Friday 28 December 2012

Writing nengajo

During the days leading up to 2013, it was a mad rush to write New Year greeting cards known as nengajo. There were many people I wanted to thank and the nengajo was a good way to express my gratitude to the friends and loved ones who had treated me kindly the past year.

In the malls, bookstores or convenience stores, you could find nengajo with various cute designs. The nengajo from these places tend to be pricier. For example, at Izumiya, a departmental store near my place, a set of 5 cost 598 Yen.  As I was looking for nengajo which incorporated symbols of Kyoto, I bought most of my nengajo from the Japan Post. The Japan Post sold nengajo at 50 or 55 Yen per piece.  The nengajo usually comes with postage included in the cost so you do not have to pay additional on postage stamps.

I found some simple nengajo from the Japan Post which were only embellished with a small illustration of the Shimogamo Shrine (a World Heritage Site in Kyoto) on the bottom right corner. The white space allowed me to add words and designs of my own.  Since designing your nengajo is quite a common practice in Japan, I also bought a calligraphy pen, cute ink stamps and stickers to decorate my nengajo.  You could buy all these at affordable prices from the 100 Yen shop. Alternatively, if you have spare cash, you could check out LOFT.

There are many online resources on how to write nengajo using the right phrases as well as how to write the addresses in the correct format.  The Japan Post had a special page dedicated to such information as well in the days leading up to the New Year.  I found it really useful and I recall it came with an English version. The page also contained various designs of nengajo which you could download if you did not want to buy them off the shelf.   There was a page with the dates by which you had to post your nengajo if you wanted them delivered by the first day of the New Year. Yes, in Japan, it is a custom to send your nengajo so that it arrives exactly on the first day of the New Year. Right now, the page is closed but do check back towards the end of the year to see what kind of resources are available.

It was a good feeling writing the nengajo to express my thanks to all those who had helped me in 2012. It was an even better feeling to receive nengajo on New Year's Day.  If you are in Japan around the end of the year, try writing and sending out nengajo to your family and friends to make their day!

Thursday 27 December 2012

Winter light-up at Arashiyama

In Kyoto, there are various light-up events throughout the seasons that you can look forward to. One of these is the winter light-up at Arashiyama known as the Kyoto Hanatouro (京都花灯路).  

The light-up in Kyoto is part of a series of light-up events in winter in the Kansai region which include the Kobe Luminarie and the Osaka Hikari-Renaissance.  These events often attract large crowds. I heard from friends who visited the Kobe Luminarie that it was so crowded that photography became an unpleasant experience. Some did not even recommend these events due to the crowds.

While I could not speak for the events in Kobe and Osaka since I had not visited the events, the winter light-up in Kyoto was a pleasant experience for me in spite of the crowds.  

On one cold winter evening, I set out to Arashiyama with three neighbours armed with our cameras and equipment ready to capture the beauty of nature seen at night and further accentuated by the use of artificial lights.

My friends were armed with professional camera equipment including tripods to capture a sharper night scene. I only had my basic Sony Cybershot digital camera but it worked well enough for my own expectations. Upon arrival, we headed for the Togetsukyo bridge to capture a photo of the scene often seen in publicity posters about the light-up.  Many photography enthusiasts already had their tripods and cameras poised for the scene.  We chose an empty spot and fired our cameras away.

It was a very cold night and I was shivering.  My photos turned out to be unclear as my hand shook so much as I was photographing the scenery.  Nevertheless, it was adequate just being able to take in the beautifully lit night scene in Arashiyama.

It was a scene I had never known. While I had gone to Arashiyama several times in the day and love the place for the beautiful natural scenery,  it is a place I would not have liked to go to when dusk falls.  I  had imagined it would be dark and the looming mountains would not look friendly. 

When I heard about the winter light-up, I was really curious.  And I was not disappointed by what I saw.  There was something very peaceful about the scenery bathed under various shades of blue lights. There were many people walking along the river with us, taking in the scenery. There was no jostling nor rowdiness.  People were just walking, strolling.  I was not the least affected by the crowds. I guess it was because I felt that everyone was entitled to see such a pretty sight. And we didn't get to see nature like this on normal days. As the Chinese saying goes, it is better to enjoy an experience with people than enjoying it alone.

The highlight of the evening for me was the Bamboo Grove.  My neighbours and I spent a while here as we wanted to photograph the Bamboo Grove without the crowds. It was a long wait as we stood at the side of the path, waiting for the crowds to clear. Amazing photographs were captured by my neighbours with the use of tripods adjusted at various angles. Here are a couple of photographs I took which did not do much justice to what I actually saw. I edited my photos by adjusting the lighting a little to bring them closer to reality.

The Japanese are punctual people and the organisers turned off the lights right on the time the event was to end - 8.30pm.  We managed to capture the photos that we wanted.

If you are going to be in Kyoto in December, remember to mark down the dates for the light-up events and check them out. There is also a light-up event in the Higashiyama area. Do click on the link here for details -

Tuesday 25 December 2012

Hatsuyuki in Kyoto

 On 10 December 2012, Kyoto city saw its first snow of the season, or hatsuyuki (初雪).

I was late for class that morning and was hurriedly putting on my shoes outside my room when I saw the white specks being blown my way.  My first thoughts were, "Had someone just given his or her futon a good beating outside? That was alot of dust!"

As I looked closer, I saw the white stuff turn to water as they touched the ground. And then I realised. A little slow I had to admit but then again, it was my first encounter with snow in Japan.I had experienced snow in Korea but it was heavy snow then, not the same as what I saw that day outside my mansion so it took me a while before realisation struck.

Unfortunately, I was in a hurry and I didn't have my camera with me. With my mobile phone, I snapped a quick photo outside Hirano Shrine which was along the way before I made a dash for school.
I was 5 minutes late for the class.   It was the sensei who was very particular about punctuality but that morning, he said he would forgive me on account of the weather and also since I had been a good student up till then.  It is always helpful to own a good track record, ahem.
After class, my Facebook newsfeed was full of people giving their account of the snow and uploading the photos they had taken. I wished I had taken better photos. In my inbox, I received messages from neighbours on whether it would be timely to check out Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also well-known for the winter image of its snow-capped roof.  In the news, as expected, hatsuyuki in Kyoto was reported with accompanying images of Kinkakuji in the background and interviews of tourists who were there.
However, it was not time yet to visit Kinkakuji for its beautiful winter scene because the snow did not accumulate. Melting was quick.
As I was looking through the photos taken by school mates of the snowing scene that day, I think the best pictures of the snow were those taken by my neighbour. And with his permission, I am happy to share the photos on this blog.

School grounds. Photo credit: Mr Riyadh Ahadi.
School grounds. Photo credit: Mr Riyadh Ahadi.
On 24 December, it snowed again in Kyoto, slightly after noon. Just as I was getting ready to get out of the study room to take photos with my camera, it stopped.

There was no White Christmas afterall.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Friday 14 December 2012

Planning for move-out - Selling furniture

The time has come to think about moving out of my mansion. I have been seeking out websites where I could put up ads about the furniture that I am planning to sell. I have a bed, a foldable table and a chair that comes with it to sell, and a bicycle and some other household items to give away.

Tatami bed for sale.
Free items to give away - Green foldable chair, cushion, futon set.

Foldable table and chair set for sale.
Free bicycle to give away with any purchase.

Free electric iron.

Considering that my course ends in February 2013, 2 months just before the start of a new semester, it may be very difficult to work on furniture transactions if the new students who are potential buyers won't be in Kyoto until spring. 

In any case, if you know anyone coming to Kyoto to study and may be keen to purchase second-hand furniture items before February 2013, please help to point them to this ad.  Thank you.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Momiji through my Lens

From around mid November, visitors from abroad and other parts of Japan started to flock to Kyoto for maple leaves viewing or momiji-gari. Kyoto is well-known for its momiji. I have heard that it is because we have alot of rain throughout the year that we could have these manificent autumn foliage to boast about.
For about half a month in November, I was closely monitoring the  Autumn Colour Report for Kyoto on an English site and another report on a Japanese site. The rain, exams and school projects had prevented me from going on a momiji-gari spree like some of my school mates. But the beautiful colours at school were a source of severe distraction and I found myself being drawn away from school work to make some concrete plans for my own momiji-gari operation.
Beautiful colours on school campus.
Reading the reports was very helpful as they triggered off a sense of urgency and forced me to reset my priorities, something a serious student such as me would otherwise be reluctant to do. By that time, and what with seeing the amount of fallen leaves in the neighbourhood, I could hardly focus on my JLPT exam anyway. And so with the limited free time that I had, I went about researching on a good place where I could be sure to see splendid colours. And hopefully without the crowds getting in the way.
My teacher told us that some of the popular maples viewing temples such as Tofukuji, Eikando and Kiyomizudera would see huge crowds throughout the day during the momiji-gari season.  She said there were even people who worked part-time as "queuers" to queue on behalf of visitors because the wait to get tickets into popular maple viewing temple spots could be pretty long.
Arashiyama on 29 Nov.
As I didn't have so much time to spare, I crossed out the popular spots mentioned above (although I learnt later from friends who went to these places that the queues were not that bad). Eventually, I decided that I should just head for Arashiyama since I had been there three years ago as a tourist but missed the autumn foliage at that time as it was still early then.  To beat the crowds, I set off early one weekday morning with my neighbour and reached Arashiyama by about 8am.

Along the way, we saw many maple trees but the leaves were in decline. The colours were turning a dull red and many leaves were spotted and in no good condition for photographs. I was alittle disappointed that I might be too late this time but I was wrong. As we strolled along the Katsura River, we came across some great colours on leaves that were at various stages of colouring.


And then we turned into a nearby park and were greeted by many momiji trees in manificent gold and orange, although there were as many trees which had already shed many of their leaves. The sky was just getting less cloudy at that time and seeing the blue in the sky lifted my spirits as we had been getting too much of grey skies and rain during those past few weeks.

At about 9.30am, we headed for Jojakoji Temple without a map and after asking many people along the way, we found it about 40 minutes later. We had made the mistake of crossing the Togetsukyo Bridge but there was really no need to as the temple was on the side of the Bamboo Grove. By the time we arrived, tourists were already there in bus loads. Nevertheless, it was still possible to get some good pictures with some patience. The admission fee was 400 Yen.

I thought the colours at that time had not reached their peak yet but they were splendid enough for me and my aim that morning was met.  We spent about an hour and a half there and left the temple at about noon. After that visit, I continued to monitor the reports because I was toying with the idea of visiting the temple again after my exam on 2 Dec. However, by that day, the leaves were falling fast and the season had ended in that area.


After leaving Jojakoji, it was a mad rush to get back as I had class at 1pm that day.  Needless to say, there was no time for lunch but there was always time for ice-cream. The cheapest soft at Arashiyama could be found at a little shop close to the Bamboo Grove. Only 180 Yen.

As autumn comes to a close, winter will bring with it a whole new experience.  In some places in the Kansai region, it has already been snowing.  I sure am looking forward to receiving snow in Kyoto!

Tuesday 4 December 2012

The exam day

Kyoto University was the exam venue.
The much anticipated JLPT exam took place on 2 Dec. I had been looking forward to taking the N2 exam to assess my Japanese proficiency level but now, I am not sure I am looking forward to the result. 

While I had planned to begin my exam preparation a month before, there was simply too much distraction and too little discipline.  I ended up cramming five days before the exam, while at the same time monitoring the colours of the maple leaves.

Lesson learnt - one shouldn't be taking exams in autumn, especially not in a place like Kyoto. One should just focus on maple leaves viewing instead.

At Kyoto University's Yoshida Campus on 2 Dec. Waiting around. An hour before exam.

The exam was difficult, to my horror. I had not expected it to be easy but I had thought I should be able to handle it. In any case, the exam gave me strong grounds to believe that I no longer have the focus to sit through a 160 minute exam. I lost concentration after a while in the never-ending pages of reading comprehension passages.

Then there was the listening exam which had to happen after the mad rush through the section on reading.  By that time, my attention span was shortened drastically by the death of too many brain cells caused by the reading overdose. I spaced out for a while and lost the thread of many conversations.  Those must be the sure signs of age. I have a feeling that this trip shall mark the end of my full-time studying.

Beautiful view outside the lecture hall where I took the exam.
The maple leaves were mostly gone. The coniferous-like trees looked splendid though.
On a happier note, I did not miss the maple leaves because of the exam.  My classmates had been chiding me for "wasting my time" on the maple leaves. They had planned to go momiji hunting only after the exams. But the trees were shedding alot of leaves by that time.

I remember a friend from Singapore once said to me before I came to Kyoto, "You are not going there just to study right? You are also there to play right?" At that time, I thought, well no, I am coming here to study, not to play!

But now, I think the truth is out.

P/S: Next post shall be a momiji feature.

Monday 3 December 2012

Latest favourite - Japanese Persimmons

My landlady gave me six huge Japanese persimmons last week and they changed my life ever since. After the kiwi, they are now my second favourite fruit to eat with my yogurt.
Persimmons are in season in autumn and you can see them everywhere in the supermarkets. One persimmon costs about 80 Yen.  Apart from the round persimmons, there are the squarish ones too which are equally delicious.
The Japanese persimmons are really crunchy and so sweet that I promise you they will bring you nothing but happiness as you eat them.