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.

Mourning Cards

As I mentioned before, I had to write mochuu hagaki mourning cards this year instead of nengajo New Year’s cards because of my grandmother’s death. My friend told me exactly what to write and when to send them, so I was only left with finding cards onto which to print the text.

Usually, the Japanese standard postcards for various occasions have already printed fields for the seven-digit post code, and usually this is in red. For mourning cards, this must be in black because red is a color that stands for happiness and is thus inappropriate. I was not happy with the cards I could buy, so I decided to design my own, but it proved quite difficult to find postcards with black post code guides. Actually, it proved impossible… So, I ended up buying plain cards in the right size, and I was told that they would work in a standard printer. Once I was ready to print the cards however, it turned out the paper was just a little bit too thick, so I had to give them an extra push to go through the printer…

mochuu hagaki Mourning card

I sent them off last Sunday, on a “Buddha Day” to give the right impression. At the post office, I paid for standard postage, and the lady at the counter had already picked the stamps when she realised that these were mourning cards. She said, “oh, we need different stamps” and instead brought some with a nice chrysanthemum design instead. There are indeed rules for everything in Japan – and I am very happy people are watching out for me everywhere!

Anyway, I thought I’d show you the design for my cards. I had it approved by my friend beforehand, and I already received compliments about the “perfect wording” of the thing.

As you can see, I am on the way to become a perfect Japanese myself. As long as my friends are helping me, that is…

 

Back again!

Hello there, remember me? 😉

Yes, I’m back, I’m back and healthy again, even though I still sound a bit scratchy, but that’s small details. As I said, I was not extremely sick, just “under the weather”, quite literally, but the weather has cleared up now. Thanks to all of you who have inquired about my wellbeing!

As I said, there were many things to do in the last couple of weeks, both for work and more private endeavours. For example, I went to a sake tasting in order to write about it, I visited some temple gardens I had never seen before (for future weekend posts here), and there was a free Noh performance I couldn’t pass up either (I hope I didn’t annoy people too much with my coughing). Also, I had to design mourning cards, write Christmas cards and buy New Year’s presents for my lawyer and accountant.

My standard workload has been crazy too. I am still writing about smartphones and there are texts about hotels as well, hotels that I could never afford, of course. Then I had visit the shrine and do the writeup for What’s up in Kyoto’s December highlight (for which I got the final ok only today), and decide about the new monthly highlights for next year (it will be something cute!). On top of that, I have been asked to make an audio version of a textbook in psychology, which I couldn’t work on for the last two weeks thanks to me sounding like a mountain ogre, so I need to catch up with this as well, and quickly too.

And all this on top of me being sick. I hope you can see why I had to drop a ball or two for a while. It’s gotten much cooler now, and although the days can be very nice and warm still, the nights are quite cold. Already in the beginning of November, I took the box with my winter clothing out of storage, but I didn’t have time (or energy) to make the final swap of summer/winter clothes, so I am literally clothing myself out of a box right now.

And, to add insult to injury, I must buy a new bicycle. The back wheel is bent beyond repair, and just today on my way to town, I lost my dynamo because a piece of plastic broke. Getting the bicycle repaired would be (almost) as expensive as buying a new one, so I have decided to ride the old one over winter (I promised to be very careful and not to ride too fast) and start spring with a nice and shiny bike. Or do you think I should make myself a Christmas present and buy the bicycle then? Actually, they have a very nice one at the shop there – in orange!

Writings…

I am doing a lot of writing right now. There is this blog, there is the What’s up in Kyoto website, there is a writing job I have taken about hotels, there are still the smartphones I talked about before, I want to redo my main business website, and then there are a few personal things I’d like to get written.

And then, it’s the end of the year, where three of my friends have their birthdays in December and of course we’re talking about Christmas cards and nengajo New Year’s cards as well. The birthday cards are no problem, and I have already bought Christmas cards for selected friends – the unselected ones get Christmas emails – and I need to make one Christmas card for a special friend of mine who likes handmade Christmas cards because she decorates her house with them. I think I sent her handmade Christmas cards for about 15 years already, and I see no reason to discontinue the tradition.

The nengajo are a bit more complicated though. They are always a pain to write for me because it’s customary to write addresses by hand, which goes very slowly. This year, since my grandmother has died, I thought I would get out of that because you’re not supposed to send nengajo in such cases according to Japanese customs. I was planning to send cards to business partners though, since they don’t know about my grandmother anyway.

Yellow Bird and Chrysanthemum on the rock by KakuteiHowever, Japanese customs are Japanese customs, and I have to adhere to them – instead of nengajo New Year’s cards, I have to send mochuu hagaki Mourning cards. They tell details about the deceased family member and also inform the recipients that “I am in mourning, so I will not send any New Year’s cards this year”. They are sent very early in December and are essentially meant to let the recipient know that they should not send a nengajo either.

Of course, Japanese customs are not my forte, so I asked a friend of mine how to go about writing those mochuu hagaki. First thing she did was to get her book about Japanese correspondence (yes, she IS Japanese!) where these things are detailed, and she picked out a very very short version of a mourning card. Since I am a foreigner and sending these to my friends only, she said I will get away with three simple lines: “My grandmother died on May 25th, she was 99 years old. I am sorry for not sending a New Year’s greeting this time.”

This last line is a standard formula, but this is not the only thing that’s standard here. For example, most Japanese post cards have preprinted fields for the post code and a field indicating the spot for the stamp, which are usually red – a sign of joy. In this case, these fields have to be black, obviously. Also, I should send the cards on an “unlucky” day to give the right impression, which this year means I must send them on Sunday, December 2nd. Sharp! Imagery is supposed to lean towards flowers like lotus, chrysanthemums etc. At least she said it’s okay if I just print them out, no handwriting necessary.

Yes, Japanese customs… If even Japanese need written instructions to get them right, how am I ever supposed to understand even a fraction of them?

Fluffies

It finally happened, it’s getting cold again, and I broke down… The Japanese have a fantastic array of special clothing for winter: From special high-tech underwear called “heat tech” to thin down jackets for indoors to fluffy and very kawaii onesies for kids and adults, all of this is designed to keep you warm when you must leave the one and only heated area of the house. And yes, after five years in Japan, I finally bought myself one of these things to keep me warm.

Fluffy boots in pinkIn case you were hoping for a picture of me in one of those pink onesies with bunny-eared hoodie, I have to disappoint you: I didn’t go quite that far. I did go pink though and bought a pair of … let’s call them boots, to keep my feet warm which is really important because I am feeling very uncomfortable – to the point of getting cranky – when I have cold feet (or a cold back, by the way). I agree, these things are not quite as cute as I had hoped for, but as they are made of glorified plastic, aka polyester, they do what I expected of them – keeping my tootsies warm.

I am feeling very Japanese now! Not like a particularly elegant one, mind you, but it is a start!

Writer in Kyoto!

All the way back in July, when I had fun selling chimaki at the Ofunehoko, I met two other foreigners working there. One of them suggested – upon hearing that I’m writing a blog – that I should become a member of the group Writers in Kyoto. This is nothing less (or more) than a group of (mostly) foreigners living and writing in Kyoto, often about Japanese topics.

Everything needs to be pondered thoroughly, but finally, last week, I did the deed (meaning: I paid the fees) and became a member of Writers in Kyoto. It’s about 45 people right now, and they are serious writers, with a large number of books, poems, blogs, newspaper articles, etc. published among them. To be very honest, I’m slightly intimidated, me with my little personal blog here complaining about the weather, compared to all them big shots… It’ll be fine I think, once I get to know some of them in person – so far I have only communicated with the head of the group per email.

logo of writers in KyotoAnd wouldn’t you believe it, I already got homework! Well, it’s a group of writers, so I should have guessed that sooner or later they would want me to write some thing or other. And, as makes for proper beginning in Japan, it’s supposed to be a self-introduction. I have promised it “by the end of this week”, and it will be published on their site that I have linked above. For all my fans of old here, don’t expect big news. I guess a heavily condensed version of my blog posts of the last 6 years will do nicely. For now.

Vanity

Finally, I broke down. It’s time to admit it: I need glasses. New glasses, that is, I always had serious problems (astigmatism) with my left eye, in fact, I could not read what I’m writing right now with my left eye only. It’s so bad, that my doctor once told me that essentially my right eye would do all the work and that I would get my driver’s license only as a one-eyed person. That didn’t happen, but it’s a long story… And because my right eye would do double duty, I never really wore glasses for long periods of time; the last ones I bought 10 years ago.

Anyway, since I have lots of writing jobs at the moment, I spend many long hours in front of the screen, and I notice how my eyes are really strained in the evenings, they even feel a bit sore. So, I have decided to look at glasses again, especially for computer work. I did not know, but apparently the blue light emitted by computer screens may cause extra eye strain. There are special glasses for computers with slightly yellow tinged lenses that are supposed to take out most of the blue parts of the spectrum. They are widely available and quite cheap, only 3000 yen a pair.

However, I need correction on top of that, so I was looking for different options. While standard correction, i.e., reading glasses are very cheap, there are also bifocals that can be used for computer work and reading, which cost about 10 times as much. Even though they seem very practical, health insurance doesn’t pay anything for those at all. I mentioned that I needed glasses to a friend of mine who told me that her eye doctor recommended her to use reading glasses that are older or weaker than what she would need now for work on a computer screen. This works because the computer screen should be much further away than a book or mobile phone (at best, about an arm’s length away).

Optical RefractorSo, for now, I have decided to use my 10 year old glasses while working on the computer. I’ll give it a month or two and then I’ll see if this is enough to reduce the eye strain. If not, I will look into new glasses, possibly even the expensive ones for desk work, even though that will set me back 80.000 yen… Let’s hope that won’t be necessary.

Expanding

a hamster running in a wheelSorry for not writing in the weekend, I’ve been pretty busy with the business… There are a lot of things to do at the moment: I need new web hosting for the What’s up in Kyoto site. While I have no technical issues with my current host, they do expect me to pay for every little thing extra, which I find annoying. In particular, SSL access (does the httpS thing in a web address) I would have to pay for – even though there are free programs out there. So, I have decided to change web hosting, and I have to do it now because I would have to renew by the end of the month. At least, transferring the website is not very difficult (since it’s only simple files and no database), and I have very few emails in the associated mailbox. I don’t expect major problems, but it is a hassle.

I am also trying to find out how to place ads on the website. I don’t want to go with things like Google Adsense, but rather sell ad space to individual, local companies. This is rather tricky: I have no idea as to the proper pricing, and I am not entirely sure how to place an ad that would be recognised by an Adblocker (yes, I do want to be nice to people using them). And that’s on top of my “let’s talk to people” issues… Oh well, I’ll figure it out. Sooner than later, I hope.

In the meanwhile, I visited the highlight shrine for next month. It’s much, much smaller than I had expected – it will end up being the smallest shrine featured as a highlight. I can only guess that they have a proper shrine office somewhere off the premises, there were also no priests or miko shrine maidens to be seen. I will present it to you this or maybe next weekend.

Overpriced

I haven’t mentioned it in a while, but I am still interested in buying a house, eventually. A house with a garden, that is, because that’s how I grew up and that’s how I think people should live.

So, I am checking all the advertisements for housing that are put into my mailbox very carefully. And this is what I got last week or so:

2 million apartmentNot a house, an apartment with not even 90 square meters. (And they may be counting the balcony with that.) It has only two independent rooms, but the living room and dining room (the LD in the picture) is a whooping 40 square metres or thereabouts. I looked up the area in which this apartment is, and yes, it is a very nice and quiet one – opposite of the building is a row of temples with lush green gardens in summer (and many tourists as well I guess).

All in all not too bad, except for the price: 2 million. Not Japanese Yen – we’re talking about 2 million EUR, more or less, including all the fees and taxes and whatnot. And I’m wondering: WHO ON EARTH does have so much money? For an apartment that is 10 years old and shows the typical Japanese “long and thin” layout. Well, at least, here, all the rooms have a window, even though the second one could have been made larger by moving the toilet further down… It seems that Japanese apartments are all the same – not suitable for (western style) habitation.