Friday, April 29, 2011

Bookshelf

The mountains, islands, beaches and historic towns around Tokyo provide many weekend travel options for the careworn city-dweller. Every weekend for the past few weeks I have been darting off somewhere, so I thought it would be prudent to temporarily limit these excesses.

With these motives I decided to spend all of yesterday, which was a public holiday, indoors.

The experiment, I was swiftly convinced, does not bear repetition. To such depths of boredom did I descend that I thought of taking a photo of my bookshelf, and blogging about it. Why any reader would wish to see a photo of my bookshelf, much less read about it, is more than I can say. But others have done it before, so why not me? And if I cannot ramble in the mountains, I can at least ramble on my blog.


When I left Calcutta in August 2010, I took only four books with me.

I would have taken two more – the two volumes of Rabindra Rachanavali that contain Lipika and Kshanika. But that would have left an incomplete set at home, which is unacceptable.

The first book I did take was Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel (3) – a parting gift from Myshkin’s friends. They believed – and rightly so – that in the new career on which I was about to embark, in the unforgiving world of commercial law, this philosophical tome would stand me in good stead. The philosophy, such as it is, is summed up in a blurb on the back cover: To err is human. To cover it up is weasel. The Weasel Zone is where your co-workers, bosses, salespeople, CEOs, human resource executives, family and loved ones reside – “the giant grey area between good moral behaviour and outright criminality.”

The second, Ghostwritten (13), is the book I was reading at the time. It is by David Mitchell, but more about him anon.

The other two were books I had read already. I took Europe (15) because it is my favourite travel book in the world. And I took The World of Psmith (28). If I could take only one book with me, I would have chosen The World of Psmith.

The other books have been acquired since then. Some I purchased, some (1, 7 and 11) were gifts and some (17, 19 and 20) were freebies. You can tell that 17 is a freebie because I would never willingly buy a book with a title like that. The sheets of paper sticking out of the book are my Hiragana and Katakana practice sheets.

Many of these books were purchased from Foyles, Charing Cross Road, which narrowly edges out Daunt, Marylebone as my favourite bookstore in London. What Am I Doing Here (6) was bought at a second-hand bookstore in Bath.

Three books (9, 23 and 26) were purchased online. Saha bought them for me, because I did not have a UK bank account at the time. The books were delivered to Saha’s office; his boss saw Species of Spaces and Other Places (26) on his desk, and thought (wrongly) that Saha is an intellectual.

Two of these books have Footnotes: Searching for Order (25) – a history of plant taxonomy from 370 BC to AD 1705, and Modern Legal Drafting (20), which is an altogether more amusing book than the title would suggest.

I could go on to systematically write anecdotes about every book on the shelf, but there is a limit to the reader’s patience (and mine). Not all the books deserve a special mention anyway, but there are two which certainly do.

Last Chance to See (2) made me seriously think about becoming an environmental lawyer. If one day I chuck everything up and take to spending most of my waking moments hugging trees and engaging in similar pursuits, you will know that Douglas Adams is to blame.

And The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (14) by David Mitchell is the reason I am in Japan. Our firm gives us the option to work for six months in one of their international offices, and when I indicated my preferences, I was reading this book.

The preferences I gave were Tokyo, Prague, Amsterdam and New York – in that order. When I showed her my list, a Czech trainee told me, “If you get Prague, and if you go there and tell them it was above New York in your list, they will put up your statue in Wenceslas Square.” Had she told me this before, and had I not been reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I may now have been in Prague.

Funny things, books.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Kyoto

What does Kyoto mean to you? When you think of Kyoto, perhaps you think of Zen gardens, moss gardens and tea-houses? Or maybe it calls to mind temples and carp pools? Geishas and cherry blossom? Nintendo?

Here is a conversation I had with a lawyer friend of mine, and this (though I have mentioned it before) is why I love lawyers:
Me: I have a six-day holiday next week.
Friend: Nice! Are you going somewhere?
Me: Probably Kyoto.
Friend: Ah. The protocol place.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Beekeeper and a Song

Takao san, less than an hour by train from Shinjuku, makes for a pleasant day hike away from the madness of Tokyo. If you are looking for a challenging climb, Takao San, at 599 m, is not the mountain for you. But it has ancient cedars, wildflowers, waterfalls, secluded shrines, a variety of wildlife and – legend has it – resident tengu (goblins from Japanese mythology).

Climbing always makes me think of a beekeeper and a song.

We met the beekeeper in Wales. Four of us – friends from university – were mountain-biking near the town of Machynlleth when we went off the trail and got lost. After going miles without seeing another human soul, we came upon a bee farm and next to it, a cottage.

The cottage was inhabited by a ginger-haired young man who ran the farm, commercially producing honey and at the same time studying bee biology and behaviour. Saha and I told him we were lost, and he explained how to find the bike trail. But before that, in a five-minute conversation, we told each other the story of our lives.

Saha and I are from similar backgrounds – we went to school and university in Calcutta, and joined law firms in London. The beekeeper grew up in Machynlleth, which has a population of just over 2,000. He went to university in Cardiff and now, in a beautiful and remote valley, he observes bees and harvests honey. And helps lost bikers find their way.

We told the beekeeper we were planning to climb Cadair Idris. It is not far from Machynlleth and quite a popular climb, so we were surprised when he said he had never climbed it himself. We asked him why, and he said, “I like being at the farm.”

And it made me think of a Kimya Dawson song, and that is why I will forever associate climbing, beekeepers, and these lines from Hadlock Padlock: I wonder if this climbing that you city people do / Ever leads you to a place with such a pretty view.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Karaoke

Thirteen finance lawyers – seven of them Japanese, two English guys, two Singaporeans, a Chinese girl and me – after work on a Friday night (or more accurately, Saturday morning), in a Karaoke Box in downtown Tokyo. And which is the one song that everyone knows?

Hey Jude? Knocking on Heaven’s Door? Smells Like Teen Spirit? A seminal moment in musical history, an evergreen classic?

The answer is simpler and funnier: Backstreet Boys. I Want It That Way.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Politeness

Omikuji instructions at Sensō-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple in Asakusa:

Long-time readers of this blog may recall that Buddhist temples and I go back a long way.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hasselblad

When I went to Ueno Kōen this weekend to see cherry blossoms, I wasn’t expecting to see something even more beautiful – for, truth be told, few things are more beautiful than cherry blossoms. But as I stood on the shore of Shinobazu-Ike trying to take photos of tree branches silhouetted against the setting sun (not with much success), I noticed a girl trying to shoot the same scene with a medium-format camera. Curious, I decided to take a closer look (at the camera, not the girl). And then I saw it was a Hasselblad. With a Carl Zeiss lens.

I had never seen a Hasselblad before, but I knew about the marque. It was my father who first told me about Hasselblad, before I was even old enough to use a camera, and he spoke of it in hushed, reverential tones. Not everyone is a fan of the waist-level finder which is a standard feature of the Hasselblad medium-format (the inimitable Cartier-Bresson, a lifelong Leica devotee, once said, “If the good Lord had wanted us to take photographs with a 6 by 6, he would have put eyes in our belly.”) But for many photographers, Hasselblad is the Rolls-Royce, the Moët & Chandon of medium-format cameras.

So I asked her if I could look through the viewfinder. She agreed immediately, and extended the camera towards me.

Now my Japanese, while good for asking for directions and ordering at restaurants, is not yet good enough to convey what, to me, the Hasselblad stands for. Still, what I saw at first did not impress me much – the image looked blurred, and the contrast wasn’t great. But then she adjusted the focus ring. The branches which I had been trying to photograph, dark and crisp against the orange sky, swam into focus. The world became a more beautiful place. And at that point, words became unnecessary.