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.

 

Misc.

I’ve just heard that Kazuo Ishiguro received the Nobelprize for Literature this year. I’m so thrilled! His books are wonderful, and even though he is a British citizen and had left Japan at age 5, his books have a very Japanese style. I wasn’t planning to, but since I have another review for one of his books ready, I’ll post it on Sunday.

In other news… it is getting really cold now, and I feel that it is much too early. Night temperatures are about 18 degrees, even though it can get quite warm during the days still. I need to close my windows at night now, and even during the days it is quite windy, which is not very conducive to open windows.

This might be the reason why I have developed problems with my left shoulder in the last three weeks or so. It’s very painful, although I have still the full range of movement – for now. A friend of mine thinks it may be “frozen shoulder”, a condition that starts out with shoulder pain that changes into immobility at a point. It may take up to one year, sets in suddenly, and also ends suddenly, and the cause is unclear. All that is known is that it starts out with an inflammation of the shoulder joint, but why…

I have now started to use an anti-inflammatory ointment during the day, and in the night I use “hot plasters” on the shoulder to keep the area warm. The pain seems to subside a little – I can sleep through the night again – and moving is still possible. So, maybe, with a bit of luck, it’s not frozen shoulder after all, but just some sort of cold from sitting in the draught for too long.

Review Meeting

As you may have forgotten by now, I am still writing posts for the facebook page of Kyotogram, a local business with the aim of bringing foreign tourists to Kyoto and Japan. By now, there is also a website, essentially a daily blog talking about Japan, but I am not involved in this one. Our group of four people meets once a week for two hours to talk, and most of the times, the meetings are nice and productive.

Although, the last two weeks, they weren’t. The reason is that Kyotogram will soon celebrate its first birthday and the big boss is starting to want to see results, obviously. In this case, the results essentially are the number of likes per post, and for some reason or other, this number has been going down the last month or two. It’s hard to say why because facebook doesn’t reveal the algorithms with which they provide people with our posts – and the more people we reach, the more likes we get, obviously.

So, two weeks ago, the team leader (let’s call him Junior because he’s a recent uni graduate, 23 years of age, with zero experience in anything) has started to search for reasons why the numbers are down, and, lo and behold, he has made it out: all the posts that are not scenery. Since those are all my posts, he was more or less attacking me and saying something that “we need better content” (not that he explained what that would be, of course). I let that go – until last week Junior attacked me again in the same way, and I couldn’t quite let that go twice in a row…

Fast forward to this week’s meeting: I was prepared to tell him I’d take a week off in case he attacked me again today. And I was definitely planning to ask the big boss for a meeting to talk about Junior and his attitude in depth. None of that happened, since there were preemptive strikes by both of them:

First of all, Junior apologised for his behaviour last week and the week before, right at the beginning of the meeting, which was totally unexpected. (I accepted.) And then the usual meeting was cut short because we two writers had an extra “review meeting” with the big boss! The three of us went to a cafe nearby where the big boss bought drinks, and then we were … what’s the term … airing our grievances. For one and a half hours. I don’t want to go into details here, but I feel that it was a constructive meeting, that the big boss was listening to what we had to say, and that he will try to solve the current problems.

I trust the big boss to come up with something we all can be happy with (even Junior). I wouldn’t want to leave because I still like the job (and I do learn a lot of things that can be applied to my own work), the people are nice (mostly), and I can definitely use the money… Let’s see where this is going.

Unexpected Gift

Yesterday I took a day off and went to an exhibition in Osaka. I enjoyed it very much, even though it was very crowded and even though everybody around me seemed to snap pictures all the time. Sometimes even without looking at the art in detail at all. I don’t get it…

Anyway, when I came back to Kyoto I was to meet a friend at the Takashimaya department store. Near their information counter – always a good meeting spot – there are a few seats available, and I sat down next to an elderly lady, who, in truly elderly lady fashion immediately struck up a conversation with me. (Elderly people love to talk to me!) It was the usual: where are you from, oh you live in Kyoto, what are you doing… kind of conversation which I can hold up quite well by now. And she asked if I come to the Takashimaya often, and I answered, well, sometimes, today I’m meeting a friend here. And she said that she was just done with her own shopping and then she began rummaging in her bag.

Takashimaya Gift CertificateAnd then, suddenly and completely unprovoked, she took out her wallet and gave me a Takashimaya gift certificate for 1000 yen. Just like that. And then she shook my hand, mentioned in getting up that she was 80 years old, and then she left, never to be seen again.

I’m still flabbergasted. Why on earth would she give this to me? I never really know how to deal with these random acts of kindness, other than say “thank you very much” and roll with it. Anybody else got any suggestions?

Claim 2 Fame

Finally all the hard work paid off – I’m famous! Of course, I had already garnered international fame when somebody posted a video featuring me on youtube… But this time it’s local fame, which is really more important!

So, last Saturday I went to the Nishijin Traditional Cultural Festival with a friend of mine. Nishijin is Kyoto’s silk producers and merchants district, and there are still a number of fantastic old houses in which craftsmen live and do their work after ancient traditions. I have been there three times now, but there are still new things to discover. This time, my friend and I found a maker of exquisite – and very expensive – silver tea pots. And a bit off the beaten track there was the maker of samurai armor, who explained that one single suit of armor would take him one year to complete…

Anyway, the festival started at 10, and my friend and I were early so we could scour the stalls for cheap silken goods. In a corner behind the very first one, there was this guy who constantly took pictures, something I found rather creepy because I don’t like pictures of myself. At some point he approached us, explained that he was a reporter for the Kyoto Shimbun and if he could do an interview. I would have said no, but my friend was faster than me… So we answered a few questions and exchanged name cards. And on Sunday, the oevre below was found in the local newspaper, fully equipped with my name, age, occupation, and photo. (I edited the article a little to cut out my last name and half of the photo).

my mention in the local newspaper.Kyoto Shimbun has a print run of 500.000 morning papers each day. My friend says there will be lots of people reading it, and it may be good for business. Well, people are indeed reading it (I got emails and calls from friends who did), but as for increasing business, I doubt that, since the information about me is too vague for anyone to find me. However, I will contact the reporter again and see if he would like to write about What’s Up In Kyoto. This might definitely drive some business… We’ll see.

Sharing

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…

Mountains

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…