JET Program CIR Report





CIR Report from Kanazawa (3)

By Marlies
(Coordinator for International Relations)


Hello everyone, time for another update from Kanazawa!

This is my third report… third report already! By the time I write the next one my first year as a CIR will have already ended. It is quite incredible when I think about all the things that have happened in such a short amount of time. These last few months too, my agenda has been well filled:

In my previous report I left off on the promise of an exciting February that was to come, and boy did February live up to that expectation! I made Belgian valentine chocolates!… several times!!, went on television because of that… several times!!, did country and culture presentations, won a price in a video contest with my colleagues, went skiing for the very first time in my life, signed up for ikebana lessons (more about that in the bonus report!) and lots lots more.

March duly followed, bringing my first visit to Nikko… on a Japanese schedule o_O, a culture presentation on Belgian lace, assisting at events of my Korean and American colleagues, the long-awaited visit of the Ghent University students on their Japan trip and lots of goodbye parties as the end of March/beginning of April means lots of people changing job positions and JETs going home/arriving.

April, (also known as the month of hanami, or cherry blossom viewing) then started with the worst of the goodbyes: having to say goodbye to Reien, our Chinese CIR at city hall, bringing an end to our merry “city hall girls trio” (Korean CIR Yoorim, Chinese CIR Reien and Belgian CIR me), but after that I got to welcome many visitors, the main treat being Sabine and Dora who came all the way from Belgium!! And my Japanese sugar auntie who came from Nara, oh and work I also did some work ;-)

And finally May, with a radio interview on student life in Belgium… all the Japanese regretted having been students in Japan and not Belgium by the time I was done ;-), Golden Week (with a windy day at the beach during the Uchinada Kite Festival, a rainy day in Kahoku picking strawberries at a fruit farm, and a lazy day in Kanazawa with a piano concert before bedtime), my second Leonidas cooking class, kids’ kabuki theater at Komatsu Otabi Matsuri and rice planting at the terraced rice fields of Senmaida, oh yes and some more work too :-) Pfiuuuuw, so that is the short version. But I don’t want to keep the details from you so here’s a full recount of (well… parts of) the story ;-)

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CIR's Hanami Cherry brossoms With auntie

Trying to make my culture events for KIEF as original as possible, I came up with the idea of combining two things that are BIG in Japan: Valentine’s Day and Belgian chocolate… needless to say, when I announced I was going to organize a Belgian chocolate making event for Valentine’s, it hit like a bomb. But little did I expect it was going to become such a major deal I would have to appear on television over it… :-s

Valentine’s Day is little more than a commercial trap in Europe, but the Japanese take it to the next level, and make it into a downright social obligation. In the weeks leading up to February 14th shops are lined with Valentine stuff beyond anything you have ever seen in Europe. That has to do with two peculiarities of Japanese Valentine’s Day: First, only the women give presents (usually chocolates) to the men! Men get to return the favour on White Day, one month later on March 14th (doubling the shop revenues); And second, they do not only give presents to their crush, boyfriend or husband, but to all the men in their office as well!! No wonder they need truckloads of chocolate…

In order to differentiate between the heartfelt feelings for their lovers and the social obligation of giving chocolate to their bosses, Japanese women put in extra effort for the first by making the chocolates themselves. That’s why I figured they would like the idea of making the world’s ultimate chocolates… Belgian Chocolates!!! (no exaggeration, simply stating facts here ;-) ) Only thing is… I had never attempted making chocolates myself… living in the land of chocolate you just go to the chocolate shop to buy your fix, no sane person would ever think to make their own (unless it is a hobby). Making chocolates is not an easy thing, which is best left up to the professionals. (I had a hard time explaining that to the Japanese, who think Belgians eat waffles every day so why not make their own chocolate? (=Japanese logic, don’t even try to understand it) In the end I found a good comparison: Just like the Japanese don’t make their own sushi at home (sooo not done), Belgians don’t make chocolates either. And with that another cultural misunderstanding was cleared up :-) )

I decided to go for the most failure proof chocolates I could think of: chocolate truffles. I did a number of trial runs to the great delight of my co-workers and was relieved my ambitious plan would be executable. Flyers were distributed and announcements were put in the newspapers… and then a television crew showed up…

They were doing a show on Valentine’s Day and chocolate, so they wanted to have me make my Belgian chocolates on the show. I was a little reluctant to do it, but my bosses thought it would make for good publicity so I gave in. I would have to teach the presenter how to make the truffles. On the day of the shoot, they arrived hours late (very un-Japanese :-) ), although I had warned them it would take at least a few hours to make the chocolates… realizing halfway through they were getting pressed for time (it was getting late in the evening and closing time of the kitchen they had rented was drawing closer), they wanted me to speed up the process (which I wasn’t happy about) … as a last resort I had to bury the chocolate ganache in the snow!!! in order for it to stiffen up more quickly (which is NOT the proper way to do it ;-) ) so the presenter could finish making her TV truffles on time… and her truffles… well to be honest, they tasted like real truffles, but looked like giant chocolate balls; TV presenter would never make the cut to become a chocolatier haha :-)… Fortunately the ladies at my workshop did a much better job!

TV shoot

On the day of the actual workshop, I gave a presentation on the tradition of Valentine’s Day and the history of chocolate. Then we started making the chocolates, using different fillings I had prepared beforehand to prevent any more snow-short-cuts. The ladies put great effort in making and decorating their chocolates, and at the end of the afternoon everyone had a beautiful box of chocolates to take home. When I then asked them who they were going to give these chocolates to, the answer was a bit of a surprise though… “Such good chocolates, we’re going to keep these all to ourselves!!” So much for romance on Valentine’s :-)

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Valentine workshop

Moving on, here are some photos of my first ever skiing adventure! Ishikawa gets a lot of snow in winter, so pretty much everyone here knows how to ski or snowboard. When the International Exchange Section went on a ski-trip, our assistant director, who is a ski instructor in his spare time, gave us (the CIR girls trio) a private ski initiation lesson :-) Thank you again for that Yamada-san!! By the end of the day we managed to make it down the beginner/intermediate course… standing!... for the most part ;-)

Ski trip

Next up are the photos of our (CIR trio + Japanese colleague Yachi-san) trip to Nikko, a town famous for its Toshogu Shrine and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, located in Tochigi prefecture. “Yachi Travel Agency” organized the trip… starting on Saturday evening taking the night bus from Kanazawa to Tokyo, until Monday morning when another night bus dropped us back off in Kanazawa just in time to rush back home and get ready for work… yes, that very same Monday morning o_O! The schedule was precise down to the minute… and believe it or not, we remained right on schedule until the end! Added bonus, we got to meet up with Sophie while in Tokyo!! :-)

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Nikko trip Tokyo

The visit of the Ghent University Japanology students was an absolute highlight in March. Remember that I am pretty much the only Belgian here and chances to speak Dutch (or Flemish) are very rare. (Although that’s not entirely truthful, since I had the wonderful company of some Belgian exchange students in Kanazawa until the end of February so technically I was the only Belgian only for about a month) But officially speaking the last Dutch delegation had come in December and they were Dutch not Belgian... that is not the same :-)

This visit was different in that I studied at Ghent University, so I know some of the people who were visiting personally; I was very excited about it all. My professor had asked me to prepare a tour around Kenrokuen, it would be my first time guiding a group around the famous Kanazawa garden and I would get to do it for the awesomest audience imaginable and in my mother tongue!! Irony oh irony… few days before the visit, I was informed that the students from Kanazawa University would be joining the Belgians… so that was it for the Dutch tour :-)

Nevertheless, my first guiding job went over quite well, and I had a great day catching up on my Flemish talk afterwards ;-)

Gent students

The next, even better Belgian event has without a doubt been the visit of my friend Sabine and her friend Dora, who came to Japan for a three week trip, of which they spent a whole week with me in Kanazawa!! I took the week off from work and we visited every sight worth seeing in the Kanazawa area, taking hundreds of pictures of cherry blossoms in the process. I took them to my ikebana class for a rare taste of Japanese traditional culture too… It is hard to tell who were the more excited about it, my Belgian friends or the Japanese ikebana ladies, who suddenly had 3!! Belgians in their midst :-)

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Friends' visit

And then, before I knew it, it was May! Crazy how time flies. May started off with what is known in Japan as Golden Week, a number of consecutive national holidays makes this the longest vacation period of the year for many Japanese. It is a very busy and expensive time to travel, so I decided to stay in Ishikawa and take it easy for a few days. That did not mean staying at home though ;-)

I spent a day at Uchinada beach during their annual kite festival: they had everything from huge traditional Japanese kites made by school kids to professional kite-flyers from all corners of the world! I went strawberry-picking in Kahoku: thirty minutes access to the strawberry greenhouse in a sort of “all you can eat” formula… and trust me, I systematically stripped those rows of strawberry plants of everything that was ripe and red :-) Right during Golden Week there was a classical music festival in Kanazawa as well so I checked out some of those concerts too.

With Golden Week over, it was time to do some work again. I had my second Leonidas cooking class. This time we made “headless birds” (which are not birds at all but minced meat wrapped in veal or bacon ;-) ) with a beer sauce, cause it was a Belgian cooking class after all, served with new potatoes and a dessert of “misérable” cake, again quite a misleading name since the cake itself is delicious… although it may not be strictly Belgian ;-)

I love the Leonidas cooking class because the ladies are adorable and we always have a great time. And every time it is a great intercultural learning experience for all of us… Halfway through the cooking class, one of the ladies suddenly cried out: “What to do?! We haven’t put the rice on yet!” Only to be scolded by the other ladies: “Don’t be ridiculous, today it is European style, we have potatoes only.” I do not think they will ever fully understand the potato thing :-)

This time I realized since most of them have never been to Europe before, they also do not know what a typical plate of food there looks like. In Japan it is the custom to serve a bowl of rice and miso soup in combination with a number of side dishes all in separate dishes on a tray. So when I got out some big plates to plate up the meat and potatoes together, they were in a bit of a panic since “the meat sauce would mix with the potatoes!” :-) After I explained to them that that is the way you are supposed to eat it, it was my turn to be shocked: they tried to attack the headless birds with chopsticks! And even bigger shock: the cake too!! I cannot wait to see what surprises I will be in for next time :-)

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Leonidas cooking

As soon as the weather starts to improve, local festivals and events seem to multiply and I consider it my duty to check out as many as I can :-) The main festivities that I participated in in May were the Komatsu Otabi Matsuri, where they have children perform Kabuki theater on festival floats and rice planting at the terraced rice fields of Senmaida, up in the Noto peninsula.

Japanese festivals are great. They pretend to be a continuation of traditions while at the same time you have modern age sneaking in here and there, which makes for funny anachronisms sometimes. But do not let the big fancy floats and all that ruckus fool you, festivals are not about parades, or dancing or what not, they are about FOOD! Stalls and stalls of street food line the sidewalks offering everything from the traditional: yakisoba, okonomiyaki, yakitori and shaved ice; to the more bizarre: cucumbers and chocolate bananas on sticks; and the exotic: kebab and even crêpes. Komatsu Otabi Matsuri was no exception to this rule… although it was quite fun to watch the kids perform kabuki on their gold decorated thrones, the real action and bustle was to be found in the food stall streets :-)

The rice planting day at Senmaida was an event of a completely different kind. The Senmaida terraced rice fields are designated World Agricultural Heritage, and with their location right off the Japan Sea coast, they are a spot of natural scenic beauty. The rice fields are still in use, but since they consist of small terraces on a relatively steep slope, modern agricultural equipment cannot be utilized, so all the work has to be done by hand. Every year rice-planting and harvesting events are being organized that call upon volunteers to get (part of) the work done. This way the age old agricultural techniques get passed down to younger generations and the preservation of the rice fields is assured.

Coming from a land of potatoes and wheat, I had never really seen a rice field from up close before… I figured since the chance had come up, planting rice was something I should at least try once in my life, and it doesn’t get much better than Senmaida with its spectacular sea views. The only inconvenience is that it is quite remote, so I had to spend the night at Wajima (famous for its lacquer ware) and head up to Senmaida by bus in the early morning. By the time I arrived there were already a couple of hundred people there, ready to get started. The volunteers were guided to a designated area for planting (some of the fields are privately owned, others are in a trust) and given a handful of rice shoots. The only instruction was: “Go, plant the stuff.” Okay, there may have been an actual info session beforehand but I didn’t get to hear or see that part, so I just asked the nearest person who was already knee-deep in the mud what I was supposed to do with the clump of rice shoots in my hand :-)

Turns out it wasn’t that difficult altogether; take about three to four shoots and push them down into the mud following the grid pattern that had been already drawn in there. So I found myself the nearest still empty rice patch, put on my trusty rain boots and went in… Instantly the movement kicked up the dirt and clouded the water, I sunk in to about 3/4 of my boots deep, and there was no more grid pattern to be detected around where I stood :-) Not to despair! Although unexpected, this was but a minor adversity… I pulled my sucked in boots out of the slush and moved slowly slippering towards the center of the patch where I plunked the first sprigs of rice right on the grid mark in front of me. The feeling was a little funny, the mud being much more liquid than it looked, it felt sort of silky and lukewarm. But off I was, planting those rice shoots in the mud like I had never done anything else in my life, imagining the grid where there was no more, yanking my boots out of the sucking mud with all my might, thoroughly enjoying the whole process, what with the see breeze in my hair and the sun on my back :-)

It all ended rather fast; with so many volunteers the rice patches were planted up in no time, leaving me somewhat disappointed… did I come this far to only plant up half a patch and leave again? … I was sent on my way with a free lunch box as consolation prize. With plenty of time to spare I decided to walk back to Wajima along the road winding the coast. The views were great, as was the weather, and after that 15km or so walk, I slept like a baby when I got home that night :-)

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This concludes all of my adventures up to the end of May. You can expect the next update in September! (In the meantime check out the bonus report!)

Have a great summer :-)

Groetjes uit Kanazawa!


(Photos by Marlies)