Back 2 School

I’m going back to soroban school! My soroban teacher is all excited about me passing the test next time in January, so he said he wants me to come back to get the final polish.

With the last test I passed all but two of the exam types (okay, except anzan – mental math, but that’s no surprise). So, for the next test in January, I only need to focus on divisions and additions; if I get at least 100 points (i.e., 10 correct exercises), I will have passed the shodan exam, just as I had planned. For both divisions and additions, I am hovering around 80 – 90 points, which is a good starting point. However, I make too many avoidable mistakes, so I have to put in extra effort here, both to increase accuracy, and to increase speed.

old style soroban at a fleamarketI went to class today, and my sensei said something very interesting: When I do the math, I speak the equations in my mind, for example “6 times 3 is 18” (in German, of course), and afterwards I set the appropriate numbers on the soroban. My sensei watched me and said that I seem to stop between two such equations, which means I’m stopping on the soroban as well. This interruption of the smooth flow of the hand movement may introduce extra mistakes, he said.

Solution: I should slow down, just enough to speak the equation and set the beads on the soroban at the same time. This will lead to a smooth, almost continuous flow of the movements of the hand – which in turn will increase speed, and maybe even accuracy. It does sound a bit weird at first, but if you think about it, it makes sense. I will try to do this for a couple of weeks and see where this is going.

Besides that, it seems that by now I know the book by heart – I make very few mistakes when doing the basic exercises that can be done in the seven minutes’ time frame, but beyond that I make more mistakes. According to my sensei, this is not just because the numbers are getting longer, so to get a better training experience, I should now start with exercise number 11 instead of the beginning.

I’m sure he has a point there – in both respects. I am really eager to finally pass the shodan exam, so I’ll do as he suggests. Wish me luck!

 

Jealousy

A non-folding scottish fold cat.Let me say it as it is: I’m terribly jealous!

Yesterday evening I went to the German Christmas Market at the Umeda Sky Building with a friend of mine. And there he came clean: they had adopted a baby! Not a human one, but this adorable kitten here! She’s 6 months old and a Scottish Fold, even though the ears are not folding at all. For some reason, Japanese love high breed cats; my friend bought her from a shop for 100.000 yen. Personally I would never do that, there are enough cats in shelters everywhere looking for a good home, but since he has the money…

Anyway, isn’t she cute? I sooo wish I could have my own cat, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. However, I have already told my friend that I’ll be happy to come catsitting at any time they need it. I’m very excited to meet her at Christmas!

Money Issues

After all these years of living “the easy life” at least financially, I can finally understand what it means to be a “working poor”. Right now, I have never worked so hard while seeing so little money for it. It’s a bit complicated, because it is connected to how the Japanese tax system is working, so bear with me.

Essentially, in Japan, you pay taxes according to the amount of money you earned the year before. This is very nice if your salary increases quickly – one extra year of low taxes – but not so nice if you retire or become unemployed. Since my company only makes a small profit, I have been paying myself the same salary since the beginning, just enough to satisfy the Japanese Immigration Office. And this year, for the first time, I am being hit with the full amount of taxes. I didn’t pay anything in the first year, and only 5000 yen/month in the second. But this year, my taxes have tripled, although they are  still at the lower end of the general national tax scale.

This tax increase didn’t come as a big surprise, but what really hit me was the enormous hike in health insurance, a system that works like taxes: you pay according to what you earned the year before. Last year, I paid about 5000 yen/month and I expected insurance to double, maybe. I wasn’t that lucky: I am now paying 25.000 yen each month, which is quite a blow.

Japanese currencySo, at this point, after I have paid all my taxes, insurances, utilities, rent, etc. I am left with 50.000 yen spending money for the whole month. This is tough! I have tried to reduce some of my expenses for daily life (meaning: food), but there’s only so far you can go. While it should be possible to eat for 1000 yen/day, I have not managed that, probably because I am so addicted to the comparatively expensive bread. Most of the times I drink water anyway, so that’s not a big deal, but cutting chocolate – which I see as necessary “fuel” is very difficult. I might take this opportunity to lose some weight, which will cut down food costs automatically though.

Other expenses are relatively low in general: I have no expensive hobbies, plenty of clothing that will go for a while still (and I never liked shopping for clothes anyway), hardly ever go anywhere, and I even stopped buying books since the library is that close. Unexpected things do come up though – the brakes on my bicycle needed fixing last month for example, but even that was just a small amount. I hope that there won’t be any major things happening, because I want to avoid touching my savings (aka: my future house with garden) at all costs.

Altogether I think I can get by until I can raise my own salary, but I am worried a little about the coming winter because the heating will drive up my electricity bills. If anyone wants to help me over the cold here by sending me a food parcel, just let me know! 😉

Detailed

a hamster running in a wheelMy goodness, what is it these days? I’m running from one appointment to the next and have so many things to do that at the end of the day I’m exhausted – and still have the feeling I didn’t accomplish anything… There are so many small things I have to attend to at the moment, I am getting bogged down by them and I don’t really have time to do the big and important stuff that would actually get me somewhere. And that’s just work I need to do anyway.

On top of all that, I’m getting emails about things that should be working smoothly without my interference – but of course, there are unexpected hiccups that I have to attend to… Just last week, I received an email from my bank in Austria informing me that they have made a wrong withdrawal, and could I please let them know what to do now, preferably using these forms including a signature. And today, I received a cheque from one of my steady clients in the US, where we usually deal via paypal. And because they don’t want to cancel the cheque, I have to go to my bank (in person!) and ask how much fees it would incur if I cash it here in Japan and then we’ll find out what to do about the fees and…

Sure, there’s nothing else I have to do right now, bring it on! It’s those little things that are wearing me out at the moment, and there’s nothing really I can do about it, except for delegating, which obviously is not an option at this point. And it’s almost December where even more of those little things are waiting for me, like Oseibo and Nengajo… I just hope things will get better soon, it’s very exhausting at the moment.

 

Consolidation

Just as I had predicted, it’s getting cold here much earlier this year than usual. Already, we can have as little as 5 degrees in the nights, which is pretty low for this time of the year. So, I have already consolidated my home into a single room, more than a month earlier than last year. Over the last weekend, I moved the main parts of my office equipment, as well as my futon into my livingroom, where I will spend the rest of the winter, hoping it will not get too cold after all. Wish me luck!

Sorry for the short post today, I had a full day, came home very late, and now I’m cold and tired… off to bed!

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…