Yesterday I read a short article in an Austrian newspaper about the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. To cope with the expected influx of foreign visitors to the country, it is planned to have a number of robot models greet and assist passengers on the airport in Tokyo. The robots are supposedly able to perform easy tasks (like carrying bags), doing instant translations, or answering simple questions. The goal is to show off how modern and cool Japan is.

My first reaction to that one: I laughed out loud. I’m not sure, maybe it’s Kyoto, but somehow the “modern Japan” has still not permeated the whole of my city here… Let me illustrate this:

Recently, I have started contacting companies in Kyoto about the What’s up in Kyoto event calendar (actually, a friend is helping with this one). First contact is per phone, we tell them about the event calendar and what we want and then, at some point comes the “more information” part of the call. When this happens, we inevitably get an “oh, just send us a fax with the details, okay?”


Have you heard of emails? 21st century and such? To be fair, those are not IT companies, but still, all of the places we are contacting have websites, often quite beautiful and elaborate ones. Still, no emails, they want a fax. And finally, they want you to show up in person and do the whole sales pitch again, of course.

This is the fascinating thing about Japan: On the one hand, they have robots in all shapes, sizes and intelligences. And on the other hand, they are holding on to technology from the 1980s because that’s just what they do. This country will never cease to amaze me.

Back 2 School

I’m going back to soroban school! My soroban teacher is all excited about me passing the test next time in January, so he said he wants me to come back to get the final polish.

With the last test I passed all but two of the exam types (okay, except anzan – mental math, but that’s no surprise). So, for the next test in January, I only need to focus on divisions and additions; if I get at least 100 points (i.e., 10 correct exercises), I will have passed the shodan exam, just as I had planned. For both divisions and additions, I am hovering around 80 – 90 points, which is a good starting point. However, I make too many avoidable mistakes, so I have to put in extra effort here, both to increase accuracy, and to increase speed.

old style soroban at a fleamarketI went to class today, and my sensei said something very interesting: When I do the math, I speak the equations in my mind, for example “6 times 3 is 18” (in German, of course), and afterwards I set the appropriate numbers on the soroban. My sensei watched me and said that I seem to stop between two such equations, which means I’m stopping on the soroban as well. This interruption of the smooth flow of the hand movement may introduce extra mistakes, he said.

Solution: I should slow down, just enough to speak the equation and set the beads on the soroban at the same time. This will lead to a smooth, almost continuous flow of the movements of the hand – which in turn will increase speed, and maybe even accuracy. It does sound a bit weird at first, but if you think about it, it makes sense. I will try to do this for a couple of weeks and see where this is going.

Besides that, it seems that by now I know the book by heart – I make very few mistakes when doing the basic exercises that can be done in the seven minutes’ time frame, but beyond that I make more mistakes. According to my sensei, this is not just because the numbers are getting longer, so to get a better training experience, I should now start with exercise number 11 instead of the beginning.

I’m sure he has a point there – in both respects. I am really eager to finally pass the shodan exam, so I’ll do as he suggests. Wish me luck!



Fumiko EnchiBook cover of Masks

Yasuko Togano has lost her husband Akio in an avalanche on Mount Fuji several years ago. Nevertheless, she has decided to stay with her mother in law Mieko, and also to finish Akio’s work on ghost possession. This work is her link to the friends Ibuki and Mikame, who both are in love with the attractive Yasuko, despite the fact that Ibuki has a wife and daughter.

Mieko Togano is a renowned poet, and although she tries to remain out of sight, it is in fact she who pulls all the strings. She is the hidden force when Yasuko starts an affair with Ibuki, and when Harume, the strikingly beautiful but mentally handicapped twin sister of Akio gets caught up in things, Mieko will do anything to see her long harboured plans bear fruit.

Mieko, although only prominent in the last third of the novel, is the main character, the driving force behind everything. She, who has lost everything and tries to regain a small piece of it, is not above sacrificing her own family.

This was a fascinating read about the strength of women. When Ibuki and Mikame muse about Mieko’s being a witch, possibly able to control other people with her mind, they make an interesting statement: The misogyny found in Buddhism and Christianity was simply a way for men to control that inner strength of women, which they always feared, but never understood…

Fumiko Enchi (1905 – 1986) was born in Tokyo. She was home-schooled and was taught English, French, and Chinese literature; through her grandmother she got to know the classics of Japanese literature. She is one of the most prominent Japanese writers of the Showa period.a

A fascinating book – get your copy from Amazon!


A non-folding scottish fold cat.Let me say it as it is: I’m terribly jealous!

Yesterday evening I went to the German Christmas Market at the Umeda Sky Building with a friend of mine. And there he came clean: they had adopted a baby! Not a human one, but this adorable kitten here! She’s 6 months old and a Scottish Fold, even though the ears are not folding at all. For some reason, Japanese love high breed cats; my friend bought her from a shop for 100.000 yen. Personally I would never do that, there are enough cats in shelters everywhere looking for a good home, but since he has the money…

Anyway, isn’t she cute? I sooo wish I could have my own cat, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. However, I have already told my friend that I’ll be happy to come catsitting at any time they need it. I’m very excited to meet her at Christmas!


Christmas is coming! Even though most Japanese are not Christians, they embrace the Christmas spirit – in its cleanest form: that of shopping! Christmas decorations are everywhere by now (even in the really traditional Japanese shops) and of course, in the big shopping arcades on Shijo and Teramachi dori, Christmas songs are played up and down. I even heard the obligatory “Last Christmas” last week already (thankfully only once so far, I hate that song).

So, I am doing my own Christmas and New Year preparations: Not that I’m buying any gifts for myself (although I’m considering a very small Christmas cake), but I have almost finished writing my Christmas cards already (I’m so proud). Yesterday I was out shopping for an oseibo, a year-end gift, for my accountant, and the nengajo New Year’s cards are ready and wait for me to pick up pen and Kanji dictionary…

Umeda Christmas MarketI’ve already made plans for the Christmas holidays – visiting a friend in Kobe for a Christmas cookout – and tomorrow, always the highlight of the Christmas season, I will go down to Osaka to visit the German Christmas Market underneath the Umeda Sky Building with some friends.

I don’t know what it is, but at the moment, I’m feeling very energised. Two weeks ago, all I wanted to do was sleep, but now it’s almost the opposite. Maybe the promise of an “end to all this” that will come at the end of this month is pushing me forward?

Advent Calendar

It’s December again, time for an advent calendar counting the days until Christmas. I completely forgot making my own this year, but thank goodness my friend who visited me last year has a new version of his nerdy “curiosity calendar” up and running. This year, for the first time, it’s in English, so it is accessible for everyone – enjoy!

Money Issues

After all these years of living “the easy life” at least financially, I can finally understand what it means to be a “working poor”. Right now, I have never worked so hard while seeing so little money for it. It’s a bit complicated, because it is connected to how the Japanese tax system is working, so bear with me.

Essentially, in Japan, you pay taxes according to the amount of money you earned the year before. This is very nice if your salary increases quickly – one extra year of low taxes – but not so nice if you retire or become unemployed. Since my company only makes a small profit, I have been paying myself the same salary since the beginning, just enough to satisfy the Japanese Immigration Office. And this year, for the first time, I am being hit with the full amount of taxes. I didn’t pay anything in the first year, and only 5000 yen/month in the second. But this year, my taxes have tripled, although they are  still at the lower end of the general national tax scale.

This tax increase didn’t come as a big surprise, but what really hit me was the enormous hike in health insurance, a system that works like taxes: you pay according to what you earned the year before. Last year, I paid about 5000 yen/month and I expected insurance to double, maybe. I wasn’t that lucky: I am now paying 25.000 yen each month, which is quite a blow.

Japanese currencySo, at this point, after I have paid all my taxes, insurances, utilities, rent, etc. I am left with 50.000 yen spending money for the whole month. This is tough! I have tried to reduce some of my expenses for daily life (meaning: food), but there’s only so far you can go. While it should be possible to eat for 1000 yen/day, I have not managed that, probably because I am so addicted to the comparatively expensive bread. Most of the times I drink water anyway, so that’s not a big deal, but cutting chocolate – which I see as necessary “fuel” is very difficult. I might take this opportunity to lose some weight, which will cut down food costs automatically though.

Other expenses are relatively low in general: I have no expensive hobbies, plenty of clothing that will go for a while still (and I never liked shopping for clothes anyway), hardly ever go anywhere, and I even stopped buying books since the library is that close. Unexpected things do come up though – the brakes on my bicycle needed fixing last month for example, but even that was just a small amount. I hope that there won’t be any major things happening, because I want to avoid touching my savings (aka: my future house with garden) at all costs.

Altogether I think I can get by until I can raise my own salary, but I am worried a little about the coming winter because the heating will drive up my electricity bills. If anyone wants to help me over the cold here by sending me a food parcel, just let me know! 😉


a hamster running in a wheelMy goodness, what is it these days? I’m running from one appointment to the next and have so many things to do that at the end of the day I’m exhausted – and still have the feeling I didn’t accomplish anything… There are so many small things I have to attend to at the moment, I am getting bogged down by them and I don’t really have time to do the big and important stuff that would actually get me somewhere. And that’s just work I need to do anyway.

On top of all that, I’m getting emails about things that should be working smoothly without my interference – but of course, there are unexpected hiccups that I have to attend to… Just last week, I received an email from my bank in Austria informing me that they have made a wrong withdrawal, and could I please let them know what to do now, preferably using these forms including a signature. And today, I received a cheque from one of my steady clients in the US, where we usually deal via paypal. And because they don’t want to cancel the cheque, I have to go to my bank (in person!) and ask how much fees it would incur if I cash it here in Japan and then we’ll find out what to do about the fees and…

Sure, there’s nothing else I have to do right now, bring it on! It’s those little things that are wearing me out at the moment, and there’s nothing really I can do about it, except for delegating, which obviously is not an option at this point. And it’s almost December where even more of those little things are waiting for me, like Oseibo and Nengajo… I just hope things will get better soon, it’s very exhausting at the moment.


Oyamazaki Sanso

Last Thursday, two friends and I took advantage of the holiday to visit Oyamazaki Sanso, or, officially: The Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art. It is located on a hillside in the south-western part of Kyoto, overlooking the place where the rivers Kizu, Uji, and Katsura merge. The villa consists of a number of buildings in a more than 16000 m2 large garden, which alone is worth a visit, in particular now.

Oyamazaki SansoThe main house was built in the Taisho era (about 100 years ago) and was subsequently enlarged. It has an obvious Western feeling to it, but even so, there are many features that are reminiscent of Japanese style: enormous wooden beams (one square one with a side length of 50cm) support the ceilings, and the entrance and second floor have high ceilings where the roof structure can be seen, there are little ornaments featuring bamboos… But mainly, the house is Western style: there are two large terraces on the second floor, together with a very modern looking guest bathroom with beige tiles that even features fixtures for hot water. The ground floor sports a large dining room and parlour with enormous fireplace, and out into the back, there is an airy corridor with lots of windows that once led to a greenhouse for orchids.

Oyamazaki Sanso EntranceThis main house was built as a country villa for Shotaro Kaga, a wealthy businessman from Osaka. He had many interests, like cultivating orchids and drawing pictures of them, and he was also involved in the founding of Nikka Whisky Distilling. A close friend of his was Tamesaburo Yamamoto, the first president of the Asahi Breweries. After the death of Kaga and his wife, the house changed hands a number of times, but eventually fell into disrepair. By the mid 1980s, the house was slated for demolition to make room for luxury apartments, but the locals could convince Asahi Breweries to buy and renovate the Oyamazaki Sanso.

The old buildings were renovated, and two new buildings that now serve as the main museum were added. Designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, they are so well integrated into the site that they are all but inconspicuous when approaching the main building. The whole museum now contains the main house, a watchtower (from where Kaga watched the main house being built), two tea houses, a rest house (originally a garage) and the modern jewelry box and dream box museum annexes. The museum opened in 1996, and the old buildings were designated as Registered Tangible Cultural Properties in 2004.

Oyamazaki SansoThe museum shows various special exhibitions during the year, and it also shows pieces from the Yamamoto collection of art, collected by the first president of Asahi Breweries who was interested in the Mingei Movement that focused on folk art. The underground jewelry box, a small, round single room shows parts of the permanent collection, in particular some of Monet’s Water Lilies paintings. This was quite a surprise to me, mostly because the museum is so small. I now found out that Monet had painted some 250 versions of the Water Lilies, but still, that there are three of those paintings in such a small museum is quite a feat I think.

Oyamazaki Sanso GardensAs mentioned above, the museum lies in an enormous garden on a hillside. Especially now during the koyo, the garden is lovely – and it can be visited for free, by the way! Of course there are the obligatory Japanese lanterns and little bridges over the water, and right next to the entrance to the jewely box with the Water Lilies paintings there is – a waterlily pond. The pond with the carp next to the corridor that once led to the greenhouse was my personal favourite spot.

Oyamazaki SansoUnfortunately, it was not allowed to take photos inside the building. There are beautiful ones on the homepage of the Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art’s homepage though, including a video and lots and lots of information about the building, the collection, the location… Do check it out, it’s worth it:

Kinro Kansha No Hi

It’s a national holiday again in Japan – Kinro Kansha No Hi, Labour Thanksgiving Day. To be fair, I haven’t worked in a really Japanese environment (except for my weekly visits to the Kyotogram office), but I have found that Japanese companies seem to be really fond of open plan offices: Essentially one big and endless table where every single employee has some (rather small) space. The boss sits somewhere at the end, farthest away from the entrance door.

open plan office in Japan

photo courtesy of MUGENUP @wikimedia commons.

I am wondering if this is an expression of the Japanese collective mind, so to speak, or if this is simply an American import. Haven’t found that one out yet, but if my own company every grows big enough for so many employees, I will definitely use the European system of smaller offices…