Category Archives: Writing

The Caverns of the Unnamed One

Cthulhu: Land of the Long White Cloud

About a year ago I was contacted by editor Bryce Stevens and asked if I’d be interested in contributing to a new Lovecraftian anthology, set in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an American writer who achieved posthumous fame through his influential works of horror fiction. He was virtually unknown and published only in pulp magazines before he died in poverty, but he is now regarded as one of the most significant 20th-century authors of his genre. (Wikipedia)

Cthulhu: Land of the Long White Cloud, was released on 14 September in Australia; its New Zealand launch will be at Armageddon in October.

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Cthulhu: Land of the Long White Cloud is the latest release by IFWG Publishing, Australia

The Caverns of the Unnamed One

The story I contributed, The Caverns of the Unnamed One, commences in present-day Auckland, with the discovery of a mysterious unidentified man, washed up on the shores of Rangitoto Island.

As the tale unfolds, the reader is taken back to 1950s Auckland and we find out what transpires when second-hand book dealer, Frank Woodburn, comes across a journal from the late 19th Century, while clearing a house-lot of books.

This discovery takes him from the safety of his home in central Auckland to the eerie darkness of the military tunnels that honeycomb the promontory of North Head.


Title: Cthulhu: Land of the Long White Cloud

A Very Short Stay in London

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Putting on a brave face at Shepherd’s Bush Market station

Why it pays to double-check bookings

Our flight touched down at Heathrow too late in the day to fly on to Helsinki, so we’d booked one night at a hotel close to the airport. I felt comfortably smug that I had it all organised. Imagine my shock when I discovered that I’d booked for the 29th of the wrong month. And it was a ‘no refund’ booking.

My distress quickly turned to disbelief and then to dismay. I suppose we were lucky that there were still rooms available for the night we were actually there, so I had to swallow my pride and fork out another £65, adding the experience to my ever-growing list of ‘lessons learned’.

Blocked up and miserable

To make matters worse, on the drive to LA airport I realised I’d contracted a cold, and by the time we arrived in the UK I was feeling pretty grim. The next shock was the weather. After the 40+ temperatures in California, the 16 C with drizzling rain was hardly a warm welcome.

Back in New Zealand a few months earlier, I’d been browsing ‘What’s on in London’ for the night we were there, and had been surprised to read that The Modern Māori Quartet were performing a ‘one and only’ gig in London on the exact same day. The show was scheduled for 4 pm at Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush, so we’d booked tickets thinking it would be a fun thing to do. We’d also be able to say ‘Hi’ to our son’s friend, Maaka. But now that we were actually in London, I was questioning the wisdom of that ‘bright idea’. We were both still recovering from the non-booked room screwup, the weather was crummy, and we were a long way from Shepherd’s Bush. Nonetheless, we decided to stick with our plan, so caught the shuttle bus back to the airport, purchased a  couple of Oyster Cards, loaded them with some cash, negotiated a couple of different routes on London’s Underground, then walked as rapidly as we could to Bush Hall. We arrived at our destination with just a few minutes to spare, despite having to switch trains due to delays on one of the lines.

Bush Hall

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Bush Hall, Shepherd’s Bush, London

According to Bush Hall’s website, the venue was originally built by a publisher in 1904, and is one of a trio of London dance halls he built for each of his daughters, Bush Hall being the only survivor of the three. The hall has enjoyed a varied existence since then. In WWII it served time as a soup kitchen, before being reinvented as a bingo hall, a rehearsal space, and a snooker & social club. It was restored to its former ‘musical glory’ in 2001 by its current owners.

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Left and Right: The Modern Maori Quartet performing at Bush Hall, London.

At the hall we bought a couple of cheap red wines and settled in to enjoy the performance. The place was fully booked (well, as far as I could tell, as they had to bring in more chairs from the back) and the audience seemed to only comprise of Kiwis – a motley assortment, at that. The Modern Maori Quartet was as polished as ever, and everyone around us was having a good time, singing along and channeling their ‘kiwiness’. I can’t say my heartstrings were plucked, but then we’d only been away from home for less than a week. Unfortunately we didn’t get to catch up with Maaka as he wasn’t on that particular tour.

Shepherds Bush both ways
Shepherd’s Bush Market station on a rainy July evening. Looking left, then right.

After the performance was over, we wearily trudged back along the road in the rain, ordering a £4.95 meal from an Indian restaurant on the way to the Underground. We thought this a good deal, until they stung us £2 each for two small bottles of water. When I’d asked earlier for a couple of glasses of water, I’d thought we’d be given tap water. Won’t do that again. Then back on one train, then another, then the airport shuttle, then the short walk (still in the rain) back to the hotel.

Once again, it had been a long day, starting with our departure from Indian Wells at 6.30 am and moving on to the drive to LA airport, the disposal of the rental car, the horrors of US Customs, UK Customs, the non-booked hotel, negotiating public transport in London… perhaps we’d overestimated our energy levels, but at least we did manage to achieve all that we’d planned.

Winding down

That night in the hotel we barely unpacked, just fell into bed and slept fitfully until our alarms woke us up around 4.00 am. The flights to Helsinki departed at 7.30 am so we had to get organised early. But as we departed from our hotel in the grey early light, I was filled with a sense of optimism. That feeling of being ‘on the road again’ with a whole new country ahead of us.  Helsinki meant summer and seeing family. The air b n b we’d booked looked lovely (online, at least), and we wouldn’t have to travel anywhere far for the next five days. And surely my health would improve.


 

No Smoke without Fire

Cranston Fires

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Clouds of smoke began to appear over the western ranges

We stayed at Indian Wells for four days, which was the duration of the conference that had sent us there to begin with. During that time, an out-of-control fire raged on the other side of the San Jacinto Mountains, sending dark plumes of smoke into the western skies. I first noticed the change in the light on the second afternoon, when I asked one of the bell boys whether the dark clouds above the ranges were thunder clouds. It was then that he told me it was from a purposely lit fire and I immediately noticed the smoky smell in the air, and the unusual golden tinge that was beginning to affect the quality of the sunlight.

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On a visit to Palm Springs, flecks of ash were dropping onto our clothes and vehicle

As the day progressed, and indeed, over the following four days, the smoke became worse, and the conflagration became known as the ‘Cranston Fire’, spreading until it had engulfed over 13,000 acres of land, destroying at least five houses and leading to the evacuation of 7000 people. At one point, on a visit to Palm Springs, the sun could barely be seen through the haze.

Exploring the Coachella Valley

To make the most of our rental car (if not to enjoy the air conditioning inside) we made several short excursions into the Coachella Valley. I’d pored over the tourist brochures and circled the places that looked most interesting and were within local driving distance.

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Oasis Date Garden, Coachella Valley

The first we investigated was the Oasis Date Gardens. There we could expect to see, ‘a video show on date history and cultivation, a picnic area surrounded by our beautiful palm garden, a date palm and ornamental palm arboretum, a cactus garden and an antique farm equipment exhibit’. This sounded all very interesting, so we turned on our GPS and made our way there.

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The cactus garden at Oasis Date Gardens.

I think the information in the tourist brochure was somewhat out of date (excuse the pun) as there weren’t any gardens you could walk in, just a neglected patch of grass to the left of the run-down looking shop-cum-café. The cactus garden was a bit sad-looking, too, in fact the whole ‘garden’ area was very neglected.

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The antique farm equipment exhibit at Oasis Date Gardens.

Despite the less-than-encouraging exterior, we swallowed down our trepidation and went inside to investigate – we were hanging out for a cup of coffee, if nothing else. There was one girl working behind a counter and no-one else in sight. The left half of the room had some tables and chairs, and the other side had a table with bins of dates, a set of scales, bags, tongs, etc., surrounded by some packaged date products, and other ‘for sale’ items. In a back section there were some tired-looking posters with historical information on them.

The café didn’t appear to still be running, but we ordered a coffee anyway, only to be told that the machine wasn’t working. There was a comprehensive array of date-related products on the café menu, but we didn’t really care to try any. They all sounded too sweet and milky. The date shop itself was well worth the drive. There were about twenty different varieties of dates for sale, and you could taste them all before purchasing (which I did). We ended up buying quite a decent-size bag of Barhi dates. The usual ‘fancy’ and expensive dates you can get in New Zealand are Medjool, and I do like those, but to my taste buds, the Barhi* were the best of all. Smaller, very sweet, soft, tasting like butterscotch or caramel, and with very soft skins. Our bag cost us about US $3.50, which we considered very good value.

Blog 02 Rows of date palms
Acres and acres of date palms grow in the Coachella Valley

I was also fascinated by the date palms with their enormous bunches of dates. There were acres and acres of these in the area. If you can picture barren, arid, jagged hills, dusty ground, huge blue skies with tinges of smoke around the edges, and row upon row of date palms, then this would possibly give you an idea of the look of the place.

La Quinta

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Driving into La Quinta, Coachella Valley, CA.

On another day we drove to ‘old’ La Quinta. The old part of town had the classic southern US border town look – dazzling sunlight, white plastered buildings, palms, fleshy plants (such as yucca and aloe), dark shade, tinkling fountains, and a hot, dry smell. Streets empty in the middle of the day, shop doors closed to keep out the heat, and the necessity of scurrying from shady patch to shady patch.

Blog 02 La Quinta duo
‘Old’ La Quinta. Left: An ornate water feature; Right: The main street.

We’d encountered this same situation on a February trip to Hawker, north of Adelaide, where the locals know not to venture outside in the middle of the day and the place ends up looking like a ghost town. In the Coachella Valley, mist machines are deployed to keep the store entrances and outside seating areas, cool. We were intrigued by these as we’d never seen them before, so walked into the cool clouds whenever we could. And they worked!

Palm Springs

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The smoke from the fires was especially evident in Palm Springs

We drove the thirty or so minutes to Palm Springs a couple of times. The smoke from the Cranston Fires was more evident there, as the city is nestled against the foot of the La Jacinta mountain range, and the fires were directly on the other side. A nice touch was that Ben’s brother Dennis and his wife Lauren drove all the way down from northern LA (about a 3-hour drive) to meet us for lunch the first time we visited. They suggested meeting for lunch at El Mirasol Restaurant and it was an excellent choice. The restaurant served very inexpensive, enormous Margaritas, and after a few gulps, there was no way the meal could go badly. But even without the Margaritas, we’d have loved the meals. The service was great, too.

Blog 02 Indian Springs 04
Palm Springs: The use of water as a soothing medium to the eye, doesn’t really help when the thermometer is hitting 47 C.

On that visit to Palm Springs we were inside most of the time and didn’t really notice the heat, but on the second visit, it was so hot, I felt I could barely walk up the street, and it felt like the smoky air was sucking every drop of moisture out of my body. Needless to say, our visit was brief.

Blog 02 Indian Springs 03
Westfield Mall in Palm Springs.

We fled to a mall, which turned out to be another Westfield – I guess they are everywhere, but I was still surprised (and not in a good way) to see the identical logo to that of our local mall in West Auckland, on the wall as we drew near.

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Left: The projected temperatures over a 5-day period; Right: TV warnings about excessive heat.

In summary, the California leg of our trip was interesting and opened my eyes to a completely different part of the world. It was hot there… and we had expected this, but according to the local TV channel, the weather we experienced while we were there was the hottest for several decades and quite a few records were broken in the area. Only the smoky skies kept the heat from soaring even higher. Our only disappointment was the final night ‘gala dinner, of the conference.

The dinner cost the equivalent of NZ $145 per person, and the gap between my expectations and the reality of the meal, was enormous. We were given only one measly glass of wine for the whole meal, and the entrée was a small bread-and-butter-plate sized, flat selection of salad greens, just like you might purchase bagged up in plastic at the supermarket all ready to serve, but it had no dressing and nothing other than leaves in it, (i.e., no tomato, or carrot, or red pepper or cucumber). It looked very tired and as if it could do with a good rinse in some fresh water. The Main was okay… it was a piece of filet steak, cooked medium rare and tender, but small. Alongside this was a smear of possibly Béarnaise Sauce, with two spindly strands of asparagus trapped in it, and a tiny piece of roasted potato with skin on – perhaps the size of my watch face, and hmm… I think there was something else – perhaps a small flat mushroom or two. Dessert was some kind of ready-made tart – the kind you could buy from a generic cake shop. You had to crack the pastry crust to break into it. It was okay but adding the three courses together, plus the one small glass of unmemorable wine… well, we were very disappointed.

Blog 02 Leaving California
Driving back from Indian Wells to California, we once again passed rows of wind turbines.

On our final day, we arose at around 5.00 am, and were on the road by just after 6.00 am. Then we retraced steps and drove to LA, dropped off the rental car, and joined the very long line crawling its way through the US Customs. This line moved somewhat quicker than on our entry and even though we’d been told to arrive three hours prior to our flight, we actually had a good two hours to fill in before our 5.15 pm flight to London.


Blog 02 Indian Wells fire engines
A row of fire engines lined up in the hotel car park, ready for fire-fighting service the following day.

Blog 02 Oasis Garden 02
Ripening bunches of date on a palm, covered in muslin bags to protect them from the birds and insects.

* Barhi Dates – “Barhee or barhi (from Arabic barh, meaning ‘a hot wind’) – these are nearly spherical, light amber to dark brown when ripe; soft, with thick flesh and rich flavour. One of the few varieties that are good in the khalal stage when they are yellow (like a fresh grape, as opposed to dry, like a raisin). (Wikipedia)

E rere te kootare

Kingfisher Blues

Flare of turquoise, flash of emerald
swifter than the eye can see
glare from windows, crash of impact
lifeless body, spirit free

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New Zealand Kingfisher, Halcyon sancta vagans

Earlier this evening, a beautiful Kotare flew smack-bang into our living room window. It lay senseless on the grass, and my heart sank. I gently retrieved it and placed it on a bed of soft wood shavings in a clean cardboard box.

When I checked an hour or so later, the body hadn’t moved. It was limp and warm, but clearly, dead. I’d been hoping it was merely stunned, and would wake up, ready to fly (as has happened with other birds that have flown into our windows).

Poor little bird. It lay there so perfectly, its plumage iridescent in the light.


E rere te kōtare
ki runga pūwharawhara
ruru parirau
kei mate i te ua.

Fly Kingfisher
up onto the clump of Pūwharawhara.
Shake the raindrops from your wings
lest you catch a chill.

(Verse from Tīhore Mai te Rangi, Hirini Melbourne, c. 1978)


kotare 04
This was a luckier bird. It flew into our kitchen windows back in December, but perked up after about 15 minutes and flew away.

 

Flash Fiction

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Fresh Figs: A small, yet delectable dessert; Flash Fiction: a small, yet delectable reading experience

Sheer and utter relief, those are the emotions you experience upon the completion of a story. No matter how short, no matter how long, the writing takes its toll.

I’ve just now finished a piece for this month’s Flash Frontier. Flash Frontier is a great site that supports writers of flash fiction both in New Zealand and internationally. It’s some time since they’ve published anything of mine, but it feels good to be finally getting back into writing after a couple of years off helping a friend with less creative writing work. In fact, for a while, I wondered if I’d ever be able to get started again.

Flash Frontier’s theme for March is ‘flora and fauna’. As usual the guidelines are non-restrictive; how you approach the theme is up to the author. This leads to a wide range of stories being submitted for consideration, and once published they make for thought-provoking reading. I think it’s magic that a simple topic can be interpreted in so many different ways.

I started my story the way I always start stories, with the germ of an idea. I’ve mentioned before that when it comes to writing, I’m a ‘pantser‘. This means that I “fly by the seat of my pants,” don’t plan out anything, or plan very little. I’m frequently surprised at where my stories end up. It’s as if the characters have been inside me all along, vying for the chance to share their experiences.

(The other type of writer, by the way, is a ‘plotter’. I think you can figure out for yourself how that kind of a writer works.)

If my story is successful you’ll be able to read it when Flash Frontier’s March edition is published. And if not, there will still be many excellent stories to enjoy. It’s definitely worth checking out every other month.

There’s actually a funny side to this particular project. The fiction published by Flash Frontier generally has a word limit of 250. Occasionally, there is a special 1000 word edition. For some reason I thought the March edition was one of those and I’d been working at shaving the final 10 or so words off my 1000 word version. Then I re-read the submission guidelines. Uh-oh!

It’s such good practice to cull huge chunks of unnecessary words out of a story.


 

Te Kōrero Ahi Kā

Jane Percival
Would you eat this sausage?

SpecFicNZ has included one of my short stories, The Mysterious Mr Montague, in their latest anthology, Te Kōrero Ahi Kā: To Speak of the Home Fires Burning.

Te Korero Ahi Ka - Cover 600
Te Kōrero Ahi Kā: To Speak of the Home Fires Burning.

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.


 

 

 

And the Heavens Opened

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Pools of water collect on the driveway, then run onto the grass by the maize field. Gaining momentum, the water changes direction and flows west into the back paddock.

Rain!

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.

Troubled Sleep

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.

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A lake of water on the grass

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.

Taking Stock

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.


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Tan water flows by
bearing the earth in its grasp
Cows munch undisturbed

Jane Percival, February 2018


 

Japanese Diary

Shi – Signs, Statues and Quirky Frontages

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.

Molly Fantasy
Pulp Town with the puzzling sign, “Molly Fantasy”.

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’.

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Left: ‘As Know as Pinky’ advertises a fashion boutique in Aeon Mall; Right: The intriguing signs, ‘Hard Off’ and ‘Garage Off’ outside a recycled goods store.
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Left: ‘Goon’, a baby nappy brand; Right: ‘Love Love Sand’ is a range of sandwiches. This one is strawberry flavour.

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.

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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.

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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.

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I took photos of most of the sculptures I encountered, but the promise of yet another discovery was always ‘just around the next corner’.

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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.

rocks

Some featured large pieces of natural rock, or rock slabs.

swans to hands

Others depicted interesting creatures, or body parts. The huge metal disk (above centre), is topped with a line of individual metal people.

shapes

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

Ramen and Pins
Left: A colourfully decorated Ramen Bar; Right: ‘Pin’s’. The small sign in the window states, “EVER YDAY *OPEN* RUDE ONLY’.

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.

twigs and bar
Left: External sign for ‘Represent Used Clothing’; Right: Cafe/Bar – featuring a Backgammon Club, Coffee, Hot Cola and Cuban beer.

Often these frontages are populated by ‘things’, such as logs of wood, strange mechanical bits and pieces, or cute little chairs.

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Soften Garage – Antique and Green. This second-hand store had a very interesting and eclectic range of items.

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.

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Delivery trucks and refuse lorries decorated with cats and penguins.

 

Japanese Diary

San – Signs of Spring

Snow fades to reveal
shadow tree in bright water.
Twilight silhouette.

tree shadow

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.

willows and green
Left to Right: Pussy Willow (Salix chaenomeloides) in bud, and a tree showing the hint of new growth

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.

Phlox
‘Shibazakura’ or Moss Phlox (Phlox subulata). When in flower it’s one of the most vivid of early Summer displays in Hokkaido.

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.

flowers
Left to right: Pheasant’s Eye (Adonis amurensis), Crocus (C. sativus) and Japanese Sweet Coltsfoot (Petasites japonicus)

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.

tulips copy

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.

Leaves

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
Toilets often present a mind-boggling array of personal options.

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…


Next episode: Signs, Statues and Quirky Frontages

Japanese Diary

Ni – Asahikawa

Electric wires
Dark lines across clear blue skies
Sparks flare in my heart

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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.

Takiwa 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.

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Large Billed Crow, Corvus macroryhnchos

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.

benches appearing

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.

Local Scenery

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Left: The Asahibashi Bridge; Right: Bell Classic building (with the tower)

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

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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.

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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.

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Left and right: Tall poles with many wires; Centre top: Wires extend into the pavement; Centre bottom: Household gas meter

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.


Next episode: Signs of Spring