Weekend Project

How is it that as soon as I promise to post more diligently here, things get away from me again…?

At least I finally finished a little weekend project. A friend of mine gave me a large furoshiki with a print of one of her favourite woodblock print artists, Clifton Karhu. As it is gorgeous, I didn’t just want it to sit in a drawer somewhere. Therefore, I made a cheap wooden frame, so I could hang it on the large wall in my office. Here we go:

Of course, furoshiki are square, so I trimmed the image a little at the top, which is just sky and more leaves. “Trimmed” is not the right word here, I just folded the fabric to the back of the frame. Usually, you would staple the fabric to the wood, but since I didn’t want to destroy the furoshiki, I only sewed it to the back. This makes the picture less stable and a bit wobbly to be honest, but overall I’m happy with the result. And with the bold colors, it fits into my office perfectly.

Heavy Snow

This is what my street looked like this morning:

It started snowing yesterday in the late afternoon, and I even took a walk around the block last night, when it was still snowing. It must have stopped in the night already, that’s why we only have 15 to 20 cm, but for Kyoto, this is very unusual. Looking at the news, there has been snow and cold temperatures all over Japan, and most people in the cities are not used to dealing with it.

For example, trains were stranded everywhere, and there was an article telling of people shut in a train for 5 hours just outside of Kyoto’s Yamashina station while personnel tried to free the switches from snow. I also read that some convenience stores and smaller food shops had to close because they had been sold out – the article implied a run on the shops. I’m wondering: WHY? Sure, I get it, probably a lot of the supplies scheduled to come in last night were stuck somewhere; but you don’t need to go shopping every day to survive. It was very quiet up here, I think the post man didn’t come at all, so I didn’t see any of the usual kamikaze drivers (people who park their car outside and don’t bother cleaning off all the snow before driving), but there must have been plenty in town.

I did have a problem of my own: No hot water. There was plenty of cold water, and the gas was working as usual – but they didn’t combine to produce hot water. I am guessing that the hot water pipes are frozen shut, and since the temperatures hovered around 0 degrees all day up here, they didn’t thaw yet. This night is forecast to be very cold again (-4 degrees), but it seems that the next days at least should be warmer. So far, I haven’t called anybody, but it seems that the pipes, while frozen, are still intact. If something changes one way or the other, I will have to do something about it. But that’s a problem for tomorrow.

Finished/Furnished: 2nd Floor Living Room

Finally, I can show off my traditional Japanese living room! This one didn’t need much work, so there won’t be any in-progress photos. Also, to be perfectly fair, it’s not completely finished yet. But first, let’s have a look at the state of it when I moved in:

The first thing that had to go were those cables, I removed them soon after I bought the house. In fact, these were all TV antennas; it seems the previous owner really loved his TVs and had them all over the house. I also bought a new ceiling lamp in a traditional design that not only looks better, but also weighs less than a quarter of the old one. You can’t see it on this photo, but the old lamp had a solid metal core and was very heavy. If you sleep there and a lamp like this comes down during an earthquake, it would definitely cause serious injuries. No wonder it was chained to the ceiling!

The old tatami were replaced with brand-new ones before I moved in. I’ve talked about this before, so let’s leave it there. You will see that their original green colour has already faded to a soft yellow, and the lovely fresh smell of the rushes is long gone too.

What really needed fixing were the shoji in front of the windows. The one on the left side was stuck and didn’t move, and my carpenter fixed it and all the others last year already. To my shame, I have to admit that changing the paper took me … ummm… much longer. I guess I was reluctant to do this because I didn’t know what I would get myself into, but in the end, the paper was comparatively easy to replace. So, here’s how it looks right now:

The furniture – the tansu, the low table and the boxes for writing utensils and cards – are all antique or second hand. It makes a lovely look overall and fit together perfectly, even though the writing box in the tokonoma could be spruced up a little. There is no way to hang anything on the walls, but for the moment, I like it this way. And yes, this blue thing is a cat bed. It’s still warm enough during the day for Pumpkin to sleep there, but from mid-afternoon onwards, he prefers to sleep in my bed.

What needs to be done: The paper on the fusuma needs to be replaced. The paper is not as dirty as the wallpaper in the kitchen was, but there are quite a few holes. I am not sure I could handle this myself since the fusuma are much larger than the shoji, but maybe it’s just another question of trial and error.

Same thing with the walls. Other than downstairs, these here are traditional daub-and-wattling walls with the requisite cracks through which I can see outside… The interior at least would need a refurbishing, but I have no idea how to do this. This one is probably a job for a pro, but I don’t have money for this right now. We’ll see.

Overall, I’m very happy with how the room turned out given the limited means I have at the moment. It feels very peaceful and in the afternoon, with the sun coming through the shoji, it’s almost like a Japanese dream come true.


It must be the garden. Or just the fact that I’m now living on ground floor. I’m getting much more visitors of the crawly, unwanted kind than ever.

I suspect there is a whole cockroach colony living behind my kitchen cabinets. Besides putting up traps and keeping the kitchen as clean as possible, there is not much I can do about them. Pumpkin is used to have his nibbles over night (especially in summer, he ate mostly then). So, essentially, I’m feeding not just him, but the cockroaches too. Let me know if you have ideas.

Ants are also attracted to Pumpkin’s food dish, but they are relatively easy to get rid of. A bit of insect spray on their path, and they won’t return. For the most part, they stay in the garden anyway.

I have no idea how the spiders enter the house, though. Attracted to the light, they magically appear in the evenings. The little jumping spiders, no bigger than 2 cm, are cute, and I try to catch them in a tissue and put them outside. But there are others…

One night, I found a brown hunting spider the size of my palm perched on the inside (!) of the fly screen in the toilet. I carefully closed the window, and after a couple of days, it was gone – outside, hopefully. A few days later, when I went to bed, there was an even larger spider sitting on the door to the library. Pumpkin scared it off – or maybe it was my screeching? It was enormous, leg span around 20 cm, the size of my spread hand, and as it escaped over the tatami, it resembled the “Thing” from the Addams Family. I could even hear its footsteps.

So, instead of going to bed, I picked up the insect spray from the kitchen, then huddled on the top end of my futon, waiting. Three hours later, the spider re-emerged and nonchalantly placed itself on the wall less than a meter from my head. It eyed me with curiosity (obviously planning on how to eat all that.) I still shudder thinking about what happened next, so let’s just say my insect spray and I prevailed in the end. Let’s hope it didn’t install its family inside the house.

But not all the visitors are bad. I’ve seen geckos climbing fly screens and windows to hunt. The little fella here has greeted Pumpkin and me on our morning walk in the garden for the last couple of days. I wouldn’t mind if they were to bring their families!

Finished/Furnished: Kitchen

Finally, my kitchen is finished! It was always fully functional, thank goodness, but the dirty walls didn’t help create an appetising view. Since I didn’t (and still don’t) have enough money to tackle the ancient kitchen furniture, this was the main thing to be done – and I am proud to say, I DIYed it all by myself. But let’s start with the state of the kitchen when I bought the house:

As you know from my bathroom renovation, there is not enough space for a washing machine there. So, one of my first decisions was to remove that green cabinet to make space for the washing machine. The other three cabinets were temporarily moved to allow for more space for the work, thankfully the wall behind the washing machine was already tiled, saving some money. And I came just at the right moment to clean everything as much as possible:

One thing you can’t see in the photos is the gas outlet in the kitchen floor. It was apparently meant for a gas heater, but it is right in front of one of the cabinets where you stand when cooking, and the cover was broken. I don’t use gas heaters, so all I wanted was to close the thing and cover it up with a piece of wood. Instead, I got a new, functioning cover… It looks very neat thought, and who knows, I might just change my mind about the gas heater.

The following photo was taken on the day of the move, literally 3 minutes before the washing machine was put in. What you see is what they call a “sentakki pan”, a pan that goes underneath the washing machine and prevents any leakage to flood the whole room. Not only is there a drain, but in this super modern version, there is also an integrated water faucet, again saving money – no need for any holes in the wall.

Next thing to tackle: That wallpaper… Well, it turned out that the only wallpaper in the kitchen was on the doors and fusuma. The walls – I’m still not entirely sure, so bear with me – are wooden boards that had been covered in something resembling paper before they were nailed to the wall studs. In other words: Nothing to be removed there.

I’m glad I took the time to watch youtube videos about the whole wallpapering business. First thing I learned: The walls need to be smooth – really smooth – before putting up the paper. So, I bought some putty to go over the nails and the edges of the wooden boards. This was pretty easy to do.

I then bought lovely stick-on wallpaper. There are many different designs, many more than for regular wallpaper, and as you will see, I chose something fun to go with the color scheme of the furniture. Another pro is that it’s easy to work with because you don’t need to handle any glue. It’s also not as heavy as regular wallpaper, and the website I bought it from advertises it as “especially for first-timers and women”. So, on one warm day in March I decided to finally tackle the job. That’s when I found out that stick-on wallpaper is very thin, and with the light color I chose, the old pattern was shining through… So, out came the white paint again. At least, a single coat sufficed this time around.

With that setback, it took me a few weeks to muster up the courage for the wallpaper. And it was just as difficult as I thought it would be, especially around the corners. I managed with a lot of cursing and redoing stuff and in the end, it was still done faster than I had expected. I also painted the main door, but the color dried too dark, so I’ll probably go over it again at a later point.

Then it was time to finish the fusuma and put wallpaper on them as well. This turned out to be straightforward, because by then I had learned a trick or two.

You were probably wondering why I left a hole in the paint and wallpaper. Well, I wanted to put up a cork board for all the fun stuff I get in the mail and otherwise. Maybe you can see it, this is not real cork, but one of those floor coverings people use in kids rooms. At first, I was a bit annoyed when I noticed this, but it turned out alright – there is no way to stick anything through those wooden wallboards, trust me, I tried!

So, here it is, my new kitchen. The blinds are from my office in the old apartment, so they don’t fit the new space perfectly, but they’ll do. However, I think the big wall clock has found its forever home. The doors in the floor open up to extra storage space. I use it for cat food, cleaning supplies and as a wine cellar. And the black cats, these are actually coasters – courtesy of a friend of mine.

It’s not perfect, but I’m quite happy with the result. The walls are not perfectly smooth, so there are blisters in the wallpaper that show up and need to be flattened out again every now and then. I’m not sure what to do with the ceiling; especially the beam that marks the former dimensions of the house sticks out a bit too much for my taste. But otherwise, there’s not much more I can do on my own. On to the next challenge!

A Green Neighborhood

Winter is over (knock on wood)! In the last two weeks, temperatures have risen dramatically as long as the sun is out. Just this afternoon, it had 21 degrees in my bedroom and I’m so thrilled. Even though it’s not time yet for the cherry blossoms, I can confidenly say: begone, heattech underwear! The next days will be a bit cooler again, but I think we’re out of the woods.

With the weather so pleasant, I took some time to explore the neighborhood. The imperial villa Shugakuin is not far away and neither is Manshuin temple. There are lovely houses on the way there, many of them have lovely gardens and some of the larger ones look like old farm houses. No wonder, there are still fields scattered between the homes here, and on my walk a bit further uphill, I even came across some terracing. It’s too early to see whether these will become rice terraces, but I can check again later.

With all the greenery around, I took a long look at my garden… and I’m not very hopeful. It’s a tiny but nice garden and I put away the window shutters last week and also picked up some trash that made its way there. But beyond that and picking up old leaves, I’m clueless as what to do with the plants that are there. Unfortunately, I have not inherited my grandmother’s green thumb. On the contrary, I even managed to kill Pumpkin’s kitty grass…

On the other hand, the garden has been left to its own devices for 18 months or so, and it’s still mostly green. So I am pretty confident that even I can’t do too much damage. I’ll keep you posted on the progress there.

As for the blog, I’ll be scaling back a little again, with posts now on Wednesdays and Sundays only. Now that I have settled into my usual work-life routine, the new-house-excitement has cooled off a little and there’s less to tell. Of course, I could keep writing about Pumpkin and his important job to make me laugh every day (which he does to my full satisfaction), but as I said, I don’t want to turn this into another kitty blog. Yet.

Finished/Furnished: Bathroom

Finally, after three months of brushing my teeth in the kitchen sink, my bathroom is finished and fully functional! To be clear, my bathroom is a traditional 3-rooms-affair: From a room in the centre with the washbasin, doors lead to the adjacent toilet and shower room with the bathtub. In this case, toilet and shower were fully functional from the beginning, it was only the room in the centre I wasn’t happy with. There was no way I’d go and do anything in there. Guess why:

Yes, you’re looking at dirty wallpaper, a missing mirror – not counting the one on the cabinet on the right wall since that was broken – and an under-sink cabinet with severe water damage, which I didn’t even notice until a couple of weeks later when I first opened the thing… So, there was a lot to do.

I started out removing the wallpaper and painting the walls, because I thought this would be the easiest thing to do. Well… Did you know that stripping wallpaper isn’t quite that easy? I wish I had known this earlier, but the paper is not the problem, it’s the glue underneath. Anyway, I can now recommend a concoction of hot water, a tiny splash of dish soap and a generous spoonful of baking powder. Once the wallpaper was gone and the walls were dry again, the painting itself was finished relatively quickly, even though I needed three coats of paint plus primer. But I really wanted that annoying paper gone.

Next step: That cabinet… that colour… That’s all I wanted to do: Paint the thing. But it turned out to be the biggest challenge of this whole renovation and the main reason why it took so long.

As I mentioned above, the entire bottom had more or less rotted through and needed replacing, probably because of a leak in the drainpipe. Similarly, most of the screws that held the doors in place were rusted into the cheap wood. Even my carpenter’s power tools weren’t a match for them, and finally, he had to use good old brute force to remove the doors.

Once I had ripped out the bottom of the cabinet with the help of my grandfather’s favourite 30 cm (not pictured) screwdriver, the whole tragedy of the bathroom unfolded. Not only were there remnants of roaches underneath the cabinet… but the flooring you see in front of it doesn’t reach underneath it. Meaning: all there is is the wooden under-floor. Those orange tiles also only go as far as the cabinet is high and deep, the sides and the backs are essentially untreated, bare wall.

While I was busy measuring the new bottom and painting all the parts of the now mostly disassembled cabinet, I asked my carpenter to drill me some holes for the towel racks. This simple tasks – 12 holes, no biggie, eh? – turned into a one-hour odyssey. At that point, we found out that while the walls are standard timber frame, the spaces in between are filled with non-standard concrete. In other words, different spots required different screws and anchor plugs, even if they were just 5 cm apart. My carpenter was not pleased, obviously, and I cannot imagine how he could refrain from cursing throughout the ordeal. Anyway, how he made sure everything’s on the same height is quite impressive:

Before putting in the new bottom, I had to do something about the old top of the cabinet. No way I’d leave it this way, ugly and stained as it was. Because the top is of a material that is hard to paint, I decided on using some sticker paper around the wash basin. Unfortunately, I needed to use four strips of the sticker paper, which don’t come together perfectly, but it turned out quite alright – for a first try. Then, I was finally ready to put in the bottom and a new front board, while using some chopsticks as wedges to push the cabinet upright and against the back wall again.

Finally, I could put in the now painted front doors again. Painting them wasn’t quite as easy either, because the doors were covered in some sort of laminate – perfect for a bathroom, almost impossible to paint over. As mentioned, Pumpkin tried to impress his own ideas on this, but I’m not really into this kind of modern art, so plain blue it is. Of course, since I love a good challenge, I replaced the small swing door at the bottom right with a drawer. As the top right is also a drawer, I can now utilize the whole depth of that part of the cabinet. That alone took me two extra weeks.

Finishing touches were a large mirror in front of the window, a pretty noren to replace the dirty accordion door, and I even bought blue towels to complete the look of this photo. What do you think?

There are still a few small things to do: I’m considering getting new fittings, the old ones are… weird. Also, it’s surprisingly hard to find the right sized plug for the wash basin; I’m on number 4 now, which is too big again. And finally, I haven’t touched the ceiling at all, which still has the old wallpaper on it. It has aged into an orange-y colour, and would thus fit the colour scheme, but it does look dirty compared to the walls, so I want to do something about it. Eventually. Not right now. Let me enjoy my bathroom as it is for now. I’m not looking up that often anyway.

DIY Taxes

It’s time to bite the bullet and finally pay my property acquisition tax. To this end, I received a letter from Kyoto Prefecture. Not with a price, though, but with a questionnaire I need to fill out.

Some questions are:

  • where is the house
  • when was it built
  • how large is it
  • is it used as a residence or an office
  • has it been reinforced to withstand earthquakes
  • how large is the land on which the house stands

And here I am wondering: shouldn’t they know most of this already? I understand the questions for the intended use of the house (different tax brackets probably) and the earthquake resistance (older houses get a tax discount if they have been reinforced). But land size? Address?

Obviously they could figure out that the house was bought by me, and where I live – but the rest they need to have confirmed by the owner? Let’s not forget that Japan is one of the countries with the most aggressive record-keeping on the planet…

About the Cold

The other day, when I mentioned that I woke up to 4 degrees inside the house, I didn’t expect two things:

  1. That it could get even colder – all the way down to 2 degrees and
  2. that I would receive so many messages about this.

So, let me explain a bit what’s going on and how I deal with the cold. After all, I can’t stay in bed all day. That’s Pumpkin’s responsibility.

Traditional houses in Japan have always been built to allow for lots of airflow – there’s the gaps under the tatami, the shoji and fusuma made from paper, and the wooden framework that’s maybe 10 cm thick at best. This is great in the heat and humidity of summer, when every puff of air is valuable. In winter, even the Japanese are less appreciative about the matter.

And if you think that modern houses are better, you are mistaken. Even though the building materials are better and more airtight in general, 10 cm of insulation (at best) are not sufficient to keep in the warmth over night, even if there were central heating. And let’s not mention my personal nemesis/pet peeve, those single-glazed windows…

So, even though you get used to living in a freezing house, the Japanese battle the three coldest months of the year on various fronts. And I try my best to follow their example.

  • Layers and Layers of Clothes.
    A special type of underwear called “heat tech” is extremely popular, as are thin down jackets as outer layer for indoors. In between, there can be several layers of sweaters; cotton, wool, fleece, anything goes, really.
  • Space heaters.
    Except for the northern prefectures like Hokkaido, central heating is unknown in Japan. And when you think of it, it’s quite a waste to heat a room that’s unused all day. So, the Japanese use space heaters that they turn on when needed. Some of them are electric or gas-powered, but nowadays, the ubiquitous air-condition is used, which all have a special setting for heating.
    Traditionally, a kotatsu was used, that’s a low table with a heating element underneath, over which a heavy blanket was placed to trap the warmth. Many families still use them. They wear heavy jackets on top, while their nether regions underneath the blanket stay warm without so much as socks even.
  • Consolidation.
    If all else fails, you can move your life into a single room for a few months. Instead of heating several rooms one at a time, all activities take place in the living room, for example. In the evening, you just put out the futon for everybody. This is easier if you don’t have kids, though.
  • Hot baths.
    Another thing that helps against the colds, and which the Japanese perform as a daily habit throughout the year, is taking a hot bath just before bedtime. With the body nicely heated up by the ofuro, falling asleep is quite easy, no matter the temperature in the bedroom.

In the new house, I do mostly the layering and the space heaters, with only the occasional hot bath. Thankfully, I got myself a really nice woolen blanked 2 years ago, so I don’t need to heat the bedroom at all.

Also, the cold doesn’t “bite” the same every time the thermometer shows the same number. Thankfully, all the windows are closing properly here, so there’s no draft. However, I found out that on rainy or snowy days, it feels colder than when the humidity is low. Sadly, there’s not much I can do about that. Other than hope for an early spring, that is. This year, I’m not hopeful…

Caught Blue-Pawed…

Somehow, I have the impression that my dear Pumpkin went somewhere he wasn’t supposed to go… How do I know?

In Pumpkin’s defense: I put the blue board onto a stool that I placed in an especially sunny spot just for him.
In my defense: He hadn’t slept there for several weeks before I even started painting.

Thankfully, I’m using water-based paint, so it was relatively easy to clean his paws at least. Not that Pumpkin liked the wet rag much, but he held surprisingly still during all of it. He’s a good kitty, after all. Mostly.

Anyway, what is that thing I’m painting – and bright blue to boot? Patience, my dear reader, if everything goes as planned, I can show you next week.