I Love My Job!

At work, things aren’t easy during Corona times and it won’t get back to “normal” soon either, if ever again. However, every now and then there’s a great day between all the drab, and it makes me feel very positive for now and the future.

One of these days was last Friday, when I was invited to a press review of two exhibitions and one 5* hotel in Arashiyama.

The Saga Arashiyama Museum for Arts and Culture as well as the Fukuda Art Museum started their new exhibition on August 1. The first exhibition is all about animals, with a focus on the 12 zodiac animals as well as images of cats. Cats are suspiciously absent from the Chinese zodiac, but given all the paintings and stories and youtube videos about them, they probably got the better ending long-term.

The second exhibition was about the Tokyo painters Taikan and Shunso, friends from the Meiji and Taisho era. Taikan is regarded as a ‘gold medalist’ of Japanese painting, famous for his depictions of Mt. Fuji. I know nothing about painting, so I can’t really say much about the art, but there was a quote from Taikan that I found excellent:

Once a person is formed, painting is possible. First, you have to form the person.

I enjoyed both exhibitions and the nice things about these two museums are is that they let you take photos of most of the exhibits. The photos above are mine.

The last place I went to was the new Muni Hotel. It’s a fantastic 5* hotel with only 21 rooms but with a lovely view over the river in Arashiyama. It also has all the amenities necessary for a 5* hotel including a very exclusive French (of course) restaurant. Again, I was allowed to take pictures everywhere – except for the restaurant. Why? Because on the wall opposite the entrance hangs a huge painting by Marc Chagall. I tried to find a photo online to show it here, but no luck. If you have 30000 yen to splurge on dinner, I would recommend it though!

I returned home after spending several hours in Arashiyama, with a goodie bag from the hotel’s “boutique” where they sell just perfect little sweets. So yes, I had a wonderful Friday! I hope things will keep getting more interesting. 😉

Doyo-no-ushi-no-hi

Today is the second doyo-no-ushi-no-hi of 2020, so if you need a bit more explanation than what I gave in my post of last week, here you go.

Let’s start at the beginning: What is doyo?

Traditionally, doyo is the period of 18 to 19 days before the beginning of a new season, so there are four doyo in each year: before the beginning of spring (called risshun) around Feb. 4, beginning of summer (rikka) around May 5, autumn (risshuu) around August 7 and winter (rittou) around November 7. Nowadays, doyo most often refers to the one in summer.

Generally, the doyo is considered a time of preparation for the coming season. However, it also means that times are a bit unstable, and it is possible, in particular during the last night, that demons may enter the world in the gap between two seasons. This is the reason for the setsubun ritual, where demons are ousted from our world on February 3rd.

Moving on: What is ushi-no-hi?

Ushi-no-hi is the day of the ox, one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. Every day (and every 2-hour period and every cardinal direction) is assigned one of the zodiac animals. Therefore, doyo-no-ushi-no-hi refers to the day of the ox during a doyo period. Obviously, when dividing a period of 18/19 days by 12 zodiac animals, some of the animals have to repeat. This is why in 2020, there are two days of the ox in the summer doyo period, on July 21 and August 2.

But what makes doyo-no-ushi-no-hi so special?

Well, the day of the ox during the doyo is considered the hottest day in all summer. In general, it seems to me that the Japanese bear the summer heat less well than the cold in the winter, which is understandable for anyone who has ever tried to move on a humid summer afternoon in Kyoto… Therefore, they have come up with a lot of little traditions to better get through the hot days.

One of these traditions is moxibustion, where people burn dried mugwort on their skin. Another one is to wear “cool” colors like white, light blue or green and to take a hot bath in the evening. And another one is to eat healthy foods, which in this case means anything that starts with the letter u. Such foods are udon noodles, umeboshi (pickled plums), uri (all sorts of gourds including cucumbers, pumpkins, and melons) and unagi eel. While umeboshi, melons and cucumbers can be eaten cold, unagi needs to be cooked, which sounds a bit counterintuitive to a light summer meal. So, why unagi?

The story goes that a certain Hiraga Gennai, 18th century pharmacologist, renaissance man and gay icon, particularly recommended eating unagi on doyo-no-ushi-no-hi. However, not because he believed so fervently in the efficacy of the dish, but rather because one of his friends, who had an unagi restaurant, could do with more customers…

And that’s why many Japanese to this day still eat unagi on the hottest day in summer.

Ayu

From the time I was a child, I’ve always liked eating fish. This is interesting, since Austria has no access to the sea, and we chiefly subsist on pork and potatoes. As a child, fish was mainly those deep frozen/fried fish-stick kind of things, and when I was a bit older, we occasionally got fresh trout from a family member who had a fish rearing pond.

So, now that I’m in Japan, one would think that I’d eat a lot of fish. Well, yes I do… kinda. Sadly, I mainly stick to sushi and salmon. To be honest, although the fish and seafood section in my supermarket is huge, I am a bit intimidated – I mean, I have no idea how to cook this properly!

But of course, now I am an adult with lots of curiosity and said supermarket next door plus: enter the internet! I am proud to report tha I have already cooked myself spicy clams with spaghetti, and even though I probably got the wrong kind of clams (it was an Italian recipe) I was very happy with the outcome. My proudest moment, however, was when I tried the ayu.

Ayu, also called sweetfish, are small freshwater fish that are very popular in Japan and other parts of Asia. They are eaten throughout summer and are available at almost any matsuri where they are grilled over an open fire.

So when I saw the fish above, I was intrigued but also a bit worried. As you can see, this is a complete fish, bones and innards and all – do I have to do that cutting that stuff out myself? So I asked one of the staff at the supermarket, an elderly man. First of all, he explained that this was indeed an ayu (there are many kanji for this fish, none of which I can read: 鮎, 年魚, 香魚) and then he said that no, Japanese people eat the whole thing. Really.

After some deliberation, I thought, oh well, let’s try this. Thankfully, not having to cut off any pieces made cooking it very easy – I simply put it on the little fish grill of my gas stove. And because ayu are maybe 20 cm long at most, it took only around 10 minutes until it was done.

Overall verdict: The term “sweetfish” is accurate, the meat was tender and very delicious. I only used a bit of salt to cook it and put some lemon juice on it before eating. Full disclosure, I did not eat the whole fish after all, leaving the spine, head and innards, but it may be something I’m willing to try at a later point, of which there will definitely be many!   

Summer Joys

Yesterday, after my physio therapy session in the morning, I went down to Nijo Castle. The old residence of the Shoguns is on eof my favourite places in Kyoto and over summer, offer a special treat: Visitors are allowed to enter some of the rooms of the Ninomaru palace and see the famoous fusuma paintings of the Kano School close-up!

Of course I had to go and I was very excited when I went there – just to find out that the palace was closed for the day and only the gardens were accessible… Yes, it’s my job to know these things, but even I am not infallible… I didn’t enter after all, I like the palace gardens but I don’t consider them spectacular and worth a visit without seeing the palace. So much for my treat!

Although, to be fair, I did have another treat: Yesterday was doyo-ushi-no-hi, the day of the ox in midsummer, traditionally considered the hottest day in summer, even though this year the heat and especially the humidity is very bearable.

Tradition dictates that on this day of the ox you eat eel – unagi – and I am lucky enough to have a little Japanese restaurant nearby which was selling take-out unadon (a ricebowl topped with unagi) for lunch. Doesn’t look like much, but it was delicious, much better than the stuff I would have gotten at the supermarket!

In the evening I discovered that my trip to Nijo Castle had left me with a slight sunburn on my arms, which is the usual way for me to get tanned at all. So yes, the joys of summer… 😉

The Elephant Vanishes

The Elephant Vanishes
Haruki Murakami

This is a collection of 17 short stories by Haruki Murakami. They don’t have a common theme, but they are all tied together by an “I” narrator, which gives the stories an almost personal feeling. Most often, this narrator seems like a stand-in for Murakami himself (a male author talking about his past), but there are also stories told from a female perspective. Typical for Murakami, in the beginning, the stories are grounded in the real world until something happens that is unlikely or impossible:

A man searches for his wife’s cat and spends the afternoon lying in the sun in a stranger’s garden. A woman becomes an insomniac who does not need to sleep at all and doesn’t even feel tired. A man works in an elephant factory until a dancing dwarf takes possession of his body. A woman is the target of a love sick green monster. A couple robs burgers from a MacDonalds in the middle of the night. An elephant vanishes without a trace from a heavily guarded enclosure. A man talks about his desire to burn down barns.

I’ve been reading a lot of Murakami’s books and short story collections lately. The selection of stories in this book felt more coherent than in “After the Quake”, which I read just before this one, even though there was no common theme here. The stories range from light hearted to cruel, from funny to profound. Since Murakami writes literary fiction, there is often not much plot, but the insights into the characters makes up for the fact that not much is happening.

Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and studied drama in Tokyo. While managing a Jazz club in Tokyo, he started writing at age 29 and has since become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide who has won many international literary prizes.

If you need something to take your mind off things without having to commit to a long time of reading, this collection of shorts of various length is a good book to pick up. Available at amazon.

Tsuyu

raindrops on a windowIt’s tsuyu – rainy season – in Japan. It’s been raining almost every day for at least two weeks and everything is grey and annoying – and surprisingly cool. Usually, the rainy season is the beginning of the sweltering summer heat, but so far, it has been comparatively cool with maximum temperatures of around 30 degrees, and it is also comparatively dry. Summer will be coming soon though, two days ago I have heard the first cicadas singing.

The constant grey outlook from my window doesn’t really help with anything right now, and on top of that people are still cautious because of the Corona Virus. In Tokyo, the infections are rising, with more than 100 newly infected people daily for the last week. Most of these new cases seem to center around entertainment districts and thus affect younger people. It appears that Tokyo is heading for a second wave already, and they have just raised its alert for the novel coronavirus pandemic to the highest level of four. I am not sure what this means, but I hope that we don’t have to go into a stricter shutdown again. Not until I’ve bunkered enough chocolate, that is.

Kyoto’s Finest

Two weeks ago, on the way to town, I had a little accident. I usually cycle along the river, and there was an old man walking smack in the middle of the path. It was narrow there because of uncompleted road works and I didn’t know whether to pass him left or right, so I pulled the brakes. Unfortunately, the gravel left on the path from said road works made me slip and fall.

The result: bloody abrasions on my right knee and elbow. Before doing anything else, I would have to wash off the dirt and the blood. But where? I looked at the river but finally decided to go to the nearby subway station at City Hall to clean myself and assess the damage.

There, in the women’s toilet, a friendly lady asked if she could help, but I told her that I was just fine, thank you. She did not believe me, apparently, because a few minutes after she had left, two station staff came to look for the – literally – “bloody foreigner”.

Suddenly, I felt nauseous and that’s when the guys put me in a wheelchair and wheeled me to the station office, a thankfully short, but still humiliating experience with plenty of passengers staring at me. In the office, they patched me up with gauze, bandages, and tape. All the staff were very helpful and friendly and made just the right amount of fuss about my wellbeing before sending me on my way again.

I am happy to report that my wounds were very shallow and have since completely healed. I can only recommend Kyoto’s finest – and hope that we won’t meet again any time soon…

WUIK Newsletter

What's up in Kyoto square logoToday, a business announcement: I am about to start the What’s up in Kyoto newsletter. Once a month – in the last weekend to be precise – I will send out a newsletter showcasing selected Kyoto events for the coming month, including a preview for the next monthly highlight. (*)

Of course, I know that at the moment, travelling is out of the question for most people, so there will also be an additional second part introducing experiences unique to Kyoto, special souvenirs, reading material for people at home, and what I will call “Kyo Anaba”. The Japanese term anaba – literally “hole place” – means good places to visit that are nevertheless known to only very few people, either because they are out of the way or they don’t do any advertising…

To avoid the newsletter becoming too long (as you know, I am prone to rambling), I will only choose one these per month to keep things fresh. This means I can write more than a few sentences about the topic, and make it interesting for people who cannot visit at the moment.

Are you interested? Sign up here and receive volume one of the WUIK newsletter this weekend! 😉

(*) This year’s monthly highlight on What’s up in Kyoto are various event venues: live music spots, theaters… Not the best choice in hindsight. Many places are still closed or only open irregularly, so there is a certain reluctance at the moment to be featured. But I’ll be back. We Austrians usually are!

Slowing Down

Unfortunately, I have somewhat bad news for the blog…

Covid19/Corona has hit Kyoto pretty hard, and although things are getting better, I doubt we will go back to last year’s normal any time soon. Many fun events have been cancelled, and even now, people do stay home and are very restrained when/if going out. And I am busy trying to get as much new business as possible to somehow survive this year.

cogwheelsRecently, I don’t go out much beyond my trips to the supermarket and talking to (potential) business partners. Since this was meant as a private blog, I don’t want to bore you by talking shop all the time, although I’m working on something (hopefully) exciting to share. And there is not much point talking about the weather either, even though summer is coming and it’s very pleasant at the moment.

Long story short: I have decided to slow down posting here. From now on, I will post once a week – on Wednesdays – about things going on in my life, and I will try to keep the focus on the private parts of how to “go gaijin”. And I want to keep up posting in the weekends about all things Japanese. Even though I haven’t been doing much lately, I do have an enormous backlog of things to write about and literally thousands of photos to share that I hope will be interesting to a wider audience.

So, I hope that you’re not too disappointed about me taking it down a notch. After more than 7 years of regular posting, I am feeling very much in a rut and quite drained at the moment and as if I don’t have much interesting stuff to tell you. I’m still committed to keeping this blog alive though, and who knows, maybe in a few months my life will be full again with interesting things to share with you.

Until then – see you Wednesdays and Sundays!

After Dark

After Dark
Haruki Murakami

Cover for "After Dark"It’s midnight in Tokyo and once again, Mari doesn’t want to go to bed, doesn’t even want to go home. A regular late customer, she sits in a Denny’s cafe reading when Takahashi enters, a trombone case slung over his shoulder. He recognizes Mari from a date some years previous and sits at her table for a while but he soon leaves for his band practice. Mari is alone again until Kaoru, the manager of a nearby love hotel, storms into the place and asks Mari for help. A young Chinese prostitute has been assaulted in her hotel, and she needs an interpreter. Mari follows Kaoru into the night, and soon she is enveloped in the weird stories that happen after dark in the big city.

Three stories are being told in this book: The one of Mari and Takahashi, of Kaoru and what’s going on in her love hotel, and – of Eri, Mari’s beautiful sister, who, like Snow White, has been sleeping for a very long time… The three stories don’t form a single whole, but like the myriad of rail tracks in Tokyo, only cross and touch each other at intervals, but in general, they run independently.

Haruki Murakami, born in Kyoto in 1949, studied drama in Tokyo and afterwards managed Jazz club in Tokyo. He started writing at age 29 and has since become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide. He has won many Japanese and international prizes. In this book, Murakami has painted a perfect japanese picture – beautifully detailed in the important parts, but with enough empty space for the beholder’s imagination.

Follow Mari into the night in Tokyo and check out the book on amazon.