Here is a list of bookshops I wish I had had the chance to visit when I was in Tokyo last year. Maybe next time. A whole corner of Tokyo dedicated to secondhand books. Sounds like paradise.

Death of Vali

A few months ago I caught sight of a dazzling poster in the tube station which stopped me in my tracks. It had loads of elephants running around in luscious green countryside flanked with wild, exotic plants and splashed with monsoon rain. I love elephants, they are my favourite animals. Big, gentle and with loooong memories. I’m always amazed when I see programmes about them returning to their elephant graveyard when they’ve never been before. Some kind of primordial collective memory lodged within their DNA…who knows?

So, it turns out the poster was for an exhibition at the British Museum of paintings from the palaces of Jodhpur which have never been seen abroad. I confess I’ve never been an afficionado of Indian art, although I’ve been to several exhibitions at the British Museum and the V&A over the years and am familiar with the Indian artistic style. But the image in the poster (see above) wouldn’t leave my mind, so I dragged my family to see it.

And it was just gorgeous. The artistic sensibility, style and fresh colours used were so different to what I’ve always assumed was Indian art (but then India is a nation with a vast history and many different artistic traditions so I shouldn’t really have been surprised). What really struck us was the similarities in composition and aesthetic to Japanese prints and paintings, especially ukiyo-e and nihonga. You would never think to compare the two culturally and aesthetically diverse countries. India always seems so vibrant, noisy and colourful whereas Japan sits back in quiet contemplation with sombre and mute colours. A step back as opposed to India’s rushing forward. But every single picture resonated with similarities, for example the way the waves in the Indian Ocean was represented was exactly like the stylized patterns often used in kimonos and chiyogami. It was unbelievable and made me feel that art and beauty truly is universal.

Chiyogami Red

The exhibition has been extended to 11 October 2009 so you have no excuse to miss it. Go and see it now!


I started reading Kafka on the Shore last week for the Japanese Literary Challenge 3 and I’m enjoying it very much. I’m taking it slowly as I want to savour and think about it as I go along. Also, there is a character in the novel with the same name as mine! Yay, bonus! While I was at my sister’s this weekend, I caught sight of After Dark on her bookshelf, and as it was quite a slim volume, I took it down and couldn’t resist taking a peek. I normally go to sleep with a couple of books by my pillow (kind of like a security blanket – I always feel safe when I’m surrounded by books) and before I knew it, I had started reading it. And I finished it the following morning. I did say it was a slim volume.

After Dark isn’t as whimsical as some of Murakami’s other novels. If I had to compare it, it is more in the vein of Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun rather than A Wild Sheep Chase or Dance, Dance, Dance. The novel follows one night in the life of Mari Asai, a nineteen year old university student studying Chinese and running away from her cracked home life. She has a beautiful older sister Eri who is deep in a coma-like sleep watched over by a mysterious man. Mari has missed her last train home and is killing time reading a book in a family restaurant. There, she encounters Takahashi, a one-time classmate of her sister’s. He is on his way to an all night band practice. From there, events take a strange turn as Takahashi’s friend Kaoru, a former pro-wrestler and now manager of a love hotel asks for her help. She has a beaten up Chinese prostitute crying in the love hotel and needs Mari’s interpreting skills. Mari is drawn into the shadowy underbelly of Japanese nightlife as she meets characters who do not normally exist in her conventional suburban life.

Nothing much happens as this novel only covers about seven hours or so in Mari’s life. But we get a snapshot of the lonely hours between the last and first trains that leave Tokyo into the suburbs. The 24 hour family restaurants, convenience stores and love hotels as well as the night shift of IT workers all make an appearance when most ordinary folk are fast asleep in their beds. In contrast, Mari’s sister Eri who is fast asleep at home is stuck in an uneasy place between life and death. We hear stories about the various displaced characters who are all running away from something in their lives. Like in all of his novels, there is a thread of alienation running through After Dark. And although Murakami doesn’t try and explain or give an answer to life’s problems, the novel left me not with a sad, depressed sense of futility, but a snapshot of modern life in Japan. It’s not a happy novel, but he leaves us with a small nugget of hope in the myriad problems faced by ordinary people.

A lot of focus has been given in the past few years to the dark, visceral nature of Japan and the East, not mainly due to the violence and sex prevalent in films, novels and manga that is increasingly available in the West. Like in any country, there is a light and dark side to Japan. I feel it mistaken to think that you can define a country just by a selection of artistic work. Having lived in Japan, I feel that the traditional and modern, culture and vice all complement each other and build a fuller picture of such a complex nation.

After Dark isn’t my favourite Murakami novel, but I liked it. There isn’t a definitive conclusion to the story, but you come away from reading it with a little more understanding of Japanese society.

So having spent the last week nursing ever multiplying monster headaches (tension-type headaches including a side-effect of nausea and upset tummy) brought on by having to think about viewing flats and sorting out my mortgage (yes, I know I have to grow up one day but please, not just yet!) I have decided to treat myself to an eyelash perm. Well, technically both eyelashes as I don’t want to look like a one-eyed doll wonder. And I’m impressed with the result. And it was painless too. Here’s a short clip if you want to know how it’s done:

The eyelash perm has been popular in Japan for over ten years to brighten up and enlarge Japanese eyes, and I had been dying to get one ever since, but sadly I didn’t have enough time when I popped over there this year for a friend’s wedding. I know, I sound like a real jet-setter, swanning off to Sri Lanka, then Japan, then Munich a few weeks back….but seriously, my bank balance is suffering as a result because there were sooo many nice things I just had to get in Japan. My advice: if you are going to Japan, start saving up months in advance because you will definitely want everything you see in the select shops that line the streets of Tokyo. And not just things, you will want sweets from the convenience stores and things from Muji. Muji in Japan is different from the UK because they sell food. It might be ready-made but it’s yummy. It is a shopper’s hell/paradise depending on how much spare cash you have. And I haven’t even started on Matsukiyo (short for Matsumoto Kiyoshi, an equivalent to Boots in the UK, but sooo much better – it’s a chemist/beauty store in which you can spend hours). Everytime I go to Japan, I spend half my time there. I. love. Matsukiyo.

OK, enough of sounding like a crazy person. Let’s get down to some book business. I’ve started reading Kafka on the Shore and although I’ve only read a few pages, it has a more sinister feel than some of Murakami’s other novels. I really loved Norwegian Wood and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and more recently I found his non-fiction semi-autobiography What I Talk About When I Talk About Running both educational and enlightening. Especially since I was trying to get some tips on running a 5km charity run for Cancer Research at the time. And as all my friends know, I’m no runner. I was severely traumatised when I was a child having to run 3km in the mountains of Japan as part of my PE class and getting a very bad mark for it. But Murakami makes running something more than just a bit of exercise, it is a profound experience and an eternal struggle with yourself (although I have a sneaky suspicion that he is a bit of a masochist…the man runs a marathon every year!) And he ties it in with his writing. For that, I am eternally grateful. And I have changed my mind about running too.