Bear Warning!

One of the things that struck me when I first moved to Kyoto were the many butterflies out and about throughout summer. Sure, I lived in a fairly green part of the city then, but still, their number astonished me. Not to mention the size.

But besides the pretty things – and the nasty ones I have written about in detail, several times – there are also a few dangerous ones. Thankfully, Japan is blessed with a fairly benign fauna, unlike Australia where essentially everything has evolved to kill people.

In Japan, there is one species of poisonous snakes, and the local centipedes can become dangerous for small children. As far as I know, that’s all. Yet, Japan is a vast country with lots and lots of mountains, and there are all sorts of large animals hiding in them. Like bears.

And believe it or not, just a couple of weeks ago, a bear was sighted in the late afternoon not far from where I live. It didn’t come down into the inhabited parts here but stayed on a hiking path through the woods. Still, this is not an encounter I’d want to have, whether day or night. Let’s not forget that Kyoto is a city with 1.5 million inhabitants.

It is known, however, that in the northern parts of Honshu, bears regularly visit smaller towns and cities. They are active at dusk and dawn when there is not much traffic or noise, but they can become a nuisance, if not outright dangerous, to the population.

What to do about that, I don’t know. I’m not a big fan of shooting everything that moves just because, but there must be a better way than putting out neighborhood circulars that say “hey, we’ve seen a bear, be careful.” I wonder how other countries like Canada deal with something like that.

I’m Back!

Yes, holidays are over here too, but it was a nice summer, and pretty hot too. Pumpkin suffered from the heat as much, if not more, than me, he often hid inside the oshiire all day. In the evenings, he would come out and sleep on my desk until it was time to go up to bed. At least in the night, it seems to be much cooler up here than in my old apartment, so I could sleep almost every night. There are also fewer cicadas in the area for some reason, so it gets fairly quiet after sunset.

Work was fairly quiet as well, but of course, it didn’t shut down completely, and What’s up in Kyoto did keep me busy throughout summer. There were two press previews for exhibitions in my time off, and I could convince a friend to come along as my interpreter.

The big thing, however, was the unveiling of the above painting by Nagasawa Rosetsu, which was thought lost since 1971. It resurfaced at an art dealer in Osaka and was bought by the Fukuda Museum in Kyoto after being certified as genuine. The painting of Daikokuten, one of the Seven Lucky Gods, was first presented to a group of journalists (including me) and will be on public display at the museum from Mid-October. This was definitely a summer highlight for me!

A personal highlight was an old friend from university days who made his way to Kyoto after a conference. We met up for dinner and a day at Kurama, a tiny mountain village north of Kyoto with a lovely temple. I hadn’t seen him in years, yet talking to him felt like picking up where we had left off just yesterday. It’s a wonderful feeling when that happens, a sign of true friendship, for me at least.

Anyway, I’m back, and I’ll try to keep this blog – and you – updated with my whereabouts.

Gion Matsuri Goodies

I was quite busy last Saturday, out and about for almost 12 hours.

First, there was the yoiyoiyama of Gion Matsuri’s Ato Parade, and once again, I volunteered at the Ofunehoko. They adapt shift lengths every year to try and make it as easy as possible on the volunteers who have to stand there in the heat. This time, I chose the exceptionally short afternoon shift from 2 to 4:30 because I had plans for later.

It wasn’t as hot as I thought it would be, in fact, this year feels less humid overall. Of course, this may also be because I stay on my mountain most of the days. Some friends came by to cheer me on (and buy chimaki), so the shift was over very quickly. And, for the first time, they also had an English pamphlet for people who entered the Ofunehoko, and I was in charge as the “English-speaking lead” of the shift.

Anyway, a friend picked me up at the very end, and we looked at a few more of the yamaboko. We caught several just at the time they were playing the Gion bayashi music – rhythms with flutes, gongs, and drums that are unique to every hoko of Gion Matsuri. It was fun.

And then we made our way to the Bati-Holic Kimono Rock Party. It was a one-man-show, a concert with just Bati-Holic this time, and it had been sold out weeks prior. They are always very energizing, and it was nice to see them play in front of a house full of fans. Some people I recognized from earlier concerts, and I made a few new connections, which is always nice.

About the goodies mentioned in the title: All volunteers at the Ofunehoko get one chimaki for free, it’s a protective charm that you put up at the entrance of your house. The reason I chose this particular shift was that I had to wear a yukata – and as the name suggests, the “Kimono Rock Party” was all about kimono/yukata, and people dressed in such got a tenugui towel as a special gift.

I’m not sure why it had to be pink (rock band and all), but Pumpkin seems to approve regardless.

Air Circulation

The other day, I opened my shoe cabinet to get my rain boots. And what do I see – green mould everywhere. I got quite the shock when I found it on all my leather shoes. Great. But even more so: I found mould inside a kitchen cabinet. The rest of the day was filled with an unexpected emergency cleaning with lots of vinegar.

In all my years in Japan, that’s the first time that has happened to me. Generally, it’s not unheard of, especially during the humid summer months, but so far, at least in the old apartment, plastic-wrapped toast and some fruit I left outside were the only things to get mouldy.

The problem seems to be that there is not enough air circulation downstairs, even though it’s several degrees cooler than upstairs. At night, I keep the kitchen closed because I don’t want Pumpkin to jump up the gas stove and turn it on accidentally. The front door doesn’t have a fly screen, and since Pumpkin isn’t allowed outside (except for his morning excursions into the garden on a leash), it needs to stay closed at all times as well. And although my office window is open all day at the moment, it’s obviously not sufficient to get fresh air into the genkan.

The genkan seems to be quite humid to begin with, and I’m not sure why. Especially on rainy days, the floor is moist; it seems as if the moisture is coming up from the ground underneath it, probably because of insufficient waterproofing. Fixing this will probably involve digging up the whole entrance area, so it’s out of budget at the moment.

For the time being, I’ll probably have to buy dehumidifiers for the shoe cabinets at least: little boxes with salts inside that turn to jelly as they absorb moisture. I hope these are not just available in Hong Kong.


Today, I had the follow-up of my hospital visit from two weeks ago. And, to spare you the suspense: everything turned out just fine. There are no cancer markers, and I don’t even need regular follow-ups besides what’s considered normal at my age. Phew.

This time, I’m happy to relate that I had an appointment and only needed to wait for 30 minutes, which is perfectly within the range of “normal”.

I also noticed the last few times I visited Kyoto University Hospital that they must have changed their payment processing. It now only takes a couple of minutes before the notification of the amount you have to pay is coming. I wrote about a standard hospital visit as an outpatient many years ago, and besides getting streamlined here and there, it hasn’t changed much. A description of what is going on as an inpatient will have to wait. Not that I’m eager to experience that, mind you…

Changed Perspectives

Not long after I came to Japan, somebody gave me a stack of books related to Japan: Japanese history, guidebooks, a few novels. I read them – some several times – and put them away.

One of those books was a short historical novel spanning 25 years of the Sengoku and early Edo period at the turn of the 17th century. The topic is tea master Sen-no-Rikyu and his death by suicide ordered by Hideyoshi. The main protagonist is one of his students, the (apparently non-historic) monk Honkaku, and he tries to solve the mystery why Rikyu had to commit suicide in the first place, and why he didn’t even attempt to appease Hideyoshi.

To be honest, when I first read this book some 10 years ago, I didn’t think much of it. Sure, the language is beautiful, even in translation, but I am one of the people who read primarily for the story, and it fell flat for me. Although set in Kyoto, the place names didn’t conjure up any images and the people, whether historic or not, were not fleshed out enough to make them interesting.

The whole novel was centred around the tea ceremony (of which I still only know the bare minimum) and could have just as well taken place in a chashitsu, a tiny tea house (and much of it actually did). So, after the reading the book then, I put it away with a label of “okay-ish”, and moved on.

Recently, something prompted me to pick it up again, and I’m surprised to say that my opinion has changed completely.

In the last 10 years, I visited countless places in Kyoto, and the author places Honkaku’s hermitage somewhere near my house, which is kind of funny. But more importantly, I learned much about Japanese history and culture in that time, not through any systematic study mind you, I just picked up bits and pieces here and there. And they all fell into place perfectly when reading this book again.

I now know about Rikyu and his successor as number one tea master, Furuta Oribe (who, coincidentally, also was ordered to commit suicide). Recently, I discovered the controversial figure of Oda Urakusai, another student of Rikyu’s. I still don’t know enough about tea ceremony to appreciate the many references to famous tea utensils – all of which have a name – however, overall, I found the novel very enjoyable this time around, even though it doesn’t solve the mystery in the end.

All of this goes to show that maybe we should re-read books. Our experiences in the interim may have increased our knowledge of certain details, changed our opinions on something specific, or even our outlook on life and the world as a whole. What we’ve tossed aside as a mere lump of coal may have turned into a diamond while we were busy with other things.

This is not one of my usual book reviews. Firstly, because I cannot unreservedly recommend the book in question. Given my own experience, I think you really need to be familiar with aspects of the tea ceremony, or its early protagonists, to enjoy it.

Secondly, the book still has not been translated into English. However, for my German-speaking readers, the book is Der Tod des Teemeisters by Yasushi Inoue, the Japanese original is called Honkakubo Ibun. Maybe it’s best to find it in a library, lest you are disappointed on the first reading, just like I was.

Coffee Culture

As an Austrian, I am very much into coffee culture, and I don’t even drink coffee! The great thing about Austrian “Kaffeehäuser”, in particular those in Vienna, is that you can order a glass of water, grab one of the newspapers offered there for free and stay for hours without anyone bothering you further. While you can choose from dozens of different coffees, sweets, and often even small meals, the “consume or leave” attitude is considered rude.

I’m glad that Japan has embraced this idea of coffee culture. While it is uncommon to stay after dinner at a restaurant, and some of the fanciest bars allow you only an hour or two to get wasted, in a good café, they leave you alone.

I made a list of my favourite cafés for a coffee, ahem, a work break, before I moved. Sadly, the Mo-an on top of Yoshida hill has new owners who decided to go the lunch-only-with-reservation option. It’s all quite complicated now, and I haven’t been there since.

On the other hand, I have discovered the Very Berry Cafe on Kitashirakawa. It’s all about American food in a space that is reminiscent of Hawaii. I haven’t tried their lunch or dinner yet, but their smoothies and milkshakes – all in “American size” – are to die for. They also make 3D cakes for birthdays and have cookies and cakes for take out. A great place to meet friends, if not quiet enough to work.

However, my number one is still the café in the Ogaki bookshop. I go there regularly to write, and most other patrons do some work there too. There are students with thick textbooks doing their homework. People of all ages study languages, mostly English but even Chinese. Graphic artists create manga or anime on fancy tablets. And of course, people are just coming in with their latest purchase and start reading over a cup of coffee.

I go there so often that not only the staff knows me by now (and most of them are part-time students), but in turn I also recognize some of the other regulars. One of my former neighbours comes in the afternoon for a coffee and a newspaper read. The blind man and his grandson (I guess) who come here for lunch. The old man who is bent over almost double, so he walks very slowly, but his eyes light up when he takes out his brand-new books, which he caresses like a true lover. The boy who twirls his hair while he stares at his phone. Everything is relaxed and quiet, and you can stay as long as you like, even if you nurse your one cup of coffee and the glass of water it comes with, for hours.

It’s just like café culture in Austria, where a good “Kaffeehaus” can be your home away from home. This is what I feel when I go to a café or kissaten, as they are called here, in Japan. Isn’t it wonderful!


The other day, I had to go to my quarterly thyroid checkup. While there, I told my doctor about some irregular periods I have been experiencing recently, and he persuaded me to go over to gynaecology right away and have it looked at.

After waiting for five hours (sure, I didn’t have an appointment, but that is excessive) I was told that there was a thickening – a cyst – in a small part of my endometrium (aka uterine lining). A sample was taken, and the biopsy results will be ready in 2 weeks.

It’s most likely benign. The gynaecologist says so. My other doctor says so. After consulting Wikipedia, I think so, too. Yet, I’m suitably worried. Well, if push comes to shove, and I do need an operation, I can tell you all about the in-patient care at Kyoto University Hospital…


Corona is over in Japan too! Or so it seems. Already a while ago, the Japanese government has decided to downgrade COVID-19 to the same level as influenza on their “infectious disease prevention law” tiers, essentially ending most of the restrictions they could place on people in the last years.

woman wearing a surgical mask

This includes not having to wear masks everywhere anymore. In Kyoto, peer pressure is especially high, so I still see many people wearing masks even outdoors, but to be fair, most of them are older citizens.

However, it really hit me that “Corona is over” when I visited the library the other day. No more plastic sheets on the counters separating the employees and the patrons!

I couldn’t be happier! I have been tired of all the anti-Corona measures for a long time already, and while I still bring masks along just in case, I am happy to phase them out, just like the rest of the country does.