New writing elsewhere, by me

The latest edition of the quarterly Kyoto Journal just dropped with a new article by yours truly. travel, revisited is KJ’s 99th issue. The magazine has long been a staple in the English language media on Japan. I was asked to consider the topic of travel writing as it pertains to my book project. While on writing retreat in Kyoto earlier this year, alone in our apartment there, taking daily walks and runs, I reflected on the question of “why I travel.” It turns out, this is a very heavy question, and had me questioning my own being. Anyways, I tried to encapsulate my approach to travel literature in a couple thousand words and some photos taken from around Kyushu. You can see some select pages from my piece titled “on location” below.

Selected pages from my article in Kyoto Journal 99: travel, revisited
Selected pages from my article in Kyoto Journal 99: travel, revisited

I am very honoured to be included in the pages of Kyoto Journal with such famous writers as Natalie Goldberg, Pico Iyer, and others. You can purchase the magazine digitally for about 5 bucks here. Check out some of their other issues. This is a really high quality magazine.


While working on my book this year I thought I would try to keep my skills sharp by writing more essays for various publications. These short pieces for different outlets gives me a chance to work with a variety of editors, something I really appreciate. So far I have been lucky to have had only good experiences. I come away from each with some valuable (and practical) lessons. I feel like I have been improving my writing craft these past few months, and am very hungry for more!

Other than Kyoto Journal, I have been fortunate to contribute again to the Literary Review of Canada. My third piece for them — titled Shifting Gears: Toward a car-free future — is a review of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? by James Wilt. In this essay I lean on my experience working on technology ethics, a theme for all of my contributions to the magazine to date.

Cover of the October issue of the LRC
Cover of the October issue of the LRC

This year I have returned to writing more on Asia, especially coastal Asia: from Japan down to Southeast Asia. This reflects my research interests (for the book and beyond) and ties back to my graduate work on shipping lanes through the South China Sea. I read quite a bit in the areas of Japanese Foreign Policy and regional international relations, and thus started contributing reviews to Books On Asia, a site I had been following for a while. Currently I have three pieces up there, reviews of:

BoA reviews are very tight, unlike some of my more (ahem) “expansive” reviews posted here. Doing different kinds of pieces is helping me to grow. Check out Books on Asia, they have lots of fiction and non-fiction recommendations for Japan and all over Asia. You could start with the best books we read on Asia this year.

Speaking of writing different kinds of pieces, I had one other essay go up on an external site this year. Hōjōki is a classic Japanese text written about a hermit and his three-meter square hut. I first read this book a few years ago. This year a new translation was released by Professor Matthew Stavros, an engaging fellow very knowledgeable about Kyoto. Writers in Kyoto, a group I am a member of, asked me for a review. Rather than writing a very technical review, I decided to take a different approach inspired by my recent reading of Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott. As I noted in my review of that book:

one task of the critic is to re-create their experience of the work to the reader

So, in the piece A physical space for your inner self — reading a new translation of Hōjōki by Matthew Stavros I spent time exploring the kinds of historical and philosophical connections sparked inside of me while reading Stavros’s translation. One of the challenges I face in my writing is turning down the level of analysis, and putting more of myself into my pieces.

This year was successful in terms of connecting with other writers and editors. I have a couple more pieces in the hands of editors right now which should appear in the first couple months of 2021. I also plan on pitching some more publications in 2021. If you, dear readers, have any suggestions on what stories I should tell or where you think I would be a good fit, I would be grateful for any advice.

From the Ruins of Empire — a review

Books On Asia asked reviewers to pick their top books for 2020. I submitted my four along with the other contributors and gave a short comment. Below is a more fleshed out review. For more reviews, check out booksonasia.net


Pankaj Mishra delivers a sweeping account of the intellectual history of anti-colonial thought in the early years of Western colonialism. He builds this narrative through mini-biographies of two lesser-known intellectuals: Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Liang Qichao. These early thinkers diagnosed the challenge of Western imperialism faced by Asia. The evolution of their thought is influenced by historical milestones such as the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a failed uprising to gain independence from the West, and the 1905 Battle of Tsushima, where an Asian nation defeated a Western military power for the first time. Japan’s victory was a turning point for optimism in the oppressed Asian psyche, celebrated by anti-colonialists like Gandhi, Ataturk, and Tagore. Here was an Asian country beating the West at its own game.

This part of the nineteenth century was a cosmopolitan moment for Asia. The subjects of Mishra’s work were inveterate travellers, moving throughout the Islamic, Indian and East Asian worlds. This is in contrast to Western political intellectuals at the time who philosophized about Asia almost exclusively from the comfort of their comfy overstuffed chairs. From the Ruins of Empire follows both Asian intellectuals on their travels where they meet with and influence one another as well as a new generation of activists like Sun Yat Sen. The author also traces how their thinking on Pan-Asianism transforms, from initially advocating for Asian nations to modernize by mimicking the West and adopting its scientific and industrial advancements, to their horror at the First World War, which turned them away from so-called “Western progress.” This frames the ultimate dilemma facing Asia in the book: to be more like the West (which is what Tsushima teaches) or to progress with Eastern alternatives which are more suited to the multi-ethnic, multi-religious reality of Asia—modernization sans Westernization.

Despite the successful anti-colonial movements in the post-World War II era, the story Mishra tells is ultimately a tragic one. Asian nations may have won out over political colonialism, but lost against intellectual colonialism. India and China are very adeptly wielding the power of centralized nation-states, effectively replacing the role previously occupied by Western imperial overseers. The “South to South” dialogues by the intellectual network described by Mishra did go on to inspire later revolutionaries. Mishra makes these connections, showing for example how the ideas of al-Afghānī have been twisted into the narrative of political Islam. 

This book originally came out in 2012 amidst the Arab Spring and Colour Revolutions. That time also saw a surge of revisionist histories of empire by writers like Niall Ferguson which helped to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the Ruins of Empire demonstrates how people can be motivated by humiliation, and in it you can see the seeds of Mishra’s later book Age of Anger (2017) centering on the politics of ressentiment, so prevalent in our era.

Reading From the Ruins in Empire in 2020 I was amazed at some of the nearly 200-year-old critiques of the West. You could copy-and-paste them directly into today’s media. Mishra has done a brilliant job excavating these perspectives and tying them together with his usual smooth writing skill. The authour offers no specific solutions, but reading about such intellectual journeys outside the standard one of Western progress with everywhere else trying to catch up, is fascinating. This was probably the most thought-provoking book I read this year. With the waning of liberalism and democracy described by Luce and others, it feels like we are at another turning point. Discussions of what happens next are occurring worldwide, but what does the fall of liberal internationalism mean for Asia? What are the indigenous intellectual legacies that might fill the void? From the Ruins of Empire shows that there can be imagination outside the box of Western political thought, alternatives rooted in history, that are possibly more viable than completely new and alien systems.

The nearly 400 year legacy of a cutting edge ceramic coffee filter

This NY Times piece on a 1,020 year old shop in Kyoto has been making the rounds online. It got me thinking about other examples of products or skills that have traversed centuries, and a random discovery we made at a shopping stall: a paperless ceramic coffee filter.

Map showing route from Iki to Arita

Last October we travelled to Imari and Arita, in the prefecture of Saga on the Kyushu mainland. This region of Japan is famous for its porcelain. In the 17th century, as the Ming dynasty collapsed, Chinese porcelain became a rare commodity. Around the same time a kaolinite mine was discovered in this region of Japan. The lords of the region, the Nabeshima Clan, had participated in the invasion of Korea in the late 16th century. Many Koreans were “brought over” to Japan, and the Nabeshimas found some who had the skills to make high quality ceramics competitive with mainland Asia. The Nabeshima Clan hid the potters up in a secluded valley in Arita to “protect the intellectual property” of this new money-maker, shipping finished product downriver to the port at Imari where they could be loaded onto bigger ships bound for Nagasaki and then on to the palaces of Europe.

This legacy of ceramic-work was put to use in a new way a couple of centuries later. In the late 1800s, when Japan started its process of modernization, the British came to advise on all sorts of things. They helped the Japanese engineer bridges, railways, and other infrastructure, and are the reason why cars are driven on the left in Japan. The British were also responsible for Japan’s new communication network, stringing telegraph cables throughout the country. At the time, the Brits used insulators made of glass. When it came time to replace these with newer and better ceramic insulators, the potters of Arita were called upon for their expertise.

While in Imari and Arita we visited the Kyushu Ceramic Museum and wandered the pottery stores looking at some amazing pieces of art. We even tried our hand at making some vases and painting some mugs. Getting your hands dirty trying to do pottery sure gives you a healthy respect for what the pros can accomplish!

Ceramic technology is of course being still used in all sorts of high tech materials applications like rocket nozzles and 3D printing. I am not sure if that is going on in Arita, but what we did discover are these cool molded ceramic coffee filters that use micro-perforations to allow the water to pass through. We bought this filter and have been using it every day for the past two months. It works a lot better than metal filters — there is very little coffee grit at the bottom of my mug when it is done — and it is more eco friendly. Plus, it looks really cool! Check out the video below. You can see the texture is kind of like volcanic rock, it feels like it is made of sandpaper.

I am sure there are many different examples of traditional skills like this transforming through the ages. If you can think of more examples from Japan or other countries, please add them in the comments!

Island of Gods, Island of Demons

According to the old stories, Iki was one of the first islands of Japan, made by the creator gods themselves. It is the island of the Moon, with Tsushima across the strait being the island of the Sun. The gods had to raise up heavenly pillars to keep the island in place. Iki is said to be home to 1200 shrines despite being only 17 km long and 14 km wide.

But gods are not the only ones that tread here.

According to different old stories, Iki was a Demon Island (鬼ヶ島). Not the one from the Momotaro story, a different one. Demons ran rampant in old Japan, and you can see the evidence today here on Iki: there is the famous Devil’s Footprint and many shrines have demon-shaped wooden dolls to keep away evil (and Mongols). But where did all the demons go? The answer to that question can be found in the traditional kites of Iki.

The ondako (鬼凧) or “demon kite” is one of the symbols of the island. You can see them on the backs of tour buses, at the entrance to the museum, and they sell little versions of them as souvenirs. They are ubiquitous.

There is a kite flying festival in April, but on windy days, if you go down to Sakyobana, the north-facing cliffs, there is a group of older gentleman that fly the kites. They are quite large, and when they go up into the strong winds, they make a sort of buzzing sound that is loud. It is like one of those murder hornets, a warning.

The ondako depicts a fierce looking warrior, with upturned moustache, wearing an ornate helmet. The warrior is looking upwards, because perched on top of the helmet is the head of a demon. The story goes like this:

The hero Yuriwaka came to Iki and killed most of the demons, finally facing down their Poison King. The evil demon king attacked Yuriwaka with his massive golden club, but Yuriwaka was able to decapitate the king. The demon king’s head then flew up into the heavens to get some medicine that would help re-attach his head to his body. Meanwhile Yuriwaka hid the body, and waited for the demon head to finally die. When the Head of Poison King returned and could not find his body, the demon attacked Yuriwaka by chomping on his head! The helmet protected Yuriwaka, and soon the demon head died. Since then the people fly kites celebrating Yuriwaka’s deeds high up into the heavens as a warning to any demons who might be thinking about coming down.

Statue depicting a warrior fighting a demon
Yuriwaka fighting the Poison King, statue in downtown Go-no-ura

Negotiating the seas

It has been busy recently for Japan’s three disputed territories.

Early in October China opened a new digital museum about the Senkaku Islands, and China has had coast guard vessels near the Senkakus for a record number of days this year.

Just a few days ago the “Day of Dokdo” in South Korea was to be marked by singer Kim Jang-Hoon by holding an online concert while cruising around the islets.

Two days later Russia deployed a new missile system to the Kuril Islands during military drills.

These and more are just some of the happenings in these longterm disputes that have been drawn out for decades. Luckily there have been no clashes, and the “fighting” has been mostly taking place in the legal realm. If you are looking to get a good foundation on one or more of these conflicts, check out my review Serita Kentaro’s book The Territory of Japan: Its History and Legal Basis for BooksOnAsia.net. The review is posted on BooksOnAsia.net, check it out here → Negotiating the seas

Cover for The Territory of Japan: Its History and Legal Basis

This is my first piece for BoA, and I hope to have a couple more before the year is out.

Articulate Noise — Review of Better Living Through Criticism

cover of Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott

For a book with “how” in the title, there is not much instruction. Better Living Through Criticism is more of a “watch me think about art, pleasure, beauty, and truth” which is much more entertaining. If writing described as “pontificating” or “a meditation” does not immediately turn you off, you will probably enjoy A.O. Scott’s reference-filled critique on the practice itself.

Imagine sitting at an outside cafe on a brisk autumn Sunday morning, steam rising from three coffee cups as you look across the cold, green, metal table at your Uncle A and your other Uncle O. They both super smart, well read, and are going through a sort of mid-life crisis, questioning everything. Also, the only way they can communicate is in references, stringing together literary quotations like a pair of (Philadephia-based) conspiracy theorists. Furthermore, they have been meeting here every Sunday for weeks and still haven’t come up with any solution. But there have been lots of conclusions.

To some, this might be the worst kind of excuse-inducing scenario. I would immediate pull up my chair and take an expectant sip of coffee.

Each chapter takes on a fundamental topic (What is criticism? What is the role of the audience? What is the role of the critic? What is the business of criticism?) and is interleaved by conversational asides where Scott interviews himself, revealing more of his thinking in a sort of disarming, conversational way. (Chapter summaries here)

Although at some points the book feels like a drawn out magazine article, I do appreciate the philosophical approach he takes on the topics he covers. Although I do a lot of book and movie reviews, I have never really considered myself a critic. Better Living Through Criticism did make me think more seriously about my approach. I attempt to read every book with a critical eye and engage with the ideas within when I write about it. I want to add value, above and beyond any value judgement. This is the result of the “thinking” that goes both into criticism as into writing. A.O. Scott quotes Elizabeth Hardwick in the inaugural New York Review of Books:

“[T]he great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words.”

H.L. Mencken declared that any good critic was motivated to “make an articulate noise in the world.” This advice I took to heart, but I was struck by Scott’s definition that “a critic is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.” Of course this does not mean a critic should “sell” the work. Scott returns often to the “struggle between criticism and publicity” throughout: critics shouldn’t be PR or marketing, nor should they hack down everything. For Scott, if he doesn’t like a work, “the only ethical and honest course of action for me would be to remain silent and leave the discussion to others.” (I have not always followed this advice, but as you can see I read many more books than I review). For the works that are worthy, one task of the critic is to re-create their experience of the work to the reader. Scott describes a budding cineast who “dreams of casting a spell like the one he finds himself under.” Critics are artists too.

Better Living Through Criticism didn’t give me a map, but certainly gave me a destination to strive towards in my own practice of criticism. There are many ideas in the book to grapple with and I have a stack of notes that I will return to. Also, there are many referenced works for me to look up and appreciate next. To better living!

Immersed in audio dramas

There has been a spate of new Audible Original Dramas out recently, and I have been hooked.

As everyone knows, I listen to a lot of audiobooks. Audio accounts for about 2/3rds of the books I read each year. My very first audiobook, way back in about 2007 was Ender’s Game. Though not a full cast production with sounds and music and the like, this audiobook had a multiple readers and was a great first listening experience. I was in Tokyo at the time, staying near Akasaka Circus, doing some stuff at the Canadian Embassy, and I remember just walking around the streets of Tokyo endlessly in the evening while listening to this audio drama, not wanting to go back to the hotel. I just couldn’t put it down.

Since then I have been a huge consumer of feature length audio content (and podcasts too of course). I get my audiobooks from a bunch of different sources (library, Downpour, Audible is my last choice since I avoid DRM where I can) and you can see a full list of what I have listened to and my recommendations on my Goodreads Audio Shelf.

Full cast audio dramas, especially well-produced ones with professional voice actors, are a great way to escape while you are doing chores or just walking around. I remember listening to the Star Wars audio dramas from the 1980s, and while in graduate school I soothed my tired brain by listening to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC production while shovelling multiple feet a snow a day in Kingston Ontario.

Recently I have been listening to some classic adaptations such as The Three Musketeers and Treasure Island, both adapted by Marty Ross and lots of fun. The one that has blown me away is the newly released audio drama adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, the classic comic book series.

Gaiman’s audiobooks are always good, especially when he shows up as a creepy narrator, but this drama, with all the great foley and musical score was just brilliant. Just look at that cast list! There is one arc that was a bit too gore-horror for me, but in general it was all top-notch creepy Gaimanisms. I respect him so much as a storyteller, his ability to weave such emotional tales with the barest of suggestions, rather than saying anything outright. I admire the way he sets up his stories with a simple hook that pays off by the end with an arrow to the listener’s heart. The final chapter of The Sandman, involving a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is the perfect example of Gaiman’s use of historical and literary references as a guide for the reader, only to subvert the reader’s expectations in a particularly heart-wrenching way. While reading Gaiman I feel as though I am his mere plaything, and this is only enhanced by the performance of professional actors whispering sweet nothings directly into my ears.

promo image for The Sandman, an audible original based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman, adapted and directed by Dirk Maggs

Pure Invention

cover of audiobook for Pure Invention

First of all, this is not really review of Matt Alt’s new book Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World. The book is great, it is a fun romp through Japanese history using the lens of some of its most popular products. Go get it, you will love it. What I want to do here is to engage with a specific set of ideas as presented in the book. As a pop history of Japan and a selection of Japanese products, I think this book is wonderful. But there is a (small) aspect of the book that I found jarring, and I think it comes down to the framing — “conquering the world.” The commentary below is pretty in the weeds (not to mention possibly pedantic), and assumes that you are familiar with the content of the book. So, if interested, go read the book, then come back and check this out. I’ll wait. 😉

Continue reading “Pure Invention”

Excerpt on travel luck

I have been working on a feature article about travel writing for a magazine, an essay on my thought processes while writing a travelogue. Below is an excerpt that I cut from of the piece (which focuses on Japan) that thought I could share here. It’s an anecdote to demonstrate one of the joys of travel: serendipity. Lucky encounters can be a feature of daily life, if you let them, but sometimes it is easier to put yourself in the path of serendipity when you are in a completely different cultural context.


The sea of people swept me along the streets. My backpack was strapped tightly to my back. I raised my camera up as high as my arm would stretch to capture the crowds. High above and to the left I looked up to see a helicopter hovering. Television news, I thought, here to film the tens of thousands of people protesting President George W Bush ahead of the election. It wasn’t a mob though. It was just another Friday in Tehran. Men in their “Sunday best” walked alongside one another chatting. Behind them came women, occasionally in chador, with children in tow. We made our way to the Grand Mosque to hear the countries highest ranking imams speak. There were far too many people for the mosque, so crowds flowed out into the streets. Pious men lined up their prayer rugs to make their devotions. On the ground it did not feel like a protest, more like a festival, although I expected that is not how it would be portrayed on CNN tomorrow morning. I took a rare chance to capture a photo of a smiling boy holding a sign depicting a burning American flag. On that long walk through the streets I only saw single effigy of George W Bush. We rounded a corner of some official building with a wrought iron fence, which I promptly scaled so I could take some high angle photos. “Hey! You!” someone called out in English. I nervously looked around. A tall, young Persian man with closely cropped beard grabbed my attention. He stood a few meters away and had a big friendly smile on his face. “Dude, are you from Vancouver?” I was flabbergasted. He met me at the bottom of the fence as I climbed down. Here in a crowd of 40,000 people I had randomly encountered a young engineering student, fluent in English, who had spent his high school years studying in Vancouver, British Columba, Canada. He had spotted the maple leaf patch on my backpack as I climbed up the fence. This was Mo, and he was to become one of my best friends in Tehran, introducing me to all sorts of places and people, including another young man who introduced himself to me as “a terrorist.”


Here are some photos from that experience. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I went to downtown Tehran to Friday prayers with my camera, but I was very glad to have been there with all those people. I have never been part of such a crowd. Below you can see a snap I took of the helicopter mentioned in the text (the fence I climbed is to the right in that photo). What you can’t see below is the huge, friendly smile of the boy wearing the poncho/sign of the burning flag. He was really nice, and not scared at all to get photographed when I asked (I cropped his face for obvious reasons).

What’s your travel philosophy?

Cover for the book The Meaning of Travel

I have finally finished Emily Thomas’s short book The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad. I started this fun little read in the summer on my last trip to Kyoto, and held off on finishing it until I was back here, as I knew I would be coming to think deeply on why I travel (and why I write about it) — an important topic both for my book project, and an upcoming magazine piece I am working on.

This is not so much a review of the book, but I thought I would share my chapter summaries. Thomas uses each chapter to raise philosophical questions about various aspects of travel. Each chapter is a stimulating jumping off point for thinking about your own reasons for leaving your cozy world behind, or vicariously reading the accounts of others who did. Furthermore, each chapter actually introduces a particular topic or subdomain of academic philosophy. She doesn’t always come right out and label it, so I have included it in square brackets in my chapter summaries below. As an amateur philosopher, these are merely my best guesses. People in the know would be able to categorize these better I expect.

All in all, this is a great read, and if you are interested in travel, well worth it. Beyond asking the deeper questions she opens and closes the book with some excellent “vintage tips” for travelling well from famed philosophers of yore, including such nuggets as label your luggage legibly, do not hurry, or “Have you considered all the dangers… what if some Patagonian Polyphemus [Cyclops] were to tear you to pieces and then straightaway devour the throbbing and still-living parts?” (Joseph Hall, Another World and Yet the Same, 1605); and my favourite: “No young person under forty is ever to be allowed to travel abroad under any circumstances” (Plato, Republic, 380 BCE).

Upon returning home is such pithy advice as “banish ‘all affectations, and apish tricks, and fashions of other nations’” (Thomas ‘The Travailer’ Palmer, An Essay of the Means how to make our Travailes, into forraine Countries, the more profitable and honourable, 1606.) as well as the very good advice of “do not bore people with travel talk.”

Read below for a short description of the content of each chapter, with some of my thoughts thrown in.


Continue reading “What’s your travel philosophy?”