Incompetence

As you know, I have been very busy promoting What’s up in Kyoto. Part of the promotion is a small advertising campaign with posters in one of the best frequented subway stations in Kyoto. I have contacted an advertising company and they really did their best to have the posters up on July 14th, that’s three days before the first Gion Matsuri parade and also during yoiyama, where this particular subway station is very busy.

I was very happy, and waited for all the visitors that would come to my site and… nothing. Or, at least, not much more than usual. I thought, oh well, you probably have to pass the same poster more than once to take action, so I was not really worried (okay, maybe a little because I spent a lot of money).

And then I received an email from the advertising company yesterday evening at around 7 pm, telling me that: We are so sorry, but the posters were removed already on the 16th due to the mismanagement of the transportation office! My first reaction: I laughed out loud. Using the word “mismanagement” or “incompetence” in business communication is pretty strong, I did not expect that at all from the gentle and roundabout Japanese. It made my evening.

By now, the posters have been put up again, and as a compensation, I will receive a whole month of free advertising since they will leave the posters up until mid September. And also the reprinting will not cost me a thing! If all Japanese incompetence is like this, I don’t think I mind…

Kimono

Every Tuesday I have a work meeting in town that usually takes two hours and is pretty much, well, business. Last week, however, there was a kimono exhibition in the same building where the office is, so it was decided that we would go upstairs and have a look.

Kimono and obi on displayIt was fantastic! All the kimono and obi were silk, handmade and exquisite – and of an appropriate price class, of course. Have a look at the kimono above. They are not yet finished, meaning, only roughly sewn together to be fitted to the final buyer. Each of them is made of one those rolls of silk that you see lying there; each roll holds about 14 metres of cloth.

Obi showing cranesThe obi are handmade as well, and we saw somebody applying gold leaf to an obi in a technique called kinsai. Other obi were “simply” embroidered by hand, which for a standard obi of four meters length and more will take a while. No wonder they can be more expensive than a kimono. Interestingly, an obi is the main accessory for a kimono. If you buy a kimono in a not too flashy color, you will be able to wear it for years – and dress it up or down according to the formality of the occasion, and the age of the wearer with an appropriate obi. I’m not sure if you can get away with only owning a single kimono, but it seems you won’t need as many as Western clothing.

The picture below shows my favourite kimono. It is made in the yuzen dyeing technique, which essentially means it is hand painted. The artist, a man in his 60s, was present at the exhibition, and he says that it took him 20 years to master the technique. Remember that a kimono is made of a single roll of silk? It is not cut during the painting and the artist said that by now, he can paint the whole cloth in a way so that when it is cut up into the kimono, the sides of the design will fit together perfectly. He laments the decline of the kimono as a whole, which is not surprising if you know that one of those may take him up to six months to complete, and it will cost about 1.5 million yen. At the moment, he is looking for an apprentice, so if you have 20 years to spare… Kimono showing waves; made in the yuzen technique

Gion Matsuri!

It’s Gion Matsuri again! I haven’t been out to see any of the big events this year, I’m only writing about them… But, as a Kyoto resident, there is no excuse: You must go and see Gion Matsuri.

Today, me and two friends of mine got all dressed up in our summer yukata and went out to see the construction of the first set of floats for the Saki Matsuri Parade next Monday. We had tickets for a tea ceremony at the float called Kikuhoko, which is one of the big ones about 25 m high, with a big golden chrysanthemum on top. These things are done to raise money for the respective yamaboko community, together with selling souvenirs like chimaki and other charms or tenugui.

The tea ceremony was a very casual one. Only the master who made the tea was kneeling on a slightly raised platform, all the other guests were sitting on tables and there was a constant coming and going. Before the matcha we were served a sweet jelly made from black sugar on a blue plate shaped like a chrysanthemum (which we were allowed to keep, by the way). While we were sipping our tea, a group of young girls came in to sit in front of us. My friend gave me a nudge and said “honmono – the real thing”. Yes, during Gion Matsuri even lowly people like us have the chance to meet real maiko…maiko after tea ceremonyAfter the tea ceremony, we went through the hokomachi to see some of the other yamaboko in construction. I always love to see the Funehoko which is shaped like a boat, so we went there among others. We even came across one of the trial pullings that were taking place today, of the Hokahoko if I’m correct. The fun thing about this is that everybody may step up and help pulling, even women and kids who are obviously not part of the big, real parade.

Kids before the trial pulling of the Hokahoko. We did not see all of the floats though, since it was quite hot with 36 degrees. And even though people may tell you otherwise, a yukata is a quite warm piece of clothing… The last hoko we visited was the Naginata hoko. It is always the one to lead the parade and the only one left with a chigo, a young boy to perform a number of rituals during the festival month. We even went upstairs to the community house of the Naginata hoko, but women are not allowed to enter the float itself (all the others will be happy to grant everybody access, for a fee of course).

Inside the Naginata hoko community house.I had a wonderful afternoon, and this year my yukata held up better than last year. I learned a few tricks on how to wear one better (involving towels), but I know that there is still room for improvement. I got several nice comments about my outfit in general, so I must have done something right. Bonus cute story: In the bus home I sat next to an old lady who all of a sudden leaned over and asked: “I’m sorry, it’s very rude, but… did you put on your yukata all by yourself?” And when I said yes I did and confessed that it took me 30 minutes, she was quite impressed about my dedication to do this!

I’m back…

…both figuratively and literally speaking! Last week I took a few days off from business and went down to Nara, a small town about an hour south of Kyoto. Yes I know, I could have chosen a more exotic location – Nara is much like Kyoto on a smaller scale – but I really didn’t have the energy for a long trip. All I wanted was a nice and quiet hotel somewhere I could hunker down for a few days and sleep.

nightview from my hotelroomEven though I didn’t end up sleeping as much as I had planned – too much to explore in Nara – the hotel was just what I needed. I had booked a Japanese ryokan overlooking the city and very much “away” from everything, since it was reachable only by car. What attracted me to the hotel in the first place was the view over the city, the large tatami rooms complete with own genkan and indoors balcony, public hot bath and included Japanese breakfast.

My room in NaraFriendly staff are the norm all over Japan, but since this was my first longer stay in a ryokan, there were a number of little things I experienced first hand that were absolutely charming. For example, a board next to the main door saying “welcome Miss Iris”. A matcha when I was shown my room and its amenities. When I returned from sightseeing on the second day, I had barely time to slip into my hotel yukata when there was a knock on my door, and with a “welcome home” I was served green tea and a sweet. There was also a little note on my table informing me about tomorrow’s weather. All of this, apparently, also is standard in Japanese ryokan. I love Japan!

coming out of the public bathAnyway, I had a lovely and relaxing trip. I learned a few more interesting things about Japan, and I’m feeling ready to get back to work! I hope I didn’t make you too jealous with my hotel photos… More photos of other things Nara will follow, promised!

Kimono

After all these years I finally found out how clothing works. Okay, that sounds odd… Let’s say: I think I finally understand why so many women have fun shopping for clothes. And it happened in a shop selling kimono.

kimonoI never liked shopping for clothes: The sleeves are too long, the shirt too tight, the pants don’t sit right… in short, there is always something wrong with whatever I try. By now, I have learned to compromise and have at least a rudimentary understanding what works for my body and what doesn’t, which speeds up the selection process considerably, but still, clothes shopping is not one of my favourite pastimes. Especially here in Asia, where women are shaped like Greek columns, it is very hard to cater for my curves.

But the other day, I went to a department store in town. They sell everything – I love browsing through their stationary department – and there is always a space near the entrance that sells clothing and accessories: Hats and scarves in winter, rain boots and umbrellas during rainy season, and right now: yukata.

Yukata are light summer kimono made from cotton, and the patterns are usually airy and fun. Even though I can’t wear yukata easily, I like to browse through them and enjoy the patterns. And suddenly it struck me: Essentially, a yukata fits everybody. You just tuck a bit more or less here or there, but at the end of the day, anyone can wear a yukata – and will look good in it! So, with that in mind, you can really focus on colors and patterns and there’s no need to worry about anything – the thing simply fits!

At this point I finally understood why there are women out there who love shopping. They obviously know exactly what fits them and makes them look and feel good – and they can go wild with colors and patterns and materials and accessories etc. And of course, if something is fun, you want to do more of it. I don’t think my personal attitude towards clothes shopping will change, but it’s nice to understand what others see in it.

Weekend Project

I have been studying soroban for more than three years now. Since I still want that first dan degree, and I am now training almost daily again, I consider myself a serious student.

Of course, you wouldn’t know that by looking at my equipment. My soroban is second-hand (and it shows if you look closely). And, during all this time of studying, I carried it with me simply wrapped in a sheet of newspaper.

I wanted to have a nice soroban cover for a while now, but finally last weekend, I took out some time to sew one. This is the result, and I am quite pleased with it:

My self made soroban coverExcept for two full afternoons of time from the planning stages to the finish, it didn’t cost me anything: The outside is cut from an old pair of jeans, and the lining (the cover is fully lined, not just on top) is made from the leftover of another project. The cover is a little tighter than I had planned, probably because of the lining, but for a first try it turned out very well indeed.

And now, you would even guess by looking at me that I am a serious student!

Cat Scribblings

There was an exhibition of ukiyo-e and maneki neko from the Edo period in the Museum of Kyoto. I took some time out last week to see it, and as an avid cat lover I was not disappointed.

The exhibition was a large one, on two floors there were different themes displayed mostly as woodblock prints of cats and women, ghostly cats, 19th century cat manga, anthropomorphised cat images, little paper cat dolls that could be dressed in little paper kimono and many, many more…

What I found most interesting were some prints by Kuniyoshi Utagawa, a very famous ukiyo-e artist of the Edo period. This one for example: It consists of cats playing with catfish (called namatsu in Japanese) and thus forming the hiragana for namatsu. While the hiragana na and ma are easy to read, I cannot make out the tsu at all. To me, this looks more like gawa, the kanji for river. I wonder what’s the idea behind this.

Cats forming "namatsu"Anyway, at the end of the exhibition, there was the obligatory museum shop. I’m not usually buying more than a few postcards, but this time, I have to admit, I got myself quite a number of cat paraphernalia…

Routines

cogwheelsIs it because I’m getting older? I notice that I am becoming less flexible and that I am greatly relying on routines for so many things these days… For example: I have to go to the hospital for a regular checkup every three months. There are always two visits: The first one to have my blood taken and the second one where the doctor confirms that everything is just fine and I should just keep doing what I’m doing.

Usually I get my blood taken in the week before the doctor sees me, and I usually go to hospital on Tuesdays. This is a good day because in the mornings I have another appointment nearby the hospital, so I go there during lunch time. This sounds awful, but it is really nice: By this time the blood center is empty, all the patients are gone, and the whole procedure including paying for it at the end takes maybe 20 minutes, at most.

So, this week is doctor’s week again. But my Tuesdays appointment fell flat – and promptly, my routine fell to pieces as well: I didn’t go on Tuesday, and yesterday it was raining so I didn’t want to go. Because I had an appointment this afternoon, I had to go this morning and it took me about an hour because there were so many people, of course. And now it’s 9 pm and I’m still lagging behind of today’s schedule, because of course my Thursdays routine is all over the place…

Sigh. I have never been a very spontaneous and flexible person, but things seem to get worse year by year. Do you think I should start worrying?

Hairdressers

What is it about hairdressers that there are so incredibly many everywhere? In less than five minutes walking distance from my home, there are six already. Half of them are located on the ground floor of one and the same small apartment building. Their prices vary obviously, and the cheapest being a chain, but I always wonder how all of them can survive in the long run.

hairdresser's "menu"Anyway, one of the things all those hairdresser have in common is the “menu”, like the one shown here. These are usually displayed outside of the shop, both as an indicator that it is open, and as a way to give you an idea of how much it will cost. But, why are they called menu and not price list? They are everywhere, it must be one of those funny translations that got started somewhere and nobody bothered to correct (just like the “close” sign on many shops, restaurants, and bars in town).

Also, while I’m at it: I cannot help wondering if the above hairdresser is better at English or at his job. I mean, would you have much trust in a salon called “Oops hair”?

Soroban Testing

After quite a while, I finally went to another soroban test last Sunday. I reached first kyu last year, and I want to go one more step further, to first dan, which in a martial arts context would be equivalent to a black belt.

old style soroban at a fleamarketI have to admit that I did not train hard enough to pass the exam – and I knew that beforehand. A big part of the reason is surely that I don’t go to class any longer, and it is hard to keep up regular training when there are so many other things keeping you busy. This is why I wanted to take the exam anyway, just to get me back into the training rut. Passing any of the dan grades are essentially a question of speed.

The exam was as expected, interestingly this time it was my own soroban sensei who was in charge of overseeing the test. He is not one to scream and shout like other people I have met, so this was not a problem. For all of the dan tests, there is the same exam – your level depends on the number of exercises you can solve correctly. You need to have more than 10 correct on all three basic ones – multiplication, division, addition – as well as more than 10 on the four additional ones – dempyo, mental arithmetic, word problems and roots – for the first dan level.

I passed the additions only, all the others I had 7 to 9 exercises correct, so I think it is just a question of getting a bit faster and a bit more accurate. The next test will be end of July, and I will try again. It took me five attempts to receive the first kyu grade, I am certainly willing to go that far for the first dan as well.