Sunday, July 23, 2017

Back in Time--and Potty Humor--at the Edo-Tokyo Museum

-- Susan, every other Sunday

During last month's trip to Japan, I spent a day at the Edo-Tokyo Museum researching an upcoming Hiro Hattori mystery and learning oodles of fascinating facts about Japan's modern capital during the Edo period.

The massive Edo-Tokyo Museum

For those who don't know, Tokyo was formerly known as Edo--and Japanese historians use the term "Edo Period" to refer to the period between 1603 and 1868 (the start of the Meiji Period) when Edo was the capital of Japan and ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate.

The Edo-Tokyo museum is split in two: one side deals with the city's history during the Edo Period, the other with the more modern Meiji period. Regrettably, I spent all day on the Edo side this trip--though that means I'll get to explore the Meiji half of the museum another trip.

Visitors enter the museum through a series of escalators that take you to the building's sixth floor - where the exhibits start.
Up and up and up to enter ... and then you walk down through the exhibits.

You emerge on the upper level of a cavernous room near a full-sized replica of the Nihonbashi Bridge

Medieval Japanese bridges were built for traffic.

The bridge was once the primary entrance into Edo--and visitors walk across it to access the museum's other exhibits.

Not for those who fear heights.

On one side of the bridge, visitors look down on a full-sized replica of a seventeenth century Kabuki theater:

Nakamura-Za Kabuki Theater

On the other, a reconstructed building from Meiji-era Tokyo:

Sadly, I didn't get to this half of the museum this trip.

The opposite side of the bridge holds a treasure trove of engaging and interactive exhibits, including dioramas showing life in Edo Period Japan.

Detail of a diorama showing the Nihonbashi Bridge 

Many of the exhibits are interactive, allowing visitors to experience life in "old Edo."

This palanquin was used by samurai who could not or chose not to ride horses.
Nightsoil buckets - visitors can lift the yoke and experience the weight - though not the smell.

For a writer, the blend of original artifacts and reconstructed buildings was a gold mine--though anyone with an interest in history (or Japan) would find it equally fascinating.

Original Edo-era coins, on display.

I particularly liked the exhibits that reconstructed one of the connected row houses (munewari nagaya) where Edo's commoners lived during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Carpenter's one-room home in an Edo row house.

The houses consisted of multiple, connected one-room dwellings, each of which was home to a single family. The landlord who owned the building usually lived elsewhere (in a larger, multi-room home) so the people who shared the tenements were not necessarily (and often, not) related.

Nagaya did not have indoor plumbing, so the residents used a common well, garbage bin, and latrine placed at the rear of the block.

Replica of the communal well at a nagaya.

As a writer, I photograph everything--and I was particularly interested in documenting the nagaya display for my books, including the latrine, which was the first full-sized model of a Japanese city latrine that I'd seen.

Japanese potty - the stalls are squat toilets. The open space on the end contains a urinal.

Medieval Japanese urinal. That's a thing you know about now.

(Full disclosure: My friends and I have a running joke that I must be a six year-old boy at heart, because every book I write ends up with a latrine in it somewhere. Six or forty-six, I admit to an odd fascination with potties of every type and era.)

While I was photographing the latrine, an elderly Japanese man walked up next to me and started laughing. When I lowered my camera, he pointed and said (quite loudly) in English: "YOU LIKE TOILET!"

"I am an American novelist," I responded (in Japanese), "I am writing a book--"

"About Edo toilet!" He finished, in English, with a giant grin and two thumbs up.

"And ninjas!" I added.

He found this absolutely hilarious.

I can't say that I blame him.

Given that I was the only non-Japanese person I saw in the museum all day, my fascination with the toilet probably gave him all kinds of only partially-inaccurate opinions of Americans, women, and novelists.

I have no regrets. In fact, it put a perfect capper (or should I say, crapper) on the day.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Seismic Changes Around Here


I’m writing this from my cave on a rock in the middle of the Aegean Sea. Thankfully, I’m in the central Aegean, far away from the tourist heavy areas of Kos (a Greek island) and Bodrum (a Turkish coastal town) struck by a 6.7 magnitude earthquake less than twenty-four hours ago.  It is the second such event in the broader region this year.

Hundreds are reported injured, two have died, and media reports from Kos show extensive damage to older buildings and parts of the port area, with images from Turkey revealing people abandoning buildings and waiting in the streets.

Earthquakes are not new to the region.  They serve as continuing reminders of the “big ones” of the past, and of those yet to come.  Entire civilizations have disappeared around here through quakes and eruptions—fictionally represented by the Lost Island of Atlantis.  

With all that’s happened in the region over the past twenty-four hours, it struck me as out of place for me to be voicing (as I’d planned) concerns I’d heard from many on Mykonos over esthetic architectural digressions (and transgressions) they see as threatening the very soul of their island. 

Bluntly speaking, I think to do so at the moment would be a sign of horrible bad taste…almost as much so as the new construction so many have in mind to pan.  

The above three photos are not of Mykonian locales, but of Athens 2004 Olympic venues a decade later. Could they be the Ghosts of Times to Come?

Argh.  So, I shall hold my tongue and, instead, offer my prayers and condolences to those souls affected by the earthquake, and wish them—make that all of us—no more damaging tremors.

As for what’s happening on this island, I offer an ancient Mykonian proverb:

“All that is necessary for evil architecture to prevail is for those most affected by it to do nothing.”


Friday, July 21, 2017

The Victoria Falls and The Dark Island

On day three of the 500 we did a tricky little drive - the green bit at the top of the line here.
This part of the route runs along the coast, with spectacular beaches, huge cliffs and stunning rock formations.  On day four, we were planning to reach the Caves Of Smoo - which I always say as The Caves Of Smoooooooo in a Sir Ian McKellern kind of way.

Here is the photo blog of the day.
recalling another much darker day....

The Gairloch

Carrot cake!

The Victoria Falls

The top of the falls

They only drop a few feet but they made a lot of noise.

Gairloch has a community garden along the wall of the harbour

And a few hundred yards away, the air is affected by the gulf stream. There are a few botanical gardens in these few square miles.  But they were mobbed by tourist coaches.

I knew we were going to have Gruinard Island in our sight at one point.  It lies in Gruinard Bay between  Gairloch and Ullapool, a wee island 1.2 miles  long by 0.6 miles wide. 

I didn't realise that it was so close to the shore - only about half a mile away at its closest point. The name might be familiar to you as it has been mentioned more than a few times in books and films. The Enemy by Desmond Bagley for one, and the Alistair McLean one set in Rassay is another. Why?

Because the island was dangerous for all mammals after experiments with the anthrax bacterium in 1942. It was supposed to be decontaminated in the 1990s but some folk remain unconvinced. And my pathology lecturer told me it is actually quite difficult to catch anthrax. As a spore, it is heavy so you really have to sniff it to get into your lungs.  Hence why heroin  that has been cut  on contaminated hides is so dangerous to immune compromised substance abusers- we have seen a lot of that in Scotland in the last few years.

In 1881 the population of Gruinard was 6! And it was an island full of trees. Now there are no trees and no people.

 Operation Vegetarian (????!!!) was a biological warfare test carried out on the island in 1942. Those who carried it out were from Porten Down - which is in the South of England. They were testing the use of Anthrax as a weapon.

They used a nasty strain of Anthrax, "Vollum 14578" and this was placed in a bomb and some sheep were tethered next to the bomb. They then exploded it,  and filmed what happened.  The sheep died within days of their exposure.  These films were declassified in 1997.

The plan was to drop Anthrax bombs on Germany to make their large cities uninhabitable and this plan was supported by the difficulty they had in trying to decontaminate Gruinard.  The spores were so durable and hardy, they couldn't get rid of the stuff.

Gruinard Island was quarantined indefinitely.

In 1981 a story began to circulate, "Operation Dark Harvest", a movement to decontaminate the island,  had reported that a "team of microbiologists from two universities" had  got onto the island, collected samples and were sending them to  various people of interest ( and to Porten Down). they demanded  that the public be educated about the island  and that the government  stopped their indifference.

 None of the samples contained anthrax  and although the soil was similar to that found on the island, it couldn't be proved as to where the samples had been taken.

But it was in the news and it didn't go away. By 1986 a determined effort to decontaminate the island started by spraying 280 tonnes of formaldehyde solution diluted in sea water all over the place.

 Then they put some sheep on it. And they survived.

                                                        The Island, the photo taken from the road.

                                               A close up. Nothing much going on there.

Ullapool bay. Height of summer!

Ullapool high street. 

I liked this boat's laid back approach in contrast to

The ferry terminal that resembles an airport.

The weather was flexing it's muscles.

And the world started to look like Tolkien had designed it. ( a bad hobbit to get into )

And the award winning sands at Alitanabradhan
(that's Gaelic for sand gets everywhere )

Nice innit? It was very cold.

Caro Ramsay 21 07 2017

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Hyenas of Harar

Michael - Thursday

I thought I knew quite a bit about hyenas. I’ve always liked them, feeling that they get a bum rap as cowardly, slinking scavengers. Scavengers they certainly are. They are happy to eat anything that is, or once was, flesh and bone. Especially bone. Their jaws can crunch them to powder, and their stomachs can digest and dissolve the calcium in strong acids. It's easy to recognize their feces as they appear white or grey from the calcium.

However, the Spotted Hyena is primarily a predator.

All the better to eat you with!
I’ve spent a night in the Kalahari following a group of seven of them. They seem to tirelessly cover the veld just loping along until one catches a scent, and then they suddenly all turn and race off in the same direction. During that night they had a go at an eland—that proved too much for them, chased a lioness up an acacia and circled the base with their tails up like dogs around a treed cat, and eventually pulled down a wildebeest.

Taking on a Gemsbok at night
And a lioness
In Botswana, Stan and I witnessed a much larger pack pull down a wildebeest and completely consume it over a period of a few hours. Everything is eaten except the horns and hooves. Watching that was what sparked the idea of destroying a body that way for the perfect murder, and eventually led to our first novel, A Carrion Death.

Surprisingly, Spotted Hyenas have a reputation for making good pets. They socialize easily with people, but while they are easy to house train, they have a strong scent which they use to mark their territories. Not ideal. At Ingwelala Game Reserve (where Stan has a bungalow), they used to come all through the camp at night and often chose to lie near the camp fire and watch the cooking like dogs. They would patrol the camp all night looking for scraps and company. Since giving them the former was strictly forbidden, they eventually became less keen on the latter.

What I didn’t know until I picked up an article from Reuters this week was that there is a city where they have become welcome nightly visitors. Although they are totally wild—in the sense that they live outside in the surrounding bush and come and go exactly as they please, they come through the city to clean up, accept offerings, be admired by tourists, and socialize with their favorite people—the ones who feed them (who are designated by the city).

Harar with the surrounding wall

The ancient city wall
Shewaber gate
The city itself is interesting. Situated in eastern Ethiopia near Somalia and the horn of Africa, it was established as a walled city in 1551 and is one of the earliest Muslim centers of importance, supposedly fourth after Mecca. Now about a quarter of a million people live in the city and surrounds. And beyond that, the hyenas live.

It’s worth reading the full piece from Reuters HERE, but here’s a taste (so to speak) of the hyenas and their friends.
'Hyena man' with a friend
Don't try this at home...
Sharing is caring.
So now I know something else about hyenas...

Murder Is Everywhere
Author Recognitions and Events


Murder in Saint Germain, Aimée Leduc’s next investigation, launched June 6.


              My next Hiro Hattori mystery, Betrayal at Iga, releases on July 11 from Seventh Street Books. 

          The next Detective Kubu mystery, Dying to Live, releases in the UK on July 12 from Orenda books.