Bullet Train

Bullet Train
Kotaro Isaka

The Hayate Shinkasen leaves Tokyo for Morioka. A number of extraordinary people are on board, they are all dangerous – and on a mission:
Nanao must steal a suitcase and get off at the next station, but he isn’t the world’s unluckiest assassin for nothing…
Kimura is bent on revenge, but his target, known as The Prince, manages to turn the tables…
Lemon and Tangerine have rescued the son of a crime boss and are supposed to accompany him home, but when the boy winds up dead, they instead must find the killer before they arrive, if he’s still on board…

And while the train makes its way up north, these passengers’ goals become intertwined, and in the end, it’s all about who’s the last one standing.

Talk about a fast-paced thriller – no pun intended! I finished the book within a day. There is no ounce of fat in the narrative, every person, every thing that is introduced has its role to play at some later point. That means, you’ll need to pay attention throughout, but this never becomes tedious or annoying.

Interestingly, although all five main characters were decidedly bad people that I would go out of my way to avoid, I found myself rooting for one – and absolutely despising another.

If I had to quibble about something, it would be the introduction of two new characters close to the end, it felt too much of a “deus ex machina” to me. However, since they brought the story to a nice close and dealt beautifully with my least favourite bad boy, I will forgive the author for doing so.

Kotaro Isaka, born 1971, is a Japanese author of mystery fiction. He studied law at Tohoku University and after graduation worked as a systems engineer. His debut novel won the 2000 Shincho Mystery Club Prize and Isaka became a full time writer afterwards. He writes novels, short stories and manga, and 12 of his books have been adopted for film or TV so far. This particular thriller even made it to Hollywood and Brad Pitt.

It seems that the film has “adapted” the novel quite a bit – the train now goes into the opposite direction to Kyoto, for example – so if you’d like to read the original,you can get it from amazon.

Valentine’s Dinos

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I hope you got lots of chocolates, flowers, romantic cards… whatever it is you give your loved ones in your country!

In Japan, it’s chocolates. But even though Valentine’s Day is when women give chocolates to the “men in their lives” which includes colleagues as well, I always buy chocolates for myself during this time. The reason is simple:

There are chocolates in the shape of planets, cars, motorcycles, animals, pokemon and other anime characters – this year I even found swords and shuriken! There are dozens of flavours with or without alcohol and all sizes and price ranges… Every year from mid January on, I’m in heaven!

This year, I went shopping very early so I wouldn’t miss one of these:

I love that the package is shaped like a book that you can open, and the eggs below the fossil add that special touch.

There will be more chocolates for sale next month on White Day, when men have to reciprocate, but the variety is much more limited: Hello Kitty, roses in red and pink, and marshmallows dominate the (significantly smaller) displays.

I’m sorry, that just doesn’t cut it; I mean: Where are MY dinosaurs? (Yes, I’m still science girl.) Not to mention that white chocolate isn’t chocolate, end of discussion. Yes, that’s one of the hills I’m ready to die on.

I’m a Winner!

2024 is starting out very positively indeed! Just like two years ago, I won the nengajo lottery. When I saw that I had won another set of stamps, I was hoping for dragons. I love dragons! Well, not quite, this year we got:

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how this is called, it’s a bundle of ribbons or pieces of cloth or possibly tenugui. However, this is a very traditional design and can be found in many versions on many a kimono.

Edit: Thanks to my knowledgeable Japanese friends, I now know that this is called a noshi. Traditionally, this was a strip of dried abalone attached to a gift as decoration and to symbolize longevity. Today, the custom has changed to thin, colorful paper strings that are tied around a gift or an envelope with money in it for weddings or funerals.


As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have had a certain revelation about my state of mind that instantly took a lot of weight off my shoulders. Since then, I’ve been busy picking up loose ends and cleaning them up. And already on the first weekend, I have made a fairly big decision regarding my private life.

To be marginally more precise: I have met somebody whom, for the purposes of this blog, I’d like to call Mr. TDH (tall, dark, and handsome – very handsome!). That as such is no surprise, after all, in Japan, 80% of the men fit into this category. Oh, how I love this country! The surprise is that the interest seems to be mutual.

At least, I think it is. There is the staring from across the room just to look elsewhere when caught, the stealthily moving closer, the friendly but prolonged touches, the banter and the teasing, I even got a “want to try my whiskey?” when I last saw him. (Yes I do!)

Now, if this were a Western guy doing all this, anywhere on the planet, heck, in outer space – I would be absolutely sure what was going on. Even with an Asian guy in the West or returning from there, I would reason that he probably picked up some dating behaviours, and I’d still be pretty confident that he’s flirting with me.

However. Mr. TDH is a Japanese guy, never lived abroad, is an introvert to boot – and I don’t know how to interpret the signals he’s sending. If he is sending them at all, mind you. What if it’s all in my imagination? (Been there, done that, didn’t end well…)

Also, while we’ve shared some fairly personal experiences about growing up, I haven’t mustered the courage to ask if he’s married… because it’s awkward at the best of times and I don’t know if in Japan it’s culturally appropriate to do so.

What I mean by that? Well, in Japan, it’s perfectly fine to ask somebody’s age, no matter whether it’s a man or a woman (yes, I have established his birthday!). This is to ascertain the hierarchy between two people, and to know who is supposed to use keigo respect language, which, technically at least, is a thing even in intimate relationships.

At the same time, I’m really not sure if “are you married” is just as normal to ask in a society where the private lives of people stay private to the point of being actively hidden. There are many people who don’t wear wedding rings and many women choose to use their maiden names at work even after they are married and have kids.

Sigh. As you can see, I’ve worked myself into quite a frenzy over this, which has the potential to lead me right back to where I was earlier this year. So, I have made a decision regarding Mr. TDH, and it is: Take a step back and simply enjoy the attention!

Even if there is nothing there, even if he just thinks that hugging good-bye is so normal in the West that we do it with everybody and all the time: it still feels good. And I can do with more of these moments right now. There’s time for probing questions (and the potential disappointment) later.

My Favourite Dragons

2024 is the Year of the Dragon in Japan (all over Asia, actually), and dragons are a popular motif in Japanese art. They have a special connection to Zen temples, where dragons are often depicted on the ceilings of their main halls. Since they are considered to live in water, placing their image there is a prayer for protection from fires (not very successfully, as history shows). Dragons are also thought to protect the Buddhist Dharma and to keep a watchful eye over the priests and congregation below them.

My favourite dragon painting is that of Kennin-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, founded in 1202. In contrast, the painting was only created in 2000, so it has a very vibrant and modern feel to it and provides a stark contrast to the old temple hall. Here it is:

It’s actually two dragons intertwined instead of only one; one of them with mouth closed, the other one with mouth open, reminiscent of the guardian lions that can be found at many temple and even shrine entrances. They seem to fight over one single ball of treasure, which one of them holds proudly in a 5-clawed paw, something that is rare in Japan. Most dragon paintings here have only 4 or even just 3 claws, the use of the 5-clawed dragon was reserved for the Chinese emperor.

Anyway, the painting is stunning and whenever I go there, I spend some time sitting down and following the bodies of the dragons, trying to find all the parts and figuring out to which dragon they belong. Sadly, Kennin-ji has become very touristy (I remember when I first visited it, there was nobody there), so it’s less peaceful than it once was 10 years ago.

Out & About

Just a wee bit late… Yesterday, my friend from Tokyo visited Kyoto for a short day trip. We went to no less than three museums, one of them even for free and unofficially, because we arrived between exhibitions and the nice lady downstairs let us in anyway.

We had ramen for lunch and coffee and sweets as final act of the day before my friend returned home again. I always enjoy our outings, she’s curious and flexible and very happy to try and experience all sorts of new things with me.

After our outing, I found myself at Kitaoji Bus Terminal and decided to buy a new IC card for public transport. Of course, I have one – a so-called SUICA I bought years ago in Tokyo – and while it’s still perfectly valid and functional, the Kansai region has recently introduced a discount system for commuters and other heavy users that only works with the local IC cards PiTaPa or ICOCA.

I thought I could simply buy one of these and be done with it after registering my address, but it turns out that the PiTaPa is only available via (online) application, because it is in fact a post-paid card that requires a connected bank account for automatic payment at the end of each month.

In any case, it took a while to explain to the two people at the information counter what I wanted from them; in turn it took a while for them to explain to me the requirements… Finally, I got the advice to “research PiTaPa on the internet”.

“Is there a URL,” I asked, “can you please write it down for me.” This is the note I received:

I think I discovered peak stupidity.

Reflections and Realizations

Sorry for not keeping up with the schedule I promised. Last week was a continuation of last year’s issues I mentioned in the Christmas Break post below. Essentially I spent last week watching that one video over and over again. (No, this does not appear to be pathological. According to somebody on the internet.)

It went so far that I actually asked somebody for help with my mental state, something I have done exactly once before in my life, despite having been depressed for roughly half of that time.


Then I thought that I can’t just meet somebody and say “well, I have no idea what the problem is, really, but fix it anyway.”

So, last Friday I tried to figure out what actually is wrong. And after walking up and down in my house talking to myself out loud (Yes. I’m so glad I live alone. Pumpkin doesn’t mind, he thinks it’s all about him.) it finally hit me:

I’m not depressed right now. I’m stuck.

So, last year was bad in its entirety: professionally, financially, mental health-wise… And in that time, I created too many loose ends. Loose ends that need to be picked up again and taken care of.

Unfortunately, when it comes to things like these, I’ve always been quite indecisive, prone to procrastination. It takes me ages to come to a conclusion and act upon it, and in this case I felt that pulling at the wrong thread (and there were many) might lead to everything blowing up in my face.

Yet again, the simple realization of what was actually wrong led to a feeling of intense clarity. The same kind of clarity I felt when I finally decided to move to Japan. It’s a wonderful feeling. “The unbearable lightness of clarity” I like to call it.

Mind you, that doesn’t mean that I know exactly what to do next. Just the general direction. And picking up the loose ends and dealing with them, one thread at a time, is what lies ahead. I have no idea what will happen when I do that, but I’ll find out soon enough. I’m expecting to create more loose ends, but I can deal with those too in due cause.

I’m feeling better already.

Starting 2024

I’m back from taking time off (line) and while I’d like to say “Happy New Year”, the year of the dragon didn’t start very auspiciously in Japan, as you surely know.

There was the Noto Earthquake on January 1 at 16:10. Yes, I’m okay; no, Kyoto is 400 km far away (roughly); and yes: we could feel the earthquake in Kyoto as well. The tremors arrived a few minutes after the original earthquake with a magnitude of 4 (7.6 at the epicenter). My old house shook quite a bit, and it didn’t stop as quickly as usual – even 10 seconds can feel longer than you think!

When I realized that this was a big earthquake – somewhere at least – I stood in a door frame as per the recommendation for older buildings. In newer ones you should protect your head by hiding under a table. Pumpkin came to me on my first call and there we stood, waiting…

After the shaking had ended, I went downstairs to watch the news, Pumpkin always on my lap. For the next six hours or, one message only was repeated over and over again: “A tsunami is imminent – evacuate immediately.” The announcer pleaded urgently and in a surprisingly fearful tone; and the first major tsunami warning predicting waves of over 5 meters was issued since Tohoku 2011.

In the end, it didn’t appear to get quite that bad, but the images from the affected region are heartbreaking, regardless. By now, there are reports of 206 fatalities, 665 injuries, and the damage goes into the billions of yen. Certainly this wasn’t the fresh start into the year the people from Ishikawa prefecture were hoping for.

January 2 ramped up the shock value with a plane crash at Haneda airport in the evening. Upon landing, a JAL airbus collided with a plane from the coastguard, which was deployed to bring relief to Ishikawa, no less, and both planes turned into a fireball. Five of the coast guard died, but all the airbus passengers and crew escaped the fire, which burned for six hours.

Finally, on January 3, a shopping mall in Kitakyushu burned to the ground, marking the end of the New Year holidays. I then, stopped watching the news. The last year was depressing enough, I don’t need to continue in that lane. Let’s focus on the positive for the remaining 356 days of 2024!