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…

Writing Japanese – Kanji

"Japanese" in kanjiKanji are the Chinese characters that are used in writing Japanese besides Hiragana and Katakana. As they were the first system introduced to write Japanese (and both Kana systems derived from them), Kanji are used for native Japanese words and have thus a pronunciation that is different from the Chinese original. The characters themselves were subject to change over time: The Japanese simplified them early on and even added a few more characters of there own invention; and with the simplification of the characters in mainland China starting in 1956, it is now not possible – except for the simplest characters – for Japanese to read Chinese and vice versa.

Do I really need to spell it out? Kanji are the bane of every student of Japanese…

First of all, there are lots of them. Elementary school children need to learn about 1000 kanji in their first six years of school, up to the end of high school, around 2100 must be mastered. Those are called the joyo or regular use kanji – they make up about 95 % of what is used in an average newspaper. But, there is more… Another 1000 or so kanji are used only in Japanese names, and in a high level profession, fluency starts at 4000 and more. Finally, there is the Japanese Kanji Proficiency Society, which offers a test that – at its highest level – requires the taker to know around 6000 kanji…

Second, a single character can have more than one meaning. For example, the three kanji in the image together mean Japanese language, but the first character can mean day or sun, and the second one book or basis/root. Finding out the meaning of a kanji is essentially done by context.

Third, knowing the meaning of a kanji does not help with pronunciation at all. Virtually every character has at least two readings, an on-yomi – based on the sound from the Chinese – and a kun-yomi – from the word in Japanese. Some can have up to ten different readings. In the image, the whole word is read as Ni-Hon-Go, but the first character can also be read as nichi, hi, or bi, and the kun-yomi reading for the second character is moto. Once again, you’ll have to discern from the context which reading is the correct one. There are some rules of course, but this language is riddled with exceptions, unfortunately…

Finally, you’ll need to know how to write the kanji in question. The stroke order was allegedly derived to ensure the most pleasing aesthetic look… However, this is of minor concern for the Japanese learner. With the advent of computers and mobile phones, even many Japanese have difficulties writing their kanji – although they can still recognize them, of course.

Sounds impossible? Don’t get disheartened – even Japanese don’t know all possible kanji. Some people carry little dictionaries around in case they encounter a character they don’t know. Finding this out made me feel a lot better about my feeble attempts!

In any case, I think the largest part of learning the kanji is pattern matching. Not that this is easy – I have found a kanji with 29 strokes, and many look deceivingly similar – but being a visual type myself here, I think this is the way to go. Writing them surely helps, but for the most part it’s learning by rote and repetition. A never ending story, really…

There are a number of kanji trainers online, this is my favourite:
http://www.asahi-net.or.jp/~ik2r-myr/kanji/kanji1a.htm Enjoy!


I have just cancelled the lease for apartment – it will end in May.

That I am going to leave has been clear for quite a while now, but still, I procrastinated considerably on sending that email. It seems I am more afraid of this step than I’d like to admit to myself. It’s not the moving as such of course, I have moved five times in the last seven years, and while I don’t enjoy it, I got used to it and can almost consider myself an expert.

No, I think it’s the fact that I don’t know what will await me on the other side. So far, there was always at least a job waiting for me, and almost always people I knew beforehand. In all cases I have been received very friendly, and people have always tried to help me settle in as quickly as possible.

No such thing this time. It’s just me, myself and I. The friends I have in Japan may not be able to provide as much help as I may need.

Giving up already? No way. Every time I pushed through my initial fears, the outcome was well worth the pain, and I never regretted persevering. Still, that voice is nagging inside my head “You give up all your security, so what if…?” It’s not easy to make that coward stop…

Writing Japanese – Katakana

Katakana is the other kana script used in Japanese besides Hiragana. Here is a full list of all the basic characters used in Katakana:

List of Katakana
Table with Basic Katakana

There are some special combinations of Katakana to aid reading foreign words, but as there is no standardized way of transcription, I’ll omit them here.

They use the same diacritic marks as Hiragana to produce the consonants g-, z-, d-, b-, and p-, and also the way of writing syllables like kyo, myo, etc. is the same as in Hiragana.

Katakana are primarily used for

  • words taken from foreign languages, for example television or computer
  • names of foreign countries or places
  • names of foreigners
  • technical and scientific terms
  • words that have kanji that are difficult to read
  • to indicate the on-yomi pronunciation of a Kanji in a dictionary

Katakana were developed around the same time as Hiragana, some even from the same kanji. While Hiragana were used for women’s writing, Katakana were developed as a shorthand and pronunciation aid by monks who were copying Chinese Buddhist texts.

Although the Katakana are essentially all straight lines, I find them surprisingly difficult to memorize. I have the feeling that they all look the same somehow. However, studying Katakana is probably the best way of being able to read anything in Japan as they (together with the Kanji) make up the majority of the writing that can be seen on the streets and in supermarkets.

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.

Writing Japanese – Hiragana

Japanese is rather difficult to learn for people who speak a Western language. Part of the difficulty lies in its three distinct scripts for writing (actually it’s four if you include romaji, the Latin alphabet, which is also used):


All of these three, which I will talk about the next few weekends, are freely mixed together in sentences, and although there are some rules when to use which scipt, those can be bent to express slight nuances. While you shouldn’t expect to be able to read everything you may encounter without extensive study, knowing how to decipher some word here and there may come handy. Let’s start with the the script that is – at least in my opinion – easiest to learn:


Hiragana is one of the two Kana scripts used in Japan. It consists of 46 basic characters, 40 of them are syllables (always consonant + vowel), 5 of them are the single vowels A, E, I, O, U (pronounced like in Latin or Spanish, btw), and there is a single symbol for the consonant N. Here is a list of them (empty squares mean they are no longer in use):

Table with Basic Hiragana
Table with Basic Hiragana

Additionally, some diacritic marks are used to add some more consonants:

Table with Hiragana 2
More Hiragana made from the basic ones

and then there are syllables for kya, dyo, … etc. (note that the second part is written slightly smaller)

Basic Hiragana combinations
Combinations of Hiragana

and doubling of consonants are indicated by adding a slightly smaller tsu before the consonant (exception: N, where you simply add the symbol for N).

That does not appear that difficult after all, does it? So, when is Hiragana used?
Hiragana characters are mainly used for:

  • any Japanese words for which there are no Kanji or where the Kanji are obscure (Japanese could be completely written in Hiragana, and in fact, all children’s books are)
  • grammatical elements like verb and adjective inflections (called okurigana), particles, and suffixes.
  • so called furigana, indicating the pronunciation of Kanji, mostly seen in books for children as sub- or superscripts to the Kanji they describe (or in parentheses behind them)

Hiragana have developed from Kanji, and were long considered “women’s writing” when women were not allowed to study the Chinese Kanji. Many works of early Japanese literature have been written in Hiragana, for example the famous “Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu, or “The Tosa Diary” by Ki No Tsurayuki (a man who pretends to a woman writing the diary). Even today, Hiragana are used instead of Kanji when a non-formal way of writing is desired, or when trying to convey a more warm feeling.

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…

Working issues

I spent last Sunday online looking for employment opportunities in Japan.
The good news: There are plenty of open jobs for foreigners.
The bad news: Unless you’d want to do something else than teaching English…

I’m not good with kids, so I’m not sure a teaching job would be a good fit for me. And also, I’m not an English native, although only “native level” is required for most of those positions. Also, I am confident that my grasp of English grammar – as I had to study it rather painfully – is better than that native’s whom I overheard teaching in Korea once (“We use future progressive to give our speech a more warm and friendly feeling.” Honey, I’ll be believing that when hell is freezing over…)

However, even if you don’t want to teach, there seem to be enough jobs around – but those require rather fluent Japanese, which I don’t think is going to happen within this year.

I could start as a student again. There are student visas permitting up to 20 hours of work per week. But then, I’m not sure I’d want to be a full time student again right now – I believe I’m too old for that – or not old enough? Besides, most classes would be taught in Japanese anyway, and language schools preparing you for university are extremely expensive.

What about being a tour guide? Showing people MY beloved Japan sounds great, no? Well, of course there is an exam for this as well, so you have a basic understanding of the country and the language you want to use, and the exam is – you’ve guessed it – administered in Japanese.

The final good news is that any job I have found so far seems to be very well paid – for Western standards at least. And finding a job may be much easier once I am actually in the country. So I’ve not lost all hope yet, at the start already.

In the worst case, I can always bite the bullet and teach English. Meanwhile, there is always the hope that this blog makes me rich quick… 😉

Chopstick basics

One of the most useful things to know before going to Japan is how to eat with chopsticks. Unlike in China or Korea, where you at least get a spoon for sour or rice, it’s chopsticks only in Japan. (Unless you wish to exclusively eat at the Mos Burger, of course.) Hence, to assure survival, you’ll need at least to know the basics of handling chopsticks, which are:using chopsticks

  1. Take the first chopstick in your hand. It should lie on top of the fingernail of your ring finger. Resist the urge of pressing the tip of the middle finger against the wood!
  2. Take the second chopstick like a pen in your first three fingers. You should be able to move it relatively freely.
  3. Although you have a pair of chopsticks, only the upper one moves, essentially up-and-down towards the lower one.

Tips for beginners:
Relaxing your hand and fingers makes using chopsticks more easy. Or so I’ve heard…
Don’t use your chopsticks as pointing devices or skewers.
Never stick them into the rice in an upright position – this is how offering to the dead are made.

There are plenty of other rules on using chopsticks – as for everything else in Japan – I may write about those later. You’ll need a lot of practice until you can eat with them, don’t get disheartened. Even Asians can have a hard time eating slippery or soft food like tofu drowned in sauce!

Good luck!

Planning Stages

Moving to a new country, nay, a new life even, requires some serious thoughts and planning.
Unless you are of the extremely adventurous persuasion, who can move anywhere with only a carry-on and a week’s notice, of course.
In my age, however, I need somewhat more security, so here is a list of things that require some thinking and research beforehand.

Living arrangements

Japan is obvious, but which region and city? I have visited many cities in Japan, from Otaru in Hokkaido to Fukuoka in Kyushu. I have seen Hiroshima, Tokyo, Sendai, Niigata… but none of those places have fascinated me as much as Kyoto. It is wonderful with its mixture of traditional and modern Japan, and with about 1.5 million inhabitants it’s tiny for Asian standards – especially when compared to the moloch of Tokyo. Also I hope that in Kyoto, being a center of touristic activities, it may be a good place for foreigners seeking work.


That is the next thing to worry about. I will need a work visa to be able to work in Japan, to be able to open a bank account, etc. This means I will need a job, preferrable before moving there. That, however, is the tricky thing, as so far I have only decided that I need a change of career, but not to which one. Apparently, there are many foreigners living and working in Japan illegaly on a 90 days tourist visa, but as I want to build my life there, this is not an option. Some serious soul searching has to follow, and rather quickly at that.


Japanese is a rather diffcult language to learn for a European. Once the japanese writing is mastered – the Hiragana and Katakana – there are still thousands of Kanji – Chinese characters – to learn. Not to mention the grammar, which is completely different from any Western language I’ve ever studied. The simple sentence “I want to go to the library” turns upside down into “Library to go want”, with all the action hidden in the verb at the end of the sentence. I have been learning Japanese on and off for two years now, and it went fairly well in the beginning. However, once I reached the heights of Japanese politeness, with new expressions, vocabulary, and grammatical delicacies, I found myself facing an enourmous roadblock. I will have to invest some serious work here, to not only be able to talk somehow, but to talk politely.


While I would love moving with as few possessions as possible, unfortunately this does not appear to be feasible. My life so far has created an abundance of stuff: family heirlooms, treasured photographs and beloved pieces, practical and useful belongings, in short odds and ends of an existence I am not willing to give up entirely. Of course there is the option of leaving some of those things with well meaning friends and getting them piece by piece, but I think this may only strain the relationship with my friends, and besides, it only postpones the problem. So, I will have to sort through all my belongings one by one to decide what to do with them. Some decisions will be easy: I cannot take any electrical appliances, as electricity in Japan has 110 V only. Others will be hard: I love my books, all 1000 of them… and what about my heirloom china? I have found that it’s easier for me to part with things if they go to a new home where they are used again. I hope I will find many such places for many of my things.


A big move like this one is not possible without some help from outside. So far, I have kept rather quiet about my plans, but sooner or later I will need assistance on various levels. The first thing to do is go to the Japanese embassy to find out about visas and other legal procedures before an immigration. Also, I know quite a few people – both expats and natives – in Japan, although not all of them live close to Kyoto. I want to let them know about my plans, and I will try to overcome my fears and actually ask for help once in a while. Maybe this way, things will go as smoothly as possible. There is one person I would like to ask being my mentor for Japanese culture and customs, but I want to wait with approaching him once I have actually arrived in Japan.

Big plans, long to-do list. I hope I will manage all of this in time…