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Vancouver Writers Fest!

One of my goals in moving back to Canada from Japan was to interact with more fellow writers, so last fall I determined to volunteer for the Vancouver Writers Fest. I ended up filling a lot of shifts because the production of my last book was on hold and I really got to see how the sausage was made. I lugged chairs and equipment around to set up events, prepped food for authors and volunteers to eat, sold event tickets, manned the volunteer lounge, and wrangled a line of people eager to get a book signed by Margaret Atwood. 

It was a great experience and I got on friendly terms with most of the festival staff because I was around so much. It’s been nearly a year now and I’m excited for the festival to kick off again. I’m signed up for even more events this time, with a few more roles with more responsibility too. With luck I’ll be able to squeeze in some events while I’m at it and won’t blow my monthly book budget right out of the water. 

As far as meeting writers goes, I can’t say I met anyone and formed a relationship beyond a hello and a handshake, other than some festival volunteers and staff who are writers as well. I had a good time at the Volunteer Appreciation Party and Reading after the event, where I recounted my experience with eating progressively raw food, but I think I have a long way to go before I’m a part of any sort of local writing community. 

Here’s hoping that the Writers Fest 2018 is even better! 

How do guidebook researchers write restaurant reviews for tourists? 

Restaurant reviews can make or break a restaurant, especially from a noted publication or a famed food critic. The food pages of the New York Times aren’t the same as a travel guidebook, and the researchers have to choose restaurants in a decidedly different manner, with different criteria and priorities than we would use in picking a place to eat back home. 

Problem #1: Location

First is location. All restaurants more than 30-minutes journey from a cluster of hotels and attractions, whether by public transit or taxi, are excluded. This naturally excludes many high value small restaurants that can’t afford center city rent. 

Problem #2: Hostile

Second, the absolute requirement for a basic willingness to serve foreign guests and deal with bumbling tourists eliminates many other dining places. Popular and famous restaurants have been known to discourage foreign guests from making reservations or walking in because training staff to deal with them is not worth their time, and the disruption of clueless intruders is a net negative for the ambience.

Problem #3: Language 

Still, most restaurants are more than willing to serve you, but insurmountable language barriers make dining out all but impossible. There’s scarcely a backpacker who can’t recount having to point at someone else’s plate just to get food to come to the table. No English menu, no English spoken, inability to handle English reservations, and a smiling but panicked staff all eliminate many good eateries from the running. 

Problem #4: Price Spread

Now we are left with restaurants in good locations that are willing and able to serve foreign guests. The first real criterion that a typical diner would use is value. Tourist trap restaurants are rife in our remaining pool so these are eliminated for high prices, low food values, and often poor ambience. However, among high value (taste and ambience vs price) restaurants, there’s a large spread of price points, everything from the $6 lunch to the $600 once-in-a-lifetime culinary masterpiece. With limited space to print restaurants, covering the price spread is the next important consideration, but at least at this point the researcher is beginning to write restaurant reviews.

Problem #5: Dietary Restrictions and Variety

Dietary restrictions reserve ten to twenty percent of restaurant selections, whether for vegetarians, vegans, or those with food allergies. Such places are often lower value than other establishments due to the lack of options that meet the above criteria outside major cities. 

Finally, given space for, say, twenty restaurants in a major city, the researcher needs to select a mix of cuisines, levels of popularity, and kinds of ambience across neighborhoods and the price spread, making sure there’s a good balance in each district. Pride of place goes to local cuisine, but international options round out the offerings in case the reader has gotten sick of the local specialty.

Problem #6: Budget

And here’s the real kicker: most guidebook researchers have neither the time nor the budget to try out every restaurant considered for inclusion in a guidebook. At best, three or four eateries and a couple bars could be visited and small dishes could be sampled. Anything more than this merely burns through the writer’s advance at an untenable rate. Worse yet, not every restaurant that is taste-tested is a keeper, even if the online reviews seem favorable. 

So, what to do?

So why not just follow online restaurant reviews and skip guidebooks entirely? Aggregate reviews have their own set of problems. Starred reviews skew heavily toward cheap, tasty joints because everyone can afford to try them, whereas famously excellent restaurants are often docked stars because the food, although very good, didn’t taste “$200 good.” 

Another critical issue is that your tastes may not agree with the common opinion. An “odori-gui” (dancing food) Japanese restaurant will drive off 90% of Western customers with its still-living or twitchingly dead seafood dishes, but maybe that’s just the thing an aficionado of fresh seafood craves. Conversely, a horde of foodies could make a trendy new spot seem good with rave restaurant reviews, but someone who likes simpler dishes may recall Julia Child’s quip, “It’s so beautifully arranged on the plate – you know someone’s fingers have been all over it.” 

So what’s the best solution for the problem of restaurant reviews? As a guidebook writer who knows how the sausage is made, I use guidebooks to give me a general lay of the land. I check online reviews of a few places listed and try them out if there seems to be consensus between the writer and the public, or if the writer recommends the spot for a reason I care about. If the guidebook seems reliable after several spots, I have a keeper, but if not, I take their recommendations with a grain of salt and turn to restaurant review websites to cast a wider net. 

If all else fails, ask a local. They may point you to a place that has trouble serving you, but chances are, the food will be good nevertheless. 

Why resussitate an old blog?

Since making the decision to get back into writing after a six-month hiatus, I’ve been thinking about participating more in the internet’s swirl of ideas, and what that would look like. Do blogs and personal websites still have value? Is there a life on the periphery of social media’s vast holdings? If you build it, will they come? 

Much was made of the advent of the blog: it was a situation beyond Gutenberg’s wildest hopes, a publishing platform available to everyone for minimal cost, largely anonymous, free from government censorship in many countries, and capable of reaching any literate person with a computer screen. 

However, personal websites take some work to update and keep running, which made social media platforms all the more attractive for people who had been blogging to keep their social circles updated on the latest news and photos. These easy-to-set up solutions have sprung up like weeds to cover nearly every sector of the market. Twitter for short updates and public discussion (aka argument with strangers), Facebook for family and friends (or a place to feud with both family and friends), Instagram for photos, Pinterest to share recipes, LinkedIn for business networking and so on. This is only news if you’ve been living under a rock for the past 15 years. 

But what space remains for a personal website? As many have discovered, social media websites have their own weaknesses, which highlight the merits of having your own space. Control is foremost. A self-hosted website is not subject to abrupt redesigns, new posting rules, content restrictions, or algorhythmic arrangement of your posts. Your content is unlikely to be taken down unless it contravenes local laws. 

Fair enough, you may say, but few social media users do anything that causes the law or site administrators to become involved and everyone eventually gets used to redesigns. Perhaps then a stronger argument is that a private site is a canvas for your own thinking, free from the clutter and noise of a continually updating feed, of comments, and disputes breaking out. There’s no character limit, no immediate descent into the wastebin of time as newer posts push yours down minute by minute, no need for photos, video, links, or likes. What I want this place to be is a repository for the thinking I’d like to share. If it is any good, it will find its readers. 

But isn’t reading dead? Aren’t all the young kids just watching the talking heads on Youtube? Well, they are until they aren’t. Anyone who has done protracted online research soon discovers that text still remains the king for a quick scan of dense information. Online personalities have made an attempt at telling us everything from the best way to run a dungeons and dragons game to how to prepare for the rise of our machine overlords, but we need to sit through twenty minutes of conversational speed language, when our eyeballs could have scanned a transcript in moments and spotted the relevant passages. Even if book sales are down, the popularity of sites such as reddit, where an infinite amount of written content is building second by second, prove that people want to read what other people are thinking. 

So I’m bullish on text, on private websites. They may have become somewhat passé, but they are still out there for the right sort of readers. Welcome: enjoy your stay. 

Snow Country

 

The Geisha Matsuei, Kawabata's model for his heroine KomakoMy latest article has been up for a month now; have a read if you haven’t yet. It describes Yuzawa hot spring, a resort town in the mountains close to Tokyo, where Japan’s Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata was inspired to write his classic, Yukiguni (Snow Country). I read Snow Country just before I came to Japan and was both entranced and mystified. The story focuses on a wealthy Tokyo dilettante and his failed love affair with a mountain geisha. The dilettante cannot love, yet pursues the young woman, who in turn falls in love with him at the peril of her reputation. 

 

Mountain resort geisha were not as fortunate as their city counterparts. While geisha in urban centers were esteemed performers and were often privy to many closed-door deals and secret goings-on, the mountain geisha performed for weekend guests, groups of men without their families looking for a good time. Shortly after they meet, Shimamura, the dilettante, asks Komako, the geisha, to bring him a woman. She refuses, embarrassed and angry, and says that no such women exist in this hot spring. Shimamura insists but Komako refuses; ultimately the young geisha that arrives is brought by his inn’s caretaker, but by then Shimamura has lost his appetite.

When he seduces Komako, the themes of beauty and harshness in Kawabata’s sparse, haiku-like prose really begin to show. Komako slowly falls into disrepute, but like the snow of the mountains, her beauty and purity seem untouched, as she loves Shimamura without restraint. The sparseness of the prose can be bewildering though, and the first time I finished the novel I was entranced but totally confused. Relationships between characters are very vague: much is left to nuance, atmosphere, the reader filling in the blanks with a wealth of shared cultural knowledge (for the Japanese anyway). It was both beauty and confusion, epitomized in my reaction to Kawabata’s book, that brought me to Japan; I can’t say I have made much headway in understanding, but the beauty is still here.

Book Destroyer

Been reading a lot recently, as the winter has set into my room and words on the page are the only thing keeping me from sliding into complete hibernation. Well, that, and my electric footwarmer, which happens to be the greatest piece of desk paraphernalia every made, a massive inducement to just stay put at the computer where my feet are warm enough for blood movement. 

Since returning to Kyoto from Canada this October I’ve chewed through seven books, the most recent of which was Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. The story follows Jim Dixon, an assistant lecturer caught up in the petty intrigues of academic life and a lousy relationship with a neurotic that he can’t shake. 

The book is a study in frustration, and its humor comes through best in Amis’ description of Jim’s internal monologue, the snide comments he can only make to himself, the way he turns away from someone to make elaborately described faces of impotent rage.

Between Sword and Spear (sigh)

My latest Japan Times piece is now up. I was pretty happy with what came from my hike between Tsurugi-dake (Sword Peak) and Yari-ga-take (Spear Peak) until I noticed that I hadn’t explained that Yari means Spear. My editor couldn’t “stop the presses” so to speak, so it ran. Other than that omission, the text is pretty good I think.

Compound Fractures

Stress builds and builds until something gives, fissures appear: nightmare guests, rainblack winter, trailing after the elusive tendrils of future possibility, a bicycle wipeout, clusterfuck schedules

    angrily waving at a cyclist in the dark on the wrong side of the road (my side) until looming from the black of night, a shocked female face wrinkled with age appears, wondering what has come to her country as a foreign hooligan in a mask and helmet gestures wildly at her to get the hell out of the way.

Encounters with Kyoto University Social Rejects

A flash of understanding between sexes as I sat typing out an email to say thank you for a successful date: Ms. 50something approaches me and gives a full introduction, straight out of the ether, with only a “are you a student” as a preliminary question. She sits at my table and I try to return to my email. She asks a girl nearby to take a photo of both of us with her digicam. Entering surreal here folks, being photographed with someone whose name you heard for the first time less than 5 minutes before and don’t remember anymore. I grimaced.Back to my email… but she sights it and asks to do an info transfer, the modern equivalent of “can I have your phone number”. Unable to be outright rude and say “who the hell are you, exactly” I consent. Finally my student arrives and she repeats the introduction for him, handing him her name card (he’s really confused by all this) and then steps back to photograph us talking together about his schedule problem. I fled to his office. Where do people learn to be so uncomfortable? I know I’ve laid down some clumsy lines but this was awkward to the point of outright rudeness. Why should I give you my information when you haven’t even asked my name yet, for chrissakes?