Kanji Island

I’m still engaged in studying Japanese, and slowly, oh so slowly I might be getting somewhere… Part of the problem is that while I’m getting better at understanding, speaking is still quite difficult. There are lots of interesting grammar constructs that I am learning, but it is not easy to get them from passive knowledge into active speaking… At least I am beginning to understand more, so that’s something.

I keep struggling with Kanji though, so I’m jumping at opportunities to learn those, the more painless, the better. Recently I found cute coloring sheets for Kanji, called “Treasure Island of Kanji”. It’s for elementary students and all the 1006 Kanji they learn during their six grades. Each sheet shows the appropriate shape of an island with squiggly “paths” drawn that actually contain all the needed Kanji. The idea is to find and paint the Kanji one by one in different colors, and in the end, every bit of path belongs to one and only one Kanji. Here’s the sheet for the first grade, containing 80 Kanji:

Treasure Island of Kanji

The difficulty lies in the fact that the lines have no real endings, and that Kanji may consist of several disconnected part. So you really have to know how the Kanji look like and what all their parts are. For example, in the lower left corner, I can see the Kanji for book, year, and eye very clearly, and there might be the ten Kanji in it, but I have no idea where the rest of the lines should go.

The biggest problem with this is that you really need to know the Kanji that are sought, and they are not given anywhere. So it’s a bit more difficult for non-Japanese who may study Kanji in a different order than elementary school kids.

It is a cute little game though, and the inventor, Yuji Baba, has made many more card games to study Kanji and other stuff. Check out his homepage. 

Some of those games are for sale on this page of the Okunakaruta Online Shop, but you’ll have to navigate the Japanese to begin with, and I’m not sure if they ship abroad at all.

Reinvited

I am so excited! Just yesterday, I received a phone call where I was once more invited to help out during Gion Matsuri! Just like last year, I will work at the Ofunehoko, the very last float in the second parade on July 24th. I will sell chimaki and tenugui and put people’s shoes away when they enter the building from which you can enter the hoko itself…

The boat shaped O-fune hoko ending the procession

It doesn’t sound like much, but I am really excited! Last year, I met a member of the Writers in Kyoto group which turned out very nice indeed (more about that in the weekend), so who knows whom I will be meeting this year…

Cafe Breaks

With summer approaching and my apartment still being without aircondition, I will probably be forced out of my home every now and then in the coming months. I am slowly building a list of cafes where I can go and work in dire circumstances because I don’t want to go to the same ones all the time. So far, my favourites are the following:

  • The Cafe in the Ogaki Bookstore on Kitaoji Street. It’s the closest to my home, they have small meals and excellent matcha latte. When I need a break, I can simply walk among the books in the store. Con: No wifi.
  • The Mushiyashinai, a vegan cafe near Ichijoji Station on the Eiden railway to Kurama. While I don’t care much that it’s vegan as such, their soymilk lassi is absolutely addictive. They have nice little cakes to take home too, and as a bonus: the young man working there is very cute… Con: a bit expensive.take-home fruit cake from the Mushiyashinai
  • The Nama Chocolat in Okazaki, run by a friend of mine. Pretty quiet (except for weekends) and located in a lovely old house. Excellent home-made chocolate, a real treat together with matcha. Con: I always end up chatting with my friend rather than working…
  • The Mo-an Cafe on top of Yoshida hill. Rustic and quiet atmosphere, with a nice view over Kyoto. Serves small meals for lunch, not many people (busy in the weekends and during lunch time though). Con: Tricky to access by bicycle. You should leave it somewhere at the foot of the hill.
  • Matsunosuke near the Museum of Kyoto. A bit far from my place but their sweets are worth it. Best pancakes in town. Con: Not really a place to work since it’s quite busy. Pancakes are delicious but take an eternity to make…
  • The Lec Court Cafe in the Kyoto Hotel Okura. Excellent desserts, excellent service in very stylish ambience. Tea is served in large pots to about three cups. Con: Expensive. And they would probably frown upon laptop use – not that they would complain though!
  • The Lipton Tea House on Sanjo Dori. Fluffy cakes to die for (and for takeout), a large selection of tea and wonderful hot chocolate. Refined ambience, friendly staff and reasonable prices. Con: Like in the Okura, it doesn’t feel right to take out a laptop. Bustling with tourists.

These are my favourite cafes in Kyoto when I want to work away from my office, or when I just want a break. There are hundreds more that want to be tried of course. The nice thing about cafes in Japan is their great Austrian approach to it: Order one coffee, and you can stay forever. I prefer not to go on the weekends when these places are usually busy with many customers, but during the week, when there’s nobody else, they are fair game. Who knows, I might be seeing you there!

Cool Days

I don’t know where you are living, but I have the feeling that it’s much cooler than usual in Kyoto. Right now, the tsuyu rainy season should be starting with lots of rain that drives up the humidity, and at the end of it, it should be almost unbearably hot.

But, nothing of the sort, for the time being at least. Although it is pretty overcast, there is not much rain and definitely not the downpour we should be having. Temperatures are in the usual range just below 30 degrees, but in the nights it cools down pleasantly. Humidity is okay, you only sweat when you’re actually moving, so that’s definitely good.

raindrops on a windowI usually don’t think much of these things because it’s easy to fall into the “last year everything was different” trap, and it’s not as if I keep track of the weather over the years. But today, my Japanese teacher mentioned that it was rather cool outside for the season, and I was happy to agree with him.

In fact, I have the feeling that the whole year is a bit “later” than usual, starting with the sakura already. Of course, there is always some sort of variation to weather phenomena, so that’s nothing unusual. Still it seems as if global warming is creeping up on us, even here in Japan…

Gotōchi Formcard

A modern post office goes beyond selling stamps and being a place where to send parcels and letters. Nowadays, you can also buy stationary, postcards, cardboard boxes to pack your stuff in it…

In Japan, every post office in a city that is frequented by tourists – whether Japanese or from abroad – sells special postcards called gotōchi forumukādo (ご当地フォルムカード). Literally that means “local formcard”, and these are fun postcards that depict some of the most iconic tourist spots or things of that particular city and are often shaped accordingly.

In Kyoto, these formcards of course have something to do with Geisha, and there are also a few of Kyoto’s most iconic temples and even tsukemono, which are pickles and the main souvenir from Kyoto, for Japanese tourists, that is. What do you think of these? Do you recognise the two places?

Gotoji Formcards from KyotoPostage varies according to size, but these cards can be sent abroad as well. However, the clerk at the post office suggested using an envelope for destinations outside of Japan, just to make sure they arrive unharmed.

Closing

Nearby my home there is a big shopping centre that is being even further enlarged at the moment. In the basement there is a supermarket and a food court with a number of small eateries, and the first and second floor houses mainly clothing stores, a book shop, opticians, and a pet store selling cats and dogs and smaller pets like birds.

In the last few weeks there have been closing sales at no less than seven shops, all of which have been open since at least the time I moved in here. Five of them sell shoes and clothing, but one of them is a store for handbags and luggage, and another one is a 100 YEN shop. I am baffled and I’m seriously wondering about the reason for this.

Is the economy going downhill again? But none of these stores were especially expensive, and that the 100 YEN shop is closing does not speak for this theory. Maybe the owner of the shopping center has raised the rents? That is possible, but the new extension will not open before December, it seems awfully early to raise the rents now already.

running shoes on display in a shopIn any case, I’m getting plenty of goodies out of those closing sales. Many of my T-shirts are in their final death throes, and a pair of new sneakers was equally welcome. Apparently, there is a silver lining to everything…

Hakodate

I’m back! 😉 You probably didn’t catch the book reference, but last weekend I visited Hakodate on Hokkaido, which is just on the other side of the Tsugaru Strait, where Ozamu Dazai walked in the 1940s.

Hakodate, founded in 1454, is the former capital of Hokkaido, at a time when the island was still called Yezo and was mostly unexplored and inhabited by “scary” Ainu, the people indigenous to Japan. Hakodate is an interesting city because in 1854 it was the first port to be opened to foreign trade and thus it had a large influx of foreigners from many countries.

This can be seen in two ways: In the old town, there are houses that are distinctly Western style, and made from bricks even. The old quarter also has many churches and foreign consulates, unfortunately, not all of the old houses are in a good state, although there are some renovation efforts going on. For Westerners, the houses look nice but not something we haven’t seen before, but the Japanese love visiting Hakodate for the “foreign flair”.

Russian Orthodox Church in Hakodate

At the edge of the old town, there are several cemeteries for foreigners, strictly separated by country of origin or religion. There is the Russian cemetery, the Chinese cemetery, a catholic cemetery (which also has graves of local Japanese Christians – as I said, there are many churches here) and a cemetery for foreigners in general.

Tombstone on the foreign cemetery in Hakodate

Another interesting part of the old town is down at the harbour, where there are old warehouses made from red bricks, that now are home to a great number of (souvenir) shops and other stores. From there, it is not far to Mount Hakodate which has a wonderful view over the city which is especially beautiful in the night. Of course, we went up there as well, and we could even see the lights of Aomori on the “main land” of Japan.

Night View over Hakodate

My personal favourite, however, was the Goryokaku Fort, a traditional star fort built a bit more inland that was meant to protect the government offices that were relocated inside, once the fort was finished. It reminded me of similar forts I had visited in the Netherlands, but it seems that such forts have been built all over the world, from Europe to the US and even Asia (probably during European colonisation).

Old Magistrate Building in the Goryokaku in Hakodate

My friend and I had a great time even though we had to cram all of the sights into less than two days. We have seen almost all of them and on Sunday, we walked altogether 14 km… At first, the idea was to walk up Mt. Hakodate for the nightly view, but in the end we decided to just take the cable car. We also visited the Museum of Northern Peoples with interesting exhibits of not just the Ainu, but other peoples from northeast Russia as well.

Ainu Clothing

There are two things I’m slightly miffed about: First, I don’t think I got enough fish and seafood on my trip, something Hakodate is famous for. Unfortunately, my friend doesn’t like fish at all, so we had to compromise. She would have been fine with eating onigiri all the time while I had my fish, but that’s not fair; after all, I can have seafood everywhere else. I also wanted to stock up on cheese which is really expensive in Japan, and since Hokkaido is famous for its dairy products, I was hoping for lots of choice for a fair price. Not so! It seems that they prefer to make sweet things (like cheesecake) out of their milk, and the little that is turned into “real” cheese is still almost prohibitively expensive…

Altogether, I had a great trip though. My friend is fun to be with, and we have a similar way of approaching sightseeing, so that was perfect (even though she is in better physical shape than I was). This was my second time in Hokkaido, and I found it very pleasant. I guess I’ll be back, eventually… To finish this already long post, here’s a list of some striking things I noticed in Hakodate:

  • the air is so clear and fresh!
  • private houses have a closed glass porch before their entrance door (and indeed, it was quite windy)
  • there are people smoking on the streets (you don’t see much of them in Kyoto)
  • there is SO MUCH SPACE! Wide streets, buildings with gardens…
  • In case of a tsunami, much of Hakodate would be flooded.

Tsunami Warning in Hakodate

Return to Tsugaru

Return to Tsugaru
Osamu Dazai

Return to TsugaruTsugaru is the old name of the northernmost peninsula of Honshu, which today makes up part of Aomori prefecture. The people in Tsugaru have always been poor and, as the part of Japan from which to set sail for Hokkaido, has had a reputation of a certain backwardness in cities like Tokyo.

Osamu Dazai, considered among the foremost Japanese authors of the 20th century, was born in Kanagi, a small town on the Tsugaru peninsula. In this memoir from 1944, he takes us on a trip to his hometown and nearby places, like the castle town Hirosaki, the village where he went to school, etc. Travelling chiefly on foot, he pays visits to family members and relatives, as well as old friends, where he is always welcome and served sake and crabs, his favourite food.

This book is part travelogue, part history – both of Tsugaru as well as his own family – part commentary on current events and the war-time of 1944. Throughout the book shines Dazai’s deep love for the land and the people living there.

Osamu Dazai was the pseudonym of Shuji Tsushima, born in 1909 as the eight (surviving) child of a man from humble origins who eventually became a respected local politician. From an early age on, Shuji wanted to become a writer and he eventually moved to Tokyo as a student of French literature. Aged only 26, he was nominated for the very first Akutagawa Prize, and although he did not receive it, his reputation was made. His most important works were published after WWII. Always the family’s enfant terrible, he finally committed suicide with his mistress in 1948, at only 39 years of age.

Assistance please!

Just a very short call for help please:

Recently, I have set up a website analytics tool (matomo) for my work website What’s up in Kyoto. I have used matomo before when it was still called piwik, and I was very happy with their approach to privacy and everything.

However, with their change from piwik to matomo, something else must have changed too because the statistics for What’s up in Kyoto and all the other sites I’m monitoring have dropped considerably. It also seems I don’t get any referrals anymore from facebook or twitter or this page to the What’s up in Kyoto page, which is possible but not realistic.

What's up in Kyoto square logoI would greatly appreciate it if you who are reading this could visit my What’s up in Kyoto site either by clicking the link above or the image. It’s just to check if the referrals from this site are tracked or not.

Just so that you know, I am not able to see any of your personal information. I have set up matomo’s tracking for maximum privacy protection while still giving me useful data. For example, I only get part of your IP address up to country level. So, while I may see that you’re in Germany for example, I have no idea what city you are in. This is makes it practically impossible to find out who you really are – there are some 80 million people living in Germany 😉

Thanks for your help!

Repercussions

Tonight, I had a very interesting discussion about Kyoto city’s policy regarding LGBTQ people. It has just been decided that job applicants for any position in Kyoto city are no longer required to indicate their gender on the application form. This is a measure to protect people from the LGBTQ community (mostly, T people, that is) and Kyoto is among a number of other big cities who did this or similar things (like Tokyo or Osaka). It will take a long, long time to trickle down to smaller cities and villages in the countryside, but it’s a start.

Japanese GeishaThe funny thing is that this measure has interesting repercussions – for women in particular. Without the required declaration of male vs. female, the statistics as to gender proportions in Kyoto city’s workforce will at best not be accurate any longer, at worst disappear at all. Of course: who cares? It’s not that important, is it?

Hint: Gender equality / affirmative action. Kyoto city is also committed to gender equality and tries to hire more women into their ranks. But without any kind of data as to gender, how do you know that you have “enough” women in the “right” positions?

Kyoto city employs thousands of people, from the mayor all the way down to people who cut trees and mow the grass in public places. It’s not as simple as walking through the offices and counting people… That’s an interesting problem, isn’t it? I’m sure Kyoto city will find some solution, but it does show that no decision stands completely isolated on its own.