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.

The Season of Arts, Culture and School Festivals

Before I came to Japan, my perspective of autumn, an unknown season in my home country, only brings to mind the activity of momiji-gari or maple leaves viewing. While momiji-gari is pretty much one of the main attractions of autumn across Japan (like sakura viewing in spring), this activity does not take place till the later part of the season.

In fact, many weeks before it was even time to get close to nature for momiji-gari, Kyoto was bustling with activities of a different significance. And I found myself being kept really busy because of them.


文化の秋. The Autumn of Culture. I first came to learn about this phrase from my Japanese sensei. One autumn day, he started the class asking us if we knew the words associated with the season. Culture turned out to be one of the words. Yes, autumn is synonymous with culture in Japan and the season is the time in which arts and culture are being celebrated.

From September till early November, there was the annual Kyoto Art Festival. The publicity banners for this event in the downtown streets were so small that they were easy to miss. It was only from the event guide I picked up at the Kyoto City International Foundation (KCIF) that I learnt about the festival. While there were arts and cultural performances which required an admission fee, there were also those which were open to the public for free, such as the illumination shows at the Kyoto National Museum, and the traditional music performances at Heian Shrine in late October.

Illumination show at Kyoto National Museum from 26 - 28 Oct.
Light-up and traditional music performance at Heian Shrine on 26 Oct.
One of Kyoto's three major festivals known as the Festival of the Ages or Jidai Matsuri was also held in October. It happened on a Monday, a school day. As I planned not to miss it no matter what, I actually skipped lunch and rushed to the Heian Shrine to catch the parade right after class. 

Jidai Matsuri on 22 Oct.
As we went into November, it was another month of activities. 3 Nov was a national holiday in Japan known as "Culture Day". Japan celebrates arts and tradition on this day. About a month before the holiday, my neighbour shared with me the news that the KCIF was recruiting volunteers to help out at its annual Open Day event which coincided with Culture Day. We signed up and spent that saturday volunteering, a meaningful day spent interacting with the locals.  My role was to photograph the performances and as I have grown to enjoy photography, it was pretty rewarding. 

At the Open Day 2012 organised by Kyoto City International Foundation on 3 Nov.
At the event, there were international cuisines being sold, Nihongo cafes (where international residents in Kyoto could learn Japanese from locals), flea markets, performances put up by both the locals and international residents, and informative booths etc.  I was really impressed by the efforts of KCIF in promoting international exchange and integration of international residents in Kyoto. As international as Singapore is, I have the feeling that we are still behind in this area.

On the Sunday following Culture Day, I cycled to the Kyoto Imperial Palace which was open to the public for free from 31 Oct to 4 Nov. I was surprised to find free parking area. There was a huge crowd but it was a nice stroll on the palace grounds nonetheless.  The leaves of some of the trees were just turning brown and the scenery was great.  The highlight of that visit was being able to watch Kemari, a ball game played by the court nobles of ancient Kyoto during the Heian Period. I heard about this game from one of our Japanese classes which covered a little on the history of Kyoto.  It was a nice surprise to be able to see it played on palace grounds, like in the ancient days.

Kyoto Imperial Palace opens to the public for free on some days in autumn.

A week after all the arts and cultural events, it was the much anticipated school festival.  November is usually the month in which universities across Japan organise their annual school festivals.  Some of these festivals could be star-studded events with celebrities invited for performances and concerts.  At my school, the highlight of the event was the talkshow by a pair of comedians and a model.

The school festival lasted two days with stage performances by the various clubs and circles in school, flea markets with students selling items ranging from clothes to shoes to handicrafts, as well as food stalls ran by students. In order to attract "customers" to the stalls, many students were in various costumes ranging from Pokemon to Power Rangers. Just seeking out these characters and taking photographs of and with them was good fun.

At the school festival which lasted 2 days - 10 and 11 Nov.
Autumn seemed to pass really fast with all the activities. Of all the seasons so far, I am probably happiest in autumn. But the season also brings with it a sense of melancholy. Perhaps it is because the leaves are falling, and at the back of my mind, I know that this adventure is coming to an end.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Do not litter in "Beautification Enforcement Areas"

On Monday, I was lost in the southern part of Kyoto city for a while. I was on a bus heading south, which was supposed to bring me to the new office of the organisation where I had been volunteering. Or so I thought. 
I stay in the north ward and the new office is located in the south. It never occurred to me that I would have to take the bus on the other side of the road to go further north first before I could get to the south. So I took the bus heading directly south instead. Turned out to be the wrong bus. Anyway, that's Kyoto's amazing bus routes for you. 
As I was lost in the streets, I came across a sign in a place which is a little off the usual tourist tracks. In Beautification Enforcement Areas, you will be fined up to 30 000 Yen for littering regardless of your nationality or status.
The way some of my new friends here asked me whether it is true that you get fined for littering in Singapore, I have somehow been made to imagine that my country is the only place in the world which impose fines for littering. So I was a little surprised at seeing that sign in Kyoto city.
Looking at the sign on a Kyoto street, I couldn't help but wonder where the "Beautification Enforcement Areas" in Kyoto are, and the rationale behind the regulation...Why should there be a difference between areas? Why should some areas be more "beautified" than others?


Poster series: Who are the messages targeting?

The first poster states "Molesters will not be let off!". When I first saw this poster which was pasted onto the wall at a Kyoto subway station, I wondered how the drawings of the angry-looking school girls could have any deterrent effect on molesters. 

More recently, I saw another poster pasted outside a shop in the middle of a residential area near my university. This time, the message stated on the poster is "Bullying is a crime! Absolutely shall not be let off!" The drawing of a gentle-looking lady who seems to be gesturing "no, no" with her hand again made me wonder how a poster like this could deter bullying.

Just as I was thinking that whoever designed these posters had absolute disregard of whether the messages are being diluted or not with the use of the drawings, it suddenly occurred to me that I got the target audience wrong.
The posters are probably not targeting the perpetrators at all, but the victims! They are appealing to the victims to come forward and seek help, many of whom are probably junior high students.
From that perspective then, are the posters effective? What do you think?

Friday, 2 November 2012

Instant ramen stations

Last semester, in one of the speaking classes, a classmate talked about the top most common food prepared by students in his dormitory. It was instant ramen, or cup noodles. 
For the busy student, the convenience offered by instant ramen is irresistible. And I can empathise.  I too got started on instant ramen when I first came to this city, and we all know how the wide variety of flavours they have here and the packaging can be really enticing. Fortunately, it never became a habit because I discovered the fun of cooking with Kyoto vegetables.
At school, there are many students to whom instant ramen is part and parcel of the busy school life. During lunch time, tables with hot water dispensers lined with students preparing their cup noodles are a common sight. Definitely not something our Health Promotion Board will approve of.
The instant ramen stations were a little of a shock to me at first. As convenient as instant ramen is, I really don't think it should be encouraged like this. I guess the onus is on the students to exercise moderation and I do hope they do.

Putting out the garbage

When I first came to Kyoto, how to deal with the garbage was an issue which the school's orientation programme covered with some detail.  I recall the course coordinator telling us to follow the rules in handling our garbage if we want to enjoy good relations with our landlord and neighbours.
In Kyoto city, there are garbage bags with "Kyoto City" printed on them that residents have to buy to discard their garbage in. There are basically two types of garbage bags - yellow ones for combustibles and transparent ones for recyclables.  There are various sources of information online on how to dispose garbage but it is always good to ask the landlord or neighbour for details as there may be slight differences depending on where you stay.
In my case for example, my landlady lines the garbage bins at my mansion with the designated plastic bags so I don't have to buy them. We can just transfer our garbage from home directly into the bins. As we have a "centralised" garbage disposal system at my mansion in which my landlady will clear the garbage bins and put out the garbage for collection, we don't have to be concerned with garbage collection dates either.
Typically, on the morning of garbage collection, properly tied garbage bags placed along the streets at designated collection points are a common sight. The garbage collection trucks will collect these bags from the streets.
A garbage collection point along a street. The yellow plate hung on the railing
shows the collection date for different types of garbage.
As garbage disposal in my case is almost as routine as how it has been in Singapore, it has never really occurred to me to write about garbage collection until I came across this particular sight downtown, at the busy Shijo Kawaramachi shopping street (see picture below).

McDonald's garbage piled up in front of the restaurant at the Shijo Kawaramachi
shopping street.
I was alittle taken aback by the sight as I thought the garbage affected the look and feel of this bustling shopping street popular with locals and tourists. It also led me to wonder why garbage trucks have to collect garbage from the main street and not from the back street.  I guess it probably boils down to efficiency, that it may be quicker to collect the garbage from the main street than to ply through back streets. 
In any case, I do think the bags of garbage piled up in front of shops in a shopping street look really out of place...

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Cosmos in Kameoka: In the trail of autumn flowers

Kameoka city is about 30 minutes away from Kyoto city by the Japan Railway rapid train.  It is located in the Tamba region of Kyoto prefecture, a region hailed as the "roof" of the prefecture due to its mountain ranges. A quiet city with a flourishing agricultural industry, Kameoka is worlds apart from Kyoto city. The train ride brings you through valleys and rivers and it is a good place to go for nature lovers.
Some months ago, I read about the Tamba-Kameoka Yume Cosmos Park in the city where 8 million cosmos would bloom in autumn.  The pictures I saw of the flowers were beautiful and I found myself looking forward to that day in autumn in which I would stroll through the fields of cosmos.  And on 20 Oct, in spite of the loads of homework from school, I  found time to make the trip to the city.

Upon arrival at the JR Kameoka station, I took the Keihan Kyoto Kotsuu Bus no. 40 (from Bus-stand number 3) at the bus terminal in front of the train station.  Unlike the Kyoto city bus in which there is a flat rate of 220 Yen as long as you are travelling within the city, the Keihan Kyoto Kotsuu Bus fare is calculated according to the distance travelled. 
When you board the bus, you need to collect the ticket from the ticket machine near the door of the bus.  There is a number printed on the ticket. To know how much to pay when you alight, you need to pay attention to the fare display in front of the bus (see picture in the extreme left of the photo collage below).  If you look under the number display that corresponds to your ticket number, you will see the fare indicated in red numbers.  As my ticket number states "1", I looked under the display under "1". I paid 250 Yen for the trip from the JR Kameoka station to the Kameoka Undo Koen where I alighted.

The Kameoka Undo Koen bus-stop where I alighted is just across the road from the cosmos park.  Once I alighted, I could see the fields of flowers before me.  There were people photographing the flowers from outside the park.  Entry to the park required an admission fee of 600 Yen.  There was a discount coupon for weekday use only which could be downloaded from the website and you could save 100 Yen with it.

Since I came all the way and spent about an hour travelling just to get to the park, I was determined to enter the park. Although it was a Saturday, there were not as many people as I had thought. It could also be because I went around lunch-time.  It had been raining quite often that week and I was glad that the day was blessed with great weather. The sun was at its strongest but it also meant that I could get pretty good photographs.

The flowers started to bloom around the end of September and the flower viewing event was originally scheduled to end in end October. However, it has been extended to 4 November.  When I went there, I could see that there were still many flowering buds so I guessed there were still many "late-bloomers".  When I left the park and Kameoka, I had the feeling that there is more to discover in this city.  I will definitely find time to visit Kameoka again.