About Cats…

Well, yes, about cats… I was thinking about getting a cat. An adult cat. Although kittens are cute, they are quite a lot of work, and I think older cats are a bit easier to work with. The Tamayuran has lots of cats of all ages from a hoarding situation at the moment, so that would be perfect.

Of course, this is a rental apartment, I needed to ask my landlord. And he said no. It’s not that he is personally against it, but the policy of the whole apartment block is “no pets”, meaning no dogs and no cats. I guess a hamster or some fish would be fine, but that’s not quite the same as a fluffy ball of fur.

So, no cats. I’m very disappointed to be honest. While I am planning my exit strategy, I shall live the cat-owners life vicariously through Chiko’s channel on youtube. Somebody found a kitten near his home and has rescued it and taken it home. And a gorgeous one she is, don’t you think?

Slowly Please!

Anti-corona masks are everywhere these days. Even my Japanese teacher wore one today on doctor’s recommendations. I remarked how difficult it is for me to understand Japanese when I cannot see the other person’s face. And how I always ask people to speak slowly on the phone because of that. And then my teacher said: “Did you notice that native speakers of Japanese and English speak ‘slowly’ in a different way?”

Yes indeed!

When you ask me or another Westerner/English speaker to “speak slowly”, we make longer pauses between words, phrases or sentences. At the same time, we rarely slow down the individual words themselves.

In contrast, a Japanese person will slow down the words and sentences as a whole, adjusting the pauses in between only slightly. It’s as if they literally speak in slow motion like a machine (minus the distortions, of course).

Of course, after living here since 2013, I noticed these things before, but rather unconsciously. I never really thought about why this would be the case. Now that I did, I notice that if you spoke to me in English or German in such an overly slow manner, I would think that you are retarded or at least think that of me. Either way, not a good assumption to make.

My teacher has been teaching English during his whole active career and has seen this happening in schools everywhere; and I know that it is still happening. He is right when he says that this does not help with listening comprehension in the long run, because people generally don’t speak like this.

Still, this is what Japanese people do – and expect – when “speaking slowly”. I’ll keep it in mind!

Tenno Tanjobi

Today is a national holiday – the birthday of the Emperor of Japan. This year it is the first time it is celebrated on February 23rd, after the old Emperor’s birthday is exactly two months earlier in December. Because of the abdication/ascention being in April/May last year, there was no Tenno Tanjobi in 2019.

Usually on this day, the Imperial palace in Tokyo is open to the public and people may go and see the Imperial couple and sign a guestbook. However, this year, with the corona virus scare rampant even in Japan, the event was cancelled, even though the government thought it not necessary.

The new emperor Naruhito turned 60 today, and we all hope that he will lead a long and healthy – and not too restricted – life.

Ancestors

I have another one of my “pick up” stories for you today: Craving some katsudon, I went to lunch to one of my favourite “fast food” places nearby. Usually, I do some writing while I’m waiting for the food to arrive. However, I had spent all morning at the doctor’s (long story for next week) where I expected a long wait, so I had a book with me and started reading. When the food came, I plopped it next to me on the bench.

Cue the two ladies sitting at the table next to me, taking an interest in the book – quite a tome – and, as happened so often before, they were chatting me up. The usual questions ensue: Where are you from? How long have you been here? What are you doing? What’s your name? I answered all their questions and to the final one, I returned: “And what’s your name?”

I was surprised at the answer, it was a name I had never heard before, and I said as much. The older one of the two women proceeded to tell me how all three of her nieces had been Saio-dai (imperial princess) at the famous Aoi matsuri a number of years back. This is an honor usually bestowed only on very old (and wealthy) families of Kyoto, and again, I said as much.

Toyotomi HideyoshiTo which the old lady proceeded to tell me that in her family they had head priests of Matsunoo Shrine and various other shrines and temples; that others had been important producers of Kiyomizu ceramics near Gojo street. And then she mentioned, rather casually, that one of her ancestors, some 400 years ago, had been the personal physician of Toyotomi Hidenaga, the younger half-brother of Hideyoshi. An ancient Kyoto family indeed!

Oh, the book I am reading now? A novel about the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi…

Snow!

It snowed today! As I was hoping, February is getting colder, and although it is still not as cold this year as it could be, I am glad I still only use a single room in my apartment.

When I woke up this morning, I found a light dust of snow covering my view in only the second snowy day… okay: morning this winter. The photo below is from 10 days ago, when it was snowing all morning. Unfortunately, the ground is way to warm, so the snow doesn’t stay for long. In fact, today everything was gone by the time I had to leave at 10:00. There was still some snow at the Daimonji mountain nearby in the afternoon, but I’m sure it will be gone by tomorrow.

Anyway, here is my obligatory snow picture for this winter.

Snowy view February 2020

4 Tenor Madness

Just like everybody else, I have this love/hate relationship with my job. Yes, even though I do what I want by being self-employed, I still have to do things I don’t like so much. And then, of course, there are the perks…

live spot rag logoThis month, the What’s up in Kyoto highlight is the Live Spot Rag, a small club at Kiyamachi with live music almost daily. There seems to be a slant towards jazz, but I have seen other bands and soloists in their programme as well. Besides sponsoring two free tickets for a Jazz concert in the last week of February (you can still win them if you’re interested), the manager also invited me to a concert.

And she suggested the “4 Tenor Madness”, a jazz concert with 4 saxophone players, which I saw yesterday. This is only the second time I have been to such a small concert, where the musicians know half of the audience and you can chat with them afterwards. And I don’t know anything about jazz, and was never and still am not into going out on my own much because introvert and such.

But it was fun. The Rag is very small, and I guess if there are really all 100 seats taken, it’s getting very cozy. But the food is nice and the drinks too, and the place is non-smoking (at least during the performance), which is always a bonus. As I know nothing about jazz, I could only make out a handful of the tunes (“Cantaloupe” was the encore, for those of you in the know), so I can’t say how much of the concert was actually “real” songs and how much of it was improvised.

Besides 3 old hands, there was a young sax player as well, and although I have been told before that I’m tone-deaf, I noticed at times that she was less experienced than the guys.

But yes, I had fun. Unfortunately, there were not many people in the audience – not surprising for a rainy Wednesday night I suppose – so I didn’t chat to anyone. Well, maybe next time.

Sending Opportunities

About a year back or so, Meiji Chocolate had a special wrapping for all their chocolate bars. They called it “My Sweet Request” and I made a point of collecting all 12 wrappings for the HiMilk chocolate that I usually eat.

Apparently, it was a success, because this year again, we got special wrappings for dark, milk and high milk chocolates. This year the theme can be translated as “Send this and an opportunity is born…” And yes, I did indeed sacrificed myself to find out what that means and what it says inside each of the wrappers. Here is a picture of all 12 of them, and below I’ll post the hidden messages. Have fun finding out where they belong!

12 Meiji Himilk Chocolate Bars "Opportunities"

  • To whom is your red thread connected?
  • Did you know there is an island full of rabbits? I want to go see them!
  • I want to be cured… I want to be cured… Don’t you want to be cured a lot?
  • There is an aquarium where you can watch penguins’ walk. Didn’t you walk too far?
  • Tennis, table tennis, golf, basketball, baseball… You can do all of them with your partner.
  • You can do it all on a steep rollercoaster! Take me along!
  • Would you like to go to a place where you sometimes can drink a lot?
  • Why do you want to go to the aquarium so suddenly? Oh, I want to go…
  • The heart of two flamingos is a proof of love. Don’t you think it’s romantic?
  • Do you like surprise presents? Oh, just listen!
  • I was interested in birdwatching. Please tell me your favourite bird.
  • Hey, hey! Is there a red thread?

Japanese Parking Lots

Japan as a country ranks among the most densely populated places on Earth. Especially in the big cities, space is at a premium, and a family of 5 living in a 60 m2 apartment is not unusual. Another place where this lack of space shows in parking, and Japan has a number of interesting and often unique approaches to deal with the issue.

Although Japan boasts one of the safest and most reliable public transport systems on the planet, owning a car is still seen as a status symbol, in particular when it comes to expensive and foreign cars. However, before you lay down your money to buy an expensive car, you must prove that you have a parking lot for it, no matter if you live in Tokyo or somewhere in the Japanese Alps.

In Japan, curbside parking is virtually nonexistent, so what to do? Some people rent a paid parking lot nearby their home. Often these are temporary lots where the owner waits for permission to erect a new building. Many of the parking lots people use on their errands are like these too, and the pricing often varies according to area.

Most people, however, park on their own property right in front of their home or they rent (or possibly own) a parking lot at their apartment building. And this is where things get really interesting!

My own block of apartments was built in the 1970s, at a time when this part of Kyoto was still considered “outskirts” (and a little it still is). This means that there was ample space between the buildings with room for trees and grass and – parking lots. More modern buildings, or those that are in inner city, do not have or cannot afford this luxury to begin with. So, they build parking garages, but with a twist!

A Japanese parking rack for cars

In many Japanese garages, the parking lots are stacked on top of each other with no space for a person to move between the cars. The idea is as follows: All you need to build one is space for, say 10 parking lots in two rows plus access to the first row. Let’s also say you have space for 4 storeys, one underground and three above ground. The whole thing is one large metal “rack” (for lack of better words), where each parking lot can move individually left/right and up/down as needed. You rent your very own parking lot and only have access to this one.

Now, say you need your car, but it’s not in the first row on ground level – how do you get it out? You have a key that you insert into the control box. Your parking lot with your car will automatically move to one of the front row spots so you can get to your car. Other lots that are blocking the way automatically move. Of course, it may take a while until your car is in the right spot, so people need to factor that in if they are in a hurry.

Looking down a "parking rack" in Japan

On the other hand, this kind of parking racks saves a huge amount of space. In some areas, they are also used for temporary parking. Often, they are in very high but narrow buildings, and customers only have access to the ground floor. They leave their car there and an operator will take care of it – valet parking for everyone!

Here is a video on how parking works in one of these parking garages. It’s similar to the private ones in apartment blocks, but has an even more eerie feel (why are there announcements when there’s nobody down there??)

It is quite interesting to see such a system operating. I know that I was totally stunned the first time I saw one. In fact, a friend of mine whose building has one of these parking racks says that there are always tourists taking photos of it.

Japanese parking garages – the secret tourist attraction. Who would have thought!

Precautions

The latest Corona virus from China and its consequences have reached Japan, and 45 people have been infected in Japan to date. While the Japanese people are not prone to panic, you can see that something is wrong if you know where to look: More people than usual are wearing face masks in public. Even though production is at its limit, the masks are so much in demand that they are pretty much sold out. My very own Izumiya drug store has imposed a limit on the purchase of face masks: Only 2 packs per customer per purchase.

woman wearing  a surgical maskAs I said above, it’s not that the Japanese are prone to panic, but in this case, many Chinese living in Japan buy those masks to send them to their relatives in China. And that’s on top of the donations from the Japanese government and even sister cities, and the official purchases directly at the producers.

Personally, I still don’t wear these masks and I don’t see myself donning one any time soon. But then again, I don’t use public transport much and avoid the inner city of Kyoto whenever I can. So much so, that I only heard through a friend about the news report showing the “empty” streets of Kyoto. Hmm… maybe it’s time to visit my favourite places again, now that they are not overflowing with (Chinese) tourists?

Setsubun at Rozan-ji

Yesterday was setsubun, the last day of winter in the traditional calendar. It is said that between the seasons there is a gap through which evil demons enter the world. Obviously, this is not good, so they have to be repelled – by throwing roasted beans at them while shouting “oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi”. I wrote about setsubun and the ceremony at Kyoto’s Yoshida Shrine on this blog before (and also on What’s up in Kyoto by the way), if you are curious about details.

Yesterday I went to two setsubun rituals. In the morning, a friend of mine invited me to the temple were she usually goes to. First, there was a normal worship with lots of chanting done by the congregation, which was the first time I experienced this – usually, it’s only the monks chanting. Afterwards, there was a short sermon by the current head of the temple (broadcast from Tokyo, another first time for me) and then there was the mamemaki bean throwing. My friend’s mother was smart enough to bring a large shawl that she draped on our laps, so we got an extra amount of lucky beans without straining too much.

After lunch, we went to Rozan-ji temple, where Kyoto’s second largest setsubun ritual (after the one in Yoshida shrine) is taking place. Here, there is a Buddhist ceremony taking place inside the temple, and while only selected guests may enter, you can hear the chanting outside as well. Then, all of a sudden, three scary demons in red, green, and black appear on the scene, wielding a sword and a torch, an axe, and a mallet. They perform a kind of dance on stage and slowly and with lots of looking about, approach the temple and finally enter it.

Inside, the priests appear undeterred from their ritual and keep on chanting as if nothing has happened. Unfortunately, I could not see what was going on, but after a while, the three demons ran out of the temple, without their weapons and staggering from left to right. They disappeared somewhere at the back of the precinct, never to be seen again – setsubun mission accomplished!

Right afterwards, an archer came out and shot arrows into the four cardinal directions. This is meant to create a kind of blessed circle around the temple, which evil demons cannot cross. Catching one of these arrows is also considered lucky, and if you do, they should be displayed in the altar of the home or, lacking one, near the entrance door.

Finally, it was time for the setsubun highlight, the mamemaki bean throwing. Some of the priests and other invited people came onto the stage where just before the demons had danced, and started shouting “oni wa soto” while throwing beans to the spectators. Besides the lucky beans that were covered in white and pink sugar-coating (and were quite delicious), they also threw small mochi into the crowds. Some of them had a stamp on them saying “lucky”, and you could exchange these mochi for a sacred arrow.

There was quite some scrambling for the beans and the mochi. It’s surprisingly hard to catch them, but people were just as happy to pick them up from the ground (which meant more scrambling). I was not lucky enough to catch an arrow, nor did I catch one of the “lucky” mochi. I did catch one normal mochi though and picked up a second one, and one of the lucky beans caught in my collar.

All in all, with all the beans I got throughout the day and the two mochi, I think I will be decked in with luck for the time being. Which is always a good thing, I think we can agree on that!

I’ll add some pictures tomorrow!