history section very dry and uninspiring and it didn't cover all the places we were planning on going to (whereas the LP did), so I didn't pick it up again. I also picked up a LP Best of Japan not long before we left, but ran out of time to read it & decided not to pack it to save on weight and space. The road map of Japan came along for the ride, but we used the MapsMe app the whole time instead. The map was handy, though, in the early stages of planning to see where all the places where in relation to each other. The final two books on my pile were a LP Pocket Kyoto & Osaka and a LP Tokyo.

The LP Tokyo was an old edition. I tore out the map and marked out the walks as suggested by LP for Shinjuku and Shibuya (the 2 areas where we were staying). I also tore out the two chapters for these suburbs and just took them along instead of the whole book. The Kyoto & Osaka book was brand new so I didn't want to tear it up (yet!) The Pocket guides really are handy for tucking into your pocket or handbag, although nothing any of the books said prepared us for 4 days in Kyoto during Golden Week!

Golden Week crowds at Fushima Inari-Taisha, Kyoto

I felt very prepared for this trip and had a number of things I REALLY wanted to do. I got to tick most of them off. The rest can wait for the return trip! Mr Books fell in love with the JapanTravel app which he used to plan all our train travel. We like to be organised at the beginning, then as we became more confident in using the trains and buses and negotiating the crowds, we're happy to make stuff up as we go along.

In the end, it was the Lonely Planet books, MapsMe, AirBnB and JapanTravel apps that got us around Japan with the best results.

I will happily conduct more intensive research and guide comparison for future trips!

My blossom photos.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

During the planning stages of my trip to Japan I asked around and checked on Goodreads for the best books set in Japan. At the top of nearly every list I came across was Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden.

When it was first published in 1997, and later when the movie was released in 2005, I avoided it at all costs. My impression was that it would be some kind of tacky white American male wish fulfilment fantasy story. Not at all my cup of tea, green or otherwise!

However I succumbed to popular opinion and packed it in my travel bag with many reservations. At best, I thought it would be a good book for the plane when I needed something light and easy to consume.

As it turned out serendipity was on my side.

I also took Murakami's Kafka on the Shore to Japan. In fact, I had started reading it a few days before departure. My review for it will turn up here soon. I finished it, about halfway through our time in Japan, as luck would have it, on our first night in Kyoto.

Starting Memoirs of a Geisha in Kyoto was an inspired thing to do. We stayed in the Higashiyama area, just a handful a streets away from Gion, the main geisha area in Kyoto and where the book was set.

I knew about the controversy surrounding the author and whether or not he had permission to name the geisha who provided him with a lot of the information for the book. From this I had assumed that the book was based on her life story. It wasn't until I finished the book and read Golden's acknowledgements page that I realised this assumption was not entirely correct.
Although the character of Sayuri and her story are completely invented, the historical facts of a geisha's day-to-day life in the 1930's and 1940's are not....Mineko Iwasaki, one of Gion's top geisha in the 1960's and 1970's, opened her Kyoto home to me during May 1992, and corrected my every misconception about the life of a geisha.

 A quick check on the internet, showed that Golden had been sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by Iwasaki who claimed that Golden had agreed to protect her anonymity. Golden claimed otherwise, saying he had tapes and notes to the contrary. They eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum of money. Iwasaki then went on to write (with Rande Gail Brown) an autobiography titled Geisha of Gion (2002) which claimed to tell the real story.

Both books were best sellers and both books have been loved and hated in equal measure on Goodreads. Golden for paternalistic inaccuracies and Iwasaki for grandiose, emotionless boasting.

From what I have been able to ascertain (and please correct me if I'm wrong) there were various levels or ranks of being a geisha. The highest ranking geisha were from the Gion, Pontocho and Kamishichiken districts. A lower rank of geisha were the so-called onsen geisha, or hot spring geisha, who worked in towns famous for their hot spring baths. Lower still were the ones who worked in a jorou-ya (brothel). A maiko was a junior or apprentice geisha.

Geiko Tomeko 1930's

Another controversy surrounded the mizuage ceremony as described by Golden in his book. This is the process by which a maiko became a fully fledged geisha (or geiko as geisha were called in Kyoto). Golden describes his character's virginity being sold off to the highest bidder. It was a pretty ghastly moment in the story and I wondered at the time just how true it was.

Initially I was relieved when a google search indicated that Iwasaki strongly refuted that this ever happened to her and that no such custom ever existed. However further reading seems to indicate that it was in fact a common practice, even for the higher ranking geiko (Sayo Masuda and Liza Dalby). 1959 is the key date here though, as this is when mizuage was made illegal along with other acts of prostitution.

Mizuage still exists as a form of initiation from maiko to senior maiko, but without the sex. The ceremony now focuses on the change of hairstyle and 'turning of the collar' on the kimono. According to her autobiography, Iwasaki became a maiko at age 15, in 1964, five years after the change in law.

So after all that, did I actually enjoy the book?

Yes, I did.

I read it as historical fiction, not as a memoir, and thoroughly enjoyed the glimpse into another world in another time. It was a quick, easy read. The romantic element felt unbelievable, rather Cinderellish really. For me it let down the historical aspects that I enjoyed learning about. It also happily mentioned the names of streets, buildings and streams that I was able to walk down, through and around, imagining what it must have looked like 70 years ago.

I could do nothing but step into my shoes and follow her up the alleyway to a street running beside the narrow Shirakawa Stream (that's a tautology by the by - kawa and gawa means river or stream). 

FYI: Hitler adopted the swastika from an ancient Hindu, Buddhist symbol denoting a temple.
It is still used in Japan (& other Asian countries) to indicate the site of a Buddhist temple.
Confronting to the Western eye, but true.

Back in those days, the streets and alleys in Gion were still paved beautifully with stone. We walked along in the moonlight for a block or so, beside the weeping cherry trees that drooped down over the black water, and finally across a wooden bridge arching over into a section of Gion I'd never seen before. The embankment of the stream was stone, most of it covered with patches of moss. Along its top, the backs of the teahouses and okiya connected to form a wall. Reed screens over the windows sliced the yellow light into tiny strips.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

My Blog's Name in Books

In the past few weeks I've been spotting this meme everywhere. 
Create by Lynne @Fictionophile, the rules are simple:  Spell out your blog’s name in letters.
Find a book on your TBR shelf that begins with each letter.
(Note you cannot ADD to your TBR to complete this challenge – the books must already be on your Goodread’s TBR) or in my case my Mount TBR page and my Classics Club List #1 and #2 pages.
Have fun looking through your shelves to find matching titles.

Having just returned from an amazing three week trip to Japan, I should be writing reviews for the books I read whilst travelling.
But I'm still in holiday mode and couldn't be bothered!
I'd rather be planning which temple/shrine/castle/park to see next than planning a book response.
The best I can do right now is to play with my #MountTBR piles and hopefully work out what I'd like to read next.


Basil by Wilkie Collins

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon 

O Pioneers by Willa Cather 

Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler 

After the Circus by Patrick Modiano 

Shallows by Tim Winton 

Book of Fairy Tales by Angela Carter 

Old New York by Edith Wharton 

On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin 

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset 

Seldom Seen by Sarah Ridgard 

 Sadly, this was way too easy. 
Not even three O's could stump me!
Have you read of my TBR books?
Which one should I read next?

Saturday, 12 May 2018

I Spy Book Challenge

As many of you already know, I have a TBR problem. Throughout the year, I have been looking for various ways to highlight my plight and focus on these books in the hope of reducing these staggering numbers. Every meme, every book tag that makes me go through my piles searching for books that fit the criteria is another reminder of 1. just how how many unread books I have and 2. a reminder of exactly which books I have gathering dust around the house.

I first spotted this tag at Joseph’s The Once Lost Wanderer, then Fanda @Classic Lit picked it up. It seemed like something I'd enjoy playing along with too.

The I Spy Book Challenge is pretty simple. Find a book on your TBR pile that contains either imagery or words that portray each subject. A separate book for all 20 please.

All my books are about the word.

1. Food

2. Transportation

3. Weapon

I had to stretch the friendship on this one a little.
I don't read a lot of crime so the best weapon I could find was an ancient curse!

4. Animal

5. Number

6. Something you read

7. Body of water

8. Product of fire

9. Royalty

10. Architecture

11. Item of clothing

12. Family member

13. Time of Day

14. Music

15. Paranormal Being

16. Occupation

17. Season

18. Colour

19. Celestial Body

20. Something that grows

One day I promise to read you all!

Have you read any of these books?
Which one should a read next?
If you've made it all the way to the end of this post, consider yourself tagged. Proceed at your leisure.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Books With My Favourite Colour On the Cover (or In the Title)

The Artsy Reader Girl is the new host of the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.
Each week she nominates a topic to encourage those of us who love a good list to get all listy.

This week it's all about Books With My Favourite Colour On the Cover (or In the Title).

My Top Ten Purple Books Are:


I love this cover soooooo much.


I have yet to read this book, but I did love Hay's earlier book, The Railwayman's Wife.
Anyone who follows my Instagram page also knows how much I adore Jacaranda trees in bloom!


My dream cover for my favourite Bronte book.


Not my favourite cover design - it's a bit too, well, neon, but it is purple and a great read.


Interesting combo of books, but hey, it's purple with pretty gold trim!


I recently read & enjoyed Nevermoor, which is when I discovered the pretty purple cover due for book 2 later this year.


This has been on my TBR pile for years....


How gorgeous is that lotus flower?


It's purple, what else can I say?
Read my review here.


One of my all-time favourite books (& movies) and lots of luscious purpleness wherever you look!

Can you add to my purple passion?