Time Off

It has cooled down considerably this week, the cicadas are all but quiet now, so I guess autumn is coming. Which means that it is the perfect time for a holiday of my own! This time I will go back to Europe for a couple of weeks to visit family and friends in both Austria and Germany.

I have been very busy this week to buy presents, even though I finally saw the light and purchased only Japanese sweets this time, which makes things much easier. However, in compensation, one of my close friends sent me on a shopping spree to buy him a decent, real yukata summer kimono after he had seen mine (which is very real, but not really decent for a woman my age). After spending a lot of time looking for something according to his specifications, I finally declared them unobservable and bought him a yukata I liked…

Anyway, I will be gone for two weeks and I will leave you without any posts for this time (not that anything interesting will happen in Kyoto while I’m gone anyway). Have a nice time, and tune in for my next post on September 20th.

Storm

I have read that the weather is very bad on the Atlantic coast of Europe. 19.000 Brits without electricity, waves that are phenomenal (up to 14 metres) and higher (no meteorological name for this apparently), and cancelled carnival parades in Germany… Hopefully it’s over soon. We also had a very cold and stormy day today here, but even so, it was not raining and the sky was bright blue, so I took a walk along the river.

People did not seem to bother, and even the construction work on our apartment block commenced without problems. Right now, they are building the scaffolding for the first house, and although I noticed that they were going quite slowly, they did not cease working all day.

Inside my apartment, again, the curtains were moving and even the sliding fusuma doors rattled. I guess I will never get used to that. On the positive side, this also means that I can paint in my living room without suffocating. I bought some cheap book shelves that need a coat of paint to fit the little bit… well, okay, to fit the one single piece of furniture that I currently have in my livingroom. I am planning to get this room finished and fully furnished, preferably before my anniversary of living here.

Renovations

Last week I received a large, thick booklet informing me about the pending renovations in our block of apartments that will be carried out this spring. As far as I understand, this concerns only the buildings’ outside: the balconies will be renovated (how exactly, I am not sure), and the whole building will receive a new coat of paint. The booklet describes other types of work, but I am not sure whether they really will replace any of the wires and pipes. I would not mind getting new water pipes though – the old ones are very rusty and would really need to be replaced.

constructionAnyway, since the work is scheduled from February to June, and from 8:00 until 18:00 on weekdays, I hope it will not be too noisy for too long. Work on my building will start only in Mid March, when the scaffolding will be erected, and I’ll have to remove all personal belongings from the balconies by then.

The whole renovation appears to be planned down to the smallest detail. The document I received has 28 pages in total, and besides a detailed schedule for each of the four buildings in the block, it is also stated for example who is in charge of the work (photo included), what types of clothes and badges the workers will wear, which parking lots cannot be used in that time, and which type of further information will be sent in leaflets of which colour. Since the building will be painted, there will also be days when we are not allowed to hang out laundry to dry, and these days will be announced one day in advance, at 3 pm.

And if there are still questions unaddressed, there is a meeting this Saturday to clarify all the details. Since the meeting will be in Japanese, it is probably a bit pointless for me to show up, but still, I am deeply impressed about the care that is being taken here! We’ll see how impressed I will remain once the work has started. I am sure you will hear about this more often in the future.

Cheap

My accountant visited my office today and finished taxes for last year. Japan seems to have a rather complicated system as to when you have to pay what and to whom:

Japanese currencyThere are corporate taxes to be paid to three different tax offices: the national, the prefectural, and the city tax office. The paperwork has to be filed one month after the end of the company’s fiscal year, and the money must be paid within 3 months of the end of the fiscal year, which in my case makes the latter date some time in May.

Then there is social security – health insurance and pension – for which you have to file the paperwork on 31st of July. Labour insurance is separate from this and has to be filed by the 10th of July. As I don’t have employees, I can choose whether I pay this myself or via the company; paying it myself means that this is cheaper for the time being, so I’ll keep doing this as long as possible.

And then there is personal or employee income tax which we have just finished to calculate. Just like everywhere else, there is an employer’s share and an employee’s share. Usually, the employer withholds both parts each month and the employee only gets the net amount and does not have to worry about anything. And usually, the employer pays those taxes to the tax office each month.

But, Japan is different! What is happening is that my company withholds the employer’s tax contribution each month from the salary of my employee – myself. The company now collects all those taxes and is only required to pay it to the tax office twice a year – on January 20th and July 10th. And the employee has to pay their share individually once a year, and again, there is the national tax due in February and the prefectural and city tax due in June.

Are you confused now? Me too! I’m very happy my accountant has it all under control. And I am even more happy about the results concerning the employer’s contribution for last year, since I only have to pay some 2000 YEN employer’s contribution, and some 4000 YEN employee’s contribution. Now, talk about cheap!

Warmth

window frost Slowly but surely, it is getting cold here. Both last winter and last summer were relatively mild with not too extreme temperatures, but somehow I am worried that I will not be that lucky this winter. Right now, it has 9 degrees outside – and 10 degrees in my bedroom. And for next weekend, the weather forecast promises around 0 degrees during the night…

My new apartment is in parts better, in parts equally bad as the old house I lived in before. My office – the room where I spend most of my days in – has only 9 square metres as opposed to the 12 of the old room. There are also no cracks in the walls and all the windows are closing tight here. Unfortunately, the windows still only have single glazing, and there is no insulation whatsoever either on the inside or the outside of my walls, which are not even 20 cm of concrete, with wallpaper on one side. And even new houses are still built like this – I don’t get it…

The Japanese solution to the issue is either air-conditioning (if you reverse the airflow, it is getting warm inside) or, mostly, space heaters. For larger rooms they use liquid gas, but in a normal apartment many people use electric heaters. Obviously, this increases people’s energy consumption, which, with most of the nuclear plants still down, is not encouraged. The solution to that came with my last electricity bill: a nice flyer suggesting: “Oh, just heat your room to 20 degrees only!” So, either the Japanese are a very active people who never sit down during winter time, or they are actively trying to kill me…

For now, I heat my office only, to about 22 degrees, and I am just wearing a bit thicker sweaters and a bit warmer socks. I have also closed all the doors in my apartment to prevent draughts, and I have added sticky foam padding to strategic places where the fusuma sliding doors are not closing properly (they never do). And today I went out to buy a second space heater, mostly so that the friend who’s visiting next week will have her own. We’ll see how it goes – and for how long…

Finished!

I have to admit that I’m rather proud of myself: I just made my self-imposed deadline with respect to paperwork:

  • Yesterday I finished preparing my tax return and I sent a very heavy letter with all sorts of documents off to Germany. I hope the effort was worth it and that I’ll get lots and lots of money back.
  • Today I completed my part of an international project with the other participants sitting in Europe and the US. There remain some smaller things to take care of, but the ball is in the US right now.
  • I also managed to send a Christmas parcel to a French friend of mine, which probably will just make it before the holidays. If not, well, it’s more of a New Year’s present anyway.
  • And, also today, I sent my final Christmas card to an Austrian friend of mine who for years already gets very special, and very handmade cards for this occasion. Since I now have all my craft supplies back, I can pick up this tradition of ours again.

So, there’s not much more to do until the New Year; the handful of Nengajo that I’m planning to write can wait. And even though it is not Sunday anymore, this is my plan for the rest of the day: sleeping kitten

Taxes

stack of papersOnce again I am busy with paperwork – will this ever end?

Yesterday, my accountant has finished the taxes my company has to pay for its employees – meaning: him and me. As I was only working part of the year, the end result turned out to be much, much less than I had anticipated, so we’re good. I will have to pay those taxes by January 20th.

And I myself am working on a private income tax return – for the year 2011 when I started working in Germany. Unfortunately, I have only recently unearthed the (physical) form for that, and I have time only until the end of the year to file it, so you can see that I’m busy.

Yesterday and today, I spent some time on the phone with a friend in Germany who has experience with filing taxes. And even so, when I told her what I’d need help with, her reaction was “O holy sh…” Together, we have since unearthed my tax number (or, rather the fact that I don’t have one yet) and we have found out that the expenses for my move from Asia to Germany – because that move was job related – are fully deductible! As well as doctor’s visits, payments for private pension and health insurance,… Of course there is a caveat: You must produce all the receipts – in the original…

I have no idea how much of that stuff I can still find, after all I threw away a lot of paper just before I moved. And besides, who on earth is keeping the receipt for “the dinner you paid your friends after they helped you move in”…? Well, it will be obvious as to what I’ll be doing in the weekend. At least, today’s advent calendar treat has proved the right preparation: “Buy chocolates”…

Advent

It’s that time of the year when the Western countries are winding down a little and are getting ready for the Christmas break and the New Year. I have always enjoyed the changed attitude of people around this time – as long as you can avoid shopping, of course. Here in Japan, Christmas is a purely commercial thing, and although I am not religious at all, this overemphasis on Santa Claus and Christmas baubles and pure commercialism does annoy me a bit. This is partly because Christmas cannot be further removed from Japanese culture, and partly because I am probably still longing for that childhood feeling of expecting something very special…

Hence, I have decided to make my own preparations for Christmas Eve and I have made myself an advent calendar. Traditionally, those are calendars meant for children filled with small pieces of chocolate for every day until Christmas, and this is even the first year I found one in a department store – imported from Germany, obviously. However, I went a slightly more adult route, so behold my very own advent calendar:

personal advent calendarIt’s not very obvious, so let me explain: On the right is a Christmas card from a friend of mine, who always sends me an advent calendar every year. I will open the windows as time goes on. The large glass on the left contains one piece of paper for each of the 24 (now: 21) days until Christmas, and on each paper there is a single “to-do” item for that day.

I have chosen things I really like to do, but very often don’t make time for in my schedule: “take a long bath in the evening”, “watch a movie”. Some things are expensive: “buy a box of chocolates”; others are free: “walk along the river”; some things involve people: “call friend x”; others are very personal: “make rice pudding”. Each day, I will draw one of my papers out of the glass and indulge myself.

What a pity I don’t have an oven here, otherwise I would have included “bake cookies” into my list. But then again, as I have found out over time, I am only inspired for that when it is snowing outside. And that is certainly not going to happen this year any more…

Oseibo

Today, I went shopping. Not for Christmas presents though, not even for myself. I went out to buy Oseibo – Year End Presents. Those are rather obligatory and formal things, mostly exchanged between companies, or given to bosses or teachers, for example. Most often, such Oseibo are food items or sweets, or alcohol or liquor.

The above is all I knew about these presents when I decided that I needed to buy one for my accountant. And because in this case, it is technically a business-to-business present, which is just another excuse to produce a minefield of possible mistakes, mishaps and other unpleasantries, I did not dare to enter on my own. So, I asked a friend of mine for help.

Since then I have learned that decent Oseibo are bought only at department stores (Takashimaya or Daimaru for example), and that there is a price limit on both ends depending on the intensity of the (business) relationship, with the most common price around 5000 YEN. Oseibo are usually sent to the recipient directly from the store where they are bought, and should arrive somewhere between December 1st and 20th. The shop usually takes care of appropriate wrapping, and there is a standard note attached with the name of the sender on it.

Takashimaya logoArmed with that knowledge and an appropriate amount of money, and with my friend in tow, I arrived at the Takashimaya at around 11 today. At the moment, maybe half of the seventh floor is dedicated to Oseibo, and indeed, there are all sorts of things you can buy. Japanese love food items as gifts in general, and as New Year’s is a time when traditionally no cooking is done in the house, things that can be eaten without further preparation are very popular. There are tins of crabmeat, condiments, fish in all thinkable states of preservation, and packages of Kobe beef and similar meat. You can also buy tea and coffee (Nescafe – really?) and things like cooking oil, preserves, or honey. Also, there are boxes with cans of Japanese and foreign beer (not a good present for winter, according to my friend), and bottles of sake in various sizes. Of course, there are okashi – Japanese sweets – and cookies and chocolates… Slightly odd I found the packages with a full year’s supply of soap, shampoo, and body lotion. If I got a present consisting of 8 bars of soap from an employee, for example, I would seriously wonder whether there is a hidden meaning to all this…

Anyway, after wandering the aisles of Oseibo displays for about half an hour – and freely sampling from the various offerings of tidbits – my friend and I settled on a small box with German ham and sausages (Dallmayr – I thought they only sell coffee) for a decent price. We then had to wait for another half an hour to pay for our present: Because the Takashimaya will deliver the box, they will need at least the recipient’s address. There was a small hiccup when it came to the noshigami – the note attached to the present stating the giver’s name – because my full name is too long to be written there in the usual, vertical manner. We settled on my first name, it should be rather unique anyway.

The gift will be delivered next week, and then I’ll see what happens. It appears that it is common to reciprocate – with a gift that is slightly cheaper – but I am not sure if this applies here as well. I’ll hope for chocolate – and keep you posted.

Endings

It seems that this whole week can be summarised under the motto “endings”.

My soroban teacher has more or less uninvited me from his classes which I have visited now twice a week for about 1.5 years. He has now much more students at the time I was usually going, and the new kids need more attention (and maybe also a bit more space) than at the time when I started. It is coming at a bad time now (psychologically) because on Sunday, there is the next test, but there’s not much I can do about it.

old soroban school, miniature version as toyI am still very grateful that he organised the visa for me last year and to let me study soroban with him. It was very nice as long as I could go to school there, but from now on I will have to do my own studying. I still want to try one or two more levels of tests, but I am not sure I can manage without the motivation of exercises in class. At the very least, it will take much longer…

Before you ask: No, it is very unlikely that I will pass the test this weekend – I am still too slow. However, I think I mentioned that I mainly want to take it to see how the test is conducted on a larger scale. This I will certainly manage. I am curious…

The final ending of this week and of this post is a positive one: My ear and hearing are much better now! Although I still have some tinnitus in the right ear, the annoying pressure is gone completely. Sometimes, it will reemerge when I put on my headset or use the phone, but this is just temporary and subsides quickly. It’s something…