Going Pro

8 strokes of eternity

taken from www.japanvisitor.com

As I probably mentioned somewhere, for the last two years or so, I have been going to Japanese class once a week with a very nice and dedicated teacher. We have gone through several book by now, focusing on the detailed aspects of Japanese grammar, mostly. By now I can more or less survive the daily intricacies of life, ask for help if needed, and in extreme cases where I have time enough to prepare for I am still handing out written requests.

Still I feel that I’m not getting anywhere with my language skills. Part of it is certainly that I am not very good at studying. I do my homework mostly, but then there’s always something to do for work and by the time it’s evening I am too tired or whatnot. I am very good at making excuses!

However, it cannot go on like this. This is my 6th year in the country and I really need to get up to speed with the language. I want to live here, after all, and even more so: I want to work here. My friends are very helpful, but I cannot keep relying on them forever.

So, I have decided to make my Japanese studies a part of my daily work routine. I am now setting aside one hour each workday to study Japanese. At the moment, work has slowed down a little, so this is easy; clearly I cannot keep it up if I ever get another month of 13-hour workdays, but that’s not for now to worry about. I am not sure if I should set myself a goal, like taking the JLPT Japanese test in December. For now, I just need to get back onto that horse again and get my studies going properly again. We can discuss testing later.

Raise

A new fiscal year has just started and: I’m getting a raise! YAY.

Japanese currencyNo, that’s not a joyful yay, actually, because once you’re self-employed, giving yourself a raise is a bit more complicated than just being happy about more money. That’s because I’ll have to earn the money before I can spend it – have I ever mentioned that I am financially conservative? – and it is quite a large amount, as you will see in a moment.

So, why on earth am I giving myself a raise if I’d rather not? Excellent question! Answer: Because I have to.

Recently, the Japanese government has decided that everybody who is living in Japan must pay into the national pension fund. So far, it was optional (even for Japanese as far as I know) and especially if you were self-employed, you didn’t really need to. But now, since April 1st, paying for your pension is mandatory, and because I have been living on the financial edge already for the last few years, I need that raise to pay my pension.

Even worse, it turned out that I cannot pay pension privately (as I had done with health insurance), but I need to run this through the company, which makes everything significantly more expensive. I have now enrolled in the national social security which means I will pay health and pension insurance in one lump sum – of about 60.000 yen per month. Like in many other countries, this is split into 50% for the employee and 50% for the employer, so 30.000 yen is my salary raise, and 30.000 yen is additional company expenses.

In the end, what I get onto my account by the end of the month is the same as before, but since I now pay health insurance through the company, I am saving 20.000 yen of my personal money, which will give me a bit of breathing room every month. Still, it does hurt: for 20.000 yen more in my pocket I’ll need to earn 60.000 yen more each month.

As I said above: yay.

Doing Without

Sorry for not posting on Tuesday, I was extremely busy. I worked until 3 in the morning, had 3 hours of sleep and went back to work again… Rinse and repeat today, but I have to admit that I slept a bit longer tonight. I had two of my regular writing deadlines yesterday evening plus an added one that was moved forward by two days… and two more deadlines tomorrow and a full day of going places too. How come that every time I think I’m having work under control, something unexpected crops up? So much for my “work/life balance”…

chocolate cakesAnd the worst thing about this is: I’m doing it without my fuel – chocolate. I eat quite an amount of chocolate each and every day, plus chocolate cookies and cocoa and Nutella, of course. And especially when I’m working, I have some chocolate to munch on. But now I stopped. For the time being.

A friend of mine has, well not challenged, but inspired me: Every year during Lent, he completely abstains from all kinds of sweets, except for a half spoonful of sugar for his morning coffee. He says it’s not so much a thing of losing weight (he is fit enough to run marathons), but more a proof of concept: “I control the sweets, the sweets don’t control me.”

I found that inspiring enough to go and try myself this year. It could be anything, really, but it should be a challenge. Since I have no problems with meat or alcohol (that’s what many people abstain from during Lent), or even sweet things like candy, I decided I’d try not to eat chocolate in any form until Easter (on April 21st). I do allow myself other sweets, mainly because I hardly eat any candy, but also because sugar is my fuel. I am certain that I cannot function without a sweet breakfast, and given my workload right now (which will remain the same for another month), I don’t want to try doing without sugar altogether right now.

So, I started skipping the chocolate last Friday, and so far, it is pretty easy. I do have some cravings, but it’s not like I’m dying for the chocolate. It’s probably more like a habit rather than a serious addiction. Interestingly, shopping became slightly more complicated. I have my favourite types of sweet bread and cookies, and – you guessed it – they are all with chocolate! That means I stood in front of a full shelf in my supermarket and thought “but… what do I eat??”

That was kind of funny. If that’s the only setback I’m experiencing, I’ll be doing fine. Besides, right now is the strawberry season, and there is always sweets with matcha. I love Japan!

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What's up in Kyoto square logoI have been procrastinating for quite a while now on something that’s rather important for my What’s up in Kyoto website. Yes, I have been very busy with other ventures that actually are paying my bills, but ultimately, that’s an excuse.

What I need to do to drive my business forward is to get word about What’s up in Kyoto out there, to people who matter. Users, i.e., tourists, first and foremost, but also to local museums, galleries, bars, restaurants, hotels… you name it.

So, I need to write advertisement letters, preferably different ones depending on the recipient. And I’m so not good at writing those… By now I have learnt to talk about my accomplishments without feeling impostor syndrome. Some of the things I have done I’m actually really proud of. But these advertisements are different, they are more on a level: Look, I’m so great and you definitely need to work with me. That verges on bragging, and I’m so not good at doing that.

The fun thing is that with all the writing I have done lately, about smartphones and hotels and other stuff; if I have to write copy about other people or businesses, it’s actually not that difficult. But doing the same for me, it feels quite wrong, somehow. However, I’ll have to try to push through this obstacle. Wouldn’t be the first one where everything is much easier once you’re on the other side…

Experiences

What's up in Kyoto square logoIt’s finally live! I’ve been working on an experiences page for What’s up in Kyoto and just added it to the website. It’s about things to do in Kyoto beyond sightseeing, and I started a few basic things I could think of. There are more things I’d like to try myself first, like the river boat ride or the special train ride that you can take only in summer, both over in Arashiyama. It will be nice to make new experiences and share them on the website.

Actually, that’s already what I’m doing this year: making new experiences. Fun fact: When I was around 16, I wanted to become a journalist. Interviewing pop stars and such. Well, obviously my life turned out differently, but this year, I am learning how to do interviews! Every new museum highlight on What’s up in Kyoto has a section “Questions to the Curator” and I’m actually going there and having a chat with them (with my trusted friend Naoko, who is translating) instead of just doing it by email.

They do get the questions beforehand and they do get a say in the final version that is published on the website, so, strictly speaking, it’s not a classic, free form interview. Still, I am very proud of myself that I’m pulling this off and I’m learning a lot of how to let people talk and taking back my own view point for a while at least. I’m very curious about the other people I will meet through this – I cannot wait making more new experiences.

Artistic

Neon Sign Spelling ARTIt’s a bit late for New Year’s Resolutions, and I’m not sure February Resolutions are a thing, but I guess I found an overarching theme for the coming year:

Learn about art.

Yes I know, I have barely time for anything right now, but it does tie in with my What’s up in Kyoto highlight theme this year, which is all about museums in Kyoto. Every month I will highlight another little museum in Kyoto, so I have to go there and look at their (current) exhibition and learn about what that is and who the artist is etc.

This is a part of my education where I am sorely lacking. I had art and music classes only in elementary and middle school, there was nothing at all in high school, and although I could not say for sure any more, I think we didn’t even talk about art history. My history teacher wasn’t interested in that, and my German language teacher never even forced us to read full books, he was more of a short story guy that we got to emulate during our tests.

So, I think this is a nice opportunity to learn something new. I have visited several museums already, and I am definitely interested in the exhibitions. I always liked sculptures and applied arts but still don’t know how to approach ceramics or Japanese calligraphy. Interestingly, I seem to like modern (abstract) paintings, something that comes quite as a surprise to me.

I always thought abstract paintings have no … value or no point to them (hard to express what I mean here). But now that I’m actively seeking out new experiences I find abstract art very interesting. They are beyond form and beyond an understanding that relies on depicting the obvious. Some of them completely bypass the brain and hit you in the guts. I have had very strong feelings to a few I have seen lately, and it does surprise me, as I said.

Anyway, learning about art will be my big thing to learn this year. I’ll keep you posted how it’s going.

Work-Life Balance

I’m very sorry for skipping posts again… I was terribly busy the last two weeks, working for 10 hours and more each and every day, so I’m afraid I had to drop a ball or two. But the big deadline was yesterday and now I have a little more time to breathe – in fact, I even took today off – so I hope I can get back to writing here on my usual schedule.

cogwheelsApparently, my absence raised concerns with some of you, because in the weekend I received an email from a friend of mine who essentially said she was hoping I was just busy and otherwise alright. And then she popped the question: “I was wondering if you have a strategy as to how to balance work and life…”

And I thought: Hey, YOU have that cushy 9-to-5 job with weekends off, mandatory holidays and a fixed paycheck at the end of each month, and you’re asking ME about life-work balance? I am literally spending 90% of my waking hours in front of my laptop and didn’t have a day off in 3 weeks and I am your go-to person for this question? You must be kidding me!

But then she went on to say that she’s taking her work home in the form of worries of the “will this turn out okay” variety, and that is indeed an issue I have struggled with myself, in particular during my time in academia. The point is that I am rather perfectionist, and I have troubles getting things done to the standards I set myself, so often it was a problem of “why even bother doing this if you can’t do it right anyway”. And during my time off, I felt guilty for not doing my job properly, so I felt I didn’t deserve that time off. Interestingly, now that I am essentially self-employed, I find it much more easy to satisfy a client and work to their deadline (and standards) rather than doing the same for my own projects, even though they are more important in the long run.

So, I talked about this to a therapist, and the answer was essentially that I put myself under too much pressure to perform at work and that I may have deficits in my private life when it comes to spare time activities, friends, etc. He also said “Sometimes the psyche sabotages because she wants to satisfy her own needs.” 

The answer was spot on. I’m an introvert, which makes it very easy to neglect the human interaction part (“I don’t really need people anyway.”) I thought about this for a while and then implemented a no-computer-day once a week. I could do anything, just lay in bed reading, or cleaning the apartment or going to a museum, or seeing friends, just as long as it didn’t involve the computer.

The important part here was not what I was doing, but to give myself permission not to work and not to worry about it because tomorrow will be early enough. I think this was the main part that helped me relaxing about work and not obsessing about it constantly. The result was that I am now more focused at work so I can get much more done and at the same time, I fully enjoy myself on my days off.

I hope this is useful to my friend, it’s a bit hard to describe what I did, but I have eased up considerably about work. I do what needs to be done, and then I move on and shut down my brain. By now, I can even handle using the computer on my days off, and even though I have been very busy for the last month, I don’t feel as emotionally drained as before. Good luck with it!

Winter Greetings

Japanese written correspondence is different from what is done in the West, and it often much more formalised as well.

Take the well-known nengajo New Year’s cards for example. You send them to basically everyone you know or who has done you a favour in the last year, and express your hope of continuing new relations for the year to come. If you send them on time (between December 15 and 25), Japan post will take care that they are delivered on January 1st.

When people are in mourning, they are not supposed to send (and receive) nengajo, so they send mochu hagaki mourning cards in the beginning of December to alert everybody of the situation. I did that with my friends last year, even though they all knew that my grandmother had died and would not have sent me a nengajo anyway.

Instead of nengajo, people often send so-called kanchu mimai winter greetings during January. They are slightly less formal and can be sent for any reason really, but still should be sent some time before Setsubun in the beginning of February. This year, I am sending kanchu mimai to all the shrines I visited as a highlight in 2018. A friend of mine suggested this instead of sending nengajo, partly because of the mourning part (even though the shrines would not know that) and partly because she thinks that they would probably receive hundreds (thousands?) of nengajo, and mine would go under.

kanchumimai winter greeting cardSo, I have bought a pack of kanchu mimai cards with a simple design with spring flowers, and as customary, my greetings will go on the front of the card. I asked my friends what to write, and I chose something very simple and short, so that it won’t take hours to write all this. I am not sure I will be able to get it done this week, we will see.

By the way, there is an equivalent card for summer, a summer greeting, called shochu mimai which can also be sent for any reason, really. Interestingly, the idea of sending postcards from holidays has never caught on in Japan, maybe because their holidays are so short anyway? In these instances the Japanese prefer to bring small omiyage presents.

Japanese New Year Traditions

This is my sixth new year in Japan, and although I have been embracing Japanese New Year’s traditions, I am still learning something new!

As in the previous years, I have bought a small zodiac animal to display in my apartment. This year is the year of the boar (elsewhere it’s the pig, but the Japanese go more rough on this one), and I am surprised at how cute my little ceramic boar actually looks!

I did not go on hatsumode yet, some people say it’s fine up to January 7th. But I will visit Kitano Tenmangu tomorrow and write my first kanji of the year there. People do it as a symbol to what they want to achieve in the coming year. I have settled on the rather vague word “success”, but with overarching success I think I’ll be just fine.

One new thing I have learnt this year has to do with osechi ryori, the traditional Japanese New Year’s meal to be eaten right on January 1st. I had done that already (always store-bought of course, making it yourself is quite a hassle), but this year I have eaten it with the proper chopsticks too! I was always wondering about all the packs of special chopsticks that were on sale throughout December, and I had correctly identified as having something to do with New Year. However, I thought they were something like party chopsticks, but, of course, it is something more serious.

The chopsticks I mean are different from the standard ones. Standard Japanese chopsticks taper to one end, but the New Year’s edition tapers on both. The idea is that when you eat your osechi, that on the second tapered end your ancestors and the gods will eat together with you. It sounds a bit weird, but since the New Year is the largest celebration in Japan with strong religious undertones (literally everyone visits a shrine these days), it does make sense. Buddhist teaching says that your ancestors are watching over you, and in some households there is a Buddhist altar on which at least a bit of rice is offered to the family ancestors every day.

Osechi Ryori with the correct chopsticksSo, this year, I bought a pack of special osechi chopsticks and ate my modest (but still expensive) osechi meal with it. Everything in there has a special meaning, but the only one I can remember is the meaning of the black beans on the top left: They are meant to be lucky and also indicate industry and hard work. To be brutally honest, as far as Japanese cuisine goes, osechi ryori is not a highlight when it comes to taste (decoration can be quite different), but at the same time, it is a nice tradition and I’m all for it!

It was so funny: when I bought the little box above, the cashier in the supermarket asked if I indeed ate osechi. “Of course”, I said, and when I showed her my special chopsticks, she nodded approvingly. As if foreigners can’t eat osechi! Natto, on the other hand…

 

Moving…

Sorry for yet another silence… I hope you didn’t get too worried!

Just in case you’re wondering: No, I didn’t move anywhere (and have no plans to, sadly), but the goinggaijin website moved to a new hosting provider. That was part of the reason for my absence, things turned out to be a bit more complicated than I thought… Anyway, now everything should be back and running properly, now even with a secure site, yay!

Other than this, last week I was very busy with work (even a bit more than usual these days), but it seems that for now, I have satisfied all my external clients and can focus on my own work for What’s up in Kyoto. Lots of events to add, a new highlight for January to write etc. Still, I am yearning for a day or two off, the last days where I didn’t do anything work-related were 4 weeks ago… I have all intentions to take at least Sunday and Monday off, even though I’m not religious, it’s nice to have a few quiet days during this time of the year.

Besides being busy at work, it’s the end of the year, so there are lots of bonenkai (end of year parties) that I have to go to. On Wednesday there was a lunch with two of my English students in a very nice French restaurant. The fish was excellent, as was the wine, and this may be a place worth returning to – in a time when it is not fully booked, that is.

Yesterday I finally went to the German Christmas Market in Osaka. This seems to develop into a yearly tradition, and although it’s far from real Christmas feeling, it is still a welcome opportunity to have real Glühwein, cookies, and Leberkäse…This year I even bought gingerbread, even though it comes as the heart-shaped fair variety that we don’t eat during Christmas. I almost didn’t meet the friend that I wanted to go there with, but thankfully it was not too crowded, so we could find each other on the Christmas market a bit later after all.

Tomorrow there will be our soroban bonenkai in the evening, after our normal soroban class for foreigners. For the first time, I will be in charge of the class because my sensei will have to teach elsewhere for a new movie project. He will prepare everything, so hopefully, things will turn out all right.

And next week, I have no further meetings except one, where I will go to one more final bonenkai-type of evening with another one of my English students. He promised to take me out to a quite famous sushi restaurant, a real one, not just running sushi as usual. I am curious about the place, and maybe, I will even be able to go there on my own, if they have an English menu, that is.

So far for my plans for the rest of the year. Let’s see how things pan out.