Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude and Liz Get A Life

Edit: My arm has been twisted — twisted, I say! — into signing up for the AWW 2014 Challenge!  I promise to do better than last year.

I’ve signed up to read at least four books by Australian women and review at least three.  I guess this ties neatly into my vague plan of reading all the non-fiction nominated for the Stella Prize!

Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get A Life

I didn’t read much YA as a teen.  Once I realised my dad’s Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov books were aimed at adult audiences, I figured that reading anything aimed at a younger age group would be a regression.  Had the young adult market been flooded with fantasy and SF as it is today, it might be been a different story.

Nevertheless, there were exceptions.  Maureen McCarthy’s Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get A Life was one of them.  It was published in 1995, when I was thirteen, and I fell instantly in love with its characters and situations.

It’s hard to describe Queen Kat without making it sound cliched.  Three girls, all from the same country town — but from different schools — wind up sharing a house in Fitzroy as they take their first steps in the adult world.  Carmel is shy and fat.  Jude is a bolshy political activist.  Katerina is spoilt, rich and beautiful.

This was the cover of the first edition. Can you imagine anything more perfectly ’90s?

It is full of cliches.  Carmel develops self-confidence.  Katerina gets in over her head in the drug scene.  But they’re executed so well, it’s easy to forget we’ve seen these stories before.

And in between Carmel and Katerina’s stories is Jude, the one that defies cliche.  Jude’s father was a Chilean revolutionary, and she discovers that the man who ordered his execution is living a happy, comfortable life in Melbourne.  Jude’s story is heavy stuff, covering the torture of her parents and the US-sanctioned human rights violations in South America in the ’70s.  Pretty harrowing stuff for a book that was marketed to young teen girls.  

Not that the other two protagonists have it much easier.  Carmel’s chapters vividly encapsulate her self-loathing and body-hatred.  Her family, cash-strapped farmers, are vividly drawn, from her mother — a sharp woman who can’t stop herself from striking at Carmel’s vulnerable points — to her charismatic and charming oldest brother.  They feel like real people.

Katerina’s story runs the risk of feeling like an after school special.  Wealthy and beautiful, she falls in with a dangerous crowd who flatter and exploit her.  Katerina winds up posing for a semi-consensual softcore photoshoot that ends with her rape.  Later she attends a rave which is raided by the police, and is caught with a large quantity of pills.

It all sounds very melodramatic, and it’s without doubt the plot that stretches credibility furthest.  (I can totally buy that she dabbles in modelling, but the front cover of Australian Vogue?)  But it’s well-executed, not least because hints are dropped throughout the book that something is very wrong in Katerina-land.

The current edition, the one I own, has a shot from the TV adaptation on the cover. I appreciate that Carmel actually looks like a fat girl here.

Now, I’m quite finicky about POV in my reading material, and I strongly dislike multiple first person narrators.  (Even though I’ve written it myself in fic — but that’s okay, because fan fiction is amateur!)  So I was rather surprised to realise that this, one of my very favourite novels, has not only three first person narrators — a third of each book is devoted to one of the girls — but it opens with three passages written in third person.

I need to reconsider everything I’ve ever thought about POV, because this totally worked.  The third person narratives introduced the girls and their backgrounds without letting us get too close — and then we’re immersed in each characters’ head for a significant chunk of the story.

The other thing that I loved: the setting.  Now, I first read this many, many years before I moved to Melbourne, but I strongly suspect it shaped my whole idea of the place.  I mean, it’s a book about a bunch of wine-drinking young women living in Melbourne’s inner north, and now I am a wine-drinking young woman living in Melbourne’s north.  Thanks, book!

Having said that, it all feels much richer now that I know Melbourne.  I’ve walked and cycled down Canning Street, where the girls live.  I’ve caught the trams they catch.

At the same time, though, a lot of their Melbourne is gone.  The department stores where Carmel tries on clothes she can’t afford have closed.  The Chilean cafes in Collingwood and Fitzroy serve Tex Mex now.  These girls were the first wave of a gentrification that has dramatically changed the inner north.

Sadly, the mini-series is no longer in print, or whatever you call it when DVDs are available.

In fact, the book is so very much a product of the mid-90s that I’m curious to see how the 1999 TV adaptation works.  Jude’s family history means you can’t place the story anywhere but in the mid-90s.  The DVD is no longer available in stores, but there is a copy waiting for me at my library as we speak.  STAY TUNED.

My last days in Tokyo

The Skytree is the tallest structure in Tokyo.  It’s a combination TV transmitter and shopping mall, shopping (Omo tells me) being the national pasttime in Japan.  It probably comes from having only one football code.

It was a grey, rainy day, and also it costs an exorbitant sum of money to ascend to the top, so we stuck to shopping.  Well, shopping and navigating crowds.  They go together.  Birthday presents were purchased for certain people, and I was quite excited to find the Japanese translations of the Harry Potter novels and Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign.

Why are the picture-inserting options for iPad versus browser so completely different?  It’s messing with the look of my blog, man!

Anyway, the Potter covers are simple and photographic, whereas the Bujold covers — Japanese translations of western books are usually split into two volumes — are illustrative.  They bear almost no resemblance to the actual text, yet are somehow more accurate than the American covers, and about eighty times more attractive.  Nicely done, Japanese publishers, nicely done.


The next day, Thursday, I had breakfast with a friend, and we found our way to a bookstore in Shibuya that also contained a reading area — like a library — plus a cafe, a konbini, a high-end stationery section… it was heaven.  Although I did make the mistake of trying a 25,000 yen pen, and now I can’t get it out of my head…

Afterwards I met up with Omo and Z, and we went to the Mucha exhibit in Roppongi.  It felt a bit silly, seeing a western artist in Japan, but hey, you take your opportunities where you can get them.  And if I’d had more time, I would have gone to the National Museum of Western Art as well.  (They have a Sally Morgan!)

The exhibit was amazing, and completely transcended the need for English labels.  It was also very crowded, but we kind of expected that.  Well, I did.  Except for the throngs in the gift shop — those were terrifying.

Nevertheless, I managed to find something appealing.  I really enjoy Japan’s approach to creating merchandise for high art.

Friday … I left.

Though not before we ate a dodgy breakfast at the airport that made us all unwell.  Having recovered from that — thank heavens! — I bid farewell to Omo and Z, and set off for home.

The trip home was fairly uneventful, although if I ever have to spend four hours at Hong Kong again, I’m going to budget for a visit to an airport lounge.  Because wow, did I have a headache.  And then we had our bags checked as we were boarding the plane — the signs told us we had Australian Customs and Border Security to thank for this — and passengers were forbidden to bring their own water onto the flight.  I almost had to throw out my water bottle, which made me rather cross, as it cost $20.  Plus, I have chronic dry mouth and throat — it comes with the rheumatoid arthritis — so I actually need that litre of water.  Fortunately the flight attendants refilled my bottle after I boarded, so all that was really achieved was a waste of water.

Some hours later, I got home, and I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of the last two days sleeping.  At first I thought it was just post-travel exhaustion, but I’m beginning to worry the small child behind me with the terrible cough was contagious…

Hugo nominations!

I’m back in Australia, and some time in the next couple of days I’ll get around to blogging about my last few days in Japan.

But at this moment, I want to jump streams and casually mention that Chicks Unravel Time has been nominated for a Hugo Award!

We’re nominated for Best Related Work, and there’s some stiff competition.  For one thing, we’re up against Chicks Dig Comics, which is from the same publisher, has some overlap in contributors, and is probably an excellent book in its own right.  (I haven’t read it, which is shameful, but have you seen my to-read pile?  I’ll get to it some time in 2015, I’m sure.)

Catching up

Ooops! Sort of fell off the blogging wagon there!

You see, we were meant to go to Odaiba on Saturday, but Omo was feeling under the weather, so I went to Shibuya by myself. Then, Sunday, we were planning to go to the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum, but I woke up with a terrible cold, so I slept all morning and then we went to Kinokuniya in Shinjuku. Monday, we did get out to the ramen museum, but it was not at all as advertised (ie, awesome) so that was a disappointment. Tuesday … Tuesday was yesterday, right? Z rejoined us after her trip south, and we visited Akihabara and Harajuku, before going to a cherry blossom party in the evening with Omo’s flatmates and their friends.

There! All caught up!



I don’t know if Shibuya actually reminded me of New York, or if I was just in a similar mood because I was by myself. It’s certainly busy and urban, surrounded by skyscrapers and the giant LCD screens that lead people to compare the Shibuya scramble to Times Square.

But I didn’t much care for Times Square — it was almost shocking in its dirtiness and chaos, especially since I had just come from Central Park — whereas I quite liked Shibuya. Tokyo is a very clean city in general, but it was particularly noticeable in such a busy place. With no garbage bins. (Following the sarin attack on the subway in the … ’90s? Bins sort of vanished from the Japanese landscape. They’re around, but rare, and will often take only one kind of garbage, eg, cans but not paper. People just carry their rubbish until they find a bin, which is very civilised, but I do seem to be finding a lot of wrappers in my handbag of an evening.)

My first stop in Shibuya was the Tobacco & Salt Museum. And don’t give me that funny look. I really like history, especially the history of commodities, especially if it’s only 100 yen to get into the museum.

And, considering it had barely any English at all, I really liked the Tobacco & Salt Museum! Especially the tobacco levels. Sorry, salt, but I’m just not that into you. Whereas I find smoking quite interesting in theory — it’s only in practice, where you get the horrible smells and the passive smoking and the burned bits in your clothes from other people’s flying cigarette ash that I start thinking it should be banned forever, or at least taxed into non-existence.

Like I said, there was very little English, but I found the exhibits fairly self-explanatory. The early smuggling of tobacco into Japan! The widespread adoption of tobacco use in the Meiji Era! The twentieth century: 100 years of cigarette packaging! Pipes!

There did come a point where I was basically wandering around quoting Mad Men under my breath, and thinking I totally need to rewatch that episode where Burt Cooper wants Sterling Cooper to take on Japanese clients, and Roger has his racist post-WW2 outburst, and Don stands around looking manly and thinking manly thoughts. But hey, it’s a good show.

The museum’s fourth level was devoted to an exhibit of art depicting the use of tobacco. It had a few really amazing paintings, and lots of really mediocre ones, which (of course) were the ones being sold in postcard form. Such is life.

After the museum I stumbled across a book/DVD/CD store — Japanese retailers are big into integrated entertainment — where I had a good time looking at Japanese releases of Western movies and TV. Sad fact: Japan has Torchwood all the way up to “Miracle Day”, but the most recent Doctor Who I could find was from 2006. Maybe “Doomsday” scared them off. Likewise, I couldn’t find any Avatar: The last Airbender, which has aired here, but wasn’t hugely successful. Probably because the Japanese went, “Wow, America, you can do anime now. That’s so cute.” Which is fair, but when I think of the missed opportunities for merch, I get sad.

I was pretty hungry after that, but where to eat? I was in one of the great shopping districts of Tokyo, and where there’s shops, there’s food.

Only, lots of it was Italian food, which tends to be pretty heavy on the cheese and cream. And I found I wasn’t quite brave enough to venture into a cafe without a single Japanese speaker to help me out.

So I wound up getting lunch from a konbini, a convenience store. This consisted of two kinds of onigiri, rice balls wrapped in seaweed with fish in the middle, a bottle of orange juice and a can of Red Bull. (I felt oddly tired by this time, for reasons that became apparent later.) Total cost: about 500 yen. Everyone who said food was prohibitively expensive in Japan was probably trying to buy melons or something.

(Don’t buy melons in Japan. Strawberries are another thing that are supposed to be hugely expensive, and I did see them going for 600 yen a half-punnet in Shibuya, but out in Katsushika, where I’m staying, I’ve been buying whole punnets for 280 yen, which is about what I’d expect to pay in Australia.)

I tried to shop for clothes after lunch, but I just couldn’t. I stuck my nose into Shibuya 109, which is supposed to be aimed at women in their early 30s, but there was nothing at all that appealed to me.

Omo later explained that Shibuya 109 — and Shibuya in general — is dominated by gyaru stores. Gyaru is a Japanese style that’s hyper-feminine — false eyelashes, false nails, the highest possible heels — but which emphasises sexiness over being kawaii — cute. It’s amazingly cool to look at, but doesn’t suit me in the least.

(I find myself constantly on the verge of thinking that Japan values the floral, pasteltastic kind of femininity, but I think that’s a selection bias at work. Omo’s house is amazingly pretty — there’s floral wallpaper, the doors and skirting boards are pink, it’s all women with no men allowed — and my first thought when I walked in was, “Oh wow, I’m not remotely feminine enough to stay here!” And since that moment, I’ve been noticing the femme displays in department stores and so forth.)

Anyway, I had a browse at Forever 21 — which is a gyaru brand as well — but nothing fit. That’s the other problem with clothes shopping in Japan: in Australia, I’m completely average, and it’s only the inability of designers to cater for women with hips and bellies and breasts that makes it hard for me to find clothes. In Japan, I’m a fair bit rounder than the average, and lots of stores don’t stock anything higher than an L or XL. Forever 21 started at XXS and ran all the way up to M.

I did buy jewellery, though. Earrings and a necklace, but the necklace is already broken. Oh well!

Finally, I realised that there was a Loft in Shibuya. Loft seems to sell everything from homewares to gifts, but I’m especially in love with their stationery section. Japanese stationery is just really, really good, okay?

Problem was, I couldn’t seem to find the store. You’d think it would be hard, misplacing a six-storey department store, but apparently I managed it. I’m not saying that I wandered around in circles for an hour before I finally found Loft, but it was a fair while.

Luckily, within Loft, I found the greatest invention ever.

A cocktail bar.

In a stationery/homewares/make-up/gift shop.

It was amazing. I really don’t understand why this isn’t a universal practice.

I had a nice sit, and ate a refreshing salad — my konbini lunch was a few hours in the past by then — and drank something green with gin in it.

It was lovely.

Then I bought some gifts, and some stationery, and made my way back to Katsushika. Where I basically collapsed, because it turned out I was so tired because I was coming down with a cold. Or rather, I had been fighting a cold since I got off the plane at Haneda Airport, and it was finally making its move.

So I ate a punnet of strawberries — full of vitamin C, you know — and drank some more orange juice, and went to bed.

Only I didn’t sleep so well, and when I woke up, Omo and I agreed that there was no way I was going to Yokohama, so I might as well go back to sleep.

Which I did. And it was great.

I felt much better after that, so Omo and I got dressed and headed into Shinjuku for the afternoon.


Shinjuku is another major shopping district. It’s also home to Kinokuniya, a major Japanese book chain. They have a store in Sydney, and when the day comes that they finally open in Melbourne, I will have to seriously consider returning to retail. The Shinjuku store is the main one — the mothership.

Of course, its selection of English novels was limited, but I was mostly there to look at English translations of Japanese novels, and they had plenty of those. I bought two more crime novels, and gave serious thought to a few books that I think my brother might enjoy, except they were all giant hardcovers. Sorry, little brother, but your birthday present will be from Japan via BookDepository.

I was also tempted by a book that claimed to be a collection of Japanese science-fiction, except that most of the contributors were American. Nice try? Cementing my decision, I noticed that one of the contributors is the author of this post, which I found shockingly UScentric and generally dubious even before I went to Japan. Although Omo’s rage blackouts as I read it to her later were pretty funny.

Finally, I bought a Japanese magazine about Sherlock Holmes. No, I don’t read Japanese, but I really liked the illustrations.


(There was also a big feature on Sherlock, but, you know, *snore*)

We wound up eating at an “Irish” pub, partially because I was sick and wanted comfort food, but also because I was on the verge of a blood sugar low, and that seemed like the most appealing place. Bit embarrassing, but they did an excellent gin and tonic, so stop judging me.

Then Omo took me to a gothic lolita department store. IT WAS AMAZING.

So you don’t get the wrong idea, department stores in Japan aren’t vast buildings housing a single company that sells lots of goods, but narrow skyscrapers that hold lots of businesses. In this case, all the businesses were related to the gothic lolita subculture. Most sold clothes and accessories, but there was a wig shop, a store that sold anime merch, and more.

Now, I, obviously, am not a lolita, but I really like the aesthetic, while recognising that it is not remotely for me at all. But occasionally I have yearnings, especially if you put a really well-cut steampunk suit in front of me.

The Shinyokohama Raumen Museum

The ramen museum gets talked up a lot on blogs and in travel books, and it’s supposed to be a blast. And it probably is, if you read Japanese.

If you’re monolingual, you get a rather claustrophobic walk through an indoor recreation of 1958 Tokyo — much smaller than the photos suggested — and an abbreviated ramen menu. Which is fair enough — it’s a bit rude to expect a country to cater to me linguistically — but it was a bit of a hike to get to Shin-Yokohama, and the ramen wasn’t even that good.


I must say, though, I liked the bit in the pamphlet about how the museum’s creator loved his home town and had a passion for ramen, so he created a ramen museum in the city of his birth. More people should do that. I’m not just saying that ‘cos I love museums, honest.

Akihabara and Harajuku, followed by a picnic under the cherry trees

Omo and I had no particular plans for Tuesday, save that Z was getting back from Kansai in the early afternoon, and Omo wanted to play the taiko game. You know the traditional Japanese drums? There’s an arcade game where the drums are simulated, like Guitar Hero only more banging things, and Omo’s quite good. Well, she’d want to be — last week she played so intensely, her hands started bleeding.

Akihabara is where technology … happens, or so I am given to understand, and there were arcades on every corner. I mean, literally, every corner.

So we didn’t have any trouble finding the game, only there were these two guys playing it already. One was just in practice mode. The other was … well, he brought his own sticks. And he had a bag stretched over the game’s drum for some reason. And he was very, very good.

So we slunk away and had lunch. I ate the greatest hamburger of my entire life, so well done, Akihabara. Then we found a bookstore — it’s a sickness, it really is — and eventually went back and finally played the game.

I suck quite badly, but I think I just need practice. No one’s hands bled this time.

Game completed, we met up with Z and decided that Akihabara was a bit of a bust. Lots of sex shops. Lots of computer stores. I saw a young man coming out of an arcade wearing traditional Japanese clothing — hakama and a kimono — and a bowler hat. I was torn between being super impressed at his dapperness, and wondering if this was the Akihabara equivalent of a fedora-wearing neckbeard.

We decided to go to Harajuku. Ah, Harajuku, where the young folks where the street styles, etc. Not on a Tuesday afternoon, apparently. I mean, there were teenagers, and they were wearing cool clothes, but the famous outlandishness of the Harajuku scene was not in evidence. Which is probably good, because one wouldn’t like to be staring at innocent people like they were exhibits in a zoo, but also a bit disappointing, because SPECTACLE.

Instead, we were off to go stare at innocent boy bands like they were exhibits in a zoo. Well, Omo and Z did. I had a look around, then waited outside with my book. Not, I add, because I was bored or sulky or passive-aggressively hurrying them along! I’m just not really into boy bands, even when I enjoy their music, and it was a really good book.

Harakuku, it turns out, has a lot of stores selling boy band merch. One was at the bottom of a very steep, narrow, scary staircase.


I stand by my decision to stay out on the street. I’d already tripped on one flight of stairs for the day.

Also, loitering out the front, I got to see a young Japanese woman, aged about 20 (I’d guess) pause in the middle of the entrance, throw her arms and gaze upwards and cry, “Oppa!”

“Oppa” is a Korean honoriffic meaning “big brother”. K-pop fans address their idols as “oppa”, except me and Omo, ‘cos we’re not Korean and most of those boys are younger than us. But it’s not an unusual thing to hear in the vicinity of a boy band store.

What was unusual was that the woman was addressing SexyZone, a Japanese band. And SexyZone are … I think the oldest is 16? One was born in 2000, which means he’s much too young to be in a group with that name. Suffice to say, it’s a bit odd that the woman was addressing them as “oppa”. But I stood where she stood and looked where she looked, and I can’t think who else she was referring to.

(Speaking of “oppa”, and Korean honoriffics, for lack of anything better to do, I once watched the Korean dub of Avatar: the Last Airbender, and there was a lovely bit of characterisation where Katara addressed Sokka as “oppa”, but Azula disrespectfully addressed Zuko by his name. It was a very neat thing, and something you can’t quite convey in English, even with Azula’s use of diminutive nicknames for Zuko.)

I was still meditating on this incident — okay, fine, I was tweeting about it — when the owner of the shop came out and yelled at me to move on. It was mostly in Japanese, but I got the gist, and I found it very strange. But Z and Omo emerged a few minutes later, saying he had kicked out all the customers who were browsing, saying that anyone who wasn’t definitely going to buy something had to leave. I still found it strange, but I suppose I’d been in Japan for 10 days, and bad customer service was bound to happen at some point.

We visited one more idol store, and Omo found something rather special, but I’ll let her blog about that.

By this time it was getting dark, so we made our way to Ueno Station to meet Omo’s flatmates for the hanami — the cherry blossom viewing party.



I’m not a very aesthetically sophisticated person, and I’m not good at sitting still and contemplating things. I really like Tokyo’s sakura, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to sit under one and view it for more than a few minutes.

Luckily, it turns out that Japanese festivals are a lot like the ones in Australia — an excellent excuse to eat food and drink a lot in the company of friends. The Japanese versions are just prettier, that’s all.

So we sat under the trees, about half a dozen of us, and ate bento and drank … let’s see, there were two kinds of wine, sake, shochu and … maybe there was a third kind of wine. Yes, there was!

I only tried one of each drink — unlike a certain friend who was given a whole cup of shochu, drank it and then regailed us with her feelings about idol groups — because I didn’t want to seem like an Aussie yobbo, and also I hadn’t brought any alcohol myself. (Not that a certain friend seemed like an Aussie yobbo! Her Japanese got better with every drink. It was terrifying and amazing.) But it was a very pleasant night.

And I am, in fact, quite fond of looking at sakura. Tokyo’s landscape is dominated by mid-twentieth century high density housing, and it would seem quite bleak and utilitarian if there weren’t so many trees. And it’s really amazing to be sitting on the train, looking out at a predominantely grey landscape, and then there’s an explosion of pink and white as you pass a cherry tree. Probably even more amazing if this is coming at the end of a northern hemisphere winter. I’m team cherry blossom, me.

I started this post in the morning, and now a day has passed, and I’ve done all kinds of things in the meantime, but I’m much too tired to blog about it now. Stay tuned for a SkyTree adventure (today), my last day in Tokyo (tomorrow), and some kind of post about the bicycles of Tokyo. But not just yet, because right now, I really need to eat some mochi and read my book.

Roppongi and Ueno Zoo (but first, a correction!)

The bit where apparently I was wrong

Omo says that Horrible Racist French Guy was in fact not the man making a fuss in the Toy Story line. I maintain that he was, because he seemed so hostile towards us specifically, but I have to confess that all middle aged white men look alike I’m really bad with faces and mostly tell people apart by their hair — and whatever else, both men had short, grey hair.

So, apologies for being (potentially) misleading, and for ruining a great story by being (probably) wrong and stuff.


Roppongi is a posh neighbourhood where lots of foreigners live, and there are nightclubs and expensive shops and stuff. Not the sort of place I’d usually go, but Z has left us for Osaka and Omo had a job interview in the area, so we figured we’d take a look.

We went via Tokyo Station. That place is enormous. Like, there are Australian towns smaller than Tokyo Station. And there’s a whole strip with character shops and boutiques associated with TV networks, music, etc. It was pretty cool, but I had low blood sugar and was therefore being a brat. Omo called me on it, got some food into me, and I felt much better, only embarrassed about my attitude. THE MORAL IS, EAT WHEN YOU’RE HUNGRY, LIZ, GOD!

Anyway, I’m not really into Japanese pop culture, but Omo got me into this amazing drama called SPEC, about a by-the-book cop who is assigned to work with an eccentric genius as they investigate supernatural crimes. It’s pretty amazing, not least because said eccentric genius is a woman (which doesn’t happen enough in TV, imho), and she really is quite mad, and they have this brilliant chemistry.

So we visited the TBS Store, and I broke out of my bad mood long enough to buy some SPEC postcards. There were stickers, too, and I’d really like one for my bike, but there were no designs I liked enough for that. Likewise, as much as I kind of do want a cushion shaped like a giant gyoza, I’m not sure I can justify spending 2,800 yen on it and then schlepping it home.

Tokyo Station and interview out of the way, bad mood smothered in fried chicken and “condiment sauce” — soy vinegar, if you were wondering — we headed for Roppongi.

We really didn’t leave the vicinity of the station, but it seems like an okay sort of area. I’m not really into nightclubs or expensive boutiques, but there was a bookstore that sold some English titles, and I had a good time exploring their range of English translations of Japanese novels.

We also poked our noses into a cinema — something about not understanding the language makes movie posters look really, really cool, regardless of how cheesy/terrible they may in fact be (see also the many ads for Bollywood productions around my neighbourhood at home) — and skirted past the Mori Art Museum, which is a gallery of modern art.

I’d have liked to have a look at the gallery itself, but it was late in the day, and my feet were already killing me. I wonder if it’s possible to have a holiday that doesn’t kill my feet? Anyway, we compromised with a visit to the gallery shop, and I bought some Mucha postcards — there’s an exhibition on, which I’m hoping to get to when Z returns from Osaka — and some odds and ends.

Yesterday’s haul:


Ueno Zoo

I really like Ueno. It’s busy, colourful, full of interesting and varied shops, and there’s a whopping great park in the middle.

Also, it’s cherry blossom season! Which means you can buy delicious sakura flavoured treats, and everywhere you look there are beautiful pink trees!


On the other hand, Ueno Park was incredibly crowded. I’d read about Japanese families picnicking under the cherry blossoms, but I didn’t realise that everyone else would be sort of milling around on the paths, stopping without warning to take pictures, and generally being … you know, a crowd. The energy was lovely, but I find it hard work, dealing with crowds.

The eastern side of the zoo was also crowded, but it was less extreme. Omo and I spent the next four or so hours wandering and taking photos of animals.


I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the zoo. Some enclosures were lovely and big, and contained animals that seemed pretty chill. Others were quite small and old-looking, and the animals were just pacing back and forth. The small mammals enclosure smelled quite bad.

On the other hand, I don’t know much about zoos or wild animals, so I’m in no position to judge. I might cycle to the Melbourne Zoo when I get home, and compare. Or something.

Highlight: kookaburras in the exotic birds section. The GIANT FAT BUM of a hippopotamus (the rest of him was eating). PALLAS CATS. RED PANDAS.

Incidentally, if three Pallas cats and two red pandas disappear from Ueno Park in the next few days, I had nothing to do with it.

Food is very important to me

Dinner was vending machine gyudon and a slightly disappointing chocolate bun. I’m craving sweet food at the moment, but most Japanese desserts are cream-based. Tomorrow I shall eat another sakura and red bean bun! And maybe go in search of some mochi. Or strawberries. Everyone warned me that fruit and veg are super-expensive here, but most items seem to be roughly the same as in Australia, and I spotted some 200 yen strawberries this afternoon. Maybe it’s the end of season?

Having learned the kanji for “soy” (it looks like a latte with foam), I’ve successfully bought soy coffee from a vending machine and a konbini. GO TEAM LACTOSE INTOLERANCE!

I also tried chūhai, which is basically a flavoured shochu? I didn’t care for it, the lemon being too bitter and the other flavours I’ve tried being too sweet. Alcohol is very cheap here, but I’m the kind of party animal who’s in her pyjamas by 7.30 most nights, so I haven’t tried very much. I’d like to try umeshu, though, because I had an ume-based fruit drink last night, which I loved. (It’s that sweetness craving coming through again.)

Tomorrow we’re heading out to Odaiba, as Omo needs to visit Fuji TV for important merch-related reasons, and I just like seeing new places. STAY TUNED.

Disney Disney Disney Disney! (Part 2: DisneySea)

The hotel, again

I have only two complaints about the Disney Ambassador Hotel:

1. No wireless. Not even exorbitantly priced wireless! There was an ethernet cable, but that’s not exactly helpful for my iPad.

2. The tea in our room was instant powdered tea. The only English word on the black tea was UNSWEETENED, but there was also no sugar — or at least, there was, but it was wrapped up in the sachets of coffee. So I drank instant green tea, and it was terrible.


DisneySea is a separate park unique to Tokyo Disney. It has a strong nautical theme, with waterways, a lagoon and lots of boats. It’s also aimed at an older demographic, with scarier rides and beer available from many concessions.


There’s also a bit of a steampunk aesthetic here and there.

Of course, there’s still heaps of appeal for kids, including the Mermaid Lagoon, a gorgeous indoor area with an under the sea vibe.


A glowing sea cucumber nudibranch.

The Mermaid’s Lagoon features the kelp cups, a smaller version of the teacup ride. We thought they were identical to the teacups, but NO! These cups rely on body weight to spin, so Z and I had a very unsatisfying ride until we figured that out.

Then it was Omo and Rie’s turn! Fun fact: Omo gets motion sickness. FUNNER FACT: the cups apparently broke during their ride, so she got another go! She looked like she was having the exact opposite of fun. Meanwhile, Z and I stood on the sidelines, CONSUMED WITH ENVY.

DisneySea was even busier than Disneyland the day before — it was the day before a public holiday, so the park was full of school groups. We only managed to get one FASTPASS before they ran out — but that was for Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which was worth it.

Basically, Journey to the Centre of the Earth is a rollercoaster, but a fairly sedate one. OR SO IT SEEMS. You get in your cool steampunk car and travel through some amazing set pieces, with realistic insects, lava, some kind of monster, and real fire.

Then you’re plunged into darkness and emerge on the side of a mountain, where you plunge for a few seconds of SCREAMING TERROR before the ride ends.

Z and I shared our car with a bunch of teenage boys, who were trying really hard to be cool, only one of them had a very girly scream. So Z and I were like, “Oh, sugei!” which is a fairly masculine way of saying, “AWESOME!”


Another part of the park was based on Aladdin (and Sinbad, only not the Sinbad story everyone knows?), so it was basically a Disneyfied version of a stereotypical Arabian city. But it was very pretty nonetheless, and there were magicians doing magic tricks in the Agrabah Bazaar, and there was a two-storey carousel. Now, I like carousels, but I think the one I rode in North Carolina was better. Sorry, Disney.

We accidentally wound up watching a live show, in which Mickey and Minnie and their friends/teddy bears, Duffy and ShellieMae, celebrate the advent of spring, only to be foiled by Jafar and rescued by the Genie? It was hard to tell, not just because it was in Japanese, but also I couldn’t see much.

Duffy. Let me tell you about Duffy

Duffy the Disney Bear was first created for Walt Disney World in Florida, as a special edition toy to commemorate spring. He was adopted and given a new history by Tokyo Disney — basically, Mickey was going on a trip, and Minnie gives him this bear to keep him company. Then Duffy comes to life and gets a girlfriend, ShellieMae.

Duffy is the very first Disney character who didn’t first appear in a movie or TV show. Basically, he’s a big whopping marketing ploy, with a personality exactly like Mickey’s only less interesting. He’s hugely popular in Japan, but I’m not feeling the love. At first I was just, “Meh,” because I have no emotional connection with him, but that turned to resentment as I realised Duffy was crowding out the merch that I would have found interesting. For example, there used to be a lot of Ariel and Jasmine stuff in the relevant areas, but now it’s just Duffy.

Basically, Duffy, Imma happy for you, and Imma let you finish, but Mulan is the greatest Disney princess of all time. OF ALL TIME. (Except for those others.)

(Unsurprisingly, there was no Mulan whatsoever at Tokyo Disney. But one day I’m going to go to Disney Hong Kong, and if that park isn’t swimming in Mulan merch, I’m going to have to flip a table.)

Duffy rant over

Japan is a country that really appreciates its meat, so I was able to buy a smoked turkey leg at one of the concessions.


I felt like Henry VIII in the best possible way.


The DisneySea landscape is dominated by Prometheus, a vast artificial volcano that erupts once a day. All fire, no lava. Alas. (It’s still spectacular!)

DisneySea also features a ~New England village and Olde New York section, both of which are charming. I particularly enjoyed the “American” performance, which involved people dressed up as hamburgers and fries singing “Yankee Doodle” and … the Spice Girls? I like to think this is Japan’s revenge on Hollywood.

It was getting quite late in the day, and we still had a long list of rides we wanted to go on, and there were no FASTPASSes to be had. Rie, Omo and I queued for two hours to ride the Tower of Terror, while Z opted out in favour of not thinking she was going to die.

I’d like to say she made the right choice — well, it was the right choice for her, and I’m not going to criticise it one bit — but I really liked Tower of Terror. Which is a bit ironic, because I was absolutely sick with fear as we got closer and closer to the front of the queue. And don’t get me wrong, the ride was indeed terrifying, but it was also really fun. (I’ve heard the Anaheim version is even scarier, though!)


Our Tower of Terror faces. Note that Rie is doing NO HANDS. She’s well hardcore.

It was dark by the time we emerged from the Tower, and we were cold and hungry. But there was still the Toy Story ride to go! So we had dinner at one of the “American” joints, where I ate a Reuben which was perfect and amazing and lovely, even if New Yorkers would probably laugh at its modest size and lack of pickle. IT WAS EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED, plus I took a gamble on the cheese and didn’t get sick. Basically, I was so tired I was saying “Ohayo” instead of “Arigato”, and I really needed that comfort food.

Thus fortified, we joined the Toy Story queue.

DisneySea closes at 10 pm. It was 8 o’clock when we hopped in line, and we were promised a two hour wait. WOULD WE MAKE IT? Yes, because they didn’t close the line until about twenty minutes later. The real question was, would our feet survive?

That question became secondary, though, because here, at the very last ride, was our old friend, Horrible Racist French Guy!

The Adventures of Horrible Racist French Guy, part 2

We were about halfway through the line when we spotted him. The line was closed, and he was with his daughter, arguing because they had hopped out of line and, because it was closed, weren’t being allowed back in.

At one point he spotted us, and his body language got even angrier. He was pointing at me, because I had earlier jumped out of the queue to run to the bathroom, and gotten back in without any problems. But here’s the difference: the queue wasn’t closed at the time! (Also, because we are grown ups, we had understood that I might not be allowed in, and made alternate plans accordingly. These alternate plans involved me sitting in a warm place with my book, so I was pretty zen.)

French Guy was all, “YOU ARE RUINING MY DAUGHTER’S DISNEY VACATION!” (we paraphrase, we were relying on body language here), and generally trying to intimidate the staff. A manager and an interpreter were called, and French Guy LEFT HIS DAUGHTER STANDING ALONE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SQUARE while he went off to try and stand over the staff. This didn’t work, because he was a few inches shorter than the shortest Japanese person present, but we were mostly appalled that he had his back turned to his daughter. Not that anything would have happened to her, because by now the entire queue was watching, plus I noticed a very discreet staff member was keeping an eye on the girl, BUT STILL.

(The daughter was pretty chill throughout. She mostly looked stoic and maybe a bit bored and embarrassed, until her dad summoned her over to explain how her vacation had been RUINED, and then she produced some crocodile tears.)

I kid you not, this went on for about an hour. I really admire the Disney staff and the way they handled it, because they were totally unfazed by his attempts at being intimidating, and the manager had obviously had training in mediation. (The interpreter mostly just radiated a desire to leave and go home.) French Guy wouldn’t back down, but the staff just would not give him his own way — well, they couldn’t. The queue was closed, the only way French Guy and his daughter could get back in was if someone gave up their place. Other people had been turned away as well, so it’s not like they could have made just one exception.

Finally, some kind of voucher was produced, and French Guy and French-American Daughter went off, somewhat mollified. It was a bit of a relief, because I had been expecting French Guy to turn violent. On the other hand, his bad behaviour was rewarded.

At last, the Toy Story ride!

Totally worth the wait and the bloody stumps my feet were turning into!

First you’re given 3D glasses, which are designed to go over regular glasses! This was so exciting, I took mine home, although I’m not sure if they’ll work in a cinema.

Glasses in hand, you go into your cart, which lurches from screen to screen. It’s like a shooting gallery, only the darts and balls you’re shooting are all illusions! And if you hit the right thing, confetti flies at you!

It was a lot like the Monsters Inc game, but far more satisfying and exciting, even though I have terrible aim.

And then we went home

I was so exhausted, I couldn’t even get excited about riding the Disney Monorail back to the station! Those three train rides back home felt much longer than the trip out on Monday morning, even with the Yamanote Line being merely busy instead of crowded.

On the very last leg, we found ourselves sharing the platform with a vast horde of drunk businessmen.

Now, contrary to stereotypes, the Japanese are incredibly ruthless when it comes to boarding trains. It’s just that they’re usually ruthless in a way that involves lots of queuing, and apologising as they elbow people in the kidneys.

Apparently that all changes after a few rounds of beer and some cigarettes, because these guys were pushing, shoving, all of that. Which isn’t that different from the trains at home, but the smell of beer and cigarette smoke was terrible. Smoking in public is quite taboo in Australia, but Japan still has indoor smoking sections in restaurants, and I really can’t get used to the smell.

Suffice to say, we were glad to get home and collapse into bed. Where I slept for ten hours, and we spent yesterday doing a lot of nothing. IT WAS GREAT.

Disney Disney Disney Disney! (Part 1: Disneyland)

It was Omo’s birthday on Monday, and we were going to Tokyo Disney, and we were going to stay at a hotel and be fancy ladies and have fun and IT WAS GOING TO BE AMAZING OR ELSE.

Mission accomplished.

But this has been such a busy couple of days, and there was no wi-fi at the hotel, so I had to make a list of things to blog!


Then I posted the list to Instagram, because that is how I roll.

Tokyo Disney is three train rides from Omo’s place. Having grown up in a country with no Disney parks at all, this seems pretty amazing. We had to get up quite early, though, which is Quite Wrong for a birthday, and then we had to take the Yamanote line, the busiest in Japan, at peak hour.


Here is a nice photo I took over Z’s shoulder. The train got considerably fuller after this. Bit of an awkward time to have overnight bags.

Finally we arrived at Disney! But first, there was a vending machine at the station. Everyone knows about Japan’s magical vending machines, right? But no one told me they sold hot drinks as well as cold! Need a cup of tea? A soy coffee? Vending machine.


Cinderella’s castle was undergoing some repairs, so they had erected a screen to disguise the scaffolding. I know it’s cheesy and manipulative, but I really admire Disney’s dedication to maintaining the illusions.

Once we had dropped our bags off at the welcome centre (where they would be transported to our hotel) and gotten through the entry queue, we raced for the Monsters Inc ride FASTPASS line. (It has to be in caps. FASTPASS!) Passes acquired, we found ourselves in need of second breakfast, for we are like hobbits, only much prettier and not as horrible as Martin Freeman.

Food prices at Disney are surprisingly cheap. In Australia, concession prices at theme parks are outrageous — $7 for a bottle of water is not unheard of. At Disney, we paid 1,200 yen for a breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, sausage, bacon and tea or coffee. The serving sizes were modest, but in keeping with, you know, dietary guidelines. Pah.

The Adventures of Horrible Racist French Guy, Part 1

There was a family sitting at the table next to us — mum, dad, two kids, a baby. The mother was American, and had a very strong Californian accent. The father’s accent was a mixture of French and American, and he did most of the talking. (I guess he might have been Canadian, but — as you will see — he was so rude!)

Now, I have been trying very hard not to fall into the trap of thinking that we’re the only non-gross Western tourists in Japan, because wow, judgemental, egotistical and pointless! But this family were quite unpleasant. Well, the adults were. The kids just seemed like your average upper-middle class kids on holiday, ie, probably spoilt but how is that their fault?

First of all, they weren’t happy with the high chair supplied for their baby. High chairs in Japan don’t have all the restraints and so forth that you get in Western countries.

Secondly, they kicked up a fuss about removing their stroller from the restaurant. It turns out that strollers are like shoes, it’s good etiquette to leave them outside. I didn’t know this until Z explained it, but hey, I don’t travel with small children.

Thirdly, and most unforgivably, they were the kinds of tourists who haven’t bothered to learn a single word of Japanese, and think that speaking English very loudly will get them by. I really appreciated the irony of a Frenchman taking this attitude, right up until they started trying to bully the waitstaff.

At that point I was like, (1) they’re in Japan, a country with a very strong service culture, and (2), it’s Disney, where you’d go mad if you didn’t have a passion for customer service. And I don’t like people who are rude to service staff at the best of times! The father was all, “Can you speak English?” to a waitress who spoke quite good English but with an accent.

Z leaned over and explained what the problem was, and the father gave us the kind of “we’re all white people in this together, eh?” appeal for solidarity with his eyeballs. At which point, Omo said, “You know you’re in Japan, right?”

She instantly regretted it, but compared with the last time she intervened with a racist bully — similar situation, but in Australia; he called her a fat bitch and told her to get back into the kitchen, she laughed at him so he nearly punched her, I heroically hid outside — I think this could have been worse.

We settled down to finish our breakfasts.

Then I asked Z to ask the waitress where the bathrooms were, and she taught me the Japanese word for “toilet”. Which, come to think of it, I’ve since forgotten.

The father kind of started when he heard Z speaking in fluent Japanese. He didn’t notice me when I returned from the bathroom, and I saw him staring at Z and Omo with a look of profound hostility on his face. They had felt it, and were trying to ignore him, but we were all glad to pay for our breakfast and leave him behind forever.


*dramatic music*

Disney stuff

We rode the tea cups! I don’t care that it’s a kiddy ride, I’ve wanted to do that since the first time I knew Disneyland existed. AND IT WAS AMAZING.

Also amazing: ahead of us in the queue was a quartet of horrible douchebros who were going to ride the tea cups ~ironically~. But they wound up having so much fun they forgot they were douchebros, and ran off to have more non-douchey fun. Teacups: MAGIC.

Then we rode It’s a Small World After All, because it was there, and … well, we figured we could get some snarky tweets out of it. There was pre-ride facepulling:


It’s a Small World has the unique quality of being both racist and creepy! One day, those dolls are going to come to life and start killing people. While singing. It’ll be great.

The nice thing about the ride is that it’s offensive to everyone. Even the brief representation of America involved a white doll in a war bonnet. It brings the world together to go, “What the fuck was that?”

Of note: most of the dolls are singing the song, right? But the Aboriginal and Maori dolls that represent Australia and New Zealand have their mouths shut. They just wave a bit. It’s a small world after all, but Indigenous people are still silenced. THAT’S ACCIDENTALLY PROFOUND, DISNEY.

I think it was Frontierland that had more war bonnets. You could buy them in shops, along with turquoise jewellery and beaded versions of Disney characters. I felt like going, “Guys, it’s the twenty-first century. Get with the times.”

Serious question: why did we get a FASTPASS to the Haunted Mansion? It seemed like a good idea at the time. Cute ride, but not scary in any sense. Although, Wikipedia has finally filled me in on how they create the illusion of the ghosts dancing in the ballroom, so that’s one childhood mystery resolved!

Unlike the Haunted Mansion, the Monsters Inc ride was totally worth the FASTPASSSSSSS. It was quite simple — you get a torch, and as your cart goes through the ride, you illuminate monsters — but fun.

Then the others did the Buzz Lightyear ride, while I did Space Mountain. Why did I think a rollercoaster in the dark would be fun? IT WAS TERRIFYING. Though I’ve been told that the Tokyo version is scarier than others, so I feel pretty hardcore having done it. Part of the problem was that I stood in the queue for so long — 90 minutes — that I somehow forgot what I was queuing for, so I got to the front, hopped in my little car and went, “…Rollercoaster. Right. SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT!”

On the upside, I read quite a lot of my book while I was in the line.

Things Tokyo Disney is really into: popcorn. All over both parks there are carts selling popcorn in different flavours. They also sell plastic popcorn boxes that can be slung over your shoulder, in shapes like Mickey’s head, or Minnie’s bow, etc. I would have liked a popcorn box, but they were 2,500 yen, or about $25, and I thought they were just as likely to become clutter as storage space at home.

Things Tokyo Disney is not really into: princesses. I wound up buying very little merch, because it was nearly all Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck, the traditional characters. And also Duffy, the very first Disney character who didn’t debut in film or TV. Duffy is a bear, and I resent him deeply. But more on that later.

Anyway, it’s not that I don’t like Mickey, Minnie, etc, but they don’t really excite me. But apparently the princesses are more of a Western thing. There was a bit of Snow White and Alice — the kawaii characters — but that was it.


I did buy this amazing hat, though, because I was really cold. It was incredibly windy on Monday, and I was freeeeezing.


This vast queue of people are lining up to buy giant smoked turkey legs. I was pretty impressed by this, but Rie says the turkey legs at Original Flavour Disneyland are even bigger.

One thing I need to do is write to Tokyo Disney in praise of their staff. Everyone we dealt with was really lovely, and gave the impression of being truly interested in our well-being. To survive Disney, I reckon you need the patience of a saint, a powerful dedication to customer service, and really good acting skills. I hope the Tokyo Disney staff are well-paid, because they were brilliant.

FOR EXAMPLE, Z bought Omo a rosette proclaiming that it was her birthday. A cashier in one of the souvenir shops saw it, and gave her the official Disney birthday sticker. But she didn’t just write Omo’s name on it, she also drew Mickey and Minnie, and added her own personal birthday greetings. And once Omo was wearing that, suddenly every single staff member we saw, from janitors to security and everyone else, was stopping to wish her a happy birthday. It sounds a bit trite, but it was very kind.

The hotel

We stayed at the Disney Ambassador Hotel, which is one of the cheaper (BUT STILL REALLY EXPENSIVE OMG) accommodation options at Tokyo Disney. It has a really lovely art deco theme. You walk in and look around and think you’re in a really nice, grown-up hotel. Then you look closer, and realise there’s a Disney theme on everything. But it’s quite subtle. I like to think it’s my own approach to fannish nerdishness, in hotel form.

Incidentally, while I was in the US, someone suggested taking an anti-inflammatory when my feet got sore. THANK YOU, WHOEVER YOU ARE. You saved my life. And my delicate feets.

We had dinner at the hotel’s buffet restaurant, which was a bit expensive, but delicious, and also ALL YOU CAN EAT. One side of the restaurant had Japanese food, the other side had western food. And, randomly, kimchi. I ate at both sides! Four kinds of fish! Beef AND chicken AND lamb AND pork! Vegetables! Steamed buns! And a tiny, delicious selection of dairy-free desserts.

BUT THAT WASN’T ALL. Oh no. There were … cast members. You know, Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto. That crowd. (Things which have been bothering us: how is it that Goofy can speak, while Pluto’s just a dog? Did Aslan make Disney? Why is Goofy dating a cow? Who is the mother of his son? THESE QUESTIONS AND MORE MAY NEVER BE ANSWERED!)

All the characters came to our table to deliver birthday wishes to Omo, and we had our photos taken with Mickey and Minnie (but not Donald or Goofy, ‘cos NO.)

There was, however, one awkward moment when Donald Duck came up in my blind spot. I knew he was in the vicinity, but I didn’t realise he was right behind me! I looked up, AND THERE WAS A GIANT SIX-FOOT DUCK!

I jumped! AND YELPED!

Then everyone laughed at me, and I was really embarrassed, but I also felt terrible, because I didn’t want the person inside the Donald costume to think I was upset or hurt. So I sort of flailed around, going, “Sumimasen, Donald-san!” in what Omo tells me was a frantic kind of way. I wasn’t frantic! I just didn’t want Donald to feel bad!


We had this great plan to go back to the park until closing after dinner, but we were just exhausted. We explored the gift shop and the hotel’s konbini — yes, our hotel had its own convenience store! With regular convenience store prices, which, because it’s Japan, are REALLY CHEAP! — and then we returned to our room.

The Japanese are really into baths, and why not? So I took advantage of the very deep tub, and the lack of water restrictions, and had a soak. And my feet thanked me for it.

Shimokitazawa is for Hipsters


For today’s adventure, Rie took us out to Shimokitazawa, land of hipsters. I live in a pretty hipstertastic suburb of Melbourne, but I have to say, Brunswick cries itself to sleep every night because it’s not Shimokitazawa, and Fitzroy is secretly taking lessons in how to be as cool.

It was, first and foremost, geographically and architecturally interesting. Narrow, winding streets teeming with people and bicycles. At first I thought it must be closed to other traffic, but no, cars just creep through like they know they’re not welcome. The buildings were modern but not new, and residential apartment blocks sit half-hidden behind cafes, boutiques and bars.

The stores were a mixture of chains, small businesses — there was a yarn shop that almost inspired me to take up knitting just so I could touch its wool every day — and secondhand dealers. I nearly got lost in a tiny store that sold vintage men’s suits, 1970s birthday cards and American badges from the ’50s to ’80s. Oh, and John Lennon glasses, lots of John Lennon glasses. They were playing the Beatles. I admire their dedication to the theme.

Actually, I heard more western music today than I have previously. Conversely, most places didn’t have English or even romaji menus. Luckily we had Rie! She paid me a very high compliment in telling me that I pronounce words with a native accent. Note: my vocabulary consists of about five words so far.

(New to the vocab: ”Oiishi desu!” ”It’s delicious!” My seventh grade Japanese is creeping back, though! I remembered how to say, “I don’t like Paul-san”! More usefully, I remembered that “Oiishi desu ka?” is, “Is it delicious?”)

(Paul made lots of people’s lives hell in primary school, and the day we had to go around the class and name something we disliked, lots of people found a temporary release from their fears. I say temporary, because he bashed a lot of people up that lunchtime.)

Signs we were in hipsterville:

– I saw a Japanese woman with a tattoo. This came not five minutes after we had a really long conversation with Rie about tattoo stigmas in Australia and Japan, so it was quite shocking. Though a really lovely tattoo.
– In the cafe where we had lunch, a white guy sat writing a screenplay on an Macbook Air. One of the characters was named “Japan”. Look out for this movie, it’s going to be great, and not problematic and horrible at all.

The train ride home was less positive. Firstly, a middle-aged man stared at me for an entire leg of the trip. This happens all the time at home — we call them Brunswick Staring Men — but that’s usually impersonal and impartial. This guy was studying me quite intensely. I was warned that I might attract some attention in Japan, having curly, red hair, and I can live with being stared at, but it was a bit uncomfortable.

Even less great was the final leg, where a couple stared and openly whispered about Omo, CutSelvage and me. I learned a new phrase: “Kimoi gaijin” — “ugly/disgusting foreigner”. Compared with what sometimes happens to foreigners on Australian public transport, that’s really quite harmless, but the open rudeness was a bit shocking. They basically sat there and pointed at us one by one, “Ugly, ugly, ugly.”

Growing up, my parents would deflect any attempt at discussing racism in Australia by saying, “Everyone else is racist, too. Especially the Japanese.” Like, people of colour do it, so it’s okay (and if you don’t agree, you’re the one who’s racist!)? It’s a pretty standard response when Australians need to derail a conversation about our own racism. I always assumed it was just a stereotype of our own, or possibly a hangover from WW2, but apparently not. Douchebaggery: it’s for everyone.

Rie is a little shocked at how not offended we are by “gaijin”. I sometimes wonder if it’s really white arrogance, like, “Hah, they think they can be racist to us! Foolish people! We look down on EVERYONE!” But mostly I think — well, my own reaction is, “Yeah, to you, I am a foreigner, but that’s not an inherently bad thing.” There was a lively debate about this in the tea room at work when a restaurant called Gaijin opened up near the office. I think the eventual consensus was, “Om nom nom.”

(If it needs to be made clear, this is not intended as a universal pronouncement on race relations in Japan, or a “Woe, I was talked about and stared at I AM SO OPPRESSED!!!11111” kind of thing. I’m just processing my own experiences.)

WE ARE GOING TO DISNEY TOMORROW! We’re doing Disneyland, then staying overnight at one of the hotels, then doing Disney Sea on Tuesday. Rie is joining us for that bit as well. SO EXCITED. Expect lots of hyperactive Instagram spam. It’s possible I’ll be weeping inside due to the cost, BUT THERE WILL BE SPAM.

Japan 2013

I was blogging my travel adventures over at Tumblr, where it’s easy to post my Instagram photos. But just to be cute, Tumblr has decided to make it really hard to make text posts. Since I usually hate giant text posts on Tumblr, I’d normally count this as a good thing, but right now it’s just annoying. I like having all my travel blogging in one place!

So I’ve moved it here, making a change from the usual book blogging, but think of all the content we’re going to get!


Okay. It’s all right. I know, like, html and stuff. *breath*



This was the plane that flew Z and I from Hong Kong to Japan. In the background you can see high mountains largely hidden by mist. I have a four-hour stopover at Hong Kong on my way back, and I really hope it’s a bit clearer, because I feel like I was missing out on a really amazing view.


Instagram photos from our first full day.

The post I made to Tumblr that night:

Japan! This is a thing that is happening!

I had some anxiety before I came, because I don’t speak much Japanese, and some days I find it stressful just speaking with people who share a language with me! But everyone reassured me that the Japanese are really good at dealing with people who don’t speak the language, plus the friends I’m with are living/have lived in Japan and can help me out.

Nevertheless, I feel like I’ve spent an awful lot of time today bowing and saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Japanese,” and then muddling my way through transactions, bowing again and running away calling, “Arigatogozaimasu!” over my shoulder. I completely confused a sales woman by paying for a 1,600 yen magazine by card instead of cash.

Only took, like, three transactions before I remembered to put cash in the dish instead of the cashier’s hands. But a lot of cashiers are trained to hand westerners their change directly, and as they do it, they look as proud as I feel when I remember to say “Sumimasen” as I push through crowds.

~cultural differences~

I just listened to my hostessy BFF LostinOmo explain ANZAC biscuits to her Japanese flatmate, Rie. It was pretty fabulous. Tomorrow Rie is taking us to Shimokitazawa, which is apparently a big hipster district. Then we tried to define “hipster” which is hard enough when you’re only dealing with English.

ANYWAY, I really like Tokyo. It’s amazingly clean, and I love the architecture. Seriously, I know nothing about architecture, but one of my favourite things about travelling is seeing how houses look. So I’m spending a lot of time peering.

I have also gawped at the legendary Japanese toilets like a yokel. Seriously, I had forgotten that there even were legendary Japanese toilets — I only remembered squat toilets and the porcelain throne models. So there was a moment of shock and mild panic when I stepped into a cubicle at Haneda Airport. ALL THE BUTTONS. THE BIDET. THE BUM WASHING FUNCTION.

Gotta say, though, I could get used to the heated toilet seats. Look into it, Australia.

Today we went to Ueno, and I maaaaay have bought a lot of stationery. I just really like Japanese stationery, okay? Also: Uniqlo.

Also, we went through the park, and there were cherry blossoms, and it was really pretty. Lovely weather.

I can’t express how much I wish I could speak Japanese. I’ve never felt so disconnected from the people around me, and it’s really my own fault for being monolingual. I think I’m going to change that in the next couple of years.

I’ve taken steps by learning the kanji for “soy milk”. Hey, I’m lactose intolerant. It’s self-preservation. Japan is really into dairy. Before I developed the intolerance, I used to get cream puffs from Beard Papa in Elizabeth Street, and it was really hard to walk past that shop today. The delicious smells … and mochi ice cream … and cream cakes…

Saturday 16 March 2013

A tale of two Sydneys: P M Newton and Katherine Howell

But first!  A digression!


Hashtag: AWW2013 The Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge is an attempt to support the work of Australia’s female authors, and to redress the gender imbalance in reviewing.

I originally wasn’t going to do it, because I figured I was flat-out just reading an acceptable number of Australian authors of any gender in 2013.  Last year, 19 out of 140 books were written by Australians, a piddling 13.57%.  Shameful.

But my good friend Mel at Subversive Reader has been pursuing the challenge with great dedication, so I got curious and started reading the hash tag.  And then I started reading the reviews.  And then I thought, what the hell, this project has given me lots of ideas for what to read next — I might as well throw my hat in the ring.

(Yes, and if Mel jumped off a cliff often enough, I might start thinking there was something in that, too.)

Time constraints mean that I don’t review many individual books any more, but I’m going to make more of an effort.  Therefore, I present two Sydney-based crime novels by Australian women!


Okay, I’m cheating here.  I read The Old School in November 2012, while I was travelling in America.  I had grabbed a paperback to read while planes were taking off and landing, figuring that if I didn’t like it, I could leave it behind for some passenger or flight attendant who might enjoy it more.

Not only did I like The Old School, but it’s still on my mind three months later.  It had a vivid sense of time and place, and a really fantastic heroine in Detective Nhu “Ned” Kelly.

Time and place: Sydney, 1992.  Bill Clinton is in the White House.  The High Court has just overturned the legal fiction of terra nullius with the Mabo ruling, establishing precedent for Aborigianal land rights.

The heroine: Ned is the daughter of an Irish-Australian and a Vietnamese woman he met while serving in the war.  Her parents were murdered when she was young, and she and her sister were raised by their eccentric paternal aunt, who doesn’t make a secret of the fact she wishes her nieces were just a little more, you know, white.  As an adult, Ned is career-minded, ambitious and somewhat resentful of senior officers’ expectation that she be their token minority (a role that falls by the wayside when she reveals she speaks no Vietnamese).  (So good was the portrayal of the pressures and micro-aggressions Ned faces that I was really shocked to learn that the author is in fact white.)

This is the status quo when the bodies of two women are discovered in the foundation of a building that Ned’s father constructed in the late ’70s.  One was an Aboriginal activist whose inability to swallow bullshit and play nice with the patriarchy earned her a lot of enemies.  The other was a Vietnamese refugee who may have had links with the Viet Cong.

Probably the weakest link in the novel is that Ned wasn’t transferred to other duties right away, but it does make sense that she would want to prove herself, and that her mentor would give her the chance.

Despite that, it’s a fantastic, intricate mystery that covers espionage and war crimes in Vietnam, police abuse of Aborigines in Sydney, and the way past sins can still damage families.  And the culture, the awkward fumbling steps towards inclusivity that in my family we called political correctness, is portrayed vividly.  Late in the book, events take place with Paul Keating’s famous Redfern speech as the backdrop, assimilating all the themes beautifully.  I was really excited to learn that there’s going to be a second book about Ned.


It was Mel who put me onto Howell with her review of the third novel in the series, Cold Justice.  I used to be able to read series out of order, but somehow I just can’t do it any more … but luckily (from every perspective except that of my bank account) Amazon has the first book in the series in Kindle format for $5.32.  And having finished it, I’m now sternly telling myself that buying book 2 for $12.88 is stupid, when I can get the next two books from the library.  I just have to brave the heat … and the wrath of Terry Deary.  Yeah, that’ll keep me up at night.  (Here, have a rebuttal as a palate cleanser.)

Anyway, I totally am going to brave the heat as soon as I’ve finished my lunch, so obviously I enjoyed Frantic.  Like The Old School, it’s a police procedural set in Sydney with predominantly female protagonists.  After that, they diverge.

For one thing, Frantic occupies a Sydney which is much whiter and more middle class than The Old School.  The detective, Ella Marconi, is presumably of Italian descent, but everyone else appears to be of Anglo-Saxon background.  It’s almost jarring, especially as Frantic was written and set in 2007. 

Additionally, it has two heroines.  The narrative is divided between Ella Marconi, a police detective whose inability to play politics stands between her and promotion, and Sophie Phillips, a paramedic.  Sophie is a competent, clever person, unable to understand why her husband, a police officer, has become uncommunicative, even hostile.  In the space of a few days, a series of bank robberies are linked to the police,  husband is shot and her ten-month-old son is kidnapped.

Splitting the narrative gives us Sophie’s highly emotional, increasingly irrational response, and also Ella’s more distant perspective.  I came out feeling like I didn’t know Ella as well as I knew Sophie, but I understand the series features a different set of paramedics in each book, but Ella is a constant.  I’m hoping this means that Ella’s character will unfold over time.

I like the conceit of involving paramedics in the story, because it meant even the routine moments of Sophie’s life and job were fraught with tension.  Howell is a former paramedic herself, and while I can’t judge as to accuracy, it certainly felt realistic.  (At the same time, I think Howell was right to avoid anything was clichéd as a crime-fighting ambo.)  We got to see crime scenes from several perspectives, while the two women’s different and sometimes conflicting agendas meant we got to have fun with unreliable narrators.

I have to confess that, even though it was a fantastic, pacy read, Frantic is not as layered or thoughtful as The Old School.  But if you enjoy a solid procedural, and I do, it’s an entertaining way to spend a few train journeys.