Party!

Just a very quick update:

I was out tonight with a couple of friends for a small party. We went to one of those tiny little Okonomiyaki places where you eat the food from a hot plate in front of you. There was quite a bit of alcohol involved as well. And afterwards we went to the Okura Hotel where we had some dessert to wrap things up.

I had a lovely evening, it was fun to chat and eat and drink and…

Financials

Japanese currencyDay by day and step by step, I am leaving Europe behind further and further. Today I received my final tax return from the last year I (partially) lived in Germany. Because that last year I spent only 4 months in Germany altogether, and a bit less even working there, I expected quite a bit of taxes back – and happily, I was not disappointed. In fact, that one tax return is more than I ever made otherwise in a single month, which is a bit sad, really.

Once the money is on my account, I can transfer it elsewhere and close the account in Germany. It’s quite expensive, the customer service is… not good, and I don’t really need an account in Germany, so there’s no point in keeping it. It feels like I keep burning bridges, for now it looks and feels good and since I do it out of my own free will, it doesn’t scare me. Maybe things will look differently once I am stranded here without any way back?

Soboro Don

I keep trying how to make Japanese dishes, but I’m still rather timid and stick to the basics. Besides, I neither have time nor patience to stand in the kitchen for hours on end like many Japanese women do, so that’s another reason to keep it simple.

Donburi fits the bill perfectly, it’s nothing but a simple bowl of rice with different toppings. I have just learned how to make soboro don, a very simple dish with rice, meat, and eggs, with a cooking time of maybe 10 minutes or so (not including boiling the rice).

Actually, I thought this particular dish was called “oyako don” – mother and child donburi – because it is chicken meat and eggs; but oyako don is a bit more elaborate, boiling the meat in dashi. This also sounds nice though, so I promise to try it soon.

Anyway, find a quick recipe for soboro don on my washoku page for Japanese food. Enjoy!

Lecture

Since I came to Japan, right after I had left academia, I did not set foot into a university anymore. Okay, not entirely true: I had a few German-Japanese exchange classes at Kyoto University, and I met friends there when they came over for a conference. However, I hadn’t listened to a scientific lecture in 5 years.

Until today. This afternoon, there was a Research Colloquium in the RIHN Research Institute for Humanity and Nature called Rethinking Environmental Praxis, Disciplinarity, and Subjectivity. And since the language was English/Japanese (with an emphasis on English), I took the opportunity to spend an intellectually stimulating afternoon!RIHN Colloquium FlyerThere were three talks, the first one by a PhD student; the title was Ecologies of Knowledge and Practice: Perspectives from Japanese Studies and the Environmental Humanities. Unfortunately, I was a bit late to this one, and I must have missed something important in the beginning, because I was completely lost… But then again, reading the first sentence of her introduction on the colloquium’s flyer, I knew I wouldn’t have much chance to begin with:

…investigates non-Cartesian intellectual and cultural histories of nature that emerged between Europe and Japan and their relevance to the practice of knowledge, including knowledge gained from practice, today.

Again: this was meant to be a research colloquium, so she was addressing her peers, perfectly fine that I didn’t get it. If somebody could explain the above paragraph to me though…

The other two talks were much more accessible. The second one was by a Kyoto potter who at some point decided to make his ceramics with clay personally dug up from various locations in Kyoto. He showed many pictures of the clay he used to make particular objects with. What fascinated me most were the different colors of the clay from around Kyoto: from almost white, to a strong yellow, a greenish hue, navy, and black. I had no idea that simple clay could have that many colors – I only know gray one! He also explained that he likes to “feel” the clay before deciding what to make out of it, and that some types of clay “do not stand”, which means they can’t be formed to cups for example.

The third talk was called Environmental Subjectivity Seen from View Point of Language and Perception. I have learnt today that Japanese apparently has a persecution complex, and that the individual’s position of persecution and passivity is characteristic of the Japanese language. For example, instead of saying “I waited an hour for the bus”, some Japanese would phrase it as “I was made to wait an hour for the bus” or “I was escaped by my girlfriend” instead of “my girlfriend escaped me”.

The speaker also explained that in Greek and Latin, there are three types of speech patterns or verbs: active – middle – passive, and that the middle one would be for things you cannot really influence or consent to, like being born for example. He also sees more words than we would think as active: For example, “to rule” is active (obviously), but also “to be ruled” is an active act because it requires the consent of the individual. I found this the most interesting talk – I understood the basic concepts, and there’s plenty to take home and think about.

Unfortunately, the talk was cut a bit short because of time constraints, and also I have to say: the presentation was truly awful! We got the typical “let me write this all on the screen and then I’ll read it off for you” thing which already drove me crazy during my own time at university. This is forgivable for a student, but the guy is an associate professor for crying out loud! Are there no standards in Japan? Had I ever given a talk like this in public, my PhD advisor would have kicked me to the curb – and rightfully so!

Anyway, I had a nice and stimulating afternoon. It would be cool to go to more talks like this. I wonder if there’s already an event calendar for that kind of stuff…

Business Update #6

What's up in Kyoto LogoIn order to avoid a rush job like last month, this time I have started way ahead of the game for the March highlight. I got a first draft of the text ready last week already, my friend translated it, and yesterday we had an appointment with the PR representative of the shrine, so we went there early in the morning.

This was the best experience with any of the shrines we had so far. We were invited inside into a wonderfully furnished (though slightly cool) meeting room. A miko shrine maiden served us green tea and senbei crackers. A few minutes later Mr. PR entered and it turned out to be one of the priests of the shrine! The meeting was great. First we talked about our mission in general and what we wanted from the shrine. And then, the conversation turned towards the shrine and towards shinto. I had so many questions, and he seemed very eager to answer them. My poor friend, she had to translate it all – and that’s not easy terminology…

I’ll just share one thing that the priest told us: He said that shinto wasn’t really hierarchical. Although Amaterasu, the sun goddess, is often seen at the top of all the other gods, she is more at the center of them all. And if you think about it, that makes sense: Nothing on earth would work without the sun… That means, that there is not really rivalry between the gods – which is why in many shinto shrines there is a main kami, but many lesser shrines as well, where you can pray to other gods. He also said that many people believed that you shouldn’t have too many omamori charms from different shrines, because the gods would fight with each other. He said that was not true – you can buy as many omamori as you like, he is obviously a great salesman too.

I could have spent all day there having my questions answered, but after some 90 minutes, my friend looked drained, so we left, not without leaving another pack of our Mannerschnitten, of course. This morning already we have received a thorough correction of our draft (in red, like in school. Very much red, actually…), and our request for photos was also granted: We got 18 lovely photos, taken by a professional photographer. One of them especially encapsulates the spirit of shinto, and I would love to post it here, were it not a bit unethical to assume permission when I don’t have any to do this. You’ll have to wait until March I’m afraid.

Wintery

The last couple of days it has been really cold in Kyoto: We are having around -2 degrees here in the nights, and day temperatures are only around 6 degrees. I am reluctant to leave my only heated room where the space heater runs non-stop even though I only set the temperature to 16 degrees (thanks to heavy blankets, I can manage.) It is not too cold to bicycle though, the exercise helps staying warm, I would not be doing that anymore otherwise.

From what I hear, it seems it is snowing everywhere in Japan except in Kyoto. My friend tells me there are more days with snowfall than usual in Tokyo (which is probably not fun in such a big city, think of all the traffic). And today I’ve read that there are 800 cars snowed in on a highway in Fukui prefecture. That’s in “snow country” on the western coast of Japan where people are used to heavy snowfall, but 60 cm of snow within two days is a lot in any large city.

The situation must be really bad since the Ground Self-Defense Forces (aka: the Japanese Military) has been brought in to shovel snow and to distribute food and water to people trapped in their cars. Convenience stores nearby the highway are sold out – and no food truck in sight. I wonder for how long this is going to last.

If you believe the “Cherry Blossom Flowering Forecast Map” that has been put out a few days ago by the Japan Meteorological Corporation, not for too long. They predict a very early cherry blossom season this year, at least for the Kansai and Kanto area. For Kyoto and Osaka, cherry blossoms are said to arrive on March 26/27, a day or two earlier than usual. Up in Tokyo, the cherries should start even 6 days earlier than in average years! I know it sounds odd to the Westerner, but hanami is indeed a national pastime of the Japanese…

Cherry Blossom Forecast Map 2018, copyright JMCIf you’re interested in a detailed forecast for all the provinces in Japan, have a look at this link: https://n-kishou.com/corp/news-contents/sakura/news2018.html?lang=en

Hibernation

Last week, I received the results of my last attempt at the soroban shodan level. And: I failed. Just like the four times before. I have put a lot of time and effort into this test, I even went to class again twice a week, so I am quite disappointed.

During the practice of the last few weeks it looked quite good that I could pass, but the added stress of the test was too much apparently. It seems as if I have reached a plateau now, not necessarily concerning raw ability, but concerning speed. It is probably best to get to the next level before I attempt the test again.

old style soroban at a fleamarketThat doesn’t mean I’ll give up – far from it! I still want that shodan level to crown my soroban career. But I will take a bit of a break now – maybe a month or two – before starting to practice again. So, it will probably take another year at least before I have levelled up enough to pass the test. But hey, I have the time – I’m not going anywhere (else). 😉

Kifune Jinja

Kifune Shrine is a lovely little shrine in three parts in the north-eastern part of Kyoto. An exact foundation date of Kifune Shrine is not known, but it is estimated to be around 1500 years old. It is known, however, that in 818 the emperor visited the shrine to pray for the end of a draught. Kifune enshrines Taka-okami-no-kami and Kura-okami-no-kami (both seen as the manifestation of one serpent dragon god, who controls the rain), and Iwanagahime (the goddess of matchmaking).

Front entrance of Kifune shrineThe first thing one sees of Kifune shrine is a red torii on the left side of the road through the village. Behind it, there are prominent, lantern-lined stone steps, leading up to the Honguu outer shrine. Behind the gate on top of the steps lies the honden, the main building of the shrine, which is built in the nagare zukuri style with a characteristic, beautifully curved roof. Most of the events of Kifune shrine take place in the little square before the honden, and this is also where you can buy omamori charms and omikuji fortune slips.

Sacred Well in Kifune JinjaLeaving the honden and turning left, there are two large horse statues. In the old times, when the emperor still lived in Kyoto, he used to send horses to Kifune shrine as offering to the god of rain. A black horse was sent as a prayer for rain to come, and a white horse was sent for the rain to stop. In modern times, it became troublesome to give and take care of many horses, so this may be the reason for the wooden ema tablets with horse images that are presented as prayer offerings nowadays.

Statues of white and black horses at Kifune ShrineFurther north in the village you will come across the Yui-no-yashiro or naka miya, the middle shrine. This is where Iwanagahime resides, the goddess of matchmaking. Rejected by a lover (to be fair, he wanted her younger sister only, not both of them), she angrily decided to help everyone else to find their match. And, many legends confirm her powers: Most famously, Izumi Shikibu, famed love poetess of the Heian period, prayed for love with a sad poem at the Yui-no-yashiro, and was promptly reconciled with her husband. Note that the sought-for relationship need not be romantic, connections between businesses, getting a new job, even having children, count as well.

At the very end of the valley, and at the end of a lantern-lined foot path, lies the Oku-no-miya inner shrine. This is the spot of the original Kifune shrine, until a flooding in the 11th century forced people to move the main hall to its present location. According to legend, Kifune shrine came into being as follows: The goddess Tamayorihime, mother of first emperor Jimmu, appeared in Osaka Bay, and commanded that wherever her yellow ship would land, a shrine was to be built. And her ship went all the way via the Yodo and Kamogawa river to the end of Kibune valley, where the people indeed built a shrine and called it ki-fune, yellow boat. There is a prominent mound of stones to the left of the entrance to the Oku-no-miya, and legend has it that Tamayorihime’s yellow boat is buried beneath it.

Kifune Shrine Okunomiya Inner ShrineThe Oku-no-miya is a rather special building, since it is built above a well called ryu ketsu (dragon’s cave). There are only two more shrines like that in Japan, in Nara and Okayama. Since the Oku-no-miya is a the very end of the valley, it is a wonderfully peaceful place surrounded by enormous trees making the spot truly mystic, regardless of the season.

Kifune shrine is very popular among people whose businesses have to do with water: agriculture, fishing, brewing, dyeing; but also people working in fire departments, the Japanese marine, or as sailors come to pray to the god of rain and water here. When visiting Kifune shrine, ideally you first go to pay your respects at the Honguu main shrine, then at the Oku-no-miya inner shrine, and finally, on the way back, you pray at the Yui-no-yashiro.

Kifune shrine is worth a visit in any season. Since it is in the mountains, it is always cooler than in Kyoto city, which means snowy winters and breezy summers. Don’t forget to buy lucky charms! There is also a mizura omikuji to reveal your fortune – hopefully a good one – when placed in the water at the shrine.Water Fortune at Kifune shrine

Little Gifts

It seems to me that in Japan, giving gifts is extremely important and thus more common than in Europe. The gifts are never very expensive and most often are just some local food speciality or sweets, but people do make a point of giving you something, even if they just went on a quick business trip to Tokyo. I did not grow up like this, so I never have anything for anyone (to be fair, I don’t go on business trips or vacation either), and I’m greatly embarrassed when people give me something out of the blue.

As I said, those gifts don’t have to be expensive at all, and it’s not a problem either to buy a large box of Tokyo Bananas for example, and then hand them out piecemeal. Probably for this reason, most of the sweets you can buy as souvenirs are individually packed, even if you get a supersized box.

Giving gifts in business is similar. Of course, there are the oseibo year-end presents that can cost ten thousands of yen if it is a long-standing, well established, and for both sides prosperous, relationship. But then there are other gifts given merely as a token of appreciation, at the first meeting for example. Not every meeting needs such gifts, but if you are trying to get off on the right foot and start a long-term relationship, it’s not a bad idea to do that.

As you know, I am now actively approaching shrines in Kyoto for the What’s Up In Kyoto monthly highlights for information and photos. A Japanese friend of mine helps me doing that and she suggested to bring a little something to the PR person of the shrine when we meet. She insisted that it would be best if I could bring something from Austria, something very typical; and because I received a few of them as a Christmas present, we’ve settled upon: Mannerschnitten.

MannerschnittenFor you foreigners: You really don’t have to understand that. Let’s just say they are very famous in Austria, we all grow up with them, and many of us crave them desperately. For you fellow Austrians: Yes. I know. But: We’ve already given one pack away at Yoshida Shrine last month, and the PR person was very surprised to receive a gift from us and appeared very pleased with the fact that it was a foreign gift to boot.

Of course, that leads to another set of problems: Where in Japan can I buy Mannerschnitten? I have tried the usual shops in Kyoto that are selling imported goods, but nothing. And shipping from Austria is expensive, and even if it were not, I cannot rely on my friends to keep me stocked. However, we have found a solution, and it’s called: Rakuten This is a Japanese online store that sells, apparently, everything. Just go to the bottom of the page I linked to, hover over the links and you will find: cars, fashion goods, liquor, sports, flowers, garden… and Mannerschnitten. I’m so pleased – let’s hope the other PR people I’ll meet will like them as much as the one from Yoshida shrine.

Shock Value

I have a new German student, an almost 60 year old man who wants to learn German because he loves Germany and would like to visit it at some point. We have been studying together for some two months now, and he is eager to make progress and he’s doing very well indeed.

We are using a brand new textbook a friend of mine has recommended, and there is one thing that keeps popping up that seems to shock him greatly every time it’s mentioned: Divorce. The first time it came up was in a scene were students showed family pictures: “Where’s your dad in that photo? – Oh, my parents are divorced.” Another time it was required when filling in a form: “Are you married? – No, I’m divorced.”

Destroyed Wedding RingBoth times, my student was rather shocked about the directness of the question and the answer. In Japan, this is not a topic to discuss with anyone, he says. He even claims that a question for marital status wouldn’t even come up in a job interview. Apparently, divorcees are seen as “bad” people, in the sense of “you can’t even get marriage right”, and it reflects badly on other plans or pursuits. According to my student, there is still stigma around being divorced, even though about 1/3 of all marriages in Japan fail.

Interestingly, most divorces in Japan happen upon mutual agreement, instead of in court. The paperwork is simple and can be handed in at the city hall directly by the soon to be ex-couple. Also, I have just found that the divorce rate was much higher back in the old days (before WW II), when women’s rights had not been implemented at all, and when men could simply send their wives back home to their families (children would stay with the father’s family, by the way).

I guess in Japan, the only acceptable marital status for an adult of my age is being married. Divorced is not good, never married makes you sound like a leftover, and I don’t think widowed would be a good option either, even though there might be less stigma attached to that one. So, it’s probably good that the Japanese don’t usually ask whether you’re married – they simply assume you are.