2020 marks 12 years of How to Japanese. I started writing in the mountains of Fukushima and continued posting from a 6-mat room in Tokyo, a mother-in-law cottage in New Orleans, and now a one-bedroom condo in Chicago. The site itself hasn’t changed much, other than the frequency of my posting. It’s a blog that looks and feels like it’s from 2008, which is fine. I’m happy with the little piece of the internet I’ve carved out.
But I do miss the early days of the blog when I was able to post three times a week, which I think created clear expectations for readers and resulted in more interaction.
Newsletters are the medium of the moment, and I want to give one a try. I’m hoping it will help me reset those expectations with you all, expand the reach of the blog, and give me space to write more broadly (beyond my personal website).
I’m keeping the title How to Japanese, but the content will be aligned with my Twitter bio, which has been more or less the same since 2009. I’m planning to send something out each month.
I was debating what to share in this inaugural newsletter, and then I happened to be reading Volume 3 of かくかくしかじか (Kakukaku shikajika), Higashimura Akiko’s autobiographical bildungsmanga, and happened across this passage:
To loosely paraphrase Thomas Pynchon praising Richard Fariña, this passage came on like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 shakuhachi players with intentionally imperfect pitch.
If you’ve listened to Higashimura’s podcast, you can hear her voice in this passage, and while the phrasing is choppy and split into different panels for the manga, I feel like this is the way she’d parse it anyway.
My attempt at a translation:
Here’s the thing about people! It’s ONLY when they’re exhausted and hopeless! ONLY when they’ve been pushed to their physical and emotional limit by stress! That they can take the first step toward their dreams!!!
She really takes advantage of こそ here to make her case. This probably translates more precisely as, well, “precisely,” but repeating “It’s precisely because they’re exhausted…precisely because they’ve been pushed to their physical and emotional limit by stress” felt too formal to me. I’m sure there are other options, but ONLY felt emphatic on the same level to me.
This passage was an ah-ha moment for me, and needed relief, despite the fact that Higashimura-sensei and I work in very different disciplines. This newsletter isn’t a dream, but writing is a dream, and I’d like to be taking those steps more actively.
These are dire times, folks. We’re all being pushed to our limits, no matter what our individual situation happens to be. I hope you’ve been able to take some steps toward your own dreams.
2020 also marks 20 years of homebrewing for me. 20 years ago, a man named Elvis sold me and two friends a kit to make beer for around $100. It felt like a lot of money, but divided into three it was easier.
Elvis worked at a store (owned a store?) called Brew Ha Ha on Magazine Street in Uptown New Orleans. I remember him being skinny with an appropriate pompadour and mutton chops. He must’ve been in his 30s or early 40s. He played classic rock on 8-tracks and offered us samples of his beer from the taps on a kegerator. “Sometimes there’s a man, I won’t say a hero, because what’s a hero?…”
I think Brew Ha Ha was a Katrina casualty, sadly. Not damaged in the storm, as far as I know, but rather by the loss of business in the immediate aftermath. It’s unfortunate he couldn’t hold out a few years longer, until young people moving into New Orleans and the craft beer industry both entered a new phase of acceleration around 2008.
Local homebrew shops (affectionately known as LHBS in the hobby) have struggled to compete with online retailers, but the best ones become more of a community center than a store. They offer courses and competitions, meetups, advice, and, yes, samples of beer. There’s digital evidence that Brew Ha Ha was able to create this kind of community.
All of this has been rendered nearly impossible because of the pandemic. My LHBS is Gnome Brew, a shop that opened up a mile from me about a year ago. What used to be a two-hour trip to and from the store on the bus to pick up ingredients was cut in half when Gnome arrived. (Now with a bike it’s even less.)
Fortunately, people are brewing these days. And Gnome (and I assume other shops) has pivoted to contactless pickups and even local delivery for certain ZIP codes. There have been virtual events.
It’s up to us to create the community, to participate with our energy and our wallets. It’s a lot to have to think about on top of everything else we’re taking care of, but this is a critical time to think about how we spend and value our time and money, with whom and where we’re spending it, and what we’re able to build together.
This is all to say, support your local LHBS, or its equivalent in your life. In addition to shopping at Gnome, I made a donation to CHAOS, a community homebrewing club that holds great events and competitions, study sessions for the BJCP exam, and does charitable work.
I haven’t been in the Japan Times for a bit, but if you missed it, I learned how to make nattō during the pandemic. I have enough Natto Moto to last me another 20+ kg or so, which I guess means through this pandemic at the very least (fingers crossed), and likely into my early 40s. Amazon was out of Natto Moto for a while, but I know at least one person who has picked some up since then, so I’d give it a look if you’re interested. (If you’re in Japan, order directly from the lab.) Nothing hits the same flavor combination as nattō, miso soup, and a mountain of rice in the morning (with some nori/furikake, of course). It is the very definition of 懐かしい if you’re living here in the states and you enjoy that sort of thing.
I dug into the “This isn’t even my final form!” Dragonball meme on the blog last month. Very funny meme. I’m always impressed with how language that goes viral feels so perfect.
September means the return of Murakami Fest over at How to Japanese. I’ll be updating each week with a look at a chapter from 遠い太鼓 (Tōi taiko, Distant Drums), Murakami’s travel memoir in Europe. These are some very interesting chapters: Murakami is in Greece and Italy working on the core of Norwegian Wood from the fall of 1986 through the spring of 1987.
Like Patrick St. Michel, I have not been to Robot Restaurant. Unlike Patrick St. Michel, I have not done a deep dive into how the restaurant has been used in music videos. It’s worth a read, although I couldn’t get through every video. I was astonished by the tourism numbers he includes. Tourism to Japan more than triples between 2012 (8.4 million) and 2019 (31.8 million). His newsletter is also a great way to follow the music industry in Japan.