The Winter Festival – Harmatia Short

Howell was singing loudly in the front-room as Rufus stepped into the house, the snow clinging to his raven hair.

 

“Sweet boughs of Holly
to make the lord jolly,
And ivy all over the ’ouse!

Spiced mead and wine
And roast ’oney-swine
And a kiss when the sun goes down!

Season of ends, is just the beginning
And in spring will rise up the sun
So, sew your seeds now,
while you all be merry,
And at harvest a baby will come!”

 

“What are you singing?” Rufus demanded, stamping his feet as he unfastened his sodden cloak. Howell looked over his shoulder with a large smile. He was decorating the threshold with wreaths of holy, mistletoe and ivy.

“Tis an ol’ spell, Love,” Howell said, “for a warm Winter Festival.”

“Sounds more like a sex song in disguise.”

“Aye, well, you would think that.” Howell leant forward and accepted a quick kiss from Rufus, brushing the snow out of his hair. “But the Winter Festival means more to us down ‘ere than it does to you fancy folk from the Capital.”

“Is that right?”

“Tis. Our traditions are old and sacred.”

“And dirty songs are part of that?”

“Nothin’ dirty about love-makin’. Well,” Howell pulled off, “success?”

“Success.” Rufus held up his bag, pulling it open to let Howell expect the contents. “I managed to get all the ingredients. And I deserve high praise, because it was no easy feat.”

Howell picked through the food, running his hand over the packages of meat and game. “Aye,” he said, softly. “This’ll be a feast.”

“You know there are only going to be three of us, don’t you?” Rufus let Howell take the bag. “This is a ludicrous amount of food.”

“Tis a week of celebration, and the season of uninvited guests—the food won’t last, I promise.” Howell patted Rufus’s stomach. “Maybe we can fatten you up for the colder months to come.”

Rufus huffed, but didn’t say anything as something small and fast came shooting down the stairs toward him.

“Papa!”

Joshua flung himself from half-way up, and Rufus almost had a small heart-attack as he dove to catch the six year old. “Oof!”

Joshua squealed with delight, wrapping small, strong arms around Rufus’s neck. “Papa!” he gabbled. “There’s a troop passing—can we go? I want to see them!”

“A troop?”

“Actors,” Howell clarified. “Puttin’ on the Seven Days.”

“They’re performing here?”

“Nay—down the valley, in Tromoth.”

“Can we go?” Joshua begged, and Rufus tensed, hesitating. Joshua sensed his uncertainty immediately. “Please!” He wrapped his fingers into Rufus’s collar and looked him deeply in the eye. “Please!”

Rufus felt something unnatural tugging inside of him. Joshua had reached into his head and was forcefully trying to shove his uncertainty away, and draw out Rufus’s never-ending desire to please his brother. Rufus frowned. “Joshua,” he scolded, “I’ve told you not to use your powers like that.”

Joshua’s presence in his head snapped back out, and his brother blinked rapidly. “Sorry,” he said, and Rufus wondered whether he’d done it intentionally or not.

“I told him we’d talk about it with you,” Howell said gently, still holding the bag of food.

“I suppose you want to go?” Rufus didn’t intend it to come out as snappish as it did.

“Tis the season of story-tellin’, and the lad’s not seen any of the Seven Nights.”

“I’m not sure those performances are appropriate for a six year old.”

“He won’t pay mind to the parts which don’t mean anythin’ to him. An’ I only propose we go to see the first one—they’re performin’ one each for every day of the festival, startin’ tomorrow.”

Rufus slowly put Joshua down. “Take my bag to the pantry,” he said.

Joshua obeyed without a word, apparently keen to show what a well-behaved a good boy he was. Rufus waited until he’d left the room.

“Tromoth is a proper town,” he said.

“Aye, ’tis—but not so big I imagine there’ll be Magi frequentin’ the ol’ harbour theatre, especially not to see drunkards in costumes tryin’ to remember their lines.” Howell crossed the room and pulled Rufus’s hands clear from where he’d started to run them up through his hair. “Tis a fishin’ town, Love. Not fancy enough for your types.”

“They’re not my types.”

“Nay,” Howell chuckled, “I suppose not.” He cupped Rufus’s face. “The lad’s got a real longin’ for it.”

“He deserves to go,” Rufus agreed. “Perhaps you can take him. Alone.”

“I’m loath to leave you, Love.”

Rufus groaned. “Is it worth the risk?”

“The performance, no? But to be free for a night, Rufus—to unshackle you from ’idin’, I’d like that.”

“I’d like it too. But—”

“I know.” Howell pulled Rufus’s hand up his mouth and kissed it. “I’d rather you safe.”

 

*

 

It snowed all through the night, covering the ground in a thick, perfect blanket. Rufus cut a path from the door through with magic, so that Howell and Joshua could get the horse to the road. Joshua’s hair—dyed freshly black—peeked out from under layers and layers of clothing. They were always wary of winter colds and fevers, with his lungs.

“Have you got money for an inn?” Rufus asked. “Just in case the snow starts up again and you can’t make it back by tonight?”

“Aye—your Papa’s a worrier, isn’t he?” Howell kissed Joshua’s temple as the boy giggled. “Yes, Love, we’ve everythin’ we need and more. I’ll be spoilin’ the lad rotten.”

Rufus’s heart swelled, and he leaned up and squeezed Joshua’s arm. “You behave now. And have a good time.”

Joshua nodded. “I will, Papa.”

Rufus stood and watched them ride away, until the white landscape swallowed them up.

 

*

 

He spent the majority of the afternoon preparing the food for the next few days. He’d bought several books for both Joshua and Howell—as ‘story exchanges’ was one of the key traditions of the season—and bound them together with ribbon.

Howell had already seen to most of the decorations, but Rufus quickly found himself outside, gathering more material, until it felt like there was more of the garden indoors than out.

When he was finished, he practised his fiddle, read, attempted to take a nap, read a little more, played more fiddle, and finally abandoned all hope of distracting himself and went outside.

Darkness had descended quickly, the day hours shortening, as Athea’s reign won over the sky. It was bitingly cold; as Rufus trudged through the snow, his magic gathered to him, fighting off the worst of the chill. He walked down the path along the back of the house, toward the sparse woodland. Perhaps he could make snow sculptures. With a little magic he was sure he could crystalize them into ice, as clean and beautiful as diamond. There had always been ice sculptures at the Winter Festival in Harmatia—huge displays, each more intricate and wonderful than the last.

Don’t think about Harmatia! He forced the thought from his mind, but it was wistfully replaced by another…The smell of spiced soup rising from the kitchen to his small, crooked bedroom in their house above the tailor’s shop. Was there snow in the capital? Were his parents clearing the streets today, as he had cleared the path? How would they be celebrating the first day of the Festival? Would they go to one of dozen theatres in the city? Would they go to an ale-house, or tavern to hear a story-teller? What books would they exchange?

The longing for home struck him so hard he almost doubled over. Rufus gasped, arms clenching tight around his chest. Home. He could see it so clearly. The shop. His bedroom. His parents sat together in the kitchen.

And that wasn’t it, because he couldn’t stop the images of castle either—bedecked in light, hundreds of candles filling the feasting hall, decorated in green and red and white with huge wreaths. And his friends—Zachary, Marcel, Emeric…

Jionathan.

The spell was immediately broken. The longing for home gave way to something sharper, and more familiar.

What did it matter if the castle was dressed and beautiful? It was an empty promise. His ‘friends’ had betrayed him, he’d been divided from his parents and Jionat was gone. Forever.  Not home. Not anymore. Never again.

Something cold and wet touched his cheek, pulling him from his thoughts. He blinked, and looked up. It was snowing again. Rufus sighed and glanced back up the path he’d come. Distantly he could see the house, a dark speck against a royal blue sky. He didn’t want to return yet, and so he slowly lowered himself to the ground and watched the silent descent of snow across an untouched world.

*

He wasn’t expecting to see fire-light as he approached the house, an hour later, soaked and cold to the bone. The back door opened and Joshua came charging out. Howell followed with a lantern in his hand.

“There you are, Love! You ‘ad us worried!”

Rufus was thrown off as Joshua caught him around the legs, almost sending him toppling back into the snow. “What are you two doing back so early? I thought you wouldn’t be home for another few hours or so.”

Joshua didn’t reply, his face buried in Rufus’s waist.

“Oh well,” Howell said, shrugging, “we got ‘alf-way through the first performance, and this one suddenly announced it was time to go.”

“Didn’t you enjoy it, Joshua?”

Joshua pulled away only so far as to be able to look up at Rufus. There was something shrewd about his expression, an intelligence beyond his age. “I wanted to go home,” he said, simply, and he hugged Rufus again.

Oh. Rufus felt a lump forming in his throat, and had to swallow down the wash of emotion that welled up inside. Oh. That’s right.

It was stupid, how his little brother could come to the answer before Rufus did—how he could solve the problem so simply. Rufus had longed for home, and Joshua had brought it. Rufus felt that cold, hard sadness in him melt away just a little more.

“Come on now,” Howell said, smiling knowingly, “’ow’s about you two get inside before we let the whole winter in. I think I might have a good story to share instead, fit for weather!”

“That sounds perfect,” Rufus said, and stooping down he picked Joshua up, and stepped into the threshold, into Howell’s waiting arms.



 

Wishing you all a beautiful Winter Festival of your own. May the holidays be full of friendship, love and beautiful stories.

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The Silver Cloak

 

There was something silver glittering in the forest. It twinkled in the corner of Sorcha’s eye, as inviting as a fishhook.

Monsters hide behind pretty masks, they said, but Sorcha couldn’t look away.

The silver thing rippled. It was a cloak of light, shifting weightlessly in the air. It would be so soft against her skin, Sorcha knew, so breezy and cool, like chiffon woven from secrets.

Monsters hide behind pretty masks, but the cloak was the loveliest thing Sorcha had ever seen.

The silver fabric rippled lazily, it’s trimming burning with an intricate weave of sunlit thread, as thin as spider-web. It was tailored for a God. Never-mind the scratchy woollen shawl around her shoulders, if Sorcha were to wrap that cloak around herself, she’d become the shimmering night sky itself, a constellation of stars.

Monsters hide behind pretty masks, but Sorcha stepped off the path, mind clouded by a green haze of envious desire.

At the corners of the cloak, translucent figures floated on dragonfly wings. They were sprites—small and fantastical, born from the first touch of sunlight on morning dew. Sorcha crept like a huntress, watching as they plucked the winter mist and spun it with dainty hands, weaving it into the beautiful cloak.

Monsters hide behind pretty masks, but the sprites were so small, as fragile as insects, unaware of Sorcha’s watchful eyes.

And so, carefully—so very carefully—Sorcha reached out, and caught the closest sprite in her hand. One squeeze, and the body broke apart like a dried leaf, leaving a glistening stain of gold across her palm.

The second sprite’s scream was like a blackbird’s call, but with shimmering fingers, Sorcha silenced it, and the silver cloak drifted down into her waiting arms.

She threw it around her shoulders and its gleaming aspect transformed her instantly. Her dun brown hair shifted into a cascade of autumnal chestnut, her black eyes deepened into pools of night, and her pockmarked skin become as fresh, and lovely as new snow.  She was a Queen, in a cloak of secrets, mist, and stars.

I guess it’s true, Sorcha thought, admiring her reflection in her gold-stained hands. Monsters do hide behind pretty masks.




This piece of flash-fiction was written for one of my classes. We were told we could write about anything, but the story had be 365 Words, one for each day of the year. As someone who struggles to write short work, this was an interesting and enjoyable challenge for me.

I wrote a couple of 365 Word Stories, but this was my favourite. The traditional fairy tale structure lends itself to flash-fiction—a simple story, with strong imagery, ending with a conclusive lesson. The Victorians did a fine job of tailoring fairy tales to be about how good women should behave—dishing out punishments for ‘transgressions’ like confetti at a wedding. As such ‘fairy tale endings’ are often quite transparent. Justice served, goodness rewarded, evil vanquished. It’s so ingrained, not even I expected Sorcha to win, until she did.

It made the whole thing deliciously vicious, and rather than modern…I feel like I’ve ended up telling a very old story instead. One that was never sanitized. One that ought to be remembered.

‘Flight’ – Book Launch for local children’s author, Vanessa Harbour

On the 20th of July, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch for Flight, a middle—grade children’s book written by Dr Vanessa Harbour. Vanessa is an academic and lecturer of creative writing at the University of Winchester, as well as a mentor at the highly prestigious Golden Egg Academy.

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The crowd overflows into the street

In one of the old, quiet streets of the picturesque city of Winchester, beyond the magnificent cathedral and through the old stone gates, the book launch was held at PG Wells, a charming independent book-store with buckets of character. There was no better setting for the evening, as people gathered together in an excitable crowd, surrounded by walls of books. Glasses of sparkling prosecco and elderflower press were on hand, and fellow bibliophiles could all gather together in small groups and catch up before the main event began.

The launch was thrown into motion by an opening speech from Crispin Drummond, who runs the Winchester branch of the bookstore. This was followed by a word from Penny Thomas of ‘Firefly’, the publisher responsible for bringing Flight to us. A hush fell over the crowd, which had grown so large it was spilling into the street, people gathered eagerly around the doorway to hear. Stuck on the very edge of the crowd, and unable to slip closer without getting dizzily claustrophobic, I was privy to only every other word, but applauded loudly as Vanessa was asked to address her adoring fans.

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Introduction from Penny Thomas

As Vanessa stepped up to speak, she may well have been nervous, faced with so many people. After years of commanding the attention of sleep-deprived, hyperactive and occasionally volatile students however, I doubt there’s any crowd that Vanessa can’t easily charm with her natural warmth and humour.

Disappointingly, I only caught snippets of her speech, as noise in the street combined with my bad positioning meant I wasn’t able to get the whole thing. What I can tell you is that the atmosphere in the room was electric. Peering in through the windows to try and get a better look, all attention was focused on Ness. The address was followed by a short reading from Flight, performed by Sally Ballet.

From the first sentence, my imagination was snatched. Flight feels like a book that was meant to be read aloud—the tension, the description, the strong character voice all mingle together to paint a vivid impression. I had the pleasure of hearing the beginning of the book read by Vanessa previously, but was gripped with the same intensity as before. Vanessa’s natural story-telling ability brings the book to life, whilst the narrative is both original and yet classic at the same time. It feels like a book of all ages—the kind of story that will never really grow old.

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A selection of beautiful cakes

The reading was met with rapturous applause, and then the second half of the launch began. Two large queues formed—toward the till, and toward the author herself. At the beginning of the evening a copy of Flight could be found propped up on every shelf, in every corner of the room, but these quickly began to disappear as copy after copy was snatched up. By the end of the evening, around 100 copies had been sold, with plenty of guests anticipating the arrival of pre-orders they had already put in.

As I queued to see Vanessa, slices of the fantastic cake, which was decorated for the front cover of Flight, were handed out. An amazing book under arm, a glass of bubbly in one hand, and a slice of chocolate cake in the other, my evening was topped off by Vanessa signing my copy of Flight.

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The beaming author herself, signing books

All together, the event was a huge success, and I feel very proud to have been in attendance. A colleague, a teacher and an inspiration, Vanessa has been a role-model to me for years. It was she who introduced me to the Golden Egg Academy—of which many ‘Eggs’ were in attendance to share in Vanessa’s celebration—and it was she who pushed me and supported me through some of the hardest times at University. How one woman can be so full of love, courage and talent I can’t tell, but I feel privileged to have been able to share this moment Vanessa, who deserves every success.

My copy of Flight now sits by my bed, waiting for me to delve back into the 1945’s Nazi-occupied Austria, where Jakob and Kizzy must face perilous odds to save the dancing horses.

Be sure to purchase your copy of Flight from your local bookstore today, or order it online and find out what all the fuss is about!

 

THE VAUGHANS IN JAPAN – CHAPTER TWO: KYOTO!

Kyoto is one of Japan’s most famous and historical cities. Located in a valley surrounded by mountains, it’s the perfect union between the modern world and the ancient past. For many people Kyoto represents the heart of what Japan is, and there is something very magical about the way you can literally step seemingly from one world to another.

To get from Takayama to Kyoto, we took the wide-view train to Nagoya, and then changed onto the Shinkansen. The journey took about four hours in total, but was very comfortable. The weather, which had been holding up for us, turned and it was raining when we arrived at Kyoto station.

Before leaving for our hotel, we stopped in on the Shinkansen office to reserve our seats for the next few journeys—the trains were apparently filling up fast, so we felt it prudent to stay on-top of things!

Our hotel was the Hotel Sunroute Kyoto, a modern building within walking distance of Gion, one of the go-too places which I’ll discuss later. Tired from the journey, and unkeen on going back out into the rain, Dad and I decided to remain in the hotel and make use of the restaurant there. It was an Italian. We had pizza. Don’t judge.

DAY 1 – Nightingale Floor and the Golden Pavillion

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The Gardens of Nijojo

Day one of our Kyoto adventure began with a recommendation from one of my friend, Jules—the famous Nijōjō (Nijo Castle). The initial structure of Nijōjō was built in 1601, with work being added to it over the next 250 years, as well as restoration after a fire broke out in 1788. The home of the Shogunate for many years, Nijōjō was also the place where the Shoganate ended after Tokugawa Yoshinobu officially returned authority to the imperial court.

 

Putting aside the long and fascinating history of this spot, this is a real must-see for anyone who is coming to Kyoto. The gardens are rolling and lush, with plenty of photo opportunities—and if you’re fortunate enough to be here in Spring, you can really profit from the beautiful sakura trees. Inside the building itself, photographs are forbidden, in order to conserve the amazing screen door paintings across the rooms. These are replicas of the original, which are being conserved in a museum close but, but are deeply impressive none the less. The artistry and detail is gob-smacking, with depictions of huge trees, birds of prey and tigers and leopards too.

(Fun-fact—did you know that the Japanese and Chinese used to believe that Leopards and Tigers were the same species, and that every third tiger-cub was actually a leopard?)

The thing I liked most was the inside of the castle wasn’t lit artificially. The entire outer corridor of the building was surrounded by shoji, Japanese doors with translucent paper screens. These were all closed to help preserve the screens, but light still came through the paper. You could imagine how—on a sunny day—with all the screens pulled back to admire the gardens, the gold across the inner screen doors would blaze impressively. The Shogun really had an aesthetic.

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The entrance into Nijojo

Gardens, history and screen doors aside, the real gem of this entire castle has got to be the nightingale floor. This is an incredible feature—a floor that makes noise at the slightest pressure. These are squeaky floor-boards on the next level. The amazing thing though? It really does sound like a forest of birds singing. It was amazing to walk across the floor among a queue of people and listen to the cacophony of chirps and trills. At times, I felt sure that bird-song was subtly being played out of a speaker—but there were no electronics in sight, and I could even hear the floorboards underneath me! It really did send thrills up my spine and was a brilliant start to our Kyoto experience.

 

Having gone through the castle, our next destination was Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion). This is a famous site that most people will have seen before in photographs or on postcards, but that you can only truly appreciate in person. Before I go into it though, a small note on Japanese public transport.

It’s great.

I mean, honestly, it’s great. The trains are good, the bus system is simple and reliable, and there are maps everywhere. Having used public transport across the board in many countries, I can say without a doubt, that the Japanese system outranks everything—leaving most places in Europe far behind. Dad and I travelled across Kyoto almost exclusively by bus, purchasing one-day bus-paces at the train-station, which were great value and allowed us the liberty to go where we wanted.

The trip up to Kinkaku-ji was a little longer, and when we arrived it was incredibly busy. April tends to be so, because people are attracted by the good weather and the chance to experience those wonderful sakura blossoms. Kyoto is also a hot-spot for the Japanese as well, (much like historical cities in the UK, like Bath) so we were competing a little for space. That said, crowd-management in Japan tends to be quite good, at least in comparison to places like London.

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Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji doesn’t take very long to get around, and that’s because the only real feature that you go to see is the golden pavilion itself. This is actually quite a small building, which sits on the side of a lake, surrounded by luscious vegetation. The site is inviting for herons and other wild-life, who can be seen resting in the area. For all its size, Kinkaku-ji is very impressive—it really is gold, and when the sun comes out, it’s a dazzling display that you don’t want to miss.

 

Unfortunately for us, the clouds had come in, and the skyline was grey and uninspiring. Most people were happy to snap their pictures and move on, but Dad wasn’t having any of it. Poised with his camera, he was adamant we wait for a break in the clouds. And thus we waited, sitting on the side and nibbling Japanese sweets that we’d brought with us. I occupied my time by offering services as a photographer for other people. On a small side note, offering to take pictures of people on holiday is a great thing to do for others. Were it not for people offering to take pictures of us, Dad and I would never appear in the same photo, which would be rather sad. Whilst I don’t believe we should live our lives behind the lens of a camera, photos are an important part of preserving memories. Get them right, and you can immortalise a little bit of that day forever.

Dad’s gamble on waiting for the sun turned out to be a brilliant idea. The clouds, which had looked ominously endless broke, leaving us a clear sky and glorious bursts of sunshine. The pavilion lit up like a lantern, and I think I used up about half of my camera memory taking photos. There really is no comparison—that sunlight makes the experience of Kinkaku-ji!

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A Couple in Kimono by the river

Feeling we’d done rather well for ourselves, we turned back toward the hotel for a brief rest before dinner. A word to the wise—if you tour Japan like we do, don’t try to fill your days with too much, and take little rests throughout the day, drinking plenty of water. It’s easy to exhaust yourself in an attempt to get the most out of your trip, which ultimately means you don’t get the fullest experience of what you do see. Take your time, and stop off at one of the many cafes and tea-houses that are dotted around Kyoto to enjoy some local refreshments. Also, if you are walking about a lot, having a spare onigiri (rice-ball with flavouring on the inside) in your bag is always a good idea. I find they travel better than sandwiches, and besides—when in Rome…

After a rest at the hotel (which provided massage chairs in our hotel rooms—luxury!) we headed out toward Gion. Gion really stands at the heart of Kyoto nightlife, and has a history as Kyoto’s pleasure district. In the modern day, Gion is where you can go to see Geisha perform, enjoy good food, and soak in the upbeat atmosphere.

As with all of Kyoto, there is an interesting merger of modern and old in Gion, and if you’re in the area, I would suggest walking along the Shimbashi (also called Shirakawa Minami-dori) street, which runs along a canal, with original architecture and tea-houses all along it. You are also likely to spot lots of people in beautiful Kimono walking along here, though you will quickly discover that not all of them are Japanese! Kimono hire is common in Kyoto, and there are several places you can go to try these unique clothes on, and have your hair done especially. I didn’t get the chance to try it this time, but the prices for the hire are reasonable, and wearing a Kimono is a wonderful experience. Kimono can actually tell you a lot about the wearer—from the length of the sleeves, to the colours, motifs and the occasional inclusion of family crests.

Having walked past some very expensive restaurants along the river and canal, Dad and I eventually settled at another ramen bar. There we enjoy some local sake, gyoza (dumplings) and a big bowel of delicious ramen each. A perfect ending to a great day.

 

DAY 2 – Bamboo Forests & The Samurai Garden

Day two of our Kyoto adventure took us to Arashiyama, which is in the west of Kyoto, toward the mountains. We caught the bus from the train station to Arashiyama-Tenryuji-mae, from which we took a brief walk up toward the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.

The first part of the walk is deceptive. You suddenly find yourself surrounded by bamboo forest on both sides, but the atmosphere is a far-cry from what is boasted to you—ethereal and peaceful. A tarmac path and heaving crowd hardly left room for inspiration, and I was just starting to feel a little cheated when he hit the actual Bamboo Grove.

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A ceiling of bamboo

This was still a tarmac path, which my knee was actually thankful for, but the experience was very different. The path narrowed and the long bamboo stalks bowed over our heads, embracing us secretively, whilst the leaves cast a strange green glow that was almost impossible to photograph. The rows and rows of bamboo blocked the whole world beyond it, and it was easy to believe that it just went on forever. It doesn’t surprise that there are several key Japanese myths that revolve around bamboo.

At the end of the path, you come up to Okochi Sanso, the estate of a famous Japanese actor, who was particularly remembered for his samurai films. The entry fee was steeper than anything we’d encountered so far, and Dad and I weren’t sure whether to go in. After some deliberation, and discovering that the fee also included a free cup of a tea and cake at the end, we decided to go in.

This turned out to be one of the best decisions of the holiday.

I mentioned before that strange phenomenon in Kyoto, where you can literally walk down a path and find yourself in an almost entirely different world—nowhere was this more the case than the Okochi Sanso.

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Colourful gardens of Okochi Sanso

Were it not for our clothes and our cameras, the modern world may have almost been forgotten. The walk up through the estate was peaceful, the garden hosting a wide selection of foliage, which scattered the canopy above and around is with a whole palette of colours. The most impressive thing by far, however, was the views. These were very special—and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t usually consider ‘views’ to be an acceptable reason to climb up anything.

Having soaked in the incredible mountain scenery, we enjoyed our free cup of Japanese tea and mochi (a type of traditional cake), and wondered back down the hill, in search of the Gio-ji Temple.

Just like you can’t walk two minutes through any old British town and not stumble into at least three churches, Kyoto is literally brimming with shrines and temples. Walk a kilometre in any direction and you’ll find a shrine, big or small. This is a large part of the city’s charm—the pockets of culture and history can be found in any corner. However, after your fourth or fifth in a row, the attraction of temples and shrines does start to lose its appeal…

If you like something strange, however, Gio-ji Temple may very well be for you, and that’s because of its famous, rather unique garden.

A moss garden.

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Gio-Ji Moss Garden

The temple itself is quite small, and a turn of the garden takes about five minutes if you really take your time. It is very zen however, and there is a great novelty to the experience. Gio-Ji comes highly recommended to everyone and anyone who just loves moss. You just don’t get moss like this anywhere else.

Tired from lots of walking and travel, and with the weather turning into something a little fresher, we decided to do our laundry at the hotel (many Japanese hotels have their own laundrettes!) eat in, and grab an early night.

 

DAY 3 – The Red Gates

Day three saw us heading down to Fushimi-Inari Taisha, a large red shrine which is a fairly iconic spot in Kyoto, and is featured in a lot of photographs.

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The Corridor of Torii

The main feature of Fushimi-Inari Taisha is the endless corridor of torii (the red shrine gates) that leads up into the forested mountain. The red gates themselves are donated by various families as part of the shrine, and they stretch on and on.

Unfortunately for us, we went on a very busy day, which made photo opportunities difficult. This was rather frustrating, as the red gates are really quite unique. However, there are several thousand of them, and the higher you go, the less people there are, with many stopping at the first rest-area and turning back.

“If there was ever a day where you take several thousand pictures of pretty much the same thing, it’ll be today,” Dad warned me, having walked it before. He was, as per usual, correct. I have more photos of red-gates on my computer now than I currently know what to do with…

The walk is actually quite long, should you decide to go the whole way up. I confess, I gave up at the last proper rest-spot, my leg weak at the prospect of another forty-minutes of walking. Dad went on and I enjoyed the view over Kyoto as I waited.

Other than red gates, visitors of Fushimi-Inari Taisha will also see a lot of stone kitsune (foxes) guarding smaller shrines all the way up. In Japanese mythology, foxes were both tricksters prone to possessing humans, but were also messengers of the Inari, gods of rice and sake.

Dad also pointed out that the area boasted a “sacred paddy field.”

“There’s a field of Irishmen up here?”*

Dad actually laughed at that.

(*I would like to apologise to all Irish men and women for this joke, and particularly to you, Séan. In my defence, I was very tired and you were on my mind.)

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Lanterns in a Gion Temple

We headed out to Gion again for dinner that evening, going to a sushi bar which was recommended to us by a member of staff at the hotel. Dad actually cited this as one of his favourite parts of the Kyoto trip. The sushi bar, located on Hanamikojo-dori street, was small, pokey and perfect. The food was great, the atmosphere lively, and the prices all very reasonable for what you were getting. I enjoyed a Plum-Liqueur and green-tea cocktail and proceeded to lecture Dad on proper sushi eating etiquette.

“You don’t put the rice in the soy-sauce! You dip the fish.”

“But he’s putting the rice in over there.”

“Yeah, well he’s doing it wrong.”

We left the bar on the tipsy side, full of delicious fish, and both a little giggly. What more could you want from a night out?

 

DAY 4 – The Philosophers’ Walk to the Market

We decided to take a more relaxed approach for our last proper day in Kyoto. Utterly shrined out, we perused the travel-book recommendations for other things to do. A recommendation from a friend, Chris, living in Tokyo was to check out the Testugaku-no-michi (the Path of Philosophy) which runs between Nyakuoji-bashi to Ginkaku-ji (the silver pavilion).

Ginkaku-ji is the twin, in many respects, to Kinkaku-ji, and whilst we missed it out this time,it is well worth a visit, as one of Kyoto’s most popular sites. Despite being called the silver pavilion, unlike Kinkaku-ji with gold, Ginkaku-ji was never covered in silver. It is, regardless, very impressive, with elegant gardens and beautiful architecture.

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Philosophy Cat

The Path of Philosophy led us along the canal, and is apparently a hotspot for cats, who can be seen patrolling the streets. According to signs that instruct visitors on how to conduct themselves around the cats, the cats are enemies of the crows. I enjoyed the image of an ancient tribal feud between the two species as I meandered along the path, under the umbrella of hanging tree branches and sakura.

We stopped half-way down at a tea-house where we enjoyed a traditional cup of tea and cake. Or, at least, I did. Dad asked for a coffee. Philistine.

As we sipped our hot beverages, we attempted to get into the spirit of the area.

“So, had any profound, philosophical thoughts?” I asked.

“Not really. You?”

“Oh yes—I’ve been thinking about Nietze.”

“Have you really?”

“No.”

The conversation then turned to A Fish Called Wanda, and that was our philosophising was done for the day.

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Blossoms on the tree

Having completed the Path of the Philosopher, our minds were apparently so taken by abstract thoughts and ponderings that the impossible actually happened—we got lost.

Or, more to the point, we got onto a bus and got off at the wrong stop. To be fair, we were both pretty tired at this point, and Japanese street names can be hard to remember, even if you are familiar with the language.

Despite this, we managed to find ourselves again, and after a delay we made our way to the final spot of the day—the Nishiki market.

Now, on paper the Nishiki market doesn’t sound like much. It’s a long, indoor food-market that sells Japanese, and particularly Kyoto specialities, boasting large selections of foods and ingredients, most of which I couldn’t name if I tried. The real reason you want to head to this market though, beyond its attraction as a corridor of curiosities, is that the smells are amazing. I defy anyone to walk down through the stalls and come out the other side without their mouth-watering.

The Nishiki market then leads onto even more shops, and this whole area is ideal for souvenirs, if you haven’t already loaded your bags up from the shrines and temples. I managed to find a number of gifts, and was just about to leave, feeling rather pleased with myself, when I saw there was also an Owl display.

Yes. A display of Owls.

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“I’M AN OWL!”

As someone who designed a family crest for herself featuring an owl, bought an owl stamp earlier that day, has a lot of owl memorabilia and lives in an apartment called “The Owls”, I think it is fair to say I am quite fond of the creatures…

Dad was a good sport and held my shopping for me as I dashed over.

I managed to get several (million) photos of these lovely birds, and was even permitted to stroke a few of the veteran owls, after my hand was especially disinfected.

I emerged about twenty minutes later, a wide grin on my face.

“Good?” Dad asked.

“Owls are great.”

“I know.”

Having walked a good ten kilometres that day, and with packing and writing to do, we headed back to the hotel. Pizza again for dinner (don’t judge) and an early night in preparation for the long journey to Kumamoto.

Worst Part of Kyoto—Big, bustling crowds and getting lost on the bus-route.

Best Part of Kyoto—The Nightingale Floor, Owls and Sushi.

 

 

 

 

The Vaughans in Japan – CHAPTER ONE: TAKAYAMA!

“Let’s go back to Japan.” – An old, Vaughan proverb.

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Three Vaughans in Kyoto – 2011

Six years ago, I accompanied my parents on their first visit to Japan. Having already been myself, three times, and having studied Japanese for several years in school, I was put in a unique position of power that was usually reserved for my mother—the linguist of the family. I held the words and the lay of the land—where we went, what we saw, and—most importantly—what we ate was almost entirely at my discretion.

I must have done something right, because the holiday was hailed as a great success, and since then, the phrase “let’s go back to Japan,” has floated around the Vaughan household, popping up intermittently.

After my mother died two years ago, my Dad finally retired from work and took to a nomadic life. Keeping track of him since has proved difficult, as I’m never entirely sure which continent he’s on, let alone which country. Travel is a balm to an energetic, curious soul.

Suddenly, that phrase “let’s go back to Japan” stopped being a mere fancy, and started to involve booking flights and accommodation. And thus, here we are—the Vaughans (two of us, at least) return to Japan at last, and this time for a full three weeks.

The trip has been split into four sections: Takayama, Kyoto, Kumamoto and Hakone, with a day in Tokyo on either side. Whilst Dad writes his diary daily, and keeps tracks of his adventures in a small, discrete note-book, I felt I’d chronicle our journey in a slightly flashier way, as we proceed through the chapters of our journey.


CHAPTER ONE: Takayama

13—16th of April, 2017

We left from London Heathrow on the 11th of April, flying BA to Narita airport. It was a twelve hour flight which got us into Japan at around noon on the 12th, (4:00 AM English time). Jet-lagged and a little bleary, we organised our tickets for the shinkansen (bullet train), and made out way via train and taxi to our hotel.

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Tokyo Tower

Conscious that the best way to beat the jet-lag was not to succumb to the desperate, clawing urge to sleep, we set out into the streets of Tokyo just as night fell, to scavenge some food. The mid-April weather was very pleasant, the evening cool and refreshing. We stopped for ramen—always the easiest go-to!—and then went for a little walk. The hotel offered us an excellent view of Tokyo Tower, which was lit up brightly in red, and stood out vividly across the night sky.

As we wondered back I thought I saw snow falling across the road. Confused, I looked again, only to discover it was actually the gentle, meandering descent of several sakura blossoms. Japan’s famous cherry blossoms attract many people in Spring (ourselves included) to the parks and beautiful gardens that are scattered across the country.

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Sakura sapling flowering  in Takayam

A few blossoms falling onto the life-less concrete of a Tokyo side-street hardly sounds like something that would capture the imagination…However, whilst it might have been twenty-four hours of no sleep and almost solid travel, I was enthralled by this serene display. In particular because there were no actual sakura trees in sight—the petals had merely drifted on the wind from someone’s garden. Where I adept at poetry, I might have come up with something profound to mark the experience—the brevity of serenity or the quiet presence of nature even in our modern world…

Instead, I elbowed my Dad and went, “Look—sakura!”

To which he responded, “What?”

The following day, we rose early and made our way to Tokyo Station. We took the Shinkansen to Toyama, which was a comfortable journey, about two hours long. At Toyama we changed onto the Hida Wide-view limited-express train, heading toward Takayama station. This journey was an hour and a half and very scenic. The train was quite full, with people standing in the aisles. If anyone is planning on heading to Takayama on this route, particularly during festival time, I would advise reserving your seats, or getting to the platform nice and early!

We got into Takayama in the early afternoon. The town was a buzz with activity, tourists coming from every corner of the globe. We counted Americans, Australians, Germans, Philippians, Chinese, French, Canadian, Russian and many more among the people we saw! Dad was particularly impressed with me when I was able to make our a few Japanese tourists as well—people from Kyoto in particular have a distinctive accent!

With the town so busy, we weren’t able to book a hotel in it, and thus chose a rather lovely spot in Shinhodaka instead, about an hour’s drive away. This turned out to be an incredibly good decision, for reasons which I will detail later.

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The mountainous drive up to Shinhodaka

We hired a car and enjoyed an incredibly scenic and lovely drive up. My Dad, who’s one of those crazy people who sees mountains and goes, “I should climb that,” is well versed in driving through mountainous regions, and thus had no problem getting us there, having had a lot of practise already in the alps and in Switzerland. We were both quite surprised to discover snow as we got higher, and to find several ski resorts and slopes. Trust my father, mountaineering and skiing fanatic, to take me all the way to Japan and still somehow find the ski slopes here. He swore it wasn’t on purpose, but I’m beginning to think he has a special, innate sense for it.

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The Hotakasa Yamano Hotel

We arrived at the Hotakasa Yamano Hotel, which was very picturesque, perched on the side of the mountain, with lovely views, and a well-decorated interior and exterior. The rooms were comfy and warm, and provided free yukata (traditional Japanese clothing) which I was incredibly excited about. Dad and I donned ourselves in these, and went downstairs to enjoy a hot footbath as we planned our next day.

We finished the night with a lavish Japanese meal at the hotel restaurant, and then retired early, ready to head out and explore.


Day 1 – Takayama Festival

14th of April

We started early. It was a beautiful day, with streaming sunshine and crisp blue skies. Dad and I had an enormous Japanese breakfast at the hotel, which mostly consisted of Dad pointing at the various, delicately placed food and asking me, “What’s this?”

“I don’t know. Just put it in your mouth and eat it.”

‘What am I eating now’ is probably one of the most common games we play in Japan. Traditional Japanese food is usually very artful, extremely tasty, and always a little enigmatic.

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One of the Takayama marionettes

After breakfast, we headed off immediately for Takayama, to go and join the festival. Takayama has two major festivals, one in Spring and one in Autumn. The spring festival consists of large, ornate floats being paraded through the streets. On-top of these floats are marionettes, which are operated by a dozen strings, and a whole team of people. The floats only appear twice a year, so it’s quite spectacular to catch a glimpse of them.

We started our tour of Takayama by walking through the Sanmachi—an area full of

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One of the Sanmachi Streets

traditional buildings. This was lined with various shops displaying Japanese crafts, as well as food stalls and restaurants. We walked the length of the street down toward the big red Nakabashi bridge, crossing the river toward the Takayama Jinya—the old government house in Takayama. Here we got our first glimpse of the floats, which were out on display. Photo opportunities were made quite difficult by the size of the crowd, so we didn’t linger long, and went to go and see inside the Takayama Jinya instead.

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Inner garden of the Takayama Jinya

This was an enjoyable experience, and well worth the ticket price. The building was large, and—unlike in many places—photography was actually allowed. Each of the rooms had a little signpost in Japanese and English to tell us what the area was used for—this ranged from a meeting hall, to the ‘interrogation’ (read torture) room. I particularly liked the peaceful inner garden, and the tiny little box room, which was especially designed for tea-ceremonies.

Having finished the Jinya, Dad and I decided to wonder down the main-street toward where a long line of festival stalls had been set up. Mouth-watering smells saturated the air, and large groups of children gathered around game stalls, trying to win prizes, or catch fish with paper nets! I stopped to buy a pastry filled with anko (red-bean paste), a sweet treat that is a particular favourite, and then horrified Dad by buying some takoyaki, a sort of dumpling with octopus tentacles inside.

“Better you than me,” he said, with a grimace as I put one in my mouth.

“Delicious.”

We returned to the floats for 14:30, to see the marionette performances. The crowd was now at a suffocating level, and extended all the way back to the bridge. Some people who were gathered at the front, had been there for an hour already, standing in the full heat of the sun just to ensure they had a good spot. Telephoto lenses on our cameras, and the fact that the marionettes are at the top of the floats, however meant that Dad and I were fine, even from so far back.

I confess, as impressive as the marionettes were—some being operated by over 30 strings!—the performance was a little repetitive, and after a while, Dad and I gave up, and slipped out from the crowd. The strange, slightly hypnotic music used to accompany the marionettes, followed us up the road as we headed uphill toward the Shiroyama park. We decided to do the Higashiyama walking course, which takes you up through the hills, and then around back into town on a route that passes by the significant shrines and temples in the area.

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The Shiroyama Park

Having injured my leg in January (I ruptured the ligaments in my knee) the walk was a little tough. That being said, it was well worth it. Walking up into the forested hills was like entering another world—this was the place of the mononoke and yokai—Japanese spirits and demons, that are similar in many ways to the unfriendly faeries and sprites of Celtic mythology. The atmosphere was only increased by the fact we could still hear the rhythmic beating of the drum and the sigh of the music from down in the town.

A warning to anyone who does decide to do the walk—the free walking map you get at the festival is useless on this route. If you don’t know the area or have a proper map, you need some initiative and a good sense of direction not to get lost. Fortunately for me, Dad is an explorer extraordinaire, and between my basic ability to recognise a few kanji (Japanese words, based on Chinese letters) and his innate understanding of mountain paths, we managed to find our way out. This was a relief, as at the top of the hill we found a helpful sign that warned hikers that there were bears in the woods. This might have been more useful at the entrance, where we could have turned back, rather than in the middle, at the point of no-return.

That would have been an interesting call to my brother back in England.

“How’s Japan?”

“Well we’re lost on a mountain and Dad’s wrestling a bear, but other than that…”

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Temple on the Higashiyama Walking Route

Having managed to emerge from the forest without being mauled, Dad and I stopped off at several of the temples on the route, before giving up the walk—after the climb, my leg was really starting to ache, and the last thing we wanted was for me to cripple myself on the first day of the holiday.

We proceeded back into town, and found a pleasant spot for an early dinner—more ramen!

It’s advised that people attending the festival stick around in the evening to see the floats being processed through the streets, donned with lanterns. However, with the hour-long drive we faced back to the hotel, coupled with the drag of jet-leg, Dad and I decided to head back early, rather than stick around until 20:00. This was ultimately a good decision, as the darkness came in fast, and both of us were getting incredibly sleepy.

Back at the hotel, we donned ourselves in the yukata and both went to the public baths. Japanese baths are great, as are onsen (hot-springs) of which there are an abundance in the mountains. You shower in a separate area and wash yourself down, and then go and soak in a lovely, hot pool. The one at the hotel had separate baths for men and women—inside and out. This is not for people who are body-shy, because swimming costumes and the like are not permitted—you’re naked all the way. However, for anyone who is unsure, I really recommend biting the bullet and giving it a go—it’s a great experience. With the chill of the mountain air, slipping into the hot water of the rock-pool outside and bathing beneath the stars was luxurious.

Loose and relaxed from the baths, Dad and I met up again for an evening drink, where we sat together and chatted over a bottle of sake (rice wine), before retiring to our rooms for an early night.


THE VAUGHANS IN JAPAN – CHAPTER ONE: TAKAYAMA 2!

To Bigger, Brighter Things! The CW Class of 2017

On Tuesday the 4th of April, the third year class of the University of Winchester’s Creative Writing programme all gathered together for an evening of celebration, smiles and prizes!

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend part of the evening and hear some of the performances given by the students. Short stories, poetry and non-fiction – the variety and quality blew me away and exhibited, once again, the diversity and range of the students at the University. I was able to also see the first batch of prizes that were given out for excellence in different areas of the course, including script writing for mainstream television, and fiction.

During a brief break, where were given the chance to refill our drinks, there was also a little quiz given out – with us (the lecturers!) as the subject. Students were asked to identify, from a list, which book we wished we’d written, which book we’d read forever, and what the title of our own books would be! Needless to say, as I meandered about about under the guise of photographer, I was able to take a peek at some of their answers, curious to see who they really think we are.

Unfortunately I was not able to stay for the duration of the evening, however I am confident when I say it was a roaring success. The Creative Writing class of 2017 should be proud of themselves and everything they’ve achieved. I wish them all the best as they venture out into the world to bigger, brighter things…

Or just stick around at the University, like I did.

diverse-fairy-tale-project

Mag Mell Publishing is currently looking for authors to contribute to our Diverse Fairy Tale Project!

What is the Diverse Fairy Tale Project?

From 2017, Mag Mell Publishing will be putting together our own anthology of our favourite Fairy Tales. The twist—the project is all about diversity. We’re looking for new, fresh versions of these popular stories that will represent minorities – including having POC and/or LGBTQA+ main characters.

We are particularly interested in hearing from minority authors who would be interested in contributing a short story between 3,000-8,000 words. Authors will be paid between £10-£20 ($12-$24) per story.

This would be a Kickstarter funded project. Authors would not be expected to undertake any work until funding and payment was guaranteed for them.

To get involved, or find out more about the project,visit our webpage here!

THE HARMATIA CYCLE – PUBLISHING NEWS

Hello my wonderful readers!

I have some very important news for you all. Last night, my Publisher The Zharmae Publishing Press announced that they would be closing down. As of the 31st of August, The Sons of Thestian will no longer be available for purchase.

The news came suddenly, but fortunately I have a back-up plan, which I will now be implementing.

For those of you waiting for Blood of the Delphi, it is still going to be released! I have decided to self-publish my work, and though I may have to push the publishing date (possibly to December), I am going to be fighting tooth and nail to make sure that the book is released this year!

What’s more, I will be publishing the 2nd Edition of The Sons of Thestian hopefully at the same time, for any who want a new, matching set.
I will be working on making sure the prices for the books are lower, that the quality is higher, and that they are more easily available for anyone who wants to read them.

As I try to sort through this process and get everything together, I
cannot guarantee that there won’t be further delays. These delays are as frustrating for me, as they are for you, and I hope you will all be patient with me. Your readership, your support, is incredibly important to me, and I want you all to know how much I appreciate it and your loyalty.

I hope you will continue to support me, and my work. I will post updates as regularly as I can, and the moment I have more information, I will make it available.

In the meantime, you can expect the following from me:
1) I will be publishing a short-story with the Random Writers this September. This is a short based on my next project The Kestrel Saga, and I am incredibly excited to share it. More details to follow.
2) I will be releasing images for the Cover-art for Blood of the Delphi, and will be commissioning new matching cover-art for The Sons of Thestian, which will also be released soon.
3) I will be working on designs for merchandise, and other nick-knacks for any fans who may be interested (Message me, and tell me what you’d like! – Notebooks? Stickers? Badges? Posters?)

I am, as always, open to any questions or queries, and will remain highly active in the coming months. I will be seeking the advice of other writers who have gone down this path, and will be doing my upmost to get it all right and perfect for you guys.

Again, I ask your patience during this time, your continued support and thank you for everything you’ve done so far. I have some exciting plans for the future, and I hope you’ll all be there to see me realise them!

In the meantime, if you would like to keep track of what’s happening, please show your support by subscribing to my monthly newsletter here!

Many thanks everyone!