New Trend: Mokushoku

Today was one of the days when I fled my apartment mid-morning because of all the noise next door. (No more complaints, promised!) I went to my favourite cafe nearby to get some writing done, as usual. But I arrived to a rather unusual setting.

I did mention that we’re in another “lockdown” until May 5, right? For my dear beloved that means that there are now two more tables for two (my favourites) that you can’t sit at because of social distancing. And the huge table that dominates the room and usually sits 12 people at least, if not more (never counted pre-Corona, honestly), has now only 6 chairs left, three on each side. No wonder they had to raise the prices (2 yen per cup of “Royal Milk Tea”, but it’s ’bout the principle.) Thankfully, I did find an empty spot, but on the table was a notice like this one:

(I recreated this at home because no smartphone to take pictures… but I carefully took down all the kanji and even tried to match the colors.) It says:

Silent Meal

Please cooperate with the silent meal. Conversations with meals pose a risk of infection. We recommend “silent meals” to prevent infection. Separate “conversation” and “meal” and refrain from “conversation without mask”.

Well, that’s definitely a new one! And it’s hilarious. Just think about it: How is it possible that speaking while having a meal is a bigger infection risk than a conversation without food? How much open mouthed do you need to eat to make this possible? And how come that if you’re such a sloppy eater you still have people who’d want to go out for lunch with you?

I can see this with babies, toddlers even, but this is not a daycare for kids. It’s a cafe for adults who like to step out every now and then and have a coffee and catch up with the papers. And most people who are coming are doing so alone because they study or read – I mean, that’s the whole point of a quiet book cafe… The mind boggles. I’m seriously wondering what else they’re coming up with next.

Frustration x 2

How are you all doing? I’m just clawing myself out of another hole, and it’s not going very fast… I don’t like whining in general and certainly not on here. First of all, everybody’s got their frustrations (especially now) and second, it’s boring to read or listen to if it’s getting too much. And it is getting too much for everybody lately. But I do need to vent a little, so just bear with me this time, okay?

First of all, Kyoto is in another COVID-19-induced lockdown with the same old spiel of “avoid going out”, “keep your distance”, “restaurants and bars close at 8”. It started on Monday and will end on May 5th, on the last day of the Golden Week holidays. I’m getting so tired of this. And what’s really annoying is that Kyoto is actually doing rather well. The problem is Osaka, where only yesterday they had 1000 new infections (with 2.6 million inhabitants, but still), and with people from Kyoto commuting for work every day…

So yes, more “stay at home please” orders for 3 weeks. I’m thrilled. Just thrilled. It wouldn’t be that bad if staying at home all the time were pleasant. But the construction works in front of my office window, which have been ongoing for months already, have reached new noise levels.

Of the six buildings that were there before, nothing is left. To be honest, it was actually quite interesting to watch the apartment building being torn down. They used huge claws to bite into the gutted building where only the concrete walls with the windows in them were left, and bit by bit they demolished it and carried it away on large trucks. It’s amazing how dexterously a skillful person can operate these enormous pieces of equipment.

I was happy when the building was gone and I thought I could look forward to a bit more quiet. But no, they are now digging up the foundations which is a completely different game. The walls on the outside are much more massive, and huge chunks are “bitten” of in one piece and then crushed individually. As I said, it’s a completely new level of noise. And it’s going on from 9 – 5 with a one hour lunchbreak from 12 – 1 and two shorter breaks in the morning in the afternoon. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of continuous background noise that the brain filters out after a while either.

This constant noise is very stressful.. When I have work where I need to focus, the noise recedes into the background and it’s fine. But most of my work is rather creative, where I need time to think about how to do something. And there the noise is very disruptive. Not all my work can be done in my favourite coffee shop, so I am doing some after the workers quit for the day. Sadly, I can’t sleep in and even when I’m not working, it’s hard to relax during the day.

Oh well. Right now, I can at least keep my windows closed, not that the single-glazing is doing much good. But with the cherry blossoms being long gone, it will get hot soon, something I usually combat by opening up all windows. I have no idea what I’m going to do this summer. Let’s just hope it won’t get too hot this year…

Thanks for listening! I’ll try not to whine too often. It’s really not fun to read…

Cute Food

Remember the Tamayuran cat cafe? It’s been a while since I last visited, but I just found this photo that I wanted to share. Aren’t these sweets cute?

These little kittie paws are actually cup cakes, and I got them as a present to take home last time. I decided to heat them on my toaster for a bit, but unfortunately, the left one slipped inside and got a bit darker than I wanted. They were still tasty, a great breakfast!

Anyway, the owner of the Tamayuran is still going strong. As she had to limit the number of visitors to her small cafe because of Corona, she has now started an online side-business where people can buy her handmade cakes. Her sweets are absolutely delicious (her lunches, not so much) and are always a special bonus on top of all the cats roaming the cafe. Unfortunately, she will also have to move the cafe since the lovely old buildings in the area have been bought by a developer who will doubtlessly build a mansion there instead… I don’t approve, but that’s the way of the world.

As for Corona, things are by far not back to normal and who knows if they ever will be again. But it’s the little things that make me happy in between all the dread. They always did and I hope they always will!

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!

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.

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…

I Want to Cry…

Our state of emergeny because of Covid19 has just been extended for another month until March 7. The measures will be the same as now: requests to the public to avoid nonessential outings, requests to restaurants to close by 20:00, requests to companies to allow their workers to work from home (70% of paid work) etc.

I feel like crying, even though I’m very introverted and don’t go out often anyway. When is this going to end? At least it’s possible that the state of emergency is lifted early, but with even members of parliament ignoring the measures, I have not much hope.

On the other hand, the government is planning to start vaccinations of health workers this month, and they have also announced that foreigners living in Japan will get the vaccine – eventually. With a population of 128 million people and me not in any of the groups at high risk, I doubt that I’m due anytime before autumn. On the other hand, once the Japanese organise something, they are very diligent in following through, so I’m happy to be surprised.

Interestingly, only now, a full year after Covid19 has entered the Japanese scene, the government is passing bills that will enable them to fine people who are non-compliant with the measures mentioned above. So far, there were no binding laws, only “requests” to people to play nice (and to be fair, most did). Now fines of up to 500.000 yen are possible for Corona-positive people who refuse to be hospitalised. And restaurants that don’t want to shutter at 20:00 can be fined 300.000 yen. 

I hope the new measures and the extension of the state of emergency will work and we will indeed go back to normal soon. My mental health is taking quite a hike downwards lately… I don’t want to go out at all to be honest, but I did force myself to take a walk at the river this afternoon to see the sun. And I will go and honor all my appointments too – anything to lift my spirits. At least it’s Valentine’s Day soon, so there are plenty of chocolates for sale everywhere right now…

Lockdown Part 2

Imagine there’s a lockdown – and nobody cares.

Kyoto has been on its second Covid19 lockdown since January 13 and will remain so until February 7, unless the infections keep occurring on the same level of course. And, given how things have changed from the first lockdown, I wouldn’t be suprised if we we’re supposed to stay at home for longer. And the reason is:

Nobody actually is at home, despite the lockdown. I had to go to Kyoto Station last Saturday, and yes, the city was much quieter than usual. Part of it was surely the rainy weather, and part of it is surely the complete lack of tourists, foreign and domestic. Still, all the surviving shops were open this time, neither the streets nor public transport are completely deserted and museums, shrines, and temples have shortened business hours at best. The only thing where you notice something unusual is that the streets get much more quiet from 7 pm because restaurants are closing early.

This is a far cry from the eerie emptiness Kyoto experienced last spring during the first lockdown. To be fair, since then, many measures have been adopted to keep people safe, like compulsory wearing of masks inside buildings, social distance enforced with markers on the floor and plastic dividers on tables, fewer seats in restaurants, bottles of disinfectant everywhere… It took time to implement these and since people mostly adhere to the rules, I can see that most of them feel safe. I for sure do.

But while I am happy that I can keep up most of my routine and go out, I do sometimes wonder about other people and their train of thought. Last week, when I was meeting one of my students, there was a group of elderly people that I had seen before. They meet and chat and generally have a good time. This time, they were sitting at the table next to ours. At first there were only two old guys, but then more and more people would come.

Since the table was small, once there were six people, they were beginning to encroach on our space. And that’s when I got really annoyed. These were all old people, 65+, eating, drinking, laughing as nothing was amiss, no social distancing (although they did wear masks). I get it: I didn’t like to be shut up at home all day either. But YOU old people are exactly the reason why we’re shutting half of the country down. I’m not the one who has a big risk of getting seriously sick, YOU are. You silly old people need to stay home and find another way for your group therapy sessions. It’s only for four weeks while we’re in lockdown, that can’t be that difficult?

In the end, my student and I changed tables and topics. But seriously, how can you tell young people to put their lives on hold so that old people don’t get sick when these same old people couldn’t care less about it? I feel this kind of respect and taking care of each other should go both ways. But if it’s not even working in Japan, I don’t see much light for the rest of the planet.

Sweet Day

A week or so before Christmas, I took a day off to go to a museum and to run a few errands in town. It was rather cold and my leg was hurting in the morning already, so I took public transport. That means that on walking to the different stops, I can take a look at places I usually notice only in passing, if at all.

The first thing I saw when I walked from the museum to the subway was the “Hofbaeckerei Edegger-Tax”. Not the real one of course, that one’s in Graz, but its little brother in Kyoto. Even though it was too early for cake, I had to check out the first Austrian bakery I had come across in Japan. Sadly, they were closed, but I got a word in with the owner – German words to boot! And when I asked him if he could make REAL Sachertorte, he gave me a piece as a present, complete with whipped cream. It’s a bit far from my place for daily visits (which may be a good thing after all) but a friend of mine lives nearby and I already promised to be back. What a find!

Just before lunch, I passed by the Matcha House, a small cafe – 16 seats or so – near Kawaramachi/Shijo. As the name suggests, they specialise in everything matcha, and they are extremely popular with young people. Usually, there’s a long line in front of it, people are willing to wait an hour and more just to get in! On that day, however, there was nobody waiting, and I decided to see if they are really worth the hype. Well, they are!

Their matcha tiramisu is a dream of fluffiness and the green tea I had with it was just perfect. The tea came with a thermos can and a tiny cup and a little clock so you can prepare the tea properly: Pour out the boiling water into a small bowl and let it cool to about 40 degrees (takes 9 minutes), then pour it into the teapot containing the tea for 1-2 minutes and then it’s ready to drink.

I got 6 tiny cups out of the thermos and it was interesting how the taste of the tea would change from the super strong first cup to the last one that could use the full 2 minutes of steeping. So yes, that’s a recommendation from me, even though I wouldn’t wait for an hour just to get in.

I had a perfect sweet day just before Christmas and with the Sachertorte I got I could even extend it to a perfect breakfast on the next day.