Necessary Upgrades

Did you know that this blog has been alive for 10 years, 5 months already? Yes, I haven’t always been on top of it, but it’s still impressive methinks. It doesn’t have a massive number of readers (which I never expected), but it serves as a kind of external memory to me. There are so many things I have done that I’ve already forgotten, it’s almost scary.

Anyway, I have to do a few upgrades to the underlying system – cleaning out the cobwebs if you will – in the next few days. Let’s hope things don’t go pear-shaped, if they do, it’ll be pretty obvious I guess. Otherwise, I’ll see you again on Sunday!


Corona is over in Japan too! Or so it seems. Already a while ago, the Japanese government has decided to downgrade COVID-19 to the same level as influenza on their “infectious disease prevention law” tiers, essentially ending most of the restrictions they could place on people in the last years.

woman wearing a surgical mask

This includes not having to wear masks everywhere anymore. In Kyoto, peer pressure is especially high, so I still see many people wearing masks even outdoors, but to be fair, most of them are older citizens.

However, it really hit me that “Corona is over” when I visited the library the other day. No more plastic sheets on the counters separating the employees and the patrons!

I couldn’t be happier! I have been tired of all the anti-Corona measures for a long time already, and while I still bring masks along just in case, I am happy to phase them out, just like the rest of the country does.

The Diving Pool

The Diving Pool
Yoko Ogawa

This short book is a collection of 3 novellas:

The Diving Pool
Teenage girl Aya falls in love with Jun, who lives at the Light House, Aya’s parents’ orphanage. Every day after school, she watches him as he trains for a diving competition. Aya dreams of getting closer to Jun, but is unaware that he knows her darkest secret…

Pregnancy Diary
An unnamed woman meticulously records her sister’s pregnancy in a diary. She is happily fulfilling all her sister’s cravings for food, especially that for grapefruit jam, freshly boiled. But maybe, there is something sinister behind the ostentatious caretaking…

A young woman sets up her housing in her old university dormitory, which is slowly but inexplicably falling apart. With her husband overseas, she feels bored and finds herself taking care of the dormitory’s elderly manager. He believes that his life and the dormitory’s deterioration are linked, but what is really hiding within its walls?

I enjoyed reading the stories, and Yoko Ogawa is a master of words and vivid imagery. All three stories seem pleasant enough at first glance, but underneath the glossy surface lurks a darkness that only waits for a single moment of inattention…

Yoko Ogawa was born in 1962, studied at Waseda university, and became a medical university secretary. After her marriage, she quit her job and, unbeknownst to her husband, began writing. She won the Kaien Literary Prize for her debut novel n 1988, and has since written more than 50 works, both fiction and nonfiction. She has also won many prestigious literary prizes, among them the Japanese Akutagawa, Yomiuri, and Tanizaki Prize, as well as international awards.

Look behind the scenes of human nature with this book – get it from amazon.

Summer is Coming

It seems as if I can finally store away my winter sweaters. Despite a few setbacks, it is now warm enough for t-shirts, even in my office. As I’ve mentioned, my office is the coldest room in the house, today, it was 4 degrees cooler than my bedroom directly upstairs. Upstairs is generally warmer, being under the roof and all, and you can really feel the change in temperature when you’re walking up and down the stairs.

Pumpkin also notices the change in weather, he doesn’t want to sleep in my bed anymore. He still likes to be in the bedroom at night, but he now chooses to sleep next to the bed. As long as I know where he is, I don’t mind, after all, he is a typical cat and during the night always morphs towards the middle of the bed somehow.

There’s not much news otherwise, besides me being busy. My visa is up for renewal again, I have sent all the documents to my lawyer, but we’re waiting for a last tax receipt to arrive. A friend of mine is in the country somewhere and is contemplating visiting Kyoto too, possibly next week. And there’s an upcoming Bati-Holic concert at the end of the month that I’m very much looking forward to!

The Priestesses of Ise and Kamo Shrines

Tomorrow, the Aoi Matsuri is taking place, the first of Kyoto’s three big festivals. For the first time in 4 years, a parade will leave the Imperial Palace, visit Shimogamo shrine, and then go on to its final destination, Kamigamo shrine. Of the 500 or so people taking part in the parade, the Saio-dai, who rides in a special palanquin, is the heart of the Aoi Matsuri. These days, she is chosen from among the best families in Kyoto, but in ancient times, she was a daughter of the reigning Emperor.

The Saio Dai in her palanquin

The practice of sending an Imperial Princess as priestess to Ise shrine started – according to the ancient Nihongi, whose accuracy is doubtful – around the year 92 BCE. The Nihongi states that at that time

“The gods Amaterasu and Ōkunidama were formerly both worshipped in the Emperor’s Palace Hall. But the Emperor Sūjin was frightened of having so much divine power concentrated in one place. Accordingly, he entrusted the worship of Amaterasu to the Princess Toyosuku-iri, bidding her carry it out in the village of Kasanui in Yamato.”

Subsequently, Amaterasu expressed a desire to be moved to Ise.

Becoming a so-called Saigu at Ise shrine was more involved than a mere appointment, at which time the Saigu was around 12 years old. The preparations and purifications took three years, during which the maiden lived at Nonomiya shrine outside of Kyoto in today’s Arashiyama. Only when she was properly prepared, was she allowed to return to the Palace for one last time. There, she received the “Comb of Parting” from her Imperial father, whom she would never see again. This is because her office lasted until

  • the Emperor died or resigned
  • the Saigu died or became disabled
  • either one of her parents died
  • or ceased to be a virgin (or worse, became pregnant).

Once Buddhism was introduced from China in the 8th century, it quickly took hold at the Imperial Court. However, Ise shrine was the centre of Japan’s Shintoism, and in order not to offend the old gods, a number of interesting speech taboos were imposed upon the Saigu and everybody else in her retinue. For example, Buddha was called “The Centre”, priests “hair-long”, and temples became “tile-covered places”. Other words with changed meaning revolved around death (recovery), tombs (earthen heaps), illness (taking a rest), and blood (sweat).

The tradition of sending a Saigu to Ise shrine ended in 1342, however, even today, Imperial Princesses take an important role in the worship of Amaterasu at special ceremonies.

The Saio or Saiin – the Imperial Princess serving at the Kamo shrines – was modelled after the Saigu of Ise. It is said that during the Kusho War between the Saga and Heisei Emperors, the former prayed to the gods of Kamo. He promised to send a daughter to the shrines if he would win the war. Subsequently, the first Saio was sent to Kamo in 818, and the practice continued until 1204.

In Kyoto, Aoi Matsuri is the largest festival connected to the Saio of the Kamo shrines. However, in October, the Saigu Gyoretsu Procession at Nonomiya shrine re-enacts the sending of a Saigu to Ise shrine, as she travels through the famous bamboo forest and purifies herself in the river.

Both festivals are unique to Kyoto and provide a fascinating glimpse into times long past. Definitely worth watching!

Neighbourhood Pastime

It was Golden Week last week, with three national holidays in a row. Many Japanese take this opportunity to travel, and Kyoto is usually quite high on the list of domestic destinations. I don’t like the crowds, so I stayed home and looked for something else to do, and since the weather was “golden” as well, I chose to do some gardening.

To be honest, I haven’t touched my garden at all since moving in, and as the house stood empty for a year before that, the garden needed quite some work. And despite my efforts, it’s still not finished.

So far, I cut down two tall bushes that had grown all the way up to the second floor. I also trimmed the bushes just outside the living room. And with a bit of luck, I also found all the vines that clung on to most of my plants and which formed a clump of green around the drainpipe at the far end of the garden. There is still a lot to do, and part of the problem is that I’m reluctant to do something too radical…

However, there is one thing that I consider finished, for now at least: I cleared the embankment at the stream behind my house. This is a strip of concrete maybe three meters above the stream and another two below my garden level. As many of my plants hang over, dead leaves and old branches have been accumulating down there. So, even though it may not be my responsibility (knowing Japan, it probably is) I cleared all the dead branches and leaves, leaving only the live plants. I like the way it looks now, the blue bell flowers are already starting to bloom down there. It’s like an extension of my garden.

Interestingly, gardening seems to be the favourite Golden Week pastime in my neighbourhood. I’ve seen four of my neighbours working in their own gardens, and judging by the number of bags with leaves and other greenery debris I saw at the last garbage collection, many more must have done the same. I guess I’m fitting right in.

The Maxims of Ieyasu

I’m currently reading a biography of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543 – 1616), the excellent strategist who united the nation (after quite some preparatory work by Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi) and who became the first shogun of the Edo period. His family effectively ruled Japan for more than 250 peaceful years.

At this point, I don’t want to go into details – I haven’t finished the book yet – but here are what is generally known as the “Maxims of Ieyasu”, which I found insightful and inspiring.

  • Man’s life is like going a long journey under a heavy burden: one must not hurry.
  • If you regard discomfort as a normal condition, you are not likely to be troubled by want.
  • When ambition arises in your mind, consider the days of your adversity.
  • Patience is the foundation of security and long life: consider anger as an enemy.
  • He who only knows victory and doesn’t know defeat will fare badly.
  • Blame yourself: don’t blame others.
  • The insufficient is better than the superfluous.

Especially the fourth maxim about patience is something Ieyasu practiced extensively. There is the famous saying about a bird and what measures to take if it doesn’t sing.
Oda Nobunaga would kill it.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi would force it to sing.
Tokugawa Ieyasu would wait until it sings on its own accord.

10 Years

10 years ago today, I moved out of my apartment in Germany and made my way to a friend’s place where I could stay overnight, half way to Frankfurt airport.

10 years ago, minus 2 days that I mostly spent travelling, I arrived in my first home in Japan.

The 10 years since have changed me quite a bit – or maybe, it was Japan itself?

I have learned new skills, and have tried and seen things I had never known the existence of before.

I have changed my outlook on life and have become calmer than ever, not so much worried about the future anymore, or what people might think of me.

I have lost my last family member (still have some relatives left), made new friends and lost touch with old ones.

I have made a new home for myself in a country and among people that I still find strange at times.

What will the next 10 years bring?

How to Fix Japanese Amido

Even though it has been quite cold the last few days, summer is swiftly approaching, and with it come open windows and plenty of critters to take advantage of them and invade houses. In an old house like mine, insects can come in through all kinds of nooks and crannies – not to mention badly closing windows. That doesn’t mean I have to invite them in, however. So, it is always a good idea to keep the amido fly screens in good working order. Luckily, the process is quite easy – here is how it’s done.

Start with taking the amido out of the window. On the top sides of the amido are usually little guides with screws; once they are loosened, the amido can be pushed upwards and removed.

Lay the amido on the floor, outside on top. The actual screen is fastened with rubber tube all around the amido. Remove the tube (just find one end and pull it loose) and the screen material. Now is the perfect time to clean the amido.

From spring onwards, you can buy rolls of fly screen that are enough for several amido. Put the roll down on the amido and cut off as much as you need, plus some 5 cm extra or so. It’s a good idea to secure the screen to the amido with clothes pins or something similar to prevent it from moving and make the next step easier.

Now, put a new rubber tube into the groove all around the amido. This can be a bit tricky because the tube has to be pushed all the way in so the screen is not only secured, but also as taut as possible. Special tools are available for this, but if you’re careful not to tear the screen material, this can be done with the handle of a spoon or something similar. Make sure the tube is fastened carefully at the corners.

Finally, cut the protruding screen with a box cutter and put the amido back into the window. Congratulations – all done!

To be honest, I was quite apprehensive the first time I had to do this, but it was much easier than I had expected. In fact, the most difficult part was to get the amido out of and back into the window. I’m not sure if this is normal, or just due to my old house and its crooked windows…

Cutting the screen is also a quite messy affair, with lots of little pieces of screen ending up everywhere. Doing this job outside or on a plastic tarp makes the final cleaning much easier.

As I mentioned, buying the supplies is easy come spring/early summer. Screens come in grey and black and in different quantities, depending on how many amido there are to repair. While this is a personal choice, you must be careful to buy the correct diameter rubber tube. Too thick and it won’t fit, too thin and the screen will not stay in place (ask me how I know that…) It’s best to cut off a few centimeters of the old tube and take it with you when shopping. It may be possible to reuse the old tube, but over time, rubber becomes brittle, so it’s probably not the best idea; and the savings are minimal.

The screen material itself is also getting brittle over time and will break eventually (even without a cat jumping through it.) Yet, fixing amido is not something that needs to be done every year. Shoji are a different animal, however, but that’s another story.


Just a short heads-up that I’m fine, just busy.

Yesterday, I was out almost all day, for no less than three press-previews of a large exhibition that started today. It’s really fun to get to see exhibitions before they are open, plus a guided tour and plenty of other information. Sometimes, there are other goodies too…

But at the same time, it means that I’ll have to move other work around, and then I’m extra busy on the days leading up to and after such an event. But overall, it’s worth it!