Kanji Island

I’m still engaged in studying Japanese, and slowly, oh so slowly I might be getting somewhere… Part of the problem is that while I’m getting better at understanding, speaking is still quite difficult. There are lots of interesting grammar constructs that I am learning, but it is not easy to get them from passive knowledge into active speaking… At least I am beginning to understand more, so that’s something.

I keep struggling with Kanji though, so I’m jumping at opportunities to learn those, the more painless, the better. Recently I found cute coloring sheets for Kanji, called “Treasure Island of Kanji”. It’s for elementary students and all the 1006 Kanji they learn during their six grades. Each sheet shows the appropriate shape of an island with squiggly “paths” drawn that actually contain all the needed Kanji. The idea is to find and paint the Kanji one by one in different colors, and in the end, every bit of path belongs to one and only one Kanji. Here’s the sheet for the first grade, containing 80 Kanji:

Treasure Island of Kanji

The difficulty lies in the fact that the lines have no real endings, and that Kanji may consist of several disconnected part. So you really have to know how the Kanji look like and what all their parts are. For example, in the lower left corner, I can see the Kanji for book, year, and eye very clearly, and there might be the ten Kanji in it, but I have no idea where the rest of the lines should go.

The biggest problem with this is that you really need to know the Kanji that are sought, and they are not given anywhere. So it’s a bit more difficult for non-Japanese who may study Kanji in a different order than elementary school kids.

It is a cute little game though, and the inventor, Yuji Baba, has made many more card games to study Kanji and other stuff. Check out his homepage. 

Some of those games are for sale on this page of the Okunakaruta Online Shop, but you’ll have to navigate the Japanese to begin with, and I’m not sure if they ship abroad at all.

Cafe Breaks

With summer approaching and my apartment still being without aircondition, I will probably be forced out of my home every now and then in the coming months. I am slowly building a list of cafes where I can go and work in dire circumstances because I don’t want to go to the same ones all the time. So far, my favourites are the following:

  • The Cafe in the Ogaki Bookstore on Kitaoji Street. It’s the closest to my home, they have small meals and excellent matcha latte. When I need a break, I can simply walk among the books in the store. Con: No wifi.
  • The Mushiyashinai, a vegan cafe near Ichijoji Station on the Eiden railway to Kurama. While I don’t care much that it’s vegan as such, their soymilk lassi is absolutely addictive. They have nice little cakes to take home too, and as a bonus: the young man working there is very cute… Con: a bit expensive.take-home fruit cake from the Mushiyashinai
  • The Nama Chocolat in Okazaki, run by a friend of mine. Pretty quiet (except for weekends) and located in a lovely old house. Excellent home-made chocolate, a real treat together with matcha. Con: I always end up chatting with my friend rather than working…
  • The Mo-an Cafe on top of Yoshida hill. Rustic and quiet atmosphere, with a nice view over Kyoto. Serves small meals for lunch, not many people (busy in the weekends and during lunch time though). Con: Tricky to access by bicycle. You should leave it somewhere at the foot of the hill.
  • Matsunosuke near the Museum of Kyoto. A bit far from my place but their sweets are worth it. Best pancakes in town. Con: Not really a place to work since it’s quite busy. Pancakes are delicious but take an eternity to make…
  • The Lec Court Cafe in the Kyoto Hotel Okura. Excellent desserts, excellent service in very stylish ambience. Tea is served in large pots to about three cups. Con: Expensive. And they would probably frown upon laptop use – not that they would complain though!
  • The Lipton Tea House on Sanjo Dori. Fluffy cakes to die for (and for takeout), a large selection of tea and wonderful hot chocolate. Refined ambience, friendly staff and reasonable prices. Con: Like in the Okura, it doesn’t feel right to take out a laptop. Bustling with tourists.

These are my favourite cafes in Kyoto when I want to work away from my office, or when I just want a break. There are hundreds more that want to be tried of course. The nice thing about cafes in Japan is their great Austrian approach to it: Order one coffee, and you can stay forever. I prefer not to go on the weekends when these places are usually busy with many customers, but during the week, when there’s nobody else, they are fair game. Who knows, I might be seeing you there!

Gotōchi Formcard

A modern post office goes beyond selling stamps and being a place where to send parcels and letters. Nowadays, you can also buy stationary, postcards, cardboard boxes to pack your stuff in it…

In Japan, every post office in a city that is frequented by tourists – whether Japanese or from abroad – sells special postcards called gotōchi forumukādo (ご当地フォルムカード). Literally that means “local formcard”, and these are fun postcards that depict some of the most iconic tourist spots or things of that particular city and are often shaped accordingly.

In Kyoto, these formcards of course have something to do with Geisha, and there are also a few of Kyoto’s most iconic temples and even tsukemono, which are pickles and the main souvenir from Kyoto, for Japanese tourists, that is. What do you think of these? Do you recognise the two places?

Gotoji Formcards from KyotoPostage varies according to size, but these cards can be sent abroad as well. However, the clerk at the post office suggested using an envelope for destinations outside of Japan, just to make sure they arrive unharmed.

Hakodate

I’m back! 😉 You probably didn’t catch the book reference, but last weekend I visited Hakodate on Hokkaido, which is just on the other side of the Tsugaru Strait, where Ozamu Dazai walked in the 1940s.

Hakodate, founded in 1454, is the former capital of Hokkaido, at a time when the island was still called Yezo and was mostly unexplored and inhabited by “scary” Ainu, the people indigenous to Japan. Hakodate is an interesting city because in 1854 it was the first port to be opened to foreign trade and thus it had a large influx of foreigners from many countries.

This can be seen in two ways: In the old town, there are houses that are distinctly Western style, and made from bricks even. The old quarter also has many churches and foreign consulates, unfortunately, not all of the old houses are in a good state, although there are some renovation efforts going on. For Westerners, the houses look nice but not something we haven’t seen before, but the Japanese love visiting Hakodate for the “foreign flair”.

Russian Orthodox Church in Hakodate

At the edge of the old town, there are several cemeteries for foreigners, strictly separated by country of origin or religion. There is the Russian cemetery, the Chinese cemetery, a catholic cemetery (which also has graves of local Japanese Christians – as I said, there are many churches here) and a cemetery for foreigners in general.

Tombstone on the foreign cemetery in Hakodate

Another interesting part of the old town is down at the harbour, where there are old warehouses made from red bricks, that now are home to a great number of (souvenir) shops and other stores. From there, it is not far to Mount Hakodate which has a wonderful view over the city which is especially beautiful in the night. Of course, we went up there as well, and we could even see the lights of Aomori on the “main land” of Japan.

Night View over Hakodate

My personal favourite, however, was the Goryokaku Fort, a traditional star fort built a bit more inland that was meant to protect the government offices that were relocated inside, once the fort was finished. It reminded me of similar forts I had visited in the Netherlands, but it seems that such forts have been built all over the world, from Europe to the US and even Asia (probably during European colonisation).

Old Magistrate Building in the Goryokaku in Hakodate

My friend and I had a great time even though we had to cram all of the sights into less than two days. We have seen almost all of them and on Sunday, we walked altogether 14 km… At first, the idea was to walk up Mt. Hakodate for the nightly view, but in the end we decided to just take the cable car. We also visited the Museum of Northern Peoples with interesting exhibits of not just the Ainu, but other peoples from northeast Russia as well.

Ainu Clothing

There are two things I’m slightly miffed about: First, I don’t think I got enough fish and seafood on my trip, something Hakodate is famous for. Unfortunately, my friend doesn’t like fish at all, so we had to compromise. She would have been fine with eating onigiri all the time while I had my fish, but that’s not fair; after all, I can have seafood everywhere else. I also wanted to stock up on cheese which is really expensive in Japan, and since Hokkaido is famous for its dairy products, I was hoping for lots of choice for a fair price. Not so! It seems that they prefer to make sweet things (like cheesecake) out of their milk, and the little that is turned into “real” cheese is still almost prohibitively expensive…

Altogether, I had a great trip though. My friend is fun to be with, and we have a similar way of approaching sightseeing, so that was perfect (even though she is in better physical shape than I was). This was my second time in Hokkaido, and I found it very pleasant. I guess I’ll be back, eventually… To finish this already long post, here’s a list of some striking things I noticed in Hakodate:

  • the air is so clear and fresh!
  • private houses have a closed glass porch before their entrance door (and indeed, it was quite windy)
  • there are people smoking on the streets (you don’t see much of them in Kyoto)
  • there is SO MUCH SPACE! Wide streets, buildings with gardens…
  • In case of a tsunami, much of Hakodate would be flooded.

Tsunami Warning in Hakodate

Return to Tsugaru

Return to Tsugaru
Osamu Dazai

Return to TsugaruTsugaru is the old name of the northernmost peninsula of Honshu, which today makes up part of Aomori prefecture. The people in Tsugaru have always been poor and, as the part of Japan from which to set sail for Hokkaido, has had a reputation of a certain backwardness in cities like Tokyo.

Osamu Dazai, considered among the foremost Japanese authors of the 20th century, was born in Kanagi, a small town on the Tsugaru peninsula. In this memoir from 1944, he takes us on a trip to his hometown and nearby places, like the castle town Hirosaki, the village where he went to school, etc. Travelling chiefly on foot, he pays visits to family members and relatives, as well as old friends, where he is always welcome and served sake and crabs, his favourite food.

This book is part travelogue, part history – both of Tsugaru as well as his own family – part commentary on current events and the war-time of 1944. Throughout the book shines Dazai’s deep love for the land and the people living there.

Osamu Dazai was the pseudonym of Shuji Tsushima, born in 1909 as the eight (surviving) child of a man from humble origins who eventually became a respected local politician. From an early age on, Shuji wanted to become a writer and he eventually moved to Tokyo as a student of French literature. Aged only 26, he was nominated for the very first Akutagawa Prize, and although he did not receive it, his reputation was made. His most important works were published after WWII. Always the family’s enfant terrible, he finally committed suicide with his mistress in 1948, at only 39 years of age.

Sokushinbutsu

When browsing youtube the other day, I found an extremely interesting video about Japanese monks who turned themselves into Sokushinbutsu, Living Buddhas.

“Living” is not a good word though, since these monks practised extreme asceticism in order to have their body mummify after their death. This was an extremely rare religious practice to enter Nirvana and to thus help the people who stay behind on earth.

It is said that this practice originated in China and the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, Kukai (aka Kobo Daishi), brought it to Japan upon return from his studies. It is believed that hundreds of monks attempted to become Shokushinbutsu, but only 24 mummified Japanese monks are known. Some of them can be visited in Northern Japan, in Yamagata prefecture, where most of these monks lived.

Here is the video (6:52), but be warned: it’s graphic!

Since I do have an interest in anything morbid, I can definitely recommend Caitlin’s channel. She is a funeral director in Los Angeles and has written a number of books related to death.

Green Tea

Even though more and more Japanese people enjoy drinking coffee – specialty cafes are everywhere now – the staple drink is still green tea in all its forms. Come summer, the Japanese will drink it as their main refreshment when out and about, and in many restaurants, you get free green tea as a drink right away upon being seated.

The first tea seeds were imported from China back in the 9th century, and green tea was first used as medicine. Around the 12th century, aristocrats and monks picked up the habit of drinking tea, and finally everybody did it. Note that here I don’t mean powdered matcha, this is a completely different animal I will talk about some other day.

There are a few different types of tea plants, but mostly, the Japanese green tea you can buy is blended from the Yabukita cultivar leaves grown in different regions in Japan. What is most important with respect to taste is whether plant grows in the shade or in the sun. Tea that is grown under protective black netting is said to taste sweeter and also has a stronger green color. This type of tea can be very expensive and is often used to make matcha in Japan.

Picking fresh green tea leaves

Now, how to make green tea? First, there is the tea picking. Fresh leaves begin to come out in April/May (called: first flush, usually the most expensive tea is first flush) and what is picked is not more than the top two or three leaves of each branch. These leaves should be light-green and relatively small compared to the larger and darker leaves towards the bottom of the tea-plant.

The freshly picked leaves have barely any smell at all and as the very first (traditional) step, they are roasted at 180° C in a pan for example. This prevents the leaves from oxidation and is an important step of making green tea instead of black tea.

Making green tea - roasting the leaves

Cooling the tea leaves and reducing the heat of the pan to about 80° C, the next step is called “tea rolling”. Traditionally, people would pick up the tea leaves from the pan and roll them with their hands, all the while keeping the leaves nice and hot. This rolling is meant to break up the leaves and reduce their moisture, and even for very small quantities, it can take 20 minutes and more.Manual tea rolling

After the tea rolling, the temperature is reduced to about 70° C and the tea is slowly and fully dried. The leaves have now a uniform size and they give off the typical smell of green tea. They may be rolled and dried again, but in principle, no further steps are necessary, and the tea can be drunk right away or blended into special brands.

Matcha – powdered green tea – is made from dried tea leaves as above by simply grinding them to a powder. Other than standard sencha, matcha is rather delicate and cannot be kept for too long. This is why matcha is sold in rather small quantities.Freshly dried green tea

Even today, the three steps above are still done by hand for the most expensive brands. On an industrial scale, the heating of the tea leaves is mainly done by steaming in Japan. Still, overall, the procedure of making green tea is quite simple, and there are many opportunities in Japan to pick and produce your own tea.

Each year, Japan produces about 85 000 tons of green tea (exclusively). As mentioned above, there are a number of regions where green tea is produced, but most tea comes from Shizuoka prefecture. In Kyoto, tea from Uji has a special ring to it; Uji is very close to Kyoto and there, the first tea plants were grown from the seeds brought from China. Tea from Uji is mostly made into matcha that is used at Kyoto’s many tea ceremonies.

Both matcha and standard green tea come in many price ranges, but I have yet to find out where the difference lies. In the meanwhile, I can definitely recommend green tea as the perfect souvenir from Japan, no matter the price.

My Sweet Request

As I mentioned about a month ago, during my fasting I kept buying chocolate because Meiji had those special wrapping entitled “my sweet request” for my favourite chocolate bars.

As you can see on the outside, there is a picture of something people may want, and on the inside of the wrapper, there is written a “sweet request”. There were in total 36 different wrappers for the hi-milk, standard, and bitter chocolate bars, but since I don’t eat the latter, I did not buy any of them except for a single one that said “I would like to live with a cute cat.” Yeah, definitely true that one!

meiji hi milk chocolate

It took me a while to gather all 12 different requests on the red Hi-Milk Meiji chocolates, and it took me yet more time to eat all that chocolate to find out what the sweet requests actually were (no cheating allowed!) Here they are – can you guess to which wrapping they belong?

  • I want to take photos inside the Hiroichi flower garden that continues to the Ikedaira line.
  • I want weird T-shirts.
  • My dream is to live in a house with a pool.
  • If you only had one day off, where would you like to go?
  • Would you like to have a relaxing chat at afternoon tea?
  • I want to become a person who looks good with a trendy tote bag.
  • I would like to live with a stuffed toy that is more merry than myself.
  • I have a stiff shoulder – I’m glad if somebody has a look at it.
  • Everything is fine, so I’m waiting for the best thing in the world.
  • I want you to invite me on a date where we go to a concert where we have to dress up.
  • I want to squeeze a cute dog.
  • I will cry for joy when I can go and see the big baobab trees.

Sugimoto Residence

As I mentioned in my post last Tuesday, the highlight of my extra long Golden Week vacation was my visit to the old Sugimoto family home to see an exhibition of Boy’s Day decorations. Unfortunately, it was not allowed to take photos in the house, but here is the homepage of the Sugimotoke with a lovely gallery of the building and its gardens:

http://en.sugimotoke.or.jp/about-sugimoto-residence/introduction/

The Sugimoto family were merchants who sold fabric for kimono and their old machiya – built in 1870 is open to the public at very special occasions only. The house is quite large, even for a wealthy family, and it has a number of special features that I haven’t seen elsewhere before:

A special room where a visiting priest could wait and get changed into formal clothing before praying at the family altar. This room lies on the other end of a corridor which, to honor the status of the priest that came from the Nishi Honganji Temple, is laid out with tatami. This is highly unusual, since corridors in kyo-machiya or other old houses tend to be from wood.

The room with the family altar is considered the main room of the house, and having a private prayer room in a commoner’s house is highly unusual. The altar is located in a small two-tatami space that can be closed with fusuma and seems to me rather usual, but the interesting bit is the room itself. It has a small cellar underneath made from stone, where the altar could be moved in case of a fire. Basements like this are very rare, especially in such an old house, but this one was – thankfully – never needed.

The other interesting feature of the house was in the large main guest room, and I don’t even mean the lacquered tokonoma that was only uncovered at special occasions. The guest room is an already impressive 10 tatami room, and as usual, just by removing the sliding doors to the adjacent room, it can be enlarged by another 6 tatami. The interesting part is that the wooden grooves for the fusuma (in Japanese they are called shikii), can be taken out of the floor. The tatami from the adjacent room would be moved up and thus create a space of 16 unbroken tatami for very large events. When the event was over, the tatami, grooves, and fusuma would be put in place again, and normal life could be resumed.

There is also an interesting Western-style drawing room near the entrance that was built in 1929 and has cork flooring, modern furniture, and a piano. The low ceiling was taken out and the room now covers what has once been two floors at once, with an extra window on the former second floor. This makes the room feel very spacious, airy, and bright.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to enter the gardens or to see the three kura storehouses. Still, just sitting in the rooms gazing out the large windows grants a nice and relaxing frame of mind.
The Sugimoto Residence is one of the largest kyo-machiya still existing in Kyoto. In 1990, the house was designated as a Tangible Cultural Asset by Kyoto City and in 2010, it was designated as a National Important Cultural Property. One year later, its garden was designated as a National Site of Scenic Beauty.
As I said, it is only open for special occasions and it’s not possible to take photos inside. But if you are in Kyoto and even remotely interested in old houses, this is definitely one to visit!

End of Hiatus

Hi, I’m back – remember me? Sorry for not posting last week, I needed a break from writing for a while… I’m fine so don’t worry and now I’m back in full glory and with a bit more energy – hopefully even enough to start my weekend posts again…

My Golden Week holiday turned out to be a mix of work and fun stuff. In the first weekend, I went with friends to Kyotographie, a large international photography exhibition event. And because said friends came from Kobe and Osaka, we were determined to see all the venues in just two days. And we managed: 11 venues with art by various international photographers, all in less than 30 hours. It was fun – and very exhausting, but we’re planning to go again next year!

Later that week, I visited three exhibitions and one traditional event at Yoshida Shrine. This was a so-called shiki bouchou ceremony where a large fish is cut and offered to the gods – in this case, the God of cutlery. The interesting twist here is that the fish is only touched with two large metal chopsticks and a large knife. There are a lot of specific movements and (forgive my language) waving of the knife before the first cut into the fish is made. At the end, the fish is put onto a plate and served to the gods.

Offerings to the gods

I had seen a shiki-bouchou ceremony before and to be very honest, I was slightly disappointed. When I saw the ceremony the first time, the movements and cuts were very smooth and executed with a lot of confidence. This time, I had the feeling that the priest performing the ceremony was very nervous, and although I did not have the best view, I could see his hands tremble on occasion. Whether this was because he was unfamiliar with the task or because of the film team directly in front of him, I can only guess.

The ceremony was a relatively small affair, but the first two rows of seats were reserved for dignitaries somehow connected to Kyoto’s food industry, like the “Head of the Kyoto Kaiseki Organisation” and suchlike. They were allowed to pay their respects to the gods at the end of the ceremony, obviously in return for making a significant donation to the shrine.

The ceremony took about one hour overall, and afterwards my friend and I were left wondering what would happen to the food that was just offered to the gods, the fruit, rice, and vegetables in particular. I guess nowadays it would just be thrown away, but I would not be surprised if, in the olden times, the priests would eat the leftovers after the gods had partaken…

Anyway, although I had fun at this ceremony, it was not the highlight of my last two weeks. That one came at the end of the Golden Week: A visit to the Sugimoto Family Residence. However, this one deserves a post of its own, possibly in the weekend. 😉