Thursday, September 28, 2006

Wave Goodbye and Say Hello

I had wanted to finish this blog earlier but unfortunately life got in the way and I never took the time to sit down and write this last entry. Just like the absolute beginning, my feelings are mixed up. It is extremely strange to realize that 3 weeks ago I was still in Japan having a very nice time, but on the other hand back at home it feels like I never went away. The reintegration process goes smoothly, my time is filled with studying, going to parties and hanging with friends, just like life should be.
Being back also means that there is no real need to keep this blog any longer up to date. Having a blog was a nice way to reflect upon all the experiences I had and what they did to me and what they mean to me. Expressing your experiences in words is extremely difficult, and in many cases I wanted to express something personal but also relate it to my general opinions about Japan, which might needlessly have complicated my writings.
Those who have read the blog, I salute you! All those people both in the Netherlands as Japan who have kept an interest in my wellbeing, thank you for being there for me.
And who knows, perhaps to another time.


Saturday, September 02, 2006

What Do You Think About Japan?

When I was at Kansai Airport, I was approached by a bunch of middle school kids with a huge cardboard saying that they would like to ask foreigners some questions about Japan for their English class. When asked if I was willing to answer their question what I thought about Japan, I expressed that it was one of the difficult questions to answer. Thinking that they would pick up the hint that I was not entirely in the mood to be answer all the standard question one can ask foreigners in Japan, it turned out that Japanese politeness is gone when it suits them. And the smiling teachers without any reservation put the microphone in front of a very unwilling me. In the end I did answer the questions, angry at being dragged into a situation in which I did not want to be, but at the same time not feeling like making a scene and discouraging all those little kids to ever speak English again.
By now it’s been 11 months I lived in Japan this time and only a few days left. One knows things will come to an end, but it never really kicked in. Perhaps that is the reason why I don’t like being asked about my feelings towards Japan, it makes me realize that my experience here will soon be over. Rereading my first post I realized that the reason I came to Japan was to improve my Japanese. Although I am sure I really did improve on listening, talking and reading I am not entirely sure if I got everything out of the language which I could. But to be honest the part of acquiring language skills over time grew less important and the wonder of the first weeks also ceased. But in place of that I began to feel very comfortable and very at home in Kyoto. But on the other hand the fact that you know you only have one year, made we want to make good use of it and see a lot of Japan.
I am happy for all the experiences I had, and all the people that were there to share them with me. My classmates, the people living in my dorm, my Dutch classmates in Japan, people I met in bars, restaurants, on the streets. Thinking back all the images of this year keep tumbling over each other, some still very clear, some blurred, things I forgot that happen, things I remember as clear as yesterday.
This does not mean that when I am looking back this time at my previous experiences there are not a number of things I would have like to do in another way. But on the other hand I probably had to get trough all my experiences until this moment to realize that if I would do things again in certain cases I would do exactly the same and in other cases I would choose a different approach.
Nearing the end, I have to say goodbye to everybody and leave them behind in Japan, not knowing what the future will bring for them or for me, and it are those precious memories of all the experiences that I will be able to carry back to the Netherlands.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Sun Also Rises

While in the last entry, still two months lasted, it now has come to the phase were only 2 weeks are there before I will be able to taste my first piece of bread with good old Dutch cheese. The reality that the year really is over and it very soon will be time to go home, where my former student life will start almost immediately from the word go, starts kicking in. My classmates Bram and Paul already left Japan some weeks ago, but today another 6 Dutchies carried their overweight suitcases in a plane in order to get them back to Schiphol. As well as a person who did the same programme as I in Kyoto. The next time I will see the airport, it will be me who is leaving. Life in Kyoto has very comfortable and it also felt like a natural home, but with the end date of your stay in mind, you also realize that there are still a lot of things you want to do before you go back. Although unfortunately I was not able to do everything I wanted to do, because there are still reports that need to be finished, I was able to do a number of things that are related with things generally seen as representative symbols of Japan.
As somebody aptly described it, it is an interesting phenomenon that in a country where such an emphasis is placed on a slim body, where diet products are as easily obtainable as normal foods, the `national` sport is one in which fat guys are worshipped. Sumo, is of course the sport I am talking about. In the weeks prior to the day I was going to see it I became knowledgeable about the names of the different sumo-wrestlers as well as the names of the myriad ways in which one could bring an opponent to defeat. Our seats were pretty good and we spend the whole day hanging around on cushions watching people, who just judging by their sheer size I would advise not to sport, throw their bodies into each other, grapping each other at the string in order to get somebody on the ground or out the ring. Although these guys weight around the 150 kilo`s or even more, it is just not only fat that they carry around but also an enormous amount of muscles. One of the things that surprises many people is that they actually eat only one meal a day, although it’s a huge portion and is accompanied with an equal amount of beer. But being the biggest does not mean that you are able to win your matches, tactic and balance seem to be equally if not more important.
Sumo tournaments are hold 6 times in a year, 3 times in Tokyo, and in Fukuoka, Osaka and Nagoya. We went to Nagoya because the Osaka tournament had passed without me realizing that I could pay it a visit. And while I and a German friend called Marc, were in Nagoya we decided to pay the ancient shrines of Ise a visit before returning to Kyoto. Riding on the train and seeing the countryside passing by, I realized that quite a long time had passed since I had seen countryside and real forest. I said we went to visit the shrines, but actually the shrines are not open to public, one can only estimated what they look like from their roofs that tower above the walls that separates visitors from the shrines. I say shrines because there are two shrines, one called the Outer shrine and one called the Inner shrine. The Inner shrine is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu, from who the Imperial family according to mythology descends. Because of this link with the Imperial family, the Buddist influences on this shrine are far more limited than with any other shrine. The shrines were located in a beautiful natural setting, and for the first time in quite a while I was again astonished by the beauty Japan sometimes has.
The last icon I encountered is in a sense both the peak of my one week vacation in which I finally went to Kamakura and Nikko, as well as the peak of my year in Japan. Together with an enormous group of Japanese and foreign tourist, including my friends, 2 Indian guys and a Swiss girl, we climbed the Mount Fuji. We set out climbing around 10 P.M. and I arrived at the top around 5.30 AM just in time to see the sun peak above the clouds and producing a spectacle of yellow, orange and red colors. I was not quite sure what to aspect, but in the end I really felt like a young child again trying to conquer the mountain. It turned out that unfortunately we had taken the wrong route back and so we ended at a totally different place than from where we started. With the luck one sometimes needs, we were able to be back in Tokyo on time to catch the night bus back to Kyoto. In the bus I also noted that the protective sun cream I had used was not enough and that my face had turned almost the same color as the round circle in the flag of Japan that represents the sun. In my last two weeks I will shun the sun and concentrate in getting all my acquired stuff into boxes that can make a trip over the ocean, the remains of my essay and farewell parties, in which I have to say farewell to this sometimes beautifull land of the rising sun.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Unexplainable Emotions

No I am not in a depression, nor am I homesick. Quite on the contrary the fact that there are only some 2 months left does make me feel a little sad. I have decided on which day I will be able to eat brown bread with cheese and bought boxes to ship my belongings, which means the end is beginning to draw near. But this sentimental talking will undoubtly come back later, the emotions I want to talk about are related to the game which has 22 men running after a round object and desperately trying to kick it in the goal of the opposite party. Since elementary school I have a liking for soccer, not only for watching it, but also for playing it. It’s the only thing so far in which a part on the left side of my body, namely my left foot, does function properly. (Really I can’t catch or throw balls with left, even worse can’t handle either fork or knife with my left hand). Soccer has not the same position in Japan as baseball, but especially after the World Cup of 2002 in Japan and Korea it gained in popularity. Which can be seen in the fact that there a quite some people who follow the matches, at least followed those of Japan. As said in the previous post one of the themes that I am recently very interested in is patriotism and nationalism. Reading Benedict Anderson`s book Imagined communities which offers strong evidence that nations are imagined communities, the present World Cup shows an example how far those imagined communities have become a reality in the minds and feelings of people all around the world. During the World Cup the difference in nations are forgotten, racism is less present, and the majority of the people supports their national team. So for the first match of Japan against Australia my dorm was filled with Japanese and foreigners alike. From all around the rooms shouts to encourage Japan were shouted, girls and boys alike. Of course the crowd went wild when with an enormous amount of luck the ball ended behind the Australian goalkeeper in the goal. The crowd got on my nerves with their unrestrained happiness about a goal which in my opinion should not be counted because the goalkeeper was obstructed. So I decided to support Australia to get a draw and make the game equal as well. I had to wait till 10 minutes before the end but then hell broke lose for the Japanese because the Aussies managed to score 3 goals. This was for me also a little bit too much, but the Japanese were utterly devastated. Many devastated themselves to grasp the nearest bottles of alcohol to forget the pain. I couldn’t understand their fanaticism but I only had to wait a couple of days to find myself sitting in front of the television, stressing about 11 guys in orange uniforms who had the noble task to get the ball in the goal on the other side. I found it very strange that I made such a fuss about those particular 11 guys and less about the 11 of Germany while they are geographically equally as near (and the Belgians as well, if they had participated).
And while I was comfortably sure that the Netherlands were proceeding to the second round after winning two games (although I am sure that my hair again turned some shades more grey after the match against the Ivory Coast) my French friend was really uptight. Everything depended on the last match, and when French hadn’t scored during the first half of the game, he was close to tears. Luckily for him they managed to win their game and proceed to the next round. But the 1/16 finals (is that a word?) was the place where the Netherlands this time stranded. In a game where the referee was not afraid to show a red card, the tension of the players rose to the top and also over it. The fact that those games took place at 4 o clock in the morning took is toll and although I had dragged my self with a enormous deficit of sleep in front of the television my emotions weren’t roused by the accidents happening on the screen. And with my head bowed down in regret I fell asleep and hoped next morning that I dreamed it all. Ofcourse not! But if I thought we were unlucky the match Australia against Italy proved that things could be worse, far worse. That is a simulated fall resulting in a penalty that is scored in the last minute of the match.
And nothing left to do than bow your head and think why it is that those 90 minutes of guys running after a ball can ruin your day.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Catching Up With The Ever Expanding Flow Of Experiences

Although I was planning to quickly knock up another update to inform you about all the serious stuff, contrary to the image you could have get from the last post, I am also doing, I just couldn’t get round it. And the reason is that we are doing some projects for school which I am taking pretty seriously. I know that in this blog I have never informed you, about the exact content of what I was doing, as in studying, at University. One of the reasons is because it was basically all stuff related to improving my Japanese, such as reading text, writing essays and holding speeches. We also had lectures concerning a whole range of subjects loosely related to Japan and it’s culture, and because it was not a succession but all were stand alones it really depended on the subject and the teacher if it was interesting. Those classes are finished now but that doesn’t mean there is nothing left for me to do.
But we had the really nice opportunity in the second semester to also take some of the regular classes the Japanese are taking, although we can’t take the exam (which is not too bad, because as for credits for my home-university I receive none). In the end there are 4 classes I am taking, namely the Japanese Constitution, Law and State, Japanese Philosophy and Film Studies. All 4 are really interesting, with quite inspiring lectures who know what they are talking about. One of the things that did struck me was the total absent of reading material in preparation for the class, or otherwise assignments that had to be prepared in advance for the exams.
In the framework of my program I am following two literature classes, as well as a seminar in sociology for which we have to conduct fieldwork. With 2 friends I am investigating into youth deviant behavior, as well as general feeling towards, high schools (age range of 15 to 18 years) and what relation this has with ranking of the school. Japanese High schools all offer the same curriculum but it depends on how good you master this curriculum if you are able to process to a good university, which again is helpful for finding a good job. So in Japan there is a ranking of schools that are very successful in getting a lot of their students into good universities. Our fieldwork consist of conducting interview with people who are now in Kyoto University, as well as people who are working in the entertainment industry about their school experiences, the attitude of their schools towards behavior that broke the school rules, such as underage smoking, drinking, using drugs, going to pachinko parlors.
It`s really nice experience conducting this sociological fieldwork in the country that you are studying. I have totally no previous experience in doing this kind of research nor do my friends, but it offers us an opportunity to experience doing an anthropological /sociological research, in stead of just reading about it. We are expected to write a paper of 30 pages concerning this subject.
Apart from that paper we also have to write an individual paper of 25 pages in Japanese. My subject for this research is Kato Hiroyuki, who as first Japanese introduced German culture in Japan. My major interest in him stems from the fact that in his personal beliefs he made a big turnabout from being a promoter of Human Rights to dismissing the existence of Human Rights. This change was most likely heavily influenced by German works he was reading. In my paper I am researching what kind of idea’s especially with regards to the relation between state and individual were espoused during the 1890`s and influenced Kato in changing his opinions. As well as and what kind of influence Kato`s writing had on the government stance regarding those issues.
And as a preparation for this big paper, we also have to write a smaller one, which I do about the proposal of incorporating `patriotism` in the school curriculum.
All and all, I spend quite some time, reading books, or behind a computer screen, so I call it a day for this post. And I will abandon this screen in favor of a T.V. screen to watch the World Cup.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Golden Week

With a shock I look at the latest date of my blog entry and the actually date, and I realize I have forget to update you on a number of things. First there is the notorious Golden Week, in which the whole of Japan decides to go somewhere or to return back to their birthplace (of that of their (grand) parents). This huge traffic leads to capacity rates of trains for which the Dutch National Railways would do a murder, such as the major JR line between Kyoto and Tokyo had a capacity rate of 160%.
Although Kyoto is reputed for being overtly crowded during Golden Week, due to a number of appointments I decided to stay in Kyoto. But to be honest, I didn`t go in to Kyoto so much during daytime. And no, I did not all of a sudden turn into a Hikikomori. I spend all my nights and mornings around the party area, which is basically 2 rows of streets, packed with bars, disco`s, pub`s, noodle places, snack places (for all those dutchies, these are not the places for the French fries but you can order a tidy bit to eat and pay an enormous amount for it, because the woman behind the counter, is there to talk with you and ease your tension), normal hostess bars and the likes. By daylight the area around Kiyamachi looks kind of rundown, with it`s advertisement for all the fun there is on offer during nighttime. The other area, formerly the second geisha district, called Pontochou, has remained much more of it`s history and looks like you would expect of a former geisha district. Both places lighten up after dark, with the neonlights turned on, and the host, all dressed in oversized suits, hair dyed blonde, and touped up in something which I coined the fluffy style, try to lure single ladies into an appointment. The lady equivalent of the hosts, the hostesses accompanying a severely drunk Japanese businessman as well as the older guys in fronts of the buildings, the Japanese mafia, patronizing the buildings they own, and they are the ones you inquire after certain hosts.
And while the nights were busy drinking and chatting, I also made use of the Golden Week, to visit an amusement park with friends, climb my first mountain (or probably it`s more a hill) and to visit Lake Biwa and a very nice castle town. But it was not all just play and fun, with a professor of a girl in my program we got an introduction to some of the history of Kyoto of which I had never heard of before. I knew that in Kyoto there had been an influx of Koreans, and that there were probably area`s where the so called burakumin ( a group of Japanese being discriminated, usually said because of their decent of people who did jobs considered dirty, such as butchery) lived. We concluded this very interesting day not in a bar, but in a really nice Korean restaurant.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Haus der Begegnung, or in English house of encounters, is the name my international student house carries. As for encounters, it means to come across something you have not come across with before. This name does not only refer to just the encounters with the students and researchers residing in the dormitory, it also implies that the dormitory actually stimulates those kind of encounters. To give this words a concrete meaning, my dormitory has certain institutions to ensure that those encounters take place. One of those is, that our dormitory has so called house parents, a professor and family living in our dormitory, as well as a team made up by the people living in the rooms. I’ve been asked to become the secretary of the team during this spring semester, so this makes me even more active in the activities the dormitory is employing. Because the new school year has started almost the half of the 33 residents of our dormitory is new. And the task of the team is to coordinate that all the chores that have to been done are organized as well as carried out. One of the recurring events of encounter, is a thing called common meal (which is actually not correct English, but it does convey the meaning of eating a meal all together) which takes place every other Friday. And all of the residents have the task to cook one time and to help one time during the semester. But there’s more to be organised such as a seminar, a sports day and a weekend trip.
But the 2 events that have occurred up till now, the first common meal as well as a welcome party were placed into the hands of the new team members. Now was it not organizing those events, but preparing the actual dinner for those. And those having any experience with my methods of cooking (also included those, not having any experience because of fear of my cooking methods) knows that I am the type who looks in the fridge to find out, what is in there and is still eatable, and tries to make something eatable out of it. And here in Japan, the need that I actual cook declined even more, because of wonderful inventions such as onigiri (riceballs), sushi, as well as instant noodles which you can get your hands on 24 hours a day, as well as the numerous small restaurants that offer you a good deal for your money.. Because it was required that I actual would cook I decided to look for recipes on the ever so wonderful internet. Recipes always have a tendency to either include at least one ingredient of which I have never heard of, let alone have any idea where to find it. So I decided to stick to those dishes which fall under the category very easy to make student food i.e. pasta and crepes. With the ingredients were readily available, I knew what to do, the only thing I forgot that preparing dinner for approximately 20 persons takes some more time than for 4 persons.
So there I was, together with 2 friends, at 3 o’clock still baking crepes. But all hardships were forgotten the next day when we sat around the tables, having nice conversations, and I saw all the food that we had prepared disappear into hungry mouths.
Pleased with the success of my pasta during the common meal, I decided to stick to that, as my dishes for the welcome party. Perhaps because of the common meal experiences it was decided that we would cook even more, because more people were expected. The only thing I had forgotten was that more pasta, also meant that I would encounter even more onions and garlic that needed to be peeled and to be sliced into little pieces according to the recipe. And so I spend 5 hours on Saturday cutting onions, garlic, spinach, ham and cooking 4,5 kilo’s of pasta. And finally at the party my encounter with all kinds of foods that I was neither hungry nor wanted to encounter many other people. As always after the party was over a number of people stayed behind drinking and chatting, and with a group we decided we were going to continue the party in a karaoke box. And there I sang all my tiredness of me and luckily I did not encounter somebody who felt that he should expose any critic on my singing abilities (which I admit are fairly limited). Tired but satisfied I went back to my dormitory, and made use of another function, which is not in the name but I always feel is part of all the places I consider my home, namely retreat. Back in my room, made cozy by books, cd’s and some works of art, I felt happily asleep. And for all of you, especially those who I promised I would cook once, I hereby invite you to come over when I’m back and encounter one of my pasta’s.