The last three days were very busy, I was on my feet – literally – for more than eight hours each day… When I came home last night I was so tired, I went to bed at around ten, hence the delay in my report, but here it is, finally:

Wednesday night was the last evening of the yoiyama for the Saki matsuri parade. Just like last year, from 6 pm the streets of the inner city where the floats had been built were closed for traffic, and were turned into a huge pedestrian area. It was very crowded; when I looked from Yasaka shrine over Shijo street, it was filled with people, the heads of the Japanese turning the space into a black mass. It had been a very hot day and it was a lovely night, but because it was so crowded, the feeling was more hectic and much less relaxed than last year.

I had fun though, trying out new street food: pancakes made from takoyaki batter, rolled up and then topped with all sorts of condiments. I had one with mayo, parsley, dried fish flakes, and ketchup, thus each bite tasted differently. Altogether, there were at least four different types. For safety reasons I did not try the one with the fried egg on top: although seemingly delicious, the yolk still looked rather runny… Also, I have to admit that I succumbed to shopping and bought a tengui, a traditional, thin Japanese towel, that was sold at the stand of the boat-float, which always comes last in the parade. I bought this one because I really liked the phoenix on it, what do you think:Japanese Towel called "Tengui"

The biggest novelty – and one that my inner treehugger is especially happy about – were the ECO-stations placed at exits and large crossings of the pedestrian area. When I bought the pancake, I received it in a little dish made from very sturdy plastic and I already thought it was a shame to throw it away after single use. Only then did I discover the ECO-stations, where one could return these dishes to have them washed and reused directly. What a wonderful idea! I hope they’ll keep it up and they can be seen at many matsuri to come!

Thursday started very early and ended very late… A friend of mine came up from Kobe and because we wanted a decent spot on a corner to watch the parade, we met at 8 am – and were still about 30 minutes late for the perfect spot, which was reached by the parade only at 9:30… My friend was amazed by the big fuss that was made to turn the naginata hoko around the corner. However, she was not quite as patient as I had been the year before, and so we gave up our front row spot after about an hour of watching, and we walked along Shijo dori towards the other floats of the parade. I showed her my favourite one (topped with the praying mantis), and she was especially excited about the boat-shaped Ofune hoko, traditionally ending the parade, because it looks so different from all the others.

We then had sushi for lunch, and when we left the restaurant at 12:30, we could still see the last floats leaving Kawaramachi street. We then went through Gion to my favourite temple where we relaxed a little before she went to the station where she had booked a tea-ceremony, and I headed back home.

After a nap that felt hardly longer than 10 minutes, I was up and about again to go to my soroban class – it was the big exam day, remember! We conducted it almost like we do a normal class; first a short mental calculation warmup, then the test. It went well, no big surprises, although I was a bit nervous. I could leave right after the test was over as I was so tired, it must have shown. I think at that time my sensei already knew whether I had passed or not, but he said I would get the result only next Tuesday. You are thus still allowed to keep your fingers crossed!

Yesterday, on Friday, I went to a friend’s place at 10:30. She had an invitation for the opening of the summer exhibition at MIHO Museum and had invited me to come along. Miho museum is about a 90 minutes drive from Kyoto, situated in the middle of mountains. it is a privately owned museum, founded by and named after what was at that time the richest woman of Japan. The special exhibition centres around two large tapestries (probably two metres by one), depicting a Kwannon – the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy – and a sitting, pensive Buddha. The tapestries were hand-woven for the museum after two old images, and you can see the original paintings as well as statues and other related objects of art.Flyer of MIHO museum

The permanent exhibition is exquisite, albeit small. They have a beautiful little statue of Horus, made from silver, gold, and lapis lazuli, that apparently was once the main deity of an Egyptian temple. There was also a standing Buddha statue, some 2.5 metres high I guess, upper body leaning forward just a little bit. It gave me the impression of a father stooping down a little to his children. I really enjoyed the trip although it took much longer than I had expected. The museum is certainly worth a visit, even though it is a bit far from Kyoto.

Now, those were my last three days. Today I had planned a rest day; from Monday on there will be the second yoiyama before the Ato matsuri parade. It should be much more quiet though, but I hope the friend with whom I will watch it will like it too.


Aikido – literally harmonic spirit path – is a modern Japanese budo or martial art. It was developed by Morihei Ueshiba – now reverently called Osensei – in the early 20th century, starting from the time when he was around 20 years old all through his life until his death in 1969 with 85 years.

Osensei Morihei UeshibaOsensei, born in 1883 was a sickly, weak child, and to strengthen his physique, he was sent to take martial arts lessons. Although his father wanted him to eventually take over the family business, Ueshiba – by then a strong young man – took a number of similarly minded people to Hokkaido, where he established a farming enterprise – today we would probably call it a commune – with mixed success. Around this time, he met two people who proved essential for his future path: He met Takeda Sokaku, a master swordsman and martial artist, and he studied what was then called aiki-jujutsu under Takeda for more than 10 years. After that, he joined the Omoto-kyo sect under its spiritual leader Onisaburo Deguchi and opened his first own dojo in Ayabe. Following his spiritual enlightenment as he called it, he went to Tokyo to open a dojo and there, he fused Deguchi’s spiritual ideas and Takeda’s martial arts into the round and soft movements today known as Aikido.

Callligraphy of Kanji meaning "Aikido"Aikido is generally considered an inner martial art, that is, the focus does not lie on increasing physical strength but on developing inner energy called ki. Nevertheless, Aikido is highly effective if done correctly. Aikido is strictly defensive and uses no weapons. The basic idea is to take an attacker’s force and turn it – using round movements – against him; hence, the force is never blocked but always redirected. The techniques fall into a type of pin, rendering the attacker unable to move, and into a type of throw, where the attacker is moved further. The total number of kata techniques is quite limited (for example, there are only six types of pins), but together with a number of different types of attacks and the distinction of receiving an attack standing or sitting, those basics already take a long time to learn: Depending on the dojo, you can expect to train between three and six years for your shodan, the first grade black belt.

From there, everything else takes a lifetime. Clearly it makes a difference whether your attacker is a 150 kg, 2 m muscular superman who comes at you with all he’s got, or a 60 kg, scrawny nerd… The techniques remain the same, but beyond your shodan you will be expected to use less and less force and to make ever smaller movements. Really good shihan – senior teachers – hardly move at all when they smash you into the ground.

A typical Aikido lesson starts with everybody sitting in rows opposite the kamiza, the head of the dojo that usually contains a scroll or a picture of Osensei. The sensei – teacher – enters and seats himself in front of the kamiza; everybody bows first to the kamiza, and then, with a hearty onegaishimas – please – to the sensei. A technique is demonstrated, usually with one of the senior students and then the participants form pairs and try to execute the technique themselves. Usually, there is no restriction with whom you can train, beginners train with black belts, men with women… Everybody trains to their own abilities, and for the next technique, you’ll find another partner.

One of theOsensei training partners is the uke – attacker – and the other is the nage – defender – who is executing the technique. As uke loses by default, there should be no competition as to who is stronger (although I know this is not always the case) and when after four attacks the roles are reversed, both partners benefit in the same way. At the end of the class, everybody bows again to sensei, then to the kamiza, and finally to the other students. Then, the black belts fold their hakama, and the dojo is swept for the next training.

Although Aikido incorporates many moves from sword fighting, the focus lies on empty-handed techniques, but that depends both on the style that is taught and on the particular dojo. There are a number of different styles or schools of Aikido. For example, Yoshinkan Aikido goes back to Gozo Shioda sensei, one of Osensei’s early students. It is a relatively hard style of Aikido and is taught to the Japanese police. Ki-Aikido, a further development by Koichi Tohei, is the softest style on the other end of the spectrum, focusing on Ki – a concept of energy and inner strength that is difficult to explain, even for Japanese. Iwama style Aikido is the one that emphasises weapons training the most, as it was taught to Morihiro Saito in the dojo in Iwama, where Osensei spent his later years. Shodokan or Tomiki Aikido was founded by Kenji Tomiki, another one of Osensei’s earliest students. Shodokan is the only one where regular competitions are held, and as such it is probably the most distant from Ueshiba’s principle.

Aikido Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba at a demonstration The largest school of Aikido, considered the main line, at the moment headed by Osensei’s grandson Moriteru Ueshiba, is called the Aikikai, and their headquarter is still in the dojo in Tokyo that was founded by Osensei. Especially inside the Aikikai, there are many different styles, which go back to Osensei’s students of different eras. As I mentioned above, Osensei kept refining his Aikido over more than 50 years, and his techniques changed from the hard style of the young man in his prime (many students of this era went to the US to teach) over the more round style of middle age (often found in Europe) to the irresistably soft style of his old age (mainly found in Japan).

Cover image of ït's a lot like dancingAikido dojos of all styles can be found all over the world. If you are curious, just stop by for a trial lesson, most dojos will allow that. Finally, there are also many books about Aikido out there, from biographies of Osensei and some of his better known students down to how-to’s. My favourite book that does not talk about techniques at all, but about the greater picture behind Aikido and its place in the world is called “It’s a lot like dancing” by Terry Dobson, one of the last students of Osensei. Accompanied by stunning photographs, he shares little stories and insights he gathered from his own training over the years. Think about this one:

To have a war, the enemy must be kept alive.


One of the most beautiful Japanese handicrafts – in my opinion at least – is lacquerware, also called shikki or urushi. Like maný things Japanese, lacquerware originally came from China, but once again, the Japanese have refined the techniques and raised them to new heights.

detail of a writing box coverLacquer is the filtered sap of the urushi tree, and as the midsummer sap is of the best quality, the tree is usually tapped between June and October, in a similar way as rubber or maple syrup is gathered: by making cuts into the tree’s bark at different places. A sign of quality is the amount of urushic acid in the sap (80 – 85 % is optimal), and the sap from different trees should be kept apart. Interestingly, liquid lacquer is very toxic and needs to be handled with care and safety clothing, but once hardened it is practically insoluble, and drinking from a lacquered cup for example is harmless.

hot water pot in red lacquerProducing a lacquered object is relatively easy: A thick layer of lacquer is applied, left to dry – lacquer dries best in a somewhat damp environment between 20 and 26 degrees – and then polished. This process is repeated numerous times until the desired thickness of the lacquer has been reached; different types of lacquer require different periods of drying (from two days to one month), and different means of polishing (from simple whetstones to deerhorn powder). The complicated parts are the preparation of the object to be lacquered – the core – and the final ornamentations that may be applied at the end.

writing boxIn principle, any material can be lacquered – metal, porcelain, ivory, etc., I once even saw a lacquered leaf – but the core of most lacquer work is wood. Clearly, the size of the object determines the type of wood that lies underneath, but for small, everyday things like bowls or boxes, a core made of cypress wood is most commonly used. When the core has been made, a single layer of lacquer is applied. After drying, channels and joints of the core are carefully covered with a mixture of lacquer, hemp, and rice starch, and then the piece is dried again. This layer is rubbed down to give a smooth surface, then another one of sabi, a mixture of lacquer and burnt clay, is applied. When this is dry, the piece is covered with cloth (hemp or linen) to prevent the wood from cracking. Again, several layers of sabi are applied on top of the cloth, dried and polished each time. Only after this procedure is finished, the “true” lacquering as described above will start.

lacquered cabinetNatural lacquer is transparent, but often coloured pigments are added, for example India ink or – traditionally – iron filings boiled with vinegar give black, silicate powder gives white, vermillion red, metallic powders give gold, silver, or copper tones. Coloured lacquer is used in lacquer carvings, for example. Numerous layers of – sometimes differently coloured – lacquer are applied to the core, and then an image is carved into the lacquer, showing the different colours.

carved lacquer on round boxMetal powder is also used in Maki-e, a kind of painting lacquer ornamentations, that has been developed in the Nara period (645 – 794). Essentially, a design is painted with lacquer onto the piece. The wet lacquer is then dusted or rubbed with coloured powder, and so, layer by layer, the final image is created. When the design is complete, a final layer of clear lacquer is applied to even out the surface, which is then polished.
pitcher, 16/17th centuryLacquerware remains an expensive artwork that takes a long time to create. Even if some steps can be automated with the help of machines (making the wooden core for example), the final decorations lie still in the hands of an artist.

lunch box


Last Monday, when I was wandering around Heian shrine taking pictures of unsuspecting young people in their wonderful kimono, all of a sudden a woman approached me and gave me a ticket for an art exhibition at the Kyoto Municipal Museum which is nearby Heian shrine. It came completely out of the blue, I was very surprised and thanked her with many arigatou’s and bows. I am not sure if she had given tickets to other people as well, but it was nice to have the foreigner bonus this time…

Anyway, as I had nothing better to do and needed to find a topic for yet another blog post, I went to the museum this afternoon, where the 45th Nitten Kyoto Exhibition takes place until Sunday. This exhibition is organised by the Japan Art Academy, an organisation that was founded in 1907 and is considered the highest ranking artistic organisation in Japan. The JAA, with its at most 120 members, elected for life, advises the Minister of Education and promotes art in general. There are three distinct categories: Music and Drama, Culture (essentially literature) and Fine Arts, the last being divided into Japanese and Western painting, sculpture, crafts, and calligraphy. 300 works of Fine Arts from Japanese artists travel around Japan in this exhibition and at the Nitten Kyoto Exhibition another 300 works from artists based in or around the Kyoto area are added. You can find all works of art that are exhibited on this Nitten page, you need to do quite some clicking to get to the pictures unfortunately.

I did not bring a watch with me, but it must have taken me close to two hours looking at all the art, and that although I did not go into the calligraphy section. Sadly, I don’t know what to look for in calligraphy beyond the meaning of the words – which is obscured by my lack of vocabulary. I can see that the writing is beautifully executed and certainly better than anything I could produce, but the finer details escape me.

I am a big fan of sculptures though, and although there was only one room dedicated to them, I spent quite some time there. The nude female body obviously still inspires many artists, but ultimately I found many of them comparatively static in posture and thus uninspiring. My favourite was this sculpture by Kuwayama Yoshiyuki, the angle of the photograph is not well chosen; the hands are holding a puppet in traditional Japanese dress, it is facing away from the camera, so it is hard to recognize.

The whole second floor of the museum was dedicated to paintings and crafts. I am not a huge fan of paintings (I like Dali though), but some of them struck a chord within me, and I bought a few postcards at the end. My most favourite piece of art from this exhibition however, is the following “painting” by Namiki Tsunenobu. Actually, it is not a painting, but a piece of exquisit lacquerware (urushi or shikki) with inlaid pieces of gold for the stream at the bottom and a golden moon on top. Once again, the photograph does not quite do it justice, the stream appears more golden than silver in reality. It is 162 x 112 cm large and of perfect craftsmanship, the black lacquer is flawless. It must be worth a fortune. "Painting" of lacquerware


I guess that the top three things associated with Japan are sushi, samurai, and geisha. While sushi is easily available all over the world these days, and samurai are readily identified as men with swords and that extra bit of honour, the world of the geisha is even nowadays a carefully guarded one where not everybody is allowed to enter, lest take part. This, as well as the fact that the hanamachi (geisha districts, literally “flower town”) are operating with ancient rules and traditions, the meaning of which has long been lost to the outside observer, has given rise to a number of misconceptions and misunderstandings even among Japanese.

It starts with the name: geisha means literally “art person”, she is a woman trained in a number of traditional Japanese arts and plays the part of hostess at parties generally visited by men. She is there to entertain the guests with singing, dancing, witty conversation, general attentiveness, and just the right amount of flirtation; in short, she is there to embody that image of the perfect woman every man fantasizes about – the perfect unattainable woman, because she will always go home alone.a geisha is perfect elegance even when putting on her zoriLike in many traditional Japanese arts, the first geisha were men, as women were not allowed to go to parties and mingle with men. In the 18th century however, women began to appear as geisha (how this came to pass is unclear), and they quickly became very popular of course. Geisha were independent and worked for themselves, and the brothels or oiran felt threatened by what they saw as competition. So, the government set up rules what geisha were allowed to wear, and how, where, and when they could entertain. Instead of curbing the business, however, this only fanned the flames, and geisha became hugely popular – in the 1920s, there were about 70.000 geisha all over Japan.

In these old days, girls as young as five or six started working and training at an okiya (geisha house). Not few of them were sold by their poor parents to the okiya and had to work there until they could repay the costs for their training. Nowadays becoming a geisha is a normal, albeit somewhat rare career choice for a girl. They usually enter an okiya at 18 (in Kyoto at 16) and start the demanding training of five years until they – at least the most determined ones of them – give their debut as geisha.

A typical training begins with the application of the girl to the okasan (mother) of an okiya. If she is accepted, the okasan will pay for her training and also act as her manager, and the girl will move into the okiya as a shikomi, essentially a maid helping around the house. She will now try to find a mentor among the geisha in the okiya, and once she has been accepted by her onesan (older sister), the so called misedashi ceremony will turn her into a maiko, an apprentice geisha. This is the time when she adopts a stage name that will be hers throughout her career, and often the geisha in an okiya share the first syllable of their stage names. a maiko on the way to workPart of a maiko’s training will be conducted at a kaburenjo, a training school for geisha, where different types of art are taught: ikebana (flower arranging), shodoh (calligraphy), sadoh (tea  ceremony), and traditional Japanese dance and music (shamisen, koto, fue, etc.). Another part of the training is learning to speak the dialect of the local hanamachi, and how to entertain all types of men and what to do at parties in general. For that, the maiko will accompany her onesan, but does this only to observe – and to be introduced and to make connections for her future career. Finally, there are intricacies of polite Japanese behaviour to learn: whom to greet first for example, or how deep to bow. This happens mainly by interacting with the other people in the hanamachi, by visiting other okiya or teahouses, for example. Maiko and Geisha - spot the differenceOnce the training of a maiko is completed, she will make her debut as a geisha after a ceremony called eriage, which literally means “turning the collar” of her underkimono from a red to a white one. This is only one way of distinguishing maiko and geisha. The appearance of a maiko is usually that of a young girl, with very colourful kimono and bright obi. A maiko’s kimono has long sleeves that almost reach to the floor; most often they wear their obi in a long dangling style to show off the pattern. To avoid trailing the expensive kimono on the floor, they must wear 10 cm high wooden okobo, and a part of their earliest training consists of learning how to walk in them. Maiko also have an elaborate hairstyle that includes many colourful hair ornaments and is difficult to maintain.

One of the things many maiko choose to do once they turn into a geisha is to cut off their hair and wear wigs instead. This saves them hours at the hairdresser’s each week, and now they can use real pillows instead of the tiny ones that allow no movement that could destroy the hairdo in the night. In general, a geisha’s appearance is more subdued than that of a maiko, as a geisha represents a mature woman. A geisha’s kimono is less ornate and colourful, the sleeves are much shorter, and the obi is worn in a more compact way. Another boon of being a geisha is that the more simple kimono now allows them to wear normal zori sandals, instead of the okobo. a mature geisha - note the hairstyle!These are the most obvious changes from maiko to geisha, but there are many little details only the truly initiated can spot. Maiko’s hairstyles and collar patterns change from year to year; the more mature a maiko or geisha, the less flaunting her kimono becomes as she is now able to rely on her skills rather than to impress with her dress; and there are people who can tell, just by looking at the kimono and hair ornaments of a maiko which month of the year it is.

Nowadays, geisha are not only accomplished entertainers, but also smart businesswomen. In fact, the hanamachi are entirely run by women – from the maiko, their big sisters and mothers, to the owners of the teahouses that employ them. All geisha are unmarried but I guess boyfriends are allowed these days. A geisha getting married marks the time of her retirement, which is celebrated by the final ceremony of hiki iwai. She may now stop taking classes and can move out of her okiya. Often, however, retired geisha open their own teahouse or okiya and stay in the hanamachi in this capacity. a typical maiko hairdo with lots of ornaments. A private evening with a geisha is almost prohibitively expensive, which may be one reason why the number of geisha is dwindling – there are less than 1000 in Japan these days, mostly in Kyoto and Tokyo. There are some public performances throughout the year though, and occasions where you can see maiko and geisha walking the streets on the way to their work, especially in Kyoto’s Gion district. The photos here were taken at a public ceremony last month, by the way.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies

poster for castle of crossed destiniesImagine the following: It’s Japan, at the end of the 17th century. You are the shogun, the most powerful person in the country. Everything runs well, you have a lovely spouse, an attractive concubine, and a countless number of admiring – and admirable – courtiers. But then, your one and only heir dies unexpectedly from a disease – and suddenly securing succession for your family by producing another heir becomes paramount. The usual courtly intrigues are reaching a new peak when the only solution is to ramp up your sex life, but…

…what if you’re a woman?

This film, based on a manga, turns history upside down by assuming matriarchy throughout 17th century Japan. The 5th shogun, Tsunayoshi, is a woman who desperately endeavours to conceive a daughter to secure her family’s succession on the throne. Interwoven with her story is that of Emonnosuke, a court noble from Kyoto who enters Tsunayoshi’s services as potential mate and remains at her side throughout her difficult task.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies (Ooku Eien Emonnosuke), 2012, 124 min
Director: Fuminori Kaneko
Cast: Miho Kanno (Tokugawa Tsunayoshi), Masato Sakai (Emonnosuke), Toshiyuki Nishida (Keishoin)

The old problem of succession seen from a completely new point of view. Even in matriarchy, taking a different man to bed each night is frowned upon, and it does pose quite some difficulties for Tsunayoshi. Some true historical facts are hinted at, like the ban on killing dogs, but the film lives mainly from the reversal of the sexes and the elaborate costumes and stage designs. There is a lovely happy ending, though…

This film is available in Japanese from amazon.com, but I have not found a version with subtitles.

White Night

Kyoto has 10 sister cities, and one of them is Paris. The idea behind sister cities is to foster cultural exchange, so, last Saturday there was La Nuit Blanche, the white night in Kyoto. For the third year already, there were exhibitions, performances and meetings of French and Japanese artists throughout the city of Kyoto – and Paris as well. The opening ceremony, starting at 7 pm. with the French minister of culture, took place at the Kyoto Manga Museum (of all places), then there was a projection of art onto Kyoto City Hall, and then there were many small events in art galleries and other places around the city. Logo of La Nuit Blanche 2013

I have to admit that I’m not very big on modern or performing arts – although I like photography and sculpture and make the occasional trip to see opera. Anyway, I decided to check out the white night regardless, and there happened to be an interesting performance in a house near Ebisu’s.

I arrived at the house – old Japanese style with a beautiful garden – shortly before one show, and as we were led through the house in a roundabout way to the stage, we had to pass through white woollen threads hanging from the ceiling or having been woven into something resembling spider’s webs. We took seats at the edge of a darkened room furnished only with tatami; there were more threads hanging from the ceiling, and in the middle of the room something lay, covered with a black cloth.

All of a sudden, music started, spotlights came on, and the “thing” began to move. There turned out to be a woman underneath the black sheet, dressed in white, with straight black hair and white makeup (like the one geisha wear) on face and arms, who was “chained” to the ceiling with the wool. She began to move more vigorously, finally broke her chains and disappeared though a side door. The whole performance took less than 10 minutes. As I said I am not very big on modern art, and this one made me shiver… All the time I had the feeling the creature was evil and rightfully in chains, and when she had escaped, that something very dangerous was now at large.

My housemate later explained that this was a special type of Japanese performing art, that it originated some time after the war and that it is centred on depicting primeval forces and on evoking feelings of fear in the spectators. It certainly did that for me, and probably for the Japanese spectators as well, as they were leaving very quietly, nobody clapped or gave any sign of appreciation of the actress. It was interesting, but more interesting it would be to find out why the Japanese are all so fond of ghost stories…

Abacus and Sword

Japanese movie posterThe Inoyama are samurai who for generations have been in the service of the Kaga clan. Their weapon of choice, however, is not the sword but the soroban – they are expert accountants. The current head of the Inoyama family at the beginning of the Meiji restoration is Naoyuki who is called, both derogatorily and admiringly, “Mad Abacus”, for his extraordinary gift with numbers, cultivated since childhood. His pedantic nature allows him to uncover a conspiracy over disappearing rice, but, as is the fate of so many whistle blowers, he falls from grace…

From then on, the Inoyama family learns what it means to be poor, and as Naoyuki refuses to borrow money, their descent into rags is inevitable. Their struggle is not without funny moments, and in the background there is always the clicking sound of the soroban.

Abacus and Sword (Bushi no kakeibo), 2010,129 min.
Director: Morita Yoshimitsu
Cast: Sakai Masato, Nakama Yukie, Matsuzaka Keiko

This movie ties in perfectly with last Saturday’s post. 😉 Also, how Naoyuki and his family make ends meet is timeless and some of their methods to save money, although very harsh, seem applicable even today. It’s not all about economizing though. The Inoyama never lose their humour to make the best out of everything, and not for a single moment do they betray their heritage as samurai. The film is based on the book by Isoda Michifumi.

Unfortunately I could only find Japanese versions of both the book and the movie – they are available from amazon.com, if anyone is interested.


Today was my fourth soroban class. “What ” I hear you ask, “shouldn’t you study Japanese instead of something random?” Well soroban is indeed Japanese, it is the Japanese type of abacus. old style soroban at a fleamarketThe history of the soroban (lit. counting tray) goes back around 400 years, when the Chinese version of it, the suanpan (which itself is about 1800 years old) was introduced to Japan. Japanese merchants were the early adopters and had been using it since then, but it took until the 17th century for it to become popularly known, and Japanese mathematicians started to study it in depth and improve its workings. Only in the early Meiji period, i.e., at the end of the 19th century, did the soroban take its modern shape and has been unchanged ever since. Even today how to use the soroban is taught in primary schools, and you even need to pass a soroban exam to qualify for work in public corporations.

Each soroban has a number of vertical rods or columns, each representing one digit, with five beads each. The beads are separated by a single horizontal reckoning bar into one go-dama (5-bead) on top and four ichi-dama (1-beads) at the bottom. Clearly, the more rods, the more powerful the computations that can be performed. Soroban always have an odd number of rods, the standard size has 13, in class we use soroban with 21, and my teacher gave me a small one with 11 rods to practice at home.

The basic operations of course are the same, regardless of size. The centre rod represents the one digit, the first rod to the left the 10 digit, the rod yet one further to the left the 100 digit, and so forth. To the right of the centre are the 1/10th, 1/100th, 1/1000th… rods. The four ichi-dama beads at the bottom each count as one, the go-dama bead on top counts as five, but only when they touch the reckoning bar. So, to practice a little, can you read the number below?The soroban shows 19602.05

The beads are operated, i.e., flipped up and down, with the thumb and forefinger of the right hand. The go-dama on top is both added (moved downwards) and subtracted (moved upwards) with the forefinger, whereas the ichi-dama at the bottom are added (moved upwards) with the thumb and subtracted (moved downwards) with the forefinger. Not only this, but also the order of the movements is strictly prescribed, the reason for this is simply to increase the speed of the calculation.

There are several ways of adding and subtracting numbers, depending on how many beads are used already on the rod. Here, the concept of complements plays a very important role for computations on a soroban. For example, adding 7 can be done by

  • adding 7 to a single rod (by pinching the go-dama and two ichi-dama together simultaneously), or
  • adding 2, subtracting 5, and adding 10, or
  • subtracting 3 and adding 10.

So far, addition and subtraction are all I can do. The concepts are easy, but it takes a while to do the finger work correctly (and fast), and sometimes, when I am all stuck in thinking about complements, I completely forget about the easy way of addition or subtraction – by simply sliding the right number of beads up or down…


Last weekend, a friend and I stumbled upon a manga-anime fair. According to this article, it was the annual manga-anime fair that took place in various places in Kyoto, and its main purpose was to recruit new animators. I guess however, that most visitors there were simply fans.

It was an interesting but at the same time somewhat weird experience. The booths were covered in large pictures of anime characters, from cute girls to manly warriors and space captains to scary robots. There were also many flat screens showing the latest episodes of their anime. Some booths had merchandise for sale, others sported several attendants, mostly young, female and dressed accordingly, that is to say, rather scantily. But also the visitors were interesting to watch – a number of them wore the attire of their favourite manga character, regardless of gender: I have seen one guy dressed up as a female anime, short skirt, stockings, and a pink wig included. The booth I found most interesting though, was one where two women were painting a scene; one in the traditional way with watercolors, the other one on a large tablet.

warrior with helpersAnime and manga are an enormous business in Japan. Large sections of bookstores are devoted to all sorts of manga, ranging from well known characters for children like Doraemon, to stories of all sorts for teenagers and adults (there are manga and anime about martial arts, history, cooking!…) to the sexually explicit hentai for the … um … connaisseur (to be perused at leisure in buses and trains). Many people even use manga to study Japanese. The industry’s internet advertising revenue is more than 180 billion yen, and 70% of all DVD’s sold in Japan are anime.

Personally however, I have to admit that I don’t quite get it, certainly because I did not grow up in this culture. I mean, I do fondly remember the series Heidi, Perrine, or Captain Future of my childhood (yes, all of them were produced in Japan, Biene Maja also), but at some point, well … I grew up. Whether that was a good thing or not I am not entirely sure 😉