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…)



As I have encountered difficulties (to put it mildly) in finding a job in Japan without speaking the language perfectly, I thought of exploring other options. As a kind of continuation from my job at university, where you are essentially working for yourself and are fully responsible for the outcome, being self employed does sound like a good fit. Unfortunately, information on how to do this in Japan is not easily obtained (though JETRO is quite a good site), and what you do find is at best incomplete, at worst contradictory. So, I took the opportunity of the free legal counselling at the Kyoto International Community House, went to the lawyer there and prodded him for explanations.

So, if you want to be self employed in Japan, and you need a visa go to with it, then you’ll have to do the following:

  1. Find a Japanese business partner who sets up the business for/with you. If you don’t have a work or other visa that entitles you to do that yourself, he will have to all the work from doing all the paperwork (including research on how to set up a proper Japanese style business plan) to getting the right type of seals (no signatures in Japan), to opening a bank account and renting office space. Essentially he will have to deal with all sorts and levels of bureaucracy, which may take a while to begin with. Once the company is established, he will have to run the business – at least officially – and you must
  2. Wait until the business has made profit – provably sufficient profit that it. At some point in between you’ll have to
  3. Invest at least 5.000.000 YEN into the company (or employ at least two Japanese people full time). Again, you must prove that the money is yours – a transfer from a foreign account under your name is sufficient. Only with all that done, finished and proved with yet more paperwork – meaning it will take you at least a year after you’ve started – can you
  4. Apply for an investor/business manager visa, which, once granted, allows you to finally come and run your own Japanese company from Japan itself.

Easy, eh? Well… there are a few things that are still in the shade. First of all I could not find out how much profit is deemed sufficient. Nor is it clear how much you must earn as the manager of your own business once you can come, except that it has to be “more than a Japanese person would earn in the same position”. I assume that depends on the type of business you’d want to open. The bigger problem, however, – for me at least – is at the beginning already Let’s assume for a moment that I actually have all that cash (actually, it’s not even that much, in the US you’d need half a million US$), there is nobody in Japan whom I’d trust with that much, not without any guarantees. Paper doesn’t blush doesn’t come out of nowhere, and for many people, the temptation threshold lies far below that amount…

Had I been better prepared for the interview, I could have counted the number of times the lawyer used the word impossible

So, once again, I find myself back at square one: I need a job.


Since the disastrous Tohoku Earthquake in 2011, we keep hearing about the volatility of the Japanese earth, and the numerous, practically continuous earthquakes shaking the country. So far, however, there has not been an earthquake in Kyoto since I arrived, at least not one I could feel.

What is often forgotten is that the Japanese islands are of volcanic origin and there are many volcanoes around – the most famous one is Mount Fuji. There are 108 active volcanoes in Japan, where a volcano is defined as active by the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) if it has erupted in the last 10.000 years. The JMA is monitoring around 30 of them 24/7, and one of them erupted yesterday.

image of sakurajima erupting in 2009

Sakurajima (2009), courtesy of Krypton (wikimedia commons)

It was Mount Sakurajima on the island with the same name, in the southern part of Kyushu, which spewed ash as high as 5000 metres. Sakurajima – Cherry Island – is a popular spot for tourists; in fact I was considering visiting it myself during last year’s trip to Japan, but I ended up touring Honshu instead. This volcano spits ash fairly often, and it seems that people are quite used to it. Nearby, there are several cities, Kagoshima being located just across the bay, and apparently Kagoshima city council simply advises people to carry an umbrella when ashes are falling again.

Actually, I find the news rather exciting, but this is from the safety of Kyoto. I would probably think differently if I lived there and had to regularly sweep ash from my doorstep.

Here are links to English Japanese newspapers covering the story:
Japan Today
Japan Times