Thanks, Shinzo!

It’s almost scary to realise that we’ve been living with Corona / Covid19 for about half a year now! And sadly, things are not getting much better yet. It seems that some countries stand at the beginning of a second wave, and it’s just been discovered that there’s no long lasting immunity against the virus either. Yes, it seems indeed that this one is here to stay…

Japanese currencyFor now, governments in many states give financial aid to businesses and sometimes even to private citizens to ease the burden. For my company, I am eligible for financial aid since my income for May 2020 has dropped by more than 50% compared to May 2019. My accountant is currently busy with the paperwork, although it seems that there are not that many documents necessary in the first place.

And for me as a private person, I already received the 100,000 yen that Shinzo Abe has promised for everybody living in Japan. And I’m already spending it, too. There are a few things I need, but nothing really substantial: A pair of light summer slippers that I can wear on the bicycle (meaning: no sandals). A new backpack since the one I’m using right now is two years old already and won’t last forever.

And I also bought a very nice and extra warm duvet for winter, stuffed with real sheep’s wool. I’ve been looking at this one since last winter, but couldn’t make up my mind to buy it. Now that that shop has a grand sale because they will close soon for renovations, I finally bought it last week – for 30% off and with the government’s money to boot. Hey, thanks, Shinzo! 

Other than this, I have no big spending plans. Except… well, Shinzo’s money won’t cover all of that… You see, I’m looking into something really big right now. It’s too early for details, but I’ll keep you posted, promised!

Kakigori

Of all the dishes one could eat in the unbearable Japanese summer, kakigori is the most refreshing. No wonder, since it is nothing else than shaved ice with added flavour. During summer, it’s sold pretty much everywhere, from simple street stalls at festivals to convenience stores or traditional kissaten cafes and there are even shops that specialise in kakigori. To advertise kakigori, a special banner is used, showing the kanji for “ice”.While having ice available in summer only became widespread from the 19th century onwards, the nobility could enjoy kakigori as early as the Heian period of the 11th century. It is already mentioned in Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, when it was a rare treat even at court. At that time, large blocks of ice were cut from rivers during the winter and then stored in mountain caves or special ice houses that would reach deep into the earth.

Nowadays, the ice for kakigori is mineral water frozen into blocks. Great care is taken that the ice turns into a fluffy, snow-like consistency when shaved, and it is this consistency that sets kakigori apart from other shaved ice desserts like snow cones. These days, electric machines are used to shave the ice, but there are still street vendors who use a traditional hand-cranked machine. These machines are ubiquitous at flea markets; they come in all sizes and very small ones are still occasionally sold at household goods stores.Once the ice is properly shaved, it is put on a dish – special korikoppu dishes were popular before WWII – and then it’s time for the flavouring. Heavy syrup that comes in numerous flavours is poured over the ice, and you can have your kakigori as strawberry, lemon, plum, grape, matcha… An extra dash of condensed milk adds a bit of sweetness.While the basic kakigori is available throughout Japan, there are a few local varieties as well. Shirokuma (literally polar bear) comes with small mochi, condensed milk, anko, and a variety of fruits added to the shaved ice. This type of kakigori was invented in Kagoshima during the Edo period and is now known throughout Japan.

Another version is Ujikintoki with green tea syrup and anko. It is named after Uji, a small town near Kyoto that is famous for its green tea and kintoki, a type of red bean paste.Whether you get a small cup of eat-as-you-go kakigori at a festival or sit down at a specialty shop for a large bowl topped with fruit, kakigori is always a welcome refreshment in the hot Japanese summers and worth trying all the flavours.

Heatwave

Sorry for not posting last night, I was flat out exhausted. We’re in the third week of a heatwave here and although there is a certain breeze that makes things more bearable, especially in the afternoon, it’s still not easy to get motivated.

Yesterday I had to flee my apartment because it got so hot, and I cooled down in my favourite cafe. Sadly, they don’t have wifi there, which makes being productive rather difficult. How much we rely on the internet these days!

Today, I have three appointments in the afternoon, I hope I can make them all… It seems that next week will be a bit cooler, which is to be expected. I hope my motivation follows suit – it does help if you can sleep through the night! We’ll see.

Obon Reduced

Today is the last day of Obon in Japan, the mid-summer period where the ghosts of one’s ancestors return to earth. During this time, many people return to the gravesites of their family to clean them and leave little gifts for the dead like flowers or foodstuffs. I once even saw a small beer can placed on a tomb, which I found rather touching.

In Kyoto, the evening of August 16 is the time for the Gozan-no-okuribi fires, or short: the Daimonji, where on 5 mountains surroundig Kyoto large bonfires are lit that spell out five kanji characters and are meant to guide the spirits back to the realm of the dead. Even though I am not religious, watching the fires being lit is very moving, and even I think of my family…

Anyway, although these fires draw large crowds every year, they do have a religious background, so it’s not a tourist spectacle. For this reason, they are always lit on the same day, regardless of weather or other outside influences. Only during WWII, the characters were drawn onto the mountains using white cloth, because making nightly signal fires for airplanes wasn’t a great idea.

This year, of course, things are different than usual because of Covid19. And because the fires draw so many spectators to only a few strategic points, the organisers decided to drastically scale them down: All except for the one on Daimonji Mountain were to be reduced to a single point.  So, here is the big “dai” 2020 as seen from my balcony:

I am torn about this to be honest. It was nice that the organisers went through with the fires – and if you know what the big dai should look like, it was easy to make out – but at the same time it felt very sad too, somehow. If Corona does not go away, how much of our culture will we have to sacrifice?

Tea Ceremony

Every year in August, Kodai-ji Temple holds a special Cool Night Yukata Tea Ceremony in the weekends and this year, I convinced a friend of mine to go together with me.

Of course, we both had to wear Yukata for the occasion, mainly because it is nice, but also because we wanted to get the 500 yen discount that was offered for people wearing yukata. Of course, if you’re wearing traditional Japanese clothing at a traditional Japanese event, you need to go all the way: When making the reservation, we were informed that we needed to wear tabi, white Japanese socks with separate big toe. This is actually standard since it is rude to enter a room (in particular one with tatami) barefoot.

So, one day before the tea ceremony, I went to a special tabi shop on Sanjo dori to buy me some traditional footwear. And: I failed. Problem is that tabi are made of relatively stiff cotton that is not flexible at all, so they are closed at the inside of the ankle with some sort of buttons, for lack of a better word. And, while my feet are the rather standard Japanese size  of 24.5 cm, my ankles are not…

Anyway, the next day in the evening I showed up at my friend’s place with the yukata she gave to me a few years back, a whole pile of assorted accessories including obi and geta and a pair of white socks to put on at the tea ceremony proper. I had hoped that my friend would be able to help me putting on the obi – which alone takes me 30 minutes every time – but it turned out that she hasn’t got a clue how to do this since she only wears a very simplified version that doesn’t require wrapping a piece of cloth the length of an anaconda around your waist… At least she could hold some of the pieces in place while I squirmed into them, her extra pair of hands did help.

Kodaiji in the nightWhen we arrived at Kodai-ji, it turned out to be a very small tea ceremony with only seven people in total. The setting was less formal that I had expected (and dressed for), we were sitting on little chairs on a low table instead of kneeling on the floor in seiza. The room was beautifully decorated according to the theme – glass – and all the tea utensils down to the tea scoop were made from glass (except the tea kettle, of course).

Since I had been at tea ceremonies before, I roughly knew what to do – there’s a lot of bowing involved – but once again, I completely missed the preparation of the tea. In tea ceremonies for larger groups, the main host is entertaining the guests by smalltalk or explaining the tea utensils or the art used in the tokonoma. Meanwhile, another person actually makes the tea for the top one or two guests, and all the other guests get their tea served from behind the scenes.

I found the sweets that were offered before the matcha a bit tasteless, but they looked like a heart placed behind glass to fit the theme. What I really like about tea ceremonies is that afterwards, you are invited to inspect the room and check out all the tea bowls and other utensils and the tokonoma as well. Sadly, I didn’t expect that it was allowed to take photos at that time, so I didn’t bring my camera…

Oh well. In any case I had fun and spent a nice evening at the temple, although it was very hot outside even after the sun went down. The yukata didn’t help with that either. One thing I still have to figure out is how my Japanese friend can look all cool and poised and relaxed at a hot night like this while I look like I’ve just emerged out of a steam bath and getting ready to burst into flame…  I shall investigate.

I Love My Job!

At work, things aren’t easy during Corona times and it won’t get back to “normal” soon either, if ever again. However, every now and then there’s a great day between all the drab, and it makes me feel very positive for now and the future.

One of these days was last Friday, when I was invited to a press review of two exhibitions and one 5* hotel in Arashiyama.

The Saga Arashiyama Museum for Arts and Culture as well as the Fukuda Art Museum started their new exhibition on August 1. The first exhibition is all about animals, with a focus on the 12 zodiac animals as well as images of cats. Cats are suspiciously absent from the Chinese zodiac, but given all the paintings and stories and youtube videos about them, they probably got the better ending long-term.

The second exhibition was about the Tokyo painters Taikan and Shunso, friends from the Meiji and Taisho era. Taikan is regarded as a ‘gold medalist’ of Japanese painting, famous for his depictions of Mt. Fuji. I know nothing about painting, so I can’t really say much about the art, but there was a quote from Taikan that I found excellent:

Once a person is formed, painting is possible. First, you have to form the person.

I enjoyed both exhibitions and the nice things about these two museums are is that they let you take photos of most of the exhibits. The photos above are mine.

The last place I went to was the new Muni Hotel. It’s a fantastic 5* hotel with only 21 rooms but with a lovely view over the river in Arashiyama. It also has all the amenities necessary for a 5* hotel including a very exclusive French (of course) restaurant. Again, I was allowed to take pictures everywhere – except for the restaurant. Why? Because on the wall opposite the entrance hangs a huge painting by Marc Chagall. I tried to find a photo online to show it here, but no luck. If you have 30000 yen to splurge on dinner, I would recommend it though!

I returned home after spending several hours in Arashiyama, with a goodie bag from the hotel’s “boutique” where they sell just perfect little sweets. So yes, I had a wonderful Friday! I hope things will keep getting more interesting. 😉

Doyo-no-ushi-no-hi

Today is the second doyo-no-ushi-no-hi of 2020, so if you need a bit more explanation than what I gave in my post of last week, here you go.

Let’s start at the beginning: What is doyo?

Traditionally, doyo is the period of 18 to 19 days before the beginning of a new season, so there are four doyo in each year: before the beginning of spring (called risshun) around Feb. 4, beginning of summer (rikka) around May 5, autumn (risshuu) around August 7 and winter (rittou) around November 7. Nowadays, doyo most often refers to the one in summer.

Generally, the doyo is considered a time of preparation for the coming season. However, it also means that times are a bit unstable, and it is possible, in particular during the last night, that demons may enter the world in the gap between two seasons. This is the reason for the setsubun ritual, where demons are ousted from our world on February 3rd.

Moving on: What is ushi-no-hi?

Ushi-no-hi is the day of the ox, one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. Every day (and every 2-hour period and every cardinal direction) is assigned one of the zodiac animals. Therefore, doyo-no-ushi-no-hi refers to the day of the ox during a doyo period. Obviously, when dividing a period of 18/19 days by 12 zodiac animals, some of the animals have to repeat. This is why in 2020, there are two days of the ox in the summer doyo period, on July 21 and August 2.

But what makes doyo-no-ushi-no-hi so special?

Well, the day of the ox during the doyo is considered the hottest day in all summer. In general, it seems to me that the Japanese bear the summer heat less well than the cold in the winter, which is understandable for anyone who has ever tried to move on a humid summer afternoon in Kyoto… Therefore, they have come up with a lot of little traditions to better get through the hot days.

One of these traditions is moxibustion, where people burn dried mugwort on their skin. Another one is to wear “cool” colors like white, light blue or green and to take a hot bath in the evening. And another one is to eat healthy foods, which in this case means anything that starts with the letter u. Such foods are udon noodles, umeboshi (pickled plums), uri (all sorts of gourds including cucumbers, pumpkins, and melons) and unagi eel. While umeboshi, melons and cucumbers can be eaten cold, unagi needs to be cooked, which sounds a bit counterintuitive to a light summer meal. So, why unagi?

The story goes that a certain Hiraga Gennai, 18th century pharmacologist, renaissance man and gay icon, particularly recommended eating unagi on doyo-no-ushi-no-hi. However, not because he believed so fervently in the efficacy of the dish, but rather because one of his friends, who had an unagi restaurant, could do with more customers…

And that’s why many Japanese to this day still eat unagi on the hottest day in summer.

Ayu

From the time I was a child, I’ve always liked eating fish. This is interesting, since Austria has no access to the sea, and we chiefly subsist on pork and potatoes. As a child, fish was mainly those deep frozen/fried fish-stick kind of things, and when I was a bit older, we occasionally got fresh trout from a family member who had a fish rearing pond.

So, now that I’m in Japan, one would think that I’d eat a lot of fish. Well, yes I do… kinda. Sadly, I mainly stick to sushi and salmon. To be honest, although the fish and seafood section in my supermarket is huge, I am a bit intimidated – I mean, I have no idea how to cook this properly!

But of course, now I am an adult with lots of curiosity and said supermarket next door plus: enter the internet! I am proud to report tha I have already cooked myself spicy clams with spaghetti, and even though I probably got the wrong kind of clams (it was an Italian recipe) I was very happy with the outcome. My proudest moment, however, was when I tried the ayu.

Ayu, also called sweetfish, are small freshwater fish that are very popular in Japan and other parts of Asia. They are eaten throughout summer and are available at almost any matsuri where they are grilled over an open fire.

So when I saw the fish above, I was intrigued but also a bit worried. As you can see, this is a complete fish, bones and innards and all – do I have to do that cutting that stuff out myself? So I asked one of the staff at the supermarket, an elderly man. First of all, he explained that this was indeed an ayu (there are many kanji for this fish, none of which I can read: 鮎, 年魚, 香魚) and then he said that no, Japanese people eat the whole thing. Really.

After some deliberation, I thought, oh well, let’s try this. Thankfully, not having to cut off any pieces made cooking it very easy – I simply put it on the little fish grill of my gas stove. And because ayu are maybe 20 cm long at most, it took only around 10 minutes until it was done.

Overall verdict: The term “sweetfish” is accurate, the meat was tender and very delicious. I only used a bit of salt to cook it and put some lemon juice on it before eating. Full disclosure, I did not eat the whole fish after all, leaving the spine, head and innards, but it may be something I’m willing to try at a later point, of which there will definitely be many!   

Summer Joys

Yesterday, after my physio therapy session in the morning, I went down to Nijo Castle. The old residence of the Shoguns is on eof my favourite places in Kyoto and over summer, offer a special treat: Visitors are allowed to enter some of the rooms of the Ninomaru palace and see the famoous fusuma paintings of the Kano School close-up!

Of course I had to go and I was very excited when I went there – just to find out that the palace was closed for the day and only the gardens were accessible… Yes, it’s my job to know these things, but even I am not infallible… I didn’t enter after all, I like the palace gardens but I don’t consider them spectacular and worth a visit without seeing the palace. So much for my treat!

Although, to be fair, I did have another treat: Yesterday was doyo-ushi-no-hi, the day of the ox in midsummer, traditionally considered the hottest day in summer, even though this year the heat and especially the humidity is very bearable.

Tradition dictates that on this day of the ox you eat eel – unagi – and I am lucky enough to have a little Japanese restaurant nearby which was selling take-out unadon (a ricebowl topped with unagi) for lunch. Doesn’t look like much, but it was delicious, much better than the stuff I would have gotten at the supermarket!

In the evening I discovered that my trip to Nijo Castle had left me with a slight sunburn on my arms, which is the usual way for me to get tanned at all. So yes, the joys of summer… 😉

The Elephant Vanishes

The Elephant Vanishes
Haruki Murakami

This is a collection of 17 short stories by Haruki Murakami. They don’t have a common theme, but they are all tied together by an “I” narrator, which gives the stories an almost personal feeling. Most often, this narrator seems like a stand-in for Murakami himself (a male author talking about his past), but there are also stories told from a female perspective. Typical for Murakami, in the beginning, the stories are grounded in the real world until something happens that is unlikely or impossible:

A man searches for his wife’s cat and spends the afternoon lying in the sun in a stranger’s garden. A woman becomes an insomniac who does not need to sleep at all and doesn’t even feel tired. A man works in an elephant factory until a dancing dwarf takes possession of his body. A woman is the target of a love sick green monster. A couple robs burgers from a MacDonalds in the middle of the night. An elephant vanishes without a trace from a heavily guarded enclosure. A man talks about his desire to burn down barns.

I’ve been reading a lot of Murakami’s books and short story collections lately. The selection of stories in this book felt more coherent than in “After the Quake”, which I read just before this one, even though there was no common theme here. The stories range from light hearted to cruel, from funny to profound. Since Murakami writes literary fiction, there is often not much plot, but the insights into the characters makes up for the fact that not much is happening.

Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and studied drama in Tokyo. While managing a Jazz club in Tokyo, he started writing at age 29 and has since become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide who has won many international literary prizes.

If you need something to take your mind off things without having to commit to a long time of reading, this collection of shorts of various length is a good book to pick up. Available at amazon.