I’m back…

…both figuratively and literally speaking! Last week I took a few days off from business and went down to Nara, a small town about an hour south of Kyoto. Yes I know, I could have chosen a more exotic location – Nara is much like Kyoto on a smaller scale – but I really didn’t have the energy for a long trip. All I wanted was a nice and quiet hotel somewhere I could hunker down for a few days and sleep.

nightview from my hotelroomEven though I didn’t end up sleeping as much as I had planned – too much to explore in Nara – the hotel was just what I needed. I had booked a Japanese ryokan overlooking the city and very much “away” from everything, since it was reachable only by car. What attracted me to the hotel in the first place was the view over the city, the large tatami rooms complete with own genkan and indoors balcony, public hot bath and included Japanese breakfast.

My room in NaraFriendly staff are the norm all over Japan, but since this was my first longer stay in a ryokan, there were a number of little things I experienced first hand that were absolutely charming. For example, a board next to the main door saying “welcome Miss Iris”. A matcha when I was shown my room and its amenities. When I returned from sightseeing on the second day, I had barely time to slip into my hotel yukata when there was a knock on my door, and with a “welcome home” I was served green tea and a sweet. There was also a little note on my table informing me about tomorrow’s weather. All of this, apparently, also is standard in Japanese ryokan. I love Japan!

coming out of the public bathAnyway, I had a lovely and relaxing trip. I learned a few more interesting things about Japan, and I’m feeling ready to get back to work! I hope I didn’t make you too jealous with my hotel photos… More photos of other things Nara will follow, promised!

Mount Fuji

On my recent wanderings around the internet I came across the picture of Mount Fuji below. I prefer to post my own photos here, but there is no way I could ever match this perfection. Enjoy!

Mount Fuji seen from a plane.

Photo courtesy of Hghask Ekorb on unsplash

Fillomino

You know sudoku, of course. Ever since the puzzle was introduced to the readers of The Times in 2004, it has taken the world by storm, and by now, sudoku are a staple in the daily puzzle section of newspapers, whether on- or offline.

20 years before that, sudoku had already been introduced to Japan by Nikoli, a publisher that specialises in logic puzzles and games. Over time, Nikoli has developed many different logic puzzles, a large part of which are language- and culture independent and can be attempted by anyone (you may need basic math skills though). In Japan, you can buy little books containing about 100 puzzles each, and despite everything being online these days, the books still appear popular.

One of Nikoli’s logic puzzles is called Fillomino, and this is how it is done: You start out with a rectangular grid, some of the squares containing numbers, others being empty. The goal is to create boundaries between contiguous regions, where each separate region containing the number n consists exactly of n squares; and two regions with the same number/size may not be adjacent and share a boundary (they may touch at a corner only).That means that a square containing the number 1 is its own region, two adjacent 2s lie inside the same region, etc.

Sounds easy? Well, caveat emptor: It is possible that two non-adjacent same numbers belong to the same region, and in the final result there may appear regions that had no numbers at the start.

Want to give it a try? Here is one of the hard puzzles I copied out of my current puzzle book – notice the sweating pencil? But we’re all nerds here, it shouldn’t be too big a problem for anyone of you… A hard fillomino to try out

Gyoza

I am slowly trying to japanify myself, and a friend of mine helps me doing so by teaching me how to cook. Last Friday we spontaneously decided to make gyoza – Japanese meat dumplings.

Japanese GyozaYou need gyoza wrappers – thin, round wrappers made of noodle dough. I guess if you can’t find those, it would be possible to make them yourself. Those are filled with a mixture of cabbage and pork and a few other things and are relatively easy to make. See a full recipe at my washoku page. Still, I would recommend making a really large batch and freezing whatever you can’t eat. It is best to freeze the fresh gyoza before frying them.

Also, extra tip: the meat mixture described in the gyoza recipe is the same as for meat balls. Japanese tend not to fry those in a pan, but rather, they put them on a stick and grill them. Something I will also try out eventually.

Toseikyo

The Toseikyo is a very old Japanese game. Although it seems very simple, it takes great skill to win it.

Toseikyo targetOn a small block of wood, some 20 cm high, there is placed a little cloth target with bells that looks a bit like a jester’s cap. The player sits about 2 metres away from it and gets a small paper fan. The opened fan is then thrown towards the target – and if you can knock the target off the block, you win. Usually one player tries a few times and counts the hits before the next person may throw.

Throwing a fanSounds easy, right? But it isn’t! You are not allowed to throw the fan sideways with a flick of the wrist; the proper way is to throw the fan in a straight line from you towards the target – and that makes it really difficult! You need to gauge the force with which you throw the fan just right – too much force and the fan will turn downwards and bury itself in the tatami, too little force and you won’t get far enough.

Just missed the target!It takes a lot of practice to do it right. Apparently, the game is ancient and was already played 1000 years ago at the Heian court. I suppose all those court ladies of leisure had enough time to perfect their skills… Interestingly, I have seen new Toseikyo sets for sale at high-end shops in Kyoto. Nice to see that there is still a market for these kind of things.

Kokyu

Last Saturday I went to a small open air concert in a temple in the centre of Kyoto: koto and shakuhachi. The two instruments go well together, and the flute was the main reason why I wanted to go. I had been to koto concerts before, but never heard a shakuhachi live. And I have to say – I was disappointed by it.

I am not sure what was wrong with the shakuhachi player – a rather old monk from said temple – whether I could not hear him because the microphone was not well-adjusted or functioning (there were a number of total outages throughout the concert) or whether the player himself didn’t have enough breath do make himself heard.

The two koto players were very good though, so my time was not wasted. Interestingly, I was the only non-senior in the audience, something I had not expected at all. But maybe because of this, I was treated to a very special performance: The last song (and the encore) must have been well-known tunes, because at some point, people in the audience started singing along! Man and women alike accompanied (or were accompanied by) the koto and the shakuhachi. It was lovely!

A Japanese Kokyu As a bonus, I learnt something new: In one of the pieces, a so-called kokyu was used. It looks like a half-sized shamisen, but is played like a cello. A kokyu has three silken strings and the bow is a thick handful of horsetail hair. The bow-strings (do you call it like that?) are slack, and you need to use the ring finger of the bow hand to tighten it while you play.

This is not easy, and I know that because I was allowed to try it after the concert – obviously the foreigner bonus. To be honest, the sound of the kokyu is not very pleasant to Western ears. It is reminiscent of the Chinese erhu, but the tones of the kokyu are less crisp. I guess this is either because the bow is never really taut, or because of the silken strings.

All in all I had a nice afternoon, even though I will have to try and catch another shakuhachi concert. I hope that I will hear about more concerts and events like this – there is so much to do and learn in Kyoto!

I am a Cat

I am a Cat
by Soseki Natsume

Cover for I am a CatThe cat in question, which has not been named, lives in the house of a schoolteacher, Mr. Sneaze, a somewhat stingy and definitely dyspeptic man with a wife and three children. As soon as the cat arrives at this household, it begins to quietly observe his master and the friends that come to visit: Mainly Coldmoon, a former student of his master and now looking for a wife, and the rich Waverhouse telling his stories, whether true or false, and a number of others. The cat is always there, occasionally taking matters in his own paws, but mostly observing from the background and commenting on the three men and the things that happen to and around them.

The cat’s observations are pointed and witty, sometimes scathing, and always come from a somewhat aloof position. This way, the reader is presented with an interesting picture of humanity in general, and those living in Tokyo of the Meiji period in particular, where Western influences creep into Japanese culture and make for an especially interesting mix.

I am not entirely sure what to think of this book, and I have read it twice now. It has been written as a series of short stories that appeared in a magazine. The first story is hilarious, and its success prompted the author to write more stories about the nameless cat. The stories can stand alone, but there is a common arc throughout, which would have been better if the book had been planned as such from the outset, I think. And towards the end of the book, the cat (or rather: the author) loses himself in long and rambling philosophical meanderings, which are sometimes hard to follow. Friends have assured me though that the Japanese original reads much better than any translation. Okay – I may get back to it again in a few years.

Soseki Natsume is considered the best writer of Japanese (modern) history, and he is still widely read today. He was born in 1867 in Tokyo and studied English literature from 1890. He spent two years in England, which he thoroughly disliked, and when he returned to Japan in 1903, he started publishing his works. “I am a Cat” was among his first published books, and is considered a masterpiece. Soseki died in 1916.

Check it out on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

Shakuhachi

A Shakuhachi is a Japanese flute made from bamboo.

Recently, I have been looking for Shakuhachi music online and I am very impressed by it. I am not a very musical person, but learning Shakuhachi is something I might want to do at some point, given enough time and money – a good Shakuhachi can cost 300 EUR and more (oops, missed a zero: it’s 3000 EUR) . I will do some more research and write a proper weekend article at some other time.

Listen to the music below, it is a modern piece written in 1995, after the disastrous Hanshin earthquake in Kobe. Enjoy!

I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While

I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While
Taichi Yamada

Cover of I haven't dreamed of flying for a whileTaura is shocked. The woman he had just spent the night with is 20 years his senior, and he already considers himself old at 48. Hidden behind the screen of the hospital room, both unable to move, they shared a night full of talk and erotic passion. When Mutsuko appears in Tokyo a few months later, Taura is surprised at her looks. Without timidity, Mutsuko tells him that she is getting younger, in painful attacks that can last for days. Taura, all but dumped by his entrepreneur wife and grown-up children, and transferred to the department for “special projects” in his company where he cannot do any harm, starts an affair with Mutsuko. She, aware of what her journey must inevitable lead to, attempts to live her newfound youth to the fullest, drawing Taura into a maelstrom of sex, adventure, and lies, that even gets him into prison for child abuse. And yet, he cannot let go of Mutsuko, and she keeps getting younger and younger…

The story is written from Taura’s perspective, and he tells it rather matter-of-factly, almost unemotionally. Except for Mutsuko’s reverse ageing, everything is realistic, but we also hear very early on about Taura’s mental instabilities. Is Mutsuko real, or does she just exist in Taura’s imagination?

What an interesting idea this story is! An old woman, at the end of her life, gets a chance to relive it and, literally, be young again. And this time she is prepared to live it to the fullest! Mutsuko’s affair with Taura seems to be the only thing that is stable in this new life of hers, and while at the beginning they meet irregularly, later on, when Mutsuko turns into a child, she must rely on him more and more. Since Mutsuko is physically changing drastically at each and every one of their meetings, I cannot help wondering how much a physical change I could bear in a partner of mine. Could I really be “in love” (and intimate) with my partner if he looked, say, like a 12-year-old?

Taichi Yamada was born in Tokyo province in 1934 and studied literature before entering the Shochiku film studio. He left in 1965 to become a free screen writer, and some 30 of his scripts have won prizes in Japan. He has written mostly screen plays, but also a number of essay collections and novels.

Check this book out on amazon.com or amazon.co.uk.

Kyo Chaffle

Green tea is a wonderful discovery/invention. In Japan, some 90.000 tons of tea leaves are harvested each year. Most of this tea is consumed either as “raw” green tea or fermented or roasted (as black tea or hojicha, respectively). An interesting Japanese invention is matcha, green tea leaves that are finely ground to a powder and which can be used to make the famously bitter tea for tea ceremony, or as an ingredient for cooking.

Additionally, in Japan you can buy matcha flavoured anything: From candy to kitkat and chocolates, to ice-cream (with and without anko) for example. And all sorts of cakes and cookies.

Kyochaffle with packageA personal favourite of mine from the latter department are cookies called Kyo Chaffle. Those are thin, round cookies with an intensely green color and an even more intense taste. Their “mouthfeel” if you want so is like that of brownies: On the inside they have a slightly sticky consistency, while they are dry on the outside. They are very delicious indeed and are nice as a snack in between – provided you can manage to stop after a single one…