Summer Greetings

shochu mimaiThe week or two before Obon is considered the height of summer in Japan, and it’s definitely hot enough for it! Although Obon is not a public holiday, many shops and companies, especially the smaller ones, are closed for at least a few days leading up to August 16.

One of the traditional “must dos” during these days is to send shochu-mimai, summer greetings. Just like the kanchu-mimai in winter, these are simple postcards with a suitable motif to wish people good health to get through it all. In Japan, the hot summer days have traditionally been of greater concern than the cold winter days.

Speaking of tradition: These mimai once were actual visits to people in the hottest (or coldest) time of the year, but if you couldn’t visit somebody, it was acceptable to send greeting cards instead. A related custom is the sending of ochugen summer gifts to family and business partners, but this is not as wide-spread nowadays as the still ubiquitous oseibo year-end presents.

a summer greeting cardMaybe because of modern air-conditioning that is taking the edge off the heat, the sending of shochu mimai has declined. I am not sending any myself, but I have received some from friends. Just like the nengajo that are sent for New Year’s Day, these seasonal greeting cards are often handmade by the more artistically inclined people – like my friends. The cat really doesn’t need much explanation for anyone who knows me, and the demon’s face is popular at summery lantern festivals like the Aomori Nebuta Festival.

Service?

As you know, from this (fiscal) year on, I am enrolled in Japan’s national pension and health insurance, which costs me more than 60.000 yen every month (I have complained about this, I’m sure). Signing up for the service went very smoothly, and now I’m getting a monthly letter from them indicating how much I have paid for pension/health insurance. Not that this is necessary, since I can see that in my company bank book, but the Japanese love paperwork.

One evening about two weeks ago, I received a phone call, and it took me a while to understand that it was from the Japanese Pension Service in Kyoto. The following is a short version of the weirdest phone conversation I ever had:

“We have sent you a letter,” the woman on the other end of the line announced proudly.

“Oh? I didn’t receive anything yet.”

“Yes, it can take a week or so until you receive it. But please read the letter when it comes. Thank you!”

Ummm… okay. Mind you that she didn’t say what the letter was about. Fast forward about a week when indeed I got a letter from Japan Pension Service. Essentially it said “We just want to tell you that this is indeed your yearly income (amount goes here)”. Well, yeah, this is what I have entered on the form I gave you when I enrolled in the service, so…?

I am not sure what the letter was good for to begin with, since it told me what I already knew. But the phone call before that takes the cake. I mean, does Japan Pension Service call every single company when they send them paperwork? Or am I getting the special foreigner treatment? Well, as long as this extra work is not deducted from my pension in the end…

Yama-no-hi

Today is a holiday: Yama-no-hi or Mountain Day. The idea is to give the Japanese a (or rather: another) reason to go hiking in the mountains. The largest mountain ranges of non-volcanic origin in Japan lie in central Honshu, the main island, and encompass the Hida, Kiso, and Akaishi mountains. These mountain ranges include the highest mountains in Japan (except Mt. Fuji) with a height of more than 3100 m. Some of them even have what are called “active glaciers”, meaning their ice is flowing.

Anyway, the tallest mountain in Japan is Mt. Fuji. Since ancient times it has been the most revered mountain in Japan, and since 2013 it is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, drawing even more people to its top on a sort of modern pilgrimage.

Anyway, I’d like to share a picture of this fantastic gold screen painting of Mt. Fuji that was on display at the Saga Arashiyama Museum of Arts and Culture when I was visiting it for their last exhibition. It was painted by Shibata Gito (1780 – 1819) from Okayama, which means so much as “edge of the mountain”, which is quite fitting the theme, don’t you think?

Golden Screen with Mt. Fuji by Shibata Gito

Eruption

When people hear about a natural disaster happening in Japan, they most often assume that it’s another earthquake. And with an earthquake happening almost every day, they are mostly guessing correctly. What is often forgotten however, is that Japan is also the home of many volcanoes, and most of them are just dormant and can erupt again at any time.

This is just what happened late yesterday night, when Mt. Asama erupted and sent a pillar of smoke some 1800 metres into the sky. Mt. Asama is 2568 metres high and one of the most active volcanoes in Japan; the last eruption was 10 years ago. Since the volcano is on the borders of Gunma and Nagano prefecture, it is a popular hiking spot, but the region is not very densely populated.

Still, the government has forbidden access to the volcano as a whole, and is trying to evacuate all hikers that are in the area. Judging from the youtube video below, taken today, the situation has cooled down a little.

See also this interesting article at Kyodo News, which is relatively level-headed and includes a great map of the many other (and so far quiet) volcanoes in the area and a link to the Japan Meteorological Agency and their volcanic warning page just below the map.

Inspirational

I’m back from my “holiday” that I spent at home – and at a number of cafes just to get out of my apartment for a few hours in the hottest part of the afternoons at least. I was relatively lazy last week (up to 38 degrees didn’t help) but I read a few books, did some apartment maintenance (aka ironing and cleaning), and spent too much time on youtube.

I also got busy looking at color schemes for future website improvement and I now have a new list of “things I’d like to do for What’s up in Kyoto“. As if I needed a new and improved – and significantly longer – list there…

An interesting highlight was meeting a friend of mine and catching up with her. The last time we met was several weeks ago at a small cafe where neither of us had been before, and where they happened to look for part-time staff. Now my friend is working there! She spends maybe half the year abroad, so she needed something flexible, job-wise. Interestingly, she was considering another, more corporate job as a translator as well at the time, but chose the cafe after all. She said she had never worked in a restaurant before and wanted to make that experience and try it out.

We had talked before how I came to Japan and how I left everything behind, and that if it didn’t work out, I could always do something else. So, she knew about my journey to Kyoto. And then she suddenly said: “You inspired me to try something completely new as well!”

I am amazed and humbled and a bit embarrassed to inspire people to do anything. Probably because there are many days when I don’t feel particularly inspired myself.

Week Off

Yesterday morning, when checking my schedule for this week, I noticed that I don’t have a single work-related appointment this week. Even my Japanese teacher has called a holiday. This hasn’t happened since New Year! So, I decided to take the week off. I’m not going anywhere, and there are still a few things I need to do (because it’s the end of the month), but I have decided to take it extremely slowly this week.

It helps that it’s very hot as well right now. Summer has arrived with about 36 degrees for the rest of the week, so it’s not as if this is a good time to work anyway. I have a few personal projects I’d like to push forward and I’d like to go out with friends. Today I already visited one of my favourite cafes where I did some serious flirting with the cute waiter (who casully asked me to show him on google maps where in Austria I was from, and even more casually mentioned that he was married to the owner of the cafe. Talk about sending mixed signals?) And on Thursday I will be visiting the Tamayuran again to see off Kyoichiro. I’m curious how much he’s grown.

I’m not sure if I’ll be posting the rest of the week (it’s nice to have a break from posting too every now and then), but you can definitely expect a new post next Tuesday. Have a great week too!

Summer!

It’s much later than usual, but finally today we had the first day of summer! It was sufficiently hot (36 degrees), humid (75%) and sunny (I even got a sunburn on my way to the city) to be called a decent summer day. And there was a nice shower in the late afternoon to cool everything down before the evening¬† – I’m calling this a perfect day!

And it started off well too. I went to one of the museums I’d like to feature as a What’s up in Kyoto monthly highlight soon, and everything went incredibly smoothly. I had my own tour guide even before I had explained why I was coming, everything went easily in English, and when I asked for an interview with the museum’s director I got an immediate “consider it done”. All I need now is to come up with a time and date. Perfect!

Afterwards, I went to a local gallery that has a large rack full of flyers and event advertisements. I only recently discovered the place because it’s a bit out of the way of my usual haunts, but these are the places where I can leave my own postcards for my website. So I went there, scoured the flyers for new ones, and then went to the office to ask if I could leave my own. “Sure,” the man in charge said. Usually, these places have a limit on the number of flyers or postcards they take, but when I pulled out my pack of about 50 cards, he said “oh, just give me all of them, it’s fine.” Perfect!

In the afternoon, I went with a friend of mine to Shimogamo Shrine where the yearly Mitarashi Festival is ongoing. You have to wade through the cold stream, light a candle on the way and place it before the shrine at the end of the pond. It was very nice and refreshing, just as planned. Perfect!

And afterwards, we went to my favourite chocolate place to buy just before they are closing down for their summer holidays in August. We even got 20% off because there are only a few days left and they want to get rid of as many chocolates as possible, obviously. Perfect!

So you see, my first day of summer this year couldn’t have been better. Let’s hope it’ll stay this way!

Ofunehoko

Yesterday, for the second year, I was working as a volunteer at the Ofunehoko, the last big float of the second Gion Matsuri Parade that is taking place on July 24th in the morning.

I felt a bit more confident this year, being there before and most of the things we had to do were the same. This year, the visitors to the second floor of the Ofunehoko house and the Ofunehoko itself had to take care of their own shoes, which was a great relief since this was a very stressful job last year. Also, every one of us could spend some time inside the Ofunehoko house, which meant: sitting down for a while! Even if it’s just sitting in seiza, taking the weight off the wooden geta and not having to stand for 6 hours straight is quite a relief.

Even though there were much fewer people this year (probably because of the bad weather), it was still fun to sell the chimaki and the upstairs tickets and the tenugui… Interestingly, most of the foreigners dropping by yesterday were Italians. Unfortunately, only a single one of my friends visited me, but it was the one who introduced me to the Miyakogusa group and made the whole thing possible in the first place. I felt quite honored that he would come and see me.

A chimaki from the OfunehokoAs a reward for our work, we all received a free chimaki upon leaving – the paper bag that goes with it is almost more interesting. A chimaki is a charm that is usually put up at the entrance door or in the genkan of a Japanese house to prevent evil from entering. Interestingly, there were even young Japanese people who asked about the meaning of the chimaki, which I found a bit odd – it seems such a fundamental thing here in Kyoto that I can’t believe this is not done everywhere else in Japan. I will investigate…

A Midsummer’s Equation

A Midsummer’s Equation
Keigo Higashino

Cover for A Midsummer's EquationHari Cove is a sleepy resort town that has seen better days. The most exciting thing happening at the moment is the plan for underwater mining just off the coast, which has divided the people still living there and has brought physicist Prof. Yukawa to the town. But then, after one of the mining company’s meetings, a man is found dead and is later declared murdered. He turns out to have been a retired policeman from Tokyo, and thus Yukawa is drawn into the case. He finds himself unveiling a well-kept secret and, against his usual inclinations, must consider protecting the guilty – not just of this crime, but of another one from many years before…

Another first class crime novel by Higashino. I loved the twists and turns that brought me from Hari Cove to Tokyo and back again, and back and forth in time for more than 20 years. As usual in a Higashino novel, what really happened is only revealed on the last few pages and comes as a surprise. However, when reading the novel carefully (or a second time), you cannot help wonder if Yukawa hadn’t figured out everything right from the start already.

Keigo Higashino was born 1958 in Osaka and started writing while still working as an engineer for a Japanese automotive company. Already his first novel won the prestigious Edogawa Rampo Award and he was able to write professionally. Since then he has written more than 60 novels and collections of short stories, his books have been made into movies and TV series, and he has won many more awards, mostly for his crime fiction.

If you’re keen on solving a Midsummer’s Equation in your own holidays – it’s available on amazon.

Gion Matsuri Shinko-sai

I actually made it to the Shinko-sai of Gion Matsuri last night! The Shinko-sai is the first part of Gion Matsuri (or actually, many of the shrine festivals in Kyoto and elsewhere), where first, the gods of Yasaka shrine are moved from their seats in the shrine to the portable mikoshi. Then, the mikoshi are paraded through the neighborhoods by enthusiastic people before they are placed in their temporary resting place, the so-called Otabisho. In Kyoto, the Otabisho for Yasaka Shrine is directly on the corner of Shijo dori and Shinkyogoku dori, which are both very popular shopping streets.

Yesterday, after my meeting, I went down to the Otabisho, where I arrived around 19:30. From 20:00, Shijo dori was closed for traffic (Shinkyogoku is a pedestrian area to begin with), and people were anxiously waiting for something to happen. Around 20:30, a parade arrived with musicians and gifts for the gods and people on horseback accompanying the chigo, a young boy who is representing a god or the gods during the whole of Gion Matsuri. He is the most important figure during Gion Matsuri with special duties and is not allowed to touch the ground or any woman, including his mother, for example.

Chigo on HorsebackAbout 45 minutes later, the first of three mikoshi arrived. In front was a group of children, all dressed up like the adults, and all happily yelling hotoi to cheer on those who would carry the mikoshi behind them.

Row of children in front of the mikoshiThen, finally, the first mikoshi arrived, accompanied by over 100 people who carried it on their shoulders. And, as if this portable shrine was not heavy enough as it is, it is very important to jump up and down with it, accompanied by shouts of hotoi throughout. The jumping looks almost choreographed with special steps, and the men carrying the mikoshi are changing all the time, which is also done very carefully.

Hotoi - Mikoshi amongst its carriersIn the end, the mikoshi made two full turns in front of the Otabisho on outstretched hands, which is quite a feat.

Turning the mikoshi around in front of the OtabishoFinally, the mikoshi was set down in front of the shrine next to the Otabisho. There, prayers were said – probably to welcome the kami to its resting place – and finally, everybody clapped happily for a job well done.

A last prayer for the gods before everything is over.While the first mikoshi was dismantled and put up in the Otabisho, the second one already waited a bit further down Shijo dori, but by now it was 22:00, and to be very honest, after more than 2 hours of standing on the hot asphalt, my feet hurt quite a bit. So I decided to go home, leaving the clapping and shouting for the other two mikoshi to the remaining spectators. Interestingly, also the men who carried the first shrine did not stick around. On my way back to my bicycle, I could see them walking home in small groups, obviously even more exhausted than me.