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.

Kokyu

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!

I am a Cat

I am a Cat
by Soseki Natsume

Cover for I am a CatThe cat in question, which has not been named, lives in the house of a schoolteacher, Mr. Sneaze, a somewhat stingy and definitely dyspeptic man with a wife and three children. As soon as the cat arrives at this household, it begins to quietly observe his master and the friends that come to visit: Mainly Coldmoon, a former student of his master and now looking for a wife, and the rich Waverhouse telling his stories, whether true or false, and a number of others. The cat is always there, occasionally taking matters in his own paws, but mostly observing from the background and commenting on the three men and the things that happen to and around them.

The cat’s observations are pointed and witty, sometimes scathing, and always come from a somewhat aloof position. This way, the reader is presented with an interesting picture of humanity in general, and those living in Tokyo of the Meiji period in particular, where Western influences creep into Japanese culture and make for an especially interesting mix.

I am not entirely sure what to think of this book, and I have read it twice now. It has been written as a series of short stories that appeared in a magazine. The first story is hilarious, and its success prompted the author to write more stories about the nameless cat. The stories can stand alone, but there is a common arc throughout, which would have been better if the book had been planned as such from the outset, I think. And towards the end of the book, the cat (or rather: the author) loses himself in long and rambling philosophical meanderings, which are sometimes hard to follow. Friends have assured me though that the Japanese original reads much better than any translation. Okay – I may get back to it again in a few years.

Soseki Natsume is considered the best writer of Japanese (modern) history, and he is still widely read today. He was born in 1867 in Tokyo and studied English literature from 1890. He spent two years in England, which he thoroughly disliked, and when he returned to Japan in 1903, he started publishing his works. “I am a Cat” was among his first published books, and is considered a masterpiece. Soseki died in 1916.

Check it out on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

Bruised

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 kept 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…

Shakuhachi

A Shakuhachi is a Japanese flute made from bamboo.

Recently, I have been looking for Shakuhachi music online and I am very impressed by it. I am not a very musical person, but learning Shakuhachi is something I might want to do at some point, given enough time and money – a good Shakuhachi can cost 300 EUR and more (oops, missed a zero: it’s 3000 EUR) . I will do some more research and write a proper weekend article at some other time.

Listen to the music below, it is a modern piece written in 1995, after the disastrous Hanshin earthquake in Kobe. Enjoy!

Envy

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?

Business Update #1

Whew, have I been busy the last week – sorry for not posting without notice… Anyway, I’m back with a few updates of my new whatsupinkyoto event site.

What's up in Kyoto LogoI’m not sure how many of you went to my new page 😉 but if you did you may have noticed that I switched to a new provider for the calendar part of the homepage. It has always been a third-party service, but this one is – or at least appears to be – much more professional than the first one, with which I had huge problems. It went like this:

Adding a single event is, as I could confirm last week, very time-consuming. So, from the beginning, the idea was that anyone may submit events to the calendar, and I would simply look over them and publish them if they were appropriate. This was one of the main parts of the functionality, and the old provider had that functionality built-in. However, with I needed a little personalisation, so I contacted them to ask if that was possible (their website stated it would be).

I received a quote, and the promise that it would take one to two weeks to implement the add-on, so I agreed to go forward with it. Three weeks and a 275$ payment later, I finally got the “did it!”. I checked the functionality, and there was a small thing that didn’t work as I wanted it to work – until another 2 weeks later. And then I found out that about half of what I expected them to do hadn’t happened still (I had always tested when I was logged in, my mistake) – and on top of that they wanted to be paid extra for that “additional” feature…

The whole email back-and-forth with that company was extremely slow on their side: whenever I complained, it took them at least 10 days to get back to me in the first place. I got so frustrated that I already thought I was dealing with a 17-year-old working out of his mum’s garage… (I didn’t, but the guy had a full-time job elsewhere, which is only a partial excuse). Cutting things and my losses short, I finally left them after two months of arguing, not without bitching about the tardiness and the fact that I had sunk my money into something that didn’t work and I couldn’t use (before you ask: no way of getting it back, I contacted a lawyer about it).

Anyway, I have now found greener pastures and a much nicer calendar to use; it has everything I need right out of the box (and then some), the handling is much easier, it looks much more professional, and on top of that, it’s cheaper too. I’m happy to give tockify.com a shoutout, if anyone’s interested (and I don’t do that very often!).

So the last week I was busy migrating to the new calendar and adding new events to it. I also made a new “submit events” page – just in case you’re in Kyoto and know about an exciting event, feel free to submit it! – and I started talking to friends about my new endeavour. One of them was so enthusiastic that she helped me compose an advertising email in proper Japanese that I will send out to places like theatres, museums, and galleries this week. Let’s see how this is going. Wish me luck!

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!

Golden Week

In the last two days I had four meetings and just as many (unrelated) deadlines. I’m exhausted. At least, I don’t have any more meetings for the rest of this week: Japan celebrates Golden Week, a string of three national holidays in a row, and this year, it is topped off with the weekend. Some companies give their employees the whole week off, yet others – especially service oriented places or large shopping malls – run their business as usual.

For me, it will be a bit of both. As mentioned, my next business meeting will be next Tuesday, but I will see a couple of friends in the weekend. Also, I have to get my new website going, there are unexpected problems with the calendar I need to fix, one way or the other… And there are a few more personal things I need to take care of, spring cleaning my apartment for example and properly fixing the curtains in the livingroom. Let’s see how many of those I can tackle in the coming week.

In any case, when in Japan, do as the Japanese do. So: I’ll take the rest of the week off from blogging. You may expect my next post on Tuesday, May 9th – celebrating a double anniversary!