Just a very quick update:

I was out tonight with a couple of friends for a small party. We went to one of those tiny little Okonomiyaki places where you eat the food from a hot plate in front of you. There was quite a bit of alcohol involved as well. And afterwards we went to the Okura Hotel where we had some dessert to wrap things up.

I had a lovely evening, it was fun to chat and eat and drink and…


Japanese currencyDay by day and step by step, I am leaving Europe behind further and further. Today I received my final tax return from the last year I (partially) lived in Germany. Because that last year I spent only 4 months in Germany altogether, and a bit less even working there, I expected quite a bit of taxes back – and happily, I was not disappointed. In fact, that one tax return is more than I ever made otherwise in a single month, which is a bit sad, really.

Once the money is on my account, I can transfer it elsewhere and close the account in Germany. It’s quite expensive, the customer service is… not good, and I don’t really need an account in Germany, so there’s no point in keeping it. It feels like I keep burning bridges, for now it looks and feels good and since I do it out of my own free will, it doesn’t scare me. Maybe things will look differently once I am stranded here without any way back?


Since I came to Japan, right after I had left academia, I did not set foot into a university anymore. Okay, not entirely true: I had a few German-Japanese exchange classes at Kyoto University, and I met friends there when they came over for a conference. However, I hadn’t listened to a scientific lecture in 5 years.

Until today. This afternoon, there was a Research Colloquium in the RIHN Research Institute for Humanity and Nature called Rethinking Environmental Praxis, Disciplinarity, and Subjectivity. And since the language was English/Japanese (with an emphasis on English), I took the opportunity to spend an intellectually stimulating afternoon!RIHN Colloquium FlyerThere were three talks, the first one by a PhD student; the title was Ecologies of Knowledge and Practice: Perspectives from Japanese Studies and the Environmental Humanities. Unfortunately, I was a bit late to this one, and I must have missed something important in the beginning, because I was completely lost… But then again, reading the first sentence of her introduction on the colloquium’s flyer, I knew I wouldn’t have much chance to begin with:

…investigates non-Cartesian intellectual and cultural histories of nature that emerged between Europe and Japan and their relevance to the practice of knowledge, including knowledge gained from practice, today.

Again: this was meant to be a research colloquium, so she was addressing her peers, perfectly fine that I didn’t get it. If somebody could explain the above paragraph to me though…

The other two talks were much more accessible. The second one was by a Kyoto potter who at some point decided to make his ceramics with clay personally dug up from various locations in Kyoto. He showed many pictures of the clay he used to make particular objects with. What fascinated me most were the different colors of the clay from around Kyoto: from almost white, to a strong yellow, a greenish hue, navy, and black. I had no idea that simple clay could have that many colors – I only know gray one! He also explained that he likes to “feel” the clay before deciding what to make out of it, and that some types of clay “do not stand”, which means they can’t be formed to cups for example.

The third talk was called Environmental Subjectivity Seen from View Point of Language and Perception. I have learnt today that Japanese apparently has a persecution complex, and that the individual’s position of persecution and passivity is characteristic of the Japanese language. For example, instead of saying “I waited an hour for the bus”, some Japanese would phrase it as “I was made to wait an hour for the bus” or “I was escaped by my girlfriend” instead of “my girlfriend escaped me”.

The speaker also explained that in Greek and Latin, there are three types of speech patterns or verbs: active – middle – passive, and that the middle one would be for things you cannot really influence or consent to, like being born for example. He also sees more words than we would think as active: For example, “to rule” is active (obviously), but also “to be ruled” is an active act because it requires the consent of the individual. I found this the most interesting talk – I understood the basic concepts, and there’s plenty to take home and think about.

Unfortunately, the talk was cut a bit short because of time constraints, and also I have to say: the presentation was truly awful! We got the typical “let me write this all on the screen and then I’ll read it off for you” thing which already drove me crazy during my own time at university. This is forgivable for a student, but the guy is an associate professor for crying out loud! Are there no standards in Japan? Had I ever given a talk like this in public, my PhD advisor would have kicked me to the curb – and rightfully so!

Anyway, I had a nice and stimulating afternoon. It would be cool to go to more talks like this. I wonder if there’s already an event calendar for that kind of stuff…


The last couple of days it has been really cold in Kyoto: We are having around -2 degrees here in the nights, and day temperatures are only around 6 degrees. I am reluctant to leave my only heated room where the space heater runs non-stop even though I only set the temperature to 16 degrees (thanks to heavy blankets, I can manage.) It is not too cold to bicycle though, the exercise helps staying warm, I would not be doing that anymore otherwise.

From what I hear, it seems it is snowing everywhere in Japan except in Kyoto. My friend tells me there are more days with snowfall than usual in Tokyo (which is probably not fun in such a big city, think of all the traffic). And today I’ve read that there are 800 cars snowed in on a highway in Fukui prefecture. That’s in “snow country” on the western coast of Japan where people are used to heavy snowfall, but 60 cm of snow within two days is a lot in any large city.

The situation must be really bad since the Ground Self-Defense Forces (aka: the Japanese Military) has been brought in to shovel snow and to distribute food and water to people trapped in their cars. Convenience stores nearby the highway are sold out – and no food truck in sight. I wonder for how long this is going to last.

If you believe the “Cherry Blossom Flowering Forecast Map” that has been put out a few days ago by the Japan Meteorological Corporation, not for too long. They predict a very early cherry blossom season this year, at least for the Kansai and Kanto area. For Kyoto and Osaka, cherry blossoms are said to arrive on March 26/27, a day or two earlier than usual. Up in Tokyo, the cherries should start even 6 days earlier than in average years! I know it sounds odd to the Westerner, but hanami is indeed a national pastime of the Japanese…

Cherry Blossom Forecast Map 2018, copyright JMCIf you’re interested in a detailed forecast for all the provinces in Japan, have a look at this link:

Shock Value

I have a new German student, an almost 60 year old man who wants to learn German because he loves Germany and would like to visit it at some point. We have been studying together for some two months now, and he is eager to make progress and he’s doing very well indeed.

We are using a brand new textbook a friend of mine has recommended, and there is one thing that keeps popping up that seems to shock him greatly every time it’s mentioned: Divorce. The first time it came up was in a scene were students showed family pictures: “Where’s your dad in that photo? – Oh, my parents are divorced.” Another time it was required when filling in a form: “Are you married? – No, I’m divorced.”

Destroyed Wedding RingBoth times, my student was rather shocked about the directness of the question and the answer. In Japan, this is not a topic to discuss with anyone, he says. He even claims that a question for marital status wouldn’t even come up in a job interview. Apparently, divorcees are seen as “bad” people, in the sense of “you can’t even get marriage right”, and it reflects badly on other plans or pursuits. According to my student, there is still stigma around being divorced, even though about 1/3 of all marriages in Japan fail.

Interestingly, most divorces in Japan happen upon mutual agreement, instead of in court. The paperwork is simple and can be handed in at the city hall directly by the soon to be ex-couple. Also, I have just found that the divorce rate was much higher back in the old days (before WW II), when women’s rights had not been implemented at all, and when men could simply send their wives back home to their families (children would stay with the father’s family, by the way).

I guess in Japan, the only acceptable marital status for an adult of my age is being married. Divorced is not good, never married makes you sound like a leftover, and I don’t think widowed would be a good option either, even though there might be less stigma attached to that one. So, it’s probably good that the Japanese don’t usually ask whether you’re married – they simply assume you are.

Confessions of a Yakuza

Confessions of a Yakuza
Junichi Saga

cover of Confessions of a YakuzaJunichi Saga is a doctor in a town near Tokyo. One winter’s day, an old man comes to his practice, asking for treatment, and a few weeks afterwards, the doctor is invited to Ijichi Eiji’s home, where he begins to tell about his life.

And what a life it was: born in the countryside in the early ears of the 20th century, he finds himself in Tokyo as a teenager and works at a coal-, later at a timber merchant. In 1924, the year after the great Kanto earthquake, Eiji gets to know a local yakuza boss who takes him into his rank and file, and from there, nothing is ever the same. We hear about the internal workings of the gambling places – the only business a respectable yakuza would do at that time – how the system of yakuza brotherhood works, and how to rise in their ranks. We also hear about Eiji’s three times in prison – twice innocently, once for murder – about his short stint in the army, and about his often unlucky dealings with women.

I picked this book up at an airport or other, probably because of the title promising a real-life crime mystery or something like that. The book is nothing like that. Not that Ijichi Eiji’s business was not criminal, but there were no big yakuza wars or standoffs with guns; instead, we hear about a life on the fringes of Japanese society in the first half of the 20th century. As such, I wouldn’t call the book “exciting”, but the story is interesting and worthy of being told.

Junichi Saga (born 1941) is a doctor in Tsuchiura, a little town northeast of Tokyo. He writes chiefly about the lives of his patients. Besides this biography of the head of a yakuza family, he has written a few other books, among them “Memories of Silk and Straw”, which was voted Best Book of the Year by the Foreign Press of Japan.

If you’re interested in the life of a Yakuza, get this book from amazon!

Flea Market

What a lovely time at the moment – it’s been snowing for a few days already! Not much, there’s not too much snow on the ground, but still, it makes me happy every day! And, on top of that, I went to the Kitano Tenmangu flea market with two friends today. It’s also called Tenjin-san, takes place on the 25th of each month, and is the largest flea market in Kyoto. I have been there before, but it’s always nice to see what’s “new”.

We went to the shrine first. Kitano Tenmangu is famous for its plum trees, and despite the cold weather we could see one or two bright red plum blossoms already. Also, there was a woman having a tame monkey doing tricks, and in one hall, there were calligraphies that were done during the first 3 days of the New Year, when people expressly come to Kitano Tanmangu to write their first calligraphies.

Kitano TenmanguThe flea market itself was smaller than usual, but it was also very, very cold today, so I guess many vendors just didn’t show up. Even though I was tempted by a lovely tea bowl, the price was a too steep, and in the end I didn’t buy anything except for some food.

That was yet another day where I didn’t get much done… On Saturday, I have an appointment with the shrine I will feature in February, and on Sunday, I will have yet another go at the soroban shodan level. Do wish me luck for the weekend – I’ll need it!

Kicked Out

As I reported on Sunday, I went to Takeda, in the south of Kyoto, for a purification ceremony at Jonan-gu shrine. Afterwards, I visited a sento nearby because a friend had given me a discount ticket for it. A sento is a traditional public bath, and the difference to an onsen is that the latter usually gets its water from a natural spring nearby, while the former just uses tap water. I like going to either public bath, it always promises an hour or two of total relaxation, and, the best thing about them: somebody else is cleaning the tubs…

Kinosaki onsen in 1910So, I went to that particular sento, called Chikara-no-yu, “Strenght bath”; I stripped and scrubbed myself thoroughly and then dipped into the hot water. There were seven hot tubs, one with cold water, a sauna, a massage room, and a steam room. I had been at the sento for maybe an hour already, and I just made my way to the steam room, when an attendant came up to me and told me to leave. She said they didn’t allow tattooed people in their establishment, and that I should leave immediately. This rule is old and widespread, and the reason for it is that people want to avoid the yakuza gangsters, many of whom are still wearing quite heavy and elaborate tattoos.

So yes, I do have a tattoo of the size of a 2 EURO coin on my upper arm. It is usually covered by any sleeves, but clearly visible when running around in the nude, of course. I have been to many different sento and onsen all over Japan, but this was the first time I got kicked out because of my tattoo. To be fair to the attendant, I think somebody complained – she had passed me a few times before without saying anything, but once she was told by somebody else, she had to act of course. Also, that part of town is not the very best; on my way to the sento, I passed a whole block with nothing but love hotels…

Anyway, I was pretty much done by that time and ready to go home. And Takeda station is so far away from where I live that going there just for the sento doesn’t make much sense. However, it is probably a good idea to put a large plaster into my sento bag, just in case there are other people intimidated or offended by my tattoo ever again.


When I woke up on Sunday morning and opened my curtains, I got an immediate surge of happiness: It had snowed over night! Not much though, maybe 3, 4 centimeters, but it was still cold enough for the snow to last all Sunday (and a bit of yesterday). Kyoto doesn’t get much snow usually, so I am always thrilled if there is any for a day or two. If you have seen photos of famous Kyoto landmarks in deep snow, rest assured that this was the case for a few hours only, and the photographer was very dedicated indeed 😉

Of course, other areas in Japan are much more lucky. The interior of Japan is full of mountains – the Japanese Alps – that are nicely covered in snow all winter. And don’t forget Hokkaido! The western coast of Japan is also notorious for deep snow, it is called “snow country” for a reason. Just a few days ago, I have heard a news story about people having been trapped on a train over night – which itself was trapped by the snow in the middle of its route through the snow country. All the people – more than 100 if I remember correctly – were saved the next morning, and there had always been electricity, meaning: heating, but still, it’s not an experience I’d like to make myself I guess.

Anyway, today was a very warm day again, and all the snow is gone. Who knows when we’ll have snow again this year.


Over the New Year’s period, even Kyoto’s public service people get a week or so off. This means, among others: no garbage collection. A few weeks before New Year’s, you get a detailed schedule of what type of garbage is collected until which day and from which day. The schedule is comprehensive, on top of the usual suspects (standard garbage, plastics, glass, and paper) there are also mentioned slightly more exotic things you might want to get rid of: large household appliances for example, or dead pets.

plastic grocery bagsThis year, on the bottom of the page, there was a special appeal to reduce waste. Apparently, the city is making an effort to cut their garbage in half, from a peak of 390.000 tons (per year, I assume?) The rate has slowed down, and now people are encouraged to go the extra mile to reduce 27.000 tons more to meet the target. Particularly suggested are a reduction in food waste (meaning: the throwing out of perfectly edible leftovers or overstocked food) and to be more diligent in separating paper from the general garbage.

Both is fine with me 😉 What was interesting about this appeal was a very simple calculation. They suggest that each person should reduce their waste by 30 grams each day. That sounds rather puny, no? After all, that’s just one PET bottle, or 3 plastic bags, or half a newspaper (probably not the Sunday edition); or one bell pepper, or 1/5 of a carrot or tomato. But when you actually doing the numbers, that little bit does sum up: To 900 grams, i.e., almost one kilo per month, and 10.8 kilos per year. For one person – count the approximately 1.5 million people living in Kyoto alone, and that leads to more than 16.000 tons a year.

Impressive what a tiny little bit can sum up to – if everybody does it!