State of Emergency

Corona Virus and no end in sight… depending on the country you live in, of course. While Austria is set to slowly return to the “old normal” after Easter, other countries are upgrading their Antivirus measures. From today, the Japanese government has declared a state of emergency in six regions until the end of the Golden Week holidays: Tokyo and the surrounding regions of Saitama, Kanagawa, and Chiba, Fukuoka prefecture in Kyushu, as well as Osaka and the neighboring Hyogo prefecture. The last two are just south of Kyoto.

What that means is that the regional government can now “request” (meaning: demand) that people stay home as much as possible, that schools, shops, restaurants and other public venues close, and that companies “thoroughly implement infection control measures” whatever that means in detail. This rather drastic measure comes after a jump in the number of infected people, and if you ever went by train in Tokyo or Osaka, or even just watched a video about rush hour there, you understand why the government is getting more and more anxious about the whole thing.

Although Kyoto is less than an hour away from Osaka, the city/prefecture is not included in the state of emergency. But then again, schools and universities remain closed for the time being, many museums, especially the larger ones owned by city government, are closed (again), and lots of popular events like the lightups for hanami and even Aoi Matsuri in May have been cancelled.

While things are going more or less normal at my work, at the moment, I’m spending more time checking the status of old events in my calendar than actually adding new ones. Seeing all the bright red “cancelled” notices in the What’s up in Kyoto event calendar is rather depressing, honestly.

I guess Corona/Covid19 will remain topic #1 for quite a while. Best to stay vigilant, even though I know it’s hard and annoying. In case you need a reminder why all this is necessary, here is an excellent video about why and how Covid19 is different from the flu. Stay healthy!

Taiko

Taiko
Eiji Yoshikawa

Book CoverIn the year 1537, yet another child is born into the family of an impoverished samurai. Although little Hiyoshi is smart and streetwise, he cannot hold an apprenticeship and is finally kicked out of the house by his stepfather. Wandering through the provinces, he encounters the young Oda Nobunaga and immediately decides to serve him. Starting out as a lowly sandal-bearer, a combination of hard work, tenacity and wit lets him climb the social ranks higher and higher until, in his 40s, he is known as Hideyoshi and considered one of the top generals of Japan. From there, it is just a small step to avenge the murder of his lord Oda Nobunaga and to become Taiko, the leader of the country.

This epic historical fiction – the abridged English translation runs just shy of 1000 pages – follows the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi from his humble beginnings all the way to his appointment as Taiko. Through his sharp wit and gift for rousing speech, he manages to manoeuver the dangerous Sengoku Period (the Warring States of Japan) and remains the unchallenged victor at the end.

Whenever I read books like this, I wonder how much we really know about any historical figure. I know that the Japanese are meticulous record keepers and even many private letters of that time survive. Still, how much do we really know about Hideyoshi and his relationship to Nene, his wife? Anyway, If you’re even remotely interested in Hideyoshi and his time, this is a very exciting read!

Eiji Yoshikawa, born in 1892, began his literary career at twenty-two years of age. During his thirties he worked as a journalist, but kept writing short stories and novels that were often published serially in newspapers and magazines. He received the Cultural Order of Merit, the Order of the Sacred Treasure and the Mainichi Art Award. When he died from cancer in 1962, he was considered among the best historical novelists of Japan.

For all of you who need something longer to keep them occupied during the Corona shutdown, get this book at amazon.

Hanami 2020

It got pretty cold again last week, especially the evenings are rather chilly these days. Sadly, right now would be the best time to see the sakura… Yesterday it was pouring all day just like during the rainy season, so that was the end of the cherry blossoms nearby my home at least.

On top of that, the friend I wanted to do hanami with had to stay home and take care of her sick cat. Hime-chan was an elderly Siamese cat my friend had since autumn last year, and she had kidney problems from the very beginning, as many older cats have. Hime-chan passed away last night, but I am sure that my friend has given her many great months at the end of her life. 

pink cherry blossomsAnyway, I have hope to visit the Botanical Gardens a bit later in spring. Not all cherries bloom at the same time, and in the Botanical Gardens, especially along the Kamogawa river they have planted lots of late-blooming sakura. So, there may be an opportunity for a little hanami after all.

Yes…Noh

Just as promised in my last post, I went to the Yes…Noh event at Murin-an garden last week with a friend of mine. My friend was semi-happy about it, since she is not really into Noh, but she likes the garden, so this was a good compromise. And I had fun, even though the Noh was not quite as I expected.

yes...nohI thought that maybe we’ll see a few scenes with a fully dressed actor, but no, it was a su-utai performance. Here, the actor sings his role (or part of it) but there is no accompanying music, no costumes, no mask. The only accessory he has is his fan. This kind of performance feels very raw, and because of the venue it was very intimate too. The actor sat in one of the rooms of Murin-an and sang  while looking out into the garden. And for two more acts, he stood in the garden and performed there.

We got a short introduction to the play the songs were taken from, it was Yuya, suitable for the sakura season. The play was well-chosen, not just to fit the season, but it also is set nearby, at Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera temple. Like many of the Noh plays based on the Heike Monogatari, it is said to have a true core. Anyway, here is a summary of Yuya:

Yuya is a concubine to Taira no Munemori, one of the most powerful men in the country. She receives word that her mother is sick and begs to return home. But Munemori refuses twice, he wants her to be present at a cherry blossom viewing. There, a little rain makes the cherry blossoms fall, Yuya composes a poem on the fly and Munemori finally relents and lets her go.

A lovely sentimental play for a lovely time of the year (even though Murin-an is not famous for its cherry blossoms…) And there’s more to come: Apparently, this is now a monthly feature event at Murin-an. I’m looking forward to more!

Yes…Noh

Not much has happened this week that is worth writing about unfortunately – or should I say: luckily, given the state the world is in right now? So, I’ll give a brief overview of my plans for the weekend.

Tomorrow, I’ll take a day off, mostly because I have physiotherapy for my hip in the morning, and I’m in more pain than usual for the rest of the day. I have been fairly good in keeping up with my exercises though, so overall the pain has reduced. It’s still not good if I walk too long or too far, but I’m doing better, thankfully.

In the afternoon, I want to go see a free Noh play/lecture about Noh. I still love Noh and I would love to go more often if it weren’t quite that expensive. So I’m grateful for any free or cheap possibilities to see a play. In this case, it will be just a short one-hour affair, so I guess it is just a short excerpt anyway. Plus, it is held in Murin-an, a lovely garden with beautiful villa that is wonderful in all seasons, but especially in autumn. A friend of mine will come along, even though Noh is not her thing, really. But since it is completely free for her (I have to pay entrance to the garden) and it’s nearby her house and it’s just an hour, and we wanted to meet anyway… she relented and will come with me.

Murin-an in summer

What I will do the rest of the weekend is not certain yet – except that I’ll probably work one day of it. The cherries are not yet at their peak, and besides, I already have a hanami appointment with a friend next Wednesday. Many fun events have been cancelled, but there’s the possibility of simply using my one-year ticket to the botanical gardens. and seeing how far the cherry blossoms are along there.

We’ll see… I shall report 😉

Facemasks

Thank you all who have sent me emails from your quarantine to enquire about me! Looking at what is happening in Europe at the moment, I have to say that here in Japan, things are much, much better!

Kids are on holidays, universities are closed, and many events have been cancelled or postponed, including the Olympic Games 2020. People are wearing masks if they still have any, and there’s no toilet paper on sale, still. If you talk to people, the main topic is the Corona virus.

But other than this, things are pretty normal: We can go out whenever we like as opposed to just when needed, many museums are now reopening their doors, and the supermarkets are full, both with goods and with shoppers. So yes, for me, things look pretty normal with small exceptions, but then again, I neither care for kids nor for the elderly, and I work from home where I don’t meet many people to begin with.

Every now and then I do go out though, and the Corona crisis has provided me with a new experience! At our last soroban class, our teacher asked everybody to wear a face mask. Who knows where he got that stash from, but I obliged and wore a face mask for the first time in my life. It was… well… At first, it felt like I couldn’t breathe at all. The standard face masks are made with some sort of thick paper-pulp and it is weird to feel your own breath on your face. It took me some time to get used to the mask, but after a while it was okay.

After the class we took a walk at Nanzen-ji temple which was not very busy, but it was also a bit early for the cherry blossoms. The mask felt more and more restrictive the faster we walked about, and when it was finally time to go home, I took it off completely. I have never seen anybody wearing a mask on a bicycle or while doing sports, it really makes breathing much harder.

In any case, there are still no face masks to be had anywhere. And while the situation is relatively relaxed right now, there might come a time when you have to wear a mask when going out. So, I thought I’d be prepared – and did a bit of sewing last weekend. I took the mask I received at the soroban class and made a cloth version of it with some scraps I happened to have at home. It’s nothing fancy and definitely not perfect, but for a first trial I think I did pretty well. The left one below is the sample, the right one my own creation.

face masks bought and made

Signs in Kyoto

Kyoto is different from any other city in Japan, and even Japanese people – born in Kyoto or not – generally agree with me. Personally, I like to call Kyoto “the most Japanese city” of the country, whereas the other big centres like Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, Sendai… feel more generally Asian to me. The differences range from language (besides the special vocabulary that is common in any dialect, Kyoto-ben is considered more formal than any other local variety of Japanese) to customs, food, building styles etc.

Part of the latter are strict zoning laws for the city. For example, with the one and only exception of Kyoto Tower (131 m), no building may be taller than the 5-story pagoda of Toji temple. It measures 54.8 meters, the elevation difference of Kyoto’s Shichijo and Kitaoji streets. 

Anyway, I wanted to talk about another thing where Kyoto is quite different from all other cities in Japan, something most people don’t even notice. Look at these two photos below. Notice the difference? Sure you do, but what is it, exactly?

The signs are gone! Since 2013, Kyoto has implemented rigorous standards for company signs, ranging from sizing and placement to detailed rules for coloring. Nowhere in Kyoto will you find gaudy colors during the day or flashy neon signs at night. If you want to hang out your shingle, it better be a classy one.

Starbucks near Kiyomizudera Temple, Kyoto

For this reason, many Japanese companies had to come up with special color schemes for their signs just for Kyoto. And even multinational corporations like Mac Donald’s have to obey the rules. Not every company goes quite as far as Starbucks though, but then again, this particular cafe near Kiyomizudera is the exception there as well.

Many long-established Kyoto companies go the traditional route when it comes to their signage. Even on modern buildings you can see wooden signs, but the large carved ones are most often found on traditional buildings. There also, you may be greeted with a chochin lantern inscribed with the company name or with a logo-bearing noren in front of the main door, which, by the way, is a practical indicator of whether the place is open for business. 

Signs at the Shimadai Gallery

Yes, Kyoto is different! And with this rather small and insignificant change, the city government allows you to take your eyes off the blinking signage so you can focus on the things that really matter.

Yasaka Pagoda at night

All photos above are taken from the publication “Signs in Kyoto” by the Kyoto City Government.

Almost Hanami!

Cherry blossom season is about to start, thanks to global warming much earlier than usual. The forecast is very accurate, it says that the first blossoms start flowering today; and in fact, I saw my first sakura just yesterday on my way to visit a friend! Next week, the sakura should be in full bloom.

hanami forecast 2020

I’m looking forward to doing some hanami! I will probably simply go down to the river for a quick onigiri rice ball, but it’ll be fun nevertheless.

Getting Old…

This year I’m turning 45! Even if you wouldn’t know it, my body certainly does, and it is hitting me with all sorts of ailments. A little one is that I’m getting gray. I have dark hair, and although my hair dresser says it’s not bad at all, I have days when I feel that I can see every single one of the white whiskers and I need to start dyeing rightaway.

A much bigger one has been causing me problems since last Christmas: I have pains in my left hip when walking. As such that’s nothing new, I had that pain already back when I was at university, although not as badly. The pain is such that it pulls “inside” into my groin; it gets worse over time, and I need to stand still and take the weight of my left leg for a while before I can walk further again.

I have never seen a doctor for the pain, it just seemed normal to me. Some 10 years ago, a Korean friend took me to her “bone-setter” and he performed a miracle and fixed it within 10 minutes or so. I had been completely pain-free all that time – right up until last Christmas, when I could almost feel my muscles cramp up and the pain came back within a minute – and with a vengeance.

But now, of course, I’m a proper adult, so it took me only a few weeks until I went to a specialised orthopedic clinic nearby my home. After a total of 13 x-rays (made in 2 parts), 1 MRI (made in 50 minutes) and some 10 visits to physiotherapy (where I burned through 4 therapists so far), I finally had an appointment with a hip specialist at that same clinic last Saturday.

The diagnosis comes in several parts:

1) I have hip dysplasia, where the hip bone does not cover the head of the femur as much as it should. I have it on both sides, but it’s more pronounced on the left, it’s congenital by the way.

2) I have a tear in the left acetabular labrum, which is a cartilage and part of the joint capsule of the hip, and essentially keeps it all together. How this came to be, we don’t know, but it looks spectacular on the MRI, as if something had burst right out of my hip bone (think Alien)!

3) I have osteoarthritis in my left hip, a degenerative disease where the cartilage inside the joint that cushions the friction between the two bones is slowly wearing down. It’s probably caused by 1) and 2) together, and this is what actually hurts.

While the doctor was polite and explained everything to me in great detail, he also said there’s nothing he can do, really. Technically, the tear in the joint capsule could be repaired with arthroscopic surgery, but he says that the long-term outcome is generally poor, so there’s not much point in doing it.

What he suggests is a conservative treatment with physiotherapy. The idea is to strengthen and stretch the muscles in the hip so that they keep everything in place – hopefully in one that doesn’t hurt quite as much. So far, therapy has indeed been successful, in that the pain has diminished. What pain is left is also not focused in the groin area but more in the center of the leg, which is more bearable for some reason.

The doctor also prescribed some pain killers for the time being, I am not sure how much they are helping though. In the long run, the very long run, we’ll be looking at a hip replacement, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon, thankfully.

So yes, I’m getting old. We all do. Although the pain will probably stay with me, I’m not worried too much about it. In the worst case, I’ll just try to find another miracle bone-setter…

Return Stamp

As I have mentioned in a post last year, the Austrian-Japanese relations are now 150 years old. Which, usually, sparks all sorts of commemorative events and speeches and celebrations…

And stamps. Japan has come up with a set of 10 stamps showcasing the beauties of Austria (you can see it in the post linked above). Of course, relationships go both ways, so Austria also has created a commemorative stamp. It shows the ship that sailed to Japan bearing Austrian presents and an Archduke if I remember correctly…

Thanks you a friend who always sends letters with beautiful stamps, I can finally show it off. What do you think of it?

150  years Austria-Japan Relationship Stamp; the Austrian one.