Hakodate

I’m back! šŸ˜‰ You probably didn’t catch the book reference, but last weekend I visited Hakodate on Hokkaido, which is just on the other side of the Tsugaru Strait, where Ozamu Dazai walked in the 1940s.

Hakodate, founded in 1454, is the former capital of Hokkaido, at a time when the island was still called Yezo and was mostly unexplored and inhabited by “scary” Ainu, the people indigenous to Japan. Hakodate is an interesting city because in 1854 it was the first port to be opened to foreign trade and thus it had a large influx of foreigners from many countries.

This can be seen in two ways: In the old town, there are houses that are distinctly Western style, and made from bricks even. The old quarter also has many churches and foreign consulates, unfortunately, not all of the old houses are in a good state, although there are some renovation efforts going on. For Westerners, the houses look nice but not something we haven’t seen before, but the Japanese love visiting Hakodate for the “foreign flair”.

Russian Orthodox Church in Hakodate

At the edge of the old town, there are several cemeteries for foreigners, strictly separated by country of origin or religion. There is the Russian cemetery, the Chinese cemetery, a catholic cemetery (which also has graves of local Japanese Christians – as I said, there are many churches here) and a cemetery for foreigners in general.

Tombstone on the foreign cemetery in Hakodate

Another interesting part of the old town is down at the harbour, where there are old warehouses made from red bricks, that now are home to a great number of (souvenir) shops and other stores. From there, it is not far to Mount Hakodate which has a wonderful view over the city which is especially beautiful in the night. Of course, we went up there as well, and we could even see the lights of Aomori on the “main land” of Japan.

Night View over Hakodate

My personal favourite, however, was the Goryokaku Fort, a traditional star fort built a bit more inland that was meant to protect the government offices that were relocated inside, once the fort was finished. It reminded me of similar forts I had visited in the Netherlands, but it seems that such forts have been built all over the world, from Europe to the US and even Asia (probably during European colonisation).

Old Magistrate Building in the Goryokaku in Hakodate

My friend and I had a great time even though we had to cram all of the sights into less than two days. We have seen almost all of them and on Sunday, we walked altogether 14 km… At first, the idea was to walk up Mt. Hakodate for the nightly view, but in the end we decided to just take the cable car. We also visited the Museum of Northern Peoples with interesting exhibits of not just the Ainu, but other peoples from northeast Russia as well.

Ainu Clothing

There are two things I’m slightly miffed about: First, I don’t think I got enough fish and seafood on my trip, something Hakodate is famous for. Unfortunately, my friend doesn’t like fish at all, so we had to compromise. She would have been fine with eating onigiri all the time while I had my fish, but that’s not fair; after all, I can have seafood everywhere else. I also wanted to stock up on cheese which is really expensive in Japan, and since Hokkaido is famous for its dairy products, I was hoping for lots of choice for a fair price. Not so! It seems that they prefer to make sweet things (like cheesecake) out of their milk, and the little that is turned into “real” cheese is still almost prohibitively expensive…

Altogether, I had a great trip though. My friend is fun to be with, and we have a similar way of approaching sightseeing, so that was perfect (even though she is in better physical shape than I was). This was my second time in Hokkaido, and I found it very pleasant. I guess I’ll be back, eventually… To finish this already long post, here’s a list of some striking things I noticed in Hakodate:

  • the air is so clear and fresh!
  • private houses have a closed glass porch before their entrance door (and indeed, it was quite windy)
  • there are people smoking on the streets (you don’t see much of them in Kyoto)
  • there is SO MUCH SPACE! Wide streets, buildings with gardens…
  • In case of a tsunami, much of Hakodate would be flooded.

Tsunami Warning in Hakodate

Repercussions

Tonight, I had a very interesting discussion about Kyoto city’s policy regarding LGBTQ people. It has just been decided that job applicants for any position in Kyoto city are no longer required to indicate their gender on the application form. This is a measure to protect people from the LGBTQ community (mostly, T people, that is) and Kyoto is among a number of other big cities who did this or similar things (like Tokyo or Osaka). It will take a long, long time to trickle down to smaller cities and villages in the countryside, but it’s a start.

Japanese GeishaThe funny thing is that this measure has interesting repercussions – for women in particular. Without the required declaration of male vs. female, the statistics as to gender proportions in Kyoto city’s workforce will at best not be accurate any longer, at worst disappear at all. Of course: who cares? It’s not that important, is it?

Hint: Gender equality / affirmative action. Kyoto city is also committed to gender equality and tries to hire more women into their ranks. But without any kind of data as to gender, how do you know that you have “enough” women in the “right” positions?

Kyoto city employs thousands of people, from the mayor all the way down to people who cut trees and mow the grass in public places. It’s not as simple as walking through the offices and counting people… That’s an interesting problem, isn’t it? I’m sure Kyoto city will find some solution, but it does show that no decision stands completely isolated on its own.


Exhibitions

As I mentioned some time in the beginning of the year, this year I’d like to learn more about art. Part of it is work-related: The monthly highlights on my What’s up in Kyoto event calendar page this year are the small museums of Kyoto. And part of it is simply personal interest; my highschool was a sort of vocational school for business, so we didn’t do much into art or general knowledge (I’m sketchy on history too, but that’s something to tackle for another year).

Flyer of "Compete in Beauty" ExhibitionSo, I’m visiting Kyoto’s museums and exhibitions left and right… This week, together with a Finnish friend of mine, I went to see an exhibition of Ukiyo-e paintings. Yes, paintings. Neither my friend or I had been aware that ukiyo-e doesn’t just mean woodblock prints, but also genuine, original, one-of-a kind paintings, often produced by the same artists.Ā Most of the paintings we saw depicted beautiful women, which is a subcategory of ukiyo-e called bijinga.

It was a fascinating exhibition with paintings spanning more than 100 years, and there was even a display case with wigs showing different hairstyles of women of different ranks throughout the Edo period. One of the attendants told us that we should look for cherry blossoms in the paintings – those were used to emphasise that the woman in the picture was regarded as especially beautiful. It’s little things like this that you need to know to really understand the meaning of paintings. I love to find out more over time!

Going Out

I just came home with the last bus. A friend of mine wanted to see an exhibition this afternoon, and we went together and after dinner we decided to try out a few bars she had heard of. It was a nice evening with fun and many cocktails… Interesting tidbit: Some bars in multi-storey buildings don’t have a sign on the door…

My Sweet Request

As I mentioned about a month ago, during my fasting I kept buying chocolate because Meiji had those special wrapping entitled “my sweet request” for my favourite chocolate bars.

As you can see on the outside, there is a picture of something people may want, and on the inside of the wrapper, there is written a “sweet request”. There were in total 36 different wrappers for the hi-milk, standard, and bitter chocolate bars, but since I don’t eat the latter, I did not buy any of them except for a single one that said “I would like to live with a cute cat.” Yeah, definitely true that one!

meiji hi milk chocolate

It took me a while to gather all 12 different requests on the red Hi-Milk Meiji chocolates, and it took me yet more time to eat all that chocolate to find out what the sweet requests actually were (no cheating allowed!) Here they are – can you guess to which wrapping they belong?

  • I want to take photos inside the Hiroichi flower garden that continues to the Ikedaira line.
  • I want weird T-shirts.
  • My dream is to live in a house with a pool.
  • If you only had one day off, where would you like to go?
  • Would you like to have a relaxing chat at afternoon tea?
  • I want to become a person who looks good with a trendy tote bag.
  • I would like to live with a stuffed toy that is more merry than myself.
  • I have a stiff shoulder – I’m glad if somebody has a look at it.
  • Everything is fine, so I’m waiting for the best thing in the world.
  • I want you to invite me on a date where we go to a concert where we have to dress up.
  • I want to squeeze a cute dog.
  • I will cry for joy when I can go and see the big baobab trees.

End of Hiatus

Hi, I’m back – remember me? Sorry for not posting last week, I needed a break from writing for a while… I’m fine so don’t worry and now I’m back in full glory and with a bit more energy – hopefully even enough to start my weekend posts again…

My Golden Week holiday turned out to be a mix of work and fun stuff. In the first weekend, I went with friends to Kyotographie, a large international photography exhibition event. And because said friends came from Kobe and Osaka, we were determined to see all the venues in just two days. And we managed: 11 venues with art by various international photographers, all in less than 30 hours. It was fun – and very exhausting, but we’re planning to go again next year!

Later that week, I visited three exhibitions and one traditional event at Yoshida Shrine. This was a so-called shiki bouchou ceremony where a large fish is cut and offered to the gods – in this case, the God of cutlery. The interesting twist here is that the fish is only touched with two large metal chopsticks and a large knife. There are a lot of specific movements and (forgive my language) waving of the knife before the first cut into the fish is made. At the end, the fish is put onto a plate and served to the gods.

Offerings to the gods

I had seen a shiki-bouchou ceremony before and to be very honest, I was slightly disappointed. When I saw the ceremony the first time, the movements and cuts were very smooth and executed with a lot of confidence. This time, I had the feeling that the priest performing the ceremony was very nervous, and although I did not have the best view, I could see his hands tremble on occasion. Whether this was because he was unfamiliar with the task or because of the film team directly in front of him, I can only guess.

The ceremony was a relatively small affair, but the first two rows of seats were reserved for dignitaries somehow connected to Kyoto’s food industry, like the “Head of the Kyoto Kaiseki Organisation” and suchlike. They were allowed to pay their respects to the gods at the end of the ceremony, obviously in return for making a significant donation to the shrine.

The ceremony took about one hour overall, and afterwards my friend and I were left wondering what would happen to the food that was just offered to the gods, the fruit, rice, and vegetables in particular. I guess nowadays it would just be thrown away, but I would not be surprised if, in the olden times, the priests would eat the leftovers after the gods had partaken…

Anyway, although I had fun at this ceremony, it was not the highlight of my last two weeks. That one came at the end of the Golden Week: A visit to the Sugimoto Family Residence. However, this one deserves a post of its own, possibly in the weekend. šŸ˜‰

The Beginning of Reiwa

Yoshihide Suga , Chief Cabinet Secretary announces the name of Japanā€™s forthcoming new eraYesterday a new era has begun with the ascension of Emperor Naruhito to the chrysanthemum throne of Japan. The era nameĀ  is Reiwa, and there is much hope that it will be just as peaceful as the preceding one.

Usually, the ascension of a new emperor is a somewhat solemn affair because it also means the death of the previous emperor, so you don’t really know whether to celebrate the occasion or not. This time, people were free to celebrate: They stayed up all night, celebrating at midnight at May 1st; they visited popular spots to watch the sun rise in the new era, which is a popular thing to do on New Year, by the way; or they visited the imperial palace in Tokyo to try catch a glimpse of the new emperor and his wife.

I’m wondering if and how things will change with the new emperor. I am especially curious which role the new empress will take. She didn’t have an easy time adjusting to the ceremonial overload in the palace, but now her status has changed and she may just be able to go out and expand her role beyond the traditional ones. Time will tell if she becomes just as beloved as the Michiko, Empress Emerita.

The End of Heisei

60 years imperial coupleToday is the last day of the Heisei era. Emperor Akihito abdicated and is now the “Emperor Emeritus”. This sounds a bit funny to my ears, because I’ve only every heard “emeritus” in an academic setting. Of course, most members of the Japanese imperial family have a university degree or other, and honorary degrees as well. But that’s just as an aside.

The Heisei era spanned 30 years of peace for the Japanese, and the Emperor Emeritus, who grew up during WWII and its aftermath has expressed his gratitude for that. Together with his wife, he has visited many countries and has tried to make amends for war crimes not of his own doing. Also in Japan itself, the imperial couple has travelled widely, visiting many smaller communities over the years. This and their attempt to position the imperial family closer to the people has endeared them to many Japanese of all ages Especially their visits to shelters for refugees after the Fukushima tragedy in 2011 are memorable in this respect (even if they are not the only ones). We will see if the new emperor, who formally ascends to the throne tomorrow, will be able to follow in his father’s footsteps.

I would like to say something about the general mood in Japan right now, but I am not sure what it is. Certainly everyone has an opinion, but which one is hard to gauge, especially for the younger ones. It appears that many people are happy for the Emperor Emeritus and wish him a long and peaceful retirement. Some people treat the occasion like a New Year and will stay up and celebrate the beginning of the new era at midnight.

I myself am curious what will happen now. While the emperor plays a minor role politically, it is a new beginning after all, and people do get energised by that fact alone.

Ā 

Fast Work!

stack of papersI must have mentioned it a number of times before, but still: Japanese efficiency never ceases to amaze me! In the beginning of April, I mentioned that I now need new pension and health insurance and that I went to the pension office to subscribe. The nice young lady told me it would take them 3 weeks to process my application, but they were even faster than this! I received all my paperwork back after two weeks and two days. As part of the paperwork, I received a nice blue insurance card and stickers that I can put on the card to indicate that I’m fine in receiving generic medication, something I have not decided yet.

Anyway, I’m now officially enrolled in national health insurance and pension plan. That meant that I needed to go to my ward office and cancel Kyoto city’s health insurance that I had until now, so I would not end up paying twice. I went there last Tuesday with some trepidation, because the last time I had had to go there, there was nobody who spoke English… But everything turned out to be super easy: I simply handed over both insurance cards, the clerk entered something into his computer, made a copy of both cards and returned the blue one to me: “Finished,” he said, and that was that. The whole procedure took less than 5 minutes, including the wait.

Still, I cannot help being a bit cynical now: Officially, I enrolled in national health insurance on April 11. Does that mean, I’ll have to pay the first 10 days of April to Kyoto city’s insurance while at the same time getting a reduction of national insurance for April? Honestly, given the way how Japanese are sticklers for even the tiniest details, I would not be surprised…

Fasting Aftermath…

Happy Easter! Okay, yes, that was last weekend, but still I am very happy: I survived my chocolate-free time! And I actually did binge on chocolate on Easter Sunday… Here’s a recap of the last weeks:

It’s good to know that I can do things if I truly want them. That’s not big news, really, but it’s nice to haveĀ  a reminder every now and then. Interestingly, I did not have massive chocolate cravings during my fasting, but that may have been because I had the outlet of eating other sweets. I learned that I “need” chocolate when I’m feeling down, when I’m really stressed, or when I want to celebrate something. That’s not much news either since for me, chocolate is indeed the epitome of “sweets”. Other stuff just doesn’t cut it.

And that’s probably the reason why I didn’t lose any weight at all in the last weeks: I simply ate other sweets, and because I find them less satisfying, I ate more of those than I should have. Interesting to know for future reference. I’m not sure if I’ll do this challenge again next year – and then not eating any sweets – but we’ll see.

One good thing is that I could finally save all the 12 different Meiji chocolate wrappings that they have out at the moment. Each wrapping is different, they are called “my sweet request” and inside of the wrapping, there is a special wish written. On the one in the middle of the top row, it says “My dream is to live in a house with a pool”. I’m curious what the others have to say, but I’ll try not to eat them all at once. I know how to refrain by now. šŸ˜‰meiji hi milk chocolate