Weekend Project # 3

I’m not sure if I mentioned it… but Japanese homes, equipped with no central heating, can get really cold in winter. A partial solution is the following: Keep the lower body as warm as possible, then the upper body will follow suit. I’m doing this by “wearing” an old sleeping bag that reaches just up to my chest. Obviously, I have to take it off when I have to walk around, but since I’m pretty sedentary in front of my laptop all day, this is a good option.

Of course, the Japanese have figured that solution out ages ago and have invented the kotatsu. This low table is equipped with a heating element, and when you put a heavy blanket over it and put your legs underneath, your lower body gets nice and toasty. On top you wear one of the down jackets that are popular in Japan, come in different thicknesses and are available everywhere.

But I digress. Point is that whatever you do, be it kotatsu or sleeping bag, the hands remain cold, even more so when typing or writing. Gloves are the obvious solution – or are they, because you can’t type properly with them. Modifications are needed, like these:

These are just an old pair of gloves that aren’t warm enough now that I go downhill so quickly on my bicycle. So, I decided to cut off the fingertips and make some typing gloves out of them. What do you think?

Never mind, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong: I spent a whole year in high school learning to touch type, so, yes, I do use all 10 fingers on my keyboard. Unfortunately, these gloves are made from relatively thin yarn, and it was really hard to finish the tips properly. So much so that I was ready to give up after the index finger (I’m glad I didn’t cut off all of them in the beginning), but I persevered for one more to create writing gloves instead.

Since I do a lot of handwriting, this is a partial solution to my cold hand syndrome. However, I have seen some very pretty mittens without top that I think are perfect for typing and are super warm too. Maybe I’ll just go and buy a pair of these.

Scaling Down

Three days of rain over the weekend and the temperature dropped by 10 degrees or so. Tuesday morning 9 am, it was 9 degrees in my bedroom. Good for the autumn colors. Not good for me, and Pumpkin is freezing too.

So, as every year around this time, I do what all the Japanese do: I pulled out my thick winter duvet and the fluffy pad that goes underneath the sheet. And then, I moved my futon to a smaller room.

This year, I’m trying the smallest room in the house, the one I have designated as my “reading room”, but which so far only houses my laundry. It’s on the second floor, faces south and is only three tatami in size.

As you can see, once the futon is in, lamp and nightstand besides it, and the heater has found its place, there is not much space left. I’m glad I’m not prone to tossing and turning during my sleep. Or sleep walking, that is.

Pumpkin was quite surprised about the new arrangements, but he adapted in no time. He’s now happily snuggling up next to me every night – underneath the covers, of course.

The only thing that isn’t good about this winter bedroom is that I have to sleep very close to the fusuma doors. And I need to keep them open so Pumpkin can leave during the night. And the draught coming in may be the reason why I have a stiff neck already… Then again, the fusuma are old and don’t close properly in any case. At least the windows are tight here. I hope it won’t get too cold in the next few months…

Brutalist Gardening

Whew, I’ve been quite busy last week. My usual flurry of deadlines at the end of the month was enhanced by a couple additional ones, but I managed to get through them all on time. Rinse and repeat later this month…

On top of work-related business, I also put in some work in my garden because now seems the best time for some maintenance. Back in spring, I cut off some of the tallest branches already, but not only did they regrow over summer, the additional light their absence created let other plants shoot up to new heights as well.

This time, I took a much more brutal approach to gardening. My tiny garden has lots of large plants with big leaves that overwhelm what little space there is. But over the last few weeks, I got rid of most of them. I was even able to tear out the roots of those annoying vines that swamp one corner of my garden every summer. Interestingly, it was fairly easy now – in spring it was practically impossible – and since I tore off roots that were thumbs-thick, I hope I got most of the major ones so they won’t regrow again next year.

There are still things left to clear up and cut away, but overall, I’ve made good progress. Right now, the garden looks almost naked, but I want to plant smaller flowering bushes or something like that. Plus: some grass for Pumpkin, which he can later throw up again all over my staircase…

But there’s no rush, I have all winter to think about the details here.

Home Improvements

Over the quiet and hot days of summer, I had some time for smaller improvements in the house. I can’t afford anything substantial, but it’s nice to clean things up a little and make them look better at least.

First thing: I painted my toilet. Directly opposite the door was an old hole with an anchor still inside, and every time I had to use the toilet in the evening, it scared me a little. It was just the right size and dirty color for a small spider…

So, out came putty and paint, and because the toilet is very small, this turned out to be the perfect project to finish over the weekend. The walls now look much smoother than before, except for a small bit where the previous owner tried to close a crack with something that feels like glue and the paint didn’t stick properly on top of that. I’ll have to go over this spot once again.

I also closed some other holes in the stairwell, but I’m out of paint now, so the final finish will have to wait. Also, I’ll need to figure out how to reach all the walls in the stairwell without falling to my death while painting, so we’re probably looking at some time next spring.

Second thing: I mended some tears in the fusuma in the upstairs living room. This didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped, mostly because are essentially hollow inside. They use the same underlying wooden frame as shoji, just with opaque paper on both sides. In other words, without any firm ground to glue the paper onto, it’s really hard to fix torn fusuma paper properly.

Many people just stick some paper on top of the hole, but even though this is easier, I don’t think it looks as neat. And since my fusuma are already anything but clean, there’s no need to bring any further attention to that. To me, it still looks better now.

I would love to say that I made some progress in my garden, but I didn’t. Even though I trimmed some smaller trees in spring, other plants took advantage of the increased light and shot up to new heights. Not to mention the prolific vines I have in one end of my garden that seem to be difficult to kill. I would have to weed almost weekly to get rid of those, I guess. Well, it’s getting cooler now, so I can give it yet another try…

Neighbourhood Pastime

It was Golden Week last week, with three national holidays in a row. Many Japanese take this opportunity to travel, and Kyoto is usually quite high on the list of domestic destinations. I don’t like the crowds, so I stayed home and looked for something else to do, and since the weather was “golden” as well, I chose to do some gardening.

To be honest, I haven’t touched my garden at all since moving in, and as the house stood empty for a year before that, the garden needed quite some work. And despite my efforts, it’s still not finished.

So far, I cut down two tall bushes that had grown all the way up to the second floor. I also trimmed the bushes just outside the living room. And with a bit of luck, I also found all the vines that clung on to most of my plants and which formed a clump of green around the drainpipe at the far end of the garden. There is still a lot to do, and part of the problem is that I’m reluctant to do something too radical…

However, there is one thing that I consider finished, for now at least: I cleared the embankment at the stream behind my house. This is a strip of concrete maybe three meters above the stream and another two below my garden level. As many of my plants hang over, dead leaves and old branches have been accumulating down there. So, even though it may not be my responsibility (knowing Japan, it probably is) I cleared all the dead branches and leaves, leaving only the live plants. I like the way it looks now, the blue bell flowers are already starting to bloom down there. It’s like an extension of my garden.

Interestingly, gardening seems to be the favourite Golden Week pastime in my neighbourhood. I’ve seen four of my neighbours working in their own gardens, and judging by the number of bags with leaves and other greenery debris I saw at the last garbage collection, many more must have done the same. I guess I’m fitting right in.

How to Fix Japanese Amido

Even though it has been quite cold the last few days, summer is swiftly approaching, and with it come open windows and plenty of critters to take advantage of them and invade houses. In an old house like mine, insects can come in through all kinds of nooks and crannies – not to mention badly closing windows. That doesn’t mean I have to invite them in, however. So, it is always a good idea to keep the amido fly screens in good working order. Luckily, the process is quite easy – here is how it’s done.

Start with taking the amido out of the window. On the top sides of the amido are usually little guides with screws; once they are loosened, the amido can be pushed upwards and removed.

Lay the amido on the floor, outside on top. The actual screen is fastened with rubber tube all around the amido. Remove the tube (just find one end and pull it loose) and the screen material. Now is the perfect time to clean the amido.

From spring onwards, you can buy rolls of fly screen that are enough for several amido. Put the roll down on the amido and cut off as much as you need, plus some 5 cm extra or so. It’s a good idea to secure the screen to the amido with clothes pins or something similar to prevent it from moving and make the next step easier.

Now, put a new rubber tube into the groove all around the amido. This can be a bit tricky because the tube has to be pushed all the way in so the screen is not only secured, but also as taut as possible. Special tools are available for this, but if you’re careful not to tear the screen material, this can be done with the handle of a spoon or something similar. Make sure the tube is fastened carefully at the corners.

Finally, cut the protruding screen with a box cutter and put the amido back into the window. Congratulations – all done!

To be honest, I was quite apprehensive the first time I had to do this, but it was much easier than I had expected. In fact, the most difficult part was to get the amido out of and back into the window. I’m not sure if this is normal, or just due to my old house and its crooked windows…

Cutting the screen is also a quite messy affair, with lots of little pieces of screen ending up everywhere. Doing this job outside or on a plastic tarp makes the final cleaning much easier.

As I mentioned, buying the supplies is easy come spring/early summer. Screens come in grey and black and in different quantities, depending on how many amido there are to repair. While this is a personal choice, you must be careful to buy the correct diameter rubber tube. Too thick and it won’t fit, too thin and the screen will not stay in place (ask me how I know that…) It’s best to cut off a few centimeters of the old tube and take it with you when shopping. It may be possible to reuse the old tube, but over time, rubber becomes brittle, so it’s probably not the best idea; and the savings are minimal.

The screen material itself is also getting brittle over time and will break eventually (even without a cat jumping through it.) Yet, fixing amido is not something that needs to be done every year. Shoji are a different animal, however, but that’s another story.

Finished/Furnished: Bedroom

Another room I can declare as “finished”: my bedroom upstairs. To be perfectly honest, because of my limited budget I didn’t do much with it, plus it has been finished for a while already. The reason I’m showing it only now is that during winter time, I was sleeping in the living room upstairs, which is smaller and easier to heat. So, the bedroom has only been a bedroom again for a few weeks.

Anyway, here’s the state before I moved in:

It looked pretty good already, so it needed only smaller changes, first and foremost: new tatami, like all the rooms upstairs. The two green things are a) tape over an air condition outlet, and b) a string attached to the lamp to turn it on and off while laying in bed. Interestingly, none of the rooms upstairs have light switches, very traditional indeed. The rectangular thing is a cover for a fan like the one I have in the kitchen.

At first, my plans were to remove the fan and close the hole in the wall to make it warmer in the room, but this was surprisingly expensive, so I scrapped it. These holes are the main reasons why I sleep next door in winter, even though I could fill in the smaller hole with cork coasters from IKEA. I also moved the curtain rails that are directly above the window in this photo all the way to the ceiling, partly to disguise the peeling wallpaper, and partly because my curtains would have been too long otherwise.

Unfortunately, the problem with the peeling wallpaper is not solved yet. It has something to do with the traditional walls underneath are not a good ground for (this kind of) wallpaper, so even new wallpaper will peel eventually. A solution would have been to cover the whole room with wooden/MDF board (like the new walls underneath the big window), but that wasn’t in my budget either. So, here we go:

I think it looks pretty good, with new, clean shoji, my futon in the middle and the lovely chest I bought in Hong Kong. A new addition to my bedroom is the large coat rack that lived in the genkan in the old apartment, but there’s no space for it there now. I also bought a new nightstand, which is actually, ahem… a stand for plants. Not only that, I turned it upside down to create a bowl shaped space at the bottom where I keep glasses, pens, bookmarks and other useful stuff elderly ladies cannot be without at night.

As pretty as the room is now, if you look closely, there’s one thing missing: A wardrobe. That’s why I use this self-made open shelf instead, with a door to the living room. Yes, the thing at the left of it is some sort of plastic curtain-door, but it looks and feels icky, and I don’t want to touch it, really. Now that I think about it, I could just remove it and install a standard curtain there.

Anyway, the reason for the nonexistent wardrobe is the nonexistence of a wall against which to put it. Three walls have a window, door, or oshi-ire in it; and putting the wardrobe against the fourth wall would block half of the first window pane, not to mention the entrance door… So, on my list for my next renovations is: remove the fan, close the window and make a wall suitable for a decent wardrobe. Until then, I’ll have to live with my open shelves, the little oshi-ire, and my boxes. It could be worse. At least Pumpkin is happy about the boxes, he sleeps on/in them in summer.

Weekend Project # 2

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.