Compared to Tuesday, I had a more relaxed day today, so I can make good on my promise and tell you about the final meeting I had that day.

It has to do with my writing job over at facebook. I have talked about Kyotogram before: Since last November, I am writing very short articles about Kyoto and Japan, the important thing is the photo attached and not the text. In one week I have to produce 5 posts and attend one meeting, all that for a fixed salary. Besides the big boss and the team leader, there is a graphics designer on the team and another freelance writer like me, and we both get the same salary since we have the same contract.

Japanese currencyTwo weeks ago I initiated a meeting with the big boss and told him pretty much straightforward that I wanted a raise. The reason for this was that every time there’s a special or urgent job to be done, I am asked to do it – because my writer colleague is, let’s say, not quite as reliable as I am. She has now taken part in about half the meetings only, and ever since Christmas, her performance has gone downhill. And in February, out of 4 meetings and 20 posts, she did 1 meeting and 2 articles, an all time low. It’s not that her lack of productivity is directly affecting me, thank goodness, but since the big boss has talked about “fairness” when I signed the contract, I thought I’d ask him whether he still believes in that one.

Of course, I tried to avoid dissing my colleague (her work ethic is none of my business, and in fact she is a very nice girl), and we had a very constructive talk of about an hour in which the big boss assured me that everybody is very happy with my performance, and that the rest of the team relies on me, and that he was “aware of the situation” as he put it. And that he couldn’t say anything right now, but he would get back to me by the end of the month.

Fast forward two weeks: Since the end of the month is now, we had another one hour talk on Tuesday, after our regular meeting. Actually, both of us writers had what the big boss called a “six months review meeting”, and the outcome was as follows: The contracts for both of us will be renewed, but there will now be a new penalty for underachievement: Every meeting not attended will – literally – cost 3000 YEN, every unwritten post 1500 YEN.

Having a penalty like this is extremely unusual in a freelance contract; normally, you are paid for the specific work you do, and only for that; and the more you work, the more you earn. I am not sure why the contract wasn’t changed to this model altogether, probably because the big boss is on a limited budget, but I am not complaining. Because, no matter what the new contract says: I got my raise! Of course, “fairness” is still an important word in the whole thing, and the big boss has amended my contract by giving me additional responsibilities (which I have partly already fulfilled) so he can also officially justify that I earn more than my colleague.

I had a very pleasant talk with the big boss on Tuesday where I assured him that in normal circumstances I would not have dreamed of asking for more money, that this was simply prompted by the lack of performance on my colleagues’ side and his “fairness” argument. In return, he stressed several times that it is very, very rare in Japan indeed that a raise is given without any further discussion like it was in my case. And he also insinuated that there’s no room for further improvement for the time being, which is perfectly fine with me.

In conclusion, as I never had a “decent” job, so to speak (academia has fixed payment schemes), this was my very first salary negotiation! And I have learned the following:
If you go to your boss after a mere 5 months of employment and demand a 15% raise, and he just hands it over without any further negotiation or even comment,
a) he is really, really extremely happy with your performance and
b) you probably should have asked for more…


Whew, I have been very busy today: I went out at 10 in the morning and came home at 8 in the evening… That was three meetings today plus early dinner, and now I’m tired – and I still have one more thing to finish tonight. At least the final meeting I had today was very, very productive and ended on a very positive note – I’ll tell you more about that on Thursday!

Maneki Neko

The maneki neko – literally beckoning cat, also called welcoming cat, lucky cat etc. – is probably one of the best known objects associated with Japan. The little cat figurine with its raised paw can be found at the entrances or cash registers of most shops and restaurants in Japan, and has made its way into numerous Asian restaurants abroad as well. black manekineko with lucky koban coinThe maneki neko is of truly Japanese origin, although when exactly it became customary to put the little statue up is unclear. They most likely first appeared in Tokyo in the mid to late 19th century, and by 1902 they were already extremely popular. There are a number of folk tales that give a story for the first appearance of the maneki neko; the one most down to earth simply talks about two competing ramen shops situated next to each other. One of them put up a maneki neko in the window, just to see an increase in customers, at least until the other shop followed suit.

many many manekineko...A cat statue is only allowed to call itself maneki neko if it has a paw raised in the typical Asian beckoning gesture, which is executed palm-down here. The raised paw is supposed to beckon customers and/or wealth in general. You can find maneki neko with left or right paws raised, but interestingly not even the Japanese themselves seem to know whether the right paw stands for money and the left paw for customers or vice versa. Other interpretations are one paw for shops (especially bars), the other paw for the home; one for wealth, the other for luck… About 60% of the Japanese maneki neko have their left paw raised, thus bringing in customers (probably), according to research by the Japanese Maneki Neko Club. Really clever people have come up with maneki neko that raise both paws, just to be sure, but they are not very common.

2 calico maneki neko with left/right paw raisedIn any case, the paw became raised higher and higher over time, so some people use this as an indicator of the age of the statue. The idea is here to increase the reach of the cat to lure in customers and money. The latest development is clearly the solar-powered arm that is beckoning for real – and forever.

Other common features of a maneki neko are the red collar with a bell and a little bib. These things most likely go back to the Edo period where wealthy pet owners were actually dressing their cats like that. Furthermore, many maneki neko hold or sit on coins, mallets, carp, or marbles and gems, all of which symbolise money. The coin represents a koban, a gold coin used in the Edo period that was worth one ryo, and the writing on the coin usually says senmanryo – 10 million ryo – a huge amount of money, not just for a little shop owner.

Maneki neko come in various colours. The three-colored calico is based on the Japanese bobtail breed and, probably because those animals are quite rare, is considered the luckiest. Other traditional colours are white (happiness, purity, and positive energy), black (to ward off evil spirits and, in a modern interpretation: stalkers), and gold (wealth and prosperity). A red color is rather unusual, it stands for protection from evil and illness, but nowadays, maneki neko can be bought in practically any color – with more or less modern meanings attached.

modern manekineko in various coloursAn interesting side note to the probable origin of the maneki neko is the following: In the Edo period, sex was not quite as shunned as it is today, and many houses where female companions were available had shelves with lucky charms – often in the shape of penises of all sizes. Enter the Meiji restoration and the opening of Japan to the much more prude West; obviously those charms had to go. However, they were replaced with the maneki neko, because in Japan, the cat is associated with young, beautiful women, especially geisha. This may be because of the witchery cats are said to be exercising – just like young women…geisha figurine with maneki neko

Going Out

Ever since I started my company, I have been teaching English to two retired ladies in their early 60s. Most of the times we just meet in the shopping mall nearby my place (because it has free parking), but sometimes we go out and do something special.

Like today. A common friend of ours is an artist. He makes shin-hanga woodblock prints, and this week he has an exhibition of his prints of spring flowers. Most of his pieces are flowers, actually, and he has a very distinctive style, not really naive, but not realistic either. I had seen much of his work – so I thought – and I was surprised that I could find something totally new to me. The picture below consists of four single prints, close-ups of seasonal flowers, from spring at the left to winter at the right. The coloring is interesting – the warm colors for spring and winter, and the coldest blue for summer.

Woodprints: Seasonal FlowersAfter visiting his exhibition, we went to a nearby cafe. We wanted to go to the cafe “Independant” in the basement of an old, Western style house that was built in 1928 and is still used today. Unfortunately, that cafe is closed in the afternoon for someStaricase to the Cafe Independant reason, but we could at least go downstairs and admire the lovely mosaic staircase. The basement itself is a single room with very high ceilings, heavy pillars, and typical vault architecture – it is definitely worth going there.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in another cafe on the second floor of the same building, eating chocolate cake and iced creme brulee and drinking tea and coffee. We were chatting about this and that – just like old ladies like me enjoy doing. I had a great afternoon!


Today, I was on busy Tuesday schedule, and on top of everything it was raining. That means that I have to take the bus – and plan in extra time for that. I left lunch earlier than usual to take the bus to my afternoon appointment and got off the usual stop. And then and there I stood before a brand new Lindt chocolate shop!

Apparently they just opened a few days ago, and I had to stumble upon them immediately. There is a little cafe attached where you can have both hot and cold chocolate drinks and coffee, but mostly it’s the shop that’s interesting. They don’t have a large variety of chocolate types, but now of course it’s all about the little rabbits for Easter. But, what they do have, right in the center of the shop is a huge selection of Lindor balls, probably some 20 different flavours.

selection of lindor chocolateI love Lindor! And of course, I just had to go in there and shop – 8 different kinds today (among them orange, lemon, mint, and coconut) with more to come. Great, exactly what I needed: yet another way to fuel my chocolate addiction…

PS: Of course I ended up being late for my meeting, 3  minutes late to be precise. People were worried already: “But you are ALWAYS on time!”. Not sure if that’s a good thing?


By chance, I have come across a very old Japanese board game called Bansugoroku. Just like Go and Shogi (Japanese chess), it was popular at the Heian court in Kyoto some 1000 years ago. However, over time, it became a major game for (illegal) gambling, and when the Edo government cracked down on this and banned gambling, bansugoroku fell out of favour and nowadays is practically forgotten.

That’s a pity because it is actually quite fun to play, a mixture between backgammon and “Mensch ärgere Dich nicht”. You need: A board with 24 fields arranged on opposite sides like shown in the picture below, 15 black pieces for one, and 15 white pieces for the other player, and two dice. Bansugoroku mid gameAt first, the pieces of each player are piled at one side of the board, and the goal is to bring all pieces to the opposite side where now the other colour is. That means, that the white and black pieces move in opposite directions on the same board, like in backgammon.

And this is how to play: After agreeing on who starts, the first player rolls both dice. She is now allowed to move one or two of her pieces according to the result of the dice throw. For example, if you roll a 3 or a 6, you can either move one piece 3 fields forward and the second piece 6 fields, or you move a single piece 9 fields forward. Then, it’s the other player’s turn.

playing bansugorokuSounds simple? The game is not trivial though, since there may only be a single piece on any field: if two pieces of the same colour would fall on the same field, you have to move another piece instead. And if a black piece reaches a field occupied with a white one (or vice versa), then the white piece has to move all the way back to the beginning (just like in Mensch ärgere Dich nicht). Also the final field has to be reached with the correct number of moves – no overshooting allowed! The game is over when one player has moved all his pieces to the opposite side.

The above are the rules as they were explained to me, but I am sure there are variants of the game. How to approach the finish was a bit unclear for example: If you cannot reach the goal and are not allowed to overshoot, then what do you do? I have been told to turn back at the finish, but it is probably best to wait until you roll the correct number.

bansugoroku / backgammonI have since done a bit of research and the Internet in its infinite wisdom insists that bansugoroku was played similar to modern backgammon – with the pieces even laid out on the board in the same way in the beginning. I have found a number of images and woodblock prints from the Edo period of the 18th century which would suggest the same thing. It is possible though that the game was played differently at the Heian court of 1000 years ago and has evolved into a variant or predecessor of backgammon. Since I am not a scholar in the history of Japanese games however, I will leave this open.

In any case, as mentioned above, bansugoroku is not played any longer, although some Japanese do play “real” backgammon these days. I wouldn’t mind owning one of those bansugoroku boxes though – aren’t they fabulous? Bansugoroku box


I’m having a cold. Since last Monday I’ve had the sniffles, with a bit of temperature even in the evening. I know exactly what caused it, and looking back: It was worth it!

Last Sunday I spent 7 hours sitting in a rather unheated event hall in Osaka watching the first day of this year’s Spring Tournament of Sumo. It was rather unplanned, a friend of a friend bought the wrong tickets and couldn’t find anyone else to go with her, so we were four girls sitting high up there above the ring to watch sumo. Before entering the hall at about 11 in the morning, we bought food and drinks to last all day, and then we hunkered down and enjoyed the show.

Two sumo wrestlers preparing for their boutA sumo tournament lasts for two weeks, and every rikishi or sumo ringer has one match a day. The ranking after the tournament is determined by the number of wins each rikishi could score, and there are very complicated rules as to how and when to move up to the next level. I guess I’ll write about sumo in more depth in a Sunday post some day.

This was my second sumo event (I saw one in Nagoya some 8 years ago or so), and there were essentially three parts to the whole day. The lowest ranking rikishi start wrestling in the morning – the tournament was well under way when we arrived – and the last match of the day in the late afternoon is always the one of the yokozuna, the top ranked rikishi.

It may sound a bit funny, but you can actually notice a difference in the matches. The lower ranks seem to be more different in fighting strength, so many of the early matches are over very quickly, with one rikishi clearly dominant. The higher the rank, the more even the pairs, and a match takes much longer, including of course the going into the ring and clearing it with salt, the foot stamping etc. which is sometimes repeated several times before the match really starts.

It’s also not always true that the bigger fighter with more fat wins, often the not so fat ones are more muscular or agile and can thus make up for a lack of sheer body mass. Nevertheless, no matter what their size, sumo wrestlers are in a very good shape – or could you lift your foot over your head like the two guys in the picture above?

Altogether, I had a fun day last Sunday, and I gladly paid for it with the cold I caught (even though I could use a good night’s sleep by now).The greatest bit happened at the very last match when the yokozuna lost… This is always a big disappointment for the spectators, and they show it. Enjoy!

(This 2013 video is a bit loud in the beginning, but sound is not necessary for the fun part. In January 2017, Kisenosato became the first Japanese yokozuna in 19 years. He’s the one winning the fight in the video.)

White Day

Today is March 14th, and the Japanese celebrate White Day. It is the day when guys are supposed to “pay back” the chocolate they received a month ago on Valentine’s Day. Of course, just as I thought a month ago already, there are no especially nice chocolates around this time, but White Day gifts still appear to be quite difficult…

marshmallowsThe thing today is that men are allowed to make differences in the gifts they buy according to recipient: If he just has to reciprocate for what is called giri choco, obligation chocolate, from coworkers for example, simple sweets in return are fine. A favourite one in this case are marshmallows for some reason, probably because they are (mostly) white?

Girlfriends get special treatment, the present may be more expensive, luxury handbags and expensive jewellery are not unheard of. Once you are married however, there’s no need to worry about gifts any longer: After all, your wife has access to your bank account and will simply go out and buy herself a present – and deduct the price from your monthly allowance. Yes, at least the first part of this sentence is still true in some households!

The above information I have gathered from a friend of mine, and she said that in her youth, a boy was supposed to reciprocate with a present that was about 10 times as expensive as the one he received! Of course, this was back during the bubbly economy, nowadays this number has gone down considerably – to about 3.

Still, I cannot understand why there’s not more exciting chocolate around on White Day. The displays have shrunken a great deal and it’s more of the standard fare this time – maybe guys aren’t as picky as girls? My friend assures me though that the 3 times as expensive holds for giri choco as well. I don’t think I’ll ever understand the Japanese ways…

Salvation of a Saint

Salvation of a Saint
Keigo Higashino

Cover Salvation of a SaintYoshitaka Mashiba is found dead in his livingroom. Soon it is clear that he was poisoned by arsenic in in coffee, and when it transpires that he had an affair with his wife’s assistant, the prime suspect is logical: Yoshitaka’s wife Ayane. But since she had spent that weekend in Hokkaido with her parents, she could not have committed the crime, could she? Detective Kusanagi is convinced of her innocence and tries to find another suspect, but his young assistant Utsumi is not so sure. And when she sees that Kusanagi is falling for Ayane, she must be ready to call on an outsider to prove her suspicions and solve the case.

This is another of Higashino’s crime novels featuring detective Kusanagi and his old friend Prof. Yukawa. Although not on speaking terms at the moment, Yukawa is intrigued by the ostensibly perfect crime that has been committed and agrees to help. Once again, the solution comes at the very end and with a twist that is completely unexpected and touches the reader to the core.

Keigo Higashino, born 1958 in Osaka, started writing while still working as an engineer for a Japanese automotive company. At age 27, his first novel won the prestigious Edogawa Rampo Award and he began to write professionally. In the West, he is mostly known for his brilliantly crafted mystery novels.

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

Spring Fortunes

Last week I went to Ichihime shrine for the hina matsuri (doll festival). Besides the usual hinadan doll displays, there was a special event in a nearby community center: the setup of a life-size hinadan with real people instead of dolls.

The interesting part about this was the clothing of the two main people representing the court nobles, since both of them were dressed in clothing as it was worn 1000 years ago in the Heian era, notably the famed juni-hitoe (12 layer robe) for the lady. Dressing both took a whole hour, and I will write about in detail in a weekend post to come – of course I took pictures of each and every single layer and step in the process!

Included in the ticket price was a cup of green tea with an appropriate sweet for the day, a demonstration of games played at the Heian court (also worthy of a weekend post), and a special type of charm. It is called momokazashi mamori and it is made of two little branches of a peach tree, just about to blossom. It is the most elaborate omamori charm I have yet bought, and it does look really pretty.

momo kazashi mamoriI wonder what it is good for – other to ward off evil or bring luck like all the charms, and where the best place is to put it. Obviously it has a meaning that is somewhat related to spring, but in any case, I like it very much, pretty in pink…