The Elephant Vanishes

The Elephant Vanishes
Haruki Murakami

This is a collection of 17 short stories by Haruki Murakami. They don’t have a common theme, but they are all tied together by an “I” narrator, which gives the stories an almost personal feeling. Most often, this narrator seems like a stand-in for Murakami himself (a male author talking about his past), but there are also stories told from a female perspective. Typical for Murakami, in the beginning, the stories are grounded in the real world until something happens that is unlikely or impossible:

A man searches for his wife’s cat and spends the afternoon lying in the sun in a stranger’s garden. A woman becomes an insomniac who does not need to sleep at all and doesn’t even feel tired. A man works in an elephant factory until a dancing dwarf takes possession of his body. A woman is the target of a love sick green monster. A couple robs burgers from a MacDonalds in the middle of the night. An elephant vanishes without a trace from a heavily guarded enclosure. A man talks about his desire to burn down barns.

I’ve been reading a lot of Murakami’s books and short story collections lately. The selection of stories in this book felt more coherent than in “After the Quake”, which I read just before this one, even though there was no common theme here. The stories range from light hearted to cruel, from funny to profound. Since Murakami writes literary fiction, there is often not much plot, but the insights into the characters makes up for the fact that not much is happening.

Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and studied drama in Tokyo. While managing a Jazz club in Tokyo, he started writing at age 29 and has since become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide who has won many international literary prizes.

If you need something to take your mind off things without having to commit to a long time of reading, this collection of shorts of various length is a good book to pick up. Available at amazon.

Tsuyu

raindrops on a windowIt’s tsuyu – rainy season – in Japan. It’s been raining almost every day for at least two weeks and everything is grey and annoying – and surprisingly cool. Usually, the rainy season is the beginning of the sweltering summer heat, but so far, it has been comparatively cool with maximum temperatures of around 30 degrees, and it is also comparatively dry. Summer will be coming soon though, two days ago I have heard the first cicadas singing.

The constant grey outlook from my window doesn’t really help with anything right now, and on top of that people are still cautious because of the Corona Virus. In Tokyo, the infections are rising, with more than 100 newly infected people daily for the last week. Most of these new cases seem to center around entertainment districts and thus affect younger people. It appears that Tokyo is heading for a second wave already, and they have just raised its alert for the novel coronavirus pandemic to the highest level of four. I am not sure what this means, but I hope that we don’t have to go into a stricter shutdown again. Not until I’ve bunkered enough chocolate, that is.

Kyoto’s Finest

Two weeks ago, on the way to town, I had a little accident. I usually cycle along the river, and there was an old man walking smack in the middle of the path. It was narrow there because of uncompleted road works and I didn’t know whether to pass him left or right, so I pulled the brakes. Unfortunately, the gravel left on the path from said road works made me slip and fall.

The result: bloody abrasions on my right knee and elbow. Before doing anything else, I would have to wash off the dirt and the blood. But where? I looked at the river but finally decided to go to the nearby subway station at City Hall to clean myself and assess the damage.

There, in the women’s toilet, a friendly lady asked if she could help, but I told her that I was just fine, thank you. She did not believe me, apparently, because a few minutes after she had left, two station staff came to look for the – literally – “bloody foreigner”.

Suddenly, I felt nauseous and that’s when the guys put me in a wheelchair and wheeled me to the station office, a thankfully short, but still humiliating experience with plenty of passengers staring at me. In the office, they patched me up with gauze, bandages, and tape. All the staff were very helpful and friendly and made just the right amount of fuss about my wellbeing before sending me on my way again.

I am happy to report that my wounds were very shallow and have since completely healed. I can only recommend Kyoto’s finest – and hope that we won’t meet again any time soon…

WUIK Newsletter

What's up in Kyoto square logoToday, a business announcement: I am about to start the What’s up in Kyoto newsletter. Once a month – in the last weekend to be precise – I will send out a newsletter showcasing selected Kyoto events for the coming month, including a preview for the next monthly highlight. (*)

Of course, I know that at the moment, travelling is out of the question for most people, so there will also be an additional second part introducing experiences unique to Kyoto, special souvenirs, reading material for people at home, and what I will call “Kyo Anaba”. The Japanese term anaba – literally “hole place” – means good places to visit that are nevertheless known to only very few people, either because they are out of the way or they don’t do any advertising…

To avoid the newsletter becoming too long (as you know, I am prone to rambling), I will only choose one these per month to keep things fresh. This means I can write more than a few sentences about the topic, and make it interesting for people who cannot visit at the moment.

Are you interested? Sign up here and receive volume one of the WUIK newsletter this weekend! 😉

(*) This year’s monthly highlight on What’s up in Kyoto are various event venues: live music spots, theaters… Not the best choice in hindsight. Many places are still closed or only open irregularly, so there is a certain reluctance at the moment to be featured. But I’ll be back. We Austrians usually are!

Slowing Down

Unfortunately, I have somewhat bad news for the blog…

Covid19/Corona has hit Kyoto pretty hard, and although things are getting better, I doubt we will go back to last year’s normal any time soon. Many fun events have been cancelled, and even now, people do stay home and are very restrained when/if going out. And I am busy trying to get as much new business as possible to somehow survive this year.

cogwheelsRecently, I don’t go out much beyond my trips to the supermarket and talking to (potential) business partners. Since this was meant as a private blog, I don’t want to bore you by talking shop all the time, although I’m working on something (hopefully) exciting to share. And there is not much point talking about the weather either, even though summer is coming and it’s very pleasant at the moment.

Long story short: I have decided to slow down posting here. From now on, I will post once a week – on Wednesdays – about things going on in my life, and I will try to keep the focus on the private parts of how to “go gaijin”. And I want to keep up posting in the weekends about all things Japanese. Even though I haven’t been doing much lately, I do have an enormous backlog of things to write about and literally thousands of photos to share that I hope will be interesting to a wider audience.

So, I hope that you’re not too disappointed about me taking it down a notch. After more than 7 years of regular posting, I am feeling very much in a rut and quite drained at the moment and as if I don’t have much interesting stuff to tell you. I’m still committed to keeping this blog alive though, and who knows, maybe in a few months my life will be full again with interesting things to share with you.

Until then – see you Wednesdays and Sundays!

After Dark

After Dark
Haruki Murakami

Book CoverIt’s midnight in Tokyo and once again, Mari doesn’t want to go to bed, doesn’t even want to go home. A regular late customer, she sits in a Denny’s cafe reading when Takahashi enters, a trombone case slung over his shoulder. He recognizes Mari from a date some years previous and sits at her table for a while but he soon leaves for his band practice. Mari is alone again until Kaoru, the manager of a nearby love hotel, storms into the place and asks Mari for help. A young Chinese prostitute has been assaulted in her hotel, and she needs an interpreter. Mari follows Kaoru into the night, and soon she is enveloped in the weird stories that happen after dark in the big city.

Three stories are being told in this book: The one of Mari and Takahashi, of Kaoru and what’s going on in her love hotel, and – of Eri, Mari’s beautiful sister, who, like Snow White, has been sleeping for a very long time… The three stories don’t form a single whole, but like the myriad of rail tracks in Tokyo, only cross and touch each other at intervals, but in general, they run independently.

Haruki Murakami, born in Kyoto in 1949, studied drama in Tokyo and afterwards managed Jazz club in Tokyo. He started writing at age 29 and has since become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide. He has won many Japanese and international prizes. In this book, Murakami has painted a perfect japanese picture – beautifully detailed in the important parts, but with enough empty space for the beholder’s imagination.

Follow Mari into the night in Tokyo and check out the book on amazon.

New Rules

The other day, I had to go to the hospital for my quarterly checkup and medication refills. This means that first, I have to get a bloodtest before I can see the doctor a few days later. While I have a fixed appointment for the doctor’s visit, the bloodtest is simply walk-in, which means that it is impossible to predict how long it will take overall. The longest it took was close to two hours if I remember correctly.

However, last week, everything was said and done in 20 minutes, from the time I walked into the building to the moment I walked out again with a hole in my arm and the bill in my pocket. Never before, in all the 6 years I’ve been going there for the procedure have I been that fast!

So, when I saw the doctor three days later, I mentioned it. And he explained that the hospital is now giving out medication for long-term patients whose conditions are stable without them having to come to the hospital. All they need is to fill in a form, fax it to the hospital, and they receive the prescription and can go to their pharmacy without seeing a doctor.

Great. Why do I always hear of these things when it is too late already? This would have saved me 3000 yen this month. Anyway, I have one of these forms now, but I guess by the time my next appointment rolls around in September, the measure will have been scrapped again. We’re not going to live with the Corona crisis for another three months. Right?

Exhausted…

This is going to be very short, because I’m very tired. I had a business meeting this afternoon that took more than three hours, unexpectedly. It started out very business-like and then we veered off into other stuff and at the end it was closing time and we all looked a bit sheepishly at the clock.

It was a very pleasant day though, nice and warm without being humid, but that will come soon I fear. I can leave all my windows open 24/7, which is nice and hope that the tsuyu rainy season will take its time to arrive.

What has arrived today already is a letter from Kyoto City with a form to apply for my 100.000 yen from Shinzo Abe. Yay! I have time until September to think how I’d like to get the money and to fill out the form. Interestingly, while it seems that there is no English version of the form (I didn’t check online though), there is a help line in no less than 13 foreign languages. Work days and hours only. I guess I can manage.

Back to Normal

So, here we are, on the other end of the Corona pandemic, and things are getting back to normal. How I know this? I’m getting advertisements in the mail again, beyond take out menus I mean.

Also, just last Friday, I received the two face masks that Shinzo Abe promised, what, 2 months ago? They are of surprisingly good quality, the fabric looks thick and sturdy and it’s in 2 layers. The only downside is that they are a bit small, only about 75% of the width of a usual facemask. But we may not be needing them soon anymore.

Maybe I should quickly recap what I was doing the last seven weeks instead of working full time:

  • Since the lockdown was not strictly enforced, I visited a few new places in Kyoto: Tenryu-ji (I mentioned that), Mibu-dera (not worth it), and Kenkun shrine (very cute). And I did that Haunted House thing which turned out surprisingly fun.
  • I finished some long-overdue sewing projects, like a new noren for my living room, new mousepad and pillow cases and I made a new cover for an old notebook. Besides that, I fixed some clothing too.
  • I did some smaller repairs in the apartment, including cleaning it thoroughly and sorting through paperwork, the latter did no produce as smaller a pile as I had expected, but I did throw something away, which is always difficult for me for some reason.
  • Speaking of paperwork, I finished one short story in English and I wrote another quick one in German on a whim for a writing contest in Austria (results after the summer.) It’s unlikely that I’m going to win anything, but it was a nice exercise in “keeping my mind off things”.
  • I did do some work-related stuff too, like updating the 2017 archives over on What’s up in Kyoto (except for June because that’s a mess and I’m not sure how to deal with it), and I’m also all but ready to launch a new website for my overall business (since the event calendar is just a part of it). And of course the daily facebook posts of the Kyoto places to visit instead of the usual events and constantly updating what is closed/cancelled, which took a whole lot of time and was very frustrating.

So yes, I have started working again “full time” since yesterday, but I’ll have to take tomorrow off already because I have two doctor’s appointments, need to get my bicycle fixed and I need to see my hairdresser, desperately. Things are off to a good start, no?

Stepping Out

I had a wonderful and rather busy weekend, now that we can finally go out again!

On Saturday, I was invited to visit a haunted house in the middle of Kyoto. I thought it would be fun and indeed, it exceeded my expectations! The theme was “abandoned school”, apparently that’s very popular in Japan, and a whole basement was turned into a dark labyrinth with black curtains and old lockers. There were mannequins and lots of severed heads with long black hair waving after them, and a coffin with a skeleton as the center piece.

Of course, if you go in there as an adult, you think: Oh well, how scary can it possibly be? But when you’re down there in the dark with nothing but a tiny flash light in your hands, navigating the corridors that get more and more narrow…. and then something comes at you from the darkness… It was scary indeed, and I needed a few minutes afterwards to normalise my heartbeat. Very simple methods, and very well done!

Sunday I spent working on a short story for an Austrian writing contest I wanted to enter. First prize would be 1000 EUR, but it’s very unlikely that I’m getting even close to winning this. I haven’t written anything in German for years, and it doesn’t have the right oomph to it if you get what I mean. Besides, I have the impression that they are looking for something more literary… Anyway, I had fun writing it, kept me sane in the last weeks.

And yesterday, I went all the way to Arashiyama in the western outskirts of Kyoto. In general, I don’t like going there at all because it is one of the most crowded tourist spots in Kyoto. Now, however…

I was there just before 10 in the morning, and I went to Tenryu-ji first. This temple is part of Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage, but to be very honest, I’m not entirely sure why. I loved the dragon painting on the ceiling of the main hall, but it’s a modern one, around 25 years old only. The abbot’s quarters I didn’t find very exiting either. The gardens were nice though, and I spent time exploring all of it. They must be fantastic during the koyo, and there is an enormous weeping cherry at the center of it that is surely beautiful too.

Afterwards, I visited the Saga Arashiyama Museum for Arts and Culture again. They have an exhibition comparing works of Maruyama Okyo and his student Nagasawa Rosetsu, both painters of the Edo period. The museum is not very large, but the pieces on display are exquisit. I especially liked a Rosetsu painting, where he shows a single cicada on a bamboo; the insect has so much detail, you have the impression it might take off any moment.

Kyoto's Bamboo Forest, completely empty. Finally, before I went home, I took a stroll in the famous bamboo forest. As I said before, I dread going there because it is so crowded all the time, but this time, it was practically empty. I’m sharing one of the photos I took there, this was around noon time! I’m not sure if I should wish for tourism to pick up again (for business reasons) or to stay like this for a while (for my personal pleasure).

Speaking of pleasure: I will probably start posting here “full time” next month again. I hope that I will finally have something to tell you again, and more motivation to write about it too. Until then!