Busy day today, even more so than a usual Tuesday: Leave home at 10:00 for Japanese class, then from 14:00 a business meeting. Home at 18:00, just to go out for a special soroban class one hour later. Finally exhausted home for good at 21:00.

The day had an interesting and very unexpected highlight though: lunch time. These days, I have my Japanese class at the Kyoto Rohm Theatre, where there are public spaces to sit and meet for free. After the class I usually stay and have lunch, do some writing or other offline stuff, and then I move on to my meeting in town.

During lunch, there are always more people coming and having their bento boxes, but today it was exceptionally crowded, and with lots and lots of old people. I found out that there was a special concert today from 13:30, which explains why there were no empty seats to be had around lunchtime. As usual, I had finished lunch and started writing, and it was busy enough that within a short time span, two old ladies (who apparently didn’t know each other) sat down at my table. Japanese people avoid doing this, and both of them completely ignored me, the second one even demonstratively turning her back at me. Oh well, I just kept writing.

But then, the first one left – and the second one promptly turned around and started chatting with me. And then she put her own bento box on the table (hand-made vegetarian maki sushi) – and offered me some of it! She went so far and put the food right in front of me and because it would have been rude to refuse, I had another lunch with the old lady, who was very happy to have somebody to share her food with. She said something like Shared food is always delicious, but eating alone is so sad…

Japanese people never cease to amaze me. I know that the elderly – old ladies especially – have some sort of fool’s license, they can get away with many things younger people would be immediately punished for. But this was certainly a new facet of Japanese society that I have never seen before, and probably will not see again.

Four Seasons

When you start living in Japan, sooner or later you will start talking to some Japanese about your own country and how it is different from Japan. And then, the topic of the seasons will come up, and your friend will say something like: “You know, in Japan, we have four seasons!” with a gleam of pride in her eyes, as if the concept of four distinct seasons is something no gaijin has ever heard of. However, said gleam will immediately turn to bitter disappointment upon your answer: “So do we. So what?”

I think I finally figured out what they really mean with that. it’s not the fact that there are four distinct seasons at all, the Japanese are well aware that other countries have those too. Also, it is easy to diagnose summer when it has 35 degrees outside, or to declare winter when you’re suffering from frost bite. I think what they mean is that the change of seasons is obvious, irreversible, and swift. Sometimes the change of season is so abrupt, it happens over night.

red ivy leaves on a brick wallFor example, it is already autumn here. It started about 2.5 weeks ago. How I know? Well, it has cooled down, even though we still have more than 30 degrees. There are also more rainy days, but that’s not it either. The two things that made me sigh with relief: Humidity has dropped considerably, from one day to the next. Now I have to actually move to start sweating, in summer this is not necessary. Also, most of the cicadas that make summer so noisy, have died. There are still some around, but there are much fewer individual insects, and those are different species since their call has changed.

Thinking about it a bit more, I now believe that all the four seasons in Japan have a rather distinct point as to when they begin. And most of those points are not related to any fixed day, obviously, but to some event in nature. That’s probably the reason why the Japanese love any kind of nature viewing so much: They know the cherry blossoms mark the height of spring, and that when the momiji colors are over, winter will come. It’s also easy to notice these things when you’re living in a wooden house with hardly any insulation, as most of the old Japanese did, and many still do.

Anyway, let me list the things that mark the new seasons in Japan. Feel free to comment if you think I’m wrong, after all, this is just my theory.

Spring starts with the ume (peach blossoms). It is still cold then, and it may still snow, but once the red peach blossoms can be seen, they mark the end of winter. The height of spring has been reached during hanami – cherry blossom viewing. And once the last cherries have lost their blossoms and put on their green leaves, it will only take a week or two more to arrive at Summer.

Summer begins some time in May when the temperature rises further, but even more so, humidity. Early summer comes with tsuyu, the rainy season, and the rain does not ease the humidity, on the contrary! When you can’t seem to stop sweating, no matter what you do (or not do), that’s summer. At some point the cicadas will start their noisy song, marking midsummer.

Autumn, as I said above, will start with a sharp drop in humidity, usually at the end of August. The cicadas drop from their trees as well, and you can enjoy silent nights of sleep again. The most beautiful part of autumn is the koyo, when the leaves of the maple trees turn red, orange, or yellow. That does not happen until the night temperature falls below a certain threshold, but from then on, the momiji can be admired for two or three weeks. Once their leaves fall to the ground as well, some time at the end of November, that’s the end of the season.

Winter starts a week or two after the koyo, again with a drop in temperature. It may not snow everywhere (it doesn’t in Kyoto), and the temperature will hover just above zero degrees. It will be quite dry though, and especially clear days will be wonderful to go out and climb up somewhere and have a look over the country.

That’s my theory. Autumn was obvious this year, I will try to see if I can notice a similar swift change for winter. This whole year has been usually cool, I just hope we will not get an early and too cold winter this time…


A friend of mine is an artist who makes woodblock prints in the shin hanga tradition, and his flower prints have a very distinctive style. He is also teaching people the art of shin hanga woodblock printing, and some time back in June, I went to his yearly exhibition of prints made by his students.

Art is something very personal, and my approach to it is straightforward: Either I like something, or I don’t. I don’t care for big names or current movements, if something doesn’t strike a chord within me, that’s it. I guess I would neither make a good art critic, nor a good art collector… Anyway, I went to my friend’s students’ exhibition without big expectations and I was not disappointed. Some pictures I just passed by, others I recognised because they were of places in Kyoto I had been to myself, and a handful or so were really fantastic.

My favourite print was a scene from the Japanese Alps, somewhere in the central provinces: A high mountain range during sunset. It instantly reminded me of home; the bare rocks of the mountains, the gleaming colors of the sun lit slope… I returned to this picture two or three times, and I talked about it to the people at the entrance (also students of my friend), and then I left. And nothing more happened.

Until a few weeks ago when my friend announced that the student who had made the mountain scene had decided to give it to me. Just like that…

Evening sun at Kitadake.It’s called “Evening Sun at Kitadake”, which is the second highest mountain in Japan with 3193 m elevation.  It’s a very simple image but very powerful, to me at least, who loves mountains. And that’s exactly the way the Austrian mountains look like – it makes me almost a bit homesick! I now only have to frame the picture and then I will hang it on a wall in my new home to remind me of my old home one and a half continents away…


Today, I came home after a hard day that started off with killing cockroaches in front of my door (again) and that ended with being squeezed into a packed tourist bus after having to go to the station for (scanner) shopping. And just when I was getting ready to unpack my new scanner and try it out, I glimpsed at the news… Here’s a link to the (English) Japan Times, just in case you don’t know what I’m referring to:

Apparently, around 6:06 this morning, dear leader Kim Jong-un has fired an intercontinental missile somewhere into the Pacific, straight across Japan. And since then, North Korea’s action has been condemned virtually everywhere from Japan to the US (who say they stand 100% behind Japan), to China, and the EU, and even Russia is on our side for once.

And I’m standing here without knowing what to think, really. In my view it’s unlikely that North Korea will attack Japan directly, since Japan with their doctrine of “self-defense” will not shoot first. However, if they attack either South Korea or – gods forbid – the US itself, then Japan will probably get drawn into the conflict one way or the other, not something I’d like to see up close.

The main problem is that both Kim and Trump are essentially overgrown children who like to throw all their toys out of the pram, and who are more or less immune to any reasoning or advice. And it does scare me as to what could happen if they are both unleashed at the same time… Nothing the world needs right now (or ever), really.

Below is a graffiti in Vienna by the artist Lush Sux. I’m not sure it has a name, but let’s call it “Kim Jong Trump”. Kim Jong Trump


Half Dan!

I haven’t written about it for a while, but I am still pursuing the goal of getting a first dan grade in soroban. So far, I have made two attempts, one back in May, and the other last month, in July. In May I failed pretty clearly (you need at least 100 points in 6 of the 7 categories, and I passed only a single one), and I wasn’t very hopeful for the July test either.

Results of my last soroban testHowever, last Sunday, at our monthly soroban meeting, my Sensei presented me with a certificate for a “jun-shodan”, half a first dan grade. This you get for at least 80 points in 6 categories, and I was very surprised to receive this at all. But then I remembered that for the dan grades, not only the latest test results count, but also the results of the two previous tests. And since I had more than 80 points in 4 categories in May, and more than 80 points in 4 different ones in July, I passed this test in only two trials.

So, one more level to go. It won’t be easy of course, but with those new rules it might not be quite as tough as I had thought. Wish me luck!


Yesterday was the final day of the Obon festival, where the dead, who have returned to earth during the last few days are sent off to the underworld again. In Kyoto, this sending off is celebrated with 5 enormous fires that are lit on mountains surrounding the city, called the Daimonji festival (or, officially, the Gozan-no-okuribi).

This year, I had wanted to go to Arashiyama to see the large torii, which is the only one of the five fires you cannot see from the city. However, I started a project in the afternoon and overlooked the time and because it takes about an hour from here to Arashiyama, I would not have made it on time to see the fire (each one only burns for 20 – 30 minutes or so.)

So, I decided to stay local and go to the myo-ho, which is not one, but two fires about 20 minutes from my apartment. They are on rather low mountains and other than the big dai on Mount Daimonji and the lovely boat-shaped funegata, I cannot see them from my balcony.

However, even here, I was too late because I underestimated the amount of people who would be in the area. The myo-ho fires can best be viewed from a little road that is usually completely devoid of traffic, but last night it was full with people! While I could see the first one of the fires, the ho, I was just a little bit too late to see the myo character. When I finally had made my way through all the people there, the fire had already gone out…

The "ho" character of the Daimonji festivalOh well, at least I could see the big dai and the funegata on my trip. And next year I know to either be very early, or to take a different road a bit further south where there are (hopefully) no people. Or maybe I’ll make it to Arashiyama to see the torii after all.

Pottery Festival

Every year from August 7 – 10, there is a pottery festival in Kyoto. Along both sides of the eastern most bit of Gojo dori, between the Kamogawa and Higashiyama, hundreds of stalls are set up by people from all over Japan selling pottery. And that’s on top of all the pottery shops that already line that part of Gojo dori.

I am not a huge fan of pottery, but I was in the area yesterday anyway so I dropped by. I was hoping to maybe find a few of those tiny dishes that Japanese use for soy sauce or similar, but I didn’t find anything I liked, so I returned home empty-handed.

There were a few truly stunning pieces though, for example rather large black vases that looked like hewn from lava stone, with a crane motif painted in gold and silver, for some 350000 yen each. I could imagine that you buy this kind of vase for a tea room or something similar formal. Not for me this time. I did contemplate buying one or two little ceramic airplanes, which the seller had displayed on a shelf looking like an aircraft carrier, which was a cute touch.

Anyway, a bit off the main street at an entrance to a shrine there was this: Taoist god fighting a devilIt depicts a Taoist god fighting the devil on the left, and both are made with old ceramic plates and cups of all sizes. This was a project of students of one of Kyoto’s art universities, and they said it took them three months to complete. It was a very interesting art installation, and we talked a little, they also had a questionnaire asking for input for next year’s project. I said maybe something really Kyoto like one of the temples, or at least a temple gate, or something Japanese, like a Shinkansen or similar. Thinking about it now, I should have suggested Kyoto tower or maybe the Sky Tree… Oh well, next year then.

More Taxes

Japan has an interesting system regarding the payment of taxes and social security, both for individuals and companies. The amount you have to pay each month does not depend on your current income, but on the income from the year before. And since the standard fiscal year for a company ends in March, the numbers for taxes and social security are calculated after that, and the new amounts have to be paid from July onwards.

Up until now, I have paid very little taxes on my income; I only had to pay national taxes to the amount of about 5000 yen per month. I would pay them twice a year only, accumulated for six months. However, now in the third year of my business, I also have to pay city and prefectural taxes on my income, which is another 5000 yen each per month. So, from one month to the next, my tax payment has tripled – and my income stayed the same, not to talk about my profits (for now).

Japanese currencyInterestingly, these two payments cannot be processed automatically using a collection order for the tax office for example. The reason is – as my accountant claims – that the monthly amount may fluctuate depending on the number of employees and their salaries. And the Kyoto city and prefectural tax offices, naturally, are by far not as advanced as my gas company for example and could not possibly know how to deal with this.

And since my bank denies me internet banking for my company account for some random reason, I will now have to make a pilgrimage before the 10th day of each month to my bank so I can pay my taxes there – in person and with a manually filled out piece of paper. So much for the highly advanced tech-country Japan. Well, I guess all the staff at my bank need something to do…

Fire Walking

Last Friday evening, I went to the Tanukidani Fudoin Temple. This beautiful old temple is reminiscent of Kiyomizudera, which is also built on “stilts” at the top of a steep incline. However, Tanukidani Fudoin is much less famous, probably because it is so much smaller, there is no nice view over Kyoto from there, and getting there is much harder – especially climbing the 250 steps at the end of the already steep road is very exhausting. At least in winter, you’ll be nicely warmed up at the end though…

Tanukidano Fudion TempleAnyway, I went there last Friday for the hi-watari – fire walking – ceremony. It is meant to pray for protection and health, and it was the longest religious ceremony I have watched so far in Japan. It started with chants and prayers in the main hall, which I could hear but not see because I had stayed outside to secure a good spot for the main part of the ceremony that started about 30 minutes later.

On the central open space of the temple, a large pyre had been built with logs and pine branches. When the monks had finished their ceremony in the main hall, they went down to the “temple square” and took their places there. Four seated themselves at the corners, surrounding the pyre, the others took their seats at some benches that had been specially provided.

Beginning of the hi-watari ritualThen there was more chanting by the monks, and the head priest performed some rituals, the meaning of which I did not understand. At some point, one of the monks took up a prepared bow, went to each of the four men sitting in the corners of the square, took an arrow from them, said an incantation, and then shot the arrow out towards the four corners of the world. A fifth arrow was shot into the pyre. I assume that this part of the ceremony was meant to repel evil coming from the four cardinal directions, but as I said, I am not sure.

Only after this was done, the pyre was finally lit with a large torch. More chants and prayers followed, including walking around the bonfire, and the head priest threw bundles of wood into the fire, possibly ema, prayer tablets. This whole part of the ceremony took maybe one hour, and at the end of it, the bonfire was nicely ablaze and its sparks were flying high into the nightly air.

Starting the fireWhen all the chants had been spoken and all the monks had taken their rounds around the bonfire, the fire was torn apart by some of the monks and the wood was formed into a pathway of maybe 6 by 3 meters. The larger logs, still burning, were moved to the outside, and at the inside there was left a layer of glimmering charcoal. And then came the moment all the spectators had been waiting for: The monks lined up at one end of the fiery path – and walked over the coals to the other side.

Final FirewalkingThey were accompanied by a large taiko drum, which gave the scene a sort of earnest urgency. It looked very serene, the monks went rather slowly and did not seem fazed at all. A lady next to me, however, remarked that the coals in the middle of the path were completely black by now, meaning they were probably not too hot anymore. Still, it was impressive to watch, and the burning logs at the sides of the path were probably hot enough anyway.

This marked the end of the ceremony, and once all the monks had passed over the hot coals, those who had so far only watched were now also allowed to try fire walking. A large amount of people did, the idea of this part is to pray for good health over summer. Interestingly, many of the ceremonies that take place in summer are to pray for good health; I wonder if in the olden days people were more prone to die from summer heat (or maybe hot weather diseases) than from whatever cold or pneumonia you can catch in winter. It might explain why most Japanese still seem to suffer less in the cold winter than in the hot summer, even though a too much of both is unpleasant.

Public Service

Today, I am feeling very proud of myself! After not sleeping very well last night and then spending all day in different meetings, I came home around 5 pm – and still had the energy to perform a public service: I killed a cockroach that was lurking in the hallway outside my apartment!

At first I thought it was a cicada because they are of a similar size and colour, and never before have I seen a cockroach sitting on a wall about two meters off the ground. So I checked twice before picking up the glass cleaning fluid and liberally spraying the insect with it until it died. This doesn’t seem like much of work, but I probably saved this building from potentially 400 more cockroaches this summer – which yes, I consider a public service even if it happened right in front of my own apartment.

Now I should do a bit more hunting inside my apartment. Last Sunday, just when I was about to go out, I discovered a gecko in my office. I don’t mind them very much, in fact they are rather cute and I think they have very intelligent faces. However, it would surely be better for the both of us I can find it and put it outside again. This is now the second gecko entering my apartment since I lived here and I would really like to know how it got in. Yes, my windows are now open essentially 24/7, but that’s what the fly screens are for, no?