JET Program CIR Report





CIR Report from Kanazawa (4)

By Marlies
(Coordinator for International Relations)


Summer has finally ended, temperatures are back to humane and at last I can function normally again! So it is time for another update from Kanazawa :)

The biggest festival of the year in Kanazawa is the Hyakumangoku matsuri, held the first weekend of June. Hyakumangoku literally means 1,000,000 koku of rice (= about 150,000 tonnes of rice), indicating how wealthy the Kaga domain once used to be. The Hyakumangoku matsuri reenacts the entrance of Maeda Toshiie –the first Kaga clan lord– in Kanazawa with a big parade. Like with every other festival, there are food stalls all over the city and lots of activities going on. On the eve of the matsuri there is the lantern floating on the Asanogawa river, where hundreds of yuzen painted silk lanterns are floated downstream; and on the final evening there is traditional dancing in the streets.
It is the only festival of its scale in the city, and the reason for that is historical; Festivals tend to get quite rowdy… (think troupes of men rivaling with one another in carrying or hauling around huge palanquins or floats through narrow streets, in combination with ample alcohol and sometimes even fire to spice things up o_O) Back in the feudal days it must have gotten out of hand more than a couple of times… hence these big events became forbidden in Kanazawa, so as not to draw attention to the potential military strength of the area, which might have threatened Edo.

However I didn’t get to see much of the festival this year, since I wasn’t even in Kanazawa. Right around the time of Hyakumangoku matsuri, Komatsu was to receive a visit from a delegation from Vilvoorde, so I had been called in to help with the translating there. The Belgians had come to talk about the ambitious plans for the construction of a Japanese garden in Vilvoorde and a rose garden in Komatsu in celebration of the upcoming 40 year anniversary of their sister city bond. Translating during the meetings was a tough job, with lots of specific gardening/architecture jargon flying back and forward. I think that at one point I called fertilizer “food for the plants” since I had no clue what the Japanese word for it was :-) But as always, it was lovely having some Belgians around! We went to see some wonderful places together, had great food, plenty of Dutch conversation ;-) , and we ended up going to Kanazawa to see a bit of the Hyakumangoku parade as well… lucky me then got to see the parade up from the ‘important people balcony’! :-)

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Delegation from Vilvoorde

Next on the schedule was the official opening of the Honda Keisuke Cruyff Court, remember the one we had the unofficial opening for earlier last year ;-)
This time Honda Keisuke attended, and of course a Dutch delegation did as well. The Cruyff Foundation delegation visit had been my very first interpreting assignment on the job, so having them back approximately one year later really felt like the completion of the circle to me. I was still nervous, but did a lot better than first time… all the while entertaining the Japanese with my occasional slip-ups in Japanese :-)
The turn-out for the ceremony this time was overwhelming, thanks to Honda Keisuke, who is like “soccer royalty” around here. Check out this lucky shot that was all over the newspapers the day after! :-)

Honda Keisuke

A couple of days later, I was invited by the French-Japanese Association to give a lecture about… “France seen from a Belgian perspective”… Most Belgians have quite a strong opinion about our neighbouring country, be it positive or negative, so I decided to keep it light and take a humoristic approach to the theme. On the day it turned out to be a great success, which was a huge relief. To give you an impression, I started my talk with this video, with some funny clichés about France and its inhabitants ;-)

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French-Japanese Association

After my talk, my Brazilian colleague Raffaele who was there too and I were sort of interviewed about our “foreign” perspectives on Japan… This is something I struggle with sometimes though… we CIRs are trying our very best to integrate and to adapt to life in Japan by overcoming the differences in culture; and most of us have studied about Japan for years so we know about Japanese history and culture about as well as the Japanese do… that means our “foreign” perspectives are not that strictly foreign anymore. But all people here ever want to hear is just how different Japan is from the rest of the world. It is like they just want to have their preset ideas about Japan’s uniqueness and ‘impenetrable’ culture reinforced.
So, very contradictorily to our job description (supposedly to try and be a bridge between cultures) we always remain in the role of “the foreigner”, it is our job to represent the “other”… (most Japanese don’t want to cross the bridge, they just want to stay on their end and stare across from a safe distance) It is hard at times to not feel merely like some exotic curiosity on display…

After all that work, it was time for some relaxation… and what place better than the beach, and what better than a BBQ on the beach!! Yes, BBQ’s òn the beach are possible here; just drive your car onto the beach (yes we can do that too), take the BBQ set out of the trunk, plunk it anywhere you like and fire it up!
I ♥ the beach, the sea and BBQ, so in my book it just doesn’t get any better than this :-)
Or wait, it does! With a great bunch of friends to enjoy it all with! (Oh the mushiness)

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BBQ on the Beach

We also had a trip with the exchange assistants in June. This time we visited the Himuro festival in Yuwaku Onsen. Himuro means as much as “ice house” and it works as follows: In January snow is stored underground in a sort of hut where it is then preserved until summer. At the end of June the ice hut is opened and the snow (mostly turned to ice) is taken out and carried around the town. It is a custom that has been passed down from the Edo era when the feudal lords of Kaga used it to impress the Edo leaders by delivering ice to them (all the way to present Tokyo) in summer… imagine what decadence that must have been!
Around the same time the himuro was opened, people would make himuro manjū, steamed sweet buns filled with red bean paste (one of the many kinds of these buns). Up until today they are still made and eaten here around the end of June. So after seeing the ice come out of the ice house, we went on to visit a famous confectionery shop in Kanazawa, for more info about the manjū … followed by a tasting session of course :-)

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Himuro Himuro Manju

Come July our French colleague Momo was starting to get ready to leave his CIR life, so it was a bit of a hectic time at the office. There was a lot of stuff going on after work as well, with a new wave of goodbye parties for the three Ishikawa CIR’s (one of them Momo) and birthday parties (among which my own!). It is always a bit sad when it is goodbye time again… it makes me realize how fast time flies and that one day we will inevitably be having my goodbye party :-(
But the parties are also a great excuse to hang out with everyone and do fun things like have an overnight stay at a cabin in the forest and some more beach parties! :-D


Obviously there was still work to be done in July as well, and one of the more memorable jobs was accompanying a Spanish reporter and his mother during their stay in Kanazawa. The international exchange section is not the only office in city hall that has a lot of dealings with foreigners, the tourism department has a steady flow of visitors (usually reporters or travel agency people) coming in as well. Us CIR’s are often called in as translators during the Kanazawa city tours with these guests. Usually the tours take them around the city’s famous sites and Kanazawa’s many crafts shops and ateliers. The ateliers are always my favorite. There is just something fascinating about seeing the craftsmen at work, and hearing their passionate stories about why they do what they do. These also tend to be places that are not usually open to the public, so although I am there to work, I keep my eyes wide open to take it all in :-)
This time we visited a Kutani porcelain place and a gold leaf studio… a couple more visits and I will be an absolute expert on these things ;-)

The exchange assistants’ activity this month was a trip to the harbour town of Ohno, Kanazawa. The place used to be the heart of Japan’s soy sauce and miso paste (fermented soy bean paste, mostly known for its use in miso soup) industry, with over two hundred factories. Nowadays only a few remain, and the town has become rather quiet. But not on the day of our visit! (yes, I tend to be loud but that was not the reason ) We were there for the local Ohno Hiyoshi matsuri, which had people shouting and dancing through the narrow streets, dressed up in costumes of shrine maidens, tengu and lion dancers, all in honour of the yearly outing of the local shrine deities, who were then carried through town on their palanquins themselves. (Obviously they are invisible, use some imagination here guys ;-) )
It was excruciatingly hot that day, so we happily tried out the soy sauce soft ice at the factory we visited… to many people, it may not sound very appetizing, but the taste was great!
At dusk the gods returned to their shrine in a final procession through the main street, again preceded by a bunch of colourful characters and at the rear end the lion…

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Ohno Hiyoshi Matsuri

At last August arrived and the long awaited arrival of the new French CIR was upon us. Momo had been away for almost a month now, and in the meanwhile all of the French duties had been on me, so nobody was happier than me to welcome our new colleague ;-)
Her name is Julie, she is from the Alsace region in France, and her parents are British, which means she speaks French as well as English (in case you wonder, although I should be practicing my French, Julie and I speak English together ). Julie is not only my colleague; she is also sort of my neighbour, since her apartment is on the same floor in the same building as mine :-) (Parties are waiting to happen with those conditions!)
Julie’s arrival brought back many memories from last year for me, but at the same time it brought home the strange realization that I was no longer a newbie, but had suddenly become the senpai (senior), a veteran almost :-) It was now up to me to help Julie feel welcome and to try easing her nerves a bit. And I knew just the thing to do the trick…

Every year at the start of August, the two main regional newspaper companies each organize a big firework show by the Saigawa riverbank in Kanazawa. Last year the fireworks were the first outing on my arrival and they were amazing! So I definitely wanted to see them again this year. And to continue the tradition, I persuaded Julie (who didn’t need much persuasion really ) to come see them too, so the fireworks could become one of her first memories in Kanazawa as well.
In Japanese fireworks are called hanabi, literally translated “flower fire”. In my opinion, they surpass anything we have in Europe, with hour-long shows of the biggest and most spectacular fireworks you can imagine. There are fireworks in the shape of flowers or fruit or even manga characters, there are fireworks with special effects that just shoot out in all directions and change colour halfway through, and my absolute favourite is this gigantic golden chrysanthemum-like shape which trickles down in a golden shower and just leaves you sighing “aaah…” over such transient beauty.
But the fireworks themselves are only a part of the bigger “fireworks event”, which includes the ever present food stalls with the typical festival foods and snacks set up for the occasion and streams of people making their way through the streets, dressed up in yukata, or cotton summer kimonos.
Talking about yukata, Yoorim and I had taken up lessons in order to be able to wear ours to the hanabi this year, so even though it was hot, we got all dolled up and braved the streets in our yukata to go watch the fireworks in the park. I say “braved” because we got quite a bit of stares, or should I say the foreign-looking person dressed in a yukata received a lot of stares :-) The weather was perfect and we found a prime spot to watch the fireworks from. And we were not disappointed! They were every bit as spectacular as last year :-)

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But the fireworks were not the only thing that started of with a bang. Julie’s first job turned out to be quite a toughie. She and I had to translate the narration for a promotional DVD for the first Kanazawa marathon that will be held in 2015 (into French and Dutch). The poor thing had only just arrived here and was already given such a difficult task, talk about being thrown in at the deep end! But she turned out to be a real trooper, and past her first test with flying colours :-) After the prep work, we had to go to the recording studio to record the actual thing in Dutch and French. The video itself was about ten minutes long, but it took over an hour to get that recorded! Hearing our own voices on recording was very awkward :-) … but once we got over the embarrassment it was quite fun… I can’t imagine ever being asked to do something like this in Belgium, so this was another unique experience to add to my “been there, done that”-list ;-)

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Recording for a DVD

And the unique experiences kept on coming in August, when I was contacted by the people from the free paper “Eye on Kanazawa” (aimed at introducing Kanazawa and surroundings to foreign visitors and residents), with the request that I join them on a day trip to Kurobe gorge in Toyama prefecture. They wanted to do a photo special there for the paper’s next summer issue… with me as one of the models for the occasion! It will be a while before I get to see the end result, but the article will definitely get a prime spot in my Kanazawa album! :-)

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Trip to Kurobe Gorge in Toyama

More work then, with the visit of a wadaiko (Japanese percussion) group from Belgium to Kanazawa. Because this was a great opportunity to do some cultural exchange, we organized for the Belgians to meet with a local Kanazawa wadaiko group. I was there for the translating, but once they started playing, both groups understood each other perfectly without words. The sounds of the drums were upsweeping and everyone had a blast! We all went home feeling totally reenergized that night :-)

When Japanese hear the word Belgium, they automatically reply “the country of waffles!” Even more so than beer and chocolate, Belgium is known here for its waffles or “waffuru” as they call them. You can find pre-packaged waffles in pretty much every convenience store, usually with the Belgian tricolour on the wrapping and the occasional addition of “with real Belgian chocolate”. The most famous brand of waffles is Manneken, after Manneken Pis of course.
Waffle crazy as they are, I was quite taken by surprise to get a work request from a community centre for… you guessed it: a waffle bake… I couldn’t believe it… Seriously? They wanted a waffle bake… in the middle of August!!! o_O But customer is king, so I had no choice but to oblige, however I suggested we at least serve the waffles with ice cream ;-)

The waffles that are usually baked at home for birthday parties and such are the Brussels type waffles, which are lighter than the Liege ones, usually bought at street stalls when the weather gets a little chilly. I decided to make Brussels waffles for the occasion, and they were a massive success! People were a little apprehensive about things like sparkling water in the recipe at the beginning, but when the first batch of crispy golden waffles came out of the waffle irons it was excitement all over :-) They had bought a lot more ingredients than I had put on the recipe, and even though I tried to explain to them that one “portion” in Belgian waffle terms = several waffles so they might not want to use everything, they were afraid there would not be enough, so they ended up having to bake a LOT of waffles!


After the waffle bake I barely had time to pack my suitcase before D-Day arrived. The big Europe trip had been looming for the last few months, and now finally the time had come. I was to accompany the mayor of Kanazawa and his delegation (of eleven people in total!) to Ghent and then on to Nancy, Compiegne and Chartres in France. Being the only person in the group to speak Dutch and French, I felt a heavy responsibility resting on my shoulders. But at the same time, this also meant I could finally get away from the heat and humidity of Japanese summer, and say hello again to familiar surroundings, people and food: Bread! Cheese!! Chocolate!!!
As expected the trip was the most intense work experience I have had so far. In Ghent we had a meeting with the mayor, a press conference, several presentations on various city planning subjects, sightseeing in the city, lunch and dinner,… all in one day! … and all of which translated by me! But for once I had the home advantage :-) As the day progressed, I gradually found my confidence; I knew the city so didn’t have to think about where I was heading while walking, I had prepared for the presentations like crazy, the people in Ghent were easygoing so I didn’t get ambushed by pre- during- and post-dinner speeches like often happens in Japan, and there were no chopstick debacles for once (I still tend to catapult my food around occasionally ) All in all, things went well, so it was on to the next challenge: to do the same stuff… in French!
First a brief visit to Nancy, then on to Compiegne for a couple of days and finally to Chartres for a three day conference on local government cooperation between France and Japan. Fortunately there were professional interpreters for that last part, so I didn’t have to do that much anymore.
It was my first time travelling with a group of Japanese, and it was quite interesting to see how they dealt with being in a foreign country. A couple of examples: -Japanese bring their own slippers and cup noodles when they go abroad (and get very upset when they discover that most hotel rooms here do not have water cookers for them to prepare their noodles ) -In their opinion our meat is tough and desserts are too sweet (granted, in comparison to Japanese beef everything tastes pretty much like a rubber sole, but I do have a hard time keeping my cool when they ruin the taste of a perfect praline by moving on to salty shrimp tasted rice crackers seconds after o_O … barbarians…)
-French dinner parties start around the same time dinner parties in Japan normally end, and they last for hours and hours… courses come out very slowly, along with plenty bottles of wine… resulting in drunk and tired Japanese complaining they want beer and/or their bed :-)
-Japanese need a bathroom with a bath tub. Especially important Japanese need a bathroom with a bath tub. (This unexpectedly worked out in my favour as in some of the hotels the fanciest rooms only had (the most fabulous!) walk-in showers and that really wouldn’t do for the important Japanese… hence the lower staff (that includes me) were assigned the shower bedroom boudoir heavens instead! )

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Business Trip to Belgium & France

After seeing the mayor and his entourage off at the airport in Paris at the end of a loooong week, I was officially on vacation!! Finally! After three long months without breaks I could go home and relax for a week! I indulged in mum’s home cooking, hanging out with family and friends and some dolce far niente… oh and shopping of course… lots of shopping :-)
With my batteries recharged I happily returned to Kanazawa only to arrive a total wreck with a jet lag like I have never had one before :-( (Oh why are our countries so far apart!)
I didn’t have a lot of time to get over my jet lag because that same week the visit of the head of the music department of the Ghent School of Arts and his son were on the schedule. We had met in Ghent during the mayor’s visit and last minute travel itineraries were altered so they could visit Kanazawa, right on time for the Kanazawa Jazz Street Festival. Having our Flemish guests around sort of eased me back in to my Japanese surroundings and interpreting hardly felt like work :-) But before I knew it, they were on their way to discover some other places in Japan and I was back behind my desk, like I had never left at all :-)

With summer on its last legs, it was time for some outdoor activity… and what better than some mountain action! Last year I climbed Tateyama, the first one of Japan’s three holy mountains. Since I want to climb all three before going home, I jumped on the invitation to go climb Hakusan (number 2!) with my co-workers. This time we were not going to do it as a day trip, but stay the night near the mountain top to climb the last portion in time to catch the sunrise from the mountain peak!
Our group was made up of two experienced climbers yamada-san and Hatta-san, a newbie to Hatta-san’s city hall climbing club (yes apparently that exists) Takahashi-san and the four CIR girls for some girl power! The climb was easier than climbing Tateyama, but the views were equally spectacular! When we reached our mountain cabin the men got to cooking yakisoba and meat, and we had a little party! After dinner it was time to curl up in our futons, but bedtime had to wait… time for some girl talk first :-)
After a very short night, we got a knock on the door at 4am… unfortunately it was raining so we had to wait to climb to the peak until the weather would clear up. But it didn’t… So in the end we decided to descend, which means technically we didn’t make it to the top. I will have to have a do-over in order to add Mount Hakusan to my accomplishment list ;-)

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Climbing Mt. Hakusan

Last event of September was the International Friendship festival, organized by KIEF. It is during this week-end the CIRs have to dress up in ethnic costumes and do the presenting on stage and organize some exchange activities. At this year’s edition our new French colleague Julie stole the show with her Alsatian costume that included a very voluminous hat :-)
We introduced face-painting to the kids, thinking it would be an absolute hit, but the Japanese children were so shy it proved to be more difficult than we had anticipated :-)
Unfortunately, due to an incoming typhoon, the festival had to be cancelled on Sunday afternoon. And that brought a stormy end to the month September…

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Int'l Friendship Festival

More adventure is already well underway, so here’s looking forward to the next report!

Groetjes uit Kanazawa,


(Photos by Marlies)