National Treasures

Yesterday, I went to the National Treasures Exhibition in the Kyoto National Museum. The Japanese Government has designated a number of works of art from all over Japan and all centuries as “National Treasures”; they can be ink paintings, calligraphy, lacquerware, swords, clothing, ancient artifacts,… And in this exhibition, a large number of them were brought together from museums from all over Japan. And it seemed to me that people from all over Japan took the opportunity to visit the museum.

Even though I had been warned by a friend who went in the weekend and had to wait in line for three hours, and even though I came right when the museum opened, it was full already – I had not expected such masses of people. I have never experienced anything like this in a museum before! A ticket was quickly bought, but then I had to wait in line – 4 people per row – for half an hour, just to enter the museum. Inside, the people were standing in rows three deep before the exhibits, and it was really hard to get to the front where you could actually see anything at all. Interestingly, I saw quite a few people who had brought binoculars usually used in theatres to get close and personal with the exhibits. I found that quite funny, but then again, progress was so slow, there was plenty of time for detailed examination between two steps.

Irises by Korin, left screenAnyway, apart from the masses of people, I did enjoy myself. There were indeed stunning objects; remember that most Japanese art is applied and intended to be used. For example, there was a beautiful 14th century samurai armor; a bit rusty the helmet ornament, a bit faded the colors, but still imposing. Stunning pieces of lacquerware belonging to the trousseau of a Shogun’s daughter. A beautiful scroll with calligraphy, where one artist had written the same text in three different calligraphy scripts – I asked, even the Japanese could only read the most formal one. Another scroll with a chapter of the “Tale of Genji”, decorated with gold and silver flakes throughout and a lovely painting at the end from the 12th century.

Hard to say which were my favourite pieces, especially since I couldn’t see everything in detail (I should really buy one of those opera glasses). I guess I’ll go for two large scale 18th century screen paintings. The one above is by Ogata Korin, it depicts Irises on a golden ground and was painted around 1701/02 in Kyoto. It was announced with great pride, since it was exhibited in Kyoto for the first time in more than 100 years!

The painting below is by Maruyama Okyo, another golden screen painting depicting pines in the snow. Even though it is only in black and white, it is very realistic, and on first sight, I was stunned. It was painted around 1785 and looks still fresh and vibrant. I would have loved to buy a postcard or something with this motif, but there weren’t any, maybe the Irises above are more popular overall.

Pine Trees in Snow, left screen, by Maruyama Okyo

More Rakugo!

As some of you – especially those who stalk whatsupinkyoto on facebook – may have guessed from my weekend post, I went to a rakugo performance on Sunday! An English one, just to be sure, but it didn’t make much difference in the performance, I think.

It was definitely not what I had expected! I thought it would be something like stand-up comedy, with the jokes and punch lines coming fast and furious. They weren’t. Although all of the stories were funny, some of them were pretty long, and for my taste, a bit drawn out too much. Especially when you got the idea the first time around, there is not much point in telling a variant 10 seconds later…

Anyway, I loved the rakugoka, some of them were really good with their posture changes and facial expressions, which are the main points to make rakugo entertaining. Altogether, I spent an enjoyable afternoon, even though my expectations were not met. Oh well, I just learned something new, that’s always worth it!

By the way, the group “Laugh-Laugh-Tei” that did the performance, consists of a number of people from Kyoto who use rakugo as a way of improving their English, which in itself I find funny. One of them, Kimochi, cites this as the only reason why he started to perform English rakugo. He appears to be quite ambitious, actually, and is actively trying to bring rakugo to a Western audience. And, if today you are at or nearby Michigan State University, you can watch Kimochi giving an English rakugo performance tonight, November 14, from 18:30 in the RCAH Auditorium.

And if you’re not, just watch him here:

Office Party

As you know, I have been writing facebook posts for Kyotogram, and just recently, we have celebrated our first year online. We are doing this by collaborating with a local store; so if you’re in Kyoto during November and are a fan of Kyotogram on facebook, then you get 5% off at the Kurochiku souvenir shop.

Anyway, besides that, we also had a more private party in the office last night – my very first Japanese business party! It was only a small affair since the office is rather small with only 10 people or so, but it was fun anyway. Even though we were told that there would be no dinner provided, we had a selection of sushi, oden, pizza; popcorn, chips, and chocolate. And lots of alcohol, of course: We quickly finished a large bottle of Sake, and while the others moved on to beer afterwards, I downed some cans of Chu-Hi. It was fun!

Of course, it wouldn’t have been a decent office party if the department head hadn’t given a (thankfully very short) speech at the beginning. And it wouldn’t have been a decent Japanese office party, had it not been timebombed: Just before 22:00, there was another short speech ending with en mo takenawa, which is a formulaic expression meaning something like: “I hate to say this when we’re having a great time, but we have to close this party.”

And in truly Japanese fashion, all of us were helping together to clean up, the office was back to normal within 10 minutes, and then everybody left. Except for the department head, who had some extra work to do afterwards… Even drinking parties in Japan are very formalised and restrained. Or maybe that was just the tip of the iceberg?

Functional Living

Tuesdays, I have my Japanese class in the morning and a meeting in the afternoon with a two-hour break in between. Usually, I try to get something done in that break, and I have written a lot of letters, emails, and blog posts over lunch. But today was such nice and sunny weather, that I decided to go down to the river and have my lunch box there.

And there I sat musing… I looked at the houses nearby, some old wooden buildings, many apartment blocks, some new, and some older. And, looking at them, I thought how easy it was to distinguish them: It seems to me that the older a house is, the more pretty it is, or at least, the more time and thought appears to have gone into building something that is pleasing to the eye – and probably to the people living there.

Modern buildings today are not like that anymore, especially individual houses look like shoe boxes. To begin with, there are no gardens that need daily care and attention and pruning. Instead, we get parking lots in front of main entrances, in concrete slabs that be hosed down quickly if ever the need arises. This is not only striking when comparing family homes, but also clearly visible at the apartment blocks. To me, modern buildings look cold, mass-produced, and rejecting. A current architect would probably rather call them “functional”.

HoneycombBut, we are not machines that need to “function”. We are humans, we are only living. And living is messy and dirty sometimes and it has no straight lines and right angles as far as the eyes can see. It is rough and random and unpolished. It would be nicer, I think, if people’s homes would represent that again, somehow. Meanwhile, I’ll keep dreaming of my house with garden…

Bulk

Sorry for not writing on Tuesday, I came home exhausted and went to bed at 9 already.

I have just taken a step further towards my Japanification. For the first time ever, I bought a five kilo sack of rice, and I have to admit that I was even tempted to buy the big ten kilo sack, and I only refrained because I don’t have a proper spot to store that much. I feel very Japanese now, I am not even sure you can buy that much rice in a single package in Europe (other than in an Asia shop of course).

A bowl of white riceEven though Japan produces about 120% of its population’s consumption of rice, and even though rice farmers are heavily subsidized by the state, it is very expensive here. One kilo usually costs about 1000 yen, and that’s the bog standard Japanese rice you can get in any supermarket. That’s why I was tempted to buy the 10 kilo sack of newly harvested rice for only 4500 yen, but as I said, not enough storage space.

Interestingly, and something I didn’t know for a long time, even rice can go bad! Fresh rice has a very slight and sweet smell that is hard to describe – a little bit like milk. When it goes bad – only after a long, long time usually – it smells musty. I found this out in Korea, when I once tried to cook rice pudding and the milk curdled unexpectedly – even though I had just bought it on the same day. I hope that I’ll be able to finish all the rice before it goes bad – in the worst case, I can always eat it in hearty dishes like Bibimbap or Reisfleisch…

Business Update #4

I hate facebook. I mean, that’s no big news to anyone who knows me, but now I have an official reason for that… Let me explain.

As you know, What’s up in Kyoto has a facebook page. Not that I’m happy about spending all that time and effort there, but as the owner of a company that essentially deals in online services, you need social media presence these days, and facebook (unfortunately) is (still) the number one in that respect. It is a modern version of the village pump, and word of mouth can go quite far there, if you hit the right people – even without advertising.

And it did go very well indeed: it took me several months, but from one week to the next my posts had a reach (i.e., the number of people seeing them) of some 600 people each day. That made me very happy, and I could see the click-throughs to the main page increase, even though by far not all of these people would look beyond facebook. This state lasted maybe a month or so, and now, equally inexplicably, my reach dropped to about 20 people each day – that is back to the reach I had when I started out on facebook, which is really bad for more than 6 months of effort, and many more followers than I started out with.

courtesy of gadgethacks.com

image courtesy of gadgethacks.com

I had no idea what happened, until I found an article somewhere: facebook changed something in their internal workings. To put it simply (or at least, as I understood it): Whenever a user logged on to facebook, they got a “news feed” on their facebook page, which included any updates their friends had posted, and any new posts on pages they had liked. But now, facebook has changed this, the “news feed” only contains posts from friends. There is now a new “explore feed” where facebook suggests pages that are similar to what people have liked before. But not necessarily the pages people already did like! If you want your (business) page to show up in the news feed of people who liked the page already (!) you’ll have to pay for it.

As an analog example, just imagine that all of a sudden you have two mail boxes, one for letters and postcards of people you know (which is probably mostly empty) and another one for stuff the mailman thinks might be interesting to you, depending of the mail he has delivered before. However, for the newspapers you have already subscribed to, you have to out and get them yourself at the newsagent’s…

I’m not sure how to feel about this to be honest. Half of me is furious because the whole thing is simply yet another way of making more money for facebook. And there’s now a lot of people I can’t reach anymore – including ones that already liked whatsupinkyoto. If you did – I’m afraid you’ll have to manually visit the page each day, nothing I can do about that. The other half of me is happy that facebook was always just an add-on to the main page, so if things go well there it’s good, if things don’t, there’s not much lost. Especially since I never paid a single yen to them. At least that is not going to change. Ever.

Efforts

It was raining – no, pouring – all weekend because of an approaching typhoon. Sunday night the storm was so heavy that I couldn’t sleep, and at some point in the middle of the night I even got up and cleared my balcony to prevent anything from being blown away.

Next door to my apartment, there is this garage for garbage trucks. And just this Saturday, they had their open day again, with games for the kids, allowing them to sit in a garbage truck, stalls for food, etc. There was even a brass band, which played a medley of Queen songs some time in the morning. From what I could see from my balcony, it seemed pretty empty. I felt so sorry for them, putting in all this effort, and then they are washed away by the typhoon.

The big event on Sunday – Jidai Matsuri, a favourite of mine – was cancelled altogether. It was a wise decision, and even though it had cleared a bit by Monday, the auxiliary date, it would not have been much fun for anyone. Even the Manga museum closed early on Sunday.

By now, things are back to normal again. The temperature has dropped even further though, and I now have put out my gloves and woolen scarf and hat in case I have to go somewhere on my bicycle in the evening. Also, tonight is the first night this autumn where I am using my space heater. My fears for a long and cold winter are probably justified…

On a somewhat lighter note, it seems that Japan has been taken over by Halloween altogether. There will be a Halloween-themed cosplay parade next weekend for example, and of course, Halloween costumes and trinkets are for sale everywhere. Even serious Japanese businesses are jumping on the bandwagon. Today, I passed by a very old Japanese sweets shop that mainly sell traditional sweets with red bean paste, and waffles with simple sugar cream inside. Said waffles are now having a cute design – Halloween inspired, of course.Japanese Halloween Waffles.

Early Autumn

raindrops on a windowI’m cold. Yes, I know it is autumn and it’s normal to be getting cool, but it is much colder this year than usual. We now have daily highs of 18 – 20 degrees, which sounds a lot for this time of the year, but it is windy and it has been raining the last two weeks almost continuously. It seems that we are now getting the rainy season that we missed earlier this year.

In fact, the whole summer already was cooler than usual. I know since I don’t have aircondition in my apartment. I am pretty hardy when it comes to heat, but when it is really hot – meaning, more than 35 degrees already at 8 in the morning – I flee to somewhere cool. It’s usually only a few days during early August I have to do this, but this year: not a single time! Summer was also often cloudy, and although the humidity was still unpleasant, it didn’t feel quite as unbearable as usual.

Anyway, I’m worried that we will get an early and really cold winter. Last year, I held out until the end of December before I consolidated and moved both my office and my futon to the livingroom. This year, I think I will spend more than three months in a single room of my apartment. My friends’ opinions on this are split, pretty much evenly. One of them fully agrees with me, another one says the current cold weather will only last for a couple of weeks… I wish I could be as optimistic as she is. In any case, time to get my winter clothes out of storage, I hate having cold feet…

Elections

Last Sunday, there were the Austrian general elections for parliament. I took it upon me to wait for the results until about 2 am.

Flags of Austria and JapanPersonal opinion: On the one hand, it’s not good. Not good at all. We now have – with high probability – a right-ish OEVP chancellor who is definitely populist, and with 31 years has no experience in anything whatsoever, except for being a party member, which was the only reason he became foreign minister the last time. I’m worried.

On the other hand, it could have been worse: At least the very far right guy with friends in all the other far right parties in Europe only got as far as third place. Just. So, even though it is highly unlikely, there is a chance that the SPOE social democrats – now at the second place – will form another coalition with the OEVP.

And then there is the green party, which will not be a member of the next parliament any longer, after 31 years. I think this is well-deserved by this green party, due to all the BS they managed to do in the last half year at least. Unfortunately, this also means that the opposition is not very strong anymore, which is not good for the country as a whole.

Anyway, we’ll see where this will go. I have received already a number of questions and comments from Japanese friends around here (who will vote for their own parliament next Sunday, by the way), and I gave them the following answer: Well, I already emigrated…

Aftermath

Today was the first Kyotogram meeting since we two writers had the talk with the big boss last week. I had thanked him in an email for meeting with us and giving us the opportunity to complain, and he replied that he in turn had had a meeting with the other two members of the group. So, I was slightly anxious about today, about how Junior would react, but then again, I had said nothing that I wouldn’t tell him to his face.

"The Great Wave" by HokusaiThe meeting went very well, and we addressed the issues we had raised with the big boss. Junior seems more willing to see the whole thing as a team effort. And we in turn have promised to speak out earlier if things are going in a direction we are not happy with. We’ll see how this is going, for now the waves have calmed again and we’re looking at bright weather and a smooth sailing.