Thursday, May 2, 2013

Bainbridge Island Ryokan for Sale

Have you ever wanted to own a Japanese Inn without leaving the States? To be sure, that opportunity doesn't present itself too often, so if you are interested in living on Bainbridge Island (outside Seattle, Washington) and running your very own ryokan on a beautiful piece of property, then now is your chance to purchase the Fuurin-Oka.

Current owners, Steve and Renee Dole, are selling their home as well as the Fuurin-Oka which is on the same property and are looking for someone who will love and honor the Japanese-style inn as much as they have. I, for one, am also hoping they find someone with just the right spirit to take over the Fuurin-Oka, because I was supposed to stay there in April, but a family emergency came up forcing us to cancel our trip and I still want to go enjoy the soaking tub in the not-too-distant future!

The Dole's will be having an open house on May 19th from 11-6 p.m. In the meantime, I've included the sales sheets for both the house and the inn with the important information. You may also click on the flier for the full size version and check out the Fuurin-Oka website's "For Sale" page as well for even more pictures of the house and inn.

Again, for purely selfish reasons, I hope that someone out there will buy the Fuurin-Oka and keep it running with as much care as the Dole's have so I can go enjoy it too.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Lethal Beauty at the Currier Museum


Japan and New Hampshire are about as far apart geographically as you can get. However, from now until May 5th, there is a little bit of Japan visiting Manchester. The Currier Museum is now host to “Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor” which showcases the beauty found in the trappings of Japan’s warrior class.

Photo from Currier Museum
The traveling exhibition, which was organized by The Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture along with International Arts & Artists, is starting its journey in New Hampshire and will also visit Hawaii, Texas, Michigan, Alabama, and New York into early 2015. Five suits of armor, several helmets, face masks, katanas, knives, and other acoutrements show off the amazing detail and craftsmanship that helped make the Samurai fearsome and legendary.


Photo by Maria C. A. Fowler
The entrance into the exhibition is powerful yet simple and clues you into the fact that you will be close up with the pieces inside. The suits of armor, as well as the helmets and face masks, are thankfully not behind a wall of glass, and while you cannot touch the pieces, you can certainly get close enough to see the remarkable details of the craftsmanship involved to create such distinctive armor. I loved being able to really see the textiles beneath the armor as well as the beautiful patterns of the threads holding the segments of the armor together. Being able to see so much up close gave me a much better appreciation for the kind of detail that went into creating a look that continues to be simultaneously intimidating and exquisite.

While I enjoyed seeing each piece in the collection, there were definitely a few standouts I paid extra attention to. First, I loved all the face masks. They were nothing I’d want to wear or see coming at me at high speed, but they were beautifully crafted and would cause serious damage in a head butt situation. Of all the many helmets, the tie for favorite head gear was between the helmet that looked like a bear head and the one that came with its own sake cup, chopsticks, and pair of sickles—so efficient for the traveling warrior!

The exhibit catalog can be found in the museum shop.
As you may expect, the swords and knives were amazing. Katana are so simple in their form, but the small details that go into making them unique are really amazing. My favorite embellishments were the praying mantis and wagon wheel sword guard and the golden shelled snail hilt ornament (each belonging to different weapons). The creativity that went into making these functional and decorative objects so unique is still inspiring.

Finally, I was most surprised to see a re-purposed weapons section. It hadn’t occurred to me that one would recycle weapons, but it happened. After Samurai had their weapons taken away from them in the mid-to-late 1800’s, craftsman found ways to use such weapon parts as arrow shafts and sword pommels to new and brilliant purpose including baskets and small pill boxes with stories carved into them. My favorite recycled art was a basin made of 40 scabbard pieces that was used to hold bonsai. Quite the conversation starter.

“Lethal Beauty” is open until May 5th here in Manchester, NH before it moves onto Hawaii for a June opening. The Currier Museum is open every day but Tuesdays. See the website for hours and general admission rates. During the special exhibition, “Lethal Beauty,” there is an additional special exhibition charge per ticket-type of $5.00. Children under 18 are always allowed in free.

Other events related to the collection are also planned for the duration of the exhibit:

SAMURAI IN ACTION!
How were Japanese Samurai weapons and armor used? Gordon Fisher Sensei, senior instructor of laido with over 40 years of experience in martial arts, will demonstrate a selection of Samurai weapon exercises and wear armor after early Samurai. This program will also include an introduction to Samurai history and culture. This is sure to be an entertaining and informative event for adults and families alike.
Saturday, April 13, 2 pm

INSPIRED WORDS: WRITE A HAIKU OR TWO 

Use the museum collection or special exhibition Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor as inspiration to write a poem or two in the style of Japanese haiku. Email inspiredwords@currier.org to submit your haiku and sign up to read your poems on April 14.
Sunday, April 14, 2 pm

SUPER SAMURAI SUNDAY
Celebrate Children’s Day, the Japanese national holiday celebrating the healthy growth and happiness of children, on the last day to view the Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor special exhibition.  Create traditional Children’s Day crafts, participate in a Storytime in the Gallery, a performance by Dimensions in Dance of Manchester and more!
Sunday, May 5, 11 am-2 pm

If you are in the New Hampshire area, you really should stop in and see this intimate look at “Lethal Beauty.”

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Mas Effect: Q & A with Naomi Hirahara, author of the Mas Arai mysteries

"The key to community is the acceptance, in fact the celebration of our individual and cultural differences. It is also the key to world peace."
~M. Scott Peck

Throughout our lives we belong to many communities. Some we are born into, others we join or create ourselves. No matter if it is your ethnic background, your work, your neighborhood, or your favorite fandom, each community has its own history, rules, quirks, and probably a bit of dirty laundry to spice things up a bit. All the stories behind each of our communities help us build a greater understanding of the world and make for some great reading to boot.

Naomi Hirahara's Mas Arai, is, on the most superficial level, a Japanese-American survivor of Hiroshima, an unassuming semi-retired gardener in California, and a reluctant solver of some unique mysteries within his own community. Ms. Hirahara uses him to great effect in communicating to her readers what life is and has been like in this country for Japanese-Americans since World War II all while unfolding intriguing thrillers. One of the great aspects of her novels is that each story has its origin in some event from Mas's past which allows us to see the evolution of the Japanese-American community and learn something we maybe hadn't known before about our fellow countrymen and women.

Ms. Hirahara was kind enough to let me interview her about her latest Mas Arai mystery, Strawberry Yellow, as well as her own roots and contributions to her community—not only as a Japanese-American, but as a writer, too.



You recently announced that your fifth Mas Arai mystery is coming out (yay!). Is there a timeframe for when we can expect it and what can you tell us about it without giving too much away?

The fifth in the series, titled Strawberry Yellow, is being launched in March. You probably can tell that it has something to do with strawberries! Mas visits his place of his birth and young adulthood. There's going to be plenty of flashbacks dating back to the late 1940s.



When researching for flashbacks, do you rely more on the print resources or have you been able to talk with people from that generation?

Most of my flashbacks are built on conversations with people. I've also done a number of oral-history interviews for nonfiction projects, so I take details from those all the time. I feel that it's most important for those oral-history interviews to be documented, either verbatim or in some sort of article, first as pieces of history. Then I feel more free to take from them. Photographs are key, too. I love actually visiting locations and imagining what it must have been like years ago. For me, visceral experiences are most helpful, but I sometimes write about places that I have not been before.


Most of your non-fiction work centers around the work of the nisei farmers and gardeners. Are there any other people within the history of the Japanese-American community you would like to write about in the future, and if so, why?

Being from the West Coast of the U.S., agriculture figures prominently. But I've also been involved in projects that concern medical professionals as well as martial artists. I'll be tackling newspaper publishers/reporters in the middle-grade book and have a long-range plan of writing a more literary novel featuring a judoist.


In preparing to write about a character for a story, how much do you feel you need to experience personally in order to convey the experiences of a character? For instance, with the book you want to write about the judoist, have you practiced judo before?

It really depends. Of course, I'm not a man nor do I plan to change genders, so writing about characters like Mas requires me to just step into another's shoes only figuratively. With this judoist novel, the story is not really about judo but transmission of culture, exoticism and other themes, so I don't feel that I need to practice judo, but definitely I will be observing it. I've also published a book about the history of judo of Southern California, so I've been immersed in its presence in this country. I did take a few sessions of aikido in college. I couldn't turn somersaults very well and my head hurt, so I quit.

As you write about the Japanese-American culture, how do you strike the balance between writing for an audience that may already be familiar with it and an audience that may not be as knowledgeable? What has your response been from the Japanese-American community?


Actually one of my pet peeves is when people become so inclusive about their world—whether it be a group of friends, schools, community, etc.—that they begin to speak in acronyms and assume everyone else knows what they are talking about. On the other hand, being raised in a bilingual household, I always struggled to be interpreter between my parents and the outside world. In my Mas books, I'm attempting to bridge that gap through the narrator. Since the book is written in third person, this omniscient narrator can swoop in and help navigate the world for the reader. S/he isn't going to spell out everything for the reader, the reader has to do a little work, too, in connecting the dots. I get two very opposite reactions to my work: "I never knew this world existed" or "that sounds exactly like my uncle." One person told me that I was airing the community's dirty laundry, which I took as a compliment. More recently, readers from Japan have told me that they can totally relate culturally to Mas. They also commented that my description of the young Japanese man in Summer of the Big Bachi was spot-on.


When you write the Mas Arai novels, do have in mind what aspect of Japanese-American culture you would like to explore or do you consider Mas' journey and his development first?

In between the release of the second and third mysteries, I started regularly receiving e-mails requesting that I place Mas in various geographies throughout the nation. They would be great, juicy settings, but I quite couldn't figure out why Mas would be there in the first place! It was like a request line for a radio station. Request a song (or a setting) and Mas would appear. Since I feel the Japanese American experience is very diverse, especially based on my years at a Japanese American daily newspaper, I don't attempt to show all aspects of our history in this series. The books are actually organized thematically—at first not consciously, but later more purposefully. The first three touch upon aspects of the Kibei Nisei experience: atomic bombing, diaspora in the U.S. and Okinawa. The next three features themes that affect the next generation: drug addiction, technology (strawberry) and celebrity (baseball). The last one, the seventh, circles back to Hiroshima. A Japanese academician visited me recently and she noticed that in each book, Mas experiences some kind of redemption—with his past (atomic bombing), daughter, wife and friend. That works, too!


I grew up in a Greek-American family and community and there were certain things I loved about it and other things I was ok with leaving behind when I moved away from my hometown. What aspects of being Japanese-American do you want to see continue with future generations and how do you want to contribute to making it happen? What would you like to see change and how would you change it?

One thing I don't like about the culture is the strong sense of "haji," or shame, that seems to permeate it. I wrote an essay about that for the Pacific Citizen a while back. I think haji prevents us from being honest about our weaknesses and problems. Black sheep in the family are rejected and hidden. I don't like that. In fact, I abhor it. Writing about crime in our community and our "dirty laundry" is my response to that, I guess. But since these are novels, people may not take it to heart.

In terms of Japanese-Americans, I love their sense of community and their ability to band together in times of trouble. All their potlucks and gifts of food. May that never end. In writing about a character like Mas and his cohorts, I hope to leave behind remnants of men and women who helped build our community during a very tumultuous time. I always include characters who are not ethnically Japanese to expand our sense of community—it's not just a matter of race.


I know in my own family the farther we got from the first generation the less we spoke Greek (I did attend Greek school as a child and understood more while my great grandparents were alive). Are you able to speak Japanese regularly or do you try to seek out opportunities to stay in practice?

When I worked at the newspaper, I was able to use Japanese on a regular basis. However, after I left the paper, there were less and less opportunities to speak and read the language. Although my parents speak Japanese (even though my father just passed away, I can't help but to use present tense), we will go in and out of English and Japanese, kind of creating our own language which might not be understandable to anyone else!

In 2009, there was a job listing for a partnership specialist who could speak Japanese for the 2010 Census. The specialist would go to different Japanese and Japanese American groups to speak about the merits of participating in the decennial Census. I sensed at this time that there was some seismic changes in the publishing world and the novel that I had just completed would not be coming out until spring of 2010, so I thought it was the perfect time to take on a temporary full-time job. I served in this position for 18 months!

Being a partnership specialist reunited me with the Japanese and Japanese American community. I saw new changes within the Japanese-speaking community and I had to sharpen my Japanese-language skills again. I did PowerPoint presentations in Japanese, etc. This was out of my comfort zone, but very rewarding and informative.


Do you translate your books into Japanese or is that handled by the publisher? If you don't do the translation, is that something you have wanted to do or plan to do in the future?

Translation of my books is handled by the publisher; I never even communicated with the translator but I understand that she also has translated a Star Wars novelization! I can do some basic Japanese to English translation, but written English to Japanese is above my head. What's interesting in the Japanese versions is that the dialect is not reflected in Mas's dialogue. That would be tough to represent, for sure.


One of the things I admire about your career so far is that you are not afraid to branch out and try new things. You've been a journalist, and editor, a publisher, a non-fiction writer, a mystery writer, and also a middle grade children's writer. What inspired you to break into the children's market and why the middle school age group in particular?

I was not attempting to write a tween book. 1001Cranes started off as a women's book, with a thirty-something character looking back at her childhood on the eve of her wedding day. My agent then informed me that the voice of the then 13-year-old (she became younger later) was stronger than the 30-year-old voice. What? I was writing YA? It turned out to be middle-grade and I went down the rabbit hole of children's literature. About the same time, I was an Edgar Award judge for the juvenile mystery category and discovered how wonderfully written children's book are. Although I've written some noir short stories, my natural point-of-view is not dark, so the middle-grade age range (10-14 year olds) fits me to a tee. Inter-generational relationships are important in everything I write, and this age group is still connected to their elders, while older teens don't want to have anything to do with them.


You have mentioned that you are working on another middle grade book. Are you able to share anything about it at this time?

Sure, its working title is Koutopia. It's set in 1917 California and features a young Japanese American girl, Ko, whose father, a newspaper publisher, has disappeared. It's in the steampunk genre, so I have a printing press that walks. During my stint at The Rafu Shimpo, the Japanese section was actually set by hand (letterpress). Can you believe it? I'm using that experience to inform parts of the book. Since it's part history and part fantasy, this story is something I've never done before in novel form. My editor hasn't seen it yet—I'm waiting to complete the entire manuscript before I show it to her. So it may not work!


You've also written short stories for a few anthologies. That speaks not just to the quality of your writing, but your relationship within the community of writers. What is the best part of belonging to any writer's group? Who are some of the writers you work with whom you admire? What is the anthology you'd love to be a part of but doesn't exist yet?

Before I was published—and it took me 15 years!—I belonged to all sorts of workshops and writing groups. The most important thing: being accountable to produce new pages in the manuscript. And also it was good to continually read those pages out loud. I'm a great lover of team sports and I guess that you can say that I generally play well with others. Denise Hamilton, a former LA Times reporter, has been a mentor. She is incredibly sharp and well read. She has always been generous with new writers and I take that to heart.

I was disappointed not to be invited to submit a short story to Damn Near Dead, an anthology of geezer noir. It's actually a wonderful collection of noir, one of my favorites.

In terms of anthologies that I'd love to be a part of—I'm thinking of editing a couple of them, so they will remain nameless at this time.


Geezer noir!?! I had no idea that existed (although I'm not surprised). Did you know about that before or after you wrote the Mas Arai books?

This is not necessarily a known sub-genre—it was created by a small press, but it is very appropriate. The anthology came out after the early Mas Arai books. Actually, there are a number of mysteries with aging sleuths.


What other book-related area(s) are you hoping to branch out into in the future and why that (or those) in particular?

I'm hoping that the Mas series eventually gets picked up by an audio book company. We are currently shopping it around. I have considered starting my own audio company specializing in Japanese-American-themed books, starting with my own. Now with digital downloading it's easier more than ever for individuals to get involved in digital publishing. Since I live in Los Angeles, there is no shortage of Asian American actors here, so I think that it'll be a great marriage. I want to do the recording very professionally—not just a microphone in my house. Since I did some acting in college, I'm somewhat comfortable with the world of theatre although I certainly won't be using myself as a reader! Distribution will still somewhat be an issue because I want to get into libraries. I'm not quite sure if I'll pursue this, but it's nice to have options.


Because I follow you on Twitter and Facebook, I can see you do many author events and speaking engagements, which I think is fantastic (I used to run author events for a book store). What feedback from your readers have you been most surprised at hearing? What do you enjoy most about the panels and speaking engagements you do? Which topic or topic discussions have been the most engaging and which has been the most difficult? Why?

I've come to never make assumptions about my audience. I've signed at cultural festivals and seen Nisei there who don't have any interest in fiction and as a result, have no interest in my books. Blondes and African Americans have come up to me and explained that they are part Japanese and love reading my books. At one mystery convention, two women in the same book club told me that they found my use of dialect disrespectful. More have told me that they totally relate to it.

When I first got my publishing deal, my dear friend told me that it was very important that I get out there and talk to people face-to-face. That I may be in places where people don't really know about Japanese-Americans. Many readers told me that before reading SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, they didn't know that there was a big difference between Japanese and Japanese-Americans. The fact that they saw the two communities as homogeneous tells me that we need more books about Japanese-Americans.


The devastating trifecta of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in Japan was heartbreaking on so many levels and I think made so many of us feel helpless and at the same time compelled to do something. In what ways do you think it effected the Japanese-American community? Did it change you? You contributed to the charity anthology, Shaken. Could you tell me a little bit about your story, "Chirigami" and how you decided on it?

I spent a year in Japan after I graduated with a BA in international relations from Stanford. It was a glorious time—I was in an advanced language program in Tokyo. My story, "Chirigami," was based on my time there, when the recycling man would be driving through my neighborhood. The chirigami kokan service, I understand, is now a thing of the past. The story, which is part nostalgia for an early Japan, also delves into the images that Japan has of the west and what images the west has of Japan. Tim Hallinan, an amazing writer, actually gathered everyone together for the Shaken collection. Kudos go to him.


You have mentioned elsewhere that you have spent time in Japan. Do you have any plans to go again?

I traveled to Japan last summer—the hottest time of the year. I spent two weeks in the Tohoku region on a relief team. My father, who is the inspiration for the Mas series, passed away in January from the effects of stomach cancer. As he, like Mas, was an atomic-bomb survivor and thus exposed to high doses of radiation, I really feel a sense of empathy for those in the Tohoku region. Before my father died, I told him that I was thinking of participating in this relief effort. He thought it was a good idea. I went there for him as well as to meet relatives and do a little research for the last Mas book.

My trip was truly amazing. The people of Tohoku embraced us, gaijin (foreigners). They have been touched by volunteers from all parts of Japan as well as the world. I participated in "mudding out," removing mud from homes that were being rebuilt, as well as entertaining and encouraging people in temporary housing.


Have you ever gone to support the translations of your stories or is that something you'd like to do?

For some reason, readers of my books in Japan have been actively contacting me this past year. There's even an Asian American literary group organized by Japanese academicians. The group may invite me to speak in the future—I look forward to it! I think that the next stage of my literary life will definitely involve going to Japan on a regular basis.


Who inspires you?

Anyone who steps out of his or her comfort zone to fulfilling a higher calling inspires me. Life is tough. Mothers and fathers who sacrifice for the children are amazing. Educators like my husband are amazing. In terms of the book world, I'm inspired by many African and Native American writers—Chester Himes, Zora Neale Hurston, Walter Mosley and Louise Erdich. I definitely feel British mystery writer Dorothy Sayers and children book writer Lois Lenski are kindred spirits.


You've mentioned a couple of times about going outside comfort zones. When has going outside your own comfort zone paid off and how did that shape you?

Two things happened quite recently. I was given literally 24-hours notice to teach an undergraduate creative writing class at UCLA—the assigned professor had gotten ill. I've led a number of short-term workshops, mostly aimed at older adults, but I had not taught college in a number of years and never a creative writing class. My education as a creative writer has occurred on my own, not formally, so what could I convey to these young people? As it turns out, I had a splendid, amazing experience. I fell in love with my students and suddenly I acutely remembered when I was their age, trying to navigate the world.

At the same time, I was in an ATF (Alcohol Tobacco Firearms) citizen's academy. Different law enforcement agencies provide these kind of programs for the public so they can be more aware about what they do. I had no inclination to write about law enforcement or wear bulletproof vests or shoot guns—up to this point, my mystery books have purely fallen in the amateur sleuth arena. But opportunity to apply for it came up through my mystery organization and I was available, so why not?

Both these recent experiences have led to the creation of a new mystery series, a 22-year-old hapa LAPD bicycle cop. I never thought that I would write about a character like this, but going out of my comfort zone allowed her to be born on paper. I don't know if a publisher will actually go for the series [Editor's update: I'm happy to say they did!], but I'm having a blast writing it right now.


And we look forward to reading it and the rest of the Mas Arai series!

A huge arigatou to Ms. Hirahara for being incredibly patient with my scheduling issues in getting this posted. I'm so glad everything came together in time to talk about Strawberry Yellow. If you haven't had the opportunity to read the Mas Arai series, I wholeheartedly recommend it. In the meantime, if you'd like to learn more about Ms. Hirahara or Mas Arai, here are some links for you!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Festivals of fun for everyone!

どうも!

Ritorumagajin is hitting the road over the next couple of weekends for some Japanese Culture Appreciation. First up: this Saturday my daughter and I are going to Anime Boston. While cosplay is not part of my personal lifestyle, I will no doubt be enjoying the creativity of others while we check out some of the panels, meet some voice actors, and no doubt drop a few bucks in the vendor hall. Second: next Saturday, April 14, I will be at the Sakura Matsuri in Washington, DC just like last year. While in the area, I hope to pay a visit to one of my favorite Japanese stores, Ginza, as well as picking up some food supplies at Hana Japanese Market, and checking out the Japanese art at the Freer and Sackler galleries at the Smithsonian. Maybe I'll see some of you out and about, too.

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook where I'll be reporting on the festivities in both places!

ありがとうございます!
じゃまた!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Gifted

Every gift from a friend is a wish for your happiness. 
~Richard Bach 

This new year has really started off with an abundance of happiness given to me by friends and family and I consider myself very lucky for it. So, I thought I would share some of the goodies with you, too! I'll start things off with some Christmas cheer! 

Given that I'm a mom, most of the fun usually goes to the kids at Christmas, but this year I made out like a bandit too! My parents did the charitable holiday thing and gave me the bilingual version of Quakebook (which I had been so excited to hear would be available in the States after having purchased the electronic version when it first came out) as well as the Peko Peko charity cookbook—each fulfilling my desire to practice reading Japanese and try out some Japanese cooking. Expect some recipe reviews in the future. :)

My brother-in-law and sister-in-law live much closer to a Japanese market than I do, and they were kind enough to stop in and gather a rather eclectic mix of stuff. The sponge is rather formidable looking especially next to the naive soap, and the choco babies were gone in seconds flat. I'm almost done with the tea (and it was delicious) and will be on the hunt for more soon. I've since slowed down my intake to make it all last until I can go do some shopping in DC in April again.

Every week I sit in a waiting room while my son has speech therapy. One of the other families I've gotten to know over the past year had recently moved into a house formerly co-owned by a Japanese woman who left a few things behind. Among the treasures (I've already been the recipient of a few books—including the Japanese novelization of Return of the Jedi \o/.) was a deck of Ukiyoe playing cards. The artwork on the cards represent several artists from the Edo and Osaka schools of Ukiyoe woodblock printing. The majority of the cards represent work from Utamaro with other artists like Eishi and Kunisada. Only a few of the cards (the Jokers, naturally) are not exactly safe for work and pretty much only if your boss is a huge prude and has no appreciation for art. Needless to say, I think these are too distractingly cool to use for solitaire.

Sometimes the more you move in a particular direction, the more signs there are that you need to keep moving in that direction. I was just trying to re-motivate myself after the holidays to get back here and write, when I was contacted by a former colleague of mine from my publishing days that I hadn't seen in a couple of years after she had seen this blog. What was at first just a very happy surprise at reconnecting with someone from my past (I loved my old job and the people I worked with!), turned into something even more amazing when my coworker told me she had lived in Japan for several years growing up and could speak Japanese, plus she had worked at Mangajin magazine before she and I worked together. Talk about your funny coincidences! And what a boost to my flagging momentum, too. We then met for lunch at a nearby Japanese restaurant and I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a few issues of Mangajin that she was willing to share with me. Along with cultural articles, the main thrust of the magazine was to teach Japanese through manga (see the second image above) with line by line translations and explanations. Unfortunately, the magazine is no longer around, but you can still buy the Mangajin textbook: Mangajin's Basic Japanese Through Cartoons.
 
One last surprise in my mailbox last month was Isetatsu Collection of  woodblock papers book from my aunt who knows me so well. I love paper and woodblock printing is something I'm hoping to test out in the not too distant future, so getting this book was right up my alley. It's broken into various themes such as the seasons, traditional items, crests, and paper crafts. Many of the patterns are just gorgeous and others amusing and some useful for crafting projects. Either way, it's a great book to just thumb through and appreciate the detail that went into making them. 

Thanks again for your continued patience while I squeeze in writing with my not-so-new-anymore job. I look forward to talking with you all this year. That would be quite a gift too. :) 

じゃまた!