Japanese Parking Lots

Japan as a country ranks among the most densely populated places on Earth. Especially in the big cities, space is at a premium, and a family of 5 living in a 60 m2 apartment is not unusual. Another place where this lack of space shows in parking, and Japan has a number of interesting and often unique approaches to deal with the issue.

Although Japan boasts one of the safest and most reliable public transport systems on the planet, owning a car is still seen as a status symbol, in particular when it comes to expensive and foreign cars. However, before you lay down your money to buy an expensive car, you must prove that you have a parking lot for it, no matter if you live in Tokyo or somewhere in the Japanese Alps.

In Japan, curbside parking is virtually nonexistent, so what to do? Some people rent a paid parking lot nearby their home. Often these are temporary lots where the owner waits for permission to erect a new building. Many of the parking lots people use on their errands are like these too, and the pricing often varies according to area.

Most people, however, park on their own property right in front of their home or they rent (or possibly own) a parking lot at their apartment building. And this is where things get really interesting!

My own block of apartments was built in the 1970s, at a time when this part of Kyoto was still considered “outskirts” (and a little it still is). This means that there was ample space between the buildings with room for trees and grass and – parking lots. More modern buildings, or those that are in inner city, do not have or cannot afford this luxury to begin with. So, they build parking garages, but with a twist!

A Japanese parking rack for cars

In many Japanese garages, the parking lots are stacked on top of each other with no space for a person to move between the cars. The idea is as follows: All you need to build one is space for, say 10 parking lots in two rows plus access to the first row. Let’s also say you have space for 4 storeys, one underground and three above ground. The whole thing is one large metal “rack” (for lack of better words), where each parking lot can move individually left/right and up/down as needed. You rent your very own parking lot and only have access to this one.

Now, say you need your car, but it’s not in the first row on ground level – how do you get it out? You have a key that you insert into the control box. Your parking lot with your car will automatically move to one of the front row spots so you can get to your car. Other lots that are blocking the way automatically move. Of course, it may take a while until your car is in the right spot, so people need to factor that in if they are in a hurry.

Looking down a "parking rack" in Japan

On the other hand, this kind of parking racks saves a huge amount of space. In some areas, they are also used for temporary parking. Often, they are in very high but narrow buildings, and customers only have access to the ground floor. They leave their car there and an operator will take care of it – valet parking for everyone!

Here is a video on how parking works in one of these parking garages. It’s similar to the private ones in apartment blocks, but has an even more eerie feel (why are there announcements when there’s nobody down there??)

It is quite interesting to see such a system operating. I know that I was totally stunned the first time I saw one. In fact, a friend of mine whose building has one of these parking racks says that there are always tourists taking photos of it.

Japanese parking garages – the secret tourist attraction. Who would have thought!

Setsubun at Rozan-ji

Yesterday was setsubun, the last day of winter in the traditional calendar. It is said that between the seasons there is a gap through which evil demons enter the world. Obviously, this is not good, so they have to be repelled – by throwing roasted beans at them while shouting “oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi”. I wrote about setsubun and the ceremony at Kyoto’s Yoshida Shrine on this blog before (and also on What’s up in Kyoto by the way), if you are curious about details.

Yesterday I went to two setsubun rituals. In the morning, a friend of mine invited me to the temple were she usually goes to. First, there was a normal worship with lots of chanting done by the congregation, which was the first time I experienced this – usually, it’s only the monks chanting. Afterwards, there was a short sermon by the current head of the temple (broadcast from Tokyo, another first time for me) and then there was the mamemaki bean throwing. My friend’s mother was smart enough to bring a large shawl that she draped on our laps, so we got an extra amount of lucky beans without straining too much.

After lunch, we went to Rozan-ji temple, where Kyoto’s second largest setsubun ritual (after the one in Yoshida shrine) is taking place. Here, there is a Buddhist ceremony taking place inside the temple, and while only selected guests may enter, you can hear the chanting outside as well. Then, all of a sudden, three scary demons in red, green, and black appear on the scene, wielding a sword and a torch, an axe, and a mallet. They perform a kind of dance on stage and slowly and with lots of looking about, approach the temple and finally enter it.

Inside, the priests appear undeterred from their ritual and keep on chanting as if nothing has happened. Unfortunately, I could not see what was going on, but after a while, the three demons ran out of the temple, without their weapons and staggering from left to right. They disappeared somewhere at the back of the precinct, never to be seen again – setsubun mission accomplished!

Right afterwards, an archer came out and shot arrows into the four cardinal directions. This is meant to create a kind of blessed circle around the temple, which evil demons cannot cross. Catching one of these arrows is also considered lucky, and if you do, they should be displayed in the altar of the home or, lacking one, near the entrance door.

Finally, it was time for the setsubun highlight, the mamemaki bean throwing. Some of the priests and other invited people came onto the stage where just before the demons had danced, and started shouting “oni wa soto” while throwing beans to the spectators. Besides the lucky beans that were covered in white and pink sugar-coating (and were quite delicious), they also threw small mochi into the crowds. Some of them had a stamp on them saying “lucky”, and you could exchange these mochi for a sacred arrow.

There was quite some scrambling for the beans and the mochi. It’s surprisingly hard to catch them, but people were just as happy to pick them up from the ground (which meant more scrambling). I was not lucky enough to catch an arrow, nor did I catch one of the “lucky” mochi. I did catch one normal mochi though and picked up a second one, and one of the lucky beans caught in my collar.

All in all, with all the beans I got throughout the day and the two mochi, I think I will be decked in with luck for the time being. Which is always a good thing, I think we can agree on that!

I’ll add some pictures tomorrow!

Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood
Haruki Murakami

Cover of "Norwegian Wood"Taru Watanabe is a student at a private university in Tokyo in the 1960s and he lives the average life of an average student: some parties, some studies, some music, some girls… But then Naoko re-enters his life, a girl he knew from school. Taru had a crush on her then, but she was the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki and thus off-limits. Now however, Naoko is free, and they rekindle their friendship that soon blossoms into a tender romance. But then Naoko disappears, and despite his efforts, Taru cannot find her.

At this time, he meets Midori, who is the total opposite of the quiet and introverted Naoko. Taru quickly falls in love with the outspoken and demanding Midori, but just as he is ready to commit, a letter from Naoko arrives…

On the surface, this sounds like a typical “man between two women” story, but it’s not quite that straightforward. Taru loves Naoko deeply, but her inner troubles don’t permit her a relationship. Midori on the other hand is open and available – which makes her scary in another way. Will Taru be able to choose in the end?

Haruki Murakami, born in 1949, is among the best known Japanese authors of today. He started writing with 29 and the above book, published in 1987, became his breakthrough with millions of copies sold in Japan alone. Haruki Murakami has been the recipient of a number of prestigious literature prizes, among them the Tanizaki Prize, the Yomiuri Prize, the Franz Kafka Prize, and the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award.

To relive the times of young adult angst in and about love, get this book on amazon.com.

The Crab Cannery Ship

The Crab Cannery Ship and Other Novels of Struggle
Takiji Kobayashi

Cover of The Crab Cannery ShipThis book consists of three novellas, all written in the late 1920s/early 1930s. All three concern class struggles, the rising of the working class, and the left-wing movements in Hokkaido.

  • The Crab Cannery Ship is a novella about a season of crab fishing near the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka. Neither factory nor ship, local fishermen and other laborers from Hokkaido have to endure unspeakable hardships to feed their families, until, at last, there is an uprising… 
  • Upon the jailing of her brother, Okei and her mother must move to Otaru to make ends meet. Yasuko, the younger sister works there already, in a small restaurant. When she gets involved with Yamada, a member of the worker’s union, the lives of both sisters change, but whether it’s a change for the better remains to be seen.
  • Life of a Party Member is exactly that, the struggles of a member of the left-wing party who is forced into the underground. However, he still keeps up his work to convert people to the socialist movement. It is not clear whether this piece is autobiographical.

The three stories in this book can probably be called left-wing propagandist literature, and the author, as a member of the labour movement does nothing to hide it. However, the writing is incredibly vivid and conjures up dreary pictures of the lives of impoverished people. I felt very drawn to the protagonists, and was ready to step in to help, all the while seeing through some of the more obvious propaganda (of course, with almost 100 years of hindsight). The first story was republished in 2008 and became a bestseller in Japan, a sign for the constant need to make a change, I guess.

Takiji Kobayashi was born in 1903 and moved to Hokkaido as a small child. He started writing short stories and published them when at university, and at that time he became a member of the labour movement. “The Crab Cannery Ship” was written in 1929 and it sold 15.000 copies before it was banned. He continued to write more stories and books in support of the labour movement and socialist ideas. In 1931, Kobayashi became an official member of the already outlawed Japanese Communist party, and one year later, he went underground. In 1933 he was captured by the police, tortured, and died while in custody – officially – from a “heart attack”.

If you’d like to read this book that became a bestseller and sold 500.000 copies 80 years after it was published, head over to amazon.

Formalities

Keigo is the Japanese word for polite or formal speech. Unfortunately, it has a lot of nuances that are very difficult to grasp for the foreigner. Besides the standard “mas”-form that should be used when speaking to strangers (and can be compared to the German “Sie” or the French “vous”), there is the sonkei honorific form and the kenjo humble form. Both of them come with special vocabulary for often used verbs like eat and drink, come and go, etc.

While the vocabulary can be learnt comparatively easily, it is rather difficult to figure out when to use these forms. The honorific is used when talking to (and sometimes even about) people of higher status than oneself. The humble form is used when referencing one’s own actions in the same circumstances. You could see it as a way to make a difference in status clear to everybody who is watching the interaction, or to make sure that the other person is aware that you understand your own (humbling) spot in life.

These nuances are extremely important when doing business in Japan, and it is vital to make the right first impression. Even Japanese who are not used to doing business  may have difficulties here. As a foreigner, I do have a certain amount of leeway, but that only works when I approach somebody in person. The moment I am writing business letters in Japanese, this breaks down, obviously.

For my recent ad letters, for example, it is very important to address the recipient in the correct manner. My friend and I spent about an hour just to get the very first sentence right, which is a simple:

To the General Manager

There are many different versions of general managers out there, from the simple tencho shop owner to the significantly more important daihyo torishimariyaku, the president and CEO. Of course, if you are addressing the general manager of a hotel, you’re speaking to the soshihainin no matter what. 

You see, navigating business in Japanese is tricky. I hope I will swim – or at least stay afloat long enough until I learn to do it properly.

Botanical Gardens

It’s the height of the koyo autumn colors and yesterday, the weather was just perfect: nice, sunny, not too windy… Since I was in the area for work, I decided to take a stroll in the botanical gardens of Kyoto to see their momiji. And it was an excellent decision! The grounds are so vast that people just disappear in them. It would be hard to feel crowded even on so perfect a day as yesterday. Anyway, here are a few photos I took in the botanical gardens yesterday.

Botanical Gardens Kyoto - koyo 2019

Botanical Gardens Kyoto - koyo 2019

Botanical Gardens Kyoto - koyo 2019

Botanical Gardens Kyoto - koyo 2019

Botanical Gardens Kyoto - koyo 2019

Coronation

The new Emperor of Japan was officially crowned today. It was another special holiday today – I missed that completely – but since the main events of the transition are over, it was also the last holiday.

The ceremony was rather solemn and subdued, with lots of traditional pomp that goes back to the Heian Period, about 1000 years ago. I didn’t have time to watch all of it, but here is a video of the coronation ceremony, it’s about 70 minutes long. Be warned though, there are long, long periods in between where nothing much happens!


From a quick glance at the video, one thing is interesting: The whole family is there in the throne room, plus a few members of the Japanese parliament – but I could not see the Emperor Emeritus or his wife anywhere. The man in the wheelchair is the uncle of the current Emperor, as far as I know, but his father is not present. Interesting, isn’t it?


Performance

Last Sunday afternoon, so as not to get too anxious while waiting for the election results to come in, I did something unusual for me: I was watching paint dry. This is not a joke, I mean it literally!

There was a performance by a young woman called Shintaku Kanako. Essentially, she covers her body with paint of different colors, waits motionless until it dries through body heat, which takes about 20 minutes, and then applies another layer of paint etc. That’s all she does throughout the performances, she just sits on a chair and uses her hands to put paint over her body. Sometimes she’s stretching too (I guess the chair is uncomfortable) but she does not speak or anything. And her performances are long, this one was 3.5 hours in total.

So… yes, that’s what I did last Sunday: watching paint dry for about 1.5 hours. The performance is rather boring to be perfectly honest, the other visitors were most interesting. Another artist from Hikone struck up a conversation, and there was the old guy who took about a gazillion of photographs of her – I found him rather creepy. That’s what is really exciting about the performance: the resulting photographs of her painted body are absolutely stunning. Something is in there that is hard to define, but I find it very compelling. My favourite one is at the main page of Shintaku Kanako’s website. Feel free to check out her other photos there or on instagram.

Blood Type Personality

From times immemorial, people have tried to come up with ways to make sense of another person’s personality. One way of doing so is to use astrology, where the stars you are born under supposedly influence your personality and the good and bad things happening to you throughout your life. A recent and much more scientific take on personality are the Big Five personality traits that are more or less backed up by psychological research and at least don’t try to predict what’s going to happen to you next week.

Japan however – or should I say: of course – is different. Instead of asking a person for their birth date or astrological sign, the standard question asks for blood type. Supposedly, whether you have A, B, AB, or 0 blood type tells people everything there is to know about your personality, and, of course, with which partner you are most compatible. Let’s list some of the traits upfront:

blood types by 200 degrees on pixabay

Type A: kind, compassionate, sensitive, calm, curious, loyal, idealistic, deep and committed but also obsessive, pessimistic, fastidious, stubborn, and easily stressed.

Type B: friendly, outgoing, energetic, expressive, curious, creative, imaginative, independent, and spontaneous but also wild, erratic, not forgiving, selfish, uncooperative, irresponsible, and unpredictable.

Type AB: independent, outgoing, spontaneous, energetic, fun-loving, quick, adaptable, and creative but also complicated, self-centered, irresponsible, vulnerable, indecisive, forgetful, unforgiving, and critical.

Type 0: responsible, practical, strategic, organised, determined, decisive, objective, success-oriented and logical but also jealous, rude, ruthless, insensitive, unpunctual, unpredictable, cold, self-centered and arrogant.

And as for finding the perfect partner: The individual types are best compatible with their own type and with AB, which makes AB blood types the universal donor/recipient in this case.

So, when in Japan, it is good to know your blood type to have a fun conversation topic. Obviously, most Japanese do not believe in this at all, just like most Western people don’t believe in astrology or palm reading. It’s a fun little thing to know and then we all move on with our lives because it doesn’t matter.

Milky Way over Great Dunes National Park, US.

Obviously, we do not know who came up with astrology, that is, with the idea that the stars influence life on Earth into a personal level. Of course, when you look at the sky and see the Milky Way every night and its billions of stars, that conclusion does not appear that far-fetched.

Anyway, concerning the blood type theory, we can pin down its origins to a string of people from Japan. Aristotle already believed that personality is inherited through the blood (and may very well be, if you call it by the modern name genetics). However, it really all started in 1901 when my fellow Austrian Karl Landsteiner discovered the AB0 blood types (he received the 1930 Nobel Prize for this, by the way.)

In 1926, Rin Hirano and Tomita Yashima published a clearly racist article called “Blood Type Biologically Related” in an army medical journal. A year later, a professor at Tokyo Women’s Teacher’s School who had no medical training whatsoever, Takeji Furukawa, published a paper on temperament through blood type. The militarist government of the 1930s loved the idea and used it in an attempt to breed better soldiers and to explain the superiority of the ethnic  Japanese over minorities like the Ainu or other countries’ citizens, like the Koreans and Taiwanese. This may have contributed to some of the atrocities being committed in WWII, but thankfully, the idea fell from grace during that time already.

Until, in the 1970s, Masahiko Nomi came along and breathed fresh air into the blood type personality theory, and this time, the Japanese public went with it. Of course, Nomi had no medial training either, but this did not deter him from publishing papers with what he thought was statistically significant data. His son continued in the father’s footsteps, and even established an institute for further research and publication in 2004.

Serious medical/psychological research has been done on the claims of blood type personality, and it did not find any statistically relevant correlations. What little evidence these researchers have found can be explained with the Barnum-effect, with self-fulfilling prophecies, or with similar logical fallacies.

Still, Japanese people are fond of the idea, and blood types are often mentioned in manga, anime, and video games and are even given to serious match making services. To each their own I guess – we have astrology, after all.

PS: In case you’re wondering about me and my blood type: No, it is not true at all what it says about me. I am always VERY punctual!