I have been thinking about Japan a lot lately. It has always been on my list of places to visit, but lately it seems to be following me around. Like when you get a new car and then you suddenly start noticing how many other cars of that make there are on the road. Or noticing a song that seems to be everywhere. I keep noticing things that are Japanese - fragments on TV, a mention of a visiting lecturer, food, people - and get this nagging instinct that I should go there. It isn't the right time for me to go for a number of reasons (two being cost and fear of imminent nuclear danger) so it stays on my list of long term goals for now. At least I have plenty of time to learn a little more about the place and culture, and books are a great place to start. I love fiction and I think fiction books can tell you as much about a place as non-fiction guidebooks, so I was pleased to be given a couple of Japanese novels for my birthday.
I have just finished reading Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. It's really more of an novella than a novel and in the edition I was given, it is paired with Moonlight Shadow - another story by the same author. Kitchen is about a young woman named Mikage who loses her only family (her grandmother) and is so stricken with grief that she cannot function. She is taken in by a school acquaintance, Yoichi, and his unusual mother, Eriko, who works in a transvestite club in Tokyo. Yoichi and Eriko have also known terrible loss within their lifetimes and help Yoichi to cope with her grief by giving her refuge in their kitchen. Kitchen is very well written and has been immensley popular in Japan, selling millions of copies. This says as much about the Japanese as the book itself. Both are gentle, eloquent, graceful and unexpected.
The accompanying novella Moonlight Shadow also dealt with themes of loss and renewal, although it has a sci fi spin to it which is a bit absurd.