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The Nitpicker’s Nook: February edition

For keeners, check out the January post.

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The Nitpicker's Nook, Carol HarrisonThe Nitpicker’s Nook is a monthly collection of language-related articles, interviews, and blog posts. If you read something that would make a good addition, email your suggestion totorontoblog@editors.ca.

By Carol Harrison

Does the current state of world affairs leave you without words? Thankfully Planet Word, the soon-to-be museum of linguistics in Washington, DC, won’t be. And did you know there is also a National Museum of Mathematics in New York? For me, both celebrate languages.

On January 14, Zhou Youguang died at 111 years old. If you’ve learned to read and write Mandarin using Hanyu Pinyin, you have him to thank.

Pardon me while I geek out. I can’t say enough good things about the movie Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve. Finally, a science-fiction film that’s about communicating with aliens, not shooting them up! If you’ve watched the trailer, you’ve seen a sample of how the…

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The Nitpicker’s Nook: December’s linguistic links roundup

My latest post on “BoldFace.”

BoldFace

The Nitpicker’s Nook is a monthly collection of language-related articles, interviews, and blog posts. If you read something that would make a good addition, email your suggestion totorontoblog@editors.ca.

The Nitpicker's Nook, Carol HarrisonBy Carol Harrison

’Tis the season for giving or gifting?:The Atlantic’s Megan Garber argues against gifting.

Hey, girl! The analytics website FiveThirtyEight crunches the numbers about why so many girls are in book titles.

In this short interview, The Book Wars talks to Inhabit Media’s Kelly Ward about translating First Peoples’ languages into English.

The Chicago Manual of Style’s Word Usage Workout is an online quiz worth your time! Sadly, however, you won’t learn who you were in a past life.

Grappling for words: the language of wrestling. I don’t know about you, but I intend to wrangle a few of these into my daily conversations.

Author–editor lurve: interviews from Quill & Quire

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No editor is an island: The follow up

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Editors drink Wine too! Editors drink Wine too!
by Carol Harrison

It was a dark and stormy night when I met with fellow editors at Editors Toronto’s coffee-shop event last week] at Boxcar Social. We were a small group with varying levels of experience and comfort with social media. These meetings are a great way to alleviate the isolation that sometimes comes from working from home. Plus, it’s good to see the real-life faces behind the online names!

Janet MacMillan and I are both active on social media, with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and blogging. Marg Anne Morrison and Alicia Peres, not so much. Admittedly, these platforms can be time-consuming but they also help you connect with people who you would most likely never meet, especially if they live abroad.

Marg Anne raised the question of what “working remotely” meant. We agreed that it most often mean working from home. However, there are those…

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Returning to Tokyo

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Day 24: May 30, 2015

After reviewing Rough Guide’s list of must-sees, I’ve concluded that I’ve seen most of which are possible to see in May. And I have three days left, so I decide to return to Tokyo.

I quietly gather my belongings and leave the hostel to catch the 7:30 a.m. train out to Hakodate.

As I load my bags in the overhead rack, I feel a pair of eyes on me. At this point, I’m used to this. I’m not used to hearing, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” being uttered by an Asian person.

Jing Lee is a young Chinese woman studying at a university in Vermont. She’s been dying to talk to anyone who speaks English. We embark on a wide-ranging conversion about Asian people, white people, America versus Canada, travel, and Chinese versus North American culture. Jing Lee is visiting a friend in Toya and has a cake for him, which leads to us discussing drinking culture (she does’t understand it at all).

At 9:30 we wish each other well, and she leaves to deliver her cake. I’m left with no one to talk to. The passing scene occupies my eyes: I had travelled at night and missed the beautiful hills layered in fog.

After a while I shake off my ennui and search for a place to stay. Unfortunately, the Anne Hostel is fully booked, so I reserve a room in hotel.

Arriving at Hakodate at 11:20, I change trains for Shin-Aomori. Two hours later I change trains again, this time in Aomori. I don’t remember if I did this the first time. Did I board the wrong train? It’s all a blur at this point, but I’m going to Shin-Aomori . . . again . . . I think. At 1:52 I’m finally leaving for Tokyo, with no idea how long this leg of the journey will take.

The travel guides advise you to pack a snack or buy food outside the station to avoid being fleeced. Uh huh. Not happening. I inhale an ¥1100 bento box and an apple juice. Later, I scarf down a package of potato sticks washed down with a cola. Still no idea when I’ll hit Tokyo. My watch strap breaks. I pull out my book and escape to Discworld.

At 6:00 p.m. I arrive at my hotel, accompanied by a young mum and her adorable baby. The woman tells me her husband is from New Zealand. I sense she’s keen to break up her day with adult conversation with a foreign tourist.

The room is a bit stale and soulless. I was hoping for a better send off. Oh well. It’ll feel better in the morning. Meanwhile I need supper.

I wander around the district a bit. It boasts plenty of neon but so little character that I forget what it’s called. Eventually I land in a family restaurant called Jonathan’s, because I lack the appetite for ramen and the imagination to try anything else. My meal? Fried chicken sandwich with a sweet sauce, fries, and a small beer. Not great.

Lying on my bed later that night, my mind wanders. I want to plan a trip to Spain or somewhere where I have a better handle of the language. I miss the ocean and I need a proper beach. When I get home I’ll spend more time at the lake. For now, I need to sleep off my glum mood.

Shiraoi Poroto Kotan: The Ainu Village and Museum

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Shiraoi Poroto Kotan

Shiraoi Poroto Kotan


Day 23: May 29, 2015

My right knee is very swollen. I’ve fared pretty well without my walking stick, but I feel a sharp pain below the patella around the bursa. I get over a cold only to be hobbled with knee problems. Hopefully, it will subside for the trip to Poroto Kotan, a recreation of an Ainu village.

I make my way to the subway then the train where, by some serendipitous miracle, I find a cobbler who sells rubber ends for canes! With my stick sorted, I board the train. At first, I seem to be the only foreigner aboard, but as we near my destination, I spot another foreigner. Michael is a Swiss Italian who is also visiting Shiraoi Poroto Kotan. As we disembark, we wonder aloud if we are in fact at the right place. Luckily, we meet Kyoto who speaks English and is headed to the museum.

We pick our way along the poorly maintained sidewalk, which I find strange as everything seems to have been very orderly so far. But this is a rural part of the country and I have spent most of my trip in cities. We cross railway tracks and eventually find a gate. The tourists who visit this apparent outpost do so by car or tour bus, so foreigners on foot are a bit novel.

Welcome! The entrance to the Ainu Village and Museum.

Welcome! The entrance to the Ainu Village and Museum.

Novel as we may be, we and our 800 yen apiece are welcomed in, as each of us is given a schedule of the day’s performances. Poroto Kotan resembles a Canadian living museum. Buildings are traditionally built and maintained, and house representations of how Ainu used to live. Two of the buildings, similar to longhouses, serve as performance halls.

Before the first show, I wander to where the animals are kept. Four dogs and four bears appear to live in dismal cement cages that lack any stimulation, companionship, and nature. I haven’t visited any zoos on my trip, so I’m hoping this is anomaly. For all the love of nature and pets that I’ve heard about and witnessed, these poor animals see none of it. I’m torn: Do I say something or keep my own counsel? I decide on the latter . . . and feel a little sick about it.

As I walk away, I find Michael wandering around. We chat a bit when another foreigner (I’ll call him John), joins in. He has white hair, appears to be in his sixties, and doesn’t stop talking. In the maybe ten minutes we’re listening, he tells us that he’s from Sydney via the UK and Canada, that one of his ancestors fought in World War I and has Canadian ties. He stops long enough for me to remind them that the show’s about to start. Then, without missing a beat, he suggests we meet for dinner while I’m in Sapporo. Me? Or Me and Michael? He’s not clear, but I say, um sure maybe not sure what my plans are oh looks the show’s about to start. Creepy.

The stage where traditional dance music is performed for tourists.

The stage where traditional dance music is performed for tourists.

People begin to file into one of the performance halls, so I follow. The stage is surrounded by raised benches, where I find a spot and ready my camera. The room fills up. I spot Michael and Tony elsewhere. The lights dim and the MC comes out.
He speaks enough English to say that he doesn’t speak English then carries on in Japanese. Based on the laughter and the pointed looks and the fact he nods his head at me, I surmise that I’m the butt of some his jokes. I smile and roll with it despite feeling uncomfortable. It’s one thing being teased in your own language; it’s entirely different in one you don’t understand.

This is the fellow. You see how he's looking at me? He's laughing on the inside.

This is the fellow. You see how he’s looking at me? He’s laughing on the inside.

Finally, he leaves and a young woman comes on, again apologizing for not speaking English, then the performance begins. Musicians play traditional instruments, including a mukkuri (a.k.a.: “Jew’s harp) and they are followed by dancers. Without understanding the language, I understand that they perform a bird dance and another to honour hunters. (The fierce young guy with a spear was a dead giveaway. I’m clever like that.) During the break between performances, I head out to photograph more of the area and grab a bite in the rustic canteen.
Out of nowhere John sneaks up on me, asking about my food. It’s soup. It’s fine. I don’t make eye contact. So weird. I drain the bowl and quickly exit. The beautiful lake outside the canteen clears my head and I capture a few images.

Weaving Room

Weaving Room

Eventually I return for the next show hosted by the same young woman. She asks for volunteers for the group dance…and looks straight at me. I don’t do this. I sit at the back at comedy shows for a reason. This reason. The room looks at me, all smiles, all clapping. What can I do? I’m the solo white woman with a camera. I have go on stage with a gimpy knee, no coordination, and dance an Ainu dance in front of people who were joking about me an hour ago. So embarrassing. So utterly goofy. So fun.

Traditional dancers who are much more coordinated that I am.

Traditional dancers who are much more coordinated that I am.

After the show, John finds me (again) to tell me he has video of me dancing (naturally). Michael catches up with me too. He has audio of the players in the previous show. We all exchange emails. Great! Look forward to it. So I’m gonna wander now. See ya!

Most museums have an indoor exhibit, so I make a beeline for it. As I walk through the exhibits and read the cards, I realize that the Ainu culture bears many similarities to Canadian First Nations’, or least that which I’ve seen in person, in books, and in the news. Sadly, the history is similar too, minus the horror of the residence schools. What I must remember is that this exhibit targets Japanese tourists who expect things to be nice, polite, and orderly. But history never meets those expectations, and it makes me wonder what, if anything, has been left out. I exit through the gift shop.

Traditional roofs being maintained.

Traditional roofs being maintained.

It’s 3:15. The next (and last) train leaves at 5:02. I’m stuck here for a bit. Might as well wander around some more, take some photos. More coaches pull up and I can’t help but think Ainu are “dancing monkeys” for the tourists. Open-face artisan shops are set up by the gate, where creators sell their carvings and whatnot. It reminds me of a lyric from the REM song “Cuyahoga”: “Take a picture here, take a souvenir.” But these shows, these trinkets, all of it brings revenue into the community. Surely someone must learn something from this museum. I did.

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As I make my way slowly toward the exit, I notice some totem poles. Of course these are replicas and don’t look like those carved by various Canadian First Nations, but there is a resonance, a connection.

At the Foot of Mount Fuji

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Day 17: May 23, 2015

Part of my modus operandi for this trip has been to avoid schedules. Sounds liberating, huh? If today is any example, I’ve succeeded so much that my planning ability has gone to shit.

I’m visiting Mount Fuji, which means a train, a highway coach then a tour bus. It’s going to be a long day for which I should have been up earlier than 6:45.

Coaches have certainly improved since my university days when I did the milk run home from Ottawa, but I’m still not a fan. I prefer trains to coaches. Perhaps it’s my aversion to traffic, because otherwise, they’re pretty much the same. Nevertheless, I’m “headed on the highway, looking for adventure.” I highly doubt Steppenwolf had public transit in mind when they sang those lyrics, but that’s one of best ways to see a city and how people live in it. Sure, you can gaze on smart shops and cool condos in the heart of a metropolis, but most people live in the outskirts. Leaving Tokyo, I see mainly old, industrial-style apartment buildings, most of which have staircases on the exterior. They look functional from the highway, and I have no idea about how they’re laid out. Most have balconies outfitted with clothes lines. Flower boxes adorn others. In my experience, highways and train lines rarely traverse tony suburbs, so I’m getting a particular view; however, it’s a side of Tokyo I wouldn’t see.

The bus isn’t full. A few foreigners, but mainly locals. A woman and her father kindly invite me to join them for the Shiba-sakura Festival, featuring a spectacular floral display. I’m interested and wonder if I can visit both the flowers and fifth station, the usual starting point for the mountain. My question is answered when we arrive at Kawaguchiko, the main town near Mount Fuji. Here, we find a crowded pink ticket booth staffed by a handful of frenzied Japanese ladies wearing huge visors. There are two lines: one for Shiba-sakura, another for fifth station.

I file in behind a young man, who notices my camera and starts chatting. He’s from Belgium and, having finished school, is travelling the world to learn English. His goal is to become a photographer. We talk about how expensive getting to the mountain has turned out to be. After a bit, I get to the booth. No one understands me but there’s lots of yelling and hurried exchanges of money by people around me. I won’t be rushed, however. A suited man pulls me aside and we try to figure things out. It amounts to this: he doesn’t speak much English but doesn’t think I can buy two tickets. Fine. Since I must chose, I opt for fifth station. I can’t apologize to the couple who invited me to join then, which is surely a breach of protocol, but the screeching and carrying on has put me on edge. I buy ichi kippu for this (pointing at fifth station on the map) and have done with it.

The tour bus awaits, so I board and find the young man. At this point he has earbuds in and is staring out the window, making no attempt at conversation. Oh well. The Broody Belgian is a lot like many of the young men I’ve encountered: disillusioned and directionless. I suspect he’s been on the road too long and needs to go home, but won’t admit it.

Mount Fuji’s official climbing season runs from early July to mid-September, so clearly I’m not going to get the full experience, nor did I expect to. I did, however, expect to get some “nature time.” When the bus pulled into fifth station, those expectations were fractured. The mountain itself is lovely; all mountains are. How can they not be? They manifest earth’s unrelenting movement, Japan being at the epicentre of same. Their majesty is without question. Fifth station, however, is another thing entirely.

Fifth Station

Fifth Station

I leave the bus and realize that I’ve misjudged the weather, leaving my hoodie behind and wearing just a T-shirt and raincoat. Bad Canadian. So I make a beeline to the nearest shop and buy a replacement. Not cheap, but I’m warm. Properly layered, I can check out the place. The last bus leaves at about five, so I have a few hours.

Most climbers start their treks at fifth station, and from this has sprung a tourist hub featuring the usual tourist traps such as pony rides, over-priced restaurants, and souvenir shops.
There is also a temple and a gear store. This being the off-season, the parking lot is choked with buses disgorging tourists who, with sharpened elbows, jockey for group shots. Quite the opposite of the reserved Japanese citizens I’ve engaged with so far. They crowd around the postcard stand filling out forms to select the card, then actually buying the card, then head to a room to write the card. All as if their lives depend on it. It’s like they’ve saved up their aggression and let it go when they won’t be held accountable. I managed to figure out the system, get my meagre souvenir, and send it home without completely losing my temper. Apparently, I need to eat because my mood’s dropping.

There are no international ATMs here at this tourist destination. And, no, they don’t take credit. I need to make what little cash I have last till I return. So no restaurant, no ¥ 400 quartered corn cob or baked potato. I burst out of the shop to escape the mob.

I need air and nature. The area’s actual walking space is smaller than I expected. Most trails are chained off for various reasons. The ponies look bored.

Bored ponies

Bored ponies


A pack of adventure cyclists gather to refuel.
Refuelling

Refuelling

I wander back to the gear shop, where I got my hoodie, and find that among the actual gear (hiking poles, pack covers, and so on) they have Snickers bars for a reasonable price. It will do.

To my left I spot a trail. Nature! Trees! The illusion of solitude! I march past the selfie-stick wielding narcissists, past the flag-carrying guides, past the air-conditioned tour buses to the sliver mountain we’re all here to admire. I have over an hour before my bus leaves. At the trail head, I pause, take a deep breath to clear my head and recalibrate a positive attitude, then begin my trek.DSC_0089

It’s remarkable. Within seconds Mother Nature hushes the hubbub of the maddening crowd. Not only do trees filter air but they filter sound too. Flat rocks are embedded in the gravel path, so this too is cultivated to an extent. No matter. I keep walking. Patches of snow remind me of how high I am. DSC_0114

Suddenly, I hear voices. A part of me cringes at this infringement. Nevertheless, I persist. Past trees, moss, plants, bramble.DSC_0118

Then it ends. Trail closed. Some people snap selfies. I want to get by, recover the solitude, and not deal with the ill-shod. DSC_0105

Perhaps one day I can cross the barrier. I promise myself that I will; that I will work up to Mount Fuji’s 3,000-plus metres. My spirit is willing, but my knees are another matter.

Reluctantly, I turn around and pick my way back. After more tourist dodge ’ems, I join the queue for the return trip to town. We wind down the mountain, ears popping and heart sinking.

Mount Fuji from the bus

Mount Fuji from the bus

On the coach back to Tokyo we’re stopped by an accident involving a Western tourist who appears to have been hit by a vehicle on this narrow road. No idea what happened, but the guy was down, surrounded by friends and firefighters. Paramedics examined him on the pavement, put him on a board then carried him to a dolly that was wheeled to an ambulance. The whole thing took a while. It must have been frightening, especially if he or his friends didn’t speak Japanese. I hope he has insurance. Makes me think that I should carry mine with me, along with my hostel’s address.

Reality can crash in so fast.

Welcome!

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Welcome to my new abode! I expect to do some more renovations around the place, so watch your head and mind the wet paint.

Whatever

THIS MACHINE MOCKS FASCISTS

as I walk Toronto

through my lens

PROOF

The Stories Behind the Photographs

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Welcome to Muse Ink, my small space on the worldwide web! You'll find commentary on books, movies, current affairs, and whatever else moves me. So have a look, have a drink, and get comfy.

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An Irishman's blog about the English language.