Bruised

Summer is coming! The last few weeks were really pleasant and warm, and last weekend I decided that it’s time to change my wardrobe. My closet is rather small, so I have to exchange my winter clothes for summer clothing and vice versa twice a year. There is enough space on top of my closet to put everything I don’t need in storage for half a year, but there are drawbacks of this method as well.

dumbbellPart of it is probably because I’m stingy. My storage containers for clothing consist of two large boxes that I used when moving in here. If you lay them on the side, they fit the available space perfectly – but they are bulky and really heavy. Problem number two is that I am too short to reach up, so I need a stool when I move the boxes.

Getting them down is usually not the problem, obviously, but getting them up into storage is not easy. The first box is not the problem, but the second one always causes me to curse during the numerous attempts I have to make. Once again, I managed this year to exchange my clothes, and now I feel all summery and light. I also have a number of lovely bruises on my upper arms to show for my efforts when the boxes slipped back down again…

Maybe I should start doing some weight training? It may not be amiss to try – and if it helps me lose a bit of that extra girth I put on during the last winter, that would be an extra bonus…

Pet Store

As I have probably mentioned before, there’s a large shopping mall around the corner from where I live. The supermarket in the basement is one of the best in town, and there are all sorts of nice other stores as well. I like to go to Uniqlo, even if I don’t buy anything because of wrong sizing, but it’s nice to just browse sometimes.

Their latest addition to the shopping frenzy is an enormous pet store. Except for the usual lines of food, bedding, accessories and so on, they also sell animals, of course. They have the standard range of pets: budgies, hamsters, ferrets, rabbits, turtles, lots of fish, etc. They also have a number of dogs – mostly small breeds except for the one Golden Retriever they have – and a handful of cats…

I love them! Every time I go and see the cats, I want to take one home. Of course, those are high breed cats, Russian Blue, American Curl, Burmese are just three they have right now, and I am not sure I would want an expensive cat like that anyway. Admittedly, they do look rather sad in those glass cubes they live in right now, practically begging me… but I refrain. It’s not that I am allowed to have a cat anyway, and besides, there must be animal shelters in Japan as well, no? I will even refrain from posting any of the cat photos I took the last time I was there, because I want to write about something else (this time).

So, besides the standard animals that are generally seen as pets in the West as well, they have a few extraordinary species. Hedgehogs for example, which I have only ever seen in pet stores in Japan and Korea. I have no idea what the attraction is there, except that they are cute, but admittedly, I don’t understand having any pets if you can’t really cuddle them.

But we take it from there; they also sell what I would call “special needs” animals and others call “exotic pets”. At this moment, they have a little groundhog as well as a tiny meerkat. I always thought that those are animals living in colonies – and they only have a single one of each, a keeping of animals which would certainly amount to animal cruelty. Also, and this takes the cake in my opinion, they have this:

A fennecDo you recognize it? That’s a Fennec, a type of fox living in the Sahara. According to wikipedia, they are indeed considered “exotic pets” and “can be┬ákept in a domestic setting similar to dogs or cats”, but still… Why would you want to have one of these in your home, knowing that they cannot really be domesticated? Obviously it’s something you can show off with: this particular little fox costs 1.4 million YEN. I already have problems going to the zoo, but seeing animals like this in a pet store is really difficult…

Envy

Here in Japan, I am surrounded by beautiful women. In fact, most Asians have features that I admire, sometimes even envy: Thick, straight, and most of all, jet black hair. Slender figures that look good in almost any clothing, as well as a natural grace that comes with it. And something in their genes that considerably slows down the ageing process. Especially that last thing I am particularly envious about, ever more so since I have detected the first gray hairs on my own head…

All in all, I have never considered myself beautiful, but I have come to accept me the way I am and I have learnt to work with it, or around it in dire circumstances. That’s probably part of why I am always taken aback when somebody calls me pretty or even beautiful. In Asia, interestingly, it is more likely to hear that from another woman. Here are two examples:

Years ago I sat in a concert hall waiting for the concert to begin. Next to me sat a woman who kept staring at me. Since I couldn’t become invisible or change the seat, I smiled back, which she took as an invitation to reach over, touch my hand and say “so beautiful!” She meant my skin tone – I’m a sedentary nerd who’s not going out much, so even in summer, I remain pretty pale, and thus I fit the Asian idea of white skin very well.

A noseThe other day, when I went to my favourite bar with a friend, there was this regular – an elderly lady – who kept looking at me as well. Finally she couldn’t hold it in any longer and burst out “Kirei – hana takai!” which literally means “Pretty – high nose!” And she kept saying it, making me feel more and more uncomfortable, even though I know that big eyes and noses are Asian beauty ideals, only outranked by pearly white skin.

It’s funny that people here may see me as more beautiful than I myself ever have. I guess, we all envy what we cannot have?

11 + 4

chocolate cakesI’m back from my Golden Week holiday! It was nice to have a few days off to myself, and I enjoyed seeing friends as well. I did manage to improve the event calendar also – more about that on Thursday. Because today I want to tell you about that double anniversary I hinted at in my last post…

Well, the title says it all: 11+ 4 = 15. I have been living abroad for 15 years now! I left Austria on April 25th 2002 to get my PhD. Altogether, I spent some 7 years in Europe, and 8 years in Asia. And half of those, the last 4, starting on May 5th 2013, I lived here in Kyoto!

How time flies! I can hardly believe I have been here so long – except for the 4 years and a bit I spent on my PhD, this si the longest time in the last 15 years I lived in one and the same city. And since my plans with respect to Kyoto or at least Japan include “settle and die here”, I think I am on the way to a new record here. Of course, I cannot rule out a total change of direction. So far, my life did certainly not go according to plan (neither my own and surely not that of my family) so who knows what’s in store for me further down the road…

In case you’re wondering: No, I don’t have many regrets, only one and a half to be precise. The half is something I can still catch up on, and probably will be able to until the end of my life. The one full thing concerns a missed opportunity in a moment that will never return. And even there, sometimes I think I should have done it, and sometimes I think it was better that I didn’t…

At the end of the day, I don’t think it makes much of a different. There are many things in my life that in retrospect I would like to lessen the impact or at least the duration of. But at the same time I recognise that I am the sum of all my experiences, the good ones, and the bad one probably even more so. And after all these years, probably for the first time ever, I can say with deep inner conviction:

I am happy!

Prevention

Recently, I needed to transfer money abroad. Even though I have online banking, I cannot use it in this case because I have to fill out a number of extra forms. That’s nothing completely new to me, other countries I lived in have had these sort of restrictions as well. Because I knew that it was unlikely to find an English-speaking clerk at my bank’s branch office, I phoned their help line first to find out which documents I needed to bring with me.

stack of papersThe list included my cash card and seal, but no further form of ID, interestingly. Of course, I needed information as where to send the money as well: name and address of account holder and bank, IBAN and BIC,… no big deal. But then, on top of that, the bank also wanted to know a) what the money was for (or at least proof that the account overseas was mine as well) and, besides making sure that I actually have enough money for the transfer, they also wanted to know b) where I got it from. Surely, that’s none of the bank’s business, is it?

Of course it isn’t, and to their credit, they only took a brief look at the documents for my foreign account and at my salary agreement (the one I made with myself, no less) without filing or copying them. That’s a start. So, why wasting my time – and theirs – with that to begin with? Because of the Act on Prevention of Transfer of Criminal Proceeds, a new Japanese law that has come into effect last October, if I understood correctly.

Whenever I read of a law like this – or passages like the one in my work contract forbidding me to associate with yakuza – I am seriously asking myself how naive the persons who came up with that idea can possibly be. Do they really think that a hardcore criminal will be deterred by two extra hoops he has to jump through or an extra piece of paper he has to forge? Have those lawmakers never heard of international crime organisations?

Because I am pretty sure these rules are for individuals only. I can’t imagine that companies have to fill out extra forms every time they send money to a new supplier abroad. And nothing is opened faster than a company in Japan and a couple of letterbox companies elsewhere with attached bank accounts. And never mind that paypal for example doesn’t need any kind of paperwork when sending money to or receiving it from abroad.

So, what’s the point of these laws and regulations? Security is a standard excuse these days, and probably, if you can regularly present a handful of recently caught small fish to the excitable public, they will feel more secure indeed. I call it surveillance, especially of the standard, law-abiding citizen. Because the biggest criminals don’t give a shit about the law – they are well-connected to, or part of, politics anyway. In any country.

Disclosure

whispering Japanese girlsThe general foreigner’s view on the Japanese is that you cannot have a deep conversation with them, that they are reserved and polite and friendly and very reserved. My experience is a bit different. Of course, if you chat to random people they are friendly and polite, but you won’t get anything of substance out of them – just like in the West. But I have noticed that people here are more willing to disclose very personal things about them very early in a relationship, things that would take a Westerner years of close friendship before spilling them.

Exhibit one:
When I was fresh in Japan, I looked for somebody to have a language exchange with. The idea is that you meet for an hour or so, you talk 30 minutes in one language and 30 minutes in the other. On a notice board I found the advertisement of a Japanese woman my age who was looking for somebody who speaks English. I called her up and we met for coffee.

So far so good, I found her nice but also a bit odd, somehow, and then… During that very first meeting, she told me that she had some sort of mental disorder and she was on heavy medication and in and out of a mental hospital here in town. That was totally unsolicited, and I would never, ever tell that to anyone I just met and wanted to be friends with. We did meet for a couple of months or so, but then she became very pushy, so I am not seeing her any longer.

Exhibit two:
In the beginning of this year I was advertising English classes. I got an email from a man and we met for 30 minutes to get to know each other and to find out whether to move forward with classes. He – a soldier in the Japanese army who doesn’t want to kill anyone – talked for 25 minutes straight about the time when he went to Australia to visit a friend for Christmas and got promptly in the plane already hit on by an Australian MAN. Funny story to look back at for sure… However, I could see that he was still deeply disturbed by it all these years later, and such a story I would not disclose to anyone (and he hadn’t told his family about it he said).

What I found disturbing about the meeting was that we briefly talked about where to do our classes and he said “Oh, just give me your address and I’ll go there…” Nononono, that’s not how this is going! We have not met since; he only contacted me twice afterwards and I was very, very busy indeed… I don’t think seeing him on a regular basis is a good idea, but I don’t really know how to tell him that.

Exhibit three:
I met a lovely elderly woman in a friend’s cafe, and she chatted me up and we decided to meet regularly. The second or third time we met, I asked her to “tell me about you”, which she did – not leaving out any details. She told me that she didn’t have kids because she had had three miscarriages before she and her husband gave up trying. That’s a very sad story and even though I would tell it eventually I guess, I would wait for the relationship to have deepened a little more.

Which it did, actually! We have now been meeting for almost two years, and we always have great fun together. She is very intelligent (studied Chemistry back in the days) and has an amazing amount of energy, and although we mostly meet at her place to sit and chat and drink tea and eat chocolate cake, we sometimes go out together. I’m very glad I have met her, and we have had many very personal moments together since.

Yozakura

Last night, I went out with the girls for what is called yozakura, night-time cherry blossom viewing. My friend had booked a terrace seat at an Italian restaurant, right next to the little Takase stream that runs through town parallel to Kamogamo river. There we ate Italian delicacies: a number of starters, among them the bruscetta shown below, two types of pasta, a small pizza, and of course, tiramisu for dessert. We also shared a bottle of wine – alcohol is an important main ingredient of any hanami party – and all the while we admired the sakura that grow on the other side of the Takase stream and have their branches hang over the water. We had a lovely dinner and lots of fun!

yozakura 2017Unfortunately, it seems as if this was the last day of this year’s hanami season, which, as a whole, was not very exciting. Except for the days just before the cherries burst into bloom, the weather was cool, overcast, and rainy all through last week. And after I had come home yesterday, a storm set in with heavy wind and rain, badly bruising the delicate cherry blossoms over night.

However, there are types of cherry trees that bloom only towards the end of April – with a bit of luck, the weather will be warmer then and I can go and sit underneath another cherry tree somewhere in town…

Fast Cars

The other day, I went to my favourite pizzeria for dinner. It’s a bit off the beaten tracks, but the food is excellent, and there is even a real Italian wood-fired pizza oven… Usually, the place is rather quiet, but that day there were already people sitting at the bar, having an animated conversation.

Gerhard Berger in 1991I have no idea how I got involved into it, probably because one of the guys wanted to show off his English. Our conversation went down a different road than usual though: Instead of double-checking whether I really didn’t come from down under, his first remark was: “Oh, then you know Gerhard Berger!” In general I answer these kind of questions in the negative: “There are 8 million Austrians, I have not been introduced to all of them, yet”, but of course, I know our famous Formula 1 racer! We went on to talk about Berger – retired now for 20 years – and how Ferrari is great and how much greater it would be to drive one instead just a Mercedes…

Funny how people start talking, isn’t it?

 

Raise

Compared to Tuesday, I had a more relaxed day today, so I can make good on my promise and tell you about the final meeting I had that day.

It has to do with my writing job over at facebook. I have talked about Kyotogram before: Since last November, I am writing very short articles about Kyoto and Japan, the important thing is the photo attached and not the text. In one week I have to produce 5 posts and attend one meeting, all that for a fixed salary. Besides the big boss and the team leader, there is a graphics designer on the team and another freelance writer like me, and we both get the same salary since we have the same contract.

Japanese currencyTwo weeks ago I initiated a meeting with the big boss and told him pretty much straightforward that I wanted a raise. The reason for this was that every time there’s a special or urgent job to be done, I am asked to do it – because my writer colleague is, let’s say, not quite as reliable as I am. She has now taken part in about half the meetings only, and ever since Christmas, her performance has gone downhill. And in February, out of 4 meetings and 20 posts, she did 1 meeting and 2 articles, an all time low. It’s not that her lack of productivity is directly affecting me, thank goodness, but since the big boss has talked about “fairness” when I signed the contract, I thought I’d ask him whether he still believes in that one.

Of course, I tried to avoid dissing my colleague (her work ethic is none of my business, and in fact she is a very nice girl), and we had a very constructive talk of about an hour in which the big boss assured me that everybody is very happy with my performance, and that the rest of the team relies on me, and that he was “aware of the situation” as he put it. And that he couldn’t say anything right now, but he would get back to me by the end of the month.

Fast forward two weeks: Since the end of the month is now, we had another one hour talk on Tuesday, after our regular meeting. Actually, both of us writers had what the big boss called a “six months review meeting”, and the outcome was as follows: The contracts for both of us will be renewed, but there will now be a new penalty for underachievement: Every meeting not attended will – literally – cost 3000 YEN, every unwritten post 1500 YEN.

Having a penalty like this is extremely unusual in a freelance contract; normally, you are paid for the specific work you do, and only for that; and the more you work, the more you earn. I am not sure why the contract wasn’t changed to this model altogether, probably because the big boss is on a limited budget, but I am not complaining. Because, no matter what the new contract says: I got my raise! Of course, “fairness” is still an important word in the whole thing, and the big boss has amended my contract by giving me additional responsibilities (which I have partly already fulfilled) so he can also officially justify that I earn more than my colleague.

I had a very pleasant talk with the big boss on Tuesday where I assured him that in normal circumstances I would not have dreamed of asking for more money, that this was simply prompted by the lack of performance on my colleagues’ side and his “fairness” argument. In return, he stressed several times that it is very, very rare in Japan indeed that a raise is given without any further discussion like it was in my case. And he also insinuated that there’s no room for further improvement for the time being, which is perfectly fine with me.

In conclusion, as I never had a “decent” job, so to speak (academia has fixed payment schemes), this was my very first salary negotiation! And I have learned the following:
If you go to your boss after a mere 5 months of employment and demand a 15% raise, and he just hands it over without any further negotiation or even comment,
then
a) he is really, really extremely happy with your performance and
b) you probably should have asked for more…

Busy…

Whew, I have been very busy today: I went out at 10 in the morning and came home at 8 in the evening… That was three meetings today plus early dinner, and now I’m tired – and I still have one more thing to finish tonight. At least the final meeting I had today was very, very productive and ended on a very positive note – I’ll tell you more about that on Thursday!