A Japanese address is much longer than a Western one. Generally, it can have the following parts:

satellite photo of Japan

Name of Region (-fu)
Postcode and Name of Town (-shi)
Name of City District (-ku)
Name of City Subdistrict
Name (and number) of Neighborhood (-cho)
Number (and name) of building (and/or apartment)
Name of Person

Note that this from-large-to-small approach is the normal way of writing a Japanese address, very much along the idea that the group is everything and the individual is nothing. Also, in Japan, there are hardly any street names, and if there are any, they are rarely used in an address. Instead, the neighborhood (-cho) and the number of the building are used. Of course, building numbers are not given out consecutively along a road, but consecutively according to the date of building the house…

As you can see, instead of the usual Person-Street-City address that takes up only three lines, the important parts of my address take up six, if I ignore the first two lines which are not really needed for a large city like Kyoto. With a bit of squeezing, I can get it down to five lines, but it is still too much for the average Western database.

I still have an account in Germany and I am still using their credit card, mostly for online purchases. Unfortunately, my German bank insists on sending me physical, paper credit card bills instead of electronic ones, and they just cannot wrap their mind around my address. The last three letters I have received from my German bank used three different subsets of the six lines of my address, but never the complete one.

Once the city district and subdistrict were missing, which is not too bad because the postcode is very specific and this is part of the coding. Another time the building name and number were missing. Thank goodness, the neighborhoods in Japan are very small, and my neighborhood only comprises an apartment complex with a management office, so it is still possible to find me. And so far, only a single time the full post code was present, but luckily the last and thus most important of the seven digits were always there.

I have no idea how this can happen, I have already had several email exchanges with my assistant at the bank about this. It fascinates me that the mail still reaches me, although somewhat delayed of course. Thank goodness the letters are never urgent, and thank goodness there is a post office worker somewhere in Japan, possibly in Kyoto, who goes through all the trouble to find out the correct address so I can receive my mail.

Still, I wish it would be simpler and faster, and I would not cause any extra work for anybody. I will contact my bank in Germany about this. Again…


raindrops on a windowI was looking forward to the beginning summer, with open windows all day and night, a long siesta during the hottest hours of the afternoon, tons of green tea ice cream… And what do we get? A serious drop in temperature. Last week we had highs of up to 32 degrees, today it was barely 20. And it started pouring in the afternoon – just when I had to go out, of course.

Hello tsuyu, rainy season! According to the Japanese Meteorological Agency, it starts here in Kinki or Kansai (the region around Kobe-Osaka-Kyoto) on June 6th and ends on July 19th. Yes, Japanese are that precise. However, that does not mean that it will rain every single day (although that has happened), but it will probably not stay as cool as today, and when it is getting warmer, the humidity will increase and make this time quite unpleasant. I have even heard that homes can get mouldy and food left outside of the fridge can spoil very quickly during this time even if it is not that hot. I hope there will be not too many rainy days and enough sunny ones in between to be able to air out the apartment, just in case.


Today, at 9:59 in the morning, another one of the many volcanos in Japan erupted and spewed ash as high as 9000 metres. Mount Shindake is located on a little island about 100 km south of Kyushu, where about 140 people live. All residents have been brought to safety by now.

Check out the article in the Asahi Shimbun, which has a stunning photo taken from a nearby island and a short video that shows the eruption. Scientists are worried that this might only be the start of a prolonged series of eruptions of Mount Shindake.

Meanwhile, Mount Hakone, centre of a very popular hot spring destination south of Tokyo, has also started rumbling. The ground there has risen 15 cm within two weeks by sulfurous steam emitted from the flanks of the mountain. The Japan Meteorological Agency has raised its warning level to two in the beginning of May, urging people to stay clear of the crater of the volcano. Although another scientist places the probability of an eruption of Mount Hakone at 4%, I think I will not go there any time soon.


Last Saturday, September 27, just before noon, the volcano Ontake, around 250 kilometres northeast of Kyoto erupted in what is called a phreatic explosion. This is caused by water being almost instantly turned to steam (by the volcano’s magma) and then exploding through the surface. While this sounds rather harmless compared to a full-blown eruption with liquid magma, the images (you have seen them by now) tell another story. Ontake eruption from spaceSo far, 36 people are presumed to be dead, and at least 63 have been injured, some of them severely. Given that there were around 250 people near the peak of the volcano at the time of the eruption, it could have been much worse, but still… Here is a link to the latest news from Japantimes, complete with videos and photos: article from

Mount Ontake, with 3067 metres, is the second highest volcano in Japan, the highest one is Fuji. Since olden times, it has been a sacred place complete with shrine and everything; apparently it is especially popular with artists and actors who go there to seek enlightenment and inspiration in trance and meditation. Even for those of less artistic bent, Mount Ontake is a popular hiking destination. It belongs to the list of 100 famous mountains in Japan, and Ni-no-ike, one of its five crater lakes, is the highest crater lake in the country. It seems to be relatively easy to climb the mountain, and thus, around this time, when the leaves begin to turn, many Japanese nature lovers visit the mountain and the area.


I have mentioned two weeks ago or so that a United Nations court has sentenced Japan to stop their whaling, and surprisingly, Japan has agreed to do exactly that.

Well, after a few days it transpired that they were willing to put an end to it only for this season and that they may reevaluate the decision in the future. And now, it turns out that the whaling will be stopped only in the antarctic regions, the Pacific is still wide open and considered happy hunting grounds… Apparently it took the Japanese government two weeks to study the court papers in depth and to find the loophole that says: “Hey, we cannot hunt around Antarctica any more, but when it comes to every other place… ” Welcome to Japan!

The Japanese love bureaucracy and they have following the rules down to an art. In a tea ceremony, for example, every single step, no, every single movement is prescribed and has to be executed just so. Sometimes I feel that no matter what it says, if the rule is written down somewhere or stems from a higher authority, it will be obeyed. I have never seen a Japanese pedestrian cross the road at a red light, not even at 2 am in the morning, when he’s the only one around. The rule says that… and so we follow it. Hence, if the UN sentence says “not around Antarctica”, this is exactly what we do, and nothing else. Interestingly, when there is no written rule, people can be rather flexible. I guess it’s just a way of implementing that old saying: In a bureaucracy it is easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission…

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell

Cover of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetJacob de Zoet arrives at Dejima with Unico Vorstenbosch, who has vowed to rid the island of the ever present corruption and embezzlement. And Jacob is the right aide for this; the clerk, finicky, compliant, and honest to a fault beholds a rosy future. Of course, his incorruptability makes him some enemies fromt he start, but among his trusted friends are translator Ogawa and Dejima’s doctor, Marinus. And when Jacob becomes infatuated with one of Marinus’s students, Aibagawa Orito, and seriously considers marrying her, it seems that he is on top of everything.

However, his nice life is falling to pieces when Vorstenbosch is about to leave Dejima and in an interesting turn of events is revealed as the greatest crook of them all. On refusing to cover up his crimes, Jacob’s promotion is revoked and he is forced to fend for himself. Rock bottom is hit, when Orito – upon the death of her father – is forced to become a nun at a dubious Shinto shrine.

What is Jacob to do? Everything seems hopeless, but then, an unexpected ship anchors in the harbour…

Dejima island near Nagasaki was a treaty port of the Dutch, and for a long time provided the only way for the West to trade with Japan. The novel is set at the end of the 18th century, and it gives an apt description of the scheming and corruption that must have taken place on both sides. Some of the events in the novel are based on historic facts. Only the happenings in the Shinto shrine seem to be far fetched, but they do provide the suspense that keeps you reading.

David Mitchell was born in England and came to Japan in 1994 where he taught English in Hiroshima for eight years. He visited the Dejima museum – rather by accident – in 1994, the novel appeared in 2010 and won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ (regional) Prize (South Asia and Europe).

Check out the book on amazon.

Tenno Tanjobi

Today was a national holiday in Japan – the emperor’s 80th birthday. His Imperial Majesty the Emperor Akihito was born on December 23rd, 1933 in Tokyo as the fifth child but first son of emperor Showa (Hirohito). He ascended to the throne on January 7th, 1989, with the official enthronement taking place on November 12, 1990 after 22 months of preparations. His era bears the name Heisei.

I have not noticed anything big going on in Kyoto (I didn’t go downtown though), but tenno tanjobi is one of only two days (the other one is January 2nd) when the general public is allowed to enter the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. You may then even write a greeting to the emperor and as this page states “The Greeting Book will be duly forwarded to its highest destination as the expression of your warm congratulations” there could even be a chance of him reading it! This year, there were three appearances of the emperor and his immediate family planned on a balcony of one of the palace buildings and people go there and wave little Japanese flags to greet the emperor. This year, there were about 24.000 visitors, and as the entrance gates close after only two hours, you can imagine how terribly crowded the plaza must have been on which the people waited for the emperor…

chocolate cakes


Happy Birthday, Your Majesty!

A Geisha’s Journey

A Geisha’s Journey: My Life as a Kyoto Apprentice
Komomo and Naoyuki Ogino

Cover of "A Geisha's Journey"A Japanese teenager living abroad suddenly misses her heritage and identity: What does it mean to be Japanese? On her quest for an answer she discovers the hanamachi, the geisha districts. Enthralled by this fantasy world of beautiful kimono wearing women and ancient customs, she decides to become the most Japanese woman of them all – and enters the hanamachi in Kyoto at age 15 to become a geisha. Given the name Komomo as an apprentice maiko, she starts a demanding training lasting five years to fulfill her dream.

This book tells about those years and gives a glimpse into the intimate details of the hanamachi of Kyoto. Always at Komomo’s side is Naoyuki Ogino, a photographer who is equally fascinated by the flower world and whose striking images of Komomo’s life add an almost magical touch to her story.

Komomo’s story is fascinating, and her change from an insecure teenager to an accomplished Kyoto geiko is obvious in Ogino’s photos. I especially enjoyed learning the little secrets of a geisha’s life. You could probably have guessed that a maiko cannot dress herself alone – but did you know that it takes a man (called the otokoshi) to tie her obi?

Check the book out on amazon.


It’s Friday 13th – need I say more?

In Japan, the number 13 is not considered particularly unlucky – that’s a superstition imported from the West. It’s not as if the Japanese are completely free of odd beliefs when it comes to numbers though. The numbers 4 and 9 are considered unlucky. 4 because its Chinese reading is “shi”, and the word for death is also pronounced “shi”. 9 is unlucky because its pronunciation as “ku” sounds like “suffering”. Like in the West, where the number 13 is often avoided in hotels (from floor 12 you go straight to 14) or airlines (no rows 13), the same holds in Japan for the numbers 4 and 9, although it seems to be more common not to have a 4th floor than not to have a 9th. Apparently, planes of All Nippon Airways have no seats with numbers 4 or 9, and many hospitals do not have rooms with these numbers. These beliefs spill over to other areas as well. For example, when giving gifts, you should always take care to give odd numbers – 3 or 5 plates for instance, not 4. For occasions where money is considered appropriate, like weddings, an odd amount (other than 9000) is better than an even one. The best would be a gift of size or amount including 8 though, as 8 is considered a lucky number. The kanji for 8 consists of two strokes that are farther apart on the bottom than on the top, which signifies that a better future lies ahead.

What I find very interesting is that there are lots of odd numbers in many normal packages: Meiji chocolate has 15 little pieces, there are 11 chocolate covered cookies and 5 chocolate buns per pack, and my favourite sweets – chocolate covered macadamia nuts – come in packages of 9 (the suffering is probably in the weight gain). And the last time we opened two 98g packs of chocolate covered almonds – one of them contained 23, and the other one 25. odd numbers of chocolate

Coincidence? I’m not sure. But I might be eating too much chocolate…


More space for the Japanese! Since yesterday, Japan is the proud owner of an additional tiny little island, newly made by an underwater volcano. It belongs to the Ogasawara (or Bonin) islands and lies about 1000 km south of Tokyo. It is not going to do much to alleviate Japan’s population density though, as it has (so far) only a diameter of about 20 metres. Besides, it is not clear yet if it is stable, it is possible that it will be eroded away again quickly, as has happened to the last island that was created there in 1973.

The JapanTimes has an article about it, including a cool picture; and even more cool is the footage by the Japanese Coast Guard, that can be watched on here.

Happy Birthday Atarashii Jima!

(which simply means new island, and is not its official name…)