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…


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?


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.


Last Saturday I went to a small open air concert in a temple in the centre of Kyoto: koto and shakuhachi. The two instruments go well together, and the flute was the main reason why I wanted to go. I had been to koto concerts before, but never heard a shakuhachi live. And I have to say – I was disappointed by it.

I am not sure what was wrong with the shakuhachi player – a rather old monk from said temple – whether I could not hear him because the microphone was not well-adjusted or functioning (there were a number of total outages throughout the concert) or whether the player himself didn’t have enough breath do make himself heard.

The two koto players were very good though, so my time was not wasted. Interestingly, I was the only non-senior in the audience, something I had not expected at all. But maybe because of this, I was treated to a very special performance: The last song (and the encore) must have been well-known tunes, because at some point, people in the audience started singing along! Man and women alike accompanied (or were accompanied by) the koto and the shakuhachi. It was lovely!

A Japanese Kokyu As a bonus, I learnt something new: In one of the pieces, a so-called kokyu was used. It looks like a half-sized shamisen, but is played like a cello. A kokyu has three silken strings and the bow is a thick handful of horsetail hair. The bow-strings (do you call it like that?) are slack, and you need to use the ring finger of the bow hand to tighten it while you play.

This is not easy, and I know that because I was allowed to try it after the concert – obviously the foreigner bonus. To be honest, the sound of the kokyu is not very pleasant to Western ears. It is reminiscent of the Chinese erhu, but the tones of the kokyu are less crisp. I guess this is either because the bow is never really taut, or because of the silken strings.

All in all I had a nice afternoon, even though I will have to try and catch another shakuhachi concert. I hope that I will hear about more concerts and events like this – there is so much to do and learn in Kyoto!


Summer is coming! The last few weeks were really pleasant and warm, and last weekend I decided that it’s time to change my wardrobe. My closet is rather small, so I have to exchange my winter clothes for summer clothing and vice versa twice a year. There is enough space on top of my closet to put everything I don’t need in storage for half a year, but there are drawbacks of this method as well.

dumbbellPart of it is probably because I’m stingy. My storage containers for clothing consist of two large boxes that I used when moving in here. If you lay them on the side, they fit the available space perfectly – but they are bulky and really heavy. Problem number two is that I am too short to reach up, so I need a stool when I move the boxes.

Getting them down is usually not the problem, obviously, but getting them up into storage is not easy. The first box is not the problem, but the second one always causes me to curse during the numerous attempts I have to make. Once again, I managed this year to exchange my clothes, and now I feel all summery and light. I also have a number of lovely bruises on my upper arms to show for my efforts when the boxes slipped back down again…

Maybe I should start doing some weight training? It may not be amiss to try – and if it helps me lose a bit of that extra girth I put on during the last winter, that would be an extra bonus…

Pet Store

As I have probably mentioned before, there’s a large shopping mall around the corner from where I live. The supermarket in the basement is one of the best in town, and there are all sorts of nice other stores as well. I like to go to Uniqlo, even if I don’t buy anything because of wrong sizing, but it’s nice to just browse sometimes.

Their latest addition to the shopping frenzy is an enormous pet store. Except for the usual lines of food, bedding, accessories and so on, they also sell animals, of course. They have the standard range of pets: budgies, hamsters, ferrets, rabbits, turtles, lots of fish, etc. They also have a number of dogs – mostly small breeds except for the one Golden Retriever they have – and a handful of cats…

I love them! Every time I go and see the cats, I want to take one home. Of course, those are high breed cats, Russian Blue, American Curl, Burmese are just three they have right now, and I am not sure I would want an expensive cat like that anyway. Admittedly, they do look rather sad in those glass cubes they live in right now, practically begging me… but I refrain. It’s not that I am allowed to have a cat anyway, and besides, there must be animal shelters in Japan as well, no? I will even refrain from posting any of the cat photos I took the last time I was there, because I want to write about something else (this time).

So, besides the standard animals that are generally seen as pets in the West as well, they have a few extraordinary species. Hedgehogs for example, which I have only ever seen in pet stores in Japan and Korea. I have no idea what the attraction is there, except that they are cute, but admittedly, I don’t understand having any pets if you can’t really cuddle them.

But we take it from there; they also sell what I would call “special needs” animals and others call “exotic pets”. At this moment, they have a little groundhog as well as a tiny meerkat. I always thought that those are animals living in colonies – and they only have a single one of each, a keeping of animals which would certainly amount to animal cruelty. Also, and this takes the cake in my opinion, they have this:

A fennecDo you recognize it? That’s a Fennec, a type of fox living in the Sahara. According to wikipedia, they are indeed considered “exotic pets” and “can be┬ákept in a domestic setting similar to dogs or cats”, but still… Why would you want to have one of these in your home, knowing that they cannot really be domesticated? Obviously it’s something you can show off with: this particular little fox costs 1.4 million YEN. I already have problems going to the zoo, but seeing animals like this in a pet store is really difficult…


Here in Japan, I am surrounded by beautiful women. In fact, most Asians have features that I admire, sometimes even envy: Thick, straight, and most of all, jet black hair. Slender figures that look good in almost any clothing, as well as a natural grace that comes with it. And something in their genes that considerably slows down the ageing process. Especially that last thing I am particularly envious about, ever more so since I have detected the first gray hairs on my own head…

All in all, I have never considered myself beautiful, but I have come to accept me the way I am and I have learnt to work with it, or around it in dire circumstances. That’s probably part of why I am always taken aback when somebody calls me pretty or even beautiful. In Asia, interestingly, it is more likely to hear that from another woman. Here are two examples:

Years ago I sat in a concert hall waiting for the concert to begin. Next to me sat a woman who kept staring at me. Since I couldn’t become invisible or change the seat, I smiled back, which she took as an invitation to reach over, touch my hand and say “so beautiful!” She meant my skin tone – I’m a sedentary nerd who’s not going out much, so even in summer, I remain pretty pale, and thus I fit the Asian idea of white skin very well.

A noseThe other day, when I went to my favourite bar with a friend, there was this regular – an elderly lady – who kept looking at me as well. Finally she couldn’t hold it in any longer and burst out “Kirei – hana takai!” which literally means “Pretty – high nose!” And she kept saying it, making me feel more and more uncomfortable, even though I know that big eyes and noses are Asian beauty ideals, only outranked by pearly white skin.

It’s funny that people here may see me as more beautiful than I myself ever have. I guess, we all envy what we cannot have?

11 + 4

chocolate cakesI’m back from my Golden Week holiday! It was nice to have a few days off to myself, and I enjoyed seeing friends as well. I did manage to improve the event calendar also – more about that on Thursday. Because today I want to tell you about that double anniversary I hinted at in my last post…

Well, the title says it all: 11+ 4 = 15. I have been living abroad for 15 years now! I left Austria on April 25th 2002 to get my PhD. Altogether, I spent some 7 years in Europe, and 8 years in Asia. And half of those, the last 4, starting on May 5th 2013, I lived here in Kyoto!

How time flies! I can hardly believe I have been here so long – except for the 4 years and a bit I spent on my PhD, this si the longest time in the last 15 years I lived in one and the same city. And since my plans with respect to Kyoto or at least Japan include “settle and die here”, I think I am on the way to a new record here. Of course, I cannot rule out a total change of direction. So far, my life did certainly not go according to plan (neither my own and surely not that of my family) so who knows what’s in store for me further down the road…

In case you’re wondering: No, I don’t have many regrets, only one and a half to be precise. The half is something I can still catch up on, and probably will be able to until the end of my life. The one full thing concerns a missed opportunity in a moment that will never return. And even there, sometimes I think I should have done it, and sometimes I think it was better that I didn’t…

At the end of the day, I don’t think it makes much of a different. There are many things in my life that in retrospect I would like to lessen the impact or at least the duration of. But at the same time I recognise that I am the sum of all my experiences, the good ones, and the bad one probably even more so. And after all these years, probably for the first time ever, I can say with deep inner conviction:

I am happy!