Home Sweet HomeThe last two days I spent in Austria. I visited the old house, some family and friends. I didn’t really want to go, and the experience met my expectations.

First thing I went to our old house. It feels cold and abandoned. Some furniture is still there, some random bits and pieces, but it appears like a shell thrown aside, unneeded, unwanted. I took a few of the things left over from the move with me, tidied a bit here and there, but in the end it made me feel too depressed to be there alone, so I called a friend to pick me up.

Meeting members of my family was not too pleasant either. So far, everybody I have told about my plans was encouraging. Of course I got some tough questions and the occasional blank stare, but the vast majority of responses was of a positive “you go girl” fashion.
Not so my family. It’s not that I was surprising them with my decision out of the blue. I started talking of going to Japan for good about 6 months ago. And for some 10 years already it has been clear that the chances of me returning to Austria are minuscule.
And still, now that I go there to bid farewell, what do I get?
Thinly veiled accusations of “you’re leaving me behind alone – how dare you”, not even an attempt to understand what I’m up to, topped up with tears that may or may not have conveyed a genuine feeling, and hugs that were all but suffocating. The general sentiment was one of “I cannot possibly understand why anyone would want to do something as crazy as that, so I think it’s better if you don’t do it either”.
Where other people have their families as support- and safety network, I got a spider’s web controlling me with ought to be’s and do’s and cannot’s. Fascinating what is visible once you take a step back.
I’m done there. No more.
No more coulda/woulda/shoulda, no more supposed to do, no more pretend to be to pacify others.
No more.

Only my life with people I choose to have part in it.

Speaking of such people – and to end this post on a positive note – I had most amazing time with my friend. As she knew this would be my last time in Austria for quite a while, she decided to pamper me.
It was wonderful: We made my favourite sweets – in perfect division of labour she did most of the cooking and I did most of the eating. We went shopping in case there is nothing to buy in Japan. And we both drooled over McDreamy of Grey’s Anatomy with a bottle of sparkling wine and ended up talking until 2 am.

That part of my trip was perfect.
I’m glad I went.

Fishy Fish

I was terribly sick yesterday – which I blame on the fish sandwich I ate the evening before. It took all night sitting in my stomach deciding whether to move up or down. I spent a sleepless night, only to be relieved yesterday morning when the vote came in for “up”. I felt groggy all day, with a very strong desire of avoiding any food for a while. I did eat a small pretzel even though I wasn’t really hungry. Finally, I cancelled the last meeting yesterday and went to bed at 5:30 pm, with raised temperature and chills… However, after sleeping for 14 hours, I woke up all right this morning, but let me note here for all posterity: Fish poisoning is not a recommendable pastime!

In any case, it did get me thinking. After all, the Japanese are among the biggest consumers of fish on the planet: They eat about 70 kg of fish per year, that amounts to some 12 % of the world’s consumption of fish – and that despite them only having 2 % of the world’s population!

So, the question is: how often do people suffer from fish poisoning in Japan, given the huge quantities they eat there? Of course, there are no numbers to be found on this…

Personally, I have been to Japan 9 times now, and on my very first trip – to Kyoto in summer 2007 – I ate sushi every single day. I never had any stomach problems in Japan, but the fish there is usually well prepared and very fresh. And I mean very. With slight discomfort I recall the sashimi I had in that bar in Fukuoka: decoratively laid out along the spine of the fish it was carved from – which started twitching at some point…

So yes, Japanese like their fish fresh – which is good, but also poses the problem of parasites. Raw fish as in sushi and sashimi is usually seafish, and they are less likely to carry bacteria, worms and other assorted parasites than freshwater fish. And even so, most fish is frozen (yes, even the one you’d eat “raw”), as freezing below -20 degrees or so for an appropriate length of time will kill the parasites.

Of course, there are other ways of dying from fish poisoning in Japan. In fact, if you google this phrase, you’ll get articles about – Fugu. Fugu is the blowfish famous for its poison, mostly contained in its liver. When properly prepared, i.e., the poisonous body parts are removed, it can be eaten like any other kind of fish. If not … then the poison contained in the fish will paralyze your muscles – while you remain fully conscious. In the end, you will die from asphyxiation. There is no antidote known, so pumping out your stomach and putting you on life support until the poison wears off is the only way of dealing with such a poisoning. There are several incidents every year in Japan, but I guess overall the probability of dying from fugu-poisoning is negligible.

Not so, however, is mercury poisoning. Seafish can contain high levels of mercury, especially tuna, which is highly prized in Japan. Consumed over time, the mercury will accumulate in the body and will affect the nervous system. The metal is apparently hard to excrete from the body, so the best cause of action is to stop ingesting it – by stopping to eat fish.

Hmmm… I love fish, always did… Well, I guess you’ll have to die from something anyway (old age is no excuse), so you can just as well have a bit of fun on the way there…

Language Tandem

I have just started a langage tandem for Japanese! This is a pair of people, where one is a native (or at least fluent) in the language the other wants to learn.The idea is to meet and to spend half the time speaking one language, the other half of the time the other language.

According to wikipedia, the tandem idea was developed in the 1970s. It is used at universities for incoming foreign students for example, but with the new possibilities of the internet, a personal meeting is not necessary any more, and people can also do their tandems by skype or online chats, or simply per email.

My tandem partner is Tomoko san from Nagoya who has been living in Germany for about 5 years now, and who has recently moved to my town. Although she says she only speaks English with her (German) husband, her German is much better than my Japanese. Tomoko san is a great person, and as we are the same age, we have lots of things to talk about. And we do so – mostly in German (and some English, I confess), but sometimes in Japanese too.

And I think this is ecactly what such a tandem is about: speaking. And listening comprehension of course. At least I don’t think I could seriously teach German grammar to anyone, my knowledge of that comes mainly from the comparisons I drew when learning English.

In any case, I’m very glad I’ve met her and we have agreed to meet twice a week for now. When I told her I wanted to permanently move to Japan soon, she promised to help me getting up to speek. I’m looking forward to it!

There are a number of sites – not affiliated to any universities – where you can try to find a tandem partner. (Hint: google for “tandem + language you want to learn”, for example “tandem Japanese”) It’s possible and preferrable to meet in person, or on the internet. Unfortunately, some of the websites you’ll find will allow you to post your tandem request for free – but you can only contact people if at least one of you pays additional fees… Very annoying!

Trembling Earth

Japan lies in a volatile part of the planet, where three tectonic plates meet: the Pacific, the Philippine and the Eurasian plate.

This is the reason for all the volcanoes in Japan (Mt. Fuji is the largest), the abundance of hot springs – onsen – and the almost regularly occuring earthquakes. There are about 1500 earthquakes on the Japanese isles per year (that’s about 4 per day!), but the majority of them are harmless, and people don’t even notice them. If you do perceive one, however, and you are on a higher floor, trust me, the experience is not pleasant, especially if it’s your first earthquake.

The Japanese have a very easy way to determine what to do in case of an earthquake: If the shaking is horizontal, left-right, it is quite harmless, and there is no need to do anything, except waiting for it to pass. If the shaking is vertical, up-down, however, you should try to cover at least your head (a pillow will do), or, better still, get underneath a table. Stay away from windows (as they may break) and heavy furniture like bookcases (as they may move or even topple). Wait until the shaking stops, then leave the building (using the stairs), preferrably without rummaging for any stuff to take with you. Once outside, follow the locals – in every city in Japan there are special evacuation zones where people should gather in such circumstances.

In any case, whatever type of earthquake you encounter, there will be some report about it very quickly, either on the designated internet site of the Japan Meteorological Agency (which would issue a tsunami warning within 3 minutes) and on TV, and most likely also on local radio (I don’t know that for sure though).

My first earthquake?
One evening in August 2011, when I was in the 7th floor of the Toyoko Inn in Kabuki-cho, Tokyo.
At first I thought the person in the neighbouring room had dropped his heavy suitcase. Then I realized that suitcase-dropping usually does not last for several seconds. And then I held on to my desk with a slightly panicky feeling of “And what do I do now?” and a slightly worrying prospective of having to run downstairs in a too small hotel yukata.
When the trembling stopped there was – nothing. I mean, no sirens, no official announcements, no running people on the corridor, just silence. When I took a peek onto the streets, the people appeared to be uninterested about the incident and carried on with their business. So, I decided to do the same, although I have to admit I did feel a bit queasy…

However, don’t worry too much about earthquakes. It is very unlikely you will encounter one when you are visiting Japan. My first earthquake described above only happened on my eighth trip to Japan.

JLPT results

I just received the results of the JLPT (Japanese language proficiency test) I took last December.
I failed.
Not spectacularly, as I passed the minimum requirement for each part the test, but I failed to gather more than 50 % of the points overall. Yes, this is disappointing, but not altogether unexpected.

First of all, with all the goings-on in Austria last fall, that required me to travel quite a bit, I was occupied with other things, so my studies had to take a back seat, unfortunately.

Second, I did not know enough vocabulary – by far not. That means, I spent too much time in trying to figure out the meaning of certain words from their context – and even without doing this, the time for the test is very limited, especially for the reading part. So there were many questions I didn’t even get to before the time ran out.

In the end, I only have myself to blame for my failure, of course, but still, I learned some valuable things:

  • Grammar is important, but vocabulary is paramount. I will have to bite the bullet of boredom and invest more time learning new words.
  • There’s not enough time for pondering, really. There’s no workaround here. Moving on to the next question is of limited use, as they become increasingly difficult. Answering by wild guess may help, but with four possible choices, selecting a random set of answers doesn’t get you very far (unless you’re much more lucky than I am).
  • My listening comprehension is better than I had expected. This is good! Out of the three sections, I earned the highest mark there. Or maybe it was just easier to narrow down the right answer there?

A few facts about the JLPT:

  • In good old Japanese tradition, the JLPT has “kyu” levels – from the lowest N5 to the highest N1.
  • There are three scoring sections:
    Language Knowledge (Vocabulary/Grammar)
    (The former two are combined in levels N5 and N4).
    To pass the test, you need to pass each scoring section individually (with about one third of the maximum points) and you need to have more than half of the total number of points.
    I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or not. On the one hand, it ensures that you know at least something about each area. On the other hand, you can have full points on two sections and still fail if you miss the minimum target by a single point in the third.
  • You will never be tested on how well you actually speak the language – which is quite in line with how Japanese kids learn English.
  • All instructions on what to do for each exercise are in Japanese. There is no translation whatsoever available. Yes, that also holds for the lowest levels of the test.
  • You get an exercise sheet with the questions and an answer sheet where you have to mark the correct answers. Only the latter will be graded.
  • Grading is done by machine in Japan, and it takes two to three months for the results (and the certificate, should you pass) to arrive.
  • Tests take place twice a year in Japan (July and December) and at least once a year (usually December) abroad.
  • Extra fun fact: After a few listening exercises, a bit of music will be played to relax a bit and rest your ears…

Want to take the test yourself? Check out the JLPT site – with all sorts of hints and tryout exercises and links to institutes where you can take the test and learning materials and…

Burdening Possessions

When moving, especially internationally, the first and most important task is to minimize the amount of possessions one has to ship.

I have tried to do this as much as possible in the last few years already, primarily by not accumulating too many new things. I am an avid reader, but have tried to get most of my material from the local library or online as e-texts or audiobooks. I have tried to “make do” and “use up” as many other things as possible, clothing for example (thank goodness I work in a very fashion unconscious profession) or household goods (how many sheets or towels do you really need? And more cookware would only lead to my doing the dishes even less frequently…;-))

So, when starting to plan my exit strategy to Japan, I thought I could move with a minimum amount of necessities, even without getting rid of too many things.

But then, of course, while you’re busy making plans, this life thing happens… Last autumn it so happened that I inherited the family home back in Austria. It is a large house with basement, attic and garage, and while my family was not prone to hoarding, the house was still full to the brim with 20+ years of accumulated clutter.

It took me many weekends and my complete Christmas vacation to deal with, well, most of it. Some things were easy: outright junk, most of the furniture, family heirlooms. The other 70 percent, however, are the difficult ones: books, kitchen ware, linens, towels, memorabilia, assorted “I don’t really want it, but I just can’t throw it away”. However, I managed to unclutter and toss and whittle those 70 percent down to 12 cubic metres.

12 cubic metres, a great part of which I still don’t need or want, but need more time to sort through and make decisions about.

12 cubic metres that have just arrived and clutter up my apartment…

Who’s afraid?

The black-yellow symbol for radioactivityWhenever I talk about my plan to emigrate to Japan, people get curious. Interestingly, the question I hear most often is: “But, Fukushima – are you not afraid?”

Short answer: Nope.

Long answer: No. But look at this: Where I live right now, the two closest working nuclear plants are about 100 and 150 km away, respectively. If I do move to Kyoto, the nearest nuclear plants will be about 80 and 100 km away, respectively. I don’t think that makes such a big difference, really.

The distance between Kyoto and Fukushima is about 600 km. Of course, that’s not much of a distance for radioactive fallout to cross – just remember Chernobyl in 1986. There, a large part of the fallout travelled as far as Central Europe, that’s more than 1500 km.

The admittedly big problem of Japanese nuclear plants is the frequency of earthquakes in Japan. Every day, somewhere in the country, the earth shakes, more or less. Also the fact that virtually all of their plants are situated near the coast (for cheap and easy access to cooling water, I assume) does nothing to instill a really secure feeling into me, I agree.

Still, let’s not forget that most of the nuclear accidents the world has seen so far had much more profane reasons that earthquakes and tsunami: fires in the plants, operator errors, failures of the cooling system.

So, no, I’m still not afraid. No matter where you live or what you do, there is no absolute safety, no complete danger free zone, that’s the way it is. And in the end only one thing counts: To be scared to death still means to die.

Japan Festival

Sorry for not writing last Saturday, but I was busy. Together with a friend I went to the 5th Japan Festival in the Urania in Berlin.

It was wonderful – wJapan Festival 2013 - Logoe had such a great time! There were two stages with non-stop performances of all kinds: various Japanese martial arts with and without weapons (Aikido, Ju-jutsu, Karate, Iaido, Kendo…), talks and demonstrations of Japanese culture (Anime, Ikebana, Sumi-e…), and music groups (J-Pop, a women’s choir, Taiko drums,…) We have watched several of them, but my favourite was the Taiko group. They were very good, the rhythm electrifying, the whole audience (about 900 people) was excited.

Off the stages were countless booths with Japanese wares, either imported or made by artists in Germany: ceramics, manga, t-shirts, swords and bokken, yukata, tabi, daruma, calligraphy… I really had to force my hands to stay in their pockets, especially as there was such a gorgeous sumi-e of a cat by a German artist…

The place was comparatively small, so it seemed even more crowded that it really was. As in the evening there was a cosplay casting, many people were dressed up in typical attire:  kimono, school girl’s dresses, samurai, young girls with short dresses and crazy hair of all colours – I even saw Sailormoon! Just standing in a corner watching the people would have been completely satisfying.There would have been a small booth to dress up and take a picture, but neither one of us was really excited about doing this.

The only thing I was disappointed about: We couldn’t find the food stalls at first. Very well hidden on the fourth floor – reachable only via some narrow back stairs – were sellers of green tea, sake, sushi, mochi… Unfortunately, by the time we found them, there were no more o-nigiri left, something I really wanted to have and was looking forward to.

Well, only a few more months…