Mochitsuki

One of the really fun things that happen around New Year is mochitsuki – literally: beating of the mochi – where lots of people pull together and help making mochi.

Mochi are ricecakes, made out of a very sticky rice, that is first boiled and then put into a large mortar and beaten with large wooden hammers. Once the mochi is finished, the individual rice grains have been broken up, and the whole thing takes on a sticky consistency. This large piece of mochi is then broken up and divided among the participants of the mochitsuki, or eaten rightaway.

Yesterday, there was Seijin-no-hi, the national holiday “Coming of Age Day”. And for some reason that I have not quite figured out, the guys at the large construction site in the neighborhood had organised a mochitsuki. They stopped working in the early afternoon to set everything up, and everybody who wanted was invited to come in and help beating the mochi.

Of course, adventurous me had to try that! I went there and immediately got a wooden hammer (for lack of a better word) put in my hands. It was surprisingly heavy, which makes sense because it is supposed to do some damage after all. And then, me and one of the guys from the construction company were beating away alternatingly. It was not very difficult and I can see that if you manage to find the right rhythm, you can probably go quite a long time. If you are trained, that is, which I am not… but it was fun nevertheless, and I did get some 10 or 15 beats in – which earned me great respect among the guys.

Afterwards, I was invited to soup and mochi, of course. The freshly produced mochi were served with daikon radish and soy sauce, and, as a sweet option that is apparently eaten only during New Year’s, with kinako soy flour, which was surprisingly sweet. And finally, I could take home a whole pack of mochi, which I still have because I have to ask if I could technically put it into soup as well.

Anyway, I had fun – and free lunch – and this was the closest I could get to the construction site. By now, they finished the basement and are now on ground floor level, and about a quarter of the building has already the steel beams completed. It will be interesting to see them grow further, if I remember correctly, they want to be finished by the end of the year.

Making a Katana

This here is a really interesting video about how to make a katana, a traditional Japanese sword. The guys from “Man at Arms” start out with getting and melting the iron ore, and then show all the steps necessary to forge a katana. I’ll leave it to you to discover the intricacies, I surely learned something new!

Don’t be put off by the Kill Bill reference, I guess they just needed an interesting hook for the video. 😉 The video is 18:40 long and safe for work. Enjoy!

Ranting

schematic of a toothWhat is wrong with Japanese dentists? I have been living here for five years, and I’m already on my third dentist. and now it seems I need a fourth! I am not complaining about the work they are doing, it’s not as if I could judge that anyway. My teeth are functional, and they do not hurt, so I guess they are fine from a technical professional point of view.

The problem is that they appear to have serious troubles with ethical behaviour towards their patients. Let’s examine the evidence provided by my three dentists:

The first one I went to went with me into the tiny X-ray room, and while putting the lead apron on me said: “You are a beautiful woman”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those #metoo crazed women who scream sexual harassment at every corner and would now need 15 years of therapy to get over this incident. I like men, and I like receiving compliments. However, I don’t like getting them in an inappropriate situation like this, where I am not free to respond in any way I might wish to. I let dentist #1 fix the broken tooth and did not return.

The second one I went to – an expensive private doctor – loved his “treatment plans”. You would go there with a problem, and after having a close look at it he would come up with a written, English (!) treatment plan that you had to sign before he would start the procedure. Nothing wrong with that – if you have the possibility to decline. Which there wasn’t. Because once he had handed you your personalised treatment plan with your name on it plus a pen, the doctor would leave you in charge of his assistant, who barely spoke English and couldn’t really answer any follow-up questions. I signed one treatment plan, but did not let me bully into agreeing to another one.

When I found the third one, he seemed to be quite alright, and I have gone there for several procedures. The only annoying thing was that everything took at least three visits, but that’s a minor thing. The last time I went, I had another broken tooth requiring an inlay. I also told him that I had lost a filling a while ago and that I wanted this one fixed too. he looked at it and said it was an easy “drill & fill” job. First of all, I had to more or less force him to it on y third visit instead of having to come again. And what I got was this: A new filling replacing the lost one. Plus a replacement for the filling of a neighboring tooth that had nothing wrong with it other than being made of a type of metal he does not approve of. I did not ask for that. I was not asked about it, either.

So: What is wrong with Japanese dentists?

I believe these three instances are serious ethical issues: sexual harassment, bullying, unwanted procedures. Has “informed consent” not trickled through to Japan just yet? I cannot go to a dentist – or any other doctor for that matter – whom I cannot trust to put MY interests first, after all, this is MY body. How come these people can keep working in the long run? Am I the only patient with these experiences? Am I the only one to complain?

Intimidating

A new year brings new challenges, as usual. You may have noticed that over at What’s up in Kyoto, my monthly highlights for this year will be 12 of the many little museums in Kyoto. There are many serious museums (like this month’s Raku Museum and several others dedicated to one artist, one that focuses on netsuke, one for kimono…) and one or two that are more fun (there is a museum for the wigs Geisha are wearing, and one for nagajuban, traditional underkimono). I will have to go to all of them, introduce myself and try to convince them to let me feature them on my webpage.

neon sign spelling ARTAnd: This time I’m doing this on my own. Last year, with the shrines, I had help from a friend of mine, but she has been busy during Decemberand sent me off alone with a “you can do this!” I can definitely see what she’s doing here, and in a sense, I am grateful. She won’t keep doing me favours forever, and eventually I must be able to handle these sort of things myself.

Another reason for her keeping in the background is more Japan/Kyoto related: She thinks that with my foreigner bonus, I might have an easier time approaching these museums. Many of them are family-run or very small businesses, and they probably like to be approached in the proper, roundabout way by introduction through other people that is so common in Kyoto especially. My friend says that if she goes there, she will be expected to know how to do this, while foreign me can just barge in and say “Hi, here I am, and that’s what I want.” So far, it has worked out fine. I have approached two museums already and they were very forthcoming, and I will visit a third one tomorrow.

While I understand her reasoning, and while the first efforts have been encouraging, it is also hugely intimidating, mostly because I don’t know the proper way to do things. One of my life’s mottos is “Rules are there so that you think before you break them” (courtesy of Terry Pratchett), but an important part is knowing the rules first. And better Japanese would help too. We did prepare documents in both English and Japanese of course, but I still have to explain the procedures and what I’m expecting and everything. And while the Raku Museum had one person communicating in excellent English, I had to fumble my way through in Japanese at the first one I visited. I still believe that most Japanese do understand English better than they let on though.

Anyway, I’ll keep trying. My friend says it’s important to stay friendly and hopeful and make the best out of things. And now I have to think about the questions I will be asking the curator of the Raku Museum in my interview with her on Thursday…

Emperor Meiji’s Tomb

The Meiji EmperorJapan’s Meiji Emperor reigned over the country in one of its most turbulent eras. When he was born, in 1852, the Shoguns of the Tokugawa dynasty had ruled a secluded country for around 250 years. When he ascended to the throne, in 1868, Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu had abdicated, both under pressure from Japanese uprisings as well as threats of foreign power. And when Emperor Meiji died in 1912, he had ushered in an era of rapid technological modernisation, cultural renewal, state reform, and governmental participation – penning the first constitution of Japan and in Asia as a whole.

A great man like this is often revered beyond his death, and emperors in Japan usually get a special honour upon their demise: They become one of Japan’s many kami. The Meiji Shrine is located in Tokyo at a place he liked to visit during his lifetime, and it is a very popular spot for hatsumode in the few days after New Year’s Day. However, his tomb is where he was born, in Kyoto, and it is quite spectacular, even when taking into account that the Meiji emperor was still seen as a true descendant of the gods.

The tomb of the Meiji Emperor is located in the southern part of Kyoto, but very easy to find. From Fushimi Momoyama (Keihan) or Momoyama (Kintetsu Nara Line) simply follow the road uphill until it takes a sharp turn to the right. Straight ahead, a broad gravel road starts, leading further uphill. It is lined with beautiful, large cedar trees that are impressive even now, although the forest has suffered quite a bit during typhoon Jebi in September 2018. After a while of gentle ascent on the softly curving road, the top is reached, opening up to the view below.

Entrance to the Tomb of the Meiji EmperorTo the right, there are a few modern buildings that are not very interesting, but moving further along, a large square opens up, and to the left is finally the tomb of the Meiji Emperor.

Tomb of the Meiji EmperorIts dimensions are hard to gauge from this picture, but the first torii is about five to six metres high. The dome-shaped tumulus, probably 25 metres at the back, holds at its base the emperor’s remains. In fact, this type of tomb is very old and can be found in Korea as well. Turning around, there is a steep staircase leading up to the plateau, and from this height, there is a nice view over the southern part of Kyoto, even though it is a bit obscured by more trees.

View from the Tomb of the Meiji EmperorA small but quite steep road leads further on, where a smaller version of Meiji’s tomb can be found. There, his wife, Empress Shoken is buried. There is no view at all from her tomb, since it lies lower on the hill and the spot is completely surrounded by trees.

The Tomb of Empress ShokenThe whole complex is enormous, and apparently it was very expensive to build. So much so, in fact, that Meiji’s successor, the Taisho emperor, had to promise to build himself a much more humble abode for his afterlife. Since he lived only until 1925, and was much less popular among the Japanese people, this request was perfectly justified in the end.

Japanese New Year Traditions

This is my sixth new year in Japan, and although I have been embracing Japanese New Year’s traditions, I am still learning something new!

As in the previous years, I have bought a small zodiac animal to display in my apartment. This year is the year of the boar (elsewhere it’s the pig, but the Japanese go more rough on this one), and I am surprised at how cute my little ceramic boar actually looks!

I did not go on hatsumode yet, some people say it’s fine up to January 7th. But I will visit Kitano Tenmangu tomorrow and write my first kanji of the year there. People do it as a symbol to what they want to achieve in the coming year. I have settled on the rather vague word “success”, but with overarching success I think I’ll be just fine.

One new thing I have learnt this year has to do with osechi ryori, the traditional Japanese New Year’s meal to be eaten right on January 1st. I had done that already (always store-bought of course, making it yourself is quite a hassle), but this year I have eaten it with the proper chopsticks too! I was always wondering about all the packs of special chopsticks that were on sale throughout December, and I had correctly identified as having something to do with New Year. However, I thought they were something like party chopsticks, but, of course, it is something more serious.

The chopsticks I mean are different from the standard ones. Standard Japanese chopsticks taper to one end, but the New Year’s edition tapers on both. The idea is that when you eat your osechi, that on the second tapered end your ancestors and the gods will eat together with you. It sounds a bit weird, but since the New Year is the largest celebration in Japan with strong religious undertones (literally everyone visits a shrine these days), it does make sense. Buddhist teaching says that your ancestors are watching over you, and in some households there is a Buddhist altar on which at least a bit of rice is offered to the family ancestors every day.

Osechi Ryori with the correct chopsticksSo, this year, I bought a pack of special osechi chopsticks and ate my modest (but still expensive) osechi meal with it. Everything in there has a special meaning, but the only one I can remember is the meaning of the black beans on the top left: They are meant to be lucky and also indicate industry and hard work. To be brutally honest, as far as Japanese cuisine goes, osechi ryori is not a highlight when it comes to taste (decoration can be quite different), but at the same time, it is a nice tradition and I’m all for it!

It was so funny: when I bought the little box above, the cashier in the supermarket asked if I indeed ate osechi. “Of course”, I said, and when I showed her my special chopsticks, she nodded approvingly. As if foreigners can’t eat osechi! Natto, on the other hand…

 

Beauty and Sadness

Beauty and Sadness
Yasunari Kawabata

Cover of Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari KawabataIt is New Year’s Eve and Toshio Oki is on his way to Kyoto to hear the temple bells ring in the New Year. He is also about to meet his mistress of 24 years ago, Otoko Ueno, whom he hadn’t seen since he left her. Otoko, now a famous painter, unsure about his intentions, comes to the meeting with her young protegĂ© Keiko.

While Otoko has forgiven Toshio all the pain he caused so long ago, Keiko, knowing the story behind the old lovers, is furious about it and is ready to take revenge on him and his family in Otoko’s name. So, Keiko sets out, using her beauty and cunning to ensnare both Toshio and his son Taichiro in her dangerous web. In the end, her plans prove to be deadly effective…

In this novel four completely different characters meet and eventually clash: Oki, whose affair with the only 15-year-old Otoko was the basis of his literary career, and who wants to reminiscence on the past without giving up his present. Otoko, however, who had to start over in Kyoto after he had left her, is content where she is now and prefers to look forward. Keiko, in love with Otoko, is ready to do anything to get the revenge she thinks Otoko wants and deserves. And Taichiro is fascinated by Keiko, but is unsure how to proceed. In the end, only Keiko’s determination is strong enough to get her what she wants – and the others can only stand in awe at the distruction her strong will causes.

Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was a Japanese writer, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. This is his last published novel.

This is the perfect book to read over New Year, with Kyoto’s temple bells ringing in the background! Even if you’re not in Kyoto, you can still get in the mood by getting this book from amazon.

Auld Lang Syne

I came home a bit late tonight because I had my final bonenkai celebration today with the last of my English students. He took me out to a very nice sushi restaurant in Pontocho, one of the entertainment and Geisha districts of Kyoto. The food was excellent, as was the sake, and we had fun together – and with the waiter/cook who prepared our sushi.

Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to talk about. After dinner, I went to the Maruzen, a very large book store that is open until 9 pm. While I was browsing the books (I did buy one at the end), all of a sudden, music began to play. It was 20:50, 10 minutes before closing time, and there was an announcement that the book store would close and would people be so kind as to leave.

There’s nothing wrong with that at all, I think it’s a nice way to make this announcement, and when I asked the cashier, she said this was standard in all Japan. The fun (standard) thing is the song: They played Auld Lang Syne.

If you don’t know that song, it’s usually sung just on midnight at New Year’s Eve, and it’s about how old friends should never be forgotten etc. It surely is suitable for the occasion of closing shop (after all, you do want the customers to come back), but still, it does seem a bit funny. Here is a youtube video of the song, sung in best Scottish, in case you want to try it yourself next Monday night.