Sugimoto Residence

As I mentioned in my post last Tuesday, the highlight of my extra long Golden Week vacation was my visit to the old Sugimoto family home to see an exhibition of Boy’s Day decorations. Unfortunately, it was not allowed to take photos in the house, but here is the homepage of the Sugimotoke with a lovely gallery of the building and its gardens:

The Sugimoto family were merchants who sold fabric for kimono and their old machiya – built in 1870 is open to the public at very special occasions only. The house is quite large, even for a wealthy family, and it has a number of special features that I haven’t seen elsewhere before:

A special room where a visiting priest could wait and get changed into formal clothing before praying at the family altar. This room lies on the other end of a corridor which, to honor the status of the priest that came from the Nishi Honganji Temple, is laid out with tatami. This is highly unusual, since corridors in kyo-machiya or other old houses tend to be from wood.

The room with the family altar is considered the main room of the house, and having a private prayer room in a commoner’s house is highly unusual. The altar is located in a small two-tatami space that can be closed with fusuma and seems to me rather usual, but the interesting bit is the room itself. It has a small cellar underneath made from stone, where the altar could be moved in case of a fire. Basements like this are very rare, especially in such an old house, but this one was – thankfully – never needed.

The other interesting feature of the house was in the large main guest room, and I don’t even mean the lacquered tokonoma that was only uncovered at special occasions. The guest room is an already impressive 10 tatami room, and as usual, just by removing the sliding doors to the adjacent room, it can be enlarged by another 6 tatami. The interesting part is that the wooden grooves for the fusuma (in Japanese they are called shikii), can be taken out of the floor. The tatami from the adjacent room would be moved up and thus create a space of 16 unbroken tatami for very large events. When the event was over, the tatami, grooves, and fusuma would be put in place again, and normal life could be resumed.

There is also an interesting Western-style drawing room near the entrance that was built in 1929 and has cork flooring, modern furniture, and a piano. The low ceiling was taken out and the room now covers what has once been two floors at once, with an extra window on the former second floor. This makes the room feel very spacious, airy, and bright.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to enter the gardens or to see the three kura storehouses. Still, just sitting in the rooms gazing out the large windows grants a nice and relaxing frame of mind.
The Sugimoto Residence is one of the largest kyo-machiya still existing in Kyoto. In 1990, the house was designated as a Tangible Cultural Asset by Kyoto City and in 2010, it was designated as a National Important Cultural Property. One year later, its garden was designated as a National Site of Scenic Beauty.
As I said, it is only open for special occasions and it’s not possible to take photos inside. But if you are in Kyoto and even remotely interested in old houses, this is definitely one to visit!

Going Pro

8 strokes of eternity

taken from

As I probably mentioned somewhere, for the last two years or so, I have been going to Japanese class once a week with a very nice and dedicated teacher. We have gone through several book by now, focusing on the detailed aspects of Japanese grammar, mostly. By now I can more or less survive the daily intricacies of life, ask for help if needed, and in extreme cases where I have time enough to prepare for I am still handing out written requests.

Still I feel that I’m not getting anywhere with my language skills. Part of it is certainly that I am not very good at studying. I do my homework mostly, but then there’s always something to do for work and by the time it’s evening I am too tired or whatnot. I am very good at making excuses!

However, it cannot go on like this. This is my 6th year in the country and I really need to get up to speed with the language. I want to live here, after all, and even more so: I want to work here. My friends are very helpful, but I cannot keep relying on them forever.

So, I have decided to make my Japanese studies a part of my daily work routine. I am now setting aside one hour each workday to study Japanese. At the moment, work has slowed down a little, so this is easy; clearly I cannot keep it up if I ever get another month of 13-hour workdays, but that’s not for now to worry about. I am not sure if I should set myself a goal, like taking the JLPT Japanese test in December. For now, I just need to get back onto that horse again and get my studies going properly again. We can discuss testing later.

End of Hiatus

Hi, I’m back – remember me? Sorry for not posting last week, I needed a break from writing for a while… I’m fine so don’t worry and now I’m back in full glory and with a bit more energy – hopefully even enough to start my weekend posts again…

My Golden Week holiday turned out to be a mix of work and fun stuff. In the first weekend, I went with friends to Kyotographie, a large international photography exhibition event. And because said friends came from Kobe and Osaka, we were determined to see all the venues in just two days. And we managed: 11 venues with art by various international photographers, all in less than 30 hours. It was fun – and very exhausting, but we’re planning to go again next year!

Later that week, I visited three exhibitions and one traditional event at Yoshida Shrine. This was a so-called shiki bouchou ceremony where a large fish is cut and offered to the gods – in this case, the God of cutlery. The interesting twist here is that the fish is only touched with two large metal chopsticks and a large knife. There are a lot of specific movements and (forgive my language) waving of the knife before the first cut into the fish is made. At the end, the fish is put onto a plate and served to the gods.

Offerings to the gods

I had seen a shiki-bouchou ceremony before and to be very honest, I was slightly disappointed. When I saw the ceremony the first time, the movements and cuts were very smooth and executed with a lot of confidence. This time, I had the feeling that the priest performing the ceremony was very nervous, and although I did not have the best view, I could see his hands tremble on occasion. Whether this was because he was unfamiliar with the task or because of the film team directly in front of him, I can only guess.

The ceremony was a relatively small affair, but the first two rows of seats were reserved for dignitaries somehow connected to Kyoto’s food industry, like the “Head of the Kyoto Kaiseki Organisation” and suchlike. They were allowed to pay their respects to the gods at the end of the ceremony, obviously in return for making a significant donation to the shrine.

The ceremony took about one hour overall, and afterwards my friend and I were left wondering what would happen to the food that was just offered to the gods, the fruit, rice, and vegetables in particular. I guess nowadays it would just be thrown away, but I would not be surprised if, in the olden times, the priests would eat the leftovers after the gods had partaken…

Anyway, although I had fun at this ceremony, it was not the highlight of my last two weeks. That one came at the end of the Golden Week: A visit to the Sugimoto Family Residence. However, this one deserves a post of its own, possibly in the weekend. šŸ˜‰

The Beginning of Reiwa

Yoshihide Suga , Chief Cabinet Secretary announces the name of Japanā€™s forthcoming new eraYesterday a new era has begun with the ascension of Emperor Naruhito to the chrysanthemum throne of Japan. The era nameĀ  is Reiwa, and there is much hope that it will be just as peaceful as the preceding one.

Usually, the ascension of a new emperor is a somewhat solemn affair because it also means the death of the previous emperor, so you don’t really know whether to celebrate the occasion or not. This time, people were free to celebrate: They stayed up all night, celebrating at midnight at May 1st; they visited popular spots to watch the sun rise in the new era, which is a popular thing to do on New Year, by the way; or they visited the imperial palace in Tokyo to try catch a glimpse of the new emperor and his wife.

I’m wondering if and how things will change with the new emperor. I am especially curious which role the new empress will take. She didn’t have an easy time adjusting to the ceremonial overload in the palace, but now her status has changed and she may just be able to go out and expand her role beyond the traditional ones. Time will tell if she becomes just as beloved as the Michiko, Empress Emerita.

The End of Heisei

60 years imperial coupleToday is the last day of the Heisei era. Emperor Akihito abdicated and is now the “Emperor Emeritus”. This sounds a bit funny to my ears, because I’ve only every heard “emeritus” in an academic setting. Of course, most members of the Japanese imperial family have a university degree or other, and honorary degrees as well. But that’s just as an aside.

The Heisei era spanned 30 years of peace for the Japanese, and the Emperor Emeritus, who grew up during WWII and its aftermath has expressed his gratitude for that. Together with his wife, he has visited many countries and has tried to make amends for war crimes not of his own doing. Also in Japan itself, the imperial couple has travelled widely, visiting many smaller communities over the years. This and their attempt to position the imperial family closer to the people has endeared them to many Japanese of all ages Especially their visits to shelters for refugees after the Fukushima tragedy in 2011 are memorable in this respect (even if they are not the only ones). We will see if the new emperor, who formally ascends to the throne tomorrow, will be able to follow in his father’s footsteps.

I would like to say something about the general mood in Japan right now, but I am not sure what it is. Certainly everyone has an opinion, but which one is hard to gauge, especially for the younger ones. It appears that many people are happy for the Emperor Emeritus and wish him a long and peaceful retirement. Some people treat the occasion like a New Year and will stay up and celebrate the beginning of the new era at midnight.

I myself am curious what will happen now. While the emperor plays a minor role politically, it is a new beginning after all, and people do get energised by that fact alone.


Fast Work!

stack of papersI must have mentioned it a number of times before, but still: Japanese efficiency never ceases to amaze me! In the beginning of April, I mentioned that I now need new pension and health insurance and that I went to the pension office to subscribe. The nice young lady told me it would take them 3 weeks to process my application, but they were even faster than this! I received all my paperwork back after two weeks and two days. As part of the paperwork, I received a nice blue insurance card and stickers that I can put on the card to indicate that I’m fine in receiving generic medication, something I have not decided yet.

Anyway, I’m now officially enrolled in national health insurance and pension plan. That meant that I needed to go to my ward office and cancel Kyoto city’s health insurance that I had until now, so I would not end up paying twice. I went there last Tuesday with some trepidation, because the last time I had had to go there, there was nobody who spoke English… But everything turned out to be super easy: I simply handed over both insurance cards, the clerk entered something into his computer, made a copy of both cards and returned the blue one to me: “Finished,” he said, and that was that. The whole procedure took less than 5 minutes, including the wait.

Still, I cannot help being a bit cynical now: Officially, I enrolled in national health insurance on April 11. Does that mean, I’ll have to pay the first 10 days of April to Kyoto city’s insurance while at the same time getting a reduction of national insurance for April? Honestly, given the way how Japanese are sticklers for even the tiniest details, I would not be surprised…

Fasting Aftermath…

Happy Easter! Okay, yes, that was last weekend, but still I am very happy: I survived my chocolate-free time! And I actually did binge on chocolate on Easter Sunday… Here’s a recap of the last weeks:

It’s good to know that I can do things if I truly want them. That’s not big news, really, but it’s nice to haveĀ  a reminder every now and then. Interestingly, I did not have massive chocolate cravings during my fasting, but that may have been because I had the outlet of eating other sweets. I learned that I “need” chocolate when I’m feeling down, when I’m really stressed, or when I want to celebrate something. That’s not much news either since for me, chocolate is indeed the epitome of “sweets”. Other stuff just doesn’t cut it.

And that’s probably the reason why I didn’t lose any weight at all in the last weeks: I simply ate other sweets, and because I find them less satisfying, I ate more of those than I should have. Interesting to know for future reference. I’m not sure if I’ll do this challenge again next year – and then not eating any sweets – but we’ll see.

One good thing is that I could finally save all the 12 different Meiji chocolate wrappings that they have out at the moment. Each wrapping is different, they are called “my sweet request” and inside of the wrapping, there is a special wish written. On the one in the middle of the top row, it says “My dream is to live in a house with a pool”. I’m curious what the others have to say, but I’ll try not to eat them all at once. I know how to refrain by now. šŸ˜‰meiji hi milk chocolate


One of my English students is taking a break for a while, since she will have to do a great amount of preparations in the near future: Her daughter is getting married! It’s a pity somehow, because this would be my first close-up of a Japanese wedding, but I hope she will send an email every now and then to let me know how things are going.

Photo by Ben Rosett on UnsplashWhat I know so far: It’s an omiai wedding, meaning that when the couple had met for the very first time, they had done so for the express purpose of meeting a partner for marriage. In these kinds of arranged marriages (although the couple nowadays has full veto powers), things tend to go very quickly. These two met in the beginning of February, and the groom already wanted to get married on May 1st…

The groom was introduced to the bride’s parents only last week, and this weekend, the parents will meet. That the marriage will take place is already decided upon, now it’s just about the date and the type of wedding – traditional shinto or modern Japanese – that needs to be fixed.

To me, this seems a bit strange and very exciting at the same time. Not necessarily the way the couple met – I guess every single person ever has had friends play matchmaking on occasion – but the fact that it’s already clear that they will marry, after not even three months. I realize that there is something like “love on first sight”, but even so, this is a speed that I’m not used to. Western bias, I’m sure.


Sorry for being quite so whiny last week… We all have our ups and downs, and I’m feeling nicely up again, thanks to the last weekend! There were lots of things to do, and I feel perfectly energised.

On Friday, the weather was nice and the skies were blue, and the sakura were blooming… I did not go far, just around the corner to the river, but here’s a photo of this year’s sakura at Takanogawa:Hanami along the Takanogawa, 2019

Saturday was even more busy: First, I went to an exhibition about the faith of Kitano Tenmangu. A friend had leftover tickets, and I learnt about Sugawara no Michizane, a renowned Japanese scholar who lived in the Heian era and who is today revered as the God of learning (and enshrined in Kitano Tenmangu). A great number of treasures of the shrine were on display and even though I couldn’t read any of the descriptions, lest the centuries old documents, it was very interesting.

Then, I went to the Art Dive Festival, where a great number of young artists, artisans, and craftswomen were exhibiting their arts and crafts. There were lots of manga-style drawings, which are not really my thing, but also lovely other things like jewellery, crafts from paper and textiles… I ended up buying lovely earrings after going back and forth on them for three times or so… I’m happy about them, so that’s a plus.

And today, I received word from another friend that she will come over to Japan at the end of May, that makes three people already I haven’t seen in a while and will have great fun catching up with. And they will all come within a single month – it’s wonderful!

Not My Day…

raindrops on a windowYesterday was so NOT my day…

I had forgotten to make a facebook post for What’s Up in Kyoto, so I had to get up early to do it, and: facebook didn’t like me, or my browser didn’t like facebook and it shut down 5 times before I could finally publish the post. I don’t like facebook and this is not the first time that happened, but it was definitely a new record!

Then, I had to go to the bank to pay my taxes – and I needed three attempts to do so, all because of my own stupidity. I brought the forms along alright, but then I noticed that I had forgotten my hanko which I need to “sign” the transaction. Back home I went to fetch the hanko, just to realise the second time I was at the bank that I had forgotten my passbook, which is also needed for the transaction… On the third try, I finally made it, and when I was home at around noon will all the forms and stamps and passbook prints in place, I was already exhausted.

It was raining too, and I soaked through my sneakers in the morning already. On a normal day, this would have been a reason to go straight back to bed, but I had an appointment in the afternoon and couldn’t do that. Because it was raining, I had to take the bus to get to the appointment. This is a bus that only runs three times an hour, so I need to check the timetable every time I take it. And, for some reason or other, the online timetable was offline… I was lucky that I came at the right time for this one.

After the appointment, I had to go to several places in town for shopping, and I dropped by the Lindt Chocolate store to buy something for Easter. And of course, they offered me a free piece of chocolate – and matcha to boot. It was really difficult to decline (but I promised that I would be back in two weeks).

After that, I decided to have dinner at a restaurant nearby my home, and when it came to paying, I had prepared the wrong amount for the cashier. Not a big deal, really, but it was the last straw. I then went home, did not turn on the laptop but went straight to bed – at about eight. At least I had a stash of books at hand, but this was so far the one and only time I had a terrible craving for chocolate, just to soothe me for the terrible day I had…