Spring Fortunes

Last week I went to Ichihime shrine for the hina matsuri (doll festival). Besides the usual hinadan doll displays, there was a special event in a nearby community center: the setup of a life-size hinadan with real people instead of dolls.

The interesting part about this was the clothing of the two main people representing the court nobles, since both of them were dressed in clothing as it was worn 1000 years ago in the Heian era, notably the famed juni-hitoe (12 layer robe) for the lady. Dressing both took a whole hour, and I will write about in detail in a weekend post to come – of course I took pictures of each and every single layer and step in the process!

Included in the ticket price was a cup of green tea with an appropriate sweet for the day, a demonstration of games played at the Heian court (also worthy of a weekend post), and a special type of charm. It is called momokazashi mamori and it is made of two little branches of a peach tree, just about to blossom. It is the most elaborate omamori charm I have yet bought, and it does look really pretty.

momo kazashi mamoriI wonder what it is good for – other to ward off evil or bring luck like all the charms, and where the best place is to put it. Obviously it has a meaning that is somewhat related to spring, but in any case, I like it very much, pretty in pink…

Year End

Today is the last day of the second fiscal year of my company. The detailed numbers are not in yet, but as far as I can tell, I have made a little profit – I hope my accountant agrees! That’s very good news because it means that my next visa renewal (due in July) should go much, much smoother than any I have done so far. In fact, this time celebrations are certainly in order, but I better wait for the final verdict of my accountant, due in some two months’ time.

Although the above sounds all nice and rosy, being self-employed is really hard work! It’s not so much the work that you actually end up doing (although I could certainly do without all the overhead on paperwork). The most difficult thing for me is getting customers in the first place. Word of mouth can only get you so far, and even then you still have to sell yourself. And that’s something I always had problems with.

I mean, I am very confident in what I know and what I can do, but standing there and telling people that I am great indeed is something that’s beyond me. Part of it is surely because I am a nerdy introvert; another part may be that if I am not absolutely convinced of something myself, it is neigh impossible for me to sell it.

There are people who could sell sand in the desert. While it would be interesting to find out how they do that, I’m not even sure I’d want to go down that path. On the other hand, being at least able to sell water in the desert should not be that difficult to learn, no?

Anyway, on to the next year – it can only get better!


Last week I visited a friend I hadn’t seen since Christmas. We usually meet twice a month, but because we both were sick during the last months and because of other circumstances, we had a six week break.

In that time I sent her a letter, which she showed me at my last visit: A strip of paper was glued onto the envelope, informing us that the envelope did not meet the specifications since it was smaller than the required size of at least 9 x 14 cm.

My friend and I couldn’t believe it, especially since I had sent her letters with that type of envelope before, and there had been no problems with it. Interesting also that the size did not get any mention by the clerk when I posted it in person at my post office. So we measured the envelope, and indeed: it had a size of only 10 x 13,5 cm…

Even my friend – an otherwise extremely proper Japanese woman – found that ridiculous. I can see that too small envelopes may wreak havoc with the modern machines used for sorting mail these days, but since I wrote the address in Western alphabet, it was very likely that a real person had to handle the letter anyway. A real person with obviously too much time on their hands…

By the way, the little note also said that “as a courtesy, we forwarded this letter regardless of the size issue”. Sorry guys, but I call bullshit on that one: The only reason you had to forward the letter instead of returning it to me was that I didn’t include a return address…

Customer Service

My Diary for 1917It’s that time of the year again where I go shopping for a new diary. I have found a very particular one that I like (lots of space for each day, small size, and cheap to boot), but it is not always available at the stores I go to, so this year once again I had to order it.

Since I’m in town on Tuesdays anyway, I went to Tokyu Hands to order the diary. I received a phone call on Sunday telling me – in perfect English! – that it had arrived and that I could come and pick it up any time. I made sure to compliment the young lady on the phone on her perfect English and this Tuesday, I went to the store again.

The clerk there looked for his copy of the order sheet and there the mystery of the perfect English phone call otherwise so uncommon in Japan was revealed: A piece of paper attached to the order sheet spelling out exactly what to say on the phone in English! This means that the young lady who did phone me in the weekend just had to read the words, no understanding necessary… Honestly, I don’t mind that at all, I find it rather cute, actually. That’s what customer service means, after all. I love Japan!

Valentine’s Day

Today is Valentine’s Day and depending on where you live, you will get your loves ones Valentine’s cards (US), flowers (Austria) or chocolates (Japan). Obviously, I prefer the Japanese type of gift to all the others, but then again: I will not receive one. That’s not because I’m single, mind you, no woman in Japan will receive any Valentine’s gift today.

That’s because in Japan, Valentine’s Day is an occasion for women to buy chocolate for men. And not the other way around. Also, it’s “men” in general, not just lovers or husbands. So, today many Japanese girls bring chocolates for their colleagues and bosses as well; and, given that many more men are in the workforce than women, especially in traditional companies, this can become very expensive.

Surely this is the reason why many supermarkets have had standard chocolate products for sale for weeks already, and mine even allocated extra space for a special display of Valentine’s chocolates – from cheap single pieces to very expensive family size boxes.

Anyway, I thought I could easily get over the fact that I won’t get any chocolates today, but then I found this: An exquisite “galaxy” chocolate box containing six planets of our solar system:

Valentine's chocolate galaxyIsn’t that the perfect gift for any nerd? I’m seriously jealous! Not because I had to buy them myself, but because by the time it is White Day – March 14th – where men should reciprocate and buy chocolates for women, the only thing to be had then will be hearts and flowers and Hello Kitty shaped stuff, all in pink and cute and boring. Why would I want that?

Bureaucracy Unlimited

The following is a foaf tale, a friend-of-a-friend tale that didn’t happen to me, but rather to a friend’s mother. I am retelling it here because my friend is trustworthy, and because the story is a prime example of Japanese bureaucracy, which expects people not to think, but to do. The story goes as follows:

Franz Kafka, 1923My friend helped his mother move out from a rented apartment she had lived in for some 15 years. The apartment block belonged – or at least was managed – by the local university, and mostly university personnel were living there. The rent was cheap because it was an old building, but even so, the contract stated that when you moved out, you had to refurbish the apartment with new tatami, get the fusuma and shoji repaired if damaged, and give the whole thing a new coat of paint.

For a very special and exceptional reason (I’ll tell you in a moment) my friend’s mother asked to be exempt from the renovation of the apartment. However, the university housing office had none of that and insisted on new tatami. So, my friend took it upon himself to phone half the town’s tatami vendors to find the cheapest one and in the end the price was something around 70.000 YEN. My friend’s mother grudgingly paid, but at least she passed the final inspection and could leave in the knowledge of having made university administration happy a final time.

Now, what do you think was this special and exceptional reason that made my friend’s mother make the request in the first place? Obviously, the whole renovation was meant to give the next tenant a nice and clean place to move into. However, there would be no new tenant in that particular apartment. How they’d know? Well, the whole apartment complex was slated for demolition…

In fact, my friend’s mother was one of the last tenants to move out of the building. And it is very likely that all the other apartments had been renovated as well by their last occupants, just so that the construction workers could enjoy stripping nice and clean apartments of their nice and new tatami.

So far the story. Every time I hear of things like that I am reminded of my own experience with Japanese bureaucracy, especially about all the fun I had with the immigration office so far (and until I get permanent residency, it will not be over…) And then I think of a compatriot of mine and I want to tell these bureaucrats something like: Guys, it’s really nice that you’ve heard of Kafka. But, you  know, he wrote novels and not manuals…

Dentist Number 3

schematic of a toothIt happened again: I had to go to the dentist… Just before Christmas – of course right in a time when I was fiendishly busy – I noticed that part of an old filling had fallen out. Even though I am not an expert, I assume this is not a good thing.

So I went to my dentist and made an appointment for the new year. Because I had some troubles communicating with the receptionist (a very nice woman who only speaks Japanese), the doctor was called and I explained that I probably needed a new filling. To which he responded: “Okay, I’ll have a look at it and we’ll make a treatment plan…”

Bad idea, you lost me there and then! The last time he made a treatment plan, I had to return four times for dental cleaning, one hour and 10.000 YEN each – in a private practice no less… And then already I had the feeling that he was pushing the treatment onto me without me even having a chance of declining. So the moment he said treatment plan with this smile on his face, I felt very uneasy and thought of a way to get out of this…

In fact, I did wind up sick at the time of the appointment, so I had to cancel it, and I decided not to go back but to see another dentist a friend of mine had recommended. And because I still don’t like going to the dentist (who does?) it took me until last Monday to build up the courage and finally go.

The experience was satisfactory: Last week we did the drilling (yes, I do want anaesthetics, lots of them, thank you!) and since the cavity was very large, we decided on an inlay, so we had to make dental impressions as well.  Unfortunately, I have a very strong gag reflex, and the tooth was a back molar, so I almost threw up when we did the impression of the upper teeth. I’m glad it was over relatively quickly though.

Yesterday I went back to have the inlay placed, which took about 45 minutes, all said and done. Most of that time I had to wait though, and the interesting thing is that the dentist would go and treat other patients in that time. Japanese dental offices are made so that there are a number of chairs next to each other in a single room, and while one patient has to wait for example for her inlay to set, the doctor simply goes to another patient and looks at his teeth. Thankfully there are room dividers in between the chairs, but still, you can hear all the chatting and all the drilling all the time…

Interestingly I even noticed that there was a timer on the chair I sat, or rather: laid in, and the first time the doctor came over to take out the temporary filling and put in the inlay to see if it fit, he was working for exactly 1 minute and 10 seconds. I wonder if that is just a performance measure for the doctor himself, or if this is something the national health insurance mandates as part of quality control. Of course, more patients in shorter a time does not quality make, but prices are reasonable throughout. And even though I know that Japanese dentists like to do their work in many more sittings than European ones – another way to earn more money – my tooth was completely finished yesterday, and I won’t have to go back again. At least not until the next filling drops out…

Still, I have to wonder what it is in this country with dentists… The first one I went to made me feel very uncomfortable with inappropriate remarks, the second one as mentioned above was creepy and pushy. And even this one took a long and lusting look at my other 31 teeth and declared they all had cavities which needed to be fixed immediately. Nice try doc, but I am still a computer scientist: Never touch a running system! And as long as there’s no pain or missing parts, I will be fine without a complete dental overhaul at this point, thank you. Still, I think he is a good choice as a dentist: at least he can take a “no way” as an answer…


Tuesdays I am very busy. In the morning I have my Japanese class, and in the early afternoon a business meeting in town. Usually, I buy an obento lunch box somewhere and don’t bother going home in between, the day is tiring enough as it is. Last week, at the end of the day, I had yet another meeting with somebody, not too far from meeting #2. Because it was an okay day and I am fast enough on my bicycle, I left only 30 minutes between those meetings, which is plenty.

Usually, that is. Last week however, meeting #2 took a bit longer (for the first time ever!) and I couldn’t really say “okay, I’m off now”, so I was quite pressed for time. On my way, I had to go through a part of inner city that at that late hour is always rather busy, and I had to cycle fast but still carefully to avoid all the people on the streets (one way streets without pavements but lots of shops). I was happy when I found a less busy street and I pedalled on a bit faster, still watching the clock – and, at one point, an interesting building on the other side of the street.

And then I looked ahead again. And there she was: Coming out of nowhere, there was an elderly lady walking in the middle of the bicycle path. I swear the street was empty just seconds before, so I came after her with full speed. There was nothing I could do: swerving left would have had me grazing the wall of the building, swerving right would have put me right into the path of the car five metres behind me… So, I did the only thing left: I continued straight on and pulled the brakes as hard as I could.

And of course, I slammed fully into her. In a sense, I was lucky that my front wheel went between her legs, that I have a basket before the handle bar and that my brakes are in good condition. This is to say, I did give the old lady a rough shove in the back, but she just made a few fast steps forward and did not fall, thankfully.

I was mortified: She turned around with the Japanese equivalent of “what the hell”, I jumped off my bike. And then I apologised and asked if she was okay and if there was something I could do or if she wanted to go to hospital or… She seemed okay, but I was still deeply shocked.

And what did she do: She did not utter a single word! Through all my words of apology and whatnot, she just looked at me accusingly, but did not say anything. Nothing at all. When I finally stopped yapping and waited for her to speak, she just threw me a final disapproving look and then she walked on – still on the middle of the bicycle path, by the way.

Pole saying "I'm sorry" in JapaneseThis was the single most embarrassing thing that I have done in all my time in Japan! I mean, I have my share of “stupid stuff foreigners do”, but almost running down that old lady is on a completely different level. And the fact that she did not say anything, did not accept or even acknowledge my apology, makes it even worse. I did not sleep well that night, and I can only hope that she was indeed as unharmed as it seemed to me. And that I’ll never bump into her again. I’m sorry…

Snowy Kyoto!

What a wonderful weekend! It was snowing for the first time this winter! And because it is quite cold at the moment, there is still snow in Kyoto today – I LOVE IT!

Snowy path with gateIt started snowing Saturday afternoon, and on Sunday morning, when it was snowing quite heavily, I went out for some two hours or so, and then had breakfast in a cafe (something I rarely do) before going home again. I did not take that many pictures because it was mainly gray anyway, but I’m happy to share some of the better ones.Shrine at KitashirakawaBuddhist Temple in Snow


As I mentioned fire insurance in my last post, I thought I would continue in the same vein with telling you about my latest unexpected visitor from the local fire department.

Kyoto fire engineLast week or so, a young man in dark blue uniform knocked on my door and started to talk rapidly, in Japanese, of course. On seeing my bewildered look, he paused to think and came up with the most stereotypical question ever: Do you have a Japanese husband? (And where the hell is he?? – okay, he didn’t say that out loud but I’m sure he thought it.) He understood quickly that that question hadn’t gone down very well, so he resorted to use his mobile phone as interpreter, and I finally found out what he wanted: He was here to inspect my apartment with respect to fire safety.

Now I know that interestingly, I only need two fire alarms, one in my bedroom, and the other one in my kitchen. Probably two alarms are enough because my apartment is that small, it may be different for larger houses. Lo and behold: I am almost safe because I already have two fire alarms – thanks to whomever lived here before – and they are even working!

I say I’m almost safe because while one of the alarms is indeed in my bedroom, the other one is not in my kitchen but in my office. Even though the firefighter urged me to move it to my kitchen, in my office it will stay. That’s because I think that a cable fire in my office with all the electrical appliances and paperwork around will be, if not more likely, then at least more dangerous than any fire in a kitchen that I hardly use. Besides, the kitchen is directly next to my bedroom where surely that fire alarm would pick up the smoke or heat of a fire, so I am feeling safe in any case.