Adjustments

This afternoon, I met with the architect who’s going to help me renovating my house. He went through every room and checked the inside/outsides carefully – as much as he could access it. He did confirm that the structure is mostly sound, so that’s one worry less.

We then talked at length about what I am envisioning for the house, for now. After he had listened appreciatively and even made a few suggestions I hadn’t thought of, he dropped the bomb: Given my (very limited) budget, we probably won’t get everything done at this stage of the renovations. And definitely not in the time frame that I wanted…

So yes, plans will have to be adjusted. Sacrifices will have to be made. But I’m still optimistic. What else can I do.

Speaking of adjustments, for now, I will need to adjust to daily noise again. After a break of roughly 5 months, the construction site outside my apartment has opened up again. The work is scheduled to take about a year, and they are estimating to run 10-15 trucks daily in the beginning, ramping up to 40 a day or so at the height of the construction.

I really hope my own remodeling can be sped up – I already know that I can’t handle all that noise again, and they barely started…

The Lake Biwa Canal

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, around this time last year, I took a pleasure cruise on the Lake Biwa Canal from Otsu to Kyoto. I’m finally ready to share a few pictures and a bit more info on this marvel of Japanese engineering.

The Lake Biwa Canal was constructed from 1885 to 1890 and was mainly meant to ease transportation of goods from Shiga to Osaka, one of the biggest centres of business in Japan then and now. Additionally, the canal’s water was – and still is – used as water supply for the city, to produce electricity in the first commercial hydroelectric plant in Japan (for the very first electric tram), and to provide water to a number of gardens near the Keage incline (like Nanzen-ji or Murin-an and even the Imperial Palace) and to rice paddies in the north of Kyoto.

When it was built, the canal was quite the engineering marvel, even more so because it was built entirely by Japanese people, from the cheap day labourers to the head of engineering. It soon attracted many tourists who wanted to walk along it or even take a cruise on the canal. In the 1950s, the canal was not being used any longer and everything was shut down, but a few years ago, it was revitalised, and now again you can take cruises in spring time during the cherry blossoms and in autumn during the koyo. So, let’s go!

Right after you board the ship, the first of three tunnels begins. With 2,436 m, this is the longest tunnel, and it was constructed from three sides: The excavating would start from the two ends of the tunnel and from a 47 m deep vertical shaft in the middle of it. This was the first time this method was used in Japan, probably because the chief engineer, Sakuro Tanabe, learnt it from his Scottish professor at university. Yes, Tanabe was only 24 years old when the construction started. I doubt that any fresh graduate would get such an important job today.

The tunnels have interesting features. On top of the portals on each end are large stone inscriptions penned by important elder statesmen of the time, and they surprisingly poetic. Halfway through the first tunnel, there is a very large tablet with the words of Kunimichi Kitagaki, the third governor of Kyoto Prefecture. It reads “The Imperial Throne is eternal”.

It is interesting to note that the canal is very shallow. Obviously, there were no motorboats around when the canal was built, so the boats carrying goods and passengers were propelled forward by long stakes, like the gondolas in Venice. A slight decline of 4 meters from Otsu to Keage keeps the water flowing and the boats moving. However, what surprised me most on the trip was the fog in the first tunnel. It was a nice and warm day outside, but it cooled down quite a bit inside the tunnels. There were also many insects, obviously attracted to the light of the boat.

When you exit the first tunnel, you find yourself in a very quiet part of Kyoto. Most tourists never visit Yamashina, even though Bisshamon-do temple is quite famous, and especially lovely in autumn. The Shinomiya Dock is surrounded by large trees and must be very beautiful during the momiji. As you can see, I took the trip too early, but it is still a lovely sight. The dock was once a resting place for the workers on the canal, and even now, you could get off the boat here. I guess not many people do so, though.

Right after the dock is the so-called Moroha tunnel. It was only built in 1970 when the nearby railroad was straightened out and part of the canal had to give way to it. Beyond it lie a number of bridges to get to Yamashina, and there is a long walking path that follows the canal until the second tunnel, the shortest with only 124 meters. The red bridge below is the Seichaku bridge, and it leads to Honkokuji temple, which is connected to Nichiren.

The final and third tunnel is 850 m long and leads to Keage in Kyoto, near Nanzen-ji temple. Directly next to it is a beautiful Western-style building, the former Imperial Palace Water Pump Station. From here, the water of the canal takes a 30 m or so plunge to the Keage Power Plant to produce electricity for Kyoto. This Keage Incline, where the boats were brought down on rails, is famous for its cherry trees in spring. Another branch canal takes water to the nearby aqueduct of Nanzen-ji temple. From there it also feeds the canal on the Philosopher’s Path.

I really enjoyed going on this trip and I recommend it to everyone. With only 12 passengers per boat plus two staff members, it is an almost intimate experience. For 55 minutes, you’ll see a part of Kyoto and hear of a history that even many Japanese are not aware of. You should give it a try! This year, the schedule has been greatly reduced (thanks, Corona), and it may be hard to get a spot on one of the boats. Alternatively, you can also walk or cycle along the canal, and while the perspective is different, it’s still something very special to do.

For more info on the Lake Biwa Canal and decidedly better photos than mine, check out their homepage here: https://biwakososui.kyoto.travel/en/ By the way: I recommend not just taking the cruise, but going to Otsu a bit early and spending time there and on Lake Biwa for a nicely rounded day trip.

Made Official

Just today, I received the documents for the property registration. That means that now Kyoto City too knows that the house is mine. I am quite surprised about the speed with which this happened – only seven days after the purchase. In Austria, this procedure alone can take months to complete. Most of the time, people are already living in their new home before the official registration is completed!

As I mentioned, this will still take a bit more time for me because of the renovations. Yesterday, I went to the house to take measurements and spend some time there, daydreaming… I mean: planning things. While I am eager to start the renovations and get moving, first I need to figure out what I actually want with the rooms. There’s not much point in hiring somebody to “fix my house” if I can’t explain what I want to have done.

Some things will also need a bit more attention than I thought at first. There are veritable holes in some walls! And where the hell do all those cables come from/lead to? But overall, I’m very happy about it. So much so, that I already left my scent mark in the form of a roll of toilet paper. Not that I can use the toilet because the water’s not turned on again, but still. Baby steps!

Koto

What do you “hear” when I ask you to think of traditional Japanese music? Is it the shakuhachi, the bamboo flute, or the shamisen or biwa, guitar-like string instruments? Most likely, it’s the soft tones of the Japanese koto, ubiquitous in many videos about Japan.

The koto is one of Japan’s string instruments, a large zither-like instrument with origins in China. It’s made from Paulownia wood, is 180 cm long and has typically 13 silken strings. It is played with the right hand (using fingerpicks) and the left hand is used as support and to move the bridges that are used by tuning – sometimes even during the performance of a piece.

As mentioned above, and like many other things, the koto has its origins in China, and it was introduced to Japan somewhere in the 7th or 8th century. It is already mentioned in the Genji Monogatari of the 11th century, so it must have been quite widespread at this time already.

There once were different types of koto, and interestingly, as far as professional musicians go, these were exclusively blind men in the beginning. Only when this rule was changed, were women allowed to play and to teach the instrument. For this reason, many of the traditional songs were written by men.

With the westernization beginning with the Meiji Restoration, koto music, together with other Japanese traditions, lost a lot of its appeal for the Japanese, who were more likely to study the violin or other classical instruments of the Western canon.

However, Michio Miyagi, a blind man who reached the highest rank of koto performer when he was just 18 years old, created many new songs in which he combined the traditional and the Western style of music. His piece below is called “Tegoto” and I like it because it is so dynamic and shows off not only the instrument’s unique sound, but also the player.

The sound is not the best in this video, but you can see the hands of Ms. Kimoto at every note of the song. Enjoy!

Mine

So, this is the “really big thing” I was talking about beginning of September. And since yesterday, it’s officially mine.

A bit of background: I’ve been looking for a house on and off for about a year now. I’ve seen around 15 houses in various stages of (dis)repair, from recently renovated to barely holding together. Finding something decent is even harder if you have specific wants, like sunlight, coupled with a limited budget. So, I’m very happy this house came on the market at just the right time.

Although, technically, it was never “on the market”, at least it wasn’t widely advertised as for sale. Back in early August, my friend Junko and I were visiting another property of a real estate agent when he mentioned “oh, this one’s just in”; it didn’t even have a price tag yet. It took a bit of back and forth on the price on his end, and a bit of back and forth on “do I or don’t I” on my end, but it’s all over and done with now.

A few details: The house is 53 years old, and around 90 square meters big on two floors. It’s a bit farther away from the city centre than I originally wanted (even farther than my place now), but it makes up for the extra travel time: It lies in the Higashiyama mountains in a very quiet neighbourhood, and it is open to the south side, so the living space is very sunny.

As you can see from the photos below, it does need some renovations before I can move in; it was empty for about a year. But these are mostly cosmetic changes, the underlying structure is very good. Essentially, I am thinking of remodelling the first floor to Western style with an office, kitchen and living room; while leaving the second floor and its tatami rooms mostly intact. Don’t worry, I’m going to post more details about the renovations, you’ll probably get sick of them soon…

I am not sure when I’ll be able to move; end of October seems overly optimistic, but then again, I’m not planning on a complete overhaul of the new place, and Japanese companies are super efficient. Wish me luck!

View from the entrance. To the right is the office, then the staircase, and then the living room. Straight ahead lies the kitchen. To the left is the tiny bathroom/toilet block.
Designated office space; overlooking the street in front of the house. According to Junko, this room was used for guests and probably had big cushy chairs in it – at the 4 white tiles, probably? Right now, it’s pretty dark and depressing, a typical 70s home as I grew up in.
Living Room downstairs. Except for the stain on the tatami, it’s in pretty good shape. This photo was shot with flash, so it’s not quite as bright in reality, even though it faces south.
Kitchen. Bright and sunny, but ancient. The furniture is all metal. Well, it’ll fit with the washing machine – there’s no space for that in the bathroom.
Upstairs living room with a balcony – you just have to climb through the windows… It needs new tatami and a lick of paint on the walls, but other than that, I want to keep it as it is.
Bedroom, with view over the street in the north. I don’t know why the wallpaper is peeling, but this is the only thing wrong with it. It’ll also need new tatami because I’ll be sleeping on the floor.

Coin Locker Babies

Coin Locker Babies
Ryu Murakami

When Kiku and Hashi meet at an orphanage, the two boys quickly bond and become friends, because of their shared history: Both were abandoned by their mothers in coin lockers at train stations in Tokyo. They are adopted by parents from a rural village where they grow up together, but at all times they keep harbouring the wish of finding their mothers. As young adults, both leave the village and return to Tokyo where they end up in Toxitown, an abandoned plot of land within the city where outcasts, criminals, and other lost cases end up. Hashi eventually escapes to become a successful singer, but in the end, Kiku’s destructive tendencies will catch up with both boys.

An interesting story of two boys looking for the love of a mother they never knew. While each of them seemingly finds their own solution to the feeling of loss, in the end, they both succumb to violence and self-destruction. It would not be a book by Ryu Murakami if they didn’t…

Ryu Murakami was born in 1952, and started his artistic career as a member of a number of bands, before moving on to film and writing books. His first book, written in university, won him the acclaimed Akutagawa Prize for fiction, only the first of many more prizes to come. A number of his novels have been turned into films. Most of his works center around the dark side of humanity, they describe sex, violence, drug use, and the abysses of the human soul in general very graphically, and are not for the faint of heart.

If you want to try anyway, Coin Locker Babies is available on amazon.

Photogenic Cat Exhibition

We had a holiday today, the autumnal equinox. I’m still very busy with work; there are four projects I’m involved in right now with European clients; with steep workloads and tight deadlines. However, somehow this week all four got delayed for some reason or other, and when I hadn’t received a single job this morning, I jumped at the occasion and took the day off.

I now have to admit that I was very naughty. Instead of staying at home reading, as I would have done otherwise, I joined friends of mine on a day trip to Otsu on Lake Biwa. Why naughty? Because we’re still under a state of emergency until the end of the month; we shouldn’t travel at all, and definitely not across prefectural borders…

However, all four of us have been fully vaccinated; the venue is less than 30 minutes drive away from my place (and 11 minutes by train from Kyoto station); and I guess that half of Otsu’s population work in Kyoto or Osaka anyway. “Dear God, please make sure I always have an excuse handy.”

This is why we didn’t think twice when Kosuke Ota announced his exhibition “The Story of Biwako Cats”. Ota-san is a retired war photographer who worked in the Yugoslavian war, in Iraq etc. In his retirement, he moved to Otsu and documents the feral cat population that roams the area around the Biwako Otsukan, where the exhibition was held.

Taken from Ota-san’s blog: http://uchino-toramaru.blog.jp/

We met the photographer there, who kindly signed two of his books for my friend. And afterwards we had delicious Belgian waffles in the restaurant on the first floor. Towards late afternoon, we met some of the cats starring in the exhibition and took some pictures of our own (not quite so masterfully though).

I had a great day, and it was worth going out. This is the first time I left Kyoto since last October, when I went on the Lake Biwa Canal Cruise – for which, I now see, have never posted any pictures… Well, it’s been almost a year, so it’s time for that soon.

Fully Vaccinated

Time for celebrations – I got my second Corona shot yesterday afternoon! I was fine yesterday evening and today as well, but now I’m working up a bit of a fever. Nothing serious – yet – so I’ll just put myself to bed with some hot tea and my grandmother’s sure-fire cure for colds. I’m sure I’ll be fine again tomorrow.

I’m glad I am finally fully vaccinated, there were some bumps on the road initially. As mentioned before, I registered for my shots in the beginning of July and expected a quick turnaround. Unfortunately, there were supply problems, so Kyoto Prefecture stopped all vaccinations for about 3 weeks. So, my first appointment was only on August 14.

But once the schedule was fixed, everything went smoothly. We were asked to arrive 10 minutes early, and then we were taken through the procedure in small groups of 4 people to minimize waiting time. There were 6 stations for my first shot, and 5 for the second one (no need to make another appointment), from name taking to health checking to the actual jab.

Excepting the waiting time before and after, the whole procedure took only 10 minutes. Everything was super organised, the volunteers – many students but also adults – were very friendly and patient, and I felt well taken care of. Japan for the win!

Anyway, not much is going to change with respect to masks and other restrictions. With relatively low vaccination rates (some 40% have received both, 50% only one shot) and the delta variant breezing through the country, we’ll be lucky if there’s no further lockdown, pardon me: state of emergency. I’m not very optimistic though…

Anyway, off to bed with tea and a book. See you soon!

Sushi in Film

I spend too much time online. On youtube in particular. There are many interesting videos out there, mostly about cats, but every now and then, something else catches my eye. This one is fun: a master sushi chef from Tokyo rates the skills of other “chefs” as seen in movies or on TV.

Sushi master Endo Kazutoshi looks at nine sushi scenes from popular TV shows and movies and rates them based on realism. Endo is a third-generation sushi master specializing in the Edomae style of sushi, a technique particular to Tokyo. He was born in Yokohama and has been working in kitchens for 26 years.

From the video description.