Friday 27 April 2012

Hanami in Nagano

Well, it's that time of year in my part of Japan where the cherry blossoms are out and everyone is all excited about "hana-mi", literally "flower-viewing".  While the only Sunday I had free for a hanami party was pouring with rain, I still took lots of nice pictures of the area around where I live of the trees in "manten" (full bloom).

The most popular type of tree is the "sakura", or "cherry" tree, which is a light pink colour.  You can't actually eat the cherries that grow on the trees after the flowers have gone, although they are used as ingredients in lots of stuff, such as Japanese sweets.

These sakura trees are near my house (although that's my neighbour's house in the picture).  The area is moderately well known, and has lanterns hung from the trees during April so there is a pretty light-up effect during the evenings.

"Sakura" is actually a popular girl's name in Japan.  I have a goddaughter called Sakura, and come across the name fairly often when I'm teaching at high school.

This is a river near my house with a line of sakura trees in bloom alongside my high school's baseball field, with a road bridge in the background.

More trees near my house.

There are two other types of tree that look awesome when they flower at this time of year, "ume" (plum) and "anzu" (apricot).  This is my ume tree (the string is to straighten it as it was growing a little wonky), and it flowers a deep purple.  It's only about four years old and this was the first year that it looked really full of flower.  Unfortunately there is no angle from which to take a picture without there being something unsightly in the background.  Like the sakura cherries, you can't eat the plums that form directly, although they're used for a variety of different foods, as well as being pickled to make the wonderfully sour "umeboshi", which I love, and which are apparently very good after exercise.  Ume can also be used to make "ume-shu" (plum liquor).  It takes about a year for the plum taste to fully infuse into the liquor - last year's 8 litre batch should be ready by July ...

Wednesday 25 April 2012

All about Joyriders

My story, Joyriders, has just gone up on free promo on Amazon.  This is an oldie, dating right back to 2002, when I was a lot more adventurous with style (something I'm trying to get back into!).  This story was intentionally supposed to be punky and pulpy, with wacky character names and crazy language.  I kept the description to a minimum and went for action instead.  After several years in the wilderness it found a home online in the well-respected ezine Afterburn SF in 2008.  The main reason it was uploaded to Amazon was (as the rest of my shorts) to be used for promoting my novel, The Tube Riders, the original short story of which dates from the same period.

The name of the character Drego from Joyriders, I actually stole for one of the main characters in The Tube Riders.  I even made her a girl.  There is no appearance for either Katie Burn or her lover, but Petey makes a brief cameo.  See if you can spot it!

A little bit of trivia about the cover - the cover image is actually a photograph of Taipei (Taiwan) docks which I altered using a "paint" option.  I really liked the photo but I thought this version gave it a more sci-fi look.  I chose it mainly because of the big sweeping highway in the bottom left corner; highways of course featuring a lot in the story.  I actually visited Taipei last summer; not a traditional tourist location but I thoroughly recommend it.  Very underrated.  If you do go, then be sure to stay at the Roumei Boutique, possibly the best hotel I've ever stayed in.  Ever.  The rooms were as huge as they look in those pictures and there really was a spa with a flat screen TV built into the wall.  And the breakfast ... I still dream about it now.  All at a ridiculously cheap price.

Anyway, I digress.  Download Joyriders and read it.  It really is good, but Tube Riders is much better ...

CW 25/4/2012

Thursday 19 April 2012

My Author's Proof from Createspace - pics & comments

##Please note: this post is pretty old and the pictures are out of date. I've just added a new post here with some pictures of my current paperbacks and the updated formatting. It would be useful to read both posts and compare the differences.##

I was very pleased to come home from work yesterday (April 19th) to find that my author's proof copy of The Tube Riders had finally arrived.  The estimated arrival date was Sunday 15th, so it was four days late.  However, as I live in Japan and was ordering it through Createspace in America I expected it to be delayed, and four days is not so bad.

Apart from a couple of dents on the front from transportation it looked wonderful.  I was expecting it to be a little more flimsy like a regular paperback but quality of the binding is more akin to a textbook and could take a bit of a beating.

Inside the book the paper and text were exceptional quality.  For the formatting I used a downloadable template from the Createspace website but the text, headers, footers etc, were all done by myself using a simple Word document.  I was very impressed.  I don't know exactly what grade of paper was used but it was just as good as anything in any hardback books I have, with a slightly grainy texture rather than gloss.

Here's a more close up look at the text.  I used Times New Roman size 12.  I was wondering whether to use a slightly smaller text for the final version as on some lines the justification has spaced the words out a little much, particularly between sentences.  Also, the longer the book is, the higher the production costs, however while I could make the text a lot smaller, and drop the header and footer to make it perhaps 40 pages shorter, I think it would make it an inferior product and probably paying that extra dollar is worth it.

The cover image was purchased from an artist I found on for a very reasonable fee (for non-exclusive rights) but the cover design is a Createspace template.  There is a system where you can pay them to design a specific cover for you, or you can upload your own, but I think mine looks really nice with the deep red of the train on the black background.  Obviously you could change the background and text colours if you wanted to, however you couldn't change the size or the font of the text, only whether it was in capitals or not.  I think there were about 15 different templates you could chose from, but I liked this one the best.

Here's a shot of the spine.  I had no options on text size, only colour and capitals/non-capitals.  It wasn't even generated until after the upload of the text.  I would have liked it to be a little bigger and I think its slightly off-centre but I think in general it looks okay.

Here's the back cover.  Again, I had the choice of colour and style (and size this time) although not font.  The ISBN is given to you by Createspace.  Some templates had an option for an author photo on the back, but not this one, and I didn't really want one anyway.

Due to the nature of it being print-on-demand (POD) the production costs are higher and therefore my retail price will reflect that.  I think the minimum I can charge to even make a small profit is $13.99 but to be honest, the quality of the book is exceptional and I wouldn't shirk at paying that for a regular trade paperback of this size and quality anyway.  However, author copies are cheaper at just over $7 (of course pricing depends on the size and length of your book) so it would be possible to buy them in batches and sell them privately.  

Based on what I've received I would not hesitate to recommend Createspace (an Amazon subsidiary), although the only downside is that it the only Amazon it is available through is the USA version.  However, UK customers could buy it direct from Createspace (as I did, even though I live in Japan), which I would actually prefer because my profit margin is higher, however it probably wouldn't affect the book's ranking on Amazon.

Overall, I was delighted to receive a copy of my book in print.  I have to admit I shed a tear when I opened it.  I'm not actually expecting to sell many copies, particularly when the ebook is currently only priced $2.99, but I think its important to have a version available, plus it means I am able to submit it as a review copy to magazines, as well as do reader giveaways, etc.  The only downside is that I live in Japan so shipping costs are high.  I paid for express delivery which was just over $12 (for a single copy) but it still took 19 days.  Obviously the more you buy the cheaper it gets, and if you're buying from inside America it would be a lot cheaper anyway.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Can a spayed female cat be sexually assaulted by an unneutered male?

Yesterday, while at work, I received a rather concerned phone call from the wife informing me that my cute cat, Miffy, may have had some trouble with one of the local cats that we see around from time to time. 
Yesterday’s attack was performed by one we call "Hop-Along", an older tom cat who walks with a limp, but one who apparently run extremely fast for a cat who only has three working legs.

The wife’s concern was that Miffy may have been sexually assaulted.  Now, Miffy has been spayed, and I assumed a spayed cat couldn’t be the victim of such an assault.  So, with the help of the internet, I decided to find out.

Miffy : victim of a sex crime?

First up, I found this interesting article about mating cycles of cats, which contained a lot of information I didn’t know, including that a cat can have kittens from several different fathers in the same litter, due to repeated matings taking place over the 21-day heat cycle.  Ever wondered why cats have different coloured kittens?  Apparently that's one of the reasons.

However, this says nothing about whether a spayed female can attract a mate.  I found some interesting forum answers here –

which on the whole suggest that if a spaying is done correctly then a female cat is unable to attract a mate.  There are also a couple of interesting forum answers here

and here

which suggest that “humping” done by an unneutered male towards a spayed female may be a form of territorial fighting or marking.  Eventually, I found this

which is the best answer I have seen so far.  Despite being unverified, the answer backed up what I was beginning to think, which is no, a spayed/neutered cat cannot be “raped” by another cat which has not been neutered.  As it says in the post linked above, cats have no concept of “rape”, and mate purely to reproduce.  If a female is not on heat then there is no reason for a male to be attracted to her, since her status of being in heat is advertised by the smell she gives off.  Provided a female has been neutered correctly, she cannot go into heat.

This is not to say, of course, that an unneutered male cat won’t attack a female.  A spayed female is simply another cat, one that might have strayed on to its territory.

It appears that Miffy might have been attacked, but that’s all.  I’m pretty sure she’ll be fine.  Now I just have to convince the wife...

Miffy : In training for the next battle

April 18th 2012

Monday 16 April 2012

Nagano Marathon 2012

Nagano Olympic Commemorative Marathon has been held every year since 1999, to remember the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998.  This year was the fourteenth and rather a special one because the event was cancelled last year in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake.

Nagano Olympic Stadium

Two years ago I dragged myself around the very flat and pleasant course in a backbreaking 4 hours and 57 minutes, but this year was I doing a volunteer activity organized by the Japan branch of the Junior Chamber International, an organisation which promotes humanitarian activities.  My wife’s brother is the chairman.

The JCI assembled a group of foreigners, made up of teachers like myself and university students, to help little children make cheering implements (tambourines, maracas, etc) out of recycled items such as plastic bottles and old milk cartons.

In total 23 foreigners participated, and a good day was had by all.  Here are some photos of the event.

Our volunteer area.

The eventual men's winner, Francis Kibiwott, with Mt Iizuna (1917m)
in the background.

The crowds lining the final approach to the Olympic Stadium.

Me with "Nano-chan", the Marathon's mascot.  Japan loves "cutesy" things.
Must have been really hot in that suit.

The men's race was won by Kenyan Francis Kibiwott in a new course record of 2:09:05, while another Kenyan, Pauline Wangui won the women's race in 2:34:22.  The Wheelchair Marathon (21km) was won by Masayuki Higuchi in 44:37.

Feeling inspired, I might enter again next year ...

Friday 13 April 2012

A Gallery of Tokyo Street Signs

Here are some pictures I took while taking a walk through downtown Ueno a couple of months back.

This one is advertising "Pachinko", an extremely boring form of pinball where you feed the money in then sit back and wait.  Gambling is officially illegal in Japan, so if you win you'll be given something random (like cigarettes, or even plastic combs) as a prize, which you can exchange for money in a booth next door.  Needless to say, few foreigners are interested in it.

This is a advert for a Korean-style cook-it-yourself restaurant, specialising, not surprisingly, in pork.

This is a dentist.  I'm not quite sure what that is hanging off the side ...

This is a restaurant specialising in "fugu", or pufferfish.  While these restaurants are known for being expensive, this is perhaps the specials board because these dishes are reasonably priced, with dishes from 780 to 1200yen, which is pretty cheap.

This is a regular massage palour (the normal kind!).

This is an letting agency's offers board.  Around 62,000 for a single room apartment is considered normal for Tokyo, but very expensive everywhere else.

The sign says "major curry".  You get a chicken cutlet, egg, fried shrimps, and something I can't identify dumped on top of a bowl of Japanese curry and rice.  Looks delicious, and is pretty cheap too!

This is an advert for a capsule hotel.  While they look like coffins they're actually pretty comfortable.  However, often they cost very nearly the same as a cheap hotel, so are only really useful if you miss the last train and can't find anywhere to stay.  I've stayed in a few (not this one) and they vary in quality from very nice to very bad.  The big city ones are usually pretty good.

A "rest" (or "love") hotel.  That lower sign is for a two-hour "rest".  In the big cities they are everywhere, and despite the seedy connotations, the largest percentage of clientele is actually married couples who need some privacy away from their families.  In Japan you tend to get the grandparents and the grown up kids all under the same roof, and the houses are not exactly soundproof!

This is a Chinese meat-on-sticks restaurant.  Chinese food in Japan is often very different to what you see overseas (in the UK, for example).  In general, I've found these kind of restaurants to be a good deal, cheap and with large portions, if a little oily.

I hope you have enjoyed my gallery.  I will add more pictures as I collect them!

April 14th 2012

Wednesday 11 April 2012

The History of Miffy

Owning a pet is, in general, a pain in the behind for EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teachers living overseas.  You live under this cloud of impermanence, aware that at any time the rug of your existence could be pulled out from under you, the winds of change will blow and off you go to EFL pastures new.  In general, ex-pats live in rented accommodation, and in general rented accommodation doesn’t allow pets.

One day in 2009, my then girlfriend, now wife, was doing some part-time work up at our local temple when a monk offered her a kitten in a paper bag.  Abandoned by its mother, he said.  Did she want it?  She's a girl, it's a cute kitten ... of course she wants it.  So I get a phone call.  Do I want a cat?  Immediately recognising the difficulty of owning a pet, I was reluctant, but as a lifelong lover of cats I could hardly let the little thing die.  I went and collected it, fully intending – if it survived – to find it a home.

Miffy, as I named the little rascal, weighed just 200g and could barely walk.  That afternoon we took her to the vet for a check up.  Here’s a short video of Miffy that day.

We wrapped her in a blanket and put her in a box that night, fully expecting to find her dead in the morning.  What we found instead was a very lively kitten trying to climb out!  I was very relieved.

Here’s another video of Miffy after we’d had her two weeks.  (These play sessions would last several hours…)

I did ask a few people I knew if they were interested in having a cat, but I found that each time I was willing them to say no.  Within a couple of weeks, Miffy was unofficially ours.  Unfortunately, our horrible spying landlady wasn’t a fan.

Peering though our apartment window one day, she spotted Miffy playing on the floor, and we were given our marching orders.  Yes, we moved house because of a cat, and thanks to Miffy being a very lucky cat for us, everything worked out.

Thanks to my kind school vice-principal, we were able to move into an initially decrepit, but later rather cosy school-owned house in a much quieter area with no such hang ups concerning pets.  Rent was far cheaper, we had a garden, and Miffy had lots of bugs to chase.  We were happy, and Miffy grew and grew.

In November 2011 we got married in the temple behind which Miffy was found.  Miffy was unable to attend because she preferred to remain at home to guard the house instead.

Here's Miffy, fully grown, being cute in a tree.

Now, as Miffy reaches three years old, she is as much a part of my life as everything else.  More a dog than a cat, she sleeps in the crutch of my elbow, wakes me with a nose-nip at 4am (thanks, you stupid cat …), and allows me to “walk” her every evening, trotting along beside me like an obedient spaniel, only rushing off into the gardens near my house to chase birds, bugs or lizards.

I once heard a wonderful quote about cats – “a home without a cat is an empty shell”, and I would have to agree.  Only fellow cat owners can truly understand the relationship between a man and his beast, but is a simple one – I live to serve.  When food or entertainment is required, I beeth there.  And a nip on the nose when I am sleeping is a sign of love.

April 2012

Welcome to my World

This is me.  Welcome.

My name is Chris Ward, and I am an Englishman living in Japan.  I am an English teacher in a Japanese High School.  I have a wife, and I have a cat.

I am also a writer, (published and self-published), a guitarist/singer in a rock band, the manager of a cricket team, and a lover of travel, books, movies, cats, and people.

I will write about all of these things.

I hope you will enjoy.


April 12/2012