Putting up the Shutters

Every two weeks now I have been visiting the Kyoto Tourist Information Office on Kawaramachi/Sanjo to scout out events for What’s up in Kyoto. They have lots of flyers for traditional events, garden illuminations and museum exhibitions, and also pretty much all the booklets, newsletters and papers written for tourists coming to Kyoto. And for the hapless foreigner, they also offer services like restaurant bookings etc. I don’t remember when I first found them, it must have been years ago. The staff are super friendly, all speak English, and over the years, we got to know each other. But after today, I will probably never see them again…

Thanks to the COVID-19-induced travel restrictions, there haven’t been any foreign tourists for a year, and even national travel has dropped considerably during that time. Therefore, the city has decided to close this office, and everybody working there will be out of a job tomorrow morning.

I was shocked when they first told me. Of course, with Europe in the throes of the third wave and vaccinations only really proceeding in the US and Isreal, it’s unlikely that there will be many foreign tourists in Kyoto this year either, at the very earliest in autumn. But I thought there were enough Japanese tourists who would use the service, but apparently that’s not the case, not even now, during hanami. Still, I didn’t expect them to close, but on the other hand I cannot blame the city for cutting costs left and right.

Where will I get my event flyers in the future? Today, I was told that a small space with flyers remains open at Kawaramachi/Sanjo, just the office that lies behind will be closed. And there’s always the main office at Kyoto Station, even though it’s a bit out of the way and it takes me twice as long to get there… Oh well, I’ll figure something out!

As for the staff at Kawaramachi/Sanjo, I hope they’ll find new jobs soon. Thank you for all your help during the years! Sayonara!

Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman
Sayaka Murata

There is something odd about Keiko Furukura. She has few friends, no hobbies, doesn’t care about food and often takes things literally. Her family members have long given up on “making her normal” and mostly let her live her life. Keiko’s life is simple and centers on her part-time work in a Tokyo convience store. The daily routines ground her and she takes social cues like speech or dress from her coworkers.
Things change when Shiraha starts working at the store. In his mid-thirties, he only wants to find a wife but is continually disappointed. When he gets fired for stalking a customer, Keiko suggests a relationship of convenience. Shiraha is pleased at first, but then he forces her to choose between him and her work…

This novella (165 pages) showcases the fringes of society. Keiko seems to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, she is socially inept and we hardly hear about her life outside of work. However, she is content with her life as it is and her coworkers value her.
Shiraha on the other hand is a university dropout and incel who wants to get back at society by mooching off of it. I hated him with a passion (what woman wouldn’t) and felt sorry for Keiko who believed he would be her ticket to a normal, society-approved life.

Sayaka Murata, born in 1979, is a renowned Japanese writer. She started to write her first novel in elementary school, which prompted her mother to buy her a wordprocessor. By now, she has written 11 novels, already her first won the Gunzo Prize for New Writers. Subsequent books were nominated for the Mishima Yukio Prize, which she won at her fourth nomination. Convenience Store Woman won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize and was her first book to be translated into English. Throughout her writing carreer, she kept working part-time at a convenience store.

Delve into her world filled with interesting people and get Convenience Store Woman from amazon.

Bamboo Weaving

A few weeks ago was Design Week Kyoto, a period of 10 days each February, where art studios and small factories producing Kyoto crafts are open to the public. It’s an eclectic mix of things like textiles, paper, ceramics and bamboo crafts, but also swordsmiths, a producer of artificial limbs, and a firm dealing with traditional architecture for shrines and temples are on the list of places you can visit. And some even offer short classes to learn the very basics of a craft.

Personally, I have been interested in bamboo weaving, that is, making baskets, for a while. So, together with a friend, I took the opportunity to produce one at the bamboo store Takenoko that took part in Design Week. Here’s what I started out with and what I was supposed to have produced after 90 minutes of work or so (and I did pretty well, actually):

This is the simplest basket of them all because the top is woven too instead of cut and as you can see, the bottom, which is the most difficult part, was already prepared for us. The bamboo pieces had all been prepared and they had to be rather wet to make them easy to use. I was surprised at the change of color of the material. Wet, the bamboo was almost orange, but now that it is thorougly dry, it is a light beige only.

Overall, the weaving itself was very simple to do, but at the same time, it is hard to be precise. Of course, like with everything else, it is a question of time and routine to make good pieces, but it must take years of effort to produce some of the exquisite crafts I saw in the shop of the Takenoko.

Anyway, I would love to pursue this is a hobby, but sadly, the shop doesn’t offer classes beyond this one. Which means that I’ll have to look for a good teacher elsewhere in Kyoto because I don’t think this one is easy to learn on your own. Oh my, so many interesting things to learn!

Chocolate Cornets

If you’ve been reading here for a while you may have noticed that I have a thing for all things sweet. Chocolate in particular. Wherever I go, I try the local chocolate thing to see if it’s worth it. (Note: none of the national Nutella-knock-offs are, just stick to the real stuff.)

So I was very happy when I discovered these little things, which the Japanese call Chocolate Cornets:

They are wonderful for breakfast or as an afternoon snack. Heck, whom am I kidding here: They are great 24/7 and for any occasion! These pastries are palm-sized and really nothing more than a soft sweet yeast dough filled with chocolate custard. You can find them in most of the cheaper bakeries in Japan.

The interesting thing about them is that they are a true Japanese invention, even though they might not look very exotic. They are named after the Western music instrument cornet because they resemble them (or so I am told).

In any case, if you have an oven and would like to try out these delicious chocolate pastries, here is a detailed recipe with wonderful images and even a youtube video to watch. Bon appetit!
https://cookingwithdog.com/recipe/chocolate-cornets/

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 for What’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!