Unexpected Gift

Yesterday I took a day off and went to an exhibition in Osaka. I enjoyed it very much, even though it was very crowded and even though everybody around me seemed to snap pictures all the time. Sometimes even without looking at the art in detail at all. I don’t get it…

Anyway, when I came back to Kyoto I was to meet a friend at the Takashimaya department store. Near their information counter – always a good meeting spot – there are a few seats available, and I sat down next to an elderly lady, who, in truly elderly lady fashion immediately struck up a conversation with me. (Elderly people love to talk to me!) It was the usual: where are you from, oh you live in Kyoto, what are you doing… kind of conversation which I can hold up quite well by now. And she asked if I come to the Takashimaya often, and I answered, well, sometimes, today I’m meeting a friend here. And she said that she was just done with her own shopping and then she began rummaging in her bag.

Takashimaya Gift CertificateAnd then, suddenly and completely unprovoked, she took out her wallet and gave me a Takashimaya gift certificate for 1000 yen. Just like that. And then she shook my hand, mentioned in getting up that she was 80 years old, and then she left, never to be seen again.

I’m still flabbergasted. Why on earth would she give this to me? I never really know how to deal with these random acts of kindness, other than say “thank you very much” and roll with it. Anybody else got any suggestions?

Claim 2 Fame

Finally all the hard work paid off – I’m famous! Of course, I had already garnered international fame when somebody posted a video featuring me on youtube… But this time it’s local fame, which is really more important!

So, last Saturday I went to the Nishijin Traditional Cultural Festival with a friend of mine. Nishijin is Kyoto’s silk producers and merchants district, and there are still a number of fantastic old houses in which craftsmen live and do their work after ancient traditions. I have been there three times now, but there are still new things to discover. This time, my friend and I found a maker of exquisite – and very expensive – silver tea pots. And a bit off the beaten track there was the maker of samurai armor, who explained that one single suit of armor would take him one year to complete…

Anyway, the festival started at 10, and my friend and I were early so we could scour the stalls for cheap silken goods. In a corner behind the very first one, there was this guy who constantly took pictures, something I found rather creepy because I don’t like pictures of myself. At some point he approached us, explained that he was a reporter for the Kyoto Shimbun and if he could do an interview. I would have said no, but my friend was faster than me… So we answered a few questions and exchanged name cards. And on Sunday, the oevre below was found in the local newspaper, fully equipped with my name, age, occupation, and photo. (I edited the article a little to cut out my last name and half of the photo).

my mention in the local newspaper.Kyoto Shimbun has a print run of 500.000 morning papers each day. My friend says there will be lots of people reading it, and it may be good for business. Well, people are indeed reading it (I got emails and calls from friends who did), but as for increasing business, I doubt that, since the information about me is too vague for anyone to find me. However, I will contact the reporter again and see if he would like to write about What’s Up In Kyoto. This might definitely drive some business… We’ll see.


One of the most ubiquitous creatures that can be found all over Japan is the tanuki. Statues of the tanuki – translated as raccoon dog – are often seen outside restaurants or shops to beckon customers, just like the Japanese maneki neko cat. Unlike the maneki neko, however, tanuki can also be found at entrances to private homes or around the precincts of Buddhist temples. They are also the subject of many woodblock prints from the Edo period, and they feature in numerous stories, the oldest ones dating back to the 8th century.

Tanuki in Buddhist templeLong before that, tanuki were revered as gods or at least godlike creatures, who ruled over Japanese nature. However, that changed with the introduction of Buddhism and tanuki were relegated to divine messengers and local guardian spirits. They are still seen as magical today, mostly as pranksters and mischievous little beasts, who, even though they may mean no harm, can wreak havoc to the minds and bodies of their unsuspecting victims.

The most amazing feat any tanuki can perform is shapeshifting. Shapeshifting into anything, really: stones, trees, statues, things as extraordinary as the moon and as common as household items… There is a cute story about the latter: A tanuki wanted to repay a farmer for a good deed and transformed into a beautiful tea kettle, which the farmer sold for a good price to a rich man. But the first time the tea kettle was put to use and heated over a fire it sprouted head, tail, and legs, and returned to the farmer. In the end, the farmer earned a lot of money for showing people the tailed and snouted tea kettle, so there is a good ending to the story after all.

Tanuki as Tea KettleTanuki also enjoy taking human form, in particular that of Buddhist monks, in which they received the special name of tanuki-bozu. In this shape, they are out to cause mischief by imitating – more or less perfectly – human activities like attending funerals, or working as a scribe. Of course, sooner or later the disguise will be discovered and the poor tanuki is thrown out of the temple, but there is one legend of a tanuki-bozu that was allowed to become a page at the temple after his discovery, and was even buried in a regular grave. Most of the times such a favourable treatment is not the case though, and the tanuki must leave, which means that all the things he has bewitched during his stay – something else they are capable of – will return to their real shape, piles of money will then turn to leaves, for example.

As mentioned above, statues of tanuki can be found all over Japan, and although they come in various sizes, they all essentially look the same. The reason for this is, that these statues go back to a single artist called Tetsuzo Fujiwara, a potter who lived in Koga, a village in Shiga prefecture, that one day was visited by emperor Hirohito. Since Koga is known for pottery, the streets were lined with tanuki statues waving flags and the emperor was so amused by this, that the wrote a poem about it – and the rest is history.

tanuji statueSince tanuki have been ascribed with eight special traits supposed to bring good fortune, many of the statues depict at least some of them:

  • friendly smile
  • hat (protecting against bad fortune and weather)
  • big eyes (help making good decisions and perceive the environment)
  • sake bottle (representing virtue, often with the kanji for 8 written on them)
  • big tail (strength and steadiness until one is successful)
  • promissory note (representing trust or confidence)
  • big belly (stands for decisiveness)
  • big scrotum (symbolising luck in money matters)

Especially the final trait may seem a bit odd, and indeed, the origin story behind it is quite interesting. In fact, tanuki are real animals, properly translated as Japanese raccoon dogs. Sometimes, the word tanuki is falsely translated into English as badger or raccoon, but those are different species. The mistake is not surprising, because even within Japan, there are differences in naming the animal; even though tanuki is the official name, mujina is a regional variation. The confusion goes back to the kanji, which originally mostly referred to wild cats. But since there are no wild cats native to Japan (other than in Okinawa), the kanji began to be used for the tanuki. Tanuki are widespread in Japan. They live mostly in forested areas, but have also been seen scavenging in cities even as large as Tokyo.

Real TanukiAnyway, back to the scrotum: Real tanuki already have a large scrotum, but this alone would probably not be enough for comic depiction. The background here is that in the old days, metal workers in Kanazawa who were charged with producing gold leaf, put their gold nuggets into the skin of tanuki scrotums before hammering. It happens that this skin in particular can be stretched extremely thin – allegedly to the size of eight tatami mats – which makes it very useful for producing gold leaf. Moreover, tanuki scrotums were made into wallets, and surely the connection between kin no tama – small gold balls – and kintama – slang for testicles – helped the legend along quite a bit as well.

tanuki scrotum cloakThere are many stories about tanuki and their mischievous behaviour, but not many of them involve their kintama. This particular trait was picked up by ukiyo-e artists of the Edo period. There, tanuki are depicted using their scrotums as sails for boats or even boats themselves, as fishing nets, umbrellas, cloaks… Nowadays these depictions are rare, but the statues are still very popular throughout Japan, and the tanuki also functions as mascot for a number of Japanese companies. And who knows, maybe that jolly old Japanese you just met is nothing but a tanuki in disguise waiting to make a fool of you…

Weekend Plans

The following few days will be very busy for me, and not all of the stress is work related, so I’m not sure I should be complaining at all.

Tomorrow morning I want to go to Nijo Castle. Besides Nijo Castle being one of my favourite places in Kyoto, this weekend there is a special exhibition of Bonsai trees commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Meiji restoration. Apparently, some of the trees exhibited there are 150 years or older – certainly something I cannot miss!

Saturday will be my day off (instead of the usual Wednesday). Together with a friend of mine, we will go to the Nishijin Traditional Cultural Festival. Nishijin is the name for both an area of Kyoto where, in the old times, the silk weavers and merchants had their (work-) shops, as well as the name of a weaving technique for cloth, that was used to make kimono in particular. My friend and I have been to the Hina Doll Festival there in March, but we are expecting even more exciting events this time around.

old soroban school, miniature version as toySunday morning I will go and try – again – to pass the soroban first dan test. I don’t think I will be passing this time either; in fact, I didn’t want to go at all, but when I told sensei, he had already registered me and it was too late to bow out. So, despite being very, very busy, I was training soroban for about an hour each day. Sensei said that I should focus on the “additional” exercises – dempyo, anzan, word problems, and roots – this time because those were relatively easy to pass. And if I could pass all of them now, I could focus on the “basic” exercises – multiplication, division, addition – for two times in a row. I am not convinced this will work, but I trust sensei’s judgement, so that’s what I’m doing now.

Between all this I will have to work, of course. And, as a bonus, I will have to choose whom to give my vote in the upcoming Austrian governmental elections. I received my absentee ballot letter today – probably the earliest I ever got it – and have about a week maximum to decide. Of course, some parties are out of the question, but other than this I never felt so unsure as to how to cast my vote. We’ll see if it makes a difference.

Seiryu-e Festival

I’m so busy these days with all sorts of stuff, so even though I finally know about many of the cool events in Kyoto, I barely have time to go there anymore… However, last Friday I managed to take a few hours out of my schedule and visit the Seiryu-e Festival of Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

The Seiryu-e Festival is the festival of the blue dragon, where an 18 m long dragon is carried through the temple precincts and later though the streets below Kiyomizu-dera. In the beginning, the dragon emerges from the 3 storied pagoda near the entrance of the temple. It is accompanied by three women in front and a group of men (monks?) behind it. Of course, a number of people with shell trumpets must be there as well to announce the coming of the dragon.

The blue dragon enters Kiyomizu-deraThere is a very short ceremony in the main hall of the temple before the dragon moves on to the newly renovated stage where it performs an elaborate dance to the chanting of the monks that have followed it earlier. Afterwards, the dragon moves through the temple precincts and back to the pagoda, which it circles once before leaving the temple through the main gate and going down to the streets below to bestow its blessings onto the town.

The blue dragon is believed to be an incarnation of Kannon – the goddess of mercy – and it is said that it visits the waterfalls of Kiyomizu-dera each night to drink. To Western minds it may sound a bit weird, but in Asian culture, dragons are associated with water instead of fire, and many temples and shrines have wells with a dragon-shaped spout. Also, the translation of Kiyomizu-dera is “Clear Water Temple”, so it seems natural for this temple to have a festival like this.

The blue dragon of Kiyomizu-deraInterestingly, this is one of the newest additions to Kyoto’s festival calendar. The first Seiryu-e festival was held only in 2000, and although the dragon is quite spectacular, it appears as if not many people are aware of the performance. I had the impression that most people who were visiting Kiyomizu-dera – which is one of the most popular tourist spots in Kyoto – didn’t know about the festival and were taken by surprise.

Because of this, the ceremony was not overly crowded, and I managed to get a first row spot to take photos; and I even managed to receive a special blessing including a paper talisman that was given out by the women accompanying the dragon through town. If you like, you can have a look at a short video of the Seiryu-e Festival at the homepage of Kiyomizu-dera: http://www.kiyomizudera.or.jp/en/visit/seiryu-e/

Business Update #3

logoWhew, I’ve been busy last week updating the What’s up in Kyoto homepage. I have added an archive for the monthly highlights I have done so far, and I am about to change the getting around page about Kyoto transport in a day or two. A page about shopping in Kyoto and Japan is in the works, and I am planning pages about Kyoto sights. The biggest change is that I made the main menu more friendly – meaning: smaller – for mobile phone users, it shouldn’t take up all screen anymore. I have never been a good programmer – I’m much better at designing algorithms on a somewhat higher level – so this took me a while. The sense of accomplishment I am feeling now was worth it though!

Also, I’m getting more active on social media: I started tweeting! For now, there’s only one tweet per week (please follow!), mostly because there are not enough events each day to not duplicate what I put on facebook. Or maybe I shouldn’t worry about that? Also, posting on social media takes up a big amount of time! I am slowly beginning to understand why bigger companies have their own social media manager. The facebook page is also doing well. Even though it doesn’t have many likes yet (please like!), there are about 20 times more people than that who see my posts each day. That’s a good start – now I have to lure them over to my website…

Unfortunately, at this point I am still spending money on What’s up in Kyoto, instead of earning anything with it. At this point, I am approaching mainly local galleries and museums, but there is not much coming back in return. Of course, I am in this for the long haul, but it would be nice to see the fruits growing, at least. Until that happens, I will have to do other, less fun jobs, to keep the company going, my accountant happy – and to secure my visa for the next year.


Busy day today, even more so than a usual Tuesday: Leave home at 10:00 for Japanese class, then from 14:00 a business meeting. Home at 18:00, just to go out for a special soroban class one hour later. Finally exhausted home for good at 21:00.

The day had an interesting and very unexpected highlight though: lunch time. These days, I have my Japanese class at the Kyoto Rohm Theatre, where there are public spaces to sit and meet for free. After the class I usually stay and have lunch, do some writing or other offline stuff, and then I move on to my meeting in town.

During lunch, there are always more people coming and having their bento boxes, but today it was exceptionally crowded, and with lots and lots of old people. I found out that there was a special concert today from 13:30, which explains why there were no empty seats to be had around lunchtime. As usual, I had finished lunch and started writing, and it was busy enough that within a short time span, two old ladies (who apparently didn’t know each other) sat down at my table. Japanese people avoid doing this, and both of them completely ignored me, the second one even demonstratively turning her back at me. Oh well, I just kept writing.

But then, the first one left – and the second one promptly turned around and started chatting with me. And then she put her own bento box on the table (hand-made vegetarian maki sushi) – and offered me some of it! She went so far and put the food right in front of me and because it would have been rude to refuse, I had another lunch with the old lady, who was very happy to have somebody to share her food with. She said something like Shared food is always delicious, but eating alone is so sad…

Japanese people never cease to amaze me. I know that the elderly – old ladies especially – have some sort of fool’s license, they can get away with many things younger people would be immediately punished for. But this was certainly a new facet of Japanese society that I have never seen before, and probably will not see again.


In Japan, tunafish is the most popular fish for sushi and sashimi. Large tunafish can sell at auctions for thousands of US$, and the carving of a tunafish into bite sized pieces is an attraction that draws lots of people every time. Thanks to Japan being an island, fish is popular and ubiquitous, and most people buy their tuna – fish in general – raw and cook it themselves.

In the West, tunafish is much less attractive. Of course, it is eaten often, but not many people have ever seen anything else than the cooked pieces that are drowned in oil and packed in cans. In fact, this kind of canned tuna also exists in Japan, of course, but here it is called “sea chicken” for some reason.

The best way to cook tuna – according to a Japanese tuna salesman I asked – is to grill it very lightly so that it is still raw in the middle, just like good steak. But the most delicious way to eat tunafish is as sushi or sashimi because only there the delicate taste comes out as it should. What many people don’t realise is that tunafish tastes differently depending on which part of the fish is eaten. After all, a grown tuna can be up to one metre long, that’s a lot of meat!

3 types of maguro sushiWhen eating sushi, there are essentially three types of tuna available: Maguro sushi is the most common, and this is usually what is served abroad as well. It is dark red, comes from the fish’s back near the spine and is the leanest type of tuna. Pieces from the belly are called Otoro, their color is light pink because they contain a lot of fat. Often, otoro pieces are marbled like good beef, and they are so tender that they melt easily on the tongue. The taste is quite oily though, not everybody likes that. A bit more to the inside of the belly of the fish are the pieces called chutoro (written with the Kanji for “middle”). They are pretty much in the middle between maguro and otoro, in taste, fat content, and in color.

Interestingly, otoro is the most expensive part of a tuna fish, at least of the parts that are eaten as sushi. For the average Westerner this must sound strange – just imagine all that fat! – but the Japanese don’t mind fat that much, and otoro is very tasty indeed. If you have a chance somewhere at a sushi bar to try out all three kinds of tuna cuts, do so! You will not be disappointed, promised!

Four Seasons

When you start living in Japan, sooner or later you will start talking to some Japanese about your own country and how it is different from Japan. And then, the topic of the seasons will come up, and your friend will say something like: “You know, in Japan, we have four seasons!” with a gleam of pride in her eyes, as if the concept of four distinct seasons is something no gaijin has ever heard of. However, said gleam will immediately turn to bitter disappointment upon your answer: “So do we. So what?”

I think I finally figured out what they really mean with that. it’s not the fact that there are four distinct seasons at all, the Japanese are well aware that other countries have those too. Also, it is easy to diagnose summer when it has 35 degrees outside, or to declare winter when you’re suffering from frost bite. I think what they mean is that the change of seasons is obvious, irreversible, and swift. Sometimes the change of season is so abrupt, it happens over night.

red ivy leaves on a brick wallFor example, it is already autumn here. It started about 2.5 weeks ago. How I know? Well, it has cooled down, even though we still have more than 30 degrees. There are also more rainy days, but that’s not it either. The two things that made me sigh with relief: Humidity has dropped considerably, from one day to the next. Now I have to actually move to start sweating, in summer this is not necessary. Also, most of the cicadas that make summer so noisy, have died. There are still some around, but there are much fewer individual insects, and those are different species since their call has changed.

Thinking about it a bit more, I now believe that all the four seasons in Japan have a rather distinct point as to when they begin. And most of those points are not related to any fixed day, obviously, but to some event in nature. That’s probably the reason why the Japanese love any kind of nature viewing so much: They know the cherry blossoms mark the height of spring, and that when the momiji colors are over, winter will come. It’s also easy to notice these things when you’re living in a wooden house with hardly any insulation, as most of the old Japanese did, and many still do.

Anyway, let me list the things that mark the new seasons in Japan. Feel free to comment if you think I’m wrong, after all, this is just my theory.

Spring starts with the ume (peach blossoms). It is still cold then, and it may still snow, but once the red peach blossoms can be seen, they mark the end of winter. The height of spring has been reached during hanami – cherry blossom viewing. And once the last cherries have lost their blossoms and put on their green leaves, it will only take a week or two more to arrive at Summer.

Summer begins some time in May when the temperature rises further, but even more so, humidity. Early summer comes with tsuyu, the rainy season, and the rain does not ease the humidity, on the contrary! When you can’t seem to stop sweating, no matter what you do (or not do), that’s summer. At some point the cicadas will start their noisy song, marking midsummer.

Autumn, as I said above, will start with a sharp drop in humidity, usually at the end of August. The cicadas drop from their trees as well, and you can enjoy silent nights of sleep again. The most beautiful part of autumn is the koyo, when the leaves of the maple trees turn red, orange, or yellow. That does not happen until the night temperature falls below a certain threshold, but from then on, the momiji can be admired for two or three weeks. Once their leaves fall to the ground as well, some time at the end of November, that’s the end of the season.

Winter starts a week or two after the koyo, again with a drop in temperature. It may not snow everywhere (it doesn’t in Kyoto), and the temperature will hover just above zero degrees. It will be quite dry though, and especially clear days will be wonderful to go out and climb up somewhere and have a look over the country.

That’s my theory. Autumn was obvious this year, I will try to see if I can notice a similar swift change for winter. This whole year has been usually cool, I just hope we will not get an early and too cold winter this time…


I have been very busy here. One problem with doing too many things at the same time is that there is the nagging feeling that you don’t really accomplish anything…

One thing I did accomplish is to finish a new “books” page for the blog here, see the new link in the menu on top. It simply lists all the books I have reviewed on here so far, and repeats the synopsis and my review. Every book includes a link to amazon in case you’d want to read it yourself, but: caveat emptor! The links are now running through my brand new amazon affiliate account, which means I’ll get a little percentage of every purchase you make through any of the links.

This is something I thought of doing for a while already, but I always held back. Mostly because amazon’s affiliate program is…. let’s say, not very friendly to anyone outside of the US. It must be a US thing, somehow, because quite clearly they have never heard of something called “international bank transfer” or, worse yet, “paypal”. If I ever manage to make enough money so they’ll pay me out, you know what’s going to happen? They’ll send me a check.

Yes. A piece of paper. Through the mail. Surface, for all I know. Which will cost me a fortune to cash on this continent, I’m sure. At least they are waiving the 15 $ fee they would charge, because without an American bank account, this is the only way to get paid. Except for an amazon gift card, which is not  optimal either. The main reason I signed up for the affiliate program after all is that many of my readers are from the EU, and there I can transfer the money to my account in Austria. That’s the reason why – if you click on a link – you should be redirected to whereever the “closest” amazon store is to your computer’s location.

Not that there will be any of that anytime soon. A book sale earns a commission of 4%. With a standard price of a paperback of say, 10 $ or EUR, one book sale will earn me 40 cents. And with the minimum payout per check of 100 $ or EUR, that makes a sales volume of 250 books. I guess I can expect that first check from the US by the time I’m retiring. Maybe I shouldn’t make big plans for the money just yet.

However, the main reason I thought so long about monetizing the blog in any way is that it is more of a private endeavour, and most of you who are reading this I know personally. And it’s just not fair to make money off your friends… So, don’t worry about it, this is not going to turn into one of those sites where you need an ad blocker to get rid of all the bouncy stuff running left and right. And there will be no google Adsense that will put a link under every second word I write and bring you to somewhere I cannot control. And no, I will not start writing posts about random stuff to buy – I’m sure if you need something, you can find amazon on your own.

However, I will keep posting my book reviews. I love books, and I have a long reading list for Japanese literature. And I guess if you’re here reading this blog you might be interested in that as well. From the beginning of writing here I wanted to post one book review per month; I didn’t quite get there (so many other exciting things going on in Kyoto), but with work keeping me behind my desk more than I like, I might just (have to) do that.