JET Program CIR Report




CIR Report from Kanazawa (12)

By Sophie Bocklandt
(Coordinator for International Relations)

As always I kept rather busy these last months, therefore I bring you my newest report with a bit of delay. Since August I am officially a 4th year CIR, the CIR longest in position at Kanazawa city hall. Who would have thought I’d stick around this long? Surely not me. But I don’t regret it, because I am still challenged in both my professional and private life here and as long as I have that drive, it will be my pleasure to share with you my many adventures in Japan and around the world!

This semester my traveling spirit brought me once again to Seoul, Korea and after so many years of dreaming about it: New York City! But for a long time it seemed I would have to cancel my plans. When the H1N1-virus hit Japan, it created a huge panic. People cancelled their trips en masse, at city hall we were asked to reconsider our travels abroad, health checks at the airport were extremely severe resulting in several of my friends staying home in quarantine after coming back from a trip, schools were closed, mouth masks were sold out all over town, bottles of ethanol to disinfect hands were to be found in toilets and entrance halls of public facilities. Eventually foreign figure skaters brought the flu to Kanazawa, but so far no one of my family or friends has been infected, or at least they are unaware of it. In the meanwhile Japanese airport health checks have become less strict and so I took the risk of traveling abroad.

My dear Korean friend and former colleague invited me to attend her wedding ceremony in Seoul. Together with other friends from Kanazawa city hall we were reunited in the changing room of a Korean community center. Lots of smiles, pictures, tears of joy and compliments for the beautiful bride. In Korea and also in Japan it is normal for a bride-to-be to take up an esthetic course of intense dieting and working out, to look as sharp and beautiful as possible on the big day. The catholic wedding ceremony resembled the Belgian ones I attended, but very different were the changing into traditional Korean wedding outfits and the multiple photo sessions with family and friends. And of course the delicious all-Korean-food buffet! At night our Japanese delegation was invited by the couple to enjoy a traditional royal Korean dinner in a gorgeous old dining house, a real treat. Good thing I prepared an extra travel bag, because coming back from a wedding with lots of gifts and some free days for sightseeing and shopping in Seoul with its many markets, extensively increased my luggage!

These last months turned out to be a favorite wedding period among my friends, two close Belgian friends also tied the knot. Friends’ babies were born into this world as well, so to all of you once again my best wishes and good luck for the future!

When my parents came to see me last spring, my sister was not able to join us. So we planned a trip just the two of us in summer somewhere in the world. And that somewhere was a destination I had been dreaming about since I was little: New York City! It’s such an unreal feeling, walking with your head up gazing at skyscraper after skyscraper. Having visited bustling and crowded Tokyo so many times, I expected NYC to be the American version of it, but the city breaths a totally different atmosphere. For sure it is a busy city and it is crowded, but it is a larger city, the streets are bigger, there is more space to move around. Except maybe for crazy, packed Times Square. As model tourists we visited all the main sightseeing spots in New York: Broadway, Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Central Park, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, United Nations Headquarters, WTC site, Museum of Natural History, Brooklyn Bridge and even Coney Island. Eating pizza and cheesecake, a hotdog in Central Park, enjoying musicals on Broadway, riding the subway, it sounds all cliché, but the two of us had a blast. And in Brooklyn we met up with a Japanese friend of mine originally from the Kanazawa area. Japan is never far away!

But no need to travel abroad every time, still plenty of places to discover around Japan as well. During Golden Week this year I decided to stay in Ishikawa prefecture and enjoy some of the local festivals around. Since Ishikawa loves its festivals, there are too many to choose from. Every festival has its own characteristics and offers a great opportunity to mingle with the locals. I went up north to the Noto area to enjoy a boat festival, in Nanao city beautifully colored floats were carried around the city center and in beach town Uchinada it was the yearly international kite festival. Golden Week is the big start of festival season in Japan, with its highlight in the summer. The float festival in Mikawa, the children’s kabuki festival in Komatsu, the big Hyakumangoku festival here in Kanazawa, the summer fireworks…Even though I had seen it all before, it’s thanks to Japanese festivals and the whole culture around them that I still enjoy being in Japan. With the 150th anniversary celebrations of the opening of Yokohama port to the outside world, I thought it would be the perfect occasion to finally visit this interesting city. Several events were taking place, including daily performances of the huge spider creature built by “La Machine”, a performance art group from France. For half an hour the spider walks around, getting bigger and smaller, spraying water on the spectators.

Believe it or not, 8 people are needed to operate this creature! Although Yokohama is not far from Tokyo, it’s a totally different city. With its harbor and Chinatown the city breaths a more international and historical atmosphere, truly a place I recommend when coming to Japan.

August is always a time to say goodbye to friends, JET friends and other. Especially this year I “lost” many of my close friends, most of them returning home after 3 years in Japan. I hope each and every one of them will find happiness and encounter success in their lives, wherever they are. I will miss them.

But new blood has arrived! Since August I have for the first time a European colleague by my side. Kanazawa city hall now has an American, Korean, Belgian and French CIR, as well as a Chinese trainee. Three girls and two younger boys, it surely brightens up the atmosphere in the office!

This year I volunteered at Tokyo Orientation 2009 to welcome the newly arriving JETs to Japan. I remember being quite impressed with the heartwarming welcome by volunteer JETs at the airport and the impressive organization of our hotel stay, workshops, information desks etc, when I arrived myself in Tokyo, now more than 3 years ago, being all nervous about this big new JET adventure. Therefore I thought it would be interesting to find out what it is like to be on the other side, the organization side. Many JETs applied to volunteer at the orientation, and I was lucky to be picked out. In June we had a preparatory meeting at the CLAIR office in Tokyo and after that several weeks of intense preparation for the workshops we were assigned to. Because of the huge number of new JET participants (over 1.400 people) Tokyo orientation is split up in A and B and a smaller C orientation for late arrivals. I helped out at Tokyo Orientation A from July 25th till 29th, welcoming over 800 new JETs. Being the only representative from Ishikawa prefecture, I was put in charge of two Ishikawa meetings. Since I was the first person from Ishikawa that the new Ishikawa JETs met, I had a lot of information to pass on to them and they had quite a lot of questions, questions I remembered having myself at the time. Every Tokyo orientation volunteer was appointed shifts at the information desk and hospitality center, two facilities open to new JETs that are in need of someone to talk to, for whatever reason, an urgent question or just in need of a friendly face. I had hotel duty when the new JETs actually arrived in busses to the hotel, meaning a whole day of smiling and showing people where to go to check in, pick up luggage etc. Speaking French, I helped a French JET presenting her session for new francophone JETs. But my main task was to present the 1.5 h general session for CIRs, Coordinators for International Relations, the job I’ve been doing for 3 years now. Speaking in front of a huge group of new colleagues and doing that in Japanese was nerve-racking. Even more so when it turned out my co-presenter had overslept that particular morning. Nothing left to do but start the session on my own, which went remarkably well, I guess those weeks and weeks of preparation paid off at the right time! I ended my volunteer work in the best way, taking out the new Ishikawa group to an izakaya restaurant in Shinjuku, Tokyo, before accompanying them the next morning on the plane to their new home: Ishikawa.

Helping out at Tokyo orientation was exhausting beyond words, but it turned out to be a very rewarding and satisfying experience for myself. Therefore I volunteered once more at the smaller-scale Ishikawa Orientation some weeks later. Even though smaller, this orientation also required several weeks of intense preparation for the workshops we had to present. On day one I talked about local government resources and events in Kanazawa and my main session was about traveling in Japan and abroad. The perfect subject for globetrotting me! Day two was devoted to some more CIR sessions in Japanese, but an emergency crossed our nicely prepared presentation and again I had to improvise on the spot lacking my co-presenters!

Another fun work experience for me was the visit of a delegation of Japanese language students from Ghent University. During Golden Week the students traveled around Japan, discovering its culture, its food, its beauty and practicing the Japanese they have learned so far. Due to the sister city relation between Ghent and Kanazawa, the delegation also passed by here and I guided them through Kenrokuen garden and the Kanazawa castle grounds. In the afternoon I joined them for a gold leaf workshop, a rather detailed form of art that asks full attention. After having prepared the surface of the box for decorating, ultrathin layers of gold leaf have to be accurately placed on the box. It asks patience, a steady hand and no blowing whatsoever to get a beautiful result. A true art form, for which Kanazawa is well-known. It was the first time I met up with Ghent University students (as I was once myself) here in Kanazawa, but it might not be the last time. Ghent University and Kanazawa University have signed an agreement to organize mutual student exchanges!

In June I was asked again to test the level of French of the applicants for a scholarship in Nancy. It reminded me of my own interview for the JET programme, now more than 3 years ago. During my annual presentation for the volunteer adult university I talked in detail about Belgian summer and nice sightseeing spots in our country, a topic I repeated during my next radio-interview. I also participated in English club activities of fellow JET teachers. During one of them I tried to teach English organ names to Japanese junior high school kids based on a running game (the “fruit basket” game, for the occasion “organ basket”).

Friends of mine wanted to check out a zazen meditation session on Sunday afternoon in the nearby Daijoji temple. Having never attended such a session, I gladly accepted the invitation. We encouraged each other weeks in advance to learn the proper lotus sitting position. In the temple’s meditation room you have to take a seat on a small round cushion and stay in position for 45 minutes. After that you have a 15 minute break, during which you do a particular circular walk and then a second session of 45 minutes. You are supposed to clear your mind, be thought-free. If that is too hard, you can focus on your breathing or count. In fact they recommended me to count from 1 till 10 every time a thought crossed my mind. Over and over I started counting from 1 but I never got till 10, because along the way I always started thinking about something! If you are serious about zazen, you can ask the surveying monk to hit you with a stick when you start loosing position or getting tired. Apparently a hit by the stick brings you back to concentration right away!

I recently discovered that anyone having spent more than six months in Europe in the 1980’s and 1990’s is not allowed to give blood in Japan, due to a strict policy of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Every couple of months a red-cross team passes by city hall for blood donations. I finally got the courage to face my fear of needles and they turned me down! Another disappointment was the solar eclipse that took place on July 22nd. That day it was rather cloudy in Ishikawa due to the late rain season. So even though I knew when the eclipse was supposed to take place, I missed it because it did not have the darkening effect I was hoping for. But I had enough opportunity to catch the eclipse in all its beauty during the numerous reruns on TV.

And to end with some proud news: since June 2009 the city of Kanazawa has been recognized by the UNESCO as “City of Crafts and Folk Art”! And believe it or not, at the same time its Belgian sister city Ghent has been recognized as “City of Music”! Congratulations!

Until my next report!

Sophie Bocklandt