Shunbun-no-hi

Today is Shunbun-no-hi, the vernal equinox, and a national holiday in Japan.

Traditionally, people would visit the graves of their ancestors and do some spring cleaning around their homes, but I am not sure if this is still a thing. Also, this day was meant as the official beginning of winter, since from now on the days will be longer than the nights again.

The moon at Ishiyama by Hiroshige, 1834.

I am definitely looking forward to spring, even though the winter this year was quite mild. For now, it is too cool still for hanami, and I have not seen any cherry blossom buds except in very sheltered spots. But, this year’s cherry blossom forecast states that they will start blooming in Kyoto some time early next week. I shall report.

Unsuccessful

Today was not my day, and that’s putting it mildly…

First, I received an email from my friend who’s helping with the What’s up in Kyoto highlights. The museum that I had planned for next month has declined our offer of highlighting, very politely of course, but it’s still a no. Back to square one.

stack of papersSecond, I spent about an hour at the bank trying to transfer money to my account in Austria, and in the end, I was unsuccessful. I forgot – yet again – “My Number”, a sort of personal identification you now need for any kind of international banking. Plus, they want to know where the money came from, what I’m doing with it and that that other account is truly mine. All of which I have already told them before – several times – but they’ll just need to check again for good measure. I did mention before that the Japanese love paperwork, didn’t I?

Third, I went to another little museum that might be another highlight option, but this turned out to be more of a gallery. They are not totally uninteresting, but probably not what I’m looking for after all. I’m a bit unsure whether to feature them, and tomorrow I will visit another museum  and see what they have to offer.

Fourth, after two disappointments in a row, I decided to try out a new cafe in town that sports a large advertisement talking about “Big Apple pie”. Since I’m not allowed to eat chocolate, I’m happy to try that – the next time it’s open, because today they were closed.

Fifth, I then decided to go home, but not without buying one of those interesting “sweet potatoes”, which actually are pastries made with white anko (the only type of anko I like) and have a nice, cinnamon-flavoured dough outside. They are a small handful only, and very, very delicious. but again, the store was closed today, and I had to go home empty-handed.

See, this would be one of the moments where I would be reaching for my jar of Nutella. But of course, Lent and promises and stuff…

*sigh* I’m glad this day – which was definitely not one of my highlights – is over. Tomorrow will be better. I hope.

Doing Without

Sorry for not posting on Tuesday, I was extremely busy. I worked until 3 in the morning, had 3 hours of sleep and went back to work again… Rinse and repeat today, but I have to admit that I slept a bit longer tonight. I had two of my regular writing deadlines yesterday evening plus an added one that was moved forward by two days… and two more deadlines tomorrow and a full day of going places too. How come that every time I think I’m having work under control, something unexpected crops up? So much for my “work/life balance”…

chocolate cakesAnd the worst thing about this is: I’m doing it without my fuel – chocolate. I eat quite an amount of chocolate each and every day, plus chocolate cookies and cocoa and Nutella, of course. And especially when I’m working, I have some chocolate to munch on. But now I stopped. For the time being.

A friend of mine has, well not challenged, but inspired me: Every year during Lent, he completely abstains from all kinds of sweets, except for a half spoonful of sugar for his morning coffee. He says it’s not so much a thing of losing weight (he is fit enough to run marathons), but more a proof of concept: “I control the sweets, the sweets don’t control me.”

I found that inspiring enough to go and try myself this year. It could be anything, really, but it should be a challenge. Since I have no problems with meat or alcohol (that’s what many people abstain from during Lent), or even sweet things like candy, I decided I’d try not to eat chocolate in any form until Easter (on April 21st). I do allow myself other sweets, mainly because I hardly eat any candy, but also because sugar is my fuel. I am certain that I cannot function without a sweet breakfast, and given my workload right now (which will remain the same for another month), I don’t want to try doing without sugar altogether right now.

So, I started skipping the chocolate last Friday, and so far, it is pretty easy. I do have some cravings, but it’s not like I’m dying for the chocolate. It’s probably more like a habit rather than a serious addiction. Interestingly, shopping became slightly more complicated. I have my favourite types of sweet bread and cookies, and – you guessed it – they are all with chocolate! That means I stood in front of a full shelf in my supermarket and thought “but… what do I eat??”

That was kind of funny. If that’s the only setback I’m experiencing, I’ll be doing fine. Besides, right now is the strawberry season, and there is always sweets with matcha. I love Japan!

Taiko

Among the many types of traditional Japanese music instruments, taiko drums are probably the most exciting. They have been used in many settings, including court music and theater – both noh and kabuki – but the biggest taiko drums were used during warfare. There, they were used chiefly for communication, to let the troops know when to attack or to retreat, or simply to keep the beat during long marches.

Today, these large drums are often played during festivals, and then, it’s usually in the form of a kumi-daiko, where a group of people with different sized drums performs together. I enjoy listening to taiko music, it is – excuse the pun – always very upbeat and energising. The video below shows a performance by Kodo, which is probably the taiko troupe that is best known outside of Japan, since they are touring abroad for four months each year.

The video is 8:24 long and safe for work – although you might want to turn the volume down a bit.

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What's up in Kyoto square logoI have been procrastinating for quite a while now on something that’s rather important for my What’s up in Kyoto website. Yes, I have been very busy with other ventures that actually are paying my bills, but ultimately, that’s an excuse.

What I need to do to drive my business forward is to get word about What’s up in Kyoto out there, to people who matter. Users, i.e., tourists, first and foremost, but also to local museums, galleries, bars, restaurants, hotels… you name it.

So, I need to write advertisement letters, preferably different ones depending on the recipient. And I’m so not good at writing those… By now I have learnt to talk about my accomplishments without feeling impostor syndrome. Some of the things I have done I’m actually really proud of. But these advertisements are different, they are more on a level: Look, I’m so great and you definitely need to work with me. That verges on bragging, and I’m so not good at doing that.

The fun thing is that with all the writing I have done lately, about smartphones and hotels and other stuff; if I have to write copy about other people or businesses, it’s actually not that difficult. But doing the same for me, it feels quite wrong, somehow. However, I’ll have to try to push through this obstacle. Wouldn’t be the first one where everything is much easier once you’re on the other side…

Paper Addiction

Hi, my name is Iris, and I’m a paper addict. Yes, you hear that right: I love paper and the things that are made from them.

Mainly books, of course. There is nothing more wonderful than the smell of a freshly printed book or magazine or even newspaper. My favourite book smell is emanated by the Springer LNCS (Lecture notes on Computer Science) series, right when the books come out of the plastic wrapping from shipping. The smooth, glossy pages are wonderful, but the smell…

I have met many nerds and their vast libraries, and pretty much all of us are very protective of our books. Every time I see somebody dog-earing a book or, even worse, marking in it, I have to exercise great restraint not to become homicidal… But that’s a topic for another time. Because here, I want to talk about paper, and my love for paper goes beyond books.

I love letter paper and can hardly pass by postcards in the museums I am visiting (even though I’m not writing many of either these days). And I love notebooks. Notebooks of all sizes, of all prices, from the lovely paperblanks to standard notebooks for school, whether squared or lined or blank.

And the nice thing about Japan is that the Japanese seem to share my enthusiasm for paper. Many people still have paper diaries, even though pretty much everybody carries a smartphone these days. Bookstores are always full with people of all ages, and so are libraries. And there are many stationary shops selling notebooks, and: They come in all colors. I love making colorful statements too, so I couldn’t resist (and yes, I did try) getting the whole septcouleur notebook collection:

Septcouleur Japanese Notebooks

Lovely, aren’t they? Even though they only come lined, whereas I prefer squared paper (the mathematician in me, I guess), but they’re still great. Now I just need to give myself permission to actually use them.

Because, the interesting thing is, that while I still do a lot of “real” writing on paper, most of it is not meant to be kept, so I use scrap paper or the back of old flyers for example. I do hope I can break this habit somehow so I can use my new notebooks – maybe I should just start writing more interesting stuff? (I actually did already, but more on that one later ;-))

The Goddess Chronicle

The Goddess Chronicle
Natsuo Kirino

Cover for The Goddess Chronicle16-year-old Namima has just – against her will – been ordained to become the priestess of darkness on a tiny island called Umihebi. Obviously not content with her lot of living on the cemetary and watching the dead for the rest of her life, she flees with Mahito, her secret lover, who is just as outcast from the island’s society as she is. But when Namima gives birth to their child, she is killed by Mahito, who returns to Umihebi with their daughter. Meanwhile, Namima descends to the netherworld, where, grief-stricken, she becomes a priestess of Isanami, the powerful goddess of Death. Will the goddess allow Namima to return to the world of the living to seek closure – or maybe even revenge?

This is a beautifully tragic story about what women are often expected to bear under the name of tradition, or religion, or simply because they are considered “the weaker sex”. And even so, the women are the important and strong characters here, both in life and in death.

I love this book, I keep coming back to it ever so often. The story of Namima – the parts about the priestess of darkness on Umihebi – is based on ancient Okinawan traditions; whereas Izanami and Izanaki are the two gods who – according to the Kojiki – once created Japan. The stories are masterfully interwoven although totally different – and still they have something in common: the female Namima/Izanami has to suffer death, while the male Mahito/Izanagi lives happily ever after – until something unexpected happens…

Natsuo Kirino is the pen name of Mariko Hashioka, a female Japanese novelist born in 1951. She earned a law degree in 1974 and dabbled in different kinds of jobs before starting to write about 10 years later. At first, she wrote romances for women, but as this genre is not very popular in Japan, she turned to mysteries. Although she is very successful as a mystery writer, and even received the renowned Naoki Prize for fiction, she says that she does not like to read mysteries herself. For The Goddess Chronicle, she received the 2009 Murasaki Shikibu Prize for Literature.

Find out for yourself about what happens to Namima and Mahito and if there is a happy ending after all: get the book from amazon.

Disintegrating

Sorry for not writing (again), I have been extremely busy the last week (again). And then on top of that, there were a number of appointments I had as well…

logo of kyotogramOne of them was a party in Osaka. Do you remember Kyotogram – the facebook page I wrote for? The department moved back to Osaka about 9 months ago, and now, the department head is quitting his job. He already has a new one in Nagoya – working for Legoland Japan. He seems to be very excited about the new challenge, and challenge indeed it is – whereas Lego is a huge brand in Europe, it is not well-known in Japan. So, as the managing director for “everything digital”, he will be first and foremost responsible to raise the awareness of Lego in Japan.

With the department head gone, the whole department is disintegrating. One of the programmers has already left, “Junior” will leave next month as well to become a copywriter in an advertisement company. Then there is my friend, whom I have met a few weeks back because she wanted to talk about going self-employed (Don’t do it!). Only a single one of the department is not planning on leaving (or so he claims), and he will be responsible to push the single thing that came out of the Kyoto adventure forward.

It’s a pity to see things falling apart. Even I am sorry about this, how hard must this be for the head of the department? I feel for him and hope that he’ll have more long-term success up in Nagoya. Good luck, shitsucho!

Safety

Japanese police logoLast Sunday afternoon, while I was busy working, it rang on my door. When I opened, I got worried: There was a policeman with a small file in his hands and an inquisitive look on his face.

It was pretty harmless though, because once he had made sure that I was indeed the person living here, he explained why he had come. Once a year, the local Koban – a very small type of police station with only a handful of officers – sends out their officers into their neighborhood to visit every household. There, they make a list of the people who live there and then ask for a contact person in case of emergency.

The idea is that if you had an accident for example, and you would need assistance (going to a hospital), the police would call that contact person for you so you don’t have to face things on your own. For most people, this is a family member, like a spouse or parent. Since I have no family in Japan, I gave the name and number of a friend of mine. The officer assured me that this information would be kept only at the local koban, and not entered into an online database or even into a computer. Just the paper, ma’am (Japanese LOVE paperwork).

Since then, I have asked a couple of friends whether this is usual, and they said yes, this was normal all over Japan. It is one way of showing concern for the citizens, and also a way for the officers in the Koban to know their neighborhood.

I think this is a smart idea, especially for people who live alone or have no family nearby. When you have an accident at home, your neighbors probably know whom to call, but if you’re collapsing on a trip somewhere, then at there is that knowledge that there is a phone number somewhere at a safe place. Always good to know that you’re not completely alone. 

Embarrassment

As you know, I’m pretty busy, and I have not much time for things outside work, so much so that I’m behind on even my daily news. Not owning a TV or smartphone certainly contributes to that, but I’m always saying that if something is  important, the news will come to me because somebody will tell me about it.

And indeed, today, very first thing in my Japanese class, my teacher told me about Shinzo Abe nominating Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m rarely ever speechless, but my jaw dropped on this one. How on earth… Apparently it’s because of the negotiations in Korea – where, I have to state, the Koreans have had an on-off relationship across the border for decades before Trump came along. And apparently, it’s because the American government “asked” the Japanese one for that “favour”.

Somebody is crazy in here, and I’m not entirely sure who it is. First of all: I didn’t know you can ask to be nominated for a Nobel Prize. Probably, since the Nobel Peace Prize is a farce anyway, this one doesn’t matter, but does that work for the Nobel Prizes in Science as well?

Second: How disturbed must somebody be to ask for such a “favour”? Assuming this is true (and Abe does not openly deny it), then is this another move of Trump to outdo Obama?

Third: Another disturbing thing is that now other (right-wing) politicians have come forward and also said they have nominated Trump. Don’t they see that he’s pissing off the rest of the world at the same time? Living in Japan, I can honestly say that what scares me about the Korea crisis is not so much Kim, but the big American brother. I think I mentioned this before somewhere.

It’s unbelievable! My teacher says he is greatly embarrassed by Abe, and he worries that Japan will be seen as the world’s laughing-stock. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it does seem to make the headlines. What is it these days – the world seems to be full with politicians whose only goal is to embarrass themselves and their country (and yes, Austrian politicians do the same, just on a slightly smaller scale).