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Talking Location With… author Clarissa Goenawan – Tokyo

6th March 2018

Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenwan, set in Japan

“..settling a family matter”

Clarissa Goenawan

Rainbirds set against Japanese Lanterns by artist Daniel Kelly

The novel is set in fictional Akakawa a small, unremarkable town that boasts none of the delights of hot spas, beautiful temples and landscape that one might associate with Japan as a visitor. It is an average place in Japan, where Keiko Ishida is found murdered.

The book opens with Ren Ishida, her much younger brother, clutching the urn containing her ashes. He has travelled from Tokyo to tie up the loose ends of her life. Their parents don’t really figure in their lives as there are many family issues. He soon finds himself following in the footsteps of her old life, in that he is offered accommodation in her old room, within the eccentric Katou household, where the parents are mourning the loss of a child. He also takes up a temporary job at the crammer where she worked, also teaching English.

As he settles into his new life, he starts to be plagued by dreams which – as dreams often do – offer an insight into the overworked mind and plaguing his waking thoughts with a surreal quality, blurring reality.

Ren visits the site of her killing and stumbles upon a half smoked cigarette, which was being smoked by one of his future students, the enigmatic Seven Stars (that is a brand of cigarette), who is also a serial bubble gum thief! It may seem a bizarre hobby, but many things in Japan feel very different to those of us more familiar with Western culture. The author even takes her characters to a Love Hotel in Tokyo (a common, purpose-built facility where couples can hang out by the hour and often modelled on the Disney themes). And it is the essence of strangeness that the author conjures up so well in the, novel, overlaid with a touch of melancholy.

The author feeds in some unusual themes into the narrative and the story progresses at a gentle and reasonably satisfying pace.

#TalkingLocationWith… author Clarissa Goenawan – Tokyo

A year ago, sometime in August, I came home to find two boxes postmarked from New York. They came from my publisher, Soho Press, and inside were beautiful copies of my ARCs (Advance Reader Copies).

If I have to pick a word to describe my feelings, that would be ‘magical’. The ARCs are so beautiful, accompanied by a lovely hand-written note from my editor. At that moment, I knew I wanted to take some photographs of RAINBIRDS in Japan.

RAINBIRDS, my debut novel, is a literary mystery set in Japan. While most of the stories took place in Akakawa—a fictional town I created—there were also some scenes in Tokyo.

Armed with my ARC, I went to Tokyo in October for a book tour and posted the photographs using #WhereIsRainbirds. These are some of the highlights:

First Stop – Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

Clarissa Goenawan

© Choo

Shibuya Hachiko Photo Credit: Choo

Probably one of the most iconic pedestrian crossings in the world. Streams of people come and go, each doing their business, yet never colliding with each other.

Photo Tips:

– Go to the nearby Starbucks and take an aerial photograph from the 2nd floor through the glass window. Be prepared to wait. The place is often crowded with tourists.
– Don’t forget to take a photo with the statue of Hachiko, the most famous dog in Japan.

Where to Eat:
Walk to Shibuya MUJI and have your lunch at cozy Café&Meal MUJI. Food is simple and homey, prepared using seasonal ingredients. I love their Iced Matcha Latte.


Second Stop – Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

Turn up at 3 AM (or earlier!) if you want to watch the famous tuna auction. Otherwise, be like me and come after the sunrise, enjoying the sounds and sights minus all the early morning delivery rush. One of the most memorable parts of my visit was seeing a wasabi root up-close—so unlike the usual paste I’m familiar with.

Tsukiji Sushi Photo Credit: Choo

Where to Eat:

The most popular shops are Sushi Dai and Daiwa Zushi. Expect a long line of customers. But if you ask me, I don’t think you can go wrong with any of the sushi shops. I went to a Sushi Zanmai, a chain sushi shop with no queue, and was treated to the freshest sushi I’ve ever tasted in my life. The price is very affordable for the quality.

Tsukiji Sushi Zanmai Photo Credit: Choo

Third Stop – Meiji Jingu, Tokyo

Photo Credit: Choo

Located in Shibuya, Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. A walk to the main complex will take about ten minutes. The shrine entrance is marked by a massive torii gate, after which it’s a lovely stroll into a tranquil forest. Come early on an auspicious weekend. If you’re lucky, you can catch several wedding processions.

Photo Credit: Choo

Harajuku is a short walk from Meiji Jingu and is the place for the young and fashionable. The area’s focal point is Takeshita Dori, a street lined up with trendy shops and street fashion boutiques.

Where to Eat:

There are several popular crepe shops in Harajuku—Santa Monica, Marion, and Angel’s Heart—and they serve awesome crepes. I got mine from Angel’s Heart. Choose your favorite from a huge display of appetizing sweet and savory variations.

A short walk away, Luke’s Lobster Roll is to-die-for. Fresh and sweet lobster meat chunks in generous portion slapped over a warm buttered bun. Go for the US size instead of the regular, and don’t be surprised if you regret not ordering more.


Fourth Stop – Ueno Park, Tokyo

Ueno Park Photo credit: Choo

Ueno Park is a spacious public park and home to a number of museums, shrines, temples, and even a zoo. On weekends, you might be able to catch street musicians and performers.

Trivia: Ren Ishida, RAINBIRDS’ main character, went to Ueno Zoo with his sister to celebrate his 10th birthday.

Ueno Performer Photo Credit: Choo

Where to Eat: Katsushin is a small and unassuming eatery specializing in tonkatsu. I chanced upon it when walking around Yushima. It’s about half an hour walk from Ueno Park main entrance, so it’s not exactly near, but the affordable tonkatsu set meal is the best I’ve ever tried.

Fifth Stop – Jiyougaoka, Tokyo

Jiyougaoka Koso-an Photo Credit: Choo

Jiyugaoka is a lovely and sophisticated European-style neighborhood. A number of boutiques selling foreign clothing labels line the street. In the afternoon, you’ll see mothers fetching their kids on “mamachari” bicycles. Elegant ladies catch up with friends over lunch and tea.

Koso-an Photo Credit Choo

Peter Rabbit Cafe Photo Credit: Choo

Where to Eat: Beatrix Potter fans should head to Peter Rabbit Café. The English style café is decorated with cute Peter Rabbit and Friends plushies and storybooks. The food is also delicious and a feast for the eyes.

Koso-an is a charming Japanese traditional teahouse a mere two, three minutes walk away from Peter Rabbit Café. Their Japanese dessert and tea are beautifully presented. Take time to admire the adjoining Japanese garden and enjoy its peacefulness.


Sixth Stop – Shingashi River, Kawagoe

Kawagoe—also known as Little Edo—is a charming town outside Tokyo you can visit on a day trip. Highlights include the Penny Candy Alley, Kawagoe Festival Museum, Time Bell Tower, Taisho Roman Yume Street, Kitain Temple, and Hikawa Shrine.

Photo Credit: Choo

Shingashi river is located at the back of Hikawa Temple. It’s particularly famous for cherry-blossom viewing, but also charming all year around.

Tips: You can rent a kimono and wear it while strolling around the city. I rented mine from a shop called Bibian (Vivian). Prior reservation is recommended.

Where to Eat:

Torokko (Truck) serves a delicious all-sweet-potato-based mini kaiseki lunch. The restaurant is conveniently located near the Time Bell Tower. In the afternoon, go to Ohana, a restaurant specializing in egg dishes, and order the Kifujin no Tamago Sando (Noblewoman’s Egg Sandwich).


Noblewoman’s Egg Sandwich Photo Credit: Choo

Final Stop – Owakudani, Hakone

Photo Credit: Choo

In Hakone, you can enjoy marveling at a beautiful lake, an active volcano, and mysterious forest. On a clear day, you might be able to see the majestic Mount Fuji. It is possible to visit Hakone as a day trip from Tokyo, but if time permits, do stay the night because the place is so gorgeous. Hakone is also famous for its natural hot springs.

Hakone Lake Photo Credit: Choo

What to Eat: Stop at Owakudani to buy their famous Kuro-tamago. The black eggs are sold in a bag of five for 500 yen. Eating one is supposed to add seven years to your lifespan—a bargain for the price! But it’s considered unlucky to eat more than 2,5 eggs at once, so do share them with friends.

List of awards for Rainbirds:

Winner of the 2015 Bath Novel Award (UK)

One of the three finalists of the Dundee International Book Prize (UK)

Shortlisted for the 2015 SFWP Literary Award (US)

Shortlisted for the First Novel Prize (UK)

Thank you so much to Clarissa for her wonderful tour of Tokyo (book in hand, of course!) You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and via her website.

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