Confessions of a Yakuza

Confessions of a Yakuza
Junichi Saga

cover of Confessions of a YakuzaJunichi Saga is a doctor in a town near Tokyo. One winter’s day, an old man comes to his practice, asking for treatment, and a few weeks afterwards, the doctor is invited to Ijichi Eiji’s home, where he begins to tell about his life.

And what a life it was: born in the countryside in the early ears of the 20th century, he finds himself in Tokyo as a teenager and works at a coal-, later at a timber merchant. In 1924, the year after the great Kanto earthquake, Eiji gets to know a local yakuza boss who takes him into his rank and file, and from there, nothing is ever the same. We hear about the internal workings of the gambling places – the only business a respectable yakuza would do at that time – how the system of yakuza brotherhood works, and how to rise in their ranks. We also hear about Eiji’s three times in prison – twice innocently, once for murder – about his short stint in the army, and about his often unlucky dealings with women.

I picked this book up at an airport or other, probably because of the title promising a real-life crime mystery or something like that. The book is nothing like that. Not that Ijichi Eiji’s business was not criminal, but there were no big yakuza wars or standoffs with guns; instead, we hear about a life on the fringes of Japanese society in the first half of the 20th century. As such, I wouldn’t call the book “exciting”, but the story is interesting and worthy of being told.

Junichi Saga (born 1941) is a doctor in Tsuchiura, a little town northeast of Tokyo. He writes chiefly about the lives of his patients. Besides this biography of the head of a yakuza family, he has written a few other books, among them “Memories of Silk and Straw”, which was voted Best Book of the Year by the Foreign Press of Japan.

If you’re interested in the life of a Yakuza, get this book from amazon!

Flea Market

What a lovely time at the moment – it’s been snowing for a few days already! Not much, there’s not too much snow on the ground, but still, it makes me happy every day! And, on top of that, I went to the Kitano Tenmangu flea market with two friends today. It’s also called Tenjin-san, takes place on the 25th of each month, and is the largest flea market in Kyoto. I have been there before, but it’s always nice to see what’s “new”.

We went to the shrine first. Kitano Tenmangu is famous for its plum trees, and despite the cold weather we could see one or two bright red plum blossoms already. Also, there was a woman having a tame monkey doing tricks, and in one hall, there were calligraphies that were done during the first 3 days of the New Year, when people expressly come to Kitano Tanmangu to write their first calligraphies.

Kitano TenmanguThe flea market itself was smaller than usual, but it was also very, very cold today, so I guess many vendors just didn’t show up. Even though I was tempted by a lovely tea bowl, the price was a too steep, and in the end I didn’t buy anything except for some food.

That was yet another day where I didn’t get much done… On Saturday, I have an appointment with the shrine I will feature in February, and on Sunday, I will have yet another go at the soroban shodan level. Do wish me luck for the weekend – I’ll need it!

Kicked Out

As I reported on Sunday, I went to Takeda, in the south of Kyoto, for a purification ceremony at Jonan-gu shrine. Afterwards, I visited a sento nearby because a friend had given me a discount ticket for it. A sento is a traditional public bath, and the difference to an onsen is that the latter usually gets its water from a natural spring nearby, while the former just uses tap water. I like going to either public bath, it always promises an hour or two of total relaxation, and, the best thing about them: somebody else is cleaning the tubs…

Kinosaki onsen in 1910So, I went to that particular sento, called Chikara-no-yu, “Strenght bath”; I stripped and scrubbed myself thoroughly and then dipped into the hot water. There were seven hot tubs, one with cold water, a sauna, a massage room, and a steam room. I had been at the sento for maybe an hour already, and I just made my way to the steam room, when an attendant came up to me and told me to leave. She said they didn’t allow tattooed people in their establishment, and that I should leave immediately. This rule is old and widespread, and the reason for it is that people want to avoid the yakuza gangsters, many of whom are still wearing quite heavy and elaborate tattoos.

So yes, I do have a tattoo of the size of a 2 EURO coin on my upper arm. It is usually covered by any sleeves, but clearly visible when running around in the nude, of course. I have been to many different sento and onsen all over Japan, but this was the first time I got kicked out because of my tattoo. To be fair to the attendant, I think somebody complained – she had passed me a few times before without saying anything, but once she was told by somebody else, she had to act of course. Also, that part of town is not the very best; on my way to the sento, I passed a whole block with nothing but love hotels…

Anyway, I was pretty much done by that time and ready to go home. And Takeda station is so far away from where I live that going there just for the sento doesn’t make much sense. However, it is probably a good idea to put a large plaster into my sento bag, just in case there are other people intimidated or offended by my tattoo ever again.

Yutate Kagura

Yesterday, I went all the way down to Takeda, where Jonan-gu shrine is located. It was built in 794 to the south of then newly founded Kyoto to protect the capital. And each year on January 21st, there is an interesting purification ceremony called Yutate Kagura, involving lots of hot water…  But, let’s start at the beginning:

When I arrived at Jonan-gu, a large cauldron of water was already being heated over a fire, and the offerings for the gods were placed in front of the main altar. As usual, the ceremony started exactly on time, when the shrine priests arrived, followed by musicians and five miko, shrine maidens. Pot with boiling waterAfter some initial prayers, a first purification took place – a priest waved sacred paper over his fellow priests, the shrine maidens and musicians, and finally, the spectators. Then, four of the miko danced a sacred dance, this is done to invite the gods to the scene. Afterwards, offerings were made and prayers were said, and the gods were implored to help purify the visitors. Sacred DanceOnly now the main part of the ceremony started. The fifth and oldest miko, so far being a silent spectator only, stepped forward to the cauldron with the now boiling water, and started to add a few extra ingredients: salt, rice, and sake and thoroughly stirred the mixture with a large stick adorned with sacred paper. She then took two large bunches of bamboo leaves, soaked them in the “soup” she had just prepared, and then, with large and forceful gestures, she splashed the hot water around her, three or four times.

Splashing Water aroundAs you can see on the picture, the water together with the smoke from the fire made quite an impressive scene! She then moved on to sprinkle the hot water over the visitors in the same way, who had to bow their heads to be purified from evil spirits and bad luck by the hot water. One final sprinkling before the main shrine, a bit more music, some more prayers – and then everything was over.

The bamboo branches that had been used in the ceremony were then sold as lucky charms to take home for a hefty 1000 yen apiece, and many of the spectators took the opportunity. A large part of them went up to the cauldron where some hot water was left to fan some of the – quite evil-smelling – steam over their heads and bodies for additional purification and blessing.

Selling the used bambooI enjoyed the ceremony, and it was expected of the visitors to take part in it. We were asked to stand, bow, and clap a number of times. This is the first shinto ceremony where everybody took part, rather than only paying guests. Often, people are only expected to watch, and maybe can do their own thing before or afterwards. It was fun, even though I didn’t quite know what was going on all the time – but then again, neither did the Japanese, I’m sure…

Business Update #5

What's up in Kyoto LogoTime for another business update! As you now know, this year the What’s up in Kyoto monthly highlights will be in-depth articles about shrines in Kyoto. One reason for this choice was that I thoughts shrines would be more friendly to requests than temples, essentially because they have less money. And when I got the quick and friendly answer from Yasaka shrine for January, I was very happy and felt on a good track.

But now… I had planned another one of the bigger shrines in Kyoto for the February highlight, because they have a very interesting Kigen-sai ceremony celebrating the founding of Japan as a nation. We have actually approached them back in December already, at about the same time as Yasaka Jinja, but we received only an evasive reply. So we tried again this month, now with a link to the new highlight so they have a better picture what I’m up to. Again: no reply other than “our PR representative is not here at the moment, but he’ll call you back.” Which of course, didn’t happen at all.

So, at this point I have decided to try another shrine for the February highlight, which means we’ll have to start all over again, researching and writing the article, scoring pictures, making phone calls and sending faxes… This time we spoke to the PR representative in person on the phone, but no reaction to the fax we sent yesterday.

I hope the nice reaction of Yasaka shrine is not an exception. If yes, then… what the hell did I get myself into?


When I woke up on Sunday morning and opened my curtains, I got an immediate surge of happiness: It had snowed over night! Not much though, maybe 3, 4 centimeters, but it was still cold enough for the snow to last all Sunday (and a bit of yesterday). Kyoto doesn’t get much snow usually, so I am always thrilled if there is any for a day or two. If you have seen photos of famous Kyoto landmarks in deep snow, rest assured that this was the case for a few hours only, and the photographer was very dedicated indeed 😉

Of course, other areas in Japan are much more lucky. The interior of Japan is full of mountains – the Japanese Alps – that are nicely covered in snow all winter. And don’t forget Hokkaido! The western coast of Japan is also notorious for deep snow, it is called “snow country” for a reason. Just a few days ago, I have heard a news story about people having been trapped on a train over night – which itself was trapped by the snow in the middle of its route through the snow country. All the people – more than 100 if I remember correctly – were saved the next morning, and there had always been electricity, meaning: heating, but still, it’s not an experience I’d like to make myself I guess.

Anyway, today was a very warm day again, and all the snow is gone. Who knows when we’ll have snow again this year.


Over the New Year’s period, even Kyoto’s public service people get a week or so off. This means, among others: no garbage collection. A few weeks before New Year’s, you get a detailed schedule of what type of garbage is collected until which day and from which day. The schedule is comprehensive, on top of the usual suspects (standard garbage, plastics, glass, and paper) there are also mentioned slightly more exotic things you might want to get rid of: large household appliances for example, or dead pets.

plastic grocery bagsThis year, on the bottom of the page, there was a special appeal to reduce waste. Apparently, the city is making an effort to cut their garbage in half, from a peak of 390.000 tons (per year, I assume?) The rate has slowed down, and now people are encouraged to go the extra mile to reduce 27.000 tons more to meet the target. Particularly suggested are a reduction in food waste (meaning: the throwing out of perfectly edible leftovers or overstocked food) and to be more diligent in separating paper from the general garbage.

Both is fine with me 😉 What was interesting about this appeal was a very simple calculation. They suggest that each person should reduce their waste by 30 grams each day. That sounds rather puny, no? After all, that’s just one PET bottle, or 3 plastic bags, or half a newspaper (probably not the Sunday edition); or one bell pepper, or 1/5 of a carrot or tomato. But when you actually doing the numbers, that little bit does sum up: To 900 grams, i.e., almost one kilo per month, and 10.8 kilos per year. For one person – count the approximately 1.5 million people living in Kyoto alone, and that leads to more than 16.000 tons a year.

Impressive what a tiny little bit can sum up to – if everybody does it!


Nice to be back, even though I didn’t go anywhere. Okay, that’s not true, I spent two days in Kobe with a friend of mine having a kind of After-Christmas party with duck and wine and chocolates (of course). And other friends of mine invited me to an After-New-Year’s lunch last Sunday with roast pork and wine and “hot love” ice cream.

And of course, I went on the obligatory hatsumode first shrine visit to Shimogamo Shrine, where I prayed to “my shrine” – meaning the little shrine devoted to my birth year – for a good year to come. Of course, I also bought a new omamori, especially for success in business, and it already seems to have a positive effect: I got a big project on my desk just yesterday! I hope that’s a good omen for the rest of the year.

Other than that, I spent two rather lazy weeks. I always enjoy not having any appointments where I have to go out (still an introvert, I guess), and I took advantage of that time to get a few private projects done. And, of course: planning a bunch of new ones as well! Also, I did my soroban training (almost) daily. The next shodan test will be in three weeks, and I really need to pass it this time, or I’ll have to start all over again (it’s a bit complicated to explain, I’ll do that some other time).

Overall though, I had a nice vacation, and now, I’m rearing to go. Let the New Year begin!

PS: A big hug and thank you to all my friends who sent me Christmas chocolates and other sweets. They were well received and I’ll try to make them last!



Whew, I’m almost done with my business meetings, only one more next Tuesday, and from then it’s up close and personal… Still stuff to do, as I wrote in my last post, but that i will do from the privacy of my desk. That means, that I will keep to myself for a while, and will take a break until at least the end of the year, maybe even one week longer. Until I’m back, I wish you all, as usual:

Happy Holidays to everyone!
I hope you’ll have a nice time, regardless of your plans.

Christmas Card 2017