Hina Matsuri

Today is Hina Matsuri, also called the Doll or Peach Festival. It’s an old celebration of the girls in a family, and it’s usually done by displaying hina dolls in the home. Traditionally, these dolls are dressed in Heian-style court attire, with costumes made from real silk, and they are not to be played with because they are so expensive.

As I have just learned when writing my latest newsletter forWhat’s up in Kyoto, the hina matsuri displays started only in the early Edo period. At this time, the merchants began to imitate the higher classes as a way to show off their newly gained wealth (which was otherwise prohibited). Before that, dolls in general were much simpler, often even just made from paper, and were often used in religious rituals and not just as toys.

Thankfully, nowadays there are equally simply hina dolls that don’t break any bank and fit into small homes too. Common materials are cloth, ceramics, wood, and of course, you can make origami hina dolls as well. I am personally not a big fan of decorating my home, but in a moment of weakness, I bought the pair of dairi bina you see here. They are just palm-sized and I like the modern style and the loving vibe the couple sends. While it would be great to get a “real” dairi bina pair, this one does the trick quite nicely too.

Six Four

Six Four
Hideo Yokoyama

For eight months, Mikami has been the head of the Press Office in the Police Headquarters of Prefecture D. He still struggles with his own desire to open up communication with the local press and his superior’s demands to keep things as they are. The matter escalates just when the Director General from Tokyo has scheduled a visit to the victims of an as-yet unsolved kidnapping that happened 14 years earlier. While Mikami tries to prepare for the visit, he discovers not only the true reason behind it, but also a serious cover-up related to the old crime. With Criminal Investigations and Administrative Affairs locked in a power struggle, Mikami finds himself alone between the lines. All things come to a head when another kidnapping happens that has eerie similarities to the unsolved one. Will Mikami be able to find out the truth?

This mystery gives insights into the daily workings of Japan’s police apparatus. Mikami does not solve any crimes, but his investigation into the commissioner’s visit and why everybody suddenly refuses to talk to him is among the most gripping stories I have ever read. Although they are not taking a front seat (because the Japanese audience would be well aware of them) the descriptions of the intricate hierarchies and stifling rules of the police are a reminder of a culture most foreigner will never understand or experience.

Hideo Yokoyama was born in 1957 in Tokyo. For 12 years he worked as an investigative reporter for a regional newspaper in Gunma Prefecture. His crime novels are meticulously researched; Six Four took him 10 years to write and caused a heart attack. This book – the most popular of the eight novels he wrote so far – was ranked Best Japanese mystery novel in 2013. He lives with his wife in Gunma Prefecture.

Try out this amazing thriller – it’s a long one, so be warned – and get it from amazon!

Books! Books!

Last week I went to the Maruzen, my favourite book store because they have more English books than any other book store in Kyoto and a large part of them are university textbooks and nonfiction. By now, I first check the library if I want to read something, but there was a specific book I wanted to order because I’m planning on using it long-term.

Anyway, for some reason I decided to take the elevator to the English floor of the Maruzen instead of the escalator as usual. And when the doors opened, there was a large sign on a book shelf announcing “Foreign Book Sales – Books from 500 yen!” Had I taken the escalator, I would have never noticed it – yay!

It took me quite a while to get through the books on display (I didn’t look at the photo books or dictionaries) and in the end I settled for eight – five novels by Japanese authors and three nonfiction books by foreigners. I was so happy to get eight books for the usual price of one and a half – English books, especially translations of Japanese authors are pretty expensive in Japan.

So, I’m busy reading now. And the one book I actually came for, I can pick up in a few days. Life is wonderful!

Money Back

Japanese currencyLast year, I spent an enormous amount on doctors. My chronic thyroid problem was the smallest issue, but the weekly rehabilitation for my hip added up quickly. Plus the broken tooth that had to be fixed with a crown, and altogether, I spend more than 160.000 yen on doctors and meds last year.

How come, you may ask. Is there no mandatory health insurance in Japan? Yes, there is, but even so, I have to pay 30% of any medicine and doctor’s visit myself. You can’t leave any clinic without paying the bill; but now that I write this, I’m wondering what happens if it’s an emergency or an accident and you don’t have any money on you… Well, nothing I’m keen to find out, to be honest.

In any case, getting seriously sick is quite expensive even in Japan. But there’s an upside to it too: If you spend more than 100.000 yen in a single year, you can get a small part of it reimbursed, 5% of any payments above that threshold, to be precise.

This year, with the reimbursement actually worth the hassle and paperwork, my accountant helped me apply for it and – I’ll get 4025 yen back! No, that won’t make me rich at all, but with my business still lying flat, every little bit helps. Although, to be honest, I would have preferred not to spend all that money on doctors in the first place…

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Sorry for not writing this week, I have been quite busy with a big deadline looming… I hope I’ll be on schedule again next week. For now:

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Have some choccies like we do here in Japan and enjoy some quality time with your loved one – provided you’re allowed to meet them in person…

I love Japan!

It seems that the troubles with Covid 19 are not over yet, and as I said in my last post, the state of emergency has just been extended until March 7.

I know that many people had to or chose to leave Japan, some for good. Since I don’t have close family anymore, the thought has never crossed my mind. And even though Japan is not an easy place to live for foreigners, I still love the country. And yet, after all the years I’ve lived here, I cannot tell you what it is exactly that I find so irresistable about it.

Below is a lovely video showing aerial videos of Japan, mostly of the big cities. I can recognise the main station of Nagoya (the largest in all Japan) and that of Kyoto (the second largest). Kyoto’s former Imperial Palace also features prominently, and there is a short shot of Nijo Castle. I don’t know Tokyo well enough to know where this was taken, but the Sky Tree is unmistakable (I love it!). And there’s a short view of Tokyo Tower at the end.

I hope you enjoy that video as much as I do!

I Want to Cry…

Our state of emergeny because of Covid19 has just been extended for another month until March 7. The measures will be the same as now: requests to the public to avoid nonessential outings, requests to restaurants to close by 20:00, requests to companies to allow their workers to work from home (70% of paid work) etc.

I feel like crying, even though I’m very introverted and don’t go out often anyway. When is this going to end? At least it’s possible that the state of emergency is lifted early, but with even members of parliament ignoring the measures, I have not much hope.

On the other hand, the government is planning to start vaccinations of health workers this month, and they have also announced that foreigners living in Japan will get the vaccine – eventually. With a population of 128 million people and me not in any of the groups at high risk, I doubt that I’m due anytime before autumn. On the other hand, once the Japanese organise something, they are very diligent in following through, so I’m happy to be surprised.

Interestingly, only now, a full year after Covid19 has entered the Japanese scene, the government is passing bills that will enable them to fine people who are non-compliant with the measures mentioned above. So far, there were no binding laws, only “requests” to people to play nice (and to be fair, most did). Now fines of up to 500.000 yen are possible for Corona-positive people who refuse to be hospitalised. And restaurants that don’t want to shutter at 20:00 can be fined 300.000 yen.¬†

I hope the new measures and the extension of the state of emergency will work and we will indeed go back to normal soon. My mental health is taking quite a hike downwards lately… I don’t want to go out at all to be honest, but I did force myself to take a walk at the river this afternoon to see the sun. And I will go and honor all my appointments too – anything to lift my spirits. At least it’s Valentine’s Day soon, so there are plenty of chocolates for sale everywhere right now…


Soseki Natsume

Botchan is a young mathematics teacher, fresh out of college, and his first assignment takes him to a small school in the countryside. From the first day, he – the Tokyo metropolitan – looks down on everything in his new town, especially his country-bumpkin students. They, however, know how to pay him back in the same coin: by pulling all sorts of pranks in school and cheerfully commenting on his private life. Botchan does not fare much better with his colleagues, and the only one he feels somewhat closer to – Porcupine – is engaged in a silent but fierce battle with another teacher – Red Shirt.

Botchan soon sees himself trapped between the front lines of the battle, and while he begins to see Porcupine as a friend, an alliance with Red Shirt will have more long term benefits. At some point, Botchan will have to choose…

Botchan, sometimes translated as “Master Darling” has morality as its main theme, and is still widely read by pupils throughout Japan. It is a fun little book and the quarrels of the teacher’s room bridge cultures as well as time…

Soseki Natsume, pen-name of Natsume Kinnosuke, was born in 1867 as the 6th child of a rather poor family. From the age of 15, he wanted to become an author, and because of his father’s disapproval, he entered university in 1884 where he studied architecture and English. He went to England in 1901 for two years, and did not like the experience. Upon return to Japan, he began publishing haiku and short stories. Today, he is one of the most famous writers of Japan. Botchan is based on his own experiences of teaching in a small school in Shikoku and considered one of the most important works of Japanese literature. Natsume died in 1916, only 49 years old, from a stomach ulcer.

If you’re not afraid to go back to your own years in school, try out this book from amazon.

Lockdown Part 2

Imagine there’s a lockdown – and nobody cares.

Kyoto has been on its second Covid19 lockdown since January 13 and will remain so until February 7, unless the infections keep occurring on the same level of course. And, given how things have changed from the first lockdown, I wouldn’t be suprised if we we’re supposed to stay at home for longer. And the reason is:

Nobody actually is at home, despite the lockdown. I had to go to Kyoto Station last Saturday, and yes, the city was much quieter than usual. Part of it was surely the rainy weather, and part of it is surely the complete lack of tourists, foreign and domestic. Still, all the surviving shops were open this time, neither the streets nor public transport are completely deserted and museums, shrines, and temples have shortened business hours at best. The only thing where you notice something unusual is that the streets get much more quiet from 7 pm because restaurants are closing early.

This is a far cry from the eerie emptiness Kyoto experienced last spring during the first lockdown. To be fair, since then, many measures have been adopted to keep people safe, like compulsory wearing of masks inside buildings, social distance enforced with markers on the floor and plastic dividers on tables, fewer seats in restaurants, bottles of disinfectant everywhere… It took time to implement these and since people mostly adhere to the rules, I can see that most of them feel safe. I for sure do.

But while I am happy that I can keep up most of my routine and go out, I do sometimes wonder about other people and their train of thought. Last week, when I was meeting one of my students, there was a group of elderly people that I had seen before. They meet and chat and generally have a good time. This time, they were sitting at the table next to ours. At first there were only two old guys, but then more and more people would come.

Since the table was small, once there were six people, they were beginning to encroach on our space. And that’s when I got really annoyed. These were all old people, 65+, eating, drinking, laughing as nothing was amiss, no social distancing (although they did wear masks). I get it: I didn’t like to be shut up at home all day either. But YOU old people are exactly the reason why we’re shutting half of the country down. I’m not the one who has a big risk of getting seriously sick, YOU are. You silly old people need to stay home and find another way for your group therapy sessions. It’s only for four weeks while we’re in lockdown, that can’t be that difficult?

In the end, my student and I changed tables and topics. But seriously, how can you tell young people to put their lives on hold so that old people don’t get sick when these same old people couldn’t care less about it? I feel this kind of respect and taking care of each other should go both ways. But if it’s not even working in Japan, I don’t see much light for the rest of the planet.

Sweet Day

A week or so before Christmas, I took a day off to go to a museum and to run a few errands in town. It was rather cold and my leg was hurting in the morning already, so I took public transport. That means that on walking to the different stops, I can take a look at places I usually notice only in passing, if at all.

The first thing I saw when I walked from the museum to the subway was the “Hofbaeckerei Edegger-Tax”. Not the real one of course, that one’s in Graz, but its little brother in Kyoto. Even though it was too early for cake, I had to check out the first Austrian bakery I had come across in Japan. Sadly, they were closed, but I got a word in with the owner – German words to boot! And when I asked him if he could make REAL Sachertorte, he gave me a piece as a present, complete with whipped cream. It’s a bit far from my place for daily visits (which may be a good thing after all) but a friend of mine lives nearby and I already promised to be back. What a find!

Just before lunch, I passed by the Matcha House, a small cafe – 16 seats or so – near Kawaramachi/Shijo. As the name suggests, they specialise in everything matcha, and they are extremely popular with young people. Usually, there’s a long line in front of it, people are willing to wait an hour and more just to get in! On that day, however, there was nobody waiting, and I decided to see if they are really worth the hype. Well, they are!

Their matcha tiramisu is a dream of fluffiness and the green tea I had with it was just perfect. The tea came with a thermos can and a tiny cup and a little clock so you can prepare the tea properly: Pour out the boiling water into a small bowl and let it cool to about 40 degrees (takes 9 minutes), then pour it into the teapot containing the tea for 1-2 minutes and then it’s ready to drink.

I got 6 tiny cups out of the thermos and it was interesting how the taste of the tea would change from the super strong first cup to the last one that could use the full 2 minutes of steeping. So yes, that’s a recommendation from me, even though I wouldn’t wait for an hour just to get in.

I had a perfect sweet day just before Christmas and with the Sachertorte I got I could even extend it to a perfect breakfast on the next day.