Te Kōrero Ahi Kā is an anthology of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, showcasing work from award-winning and emerging members of SpecFicNZ (New Zealand authors, poets, artists of speculative fiction).
About The Mysterious Mr Montague
It’s funny how the senses can enhance memories. The addition of a taste, a smell, or a touch, makes the memory more stable, somehow, transforming it into an easy-to-access snapshot of a place and a time that you visited; able to be examined whenever you wish.
A butcher’s shop has a particular smell. And the smell of such a shop in the 1970s is nothing like the odour of the meat section of a supermarket. It smelled of blood and sawdust. Rattling plastic strips kept out most of the flies, and in Summer, a lazy ceiling fan would push the air around, just a little.
If I smell fresh blood today, I’m transported back to my uncles’ shop. It, too, was situated in Kilbirnie, Wellington; but there, the similarity ends.
How to purchase the book
Te Kōrero Ahi Kā is currently available from Amazon (for Kindle or Paperback) and The Book Depository. It may also soon be available in a bookshop near you.
When I arose this morning, the rain that had been coming down steadily all night was like a bead curtain, each string of droplets falling vertically from the leaden grey sky.
Last night had to have been the worst night I’ve experienced this summer, humidity-wise. As I lay on my bed, the covers pushed off onto the floor, I struggled to find a cool patch in the damp mugginess. My hair clung to my head and a patina of moisture coated every patch of exposed skin (in other words, my whole body was dripping). Around 3.30 am, a loud crash roused me from a weird dream about insects. I’d been half aware, earlier, of a few flashes of brightness through my tightly-closed eyelids as I’d tossed and turned, but I’d put that down to my Apple Watch’s display turning on when I moved my arm. For the next hour, an impressive thunder storm rattled the windows and cast brilliant white light into the room. At 4.15 am I detached myself from the damp bed to check the data on our newly-acquired weather station. The results were no surprise: Outside: 22.3 C / 100 % humidity; Inside: 27.6 C / 93% humidity.
I switched on RNZ’s All Night Programme, hungry for an update on how Tonga was faring under the onslaught of Cyclone Gita. The broadcast was broken by static and I imagined having to endure the rain without shelter. In the darkness of a stormy night. With young children or elderly parents. With ferocious winds and terrifying noises. How frightening that would be.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!
When I looked out from the back porch and saw that glistening curtain of rain, I felt an overwhelming urge to shower outside. So I grabbed soap and shampoo and found a position behind the garage (very private there, especially on such a day) and washed and rinsed myself off out there with only the sparrows and one stray hen for company. A large gush of water was overflowing from the corner of the roof, the guttering unable to cope with the torrent, so I stood directly beneath it to rinse off my hair. It felt good to be out there in the wetness. The water was barely cooler than the air temperature.
71 mm of rain has fallen in the last 24 hours, and of this, 22.5 mm fell in the hour I chose for my outdoor shower. Now it’s getting on for 8.00 pm and the rain has mostly stopped; water is sinking into the grass and draining away. Outside, the cicadas and crickets are once again making a racket. Let’s hope it’s sunny tomorrow.
Tan water flows by
bearing the earth in its grasp
Cows munch undisturbed
I realised when I posted the Panna Cotta recipe in September that I’d planned to write at least one more post while I was in Asahikawa back in April. However, life became very busy for the last few weeks I was there, and then once back home, other events took over (as they often do). But now, getting close to a full year later, here is that final chapter.
And The Sign Says…
I’m sure that everyone who’s known anyone who’s visited Japan will have a story about this or that amusing sign they saw. It’s not just the slightly incorrect translations into English, it’s often the combination of words and kawaii images that catch the eye. I must admit that by my fourth week in Asahikawa, I’d stopped noticing the signs… I meant to hunt them all out, but ended up by only collecting a few.
The sign ‘As Know as Pinky’ (advertising a fashion boutique) left me with more questions than answers. And ‘Hard Off’ definitely caught my attention… ‘Garage Off’, less so. It was explained to me that the store sold second-hand hardware and garage items at discounted prices, hence the ‘Off’.
Supermarkets were a good source of amusing product names. For some reason, calling babies’ nappies ‘Goon’ cracked me up, and it took me a long time to realise that the ‘Love Love Sand’ range of items, were actually regular sandwiches (their egg sandwiches were one of my regular snack foods).
Three Dimensional Art Objects
One tourist site describes the Asahikawa area as, “A thriving world of art, filled with sculptures, set against the magnificent background of Daisetsuzan mountain range”, and indeed, one of the things you notice straight away is that there are sculptures everywhere.
They’re situated on corners, amongst gardens, and/or in front of significant (and not so significant) buildings. They depict people (the famous as well as the ordinary), animals, and a wide range of inanimate objects.
When I first arrived I couldn’t help notice all the statues of naked girls and women, but later I discovered a few naked bodies of the male variety, too.
I took photos of most of the sculptures I encountered, but the promise of yet another discovery was always ‘just around the next corner’.
In fact, there were so many that I can hardly do justice to them here… they would take up several pages, so I’ve included just a few to illustrate my point.
Some featured large pieces of natural rock, or rock slabs.
Others depicted interesting creatures, or body parts. The huge metal disk (above centre), is topped with a line of individual metal people.
I particularly liked the clean lines of the metal sculptures against the blue skies. The spiral was a favourite in my early days when snow was still deep on the ground.
Evidence of the Individual
Another thing I liked about Asahikawa were the unexpected examples of individuality. While driving in the suburbs, amongst the dwellings toned in neutral shades of grey, brown, blue and green, you might suddenly see a canary yellow or an astonishingly vivid orange house. And scattered across the city, interesting shop frontages can be found tucked in amongst the common grey commercial buildings.
Often these frontages are populated by ‘things’, such as logs of wood, strange mechanical bits and pieces, or cute little chairs.
Asahikawa only achieved city status in 1922. Before that it was a town (from 1900) and prior to that, the area was largely rural. Because of this, the city doesn’t have lots of old buildings. So, if you’re looking for classical Japanese architecture you’d be better served to visit Sapporo or the islands further south.
Most of the buildings in the central city area are drab concrete blocks. Perhaps this is why some of Asahikawa’s residents decorate things in their own way – so as not to be defined by the dull grey city buildings with all their ugly wires and unoriginal rectangular shapes.
Snow fades to reveal
shadow tree in bright water.
It’s been a long winter for the people of Asahikawa, reaching back to the first snowfalls in October. And it certainly seemed chilly to me when I arrived, coming from the humid heat of a South Head autumn. But since then, the lowest temperature I’ve experienced has been around -5 C, and today it had reached 17 C by about 5 pm. (It’s not so long ago that it was regularly -15 C). The gratifying thing I’ve observed, however, is that as soon as the snow starts to melt and the bare earth is exposed, new growth begins.
It’s already more than a week into Cherry Blossom Festival down south in Tokyo, but this far north most of the trees are barely in bud; you can in a certain light, however, discern a golden-green tinge along the branches of some. The Pussy Willows are in flower already. The sight of their fuzzy protuberances reminds me of spring in Dunedin, and more specifically, of my much-loved garden at St Leonards, where the fattening buds were also one of the first signs that winter was finally over.
Along the walkways in Tokiwa Koen, the edges of stone walls are emerging from beneath the snow, and I was surprised see Moss Phlox growing there, as green as if it hadn’t been entombed for months. It’s the very phlox I rely on at home to brighten up the edges of my front borders… how versatile it is (!) and I wonder if it’ll flower before I head back to New Zealand.
I glimpsed some crocuses pushing up through a patch of dead grass in an otherwise barren strip of dirt at the base of a city apartment building. The familiarity of both this cheerful flower and the phlox help me feel ‘at home’ in this otherwise different environment. I’m discovering unfamiliar plants too, such as the golden, yellow flower Adonis amurensis (a member of the buttercup family) and the chartreuse new shoots of Petasites japonicus.
Behind the phlox-frilled edges of the gardens in Tokiwa Park, rows and rows of bulbs are sending up their first green or ruddy shoots… I wasn’t sure what these could be when they first appeared, but with a few day’s growth under their belts, I suspect they may be tulips.
One of the odd things about the snow melting, is that it exposes great drifts of dried leaves, most of which have no doubt been buried since October or November. It is an incongruous sight… you could almost think you were looking at a scene from autumn, rather than from spring, what with the bare branches on the trees, the patches of snow and the masses of leaves .
The Places You Sit
Toilets in Japan deserve a special mention. The first surprise was that most of the toilets in public places, i.e., stores, cafes, railway stations and airports, have heated seats. The first time I experienced this I was perplexed as I was certain that the cubicle had been unoccupied prior to my arrival. As well as the cosy seats, toilets have a mind-dazzling array of ‘personal’ options. You can wash and dry your nether regions, or you can play ‘privacy’ sounds (music or the sound of running water) to disguise any accidental or unseemly noises.
Each time I’ve visited one of these small rooms, I’ve been so tangled up in layers of winter clothing that I haven’t had the inclination to ‘relax’ into the experience, but who knows, as the days grow warmer, and I’m wearing less clothing…
Dark lines across clear blue skies
Sparks flare in my heart
Asahikawa is a sprawling city, first settled by mainland Japanese in 1889. The name ‘Asahikawa’ can be directly translated to mean ‘Sun (or ‘Morning Sun) River’. It lies along the Ishikari River (Ishigari-gawa) in the agriculturally important Kamikawa Basin. The river’s name is derived from an Ainu term, ishikaribetsu, meaning ‘greatly meandering river’, which describes the flow of its lower course. To the east of Asahikawa is the Daisetsuzan National Park and very close by are ski fields (comprising the ‘Hokkaido Powder Belt‘). It also has a well-known zoo. I’m staying at a central location, close to Tokiwa Koen.
I’ve walked through Takiwa Koen a couple of times already. The park is still mostly blanketed with snow, and while many of the paths are exposed, you still have to negotiate around slick, icy patches and there are whole areas that are completely obscured. With daily temperatures ranging from 3 to 7 C this week, it won’t be long until all the snow has melted.
The park is home to many crows. There are two species here – the Carrion, Corvus Corone, and the Large Billed, Corvus macrorhynchos. The Large Billed look especially comical and somehow ‘human’, with their fat beaks and high ‘foreheads’ – the beaks remind me of lips that have been treated with botox. There’s also a pair of mallards that I’ve seen paddling on areas of the lake with moving water, and there are other birds that I can hear chirping up high in the bare branches, but have so far have been unable to capture with my camera.
One thing I noticed yesterday was the emergence of the park benches. A couple of days ago they were nowhere to be seen, well-camoflagued under drifts of snow. Now they’re appearing here and there, decked with large and irregularly shaped white lumps.
On Wednesday I walked through the park late in the afternoon, then headed across the Asahibashi; the large green bridge that spans the Ishikari river. I was curious about a structure on the northern bank, which reminded me of something more typical of Eastern Europe, than Northern Japan. It’s called ‘Bell Classic‘ and is a venue for weddings and so forth.
Strange New Things
When I arrived a week ago, there were many things that were strange or unexpected, standing out ahead of the more subtle differences. In any new environment, ‘first impressions’ quickly become commonplace and I can feel this happening already, so I’ve decided to focus on one of these ‘differences’ each time I write, (or at least until I run out of ideas!).
Cables, Pipes and Wires
Powerlines! They’re everywhere, and not just the overhead wires, all the trappings associated with electricity are above ground, silhouetted against every skyline. They’re thick and black and many extend down into the pavement, often wrapped in bright yellow and black stripped casings.
Until seeing the lines here, I hadn’t realised how much of New Zealand’s electrical cabling is below ground or tucked away discreetly. As far as I’ve been able to work out, part of the reason is convenience. If everything is out in the open and easily accessible it saves time (and money) when repairs need to be made.
This also applies to household meters, such as those for gas. In the apartment I’m staying in, for example, the pipes just come up through the floor in the living area; the meter can be easily read. But I’ve also read that there are issues with their being so many wires above ground, both when it comes to safety (earthquakes are a risk further south, and heavy snow frequently brings lines down), and on the other side of the equation is the huge cost of converting them all to underground.
Even as I write this, I’m aware that I barely notice these wires any more. They are merely part and parcel of the scenery.
My flight to Japan was scheduled for the ungodly time of 1.15 on a Thursday morning. I arrived at the airport well in advance of this and after a less than enthusiastic circuit of the duty free stores, settled myself into the Koru Lounge for a long wait. I was barely hungry and not in the mood to drink more than a 1/2 glass of chardonnay at such an early hour, so I spent most of the time writing notes in a diary and contemplating the six weeks ahead of me.
Asahikawa is the second-largest city in Hokkaido (the northern-most island of Japan) with a population of around 350,000. To get there from Auckland you have to first fly to Tokyo, and then on to Sapporo, leaving the island of Honshu behind. After that, you can either take a train or a bus for the remaining 138 km. Asahikawa‘s latitude is around 43.77N and if you were to head roughly due west for 850 km (over the Sea of Japan), you’d end up in Vladivostock, Russia – that’s how far north it is.
During my flights from Auckland to Sapporo, and on the train journey from Sapporo to Asahikawa, the reality that I was travelling to an entirely foreign country with a completely different season only became apparent in stages. The first indications emerged while I was waiting in the boarding lounge at Auckland airport, where I metamorphosised into a member of the minority culture. But it was just something I noticed – the situation didn’t feel that different. I could’ve just as easily been on the AUT campus during Orientation Week.
Then there were the suppers and breakfasts served on the Air NZ flight. On both occasions, the ‘Japanese’ option sounded more appetising, which is not to say it actually was appetising (although I have the feeling that it was better than the alternative. ‘Chicken Sausage’ never sounds appealing as a breakfast choice).
Then there was the fact that for every interruption to the films I was watching (and there were announcements at regular intervals) there was a follow-up broadcast in Japanese, timed for about a minute later, just when I’d manage to re-acquaint myself with the plot. (If anyone’s interested, I watched ‘Lion‘ and ‘Manchester by the Sea‘ and enjoyed both.) The Japanese explanations seemed to take a lot longer, and I couldn’t help wondering if I was missing something.
Auckland to Tokyo
The flight from Auckland to Tokyo takes about 10 hours. I expected to notice differences when disembarking and entering Narita airport, but there were English translations everywhere, and announcements in both Japanese and English, and it was a nice surprise to not feel vertically challenged for once. Customs control and baggage checking went smoothly and before I knew it I was free to do my own thing. I made my way from International to Domestic to board my flight to Sapporo. I had a couple of hours to wait but had already gone through the ‘point of no return’ before this dawned on me. So I was stranded in another waiting room, with not much to keep me occupied. I made a note to make sure I picked up some cash before catching the train from Sapporo.
Probably the worst aspect of the trip was the size of my suitcase. The large dimensions meant that I couldn’t use the escalators in the airports and railway stations and had to drag it behind me while I hunted around for elevators. I couldn’t even lift it higher than about 15 cm off the ground.
Tokyo to Sapporo
The flight from Narita to Sapporo took an addional 2.5 hours, but thank goodness it was an older style airbus. The cabin was much less stuffy than on the long-distance flight, and I had a window seat so could look out at the snowy terrain unfolding below. The land started out flat then became more hilly, then mountainous. When we flew over the Tsugaru Strait I saw many container vessels and it must’ve been windy as the charcoal-grey water was dotted with the white crests of waves. Then we were on the way down. And as we taxi’ed along the runway at Sapporo, it looked COLD, with grey skies, bleak buildings, and small piles of snow here and there.
Sapporo to Asahikawa
I’d been given detailed instructions on how to get from Sapporo to Asahikawa, including the purchasing of the train tickets, and finding the correct platforms and lines, so the actual ‘finding my way’ part was reasonably straight-forward. But it had been a long, tiring trip and by the time I was safely seated on the ‘Kamui‘, with my huge bag tucked tightly beside me, I was both tired and hungry.
The Kamui is a fast train and soon it was whoosing along, out of Sapporo and through the countryside. For most of the journey the terrain was flat, with almost everything covered with a blanket of snow. The houses in the small settlements we passed looked very different from those in New Zealand – they were boxy or angular, coloured with plain earthy tones, or shades of white, or in bright pastels.
And as we travelled further north, the views reminded me of Finland, with forests of bare tree trunks crowded closely together on low, mounded hills. Unlike Finland, there were occasional glimpses of snowy peaks in the distance, but this was my first impression.