Japanese Era

After writing the post about my troubles with the expiration dates, I realized that it could be even worse: They could write “25” instead of “13“.

train ticket with era dating in the bottom left cornerJapan is a monarchy, and every emperor has his own era name. The reigning emperor ascended the throne in 1989, which marked the beginning of a new Japanese era. Currently, we live in Heisei 25, and while Japan is mostly using the standard Gregorian calender, the era years, called nengo, are still used – for government documents, CV’s, or on railway tickets, for example.

The era name is used as posthumous name for the emperor reigning through it, so the reigning emperor Akihito will be referred to as emperor Heisei after his death; and he was born in the year Showa 7, the era (and now the name) of his father. This is actually in line with Buddhist customs, where the deceased acquire a new name under which they are worshipped on the family altar. Note that a new era can start at any time during a year, so for example 1989 is known both as Showa 73 and Heisei 1. After that, the era years start on January 1st as usual.

To avoid confusion in Western writing, era years can be distinguished by using their first letter as abbreviation before the number, so it would be appropriate to write H25 for the current year. It is good that the last four eras – reaching back to the mid 19th century – all start with a different letter: Going back in time, we have Heisei (peace everywhere, since 1989), Showa (abundant benevolence, since 1926), Taisho (great righteousness, since 1912) and Meiji (enlightened rule, since 1868). The Meiji emperor was also the one to decree the rule of “one emperor – one era”, as before that, era names changed much more frequently – during his father’s reign of 21 years, there were seven different eras. Then the names were changed almost at a whim – both in case of disasters or lucky events, a new name was chosen to bring more luck to the country. Automatic name changes took place in certain fixed years of a regency, and at some point in history, it was common for the emperor to abdicate after a rather short reign, yet increasing the number of eras even further.

The tradition of era names is modeled after that of the Chinese court, and it was officially and finally adopted in 701 by emperor Mommu, after two attempts of doing so before were short lived. As the Japanese don’t seem to abandon their traditions lightly, I guess their eras will be around for as long as there is an emperor – and I don’t see that changing any time soon either.


I love Japanese food. Ever since I came here I have indulged in a variety of take-home bento menues. Of course, I can’t cook any of that myself, there are much better chefs out there than me. My tandem partner Tomoko has told me that traditionally, Japanese people should eat 30 different foods every day – and once you see how many ingredients and preparation steps even the most basic Japanese dishes require, you’ll certainly believe that.

Anyway, one of the few things I can cook myself – mainly because it does not require any cooking 😉 – is this basic starter, which I first had when I stayed with a friend’s family in Nagoya two years ago. avocado with soy sauce

Avocado with soy sauce
All you need is a ripe avocado (meaning the peel must be black or brown already) and some soy sauce of the type that is usually served with sushi. Cut the avocado in half, remove the pit, fill the soy sauce in the holes. Optionally you can add some wasabi here for that extra spicy touch. Use a spoon to eat the avocado right out of the peel.

As I said, usually half an avocado prepared like this is considered a starter and the main dish with rice and fish is to follow. However, I often eat a whole avocado together with some very dark rye bread and make it a full dinner this way. It’s done in less than five minutes (certainly a plus after a long day in the office) and I like it very much. The only important thing is to make sure that the avocado is really ripe. Otherwise just spooning it out of the peel is not possible (and will result in many hard to clean soy-sauce stains) and cutting it into pieces and eating it with the soy sauce poured over it is not quite the same thing – believe me, I have tried…

Daruma doll

As several of my friends asked about the picture adorning the “About Me” page, I thought a short explanation is in order.

Japanese daruma dollThis is a daruma doll. It is used by the Japanese as a talisman for good luck and it is also seen as a symbol of perseverance. The idea behind this is the following: Daruma dolls are purchased without eyes. You make a wish – or set a goal – and while doing so you paint in one eye of the doll. When your wish is fulfilled – or your goal reached – you reward the daruma by painting in the second eye.

Daruma dolls are made out of paper mache or some similar light material, but with a very heavy base, which makes them impossible to topple over – hence the symbol of perseverance, an endless falling and getting up again. They are modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism who lived in the 6th century. The story goes that he meditated for nine years without moving, so his legs atrophied – hence the round shape of the dolls. They come in many colors and sizes, but most of them are red – the color of a head priest’s robe – and fit comfortably in two hands. The eyebrows and the beard are modeled after animals that symbolise longevity – the eyebrows have the shape of a crane, and the beard on the cheeks the shape of a tortoise. However, the design here may vary according to where they have been made.

Nowadays, daruma are widely sold in souvenir shops, but traditionally they could be bought only at Buddhist temples. The idea was that a doll was “valid” for one year only, and at the end of the year you would return it back to the temple where you bought it, where a ceremony would be held to thank the Bodhidharma for the services rendered, and then the dolls would be ritually burned. I am not sure what to do if a wish is not fulfilled within the year you bought the doll though…

In any case, my daruma was bought in a simple souvenir shop in Miyajima last year, so I don’t have to return it anywhere. And I don’t have any intentions to burn it until my wish is granted, no matter how long that takes.

What my wish is? Oh, can’t you guess…?

Data entry

I spent all day writing new versions of my resume – both on- and offline. There is a specific job I’d like to apply for, and the company expects a CV – in Japanese.

Only a small reason to panic…

There is in fact a standard form for Japanese CV’s; it covers everything an employer needs to know for the first impression – on two pages only. It can be bought in stationary stores and some companies expect you to use their own, but online forms are also available, for example here. The start of the first page looks like this:

A Japanese CV
Header of a Japanese CV

So, what do we have… Besides the usual name, date of birth and age, current address, questions about married status and dependents, as well as a photo on the right,  there is also the question about commute time from the current residence to the company – these costs are usually reimbursed. What is absent is place of birth and nationality – Japanese law forbids discrimination based on this (together with discrimination based on gender, religion, or social status). The largest spot is reserved for education and work experience – you are expected to enter all you ever did, starting from elementary school in chronological order. There is also a field for licences and certificates (a driver’s licence get’s the number one spot!), and a rather small one for the triple “Why I want this job / What I can do (skills) / What I like to do (hobbies)”. There is even a field for “requests to the company” which includes salary, but I am not sure how far you can go here. Apparently it’s okay to ask to be placed in a specific branch office in the country.

A detailed “how to fill in a Japanese CV form” can be found on this page, by the way.

Generally these forms are A3 size, with the two pages next to each other. I said above that these forms are available in stationary stores – that is because it is customary to fill it in by hand. I have heard that companies in Japan have handwriting analysts to find out the character and whatnot of the employee-to-be. Well, as my handwritten Japanese resembles that of a five year old, I’ll better don’t try any experiments here – typed it is.

In any case, I’m exhausted now, but now I can start my job hunt in earnest… Wish me luck!

Aoi Matsuri

Last Wednesday, I visited the Aoi matsuri. It takes place every year on May 15th, and is thus the first of the three main matsuri (festivals) in Kyoto (the others are the Gion festival in July and the Jidai festival in October).

Aoi matsuri dates back to the 6th century, when the emperor sent an emissary to the shrines to perform rituals to end a famine caused by ceaseless rains. The name derives from the hollyhock (aoi) leaves all participants wear on their garments, but officially it is named Kamo matsuri, because it involves rituals at two shrines in Kyoto.

Rider with attendant
A rider with his attendant

Essentially, Aoi matsuri is a procession of more than 500 people – all dressed in elaborate Heian-era costumes –  35 horses and two large ox carts, which starts at the imperial palace, stops at Shimagamo shrine for the first set of rituals (that take about two hours), and then moves on to Kamigamo shrine for the final rituals.

An archer - check out his boots!

Among the 500 people participating in the procession, there are two main figures: Firstly, the imperial messenger, who leads the procession on horseback and is responsible for presenting the emperor’s offerings at the shrines. Secondly, the Saio-dai, a young unmarried woman from Kyoto (in former days a close relative of the reigning emperor) who dedicates herself to Shimogamo shrine. She has to undergo a purification ritual before the festival, and she is the eye catcher of the procession, as she wears the most elaborate of all garments (a so called 12-layer-robe junihitoe, which essentially consists of 12 kimonos word on top of each other) and is carried along in a palanquin. The procession starts at 10:30 at the Imperial Palace and arrives at Kamigamo shrine at around 15:30, so the festival takes all day.

The Saio Dai in her palanquin
The Saio-Dai

I went to the palace about an hour before the start of the procession, and I was lucky to secure a spot in the second row of spectators. It was a perfect day for the spectacle, with bright blue sky, but not too hot weather. Once the procession started, it moved relatively fast, the whole thing had passed me within one hour. It was fascinating to watch…

Decorated Ox Cart
Decorated Ox Cart

As I said, there were about 500 participants; men either on foot or on horseback, dressed as warriors, courtiers, priests, acting as attendants or carrying various types of offerings to the shrines or simply responsibility; women, all dressed in multiple layered kimono, some underneath large umbrellas, others on horseback, some on foot, as attendants to the Saio-Dai; and a number of young girls, also representing attendants of the Saio-Dai. Then there were two large ox carts, with man-high, creaking, gold-leafed wooden wheels, pulled by an ox and pushed by maybe 10 men. The whole procession was an explosion of colour, everything was heavily decorated, there were flowers and the hollyhock leaves… it was beautiful.

Ladies of the court - notice the hollyhock leaves

After the procession had passed, the crowd dispersed surprisingly quickly. Although I had not intended it, I went along to Shimogamo shrine after all. Unfortunately I came to late, so I did not see any of the offerings done at the shrine itself. I was, however, lucky enough not to miss the big thing: the horse race. At Shimogamo shrine, there is a short racetrack, where five horses competed in three races. They rode consecutively and were timed individually – unfortunately I had no way of finding out the winner. Again, both riders and horses wore Heian-style attire, and it did not seem easy to stay in the saddle at full speed… Once again I was lucky to get a good spot there as well to take some pictures of the action.

Horse in the race
Horse racing at Shimogamo shrine

However, after the race I decided not to go further to Kamigamo shrine, as it is quite far outside, and also as I would again not have been able to arrive on time to secure a good spot from which to see the offerings. Now I know that there is apparently some archery – from horseback – involved in those rituals… Oh well, next year.

In any case, it was an exciting and beautiful day (I have the sunburn to prove it) and I’m already looking forward to the next matsuri.