Encounters With Kyoto

I have reason to celebrate: I can now call myself a “published author”. Yay!

As I mentioned before, since last November, I am a member of the group Writers in Kyoto, as the name suggests, a small group of writers who live in (or around) Kyoto or have some other connection to Kyoto and who write in English.

This year, for the third time altogether, the group has put out an anthology to which the members of the group were invited to contribute. There was also a writing competition that was free for everybody to join. About half of the Writers in Kyoto members have sent in short stories or poems or non-fiction essays – and I’m one of them!

Cover of Writers in Kyoto Anthology, Vol. 3And, our book “Encounters With Kyoto – Writers in Kyoto Anthology 3” is now available on amazon in paperback! An e-book version is in preparation and there’s lots of fun stories to read. For example, there is a very interesting non-fiction piece on ropes made with human hair that were used to lift the wooden beams of Higashi Honganji Temple – some of the ropes are still on display there. Or the lovely poems full of childhood memories by a local Kyoto lady. And then there’s my essay about a Japanese garden I was not supposed to enter… My personal favourite is a fun piece on an encounter with yakuza – in the sento to boot!

Last Saturday the group met for the official book launch in Umekoji park near Kyoto station. We had sake and local and international snacks and then some of the authors went on to read their pieces from the anthology. It was my first time at a group meeting, so I decided to read my piece by way of introduction. People seemed to like it, or at least the liked my reading, so we had something to talk about afterwards, thank goodness.

It was fun to meet other English speakers in Kyoto, some of whom have lived here for decades, some of whom have just arrived; some of whom I have heard about from friends, others I would have never known otherwise. And it was fun to meet so many different people – and to find out interesting things we have in common regardless.

I realise that this self-promotion is a bit of an unusual book post for a Sunday, but I really enjoyed working on my essay and reading the other contributions. If you’d like to check it out – and I promise there are better writers in it than me –  as I said, it’s available internationally on amazon.

Return to Tsugaru

Return to Tsugaru
Osamu Dazai

Return to TsugaruTsugaru is the old name of the northernmost peninsula of Honshu, which today makes up part of Aomori prefecture. The people in Tsugaru have always been poor and, as the part of Japan from which to set sail for Hokkaido, has had a reputation of a certain backwardness in cities like Tokyo.

Osamu Dazai, considered among the foremost Japanese authors of the 20th century, was born in Kanagi, a small town on the Tsugaru peninsula. In this memoir from 1944, he takes us on a trip to his hometown and nearby places, like the castle town Hirosaki, the village where he went to school, etc. Travelling chiefly on foot, he pays visits to family members and relatives, as well as old friends, where he is always welcome and served sake and crabs, his favourite food.

This book is part travelogue, part history – both of Tsugaru as well as his own family – part commentary on current events and the war-time of 1944. Throughout the book shines Dazai’s deep love for the land and the people living there.

Osamu Dazai was the pseudonym of Shuji Tsushima, born in 1909 as the eight (surviving) child of a man from humble origins who eventually became a respected local politician. From an early age on, Shuji wanted to become a writer and he eventually moved to Tokyo as a student of French literature. Aged only 26, he was nominated for the very first Akutagawa Prize, and although he did not receive it, his reputation was made. His most important works were published after WWII. Always the family’s enfant terrible, he finally committed suicide with his mistress in 1948, at only 39 years of age.


Japan is moving into a new era – quite literally – with the abdication of the current emperor on April 30th and the ascension to the throne of his son on May 1st. The preparations for this enormous event must have started a long time ago, but most of them are done in private, so that the average Japanese is not aware of all that’s going on behind the scenes.

Yesterday, however, the first big official event took place: The reveal of the new era (gengo) name. Each reign of a Japanese emperor is associated with an era name, and while an emperor is never called by his given name during his lifetime, his era name will be used to refer to him when he is dead. Since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, there were four eras: Meiji (1868 – 1912), Taisho (1912 – 1925), Showa (1925 – 1989) and Heisei, the current one. Before the Meiji Restoration, the era name could change more frequently. Often, a new era was begun to give the nation a symbolic fresh start, after a natural disaster, or a number of deaths in the imperial family, for example.

Yoshihide Suga , Chief Cabinet Secretary announces the name of Japan’s forthcoming new eraAnyway, the new era that we in Japan will live in from May 1st will be called Reiwa. The two kanji were taken from the Manyoshu, one of the oldest collections of Japanese poetry, compiled in the second half of the eight century. Like many characters, these kanji have different meaning. The first one – rei – has a meaning of to rule, to order, but can also mean elegant, fine, beautiful, or auspicious. The second character can mean peace, calmness, harmony.

There are two interesting articles on how Japanese era names are chosen in the modern era.
This one is about the forthcoming one, Reiwa:
And this is an interview with one of the people sitting on the committee for the current one, Heisei:

It is interesting to note that the term Reiwa itself has no meaning as a word, it is more a concept that is open to some interpretation (just like Heisei, by the way). Prime Minister Abe explained that Reiwa signifies “a culture being born and nurtured by people coming together beautifully.” We will see how this will work out. For now, however, the Japanese seem to be pleased with the new era name. Friends have told me that they sound is good. Let’s hope the era itself will live up to the “good sound”.

Looking for the Lost

Looking for the Lost – Journeys through a Vanishing Japan
Alan Booth

Cover: Looking for the LostThe perennial classic “Looking for the Lost” tells about rural Japan as the author retraces the steps of famous people before him on three different journeys.

The first journey “Tsugaru” describes Booth walking in the steps of Dazai Osamu, in a journey back to the writer’s home in Aomori prefecture in Northern Honshu. Dasai had walked there for three weeks and described his impressions in a book with the same name. The second journey follows “Saigo’s last march”, as Japanese hero and commander in the Satsuma rebellion, Saigo Takamori fled from surrender and returned to Kagoshima at the southern tip of Kyushu to make a final stand there. The third journey “Looking for the Lost” starts out from Nagoya and moves northwards through Gifu prefecture in an attempt to trace possible descendants of the clan of the Heike who were all but wiped out in the middle of the 12th century.

Throughout the book, Booth mixes historical facts with his observations about contemporary Japan and muses about various subjects. On all his journeys he is walking through the countryside, obstinately refusing any other means of transport. He mostly stays on small roads and often stops for a beer or two at local liquor stores. Talking to the locals and staying at traditional ryokan provides him with new friends as well as unique opportunities to broaden his knowledge of Japanese life outside the big cities.

Alan Booth (1946 – 1993) was born in London. Throughout his life, he was interested in theatre, and moved to Japan in 1970 to study Noh. There, however, he soon began writing and worked for Macmillan Press. He wrote numerous articles and two books about his hikes through Japan, “Looking for the Lost” being his second book. He died from colon cancer in 1993.

Although more than 20 years old, this book is a classic and a must-read for everybody interested in the “real” Japan. You can get it from amazon!


The reigning emperor of Japan has given a 10 minute speech on television yesterday. He states in ever so many words that he is now 80 years old and he feels his strength diminishing. He wonders whether there could be a way to move forward for an ageing emperor, and whether a regency is indeed such a good idea. Interestingly, he states in the beginning that these are his own, personal thoughts rather than that of the emperor, and never and nowhere does he use the word “abdication”.

You can watch the video (in Japanese of course) below or read a full translation of his speech, courtesy of the BBC.

Now of course the discussion has started. Not so much among the common people, a majority says that they are fine with the emperor retiring and a new one taking his place. Even though he still is a, if not the main, symbol of Japan, he is 80 years old, an age where even the average Japanese thinks about retirement and taking it easy and enjoying a sunset.

Even Shinzo Abe, the current prime minister, says that he is taking the emperor seriously, and that one should start thinking about what to do regarding his age. However, other members of his extremely conservative party are objecting to an abdication of the emperor. Mostly because “but, this is unprecedented!!” which is not entirely true if one goes back in history long enough. Another reason is “but, we’d have to change the constitution!!” which cannot be such a great deal either since they are at least very big on reinterpreting the thing as they see fit. The deal breaker however, is the last reason: “but, but… what will it be next? Women on the throne???” which is just…

Oh well, I will lean back and enjoy the show. I don’t expect any kind of movement here for the time being since the Japanese are very good at sitting things out, especially unpleasant ones.

Hiroshima Notes

Hiroshima Notes
Kenzaburo Oe

cover of Hiroshima NotesAt 8:15 in the morning of August 6th 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, immediately killing about 100000 people. Twenty years later, from 1963 to 1965, journalist and writer Kenzaburo Oe travelled multiple times to Hiroshima where he visited hospitals, talked to survivors, and witnessed first hand the ongoing struggle of all Hiroshima people to deal with the aftermath of the bombing. Hiroshima notes consists of seven essays written in these two years. Oe talks about such divers topics as the fighting between different Japanese charities dedicated to help the victims; the marginalisation of the survivors suffering from radiation sickness; their own shame and guilt of being sick; but also the dignity these people are exhibiting regardless, up to their very last days.

This book is one of the few where a Japanese view on the Hiroshima bombings is exhibited, and with only 20 years after the facts it is a relatively early account. Although Oe should be one to understand the sentiments of the people he is talking to, one can feel that he is struggling greatly with what he hears and how he should interpret it, how he should make sense of it all. It is not an easy book to read, especially for somebody who is not familiar with Japanese culture, but still, if you are ready to delve into a book that will certainly provoke mixed feelings, it is worth it.

Kenzaburo Oe was born in 1935 in a small village on Shikoku. When he was 19, he started to study French Literature at Tokyo University, and in 1957 he began publishing his own stories. In 1994 Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as the second Japanese citizen. He is still writing – his latest book was published in 2013 – and he is now active in pacifistic and anti-nuclear movements.

Check out the book on amazon

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan
Isabella L. Bird

The Meiji restoration in 1868 and the following opening of a country closed to outsiders for centuries sparked an enormous worldwide interest in all things Japanese. While the average Japanophile of the time was content with exported ceramics, kimono, art, or weapons, there were a handful that were not satisfied with second-hand accounts, but visited the country by themselves.

Photo of Isabella L. BirdIsabella Lucy Bird was one of them. Already a seasoned traveller, she toured mostly the rural parts of Japan. Her trip of 1878 took her first from Tokyo to Nikko, and then all the way through the often hardly passable wilderness of the Japanese Alps to Aomori, the northernmost prefecture of Honshu. From there, she took a steamer to Yezo (Hokkaido), then a wild and untamed island inhabited by the native Ainu, a people of non-Japanese origin. Isabella travelled chiefly with man-pulled carts and on horseback, stayed at tiny local guesthouses where she – often grudgingly – had to eat the local fare, and was generally considered a major attraction for miles on end as the first white woman the local residents ever laid eyes upon.

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan is composed of letters she wrote to her sister, where she faithfully describes her impressions of the landscape and the Japanese and their strange customs. As a foreigner, she is often a special guest at various ceremonies or of high-ranking people, and especially her account of the Ainu and their long-lost customs holds many surprises even for modern Japanese.

I greatly enjoyed this book, it gives a glimpse into a Japan long forgotten, although some things still appear familiar. However, her writings are not at all politically correct, and she certainly never sugarcoats her opinions. She generally loves the countryside and is charmed by the children everywhere, but she despises the Japanese food she had to eat once her own provisions ran out, and she also views the Japanese adults unfavourably – she describes them as ugly, uncouth, and dirty, the last most likely because of their extreme poverty. Anyway, if you can see beyond her old-fashioned, almost missionary attitudes, the book is a great source for those interested in the really “old” Japan.

Fun fact: Although more than 100 years old, this book has been translated to Japanese less than five years ago.

The book is available from amazon of course, but there is also a free e-book available from gutenberg.org, and, based on it, a free audio version from librivox.org.


The earth is still rumbling in Kumamoto, where last week, Saturday the 16th, a large earthquake with a magnitude of 7.1 has taken place. Already on Thursday, there was a foreshock of 6.4 magnitude, and until now, there were 15 earthquakes altogether with a magnitude of more than 5. These numbers are always a bit hard to grasp – what does “magnitude 6.4” mean in reality? Obviously, it is strong, but how strong?

In 1884, the Japanese Meteorological Agency has introduced the Shindo scale of earthquakes, which since 1908 includes descriptions of the effect an earthquake of a given magnitude has on people; and since the Kobe earthquake in 1995, there are 10 distinct levels on the Shindo scale.

So, for the Kumamoto foreshock we have Shindo scale 7, meaning for example:

Effects on people: Thrown by the shaking and impossible to move at will.
Effects on buildings: Most or all buildings (even earthquake-resistant ones) suffer severe damage.
Ground and slopes: The ground is considerably distorted by large cracks and fissures, and slope failures and landslides take place, which can change topographic features; ground acceleration of more than 4 m/s².

The main shock, Shindo scale 6+, had only marginally less severe consequences; theoretically, that is, remember that there was not much left after the first earthquake.

In the first two earthquakes, 44 people lost their lives, so far 8 are missing, and more than 3000 injured. If you live in Japan, the thought that this can happen to you, that you might be killed in the next earthquake which might just happen at your place, is always present in the back of your head. And still, it’s something you just deal with. Just like stepping on a plane and knowing that it may crash, you rely on the fact that airplane travel is the safest means of transport. Just like Japan, where centuries of dealing with 400 earthquakes a day have made it probably the safest place to be when you’re caught in the middle.

New Endeavours

logoWell, I thought I’m not busy enough these days, so I started another webpage. It is meant to become a one-stop-shop for everything that’s up in Kyoto, from sights to events, from how to get around to where to eat and sleep… I’m hoping for the best, meaning: some income, but obviously, we’re talking about a work in progress right now. Check out the page – and watch it grow before your eyes!

Plastic Bags

I have recently read that the European Union wants to greatly reduce the number of plastic grocery bags used in Europe. Right now, the average EU citizen uses some 200 of them per year, that makes more than 500 million bags in total. If even only a small number of those end up in our oceans – which they inevitably will do – this has disastrous consequences. Tiny plastic particles have already made it into our food, and I think that any measure that can be taken to prevent this should be taken.

plastic grocery bagsLooking at the numbers a bit more closely, one finds that the EU states differ greatly: While Ireland and Luxemburg’s citizens use 18 plastic bags per person and year, in Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Portugal and a few other states the number is close to 500 bags per person and year. Austria, with 45 bags, lies only a little bit above the final goal of 40 bags per person per years, which should be reached EU-wide in 2025.

Seeing these numbers, however, I cannot help but wonder what it would be here in Japan, or in Asia as a whole. Part of the problem in Japan is that wrapping gifts has been elevated to an art, and the bag from the store – whether plastic or paper – is always presented to the recipient together with the gift. In fact, the bag is used to carry the  gift to the recipient, then the present is taken out and the bag neatly folded and placed underneath the gift when it is handed to the recipient – with both hands and a deep bow, of course.

This goes so far that you may receive extra plastic bags when buying multiple pre-packed gifts. For example, I once bought three packs of Yatsuhashi for different friends – and I promptly received three (folded) plastic bags of the store to go with them. Hilarious – or frustrating?

Of course, that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. No matter what you buy and where, you will receive plastic bags. In a bakery, your items will be individually placed in small plastic bags and then in a large one at the end. When I recently bought 100 sheets of loose leaf writing paper – already wrapped in plastic – I was offered another plastic bag to take them home in. The other day I bought a few stamps which were also put in a tiny plastic bag, where even in Austria we use paper. And let’s not talk about the fact that even cookies here are wrapped individually – in plastic of course.

Although the supermarket I now frequent for my groceries is not offering free plastic bags any longer (you have to buy them for 5 YEN apiece) they still provide large rolls of bags at the places where you pack your groceries. Although they are without handles and cannot be used to carry things home, people happily pack their already plastic wrapped meat, sushi, or vegetables a second time, probably to prevent leakage on the way home (which never seems to happen to me).

Not every plastic bag is bad of course, they can be very useful. But is it really necessary to use that many for everything – especially if you know that you’ll throw them out the moment you reach your home? There is nothing wrong with putting my baguette into a paper bag, or just tossing my already plastic wrapped onigiri into my backpack without further ado.

Even though I carry at least my little backpack with me at all times; even though I have an additional cloth bag (which in Japan are called eco-bags, by the way) with me when I know that I will go shopping; and even though I am refusing plastic bags left and right, I still end up with so much more than I could possibly ever reuse. And it annoys me greatly, that at this point, there is not much I can do about it…