Reading and eating

I always delight in a new book. And although I have embraced the electronic version as an excellent way of carrying a library around with me, there’s nothing quite like the feel of book made of paper.

Today’s is a particular delight, being an extravagant hardback. A hefty tome that sits, spine along the palm of my hand as its glossy pages open, peppered with photographs. For, this is not fiction, but a cookery book.

As I glance through its pages at random, I stop at one headed ‘Breakfast in Japan’. Here’s the first paragraph:

“Kyoto wakes late, which at least gives me time to write. A perfect morning. Grey clouds. Mist hangs low over the hills like woodsmoke. Soft raindrops. An old woman rides her bike, wobbling, a transparent umbrella in her right hand. Breakfast is miso soup in a deep, black, lacquer bowl, and grilled silver mackerel. A plate of pickles, vivid purple cabbage, white radishes, shredded daikon is salty, sour and crisp.”

Fresh sushi
Sushi at Tsukiji

Which is why Nigel Slater is my favourite food writer. You will find recipes in his books. Good ones, creative and useful ones. But he’ll also take you through the whole sensual experience of growing, preparing, cooking and sharing a meal.

In a few words he’s taken me to the other side of the world and offered me a rather strange, but enticing breakfast, and I’m hooked to a cookery book. Maybe it’s because I’ve been to Japan and had fish for breakfast – raw fish in fact in the form of sushi and sashimi just outside Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fishmarket. But good writing can transport you to new places and give you a sense of sights, sounds and cultures you may never actually experience.

So what does it matter that a cookery book is beautifully written? Surely it’s all about the recipes and the method? The proof’s in the pudding, so to speak.

Well I think it does matter. Because it shows me that Nigel Slater really cares about his work and that he wants to share, not just the end result, but the whole experience. By opening up his memories and thoughts he shares something of himself, as he passes on the pleasures of tastes, flavours and ingredients. If he writes so beautifully, you just know that what he cooks will be served up with as much love and care. To me, Nigel Slater is just as much a writer as he is a cook. And probably the person I’d most like to invite me round for dinner.

Dipping into the third volume of his Kitchen Diaries at that particular page has also brought back memories of my own wonderful time in Japan. The blog posts I wrote then are no longer online, but I still have my notebooks, photographs and poems inspired by my trips there. Maybe it’s time to reflect and republish. Would you like to read more about travelling and eating in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and Takayama?

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Memories of a visit to Hiroshima

Memories of a visit to Hiroshima, paying respect to the past and being welcomed to a thriving, and peaceful city

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

Hiroshima. A place name that can stop you dead. As dead as the watch whose hands forever point to 8:15 – the precise moment when the atomic bomb shattered thousands of lives and changed history.

A-bomb dome, Hiroshima
The A-bomb dome, Hiroshima

I first visited Japan in the spring of 2007. On the train to Hiroshima, a young man smiled and approached with his hand held out. Nestled in his palm was an origami crane and over the course of our journey, he showed us how to make one.

Taking a pad of patterned paper from his back pack, he began to fold it into shape, slowly, deliberately, taking great care of the creases. He introduced himself as Tsetsuo and thanked us for allowing him to practice his English.

When we got off the train, he walked us over to a tram stop and made sure we reached our destination.

The A-Bomb dome, the building that marks the epicentre of the bomb blast remains a ruined shell. Damaged, but still standing. A marker that held its ground as everything else around it was atomised into dust. Its distinctive shape casts a shadow on the skyline.

It stands at the entrance to the Peace Park, gardens, memorial and the Peace Museum. The museum tells the history of the city and its people, describing the worldwide events that lead to the bomb through a series of panels depicting letters, documents and photographs from world leaders at the time.

The initial blast killed 700,000 people, but in the following weeks and years many more would die from the effects of radiation, from being crushed in damaged buildings, trapped by fire, or simply desperately, desperately thirsty, with only black irradiated water to drink.

A model shows the city before and after the blast. Figures show the desperate human suffering. Eyewitness statements speak of a blinding white flash and then searing pain like hot needles as the shock wave ripped through buildings and bodies.

Memorial in the Peace Park, Hiroshima
Memorial in the Peace Park, Hiroshima

There were only five photographs taken in Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. They were taken by newspaper photographer Yoshito Matsushige, who was a couple of miles away from the centre of the blast. He later wrote: “I fought with myself for 30 minutes before I could take the first picture. After taking the first, I grew strangely calm and wanted to get closer. I took about ten steps forwards and tried to snap another, but the scenes I saw were so gruesome, my viewfinder clouded with tears.”

That phrase, “My viewfinder clouded with tears” has stuck with me. More powerful than any photograph.

The final section of the museum displays objects recovered from the debris. Beside them sit museum cards with details of who they belonged to, where they were at the time of the blast and what they were doing on that day.

A twisted metal lunch box, a tattered uniform, a child’s tricycle. I found these objects and their stories almost unbearably moving. They brought the unimaginable destruction of a thriving city back to a human scale.

There’s a special space for the story of Sadako Sasaki, a girl who died from leukaemia, caused by the radiation 10 years after the bomb. She folded thousands of paper cranes in the hope she would get well. The tradition continues with a monument in the park where children hang colourful paper cranes in a message of peace.

It’s not unusual for westerners in Japan to encounter great kindness. I have heard many travellers tell of being given directions, or even taken to where they wanted to go by local people. As a visitor, you are a most honoured guest, in a country which sets great cultural value on respect.

Japanese garden
Japanese garden in Hiroshima

But I think that Tsetsuo, who showed us how to make the paper cranes, was acknowledging more than the usual Japanese hospitality. When we told him we were visiting the Peace Museum, he said his grandfather was one of the many thousands killed in the atom bomb blast.

He knew his city was a hard place to visit. And that was why he took such care to welcome us. To honour our interest in his home town and help us see beyond its sad history.

As we learned in the museum, only a few days after the bomb obliterated the city, the trams began to run again. And despite all the fears that nothing would ever grow again in that irradiated earth, lilies bloomed between the tracks.

Hiroshima now offers a peaceful and friendly face, whilst paying respect to and remembering the past.

Writing with a sense of place

La Finca
Our outdoor classroom in Aracena

I’ve been thinking recently about how a sense of place influences my writing.

In September I spent four glorious days on a Dark Angels creative writing in business course in Aracena, Spain. My fellow writers all drew on the landscape, the history and the culture of the area to produce some highly imaginative and creative writing. It was truly magical to hear the different voices and interpretations of the exercises we did together during the day and to revel in a final evening of stories and performances.

The first day, we used a passage from Don Quixote as inspiration, and along with the warm sunshine, good company and relaxed atmosphere, it’s encouraged my recent writing to take on a rather lyrical, allegorical tone.

Compare and contrast with a few years ago, when I visited Japan. There my writing took on the style of the haiku. Pared back. Economical. Each word working hard. Packed with meaning. I have a notebook filled with poems and scraps of free verse from my time there. And when I think of Japan, that’s the kind of language that fills my mental landscape.

I’ve also recently written a piece about where I live. For this I drew on both the geographical setting of the river that runs nearby, and the voices of its history. For this is an area of rich voices, identifiable by their distinctive accent. I wasn’t born here, so it’s not my accent; but listening to The Unthanks sing of the shipyards, I can fair see the bulkheads blocking out the daylight or hear the pounding of boots on the slipway.

Professionally I write for one client. One tone of voice. But it has to have something of all these voices. It has to be economical, because I write for busy people who want me to get to the point. But it cannot be too obscure. They cannot be expected to work hard to find the meaning.

So, I look for the phrases that will surprise and delight. The words that show there’s a real human being behind those marks on the paper or screen. Sometimes that means a change of rhythm or pace. Sometimes it’s a colloquial phrase – something you’d actually say.

Though I have to be careful not to be too colloquial. I was recently asked to rewrite a line where I used ‘tea’ in the northern sense of ‘dinner’ or a meal you have in the evening. After all, not all our customers are northerners.

I’ve been asked if writing for one client can get boring. It can be a challenge certainly, to keep it fresh and interesting when covering the same themes. But there’s always a new way of looking at things, new insights from our customers or new influences from the wider world to take on board.

And when I spend some time thinking about my writing, I can see that I do adopt different voices – at work, on my blog, and in my personal writing. They’re all slightly different, but all part of me. And they’re all influenced by people I’ve met, places I’ve visited. To me, it’s a rich source of inspiration.

Does a sense of place influence your writing too?

If you want to know more about what happens on a Dark Angels writing course, tutor John Simmons describes it beautifully in his latest blog post. 

The Trees

I was pointed to this splendid poem by Philip Larkin today:

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Larkin’s poem struck me as absolutely perfect today. And it reminded me of something I wrote, inspired by my travels to Japan where I saw the spring cherry blossom or sakura.

Sakura

Joy explodes.
From swollen joints,
Pink and white petals boom
A reminder,
The ancient are still young at heart.
“Come enjoy!”
“Today there is life and beauty.”
“Is that not enough?”
Light-hearted blossoms have no cares
Except being
Living the moment.
Ichi-nichi issho
Within each day is a lifetime.

Unexpected kindness – a memory of Japan

origami crane
Origami crane

I first visited Japan in the spring of 2007 on a journey to see the cherry blossom. One day, as we were travelling by train, a young man carrying a backpack approached us. He held out his hand and showed us the origami crane nestled in his palm and asked if we would like to learn to make one.

He sat down beside us and started to show us the simple folds on a piece of origami paper. We learned his name was Tsetsuo and he liked to talk to practice his English.

He told us a great deal about the place we were travelling to, a little about himself and how Japanese people learn English in school, but how many are afraid of making mistakes when they speak it. We told him about our wonderful travels so far, the amazing food, sights and scenes we had already enjoyed.

When we got off the train, he walked us over to a tram stop and made sure we reached our destination. It was one of many, many acts of kindness and hospitality on our trip.

But what makes it so memorable is our destination that day. We were travelling to Hiroshima to visit the Peace museum that tells the story of the atomic bomb attack on the city.

Hiroshima. The word itself stops you as dead as the watch we saw forever stalled at 08:15, when the explosion obliterated the city.

It’s a word tinged with sadness. A word that reflects the worst of what we, as human beings, can do to each other.

But it can also reflect the best of people. Through the kindness of Tsetsuo. He knew his city was a hard place to visit. And that was why he took such care to welcome us. To honour our interest in his home town and help us see the smiles beyond the suffering.

It’s hard to imagine when you see the pictures and the models of what was left after the blast and read the stories of the fires, the water shortages and the desperate human suffering that resulted from the attack, but Hiroshima was rebuilt.

As we learned in the museum, in only a few days the trams began to run again and despite all the fears that nothing would ever grow again in that irradiated earth, lilies bloomed between the tracks.

The A-Bomb dome, the building that marks the epicentre of the bomb blast remains a ruined shell. A memorial so that no one ever forgets what happened there. But the gentle resilience and respect means the people of Hiroshima were, in time, able to move on.

That’s what gives me hope and faith that despite the current, unimaginable horrors caused by the earthquake and tsunami, Japan and Japanese people will endure and rebuild. They will do it quietly, gracefully and humbly.

They are well equipped and better organised to deal with such disasters than most. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel for the kindness of those who made us feel so welcome, and shared their culture with us.

So I’ll do what I can in a small way. On Saturday I’ll run my local parkrun and dedicate those few miles to Run for Japan, making a donation to the British Red Cross Appeal.

It may feel like a small thing, but small things matter. In Japanese culture, the degree of your bow can show the level of respect you offer to the person you are greeting. My gesture may be small, but my bow is deep.

The BBC’s Rachel Harvey captures brilliantly the hope and resilience that remains in Japan today: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/9426878.stm

Thinking of Japan

Last night I sat slurping a bowl of noodles in a warming miso broth. And I was transported on a sense memory back to my first trip to Japan and a far superior bowl of noodles and tofu devoured after a freezing cold trip out to see the Kegon waterfalls.

So to wake this morning, and to see the images of the earthquake and tsunami devastating this country where we were made to feel so very welcome, fills my heart with sadness.

To see cars, boats and houses tossed like toys in the eerie encroaching mass of water and debris; the walls of flames; the people standing on the roof of the airport building at Sendai; to hear that the trains in Tokyo have been stopped – seems scarcely credible. It’s like the most extreme Hollywood disaster movie. But it’s very real.

I count myself privileged to have visited Japan twice. It is a country of great contrasts – of beautiful countryside and sprawling neon-lit cities. At all times we were treated as most honoured guests and many Japanese people went out of their way to offer help and make our visits special. I trust and hope that all those we met are safe and well.

We blogged our visits. Our first account is no longer available online, but I may select and repost some of the entries here in coming days to give you a taste of what this incredibly vibrant and culturally rich country has to offer. You can see pictures, video and read about our visit in November 2008 here: http://thenicolog.spaces.live.com/ Click on November 2008 and then ‘Summary’ under Blog on the right hand side menu to navigate through the entries.

I hope you’ll understand why my thoughts are very much with our Japanese friends today. My slight Japanese does not allow me to express my sympathies for what has happened, but I hope they will understand the sentiment if I say domo, arigato gozaimsu (the most polite form of thank you) for some lifelong memories and unforgettable experiences.