Matcha Presso

Suntory's Matcha PressoIn Japan, matcha – powdered green tea – is a ubiquituous ingredient in all sorts of sweets: there is matcha Baumkuchen, matcha chocolate, matcha ice cream, even matcha kitkat. And recently, I came across matcha liqueur.

It is made by Suntory and called Matcha Presso. In fact, the name is well-chosen, since the drink is very strong (14% alcohol) and very sweet. And it’s almost pitch black! When poured out of the bottle, it looks like dark coffee, but when adding ice cubes – Suntory recommends to drink it on the rocks – the distinctive bright green matcha color becomes visible immediately.

Since it is so sweet, it’s not a drink to sip on all evening, but a little glass every now and then is a treat a real matcha fan would not decline…

Early Autumn

raindrops on a windowI’m cold. Yes, I know it is autumn and it’s normal to be getting cool, but it is much colder this year than usual. We now have daily highs of 18 – 20 degrees, which sounds a lot for this time of the year, but it is windy and it has been raining the last two weeks almost continuously. It seems that we are now getting the rainy season that we missed earlier this year.

In fact, the whole summer already was cooler than usual. I know since I don’t have aircondition in my apartment. I am pretty hardy when it comes to heat, but when it is really hot – meaning, more than 35 degrees already at 8 in the morning – I flee to somewhere cool. It’s usually only a few days during early August I have to do this, but this year: not a single time! Summer was also often cloudy, and although the humidity was still unpleasant, it didn’t feel quite as unbearable as usual.

Anyway, I’m worried that we will get an early and really cold winter. Last year, I held out until the end of December before I consolidated and moved both my office and my futon to the livingroom. This year, I think I will spend more than three months in a single room of my apartment. My friends’ opinions on this are split, pretty much evenly. One of them fully agrees with me, another one says the current cold weather will only last for a couple of weeks… I wish I could be as optimistic as she is. In any case, time to get my winter clothes out of storage, I hate having cold feet…

Elections

Last Sunday, there were the Austrian general elections for parliament. I took it upon me to wait for the results until about 2 am.

Flags of Austria and JapanPersonal opinion: On the one hand, it’s not good. Not good at all. We now have – with high probability – a right-ish OEVP chancellor who is definitely populist, and with 31 years has no experience in anything whatsoever, except for being a party member, which was the only reason he became foreign minister the last time. I’m worried.

On the other hand, it could have been worse: At least the very far right guy with friends in all the other far right parties in Europe only got as far as third place. Just. So, even though it is highly unlikely, there is a chance that the SPOE social democrats – now at the second place – will form another coalition with the OEVP.

And then there is the green party, which will not be a member of the next parliament any longer, after 31 years. I think this is well-deserved by this green party, due to all the BS they managed to do in the last half year at least. Unfortunately, this also means that the opposition is not very strong anymore, which is not good for the country as a whole.

Anyway, we’ll see where this will go. I have received already a number of questions and comments from Japanese friends around here (who will vote for their own parliament next Sunday, by the way), and I gave them the following answer: Well, I already emigrated…

Hashiguchi Goyo

Hashiguchi Goyo (1880 – 1921) is a renowned Japanese artist and considered the founder of the shin-hanga style of woodblock printing.

Hashiguchi was born as the son of a samurai and painter in 1880 and was then named Kiyoshi. He started to study Japanese painting in the traditional Kano style with a private tutor when he was 10, and in 1899 he moved to Kyoto to continue his studies in the Kano style. However, the famous painter Kuroda Seiki convinced him to instead study Western painting, and so Hashiguchi enrolled in the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. Is was there that he changed his first name to Goyo – inspired by the five needle pine in his father’s garden – and he graduated in 1905 at the top of his class.

At this time his older brother introduced him to Soseki Natsume, and Goyo’s first commission was to design layout and illustrations for the novel I am a Cat. More book covers followed, all in all he designed about 70 covers in art nouveau style for various writers, among them notable ones like Junichiro Tanizaki, Nagai Kafu, or Mori Ogai.

illustration for I am a CatIn 1907, Hashiguchi exhibited a painting in the Tokyo Bunten show, which received 2nd prize, but overall, the reception of his oil paintings was below his expectations. In 1911, however, Goyo won the first prize – 1000 yen – for an ukiyo-e poster he designed for the Mitsukoshi department store, depicting a modern Japanese woman in a colorful kimono. Hashiguchi’s interest in ukiyo-e was piqued, and he began to study art and technique in detail. He even wrote several scholarly articles about old ukiyo-e artists Utamaro, Harunobu, and Hiroshige.

Poster for MitsukoshiAround this time, Watanabe Shozaburo contacted Hashiguchi, having seen the Mitsukoshi poster. Watanabe, a publisher of ukiyo-e woodblock prints was looking for artists who would push the old methods and style forward into the new era. Hashiguchi thus, in 1915, produced the artwork for the print Bathing, which was carved and printed by one of Watanabe’s assistants. This was the birth of the shin-hanga – new prints – movement.

Bathing by Hashiguchi GoyoSince this sensitive print was an immediate success, Watanabe wanted to continue the collaboration, but Hashiguchi declined, preferring to work independently. In the years 1916 and 1917, he supervised the production of 12 volumes of “Japanese Color Prints”, containing hundreds of scaled-down reproductions of renowned ukiyo-e artists’ works. During this time, he deepened his knowledge about the printing process, and from 1918, he produced his own prints again. Often, Hashiguchi started with drawings from live models, which he then adapted and refined to make his beautiful woodblock prints.

Hashiguchi Goyo: Woman combing her hairUnfortunately, Hashiguchi’s health was quite frail. He suffered from beriberi around 1914, and by late 1920, his latent health problems escalated to meningitis, from which he ultimately did not recover. Nevertheless, he supervised his last print Hot Spring Hotel from his sickbed, but could not see it to completion. He died in February 1921, only 41 years of age. His grave is in his hometown in Kagoshima.

Hashiguchi Goyo "Woman at Hot Spring"Because of his untimely death, Hashiguchi’s body of shin-hanga prints comprises only 14 works in total. Besides the single sheet for Watanabe, he produced 1 nature print, 4 landscapes, and 8 more prints of women. Seven more prints that were in various stages of completion at the time of his death were later finished and published by his heirs – his elder brother and nephew – and 10 more prints based on Hashiguchi’s remaining designs were published years later, together with reprints of his original work. These reprints have an additional mark in the margins, which the originals do not have.

Hashiguchi Goyo "Woman in Nagajuban"Hashiguchi’s work is characterised by a mastery of technique, owing to his perfectionism. His standards were so high, that many of his editions had print runs of not more than 80 sheets. This led to his prints being technically the best since the late 18th century. Not only the high quality, but also the beautiful, sensitive, and modern designs, reminiscent of art nouveau, made Hashiguchi’s shin hanga extremely popular; from the very beginning, they demanded high prices.

In the 1923 Kanto Earthquake that all but destroyed Tokyo, most of the original printing blocks and prints themselves were destroyed. This makes any original Hashiguchi Goyo prints and sketches extremely valuable and sought after – they can sell for as much as 10.000 $, which makes them among the most highly prized of all shin-hanga.

 

Scheduling

A while ago, I didn’t feel well. I had the impression that What’s Up in Kyoto wasn’t moving forward fast enough, which was true because I was procrastinating a lot. The reason for this was a very odd feeling I had, something that held me back of getting stuff done. The word fear comes to mind, even though it’s not 100% accurate. After watching myself a long time not doing anything – and feeling very bad about it – I finally contacted a friend of mine with a degree in psychology and asked her for help. She came up with two ideas that sounded rather counterintuitive:

  1. Lessen your own pressure to perform.
  2. Make up for personal deficits wrt. social contacts, spare time activities, etc.

The second one was spot on! I was too much focused on work (even though there was not much moving forward), that I didn’t allow myself to have fun, so to speak. I hardly went out any more, only sat on my desk, and got worried that I didn’t succeed in business as much as I had wanted to. And being an introvert, I never had many friends around me, and I find it hard to chat up new people to begin with.

cogwheelsIt took me longer to understand what she meant with the first point, and I am still not sure I got it. Perfectionism is not really an issue, but yes, I do have a certain image in mind for the event calendar, and it is discouraging to see how far distant what I have now is from that. On the other hand, things do take time, and the older I get, the less willing I seem to be to invest all that time.

Anyway, my friend was right, and so I made a few changes to my life. First change: I now take one day off per week. No sitting in front of my computer all day (unless for personal stuff), but I try to do fun things like taking a walk in my neighborhood, meeting friends for lunch or coffee, going to a museum or some other event (it’s not that I don’t know of any of these…) The immediate effect was that I don’t feel guilty anymore when I’m taking time off. And my work days got more productive as well.

And recently, I have also drawn up a more formal work schedule. It’s nice to work when you like and what you like, but a bit more structure is a good idea for me. For example: Mondays I manage the What’s Up In Kyoto facebook and twitter accounts. Tuesdays I scheduled all my external meetings (including lunch or coffee with friends). Wednesday is my day off. Thursdays I meet my language students. Friday is the day where I contact (potential) clients. And in the weekends, where I usually don’t go anywhere, I planned all days for serious, uninterrupted work on the website or for external customers.

The schedule is flexible enough to allow for unexpected coffee meetings or a different day off if work demands it. Still, it is nice to have an overall plan what to do on any given day – and plenty of time for other activities in between. I’m still working on the social aspects though. It’s not that easy finding friends around here, and I’m not certain about taking up a new hobby at this point. We’ll see.

Aftermath

Today was the first Kyotogram meeting since we two writers had the talk with the big boss last week. I had thanked him in an email for meeting with us and giving us the opportunity to complain, and he replied that he in turn had had a meeting with the other two members of the group. So, I was slightly anxious about today, about how Junior would react, but then again, I had said nothing that I wouldn’t tell him to his face.

"The Great Wave" by HokusaiThe meeting went very well, and we addressed the issues we had raised with the big boss. Junior seems more willing to see the whole thing as a team effort. And we in turn have promised to speak out earlier if things are going in a direction we are not happy with. We’ll see how this is going, for now the waves have calmed again and we’re looking at bright weather and a smooth sailing.

 

An Artist of the Floating World

An Artist of the Floating World
Kazuo Ishiguro

cover of artist of the floating worldIt’s just after WWII and Masuji Ono, a celebrated painter, is in the middle of marriage negotiations for his daughter Noriko. The procedures disrupt his quiet retiree life full with gardening, making house repairs and drinking with old friends in the local pleasure district – now all but abandoned. To secure a positive outcome for his daughter, Masuji is forced to revisit his past – both figuratively and literally in the form of old acquaintances from before the war, and not all of this is as pleasant as he might have wished.

We follow Masuji Ono from 1948 to 1950, in which Japan makes a rapid jump towards industrialisation, American style. While Masuji is more and more ready to accept responsibility for his past actions of glorifying the war through his art, it appears that the views of his surroundings take the opposite direction, as they are striving to let go of the past and look toward the future.

WWII is still a sensitive topic in Japan, and not readily talked about. Also in school, many parts of the war that are less than pretty are left out deliberately or are heavily censored and sanitised. I found Ishiguro’s view from the outside in – as an Englishman with Japanese roots – very interesting and enlightening.

Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Nagasaki in 1954, but living in England since age 5, has just been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. Even though he never lived in Japan, his books have definitely a Japanese feel to them, with his many allusions and implications that are directed at the insider. Many of his novels come with a shocking twist somewhere, that hit the reader – the outsider – with a harsh surprise.

Try out this – or other novels by Ishiguro – on amazon.com.

Misc.

I’ve just heard that Kazuo Ishiguro received the Nobelprize for Literature this year. I’m so thrilled! His books are wonderful, and even though he is a British citizen and had left Japan at age 5, his books have a very Japanese style. I wasn’t planning to, but since I have another review for one of his books ready, I’ll post it on Sunday.

In other news… it is getting really cold now, and I feel that it is much too early. Night temperatures are about 18 degrees, even though it can get quite warm during the days still. I need to close my windows at night now, and even during the days it is quite windy, which is not very conducive to open windows.

This might be the reason why I have developed problems with my left shoulder in the last three weeks or so. It’s very painful, although I have still the full range of movement – for now. A friend of mine thinks it may be “frozen shoulder”, a condition that starts out with shoulder pain that changes into immobility at a point. It may take up to one year, sets in suddenly, and also ends suddenly, and the cause is unclear. All that is known is that it starts out with an inflammation of the shoulder joint, but why…

I have now started to use an anti-inflammatory ointment during the day, and in the night I use “hot plasters” on the shoulder to keep the area warm. The pain seems to subside a little – I can sleep through the night again – and moving is still possible. So, maybe, with a bit of luck, it’s not frozen shoulder after all, but just some sort of cold from sitting in the draught for too long.

Review Meeting

As you may have forgotten by now, I am still writing posts for the facebook page of Kyotogram, a local business with the aim of bringing foreign tourists to Kyoto and Japan. By now, there is also a website, essentially a daily blog talking about Japan, but I am not involved in this one. Our group of four people meets once a week for two hours to talk, and most of the times, the meetings are nice and productive.

Although, the last two weeks, they weren’t. The reason is that Kyotogram will soon celebrate its first birthday and the big boss is starting to want to see results, obviously. In this case, the results essentially are the number of likes per post, and for some reason or other, this number has been going down the last month or two. It’s hard to say why because facebook doesn’t reveal the algorithms with which they provide people with our posts – and the more people we reach, the more likes we get, obviously.

So, two weeks ago, the team leader (let’s call him Junior because he’s a recent uni graduate, 23 years of age, with zero experience in anything) has started to search for reasons why the numbers are down, and, lo and behold, he has made it out: all the posts that are not scenery. Since those are all my posts, he was more or less attacking me and saying something that “we need better content” (not that he explained what that would be, of course). I let that go – until last week Junior attacked me again in the same way, and I couldn’t quite let that go twice in a row…

Fast forward to this week’s meeting: I was prepared to tell him I’d take a week off in case he attacked me again today. And I was definitely planning to ask the big boss for a meeting to talk about Junior and his attitude in depth. None of that happened, since there were preemptive strikes by both of them:

First of all, Junior apologised for his behaviour last week and the week before, right at the beginning of the meeting, which was totally unexpected. (I accepted.) And then the usual meeting was cut short because we two writers had an extra “review meeting” with the big boss! The three of us went to a cafe nearby where the big boss bought drinks, and then we were … what’s the term … airing our grievances. For one and a half hours. I don’t want to go into details here, but I feel that it was a constructive meeting, that the big boss was listening to what we had to say, and that he will try to solve the current problems.

I trust the big boss to come up with something we all can be happy with (even Junior). I wouldn’t want to leave because I still like the job (and I do learn a lot of things that can be applied to my own work), the people are nice (mostly), and I can definitely use the money… Let’s see where this is going.

The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki

The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage
Haruki Murakami

Cover of Colorless Tsukuru TazakiTsukuru Tazaki is an engineer in Tokyo who is living his dream: building railway stations. Recently he started to see Sara, a travel agent, and as they get closer, Tsukuru opens up and tells her a secret: 16 years ago, when he was a student in Tokyo, the tight-knit group of friends he belonged to in highschool abruptly and without explanation cut off all ties to him. Sara urges him to find closure, and he agrees to visit his four friends in Nagoya and get to the bottom of the issue. Tsukuru returns to his old world of friendship, dominated by unwritten obligations to protect the weakest member under all circumstances…

The novel’s title is an allusion to the names of the five friends: All except Tsukuru’s last name contain a color: red, blue, white, black. Haruki Murakami draws an image of deep friendship among the five highschool students which is destroyed forever on outcasting one of them, who, for lack of understanding, is himself reduced to utter despair that lasts for years.

When I first read this novel, I found it incomprehensible how the four “color” people could ditch Tsukuru from one day to the other without explanation, without talking to him, without apparent remorse. Now that I lived in Japan for longer, I can see that this is a very standard Japanese pattern. It is done to protect the harmony of the group, which is paramount in Japanese society and thinking. And sometimes, it’s not the “guilty” person who has to leave, it is somebody else. Been there, had that done to me…

Haruki Murakami is probably the best known contemporary Japanese author. Born in Kyoto in 1949, he studied drama in Tokyo and became the owner of a Jazz bar. At age 29, he started writing, and since has become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide. Even though many Japanese critics don’t like his work because they see it as “too Western”, he has won many prizes in Japan as well as abroad.

Interesting book – check it out on amazon.