Archive for March, 2011

More Views of Niigata

March 8, 2011

Gather ’round and see a few more pictures of Niigata! In case there’s any confusion, my explanations appear under the photos they’re about, not above.

Niigata Station

Not a lot of explanation needed here that the caption doesn’t provide. It’s the main train station in Niigata.

Bus boarding area in front of Niigata Station

Likewise here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that crosswalk without a crowd of people on it.

The type of bus I typically ride

This is in the area between the station and Bandai City. (Bandai City is a section of Niigata, not a separate city. I was confused about that when I first arrived.) The buses I ride to and from the university are that color.

Looking toward the station

I’m going to get fired as a commentator! No “color” to add on this one, either! It will be more interesting when Chris adds the monsters with his digital vandalism.

Bandai Bashi: "The Bridge of Ten Thousand Generations"

Okay. Back in the early sixties, during the Great Niigata Earthquake, all the other bridges collapsed, but Bandai Bridge stayed intact, ever standing astride the flood of the Shinano. This is one symbol of Niigata. Tourists come to see this bridge. There used to be a fantastic pub, the Kirin Bandai Beer Hall, diagonally opposite (across the river) from where I stood to take this picture. It had ivy-framed windows overlooking the river, and you could gaze out on the night view of the bridge, lighted with golden lights, as you quaffed your Kirin or your Guinness. Closing that place down is one of the five worst things the city has ever done. Now an apartment building stands there.

I more often see it from this side.

This is looking across from the Okura Hotel side toward the Bandai City side.

The Anastasia

Sightseers can ride this boat up and down the river on dinner cruises. I always find it somehow comforting when the Anastasia chugs past me. (Its name, you know, means “Resurrection” in Greek.) I’ve always fantasized about jumping off one of the bridges onto its roof as it passes beneath me. I’ve never done it, because I’m not sure what the next step would be. Rescuing the girl, I suppose. But what if there wasn’t a girl on board?

Yasuragi-Tei, a park on the bank of the Shinano River

In my younger days, I spent a LOT of time on this riverbank — reading, writing, viewing cherry blossoms in season, playing catch with friends, lighting fireworks (which are perfectly legal here!), practicing my trombone . . . I even set up a tent one night and camped here! (I was only 23 or so — the age at which you do stuff like that.) I remember a few curious senior citizens peering in through the mosquito mesh early the next morning. I only did that once . . .

Little waterfall in Hakusan Park

Very peaceful place. In this park, there is a cage full of big grayish-brown monkeys of the type that inhabit the mountains of Japan and sometimes compete with guests for space in the outdoor hot-spring baths. Well, once about ten or fifteen years back, the monkeys escaped and climbed high up into the park’s trees. Just at that time, Niigata City’s official monkey-wrangler was away in Africa. So it fell to the city employees to deal with the situation. There were a lot of guys from the city hall, all in conservative suits, ties, and wingtip shoes, clambering around through the park, trying to coax the monkeys down from the trees. The monkeys sat up there laughing for about three days, beaning their pursuers on the heads with pine cones. Eventually they came down to eat and went back into their cage.

Pond in Hakusan Park

My parents visited this park. I remember reading a lot of the book Shiokari Pass here, and it was one of my haunts during my first few years in Niigata. The park was another place I came to think of writing ideas and to write. The glimpse of bright red you see is the main front torii gate of the park and shrine.

Directions and hours

This stone bench has a central dial engraved with the ancient Chinese symbols for the compass directions. Here are also the hours of the day. I always liked hearing of the Hour of the Ox, the darkest, deepest part of the night, when ghosts appear.

Scenic footbridge over the pond

This bridge is covered with wisteria vines. When the pale purple flowers bloom, the bridge has a living, fragrant ceiling and walls.

Famous tree (I think)

I’ve heard that this tree is a national treasure of Japan, being of profound age. I think I have the right tree.

Guardian dogs at Hakusan Shrine

These dogs guard the entrances of Shinto shrines. Notice the mouths of the dogs. This one is open, forming the syllable “a.”

"A" and "N"

His companion has a closed mouth, forming the sound “n.” In the Japanese syllabary, “a” is the first sound and “n” is the last. So the dogs are mouthing the equivalent of alpha and omega, an all-encompassing circle.


The shimenawa is the woven grass rope that hangs on the torii. And smaller versions hang in the entranceways of the homes of Shinto practitioners. The shimenawa prevents evil from entering. On New Year’s Eve, a great bonfire is built here at the shrine, and people bring their old shimenawa and toss them into the flames. People skewer dried squid on long sticks and roast them over the fire, then gnaw on them (it’s like beef jerky, only squid-flavored). And new shimenawa are hung to replace the old.

First plum blossoms, Hakusan Park

Here’s a stone lantern, or tourou. The monkey cage is just behind me and to my left. The monkeys were hiding up on the roof of their inner sanctum that day, and I couldn’t get a decent picture.

First plum blossoms, Hakusan Park

The first plum (ume) blossoms are a sign that spring is indeed coming.

Site of Dead Poets Society meetings

Yes! The first few years I was in Niigata, I convinced a group of friends (church members and adult students) to come with me out into the pine woods on Midsummer’s Eve, and by flashlight beam, we each read aloud a poem or two we’d chosen for the occasion. This is the actual site of one of our meetings. (We also did that on a camping trip to Sado Island one summer, in a spider-haunted grove.)

The Matsubayashi

Maybe you remember that my friends had a black cat named Pucca. This is where we found Pucca as a newborn kitten, alone and abandoned in the brush, crying and crying. Pucca had a long and happy cat life, but we always wondered about her . . . a jet-black cat, found in the dark woods on Midsummer’s Eve. And she would attack the Bible, biting its pages, but not other books. (Her name was chosen because I had read a poem that night featuring the pooka or pucca from Irish folklore. The name stuck.) We found her near the top of this staircase.

My first apartment, Mezon Matsunami

This is where I lived when I first came to Niigata. That was my place on the corner, where that sign is, just above the garage. If anyone remembers the first newsletters of mine — this is where they were written. I was still living here when I started Dragonfly, though much of it was also written at my friends’ place and in Taylorville. Across the street are some houses, then the pine woods, and then the sea. I remember when there would be a storm at sea with high winds, afterwards there would be sand in my apartment.

Niigata City Hall

Niigata City Hall.

A castle near the sea

I hung out in this park, too, back in 1989-92 or so. It’s between the pine woods and the sea.

Historic stairway

This stairway is historic only to me — on it, and in the park and woods around it, I read Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, and wrote most of A Green and Ancient Light.

The violent Sea of Japan

It was cold the day I took this picture. Somewhere over there is mainland Asia.

Nozomi Lutheran Church

This is where I served as a lay missionary for my first few years in Japan, through the Overseas Volunteer Youth Ministry program, teaching English in classrooms on the second floor. I also taught one day a week at Niigata High School and one day a week at Niigata University. The church’s appearance has hardly changed a bit in all these interposing years.

Niigata High School

Niigata High School. My task was to come into the classroom and correct any mistakes I found in the English sentences the students had written on the chalkboards before class. That was one of my favorite jobs in all the years. It was regimented like a military unit — the boys all in black uniforms with gold buttons, though the girls were allowed to dress however they wanted (because when the school began, it was only for boys . . . so the dress code was never added for the girls, although in my day, it was about half boys and half girls). At various times I would privately ask a student, “Doesn’t it . . . you know . . . bother you that the boys have to wear uniforms and the girls don’t?” Invariably the student, whether male or female, would blink in confusion and say, “Well, no.”

The desks were all in rows, and the teacher stood on a raised platform. At the beginning of class, all the students would stand up, and at the command of their class leader, would all bow to the teacher (and I would bow back). They worked very, very hard. It was probably the best high school in the prefecture then (may still be), and the students were striving to pass the rigorous college entrance exams which have an enormous influence on the future of a person in Japan.

The room was packed with desks and people — no place to stand except on the platform. When they would have a space cleared for the arrival of the heating stove in the late fall, before the stove got there, I would always joke “Oh! You’ve finally made a space for me to stand! Thank you!” The students loved that. I wasn’t that much older than the kids in those days, so the girls would blush and whisper and giggle and drop pencils when I came into the room or passed nearby.

Part of my job, too, was to suggest alternative ways to say certain parts of the sentences, and the students would eagerly copy those down. But I always had to watch the Japanese teacher, who stood at the back. There were ways that we actually say things in the States that would have been marked wrong on a Japanese college entrance exam. If the teacher gave me a shake of the head, I would say “Wait! Cancel that!” and the students would smile and note that they’d just learned some “forbidden” English.

Finally, trees

There’s just one thing left to say in this post. You may have been wondering about the nostalgic tone of the last couple entries here. There’s a reason for that. After twenty-two years in Japan, I have made the decision to relocate to my homeland.

There’s no calamity, no scandal — it’s just time. Nor is it sudden: this is a decision I’ve been feeling my way toward for close to ten years. The little signs and “nudges” have been steadily accumulating, and . . . well, it’s just, as I said, time. Leaving here is extremely difficult, but I am convinced I’m doing the right thing.

I am returning to the States two days from now. It may be a little while before I can post again, so please be patient. And be assured that, Lord willing and I have safe travels, the blog will most certainly continue. There will be new adventures to chronicle, new points to discuss as the writing life goes on!

I appreciate your prayers for fair winds and happy journeys.


Some Views of Niigata (And a Couple of Tokyo)

March 1, 2011

The prefecture office here in Niigata has a great observation deck on its highest floor. I took my camera up there on a sunny morning last week.

Chitose Great Bridge

That part of Niigata surrounded by water — the river, the canal, and the sea — is referred to as “Niigata Island.” That’s the part I lived and worked in when I first came as a volunteer with the Lutheran church. Here, you can see the heli-pad in the foreground. When dignitaries visit Niigata, they are often flown in by helicopters that land here. I cross this bridge a lot in my daily life.

Looking across the Shinano River toward the Sea of Japan

Niigata Island again. Can you make out the faint bluish outline of Sado Island on the horizon? I’m not sure if I can, or if it’s wishful thinking. Obscured by buildings in the left half of the picture, the Sekiya Canal connects the river with the sea. The sea-mouth is in about the top center of the photo.

Facing downstream; the Shinano flowing toward the sea

My stomping grounds. The Furumachi area is to the left of the river, and Bandai City is straight ahead on the right side.

Sado Island in the hazy distance

Or else wishful thinking. Sado is really clear on some days and invisible on others. Maybe it’s not always there!

The little holt at the foot of the prefecture office

When I take the bus to the university, I walk right through the middle of this little woods and then cross the bridge you saw in the first photo. Although this was taken in late February, the trees are vibrant in the warmer seasons. I always think of the path through them as “the Shire.”

A green and ancient corner -- idea place

Down there where the driveway makes a corner against the woods is one of my old places from my first couple years here. For some reason, I chose that spot to park my bicycle, and I remember scribbling notes there for what become A Green and Ancient Light, which I conceived as a dictionary cataloguing my childhood, including things that really were and things that were imagined, and making no distinctions between them. I’d like to re-do that book someday and get it into a form that’s actually publishable. It has possibilities.

Looking toward my place

See the distant tower in the top center? Okay, just beneath that is the line of the bullet train tracks. And just below those, straight down from the tower, see the next big building? That’s the movie theater complex I go to, about a five-minute walk from my apartment. On the horizon to the left of the tower, see the thing that looks like a giant clam or a landed alien spacecraft? That’s Big Swan, the soccer stadium.

Mt. Yahiko and Mt. Kakuda

We’re looking more or less south here. I’ve climbed both those mountains: Kakuda once, Yahiko many times.

The idea corner again

This is a closeup of that woody corner beneath the prefecture office.

Niigata Prefecture Office

And this is looking up from there at the office building.

From beyond the holt

This reminds me of a medieval castle rising from the woods.

Near my place

Here’s a street I pass along every day. The green building on the right is the veterinary clinic where I took the injured duck that time. The Cupid supermarket is just to the left. The big building right behind the clinic is where my good friends live.

Very significant table

No other table is more important to the writing and all other projects I’ve done in the past two decades plus! Hallowe’en jack-o’-lanterns were perennially carved here (until I started going to World Fantasy Conventions at that time of year). D&D metal figures were painted here, and D&D was played. Uncounted lessons have been prepared here. And stories and books, from the first to the most recent — this has been the primary writing place. I always seem to work better at a kitchen table than at a desk. The chair where I typically sit is that one closest to the coffeepot.

Post office at the West Gate

Here’s the little post office outside the West Gate of Niigata University. I always think of it as my “lucky post office,” since manuscripts sent from there seem to fare better with editors than those sent from other places. But that may simply be my imagination . . . the fact is, I’ve used this post office more than any other over the years. I’ve lived in different parts of the city, near other post offices, but mailing things from the university has been more or less a constant.

Approach to the building where I teach

I love this gap in the trees between the parking lot and the building where my classes are taught.

Sunny bank of the parking lot

Nice setting, huh? The trees are often full of crows that caw loudly, ransack the garbage, and will try to mooch food from anyone eating outdoors. I had one hop up and stick his beak into the top of my tote bag one day to see what was inside. Also, these trees rain down a brown powder at a certain time of year that coats all the cars in the lot.

Niigata University, very early spring

Sometimes I take the path through these trees; sometimes I take the path that goes around them.

Plastic food

Japan abounds with highly realistic-looking plastic food. These are models in the showcase outside a restaurant.

"My" bench in Eleven Park

Eleven Park is a tiny park tucked between houses and buildings near my place. I’ve written many a letter from this concrete bench. I sat there this past summer to write most of “Someplace Cool and Dark” on my AlphaSmart Neo.

Yotsuya Station, Tokyo

This photo was taken last year. Back in my Tokyo days (1988-89), there weren’t convenient signs in English letters (romaji). We had to learn hiragana well enough to decipher the station names in time to know whether to get off or not before the doors closed. Yotsuya was the place where I and my two fellow volunteers who lived out my way would transfer from the long-distance orange train to the local yellow one.

Train station in Tokyo

I forget where precisely I took this picture, but it’s a station on the Chuo Line. I remember being the last person to squeeze into a packed train one day during rush hour. I was so close to the doors that, when they closed, the front of my coat was caught and held fast between them. I couldn’t pull it out — couldn’t retreat at all, because the train behind me was full of people. I was worried that the doors on the opposite side would open at the next station, and I’d be left dangling there. But fortunately, they opened on my side next.

A friend told me the story of getting onto a rush-hour train with a dingy, dirty tote bag. When he got off the train, it was all shiny and clean. All the passengers around him unwittingly rubbed off a little of the dirt with their backs and fronts and elbows and briefcases and manga covers.


Look at all the bilingual signs nowadays! Not so back in my day, let me tell you . . . Also, now these wickets are all automated. When I lived in Tokyo 22 years ago, station employees stood at every entrance gate and punched the edge of your ticket with a hand-held punch. Most of them kept up a constant rhythm, clicking all the time, even between moments when passengers thrust tickets at them. Clickety clickety clickety click.

Tokyo, March 1989

There I am, newly arrived in Japan, doing my six-month homestay in Musashi Koganei on the Chuo Line. I was reading Stephen King’s It then, I remember. I had been using a Smith Corona word processor in the States and had not yet bought my Ricoh “My Riport” N-10 word processor. I remember having hair. I’m still using those black PaperMate pens, the best pens made. Yes, that was my first kotatsu experience (the low table, heated beneath with electric coils that glow bright red). I shared this room most of the time with my host family’s poodle, Ringo.

This has been fun! I’ll try to take a few more pictures of city landmarks soon.