My Top Writing Tip for Setting the Mood

door-of-sidi-bu-said-6-848399-mLong ago, in a land lost to history, a caliph kept djinn prisoner and pimped them out to grant wishes for profit. But the djinn, who hated all humanity for enslaving them, turned every wish into a curse. So rich men and women used to the services of wishcrafters, who drafted wishes with perfect wording containing no loopholes for the djinn to exploit. But before a wish could be sold, someone had to test it…

That’s the premise of my latest novella, Wishtester, which follows a young wishtester named Faruq. It’s coming soon to a blog near you. Look out for it!

Creating the magical, ancient Arabian world where this story takes place–the greedy caliph’s white palace, the colorful and chaotic market, and the giant, ethereal djinn born of smokeless fire–were a lot easier to do with a soundtrack. I create my best settings when I have music to help me set the mood, and the song I had on repeat for this one was Dub on the Beach by Razoof (East Instrumental Mix by ZEB).

Gorgeous isn’t it?

And here’s another one by the same Duo: High Tide, Lower East Dub (Zeb Mix) 

And finally, some haunting Middle Eastern Oud

You can find all the music on itunes.

Check back soon for the first chapter of Wishtester!

6 Tokyo Hoods I love But You May Not Yet Know

A "live" or concert house in Shimokitazawa

A “live” or concert house in Shimokitazawa

One of the tentacles (oh my God, someone please take away my keyboard) that’s keeping me trapped in Japan is the Tokyoness of Tokyo. In my time here I’ve been all over central Tokyo’s most trendy, grungy, ethnic, fashionable and upper class neighborhoods, but there are a few that I keep gravitating to again and again. Places such as…

Roppongi Hills/Midtown

Here me out. I know you know Roppongi, but it has this reputation as party city for expats, and while it’s true that in Roppongi you’ll find “gentleman’s” bars and the sleaziest clubs this side of a swinger’s hook-up, Roppongi also has this very elegant side, bordering on bougie (urban dictionary, look it up). I feel a bit under dressed no matter what I’m wearing whenever I go to the Roppongi Hills shopping mall, but that’s where you’ll find the best cinema in Tokyo, Toho Cinemas Roppongi.

There are also great (normal) bars and restaurants in Tokyo Midtown, so even if you don’t have set plans it’s easy to find somewhere to eat, or grab a drink. And Hinokicho park is a beautiful place to take an evening walk. It’s not just about the partying in Roppongi.

Ginza

Ginza is Tokyo’s “rich” neighborhood, though all the neighborhoods seem rich to me. And it’s true that if you want to go shopping out there, it’s gonna cost you a kidney or something. But drinking? It’s surprisingly reasonable. In fact there’s a well-known bar out there slinging 300 yen drinks (about $3 USD).  Ginza also has it’s share of wine bars and a lot of Spanish restaurants for some reason, but I’m not complaining. Far from it. In Ginza you’ll also find Star Bar, were I had some of the most expensive, yet well-mixed drinks of my life. Star Bar shuns the closed-minded conventions of the common man like “drink menus”. Psssh. You just tell the bartender what flavors you like and he’ll come up with something that suites your taste. Pretty fancy, huh?

Shimokita-Fish

Shimokitazawa Storefront Art

Shimokitazawa

Love this place. There are a lot of theaters and small clubs where indie artists put on concerts. It’s got this artsy “bohemian” (if we’re still using that word) vibe and that speaks to me man. In Shimokita you’ll find a ton of second hand stores, boutiques, interesting cafes and intimate bars. One of my favorites has a big, fluffy couch and fairy lights strung from the ceiling. There are usually street performers, and many of them don’t sound half bad. It’s a great, laid back place to just chill. In fact whereas I often under dress for Roppongi and Ginza, I overdress for Shimokita.

Takadanobaba

Student and poor teacher’s heaven. It’s near Waseda university, full of restaurants and everything is cheap cheap cheap! I like Cotton Club, an Italian restaurant that has a cute patio and great cheese pizza. And speaking of pizza, my favorite place in Tokyo, Sempre Pizza, has a branch in Takadanobaba. Their pizza is made in a wood oven and it’s about 600 yen ($6 USD). Compare that with Dominoes and Pizza Hut and the rest, where a small pizza is at least $10 USD in Japan.

Takadanobaba is also home to my favorite ramen/tsukemen joint, Menya Mushashi. There’s always a line to get in but I loooove their tonkotsu, or pork broth, tsukemen–which is like ramen except the noodles come on the outside and the broth is a lot richer, to me at least.

Marunouchi

View from the Shin Marunouchi Building

View from the Shin Marunouchi Building

Recently I’ve been hanging out a lot at the area around Tokyo station, specifically the Shin Marunouchi building. The top floor is dedicated to restaurants, including one of my favorite Chinese joints “So Tired” (don’t ask me about the name, I don’t know either.)

In Summer you can eat out on the patio and it has a stunning of Marunouchi area and Tokyo station. I really get that “Wow, I live in Tokyo” feeling whenever I come here.

Korakuen

KorakuenBeautiful. It’s got an amusement park right in the center of a metropolis, two of my favorite things ever. How can I not love this place? Korakuen is an entertainment complex that’s home to the LaQua shopping center, featuring Spa LaQua, a hot spring in Tokyo.

Koichikawa Koraken

Koichikawa Koraken

There’s also Tokyo Dome Stadium, and nearby Koichikawa Korakuen Garden, one of the biggest and most beautiful gardens in Tokyo. If you want to impress a date, this is a good place to take them.

How about you, are there any Tokyo neighborhoods you love, or want to visit?

There’s Nowhere Like Nikko

Nikko is cradled in the mountains of Tochigi prefecture, and is famous for it’s natural beauty, most likely because it’s only 2-3 hours away from Tokyo’s concrete giants. In Nikko it seems no matter which direction you turn there are ranges covered in robust carpet of trees.

Mysterious mountains and Lake Chuzenji

Mysterious mountains and Lake Chuzenji

Nikko is also known as a cultural hotspot, hosting some of Japan’s most well known temples outside of Kyoto. I visited Nikko’s famous Toshogu temple, but I won’t really be talking about it here, because I have to admit something: I’m done with crowded temples overflowing with tourists. A temple or shrine should be a quiet, sacred place and when there are too many crying babies and laughing people and line ups to go everywhere it turns me off, so I can’t say I was particularly moved by Toshogu. Chuzenji on the other hand…

Chuzenji

Chuzenji

When I first stepped on the grounds I instantly liked the atmosphere. The sun was struggling to force some grey light through the cover of clouds above, which threatened rain. Maybe that was why there were so few tourists milling around. A low, gong-like bell was rang out lazily from a tall, pagoda shaped tower. The scent of incense, to me the scent of prayer, rose up in wisps of smoke from an urn in the centre of the main square. Nikko-MonkMy friend and I joined about five or six other people on a tour inside the temple, led by a monk in blue. He explained the history of the temple and the gods enshrined there (all in Japanese), and then led us to an altar and invited everyone to pray. We all stood silent with our heads bowed. A sharp strike with a his stick on a bowl-shaped gong released a low reverberating chime. The sound was almost something tangible, almost breathable. I could feel it vibrating in my ears, feel it seep into my brain where, joined by the soothing smell of incense swimming up my nose, they coaxed my mind to be still for just a moment. This was the tranquil temple experience I had been looking for.

Next we tackled the senjo go hara hiking trail. At first, when I heard about the estimated three hour walking time, I didn’t want to go (Ugh hiiiiikiiing, but I’ll sweeeaaat). But it was highly recommended, so the original plan was that were were gonna do a half-hour mini hike, up to the next bus stop. But once we stepped into the forest and started the trail we decided to see it through to the end, and here’s why:

nikko-hiking

Even the sign at the start warning about bears couldn’t keep me from traversing this wonderland, and the hike was easy, more like a nature walk. There was a river to the left of us for most of the walk. and it’s soft bubbling made pleasant hiking music. But though the walk through the forest was beautiful, it couldn’t even hope to compare to when the trees gave way, and opened up onto the marshlands.

Nikko-Plains-1

No, that’s not a painting above, though at the time I had the dreamlike sensation that I was standing in one, the beauty is so unreal.

We ended the day with a trip to the Yumoto Onsen area. Here there are hot springs so close to the source of heat that there are vents with steam coming right up out of the ground, and the water smells like sulfur. After soaking in an outdoor tub at twilight, the mountains blocky shadows in the distance against a darkening blue sky, I both felt and smelled like a boiled egg. But my skin was tingling with the onsen’s magical powers.

I can’t recommend Nikko enough to any of you looking to come out to Japan. If you get the chance, go!

Budget Japanese for the Cheapskate

If you, like me, are a starving artist, a student, or just suffering from scroogitis, this list of free or relatively cheap resources for learning Japanese should appeal to you.

 

Free Lang 8 Lang 8

This is a site where you can upload diary entries any language and have native speakers check them, and it seems to be dominated by English and Japanese speakers. You just create a profile, upload your diary and wait for others to come by and check it, although it helps a lot if you go check some of the English diaries people have up. I like this site because people can make correction and comments too if they want. And more than one person can correct the same diary so you can learn different ways to say one thing.

imagesJLPT quiz N5-N1 apps

I’ve got these on iphone and ipad. These are great for practicing before the JLPT (Japanese language proficiency test). Better to use these as a gauge than a study tool though, because they don’t give you much info about the answers,  but based on the JLPT test I took, I’d say they’re in line with the levels.

 

Tae Kim’s guide to Learning Japanese

This one’s another app, and the only free textbook I’ve seen. I’m not a huge fan of textbooks, at least not on their own. But it does help put the grammar in perspective.

Imiwa?

A decent Japanese dictionary app, but honestly, sometimes it doesn’t have words I’m looking for. But eh, it’s free and it works most of the time. It’s that or pay for an electronic dictionary.

 

Paid

Japanesepod 101.com

This site’s very popular, and you’ve probably heard of it. It’s a website full of podcasts, PDFs. and practice tests. I highly recommend it…but a pro membership is about $200usd a year. But this guide is for cheapskates remember? When you first sign up, they give you this “ultimate getting started” offer, where you can get pro access for a month for just a dollar, and all their podcasts are downloadable.

You see where this is going.

If you’re a true scrooge you’ll sign up, spend the month downloading all the podcasts at your level and not renew. However… They’re always adding new stuff. If you sign up for their newsletter they’re always sending out offers, and I was able to get a yearlong subscription for half price. And they have a lot of resources besides the lessons like a grammar bank,  dictionary. great practice tests for the JLPT, and a PDF breakdown of the grammar for each lesson. It’s worth the money.

iKnow

iknow

Looove this one, because I can use it when I’m commuting which is a loooot these days. It’s a website but the also have an app, and it’s primarily for learning vocabulary, though you can pick up some grammar through the example sentences. There’s also a dictation feature you can use to practice your pronunciation. It’s about $70-80 a year.

Volunteer Classes 

This only applies to expats in Japan, but there are a surprising number of free or super cheap (not more than $20USD a month) Japanese classes taught by volunteers. The one I go to has been really great. I only had to buy the textbook. However the focus is heavily on conversation, so If you’re looking to learn Kanji you might need to sign up for “real” classes, at a school or university.

So those are the main resources I use to learn Japanese. How about you?

That Thing You Think You Can’t Do? Here’s Why You Should Do It

regret-dog

As children we’ve all heard some version of “the sky’s the limit!” and “reach for your dreams!” My parents often said these a lot, especially after I brought home a good report card or something. And God bless them for being supportive.

But it’s not until we get older that we realize the sky is a lot closer than we thought and dreams live among the stars. It’s not until we get a bit wiser that we’re able to fill in the second, unsaid half of those common platitudes. “The sky’s the limit…but there’s a glass ceiling in the way that most people aren’t able to break through so you’ll probably end up in middle management like me and that’s fine too.” “Reach for you dreams…within reason you can’t become a music producer you don’t even play an instrument!”

Let me tell you a short, sad story. It’s called. The Worst Feeling in the World.

#

The Worst Feeling in the World

Long ago, in a kingdom forgotten by time and history, a musician wanted to play a song for a tyrant king. The king was arrogant and mean, but very rich, and his patronage could elevate the musician and his family into a life of luxury. But he feared to play, for there were rumours that any musician who displeased the king was thrown in the dungeon and left there to live out the rest of their days in a dank cave of stone behind iron bars.

One day, the musician’s youngest daughter became very sick. No one in their village could help her, and he didn’t have the money to hire a doctor from town. One night as he watched the child sleeping fitfully with her little mouth open and struggling to breathe, he made up his mind: he must play for the king. So he gathered up his courage, took up his thumb piano made of wood fitted with metal tines and went to the palace.

kalimbaThough he played a lively, tinkling melody, the king’s attendants looked grim. Sweat trickled down the musicians brow as his thumbs flew over the metal tines. But when he finished, a smile parted the king’s coarse, black beard. The musician’s heart soared, and the king let out a joyful laugh.

“What is this pedestrian country music?” he said. “Never have I heard something so unsophisticated! Take him to the dungeon!”

The musician’s eyes were wide with fright as the guards led him away. They told him the king was a terrible miser, and he had no intention of becoming patron to any musician. So all who came to play for him were imprisoned.

“If only I had known!” cried the musician.

They threw him in a  cell so dim he could barely see. His only companion was the drip, drip drip of water leaking from the ceiling into a little pool in the corner. He stayed there for a week, weeping every day, knowing his precious daughter must be dead, until one day he desperately grabbed at the bars, and to his shock, his fingers closed around a sheet. The king was such a miser that he simply painted a sheet to look like bars to fool his prisoners into staying.

The musician escaped the palace, and made his way home, weak with hunger. But when he returned he found his wife and son crying at the bedside of his daughter, who had died only an hour before. His mouth twisted at the thought of the week spent trapped behind a sheet.

“If only I had known!” wailed the musician.

Two days later, he sat on a rock in the middle of a plain, playing his sorrow on his thumb piano when a woman with strange tattoos all over her face came up to him.

“What a sad tune! What troubles you my friend?” she asked.

“My daughter is dead,” said the musician, his eyes bloodshot.

“Is that so? Well lucky I should happen upon you today. I am a witch who can bring back the dead.”

The musician’s eyes went wide, shining with hope. “Is this true?”

“Yes! Come come! We must see her quickly, for I can only revive someone who has been dead for less than one day. Where is your–“

But the witch stopped, staring because the man had thrust his hands into his thick hair, tugging at it.

“If only I had known!” howled the musician.

#

The moral of this story is DON’T GIVE UP!

Don’t rely on hearsay, assumptions and even statistics to tell you what you can and can’t do. Success is possible, but you have to know what you’re doing. If you have a dream, research it, figure out what you need to do to achieve it, and then give it your all. Even if you think you’ve failed, it’s not over till it’s over. What many of us don’t realize is that often the horrible, sinking feeling like you’ve hit a dead end and you’re just not good enough is the precursor to success. A rite of passage, even. And everybody who’s anybody has been there. The only difference between them and us is:

1) They researched and charted their course expertly and

2) They didn’t give up. They took detours, recalculated, flew if they had to. But they didn’t give up.

Just because I can’t do it today, doesn’t mean I won’t be able to do it someday.

I’ll leave you with this highly inspirational video. I watch it every time I need to remind myself what’s possible. It’s about a man who learned to walk again, even though doctors said he never would. In an interview, he said he wasn’t even trying to walk, he just wanted to lose some weight.

So when you’re thinking

I can’t lose weight. Every time I try to diet I quit after like two weeks, and gain back any weight I lost

Or

I’m too old to have children/go to school/start a business

Or

I’ll never be make it as an actor/singer/writer/podiatrist

Just try. Just try. Explore your options. You could end up going places you never imagined you could.

The Dark Side of Teaching English in Japan

toque-787769-m

Before you decide to pack up your life and teach in Japan, you should know what you’re in for.

This article over at the Japan Times explores one of the biggest issues expats, especially women, face as English teachers is Japan: Harassment. Some highlights include a student masturbating in class, a student telling a teacher he wanted to drink her breast milk, and a teacher getting negative reviews from a students she refused to date, which affected her raise and chance at contract renewal.

In Japan, generally, Okyakusama wa kamisama, or, the customer is God, and this attitude can leave teachers high and dry when it comes to issues with students. Sorry to say it, but money will usually trump a teacher’s comfort and sometimes even safety. Every English teacher has their horror stories or their stalkers, men and women alike.

At my school Ko Seto is the name that strikes terror into the hearts of teachers whenever it appears on the student’s lists. He’s been coming for like ten years, and goes to every branch booking lessons with all the female teachers. But even the men don’t want to teach him because his constant giggling and shifty eyes freak them out. I don’t know if he has a form of autism or what, but the fact that he only ever wants female teachers rubs people the wrong way.

Then there was the old man who told my somewhat busty coworker that she needed to be screened for breast cancer. Somehow I just can’t believe he was that concerned about her health.

I know another teacher who had a student who would wait for her after every shift so he could walk with her to the train, even after she asked him not to.

One male teacher refused to teach a girl after she gushed about how much she liked him and made him feel really uncomfortable.

As for me, I’ve been lucky so far. Aside from some awkward lessons with Ko Seto, I’ve had nothing more than guys asking if I had a boyfriend, or asking me to dinner or movies.

The most frustrating part is that it’s just an accepted part of life as an English teacher. Unless things get really out of hand, there isn’t much support just because you feel uncomfortable.

One day, I walked into the teacher’s room to see a note on my student’s list saying “stranger”, which another teacher corrected to “strange person”. Apparently, this guy had showed up at the school and harassed one of the staff for three hours, refusing to leave and let her get her work done, so he was banned from signing up for lessons. So he simply went to the school across town and signed up there.

Guess who got to teach him?

And yes he was certainly a “stranger”, making inappropriate comments and not giving the other students a chance to speak.  I’m just glad there were two other students that day, and I told the staff not to sign him up for my lessons anymore. Luckily, he didn’t turn stalker on me.

And I’d like to note that as bad as the teachers get it, the primarily young and female staff have it worse. We can escape to another class, but they have to talk to the students for as long as they stick around.

At one of my old schools, there was this notoriously racist guy who made a Chinese student in the lesson really angry with his anti-Chinese sentiments. But, he was paying a lot of money so shogannai–what can you do? He still takes lessons to this day as far as I know. So when a student still isn’t banned after his harassment affects other students, a.k.a other sources of money, what hope do you, the teacher that is actually leeching money from the company as a salaried employee, have of being supported?

So if you are determined to come over to Japan as an English teacher, by all means come, but know what you’re getting into, and know that if you have issues with a student, there’s a good chance the school will take the student’s side over yours.

Dream: Future street kids steal pretty women’s faces

I have the strangest dreams of anyone I know. On a scale of 1-10 for weirdness, I’d rate them Hayao Miyazaki. But I love these quirky expressions of my subconscious, and most of my story ideas come from dreams or daydreams. Here’s the latest.

—————————-

1197827_27445669

In the dystopian future, street kids work with gangsters to steal the faces of attractive women and sell them to old, rich women. They use a vacuum-like machine that causes the face to fade right off. The kids don’t even have to be in the same room, it works through walls, but they do have to be within a certain proximity.

Occasionally they steal whole bodies. They have a slang word for a woman with a body worth trying to sell. I can’t remember what it is but I remember that it has a non-sexual connotation. They’re just kids, and though they can identify a “sexy” body that will sell, to them it means money and nothing more.

They crash an office where only young secretaries work and start stealing faces. Two kids catch sight of a woman with a nice body.

“Think she’s a [slang term I can't remember]?” a boy, maybe about 9 years old, asks of a girl around the same age standing next to him.

“Yeah, let’s get her,” the girl replies.

The woman notices her leg starting to shrivel away, so she runs into another room where she’s trapped: The only way out is a window and a fall to the death. Someone runs in after her–the man in charge of this particular group of ragamuffins. He’s a short, squat man with long and greasy black hair and one red “cyber-eye” (I don’t know why, maybe to make him look more like a villain), and I think of him as a pimp.

Next I’m in the room with a huge backpack on my back. He asks me where the woman went, and I say I didn’t know. There’s no body outside the window but she’s gone. I don’t seem worried that he’ll be interested in harvesting anything from me. He lets me go and I leave slowly and casually, because I suspect the woman is in my backpack. When I get far away I check, but she’s not in there. I’m consumed with curiosity about how she got away, but I wake up before I can find out.

What in the name of Donald Trump’s toupee is this dream about?

I’m ashamed of how sexist this dream is. Only women bought faces. All the women in the office were secretaries, but hey in my defense maybe that’s my idea of dystopia.

I think the children represent ignorance. They don’t know what they’re doing, why a particular body type is so desirable, they just want the money. It reflects the frustration I feel lately with our lack of social responsibility. Ad execs throw all kids of crap in our faces and we let ourselves get distracted, not really thinking about the questionable assumptions and maybe outright lies behind what it is they are showing us. I get a little paranoid when I think about what kind of hurtful messages and beliefs I’ve been consuming, and I’m even more afraid of perpetuating them in my writing.

The guy in charge of the kids was a pimp because he literally sold women’s bodies, (how original, Nandie lol). But I got the sense he was just a middle man. He sold to big businesses that made half-assed attempts to make everything seem legit. They didn’t have to try hard though, those women wanted their faces and they were willing to overlook where they came from.

Which brings me to the women, the consumers. Again I guess it’s my frustration with the oppressed perpetuating their oppression. Watch this sketch from Whose Line is It Anyway.

On the surface, it’s hilarious. And on You Tube there are no shortage of comments about that.

But if you read between the lines, you’ll see the humor is derived from some faulty, outdated and even dangerous assumptions such as:

1) Gay men are not to be taken seriously

2) Gay men are salivating over straight men and will molest them as soon as they’re given the chance and

3) Gay men make straight men  uncomfortable and should be feared

It’s just a comedy sketch, it makes people laugh I get it. But there are actually people out there who don’t have the critical thinking skills to realize all gay men might not be like Richard Simmons’ over-the-top portrayal.

Number 3 is the most worrying. People are beaten and killed for being gay. Is this comedy sketch adding to that? I can’t rightly say, but I know it’s not helping.

In my dream I feel like older women should be on the same team as the younger women, but they’re letting themselves be manipulated by the beauty industry. In the same way I think people, especially minorities who are no strangers to the slings of stereotyping, should be able to read between the lines when we see things like the clip above, but a lot of us would rather just stick to the surface, because if you look deeper it’s not so funny anymore.

And ain’t nobody got time for that. Most people have got over two-hundred emails in their inbox at work, the rent’s overdue and dentist says their kid needs braces or they’ll grow up to look like a horse that won the Stanley Cup. All they want to do is go home and laugh at Richard Simmons, God dammit. The way our society is set up, it seems impossible to get the masses to think more critically. It’s an uphill battle and even when you’re making the conscious effort  to be aware you can still slip up.

But in my dream, that one woman did it, she escaped the body snatchers…but unfortunately I have no idea how.

What do you think?