Weekend Project # 3

I’m not sure if I mentioned it… but Japanese homes, equipped with no central heating, can get really cold in winter. A partial solution is the following: Keep the lower body as warm as possible, then the upper body will follow suit. I’m doing this by “wearing” an old sleeping bag that reaches just up to my chest. Obviously, I have to take it off when I have to walk around, but since I’m pretty sedentary in front of my laptop all day, this is a good option.

Of course, the Japanese have figured that solution out ages ago and have invented the kotatsu. This low table is equipped with a heating element, and when you put a heavy blanket over it and put your legs underneath, your lower body gets nice and toasty. On top you wear one of the down jackets that are popular in Japan, come in different thicknesses and are available everywhere.

But I digress. Point is that whatever you do, be it kotatsu or sleeping bag, the hands remain cold, even more so when typing or writing. Gloves are the obvious solution – or are they, because you can’t type properly with them. Modifications are needed, like these:

These are just an old pair of gloves that aren’t warm enough now that I go downhill so quickly on my bicycle. So, I decided to cut off the fingertips and make some typing gloves out of them. What do you think?

Never mind, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong: I spent a whole year in high school learning to touch type, so, yes, I do use all 10 fingers on my keyboard. Unfortunately, these gloves are made from relatively thin yarn, and it was really hard to finish the tips properly. So much so that I was ready to give up after the index finger (I’m glad I didn’t cut off all of them in the beginning), but I persevered for one more to create writing gloves instead.

Since I do a lot of handwriting, this is a partial solution to my cold hand syndrome. However, I have seen some very pretty mittens without top that I think are perfect for typing and are super warm too. Maybe I’ll just go and buy a pair of these.


Shunga – Erotic Art in Japan
Rosina Buckland

Shunga, “spring pictures”, are erotic images from Japan – mainly woodblock prints, but also paintings – that had their heyday during the Edo period (1603 – 1868). They depict all forms of love-making among the ordinary people from Japan’s urban centers who were also the main audience for these images. Shunga live not only by their stylized depictions of sex – greatly enlarged genitals, clothing or hairstyles that indicate the status of the portrayed persons – but also by their lively commentary that is included in the picture and lets the viewer listen to the conversation of the couple.

This large-scale book presents a history of shunga in the Edo period while explaining the meaning behind the illustrations that are given. It also lists a number of famous ukiyo-e artists who have produced shunga at some point (or throughout) their career, like Harunobu, Hokusai, Utamaro, and others. It provides a deeper insight into shunga that goes beyond the erotic aspect. The accompanying 140 illustrations are beautifully reproduced pieces taken mostly from the British Museum’s collection. The famous Hokusai print with the woman and the octopus is included, of course.

I enjoyed learning about shunga. It is interesting that the vast majority of these images deal with consensual sex, and when prostitutes are depicted, they are always involved in a clandestine meeting with their secret lover instead of a client. In general, satisfying the woman seems to have been very important in real life too, and female sensual bliss is indicated by her curled toes in the images.

Rosina Buckland is currently the curator of the Japanese collections of the British Museum.

Whether you’re interested in the images or the historical background of shunga, this book is worth it either way. Get it from amazon.

Culinary Experiment

We’ve all been there: Unimaginable things, formerly known as foodstuffs, are hiding in the fridge, the freezer or the food cabinet (aka pantry).

Some of these foodstuffs have the decency to turn into biohazard rather quickly and fairly obviously. Tomatoes. Minced meat. That leftover piece of sushi (how did that even happen?) Others undergo the same process much more slowly and largely stay under the radar. Eggs. Rice and flour. And then there are things that seem to last forever. Case in point: Yoghurt.

I had a truly ancient drinking yoghurt in my fridge, still unopened since I bought it – all the way back in March 2019. Yes, the liquid part had risen to the top of the bottle, but the color of the rest looked good. So: I tried it the other day.

With experiments like these I like to be extra careful. If something looks off or smells off, I don’t need the taste test anymore, into the bin it goes. But after I threw away the protective liquid on top of the bottle, the yoghurt seemed fine, so out came the spoon.

The result: A perfectly fine yoghurt, wonderfully creamy, a bit sweeter than I had remembered the taste, but perfectly edible. Since this started out as a drink yoghurt, I had to cut the bottle in half to get to all of it, but other than that, no surprises, and I had a nice breakfast in the end.

Of course, I didn’t set out to do such an experiment; why I even took the yoghurt along in the first place -remember that I moved here in 2021 – I don’t even know. But it does go to show that expiration dates are not all they are made out to be, sometimes at least. So, I certainly don’t recommend clogging up your fridge with old food, but… I still think it was worth it.

I do think I’ll have to toss the miso, though. However, there’s still that tofu I bought when I lived in my old apartment…

Kawai Kanjiro

Since its founding, Kyoto has been a hotbed for artists and craftspeople, and not even the move of the government to Tokyo could change that. While Kyoto’s number one craft remains the textile industry, numerous other artists have found a welcoming home here.

One of these was Kawai Kanjiro, one of the best-known ceramic artists from Kyoto. Although, technically, he is not a Kyoto person, since he was born in Shimane prefecture and only moved to the city after graduating. However, he lived and worked the rest of his life in Kyoto’s Gojozaka area, where he established his pottery workshop and rose to international fame. But let’s start at the beginning of his career.

Already at age 16, Kanjiro decided to become a potter and started to pursue this career. After having graduated from the Department of Ceramic Industry of what is now known as the Tokyo Institute of Technology, he moved to Kyoto to study at the Ceramic Research Institute and there acquired the scientific, chemical basics of making pottery.

However, the purely academic-theoretical approach did not satisfy him, so he taught himself the use of natural glazes and traditional methods used in Japan, China, and Korea. When he was 30, he bought a climbing kiln – a noborigama – at Gojozaka and put his knowledge into action in what is now known as his first period.

Yet, he was still not satisfied and felt that something was missing. Together with Yanagi Soetsu and Hamada Shoji, he founded the Mingei movement, a kind of back-to-the-roots of Japanese folk art, complete with Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo (established in 1936). This second period is marked by pieces that are reminiscent of Japanese folk art – not just in design, but also in technique.

At this time, Kanjiro also began to write poetry and essays and started to experiment with other forms of expression. After WWII, in what became his third period, he also taught himself wood carving techniques. A number of large-scale pieces survived and they are marked by a shift towards more abstract designs.

Although Kawai Kanjiro soon became well-known in Japan and even abroad, he was not interested in personal fame. He rarely signed his pieces, noting that his style should speak for itself; he also eschewed taking part in prize events. The two Grand Prix Prizes at international exhibitions he received were due to friends submitting his pieces. Kanjiro also declined many honors of the Japanese government, like being named a “Living National Treasure”, which is one of the highest distinctions for Japanese artists.

Kawai Kanjiro died in 1966, but his adopted heir Hirotsugu, as well as his nephew Takeichi and his son Toru continued the family tradition of mingei pottery.

The former residence and workshop of Kawai Kanjiro, located in the Gojozaka neighborhood, the traditional potter’s district of Kyoto, opened as a museum in 1973. It was designed and remodeled by Kawai Kanjiro himself in 1937 and differs from the many machiya merchant houses of Kyoto in important ways. First of all, it was modeled after classical rural cottages rather than urban town houses, additionally, it shows some Western influences. The large room near the entrance, for example, has a wooden floor on one side and slightly raised tatami on the other, with a traditional irori sunken hearth as the centerpiece.

The house is quite large, and most of the rooms are accessible. At the rear of the house lies Kawai’s workshop where he created his pottery together with his son and apprentices. Also preserved and accessible is the large noborigama climbing kiln that has eight chambers and was built on/into the slope behind the house.

Scaling Down

Three days of rain over the weekend and the temperature dropped by 10 degrees or so. Tuesday morning 9 am, it was 9 degrees in my bedroom. Good for the autumn colors. Not good for me, and Pumpkin is freezing too.

So, as every year around this time, I do what all the Japanese do: I pulled out my thick winter duvet and the fluffy pad that goes underneath the sheet. And then, I moved my futon to a smaller room.

This year, I’m trying the smallest room in the house, the one I have designated as my “reading room”, but which so far only houses my laundry. It’s on the second floor, faces south and is only three tatami in size.

As you can see, once the futon is in, lamp and nightstand besides it, and the heater has found its place, there is not much space left. I’m glad I’m not prone to tossing and turning during my sleep. Or sleep walking, that is.

Pumpkin was quite surprised about the new arrangements, but he adapted in no time. He’s now happily snuggling up next to me every night – underneath the covers, of course.

The only thing that isn’t good about this winter bedroom is that I have to sleep very close to the fusuma doors. And I need to keep them open so Pumpkin can leave during the night. And the draught coming in may be the reason why I have a stiff neck already… Then again, the fusuma are old and don’t close properly in any case. At least the windows are tight here. I hope it won’t get too cold in the next few months…

Brutalist Gardening

Whew, I’ve been quite busy last week. My usual flurry of deadlines at the end of the month was enhanced by a couple additional ones, but I managed to get through them all on time. Rinse and repeat later this month…

On top of work-related business, I also put in some work in my garden because now seems the best time for some maintenance. Back in spring, I cut off some of the tallest branches already, but not only did they regrow over summer, the additional light their absence created let other plants shoot up to new heights as well.

This time, I took a much more brutal approach to gardening. My tiny garden has lots of large plants with big leaves that overwhelm what little space there is. But over the last few weeks, I got rid of most of them. I was even able to tear out the roots of those annoying vines that swamp one corner of my garden every summer. Interestingly, it was fairly easy now – in spring it was practically impossible – and since I tore off roots that were thumbs-thick, I hope I got most of the major ones so they won’t regrow again next year.

There are still things left to clear up and cut away, but overall, I’ve made good progress. Right now, the garden looks almost naked, but I want to plant smaller flowering bushes or something like that. Plus: some grass for Pumpkin, which he can later throw up again all over my staircase…

But there’s no rush, I have all winter to think about the details here.

Minamoto no Yoshitsune

Japan’s long history was shaped by the warrior class and there are many samurai whose fame has reached outside of Japan as well. One of these, Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159–1189), is still revered as one of Japan’s greatest warriors, and numerous true stories as well as legends are centered around him, most certainly the reason for his enduring popularity.

Yoshitsune – whose childhood name was Ushiwakamaru – was born around 1159, in the late Heian period. His father Yoshitomo was the head of the Minamoto clan, a powerful noble family deeply rooted at court. When his father was killed in a rebellion in 1160, Yoshitsune had to flee Kyoto with his mother. Turning 10 years old, he was placed in the care of the monks at Kuramadera in the northern part of Kyoto. According to a popular legend, he there received training from Sōjōbō, the king of the tengu who lived in the mountains surrounding the temple.

Be that as it may, fact is, that Yoshitsune was an accomplished swordsman from a young age, so much so that he defeated the famous (and much older) warrior monk Benkei in a duel at Gojo Bridge. Benkei promptly became Yoshitsune’s retainer and would fight side-by-side with him until the very end.

From 1180 to 1185, both fought for Yoshitsune’s brother Yoritomo in the Genpei war against the Taira clan. This war was immortalized in the Heike Monogatari, where Yoshitsune’s exploits take up most of the 3rd part of the story. He was a successful general and eventually led the Minamoto to victory at the final battle at Dan-no-ura in 1185.

Sadly, his success did him no good. His brother Yoritomo, established as head of the Minamoto clan, was jealous of the younger Yoshitsune’s popularity and feared that he might be deposed by him in the long run. He conspired against Yoshitsune, who was finally betrayed in 1189 and forced to commit suicide, with Benkei defending him to the last and dying with him. Today, Yoshitsune is enshrined at Shirahata Jinja in Fujisawa.

Yoshitsune and Benkei monument

As mentioned above, many legends surround Yoshitsune and he was very popular among the people. For example, it is said that he escaped his forced suicide and made his way up to Hokkaido, or even farther to the Asian continent, where he re-emerged as none other than Genghis Khan. Many of the stories from the Heike Monogatari were turned into Noh plays and have inspired visual artists for centuries.

Five Women Who Loved Love

Five Women Who Loved Love
Saikaku Ihara

These are five novellas about (forbidden) love from 17th century Japan.

Seijuro in Himeji loses his father’s (financial) support and, instead of spending his time in the local pleasure districts, has to find serious work. There, he promptly seduces his master’s daughter Omatsu…

The Barrelmaker Brimful of Love tells of a happy marriage between two people from its beginning to the tragic end of Osen and her lover…

What the Seasons Brought the Almanac Maker is another happy marriage destroyed by an adulterous prank instigated by Osan, the wife…

The Greengrocer’s Daughter with a Bundle of Love meets a dashing young man after a fire burned down her house. When Oshichi loses sight of him, she is ready to commit a serious crime to see him again…

Gengobei, the Mountain of Love, is a samurai from Satsuma who only loves young boys. Enter Oman, who is determined to change his ways for her own happily ever after.

These five stories are filled with eroticism, even though they are quite tame from our modern perspective. What makes them special – groundbreaking in fact, when they were written – is the detailed depiction of the life and affairs of Japan’s lower class townspeople in the Edo period. At that time, having an affair outside of one’s class (in general: with a higher-class woman) was forbidden and punishable by death. Yet, four of five women carry on such affairs regardless, and seem to take their inevitable punishment in their stride.

All five stories are based on real events that often happened just a few years earlier. This familiarity to the readers may have been one reason why they were instant bestsellers – the other one being the eroticism – and Saikaku quickly became one of Japan’s best-known novelists and poets of the time.

Saikaku Ihara (1641 – 1693) was a citizen of Osaka, then as now one of Japan’s commercial centers with a thriving population. He was one of the first to write exclusively of the chonin, the townspeople and their (love) affairs, and he was extremely popular among the people.

Contemporary writers found his style less appealing: Basho famously thought Saikaku’s style vulgar and uninspired, for example. In any case, Saikaku was very prolific and known for his marathon poetry performances, where he composed hundreds of poems on the spot. The “Five Women” were published in 1686 and remain one of his most popular pieces.

If you’re in for something … well, not really erotic, but depicting “real” life in 17th century Japan, get this one from amazon.

Autumn Colors

In the last couple of weeks the evenings became quite cool. I’ve changed my clothing and my duvet too, and even Pumpkin sleeps under his blanket much of the time. The days are still nice and sunny, so the koyo will be a few more weeks, the final sign for me to move my futon into a smaller room for the winter.

Two weeks ago, a friend invited me to an exhibition of watercolor flowers; she also had two of her paintings shown. It was an exhibition of hobby painters, but the teacher is a professional who specializes in realistic paintings of flowers. His pieces are incredibly detailed with strong colors, and according to my friend, he always works with real flowers, so all of his paintings are unique.

I was very impressed by a small, post-card sized painting of a single momiji maple leaf, bright red with but tiny spots of withered brown, set in a dark blue frame. My friend and I wondered how long it might take to paint such a picture, but we couldn’t come to a conclusion, so we left it there.

Or rather: I did, because fast forward a week and my friend presented me with her own take on “autumn leaf”. She said it took her roughly 30 minutes to finish, so I’m guessing the master can do it in maybe half the time. In any case, all I need now is a frame.

Japanese Energydrinks

In Japan, being, or at least: seeming “genki” and able to “ganbatte” at all times is very important. Of course, the hapless salaryman sitting at a desk for long hours of mind-numbing tasks needs the occasional pick-me-up.

Enter Japanese Energydrinks like these:

These particular bottles contain just a few sips of taurine or caffeine-infused drinks, and they can be found pretty much everywhere. The largest variety to be bought offline seems to be available in convenience stores, I guess that’s where many office workers go for a short break anyway. Of course, there are different prices to these energy drinks, depending on the quality and possibly the amount of the supplement contained.

What I found interesting is that they were less sweet than I had expected; so far, my exposure to energy drinks was limited to Red Bull (yes yes, the Austrian connection here). I’m not sure if I keep drinking those because at least caffeine doesn’t do anything for/with me – I could drink a cup of coffee now and go straight to bed without problems.

On the other hand, these little bottles were a gift from a friend of mine – is it a good sign if your friends think you could do with more energy?