Jamie MJamie’s Japanophile Blog – Part 1: To the land of old and new

Japan has always been on my Must-Go list. Over a decade of being exposed to Japanese culture through language & cultural studies, not to mention that all the anime, manga,and Japanese friends I’ve had over the years have built up my desire to go to an almost fever pitch.

So at 10pm on the 31st of October 2014, a mere decade after making the decision that going to Japan would definitely happen, my girlfriend and I boarded a flight to the rising sun– an adventure that we could hardly believe was really happening.

At around dawn we woke up, peered out the window to see Japan rolling into view. Just past the coast was something that explained more in one viewing than all of my research into Japanese mythology than anything else: the forests of Japan, swathed in morning mist.


Suddenly I found myself taken back to the stories of forest spirits and demons and lonely samurai wanderers. An instant reminder that I wasn’t in Sydney any more.

Japanese bureaucracy is beautifully efficient. Have your documents sorted, make sure you’re in the right line, and you’ll be through in no time. What was expected to take us a good hour just waiting for customs and immigration to get through with us was done in about 20 minutes, including the time to get our bags, and, after a bit of a wait to get our rail passes, it was off on the first of many…many….MANY trains we would take during our stay. Getting anywhere requires a bit of planning. Getting from A to B can be a chore when you look at just how many different lines each train rail company runs.

Japanese trains are amazing. I never thought I’d be praising public transport but I love it. While walking from platform to platform can be a bit of a slog, the trains themselves are very regular, punctual to an almost unsettling degree, and full of quiet and polite Japanese people who are far better than we Westerners are at realizing that personal space is a purely mental thing.

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My girlfriend and I are staying in Asakusa (pronounced asak-sa) in Tokyo for this leg of our Japan trip, then back there again at the end of the month. We chose the location for a few reasons: great-yet-cheap hotels, very tourist friendly, close to pretty much everything, and more dripping with history than an encyclopedia.

No more than two blocks from our hotel  is the Sensoji temple complex. This includes two incredible entrance gates, Sensoji Temple itself, and a beautiful five story pagoda that overlooks it all.

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Despite the heavy rain we were quickly approached by a group of students wanting to practice their English by taking us on a tour of the temple complex. Explaining the history of each structure and their mythological basis. We gave them each a couple of Caramello Koalas as a thank you gift. I think we made some friends here already.

Later that night we hit up the Shinjuku district for dinner and a wander through the night life. Shinjuku is everything I imagined and more from a night-life district in Japan; strange, alive, crazy, and pure Cyberpunk. I feel like I’m walking through the opening chapters of Neuromancer around here.

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All in all a pretty packed first day in Japan.

Stay tuned for the week one round up.




1: Derek Landy – Skulduggery Pleasant: Mortal Coil

2: Libba Bray – Going Bovine

3: Paolo Bacigalupi—Ship Breaker

4: Madeleine Roux – Allison Hewitt is Trapped: A Zombie Novel

5: Bali Rai — Killing Honour

Speculative fiction has been inundated with the undead element for decades; we’ve all seen our fair share of evil zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, ghasts and ghosts. Even a few mummies have risen from the crypt in the last decade or so to try and scare the pants off us.

But what about the good guys who just happen to be mortally challenged? And by good guys I don’t mean the Anne Rice kind of undead who are generally naughty boys until they meet the right girl/guy/werewolf. I mean the kind of lurching characters who just try to get along in their un-life without meaning harm to anyone; the Friendly Dead.

Thankfully I’m not alone in thinking that just because you lose your pulse you don’t lose your humanity. Over the last decade or so there have been several pretty well known authors trying to bring the dearly departed back into the fold. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be scared of the majority of the undead, just that we should look at them on a case-by-case basis.

I’ll start with a personal favourite; Terry Pratchett. Yes, I know, I go on about him often but when you are a prolific as famous as he, you get a few perks.

In 1989 Pratchett broke ground for the pro-undead movement with Pyramids; a novel parodying Egyptian culture by asking the big question: “What would our ancestors say if they were alive today?”.  This story humanises the mummy community far better than the 1999 Brendan Fraser movie The Mummy ever did.

Since then the friendly dead are a constant element in Pratchett’s works; the most notable of these being theCity Watch series where the undead comprise a large part of the city’s police force, including a ghoul cafeteria lady.

Moving forward to the year of 2007 saw the emergence of the young adult supernatural novel series Skulduggery Pleasant; an ongoing work about the adventures of the skeleton detective and his mostly human counterpart Valkyrie Cain in their attempt to stop the world being destroyed again and again.

Skip another couple of years and we get Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner; a beautiful example of film noir style writing in a modern context. The main character, a private investigator and self-confessed zombie named Richter, attempts to locate an artefact of unimaginable power in full Maltese Parrot style.

What do all these stories have in common? Besides the fact that they are all fantastically written stories full of plot, action and humour? The main characters are not just undead but members of my Friendly Dead category.

They all have emotion, they all act like everyday people –for the most part – doing everyday things, and they are all believable. They don’t just lurch around the place eating people or burying them under the floorboards for later.

Context is everything; the undead are no exception. So next time you meet a zombie or skeleton don’t just run away or try to club their head off; try getting to know them first.

Having never read any of Coben’s previous novels, I started Shelter in a state of objectiveness; after reading my way through the book, I found this lack of bias helped me get into the foreign headspace. Shelter is a very American book. That isn’t to say that there is anything wrong with the American culture but it is reflected very heavily in the setting, the characters, even the use of language. The setting, a basketball-obsessed town, is pretty typical of a lot of the media that comes out of the USA. Most of the characters are jocks, cheerleaders and a sprinkle of the usual alternative lifestyles, including a goth girl named Ema and a hyperactive computer expert named Spoon. And, to be honest, it took me a while to get into the swing of the storyline because of these all too familiar elements.

Once you get past the rather slow beginning, the plot starts to take some pretty radical turns and becomes something difficult to put down. Mickey Bolitar, a rather hardened high school student, with his father dead and mother in rehab, is startled when he receives a cryptic message that his father is still alive from the Bat Lady: a member of his neighbourhood who is more myth than reality. Around that time his girlfriend vanishes without a trace, leaving him in what would politely be called a state of confusion.

What follows is a pretty solid mystery story involving tattoo artists, strange symbols, confusing gravestone epitaphs, violent strip-club owners and a man nicknamed “The White Death”. There are some pretty strong undercurrents in Shelter that do more than just pull the plot along; the human condition is as much a part of this novel as the ‘boy tries to find girl’ aspect. The subject of white slavery comes up more than once, as do war atrocities and human rights abuse. Shelter may start a little slow but it builds momentum quickly. There is plenty to enjoy and the ending sets the scene perfectly for at least one sequel.

Shelter – Harlan Coben

Published Sept 6, 2011, by Putnam Juvenile

Hardcover, 288 pages

  • ISBN-10: 0399256504
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399256509

  • The world is not a perfect place; there’s war, disease, famine and all kinds of flaws that make life not so fun.

    But what if you could live in a world where everything was perfect? What would you do to live in a city where everything went the way you wanted? What would you give up?

    The Utopia verses Dystopia debate has been a subject of literary speculation for many generations – The philosopher Plato wrote the first proposal for a Utopia around 300BC – and it is still a hot topic today.

    The problem with the idea of a Utopia is that it is one group’s idea of a perfect society, not everyone’s. What works for one person may not work for everyone. This is when we need to add Dys (ill, bad – Greek) to our Topia (landscape, place – Greek again) to create a Dystopia, a not very nice place to be.

    But how do we decide what is a Utopia or a Dystopia? Some are easy to recognise, like Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell; a civilization under ruthless control by the ruling power. This is perhaps the most dramatic representation of a Dystopia: media and language control, propaganda, kidnappings and torture.

    Many people in the media over the last couple of generations have used this novel to protest decisions made by their government, most without really understanding that most Western governments are nowhere near as bad as the novel illustrates and will probably never even get close.

    Sometimes, though, it’s harder to discern whether where you live is a Utopia or not. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is, in its way, a wonderful place to live – although most people see it as a Dystopia: You’re born into a job that seems perfect for you (actually, you are genetically designed to do the job); you get prescription medication that makes you happy; and all your wants are immediately satisfied. What could be wrong with that?

    Simple: you have no control. None at all. You are created to fulfil a role – from a mentally disabled menial worker to a genius ruler; and instead of thinking for yourself, you are given every kind of entertainment (e.g. movies, food, sex, drugs) to stop you from questioning what the government may be doing.

    But would you give up thought like in Brave New World? Would you give up the ability to feel emotion in exchange for peace like they do in the film Equilibrium? Do you fear that your government will make you “disappear”? Then you’re in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Does being born the natural way make you less of a person? You’re in the film Gattaca.

    Some genres of fiction focus on the concept of the Utopia/Dystopia better than others. CyberPunk is a good example of this as the tools that government uses to control are often advanced technology. Fantasy often has elements of the UvD debate, usually with the use of magic or iron-fisted kings.

    A perfect world may not exist; it may never. But would you really want to live in someone else’s idea of a Utopia?

    Other examples of either a Utopia or a Dystopia are: The film & animated series of Aeon Flux, the video game Bioshock, and the graphic novel & film V for Vendetta.

    CLIP: Aeon Flux – Pilot

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