JET Program CIR Report




CIR Report from Kanazawa (15)

By Sophie Bocklandt
(Coordinator for International Relations)

The Second French-Japanese Conference on Decentralized Cooperation in Kanazawa is finally over!! For weeks, months, even years this conference had taken over the International Exchange Section and other sections of Kanazawa city hall. People like my French CIR colleague were hired just for this conference, many business trips between France, Tokyo and Kanazawa had to be arranged to get this organized, and on top of that, a “Week of French Arts” was held at the occasion of the conference, presenting French culture to the people of Kanazawa. The weekend before the conference I actually got a physical work-out helping out to get the conference files and conference bags ready. The three days of the conference (May 11th till 13th, 2010) we all worked 12 hours a day and even more. Personally I spent the first day at the hotel, helping out with the check-in and the orders at the restaurant. The second day I assisted an early morning tour to the Kenrokuen garden, but my main job was accompanying the wives of conference participants on a tour through Kanazawa, leading us to the Daijoji Zen temple. At night I appointed seats at the Noh theatre and accompanied the participants on the bus on their way back home after dinner. The third day we continued the wives’ tour and in the afternoon I had to accompany the mayor of sister city Nancy to Narita airport. A business trip which allowed me to celebrate the end of the French meetings with my friends in Chiba and Tokyo! I took the opportunity to finally fulfill an old promise to visit the Kikkoman soy sauce factory in Noda city, Chiba prefecture, with my friend.

Other work duties the past months involved a speech for an adult learning volunteer circle in Kanazawa. It’s always fulfilling to speech about Belgium to adults: they take notes, ask interesting although often difficult questions and they really make you feel like you gave them some new insights. The most challenging work however was participating in a symposium on world heritage. I had to present the Belgian UNESCO world heritage and give my opinion about the value of Kanazawa as possible world heritage. I prepared well, did a lot of research, even contacted the Belgian embassy, but surrounded by men only, professors who have been living in Kanazawa for over 20 years, I felt a little bit intimidated. Add cameras and an audience of 100 people to that and you might understand my nervousness! But I believe I did a good job and I really support the efforts of Kanazawa to try to get the Kenrokuen garden recognized!

A more relaxing job was helping out at the PR booth in the sister city park during the annual Green Walk in Kanazawa. After the job I joined my friends in the 22 km tour that lead us all the way to the harbor of Kanazawa this year.

As always April 1st was the day of personnel changes in Japan. This year no one at my section got transferred, probably because of the French-Japanese conference. I must say I was relieved! But I did have to say goodbye to a fun city hall colleague who got married and moved away, the Chinese trainee who worked with us for 10 months and the French trainee from Nancy. Also my colleague and very good friend at KIEF finished her contract, but since she found another job in Kanazawa, we can keep hanging out like before. A human being really doesn’t like change, that’s what I always think on that April 1st!

Besides the goodbye parties that come with this season, there were lots of reasons to celebrate: a wedding, a birthday, Saint-Patrick’s Day at the local Irish pub, charity parties with the JET community, and even a reunion in Nagoya with Japanese colleagues from the Belgian pavilion at Expo Aichi 2005. And of course March 3rd was the annual hina matsuri or Doll’s Festival, reason to eat sushi with all the girls at my friend’s house and admire the beautiful display of her hina dolls.

It may seem hard to believe, but this winter I actually didn’t leave Ishikawa prefecture! After my trip home for the holidays, I decided to stay around Kanazawa for a while, mostly because of the cold winter conditions that lasted extremely long this year. But once the sun comes peeping around the corner, once spring sets in just a little, I feel this urge of getting out of my house and go explore the world around me. And so in March I asked two Japanese colleagues to go on a trip to Nagano prefecture, setting of the 1998 Winter Olympics. For years I had wanted to go to the Jigokudani Monkey Park, a park known for its hot springs populated by Japanese macaques or snow monkeys. During the colder months the monkeys come down from the surrounding cliffs and forests to sit in the warm waters of the hot springs. When I first saw the small area where tourists are allowed, I was a bit disappointed, but even in that small place so many monkeys get together, that you don’t have enough eyes to watch every cute thing that they do. You are not allowed to feed them and it is prohibited to stare them in the eye as they can get upset and angry, but the monkeys won’t mind pushing you aside when you are in their way! Close to the monkey park is a Japanese ryokan hotel with an outside tub and it is said that monkeys sometimes come join you there. Maybe an idea for a next trip? We ourselves spent the night at Shibu onsen, an old-fashioned hot spring village, known for its public bath tour. That is to say, there are nine small public bath houses spread over the village that have to be opened with a key, which is only given to people living in the village or spending the night in one of the hotels there. So we challenged ourselves by waking up really early, facing the cold in our yukata cotton kimono and geta clogs to visit all nine bath houses before breakfast, which was served at 8am! On our way back to Kanazawa we made a stop at Matsumoto, a traditional Japanese city, famous for its black castle. Besides the extremely strong wind I was surprised to see yukitsuri or snow cords around the trees in the castle garden. I always thought those cords were typical for the Hokuriku region, a protection for the tree branches against heavy snowfall. But I guess this tradition goes all the way to the north, to most regions known for their snow.

This trip to the heart of Japanese onsen traditions, gave me an urge to immerse myself even more in traditional Japanese culture. When I graduated from Ghent University I wrote an essay on Kabuki theatre and specifically on the life of the famous playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Besides Kabuki plays he wrote many Bunraku or Japanese puppet theatre plays (he said puppets are easier to work with than Kabuki actors, because they don’t complain so much!). Determined to finally see a Bunraku play, I purchased a ticket through the convenience store and went to Osaka, where Bunraku was founded. Because many foreigners go see Bunraku, which has been proclaimed Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, an English earphone guide is available, explaining the story line and details about the stage setting, the dolls and their costumes, and the accompanying chanting and music. The dolls are handled by three people, who are actually visible on stage. But dressed in black, you soon stop focusing on them and you will feel like the dolls are actually coming alive by themselves. The chanter has the difficult task to sing the part of all dolls on stage, each with their own voice and character. If you take a look at the chanter, you will see him go through all the emotions of the characters involved. Truly a form of art that I recommend seeing when coming to Japan!

Being in Osaka I went to see yet another type of Japanese theatre, a little less traditional: the Takarazuka Revue, the Japanese all-female musical theatre. Last year I went to see a Takarazuka play in Tokyo, but this time I went to Takarazuka city, a 30-minute train ride from Osaka, where the theatre was founded in 1913. Takarazuka theatre is known for its strong fan base, so getting hold of a ticket is hard, but I managed to get one for “The Scarlett Pimpernel”, a famous play set during the French Revolution. There are many people, Japanese and foreign, who don’t appreciate the male performances by the Takarazuka actresses, but I just love it, the whole dramatic atmosphere, the fierce performances by the women, the make-up, the costumes, the singing, and the final cabaret-style scene. Kitschy theatre only to be seen in Japan!

I also attended an opera in Kanazawa, a Japanese one this time, “Miminashi no Hoichi”, a famous rather dark play from Japanese mythology about a blind minstrel who gets his ears ripped off by a samurai ghost. The best-known English translation “Hoichi the Earless” first appeared in the book “Kwaidan” by Lafcadio Hearn, which also became a famous movie.

When the cherry blossoms are blooming in April, Japan is crowded with tourists and Kanazawa is no exception. This year no less than ten Belgians came to Kanazawa in that same cherry blossom week, all with their own programme, and somehow they all contacted me! First of all there was the arrival of five exchange students from Ghent University. They will stay in Kanazawa till August to take Japanese language classes at Kanazawa University, so for a while I’m no longer the only Belgian around here! Then there were two other students from Ghent University who came to Kanazawa to do some research at the 21st Century Museum. Together we participated at a hanami or cherry-blossom viewing picnic under the tower of Kanazawa castle, an idyllic combination of fun and Japanese culture. Further an artist from Ghent was invited to Kanazawa to hold an exhibition here. And last but not least, there was the visit of two haiku loving tourists from Ghent. In fact I had been in contact with one of them for a long time. About 30 years ago people from Kanazawa did a home stay at her house and she asked my help to reunite her with those people, which turned out to be an unforgettable night for all of them!

Besides the cherry blossoms in Kanazawa, I also enjoyed some blossoms more south in Ishikawa prefecture, in Daishoji. The local international association organized a tour of the town, passing by the main temple famous for its huge collection of colorful Buddhist statues, visiting the kutani-yaki porcelain museum, taking a relaxing boat trip on the river while gazing at the blossoms and participating in a tea ceremony with oversized bowls and implements. A high-class Japanese lunch and yet another hanami picnic with the JET community made the daytrip complete.

Another place that had been on my list for a while was Tojinbo, the cliffs and rocks in Fukui prefecture, known as one of Japan’s suicide spots. Not to give any ideas to anyone here, but if you like rough sea and raging waves as much as I do, I definitely recommend going there and on the way back try the squid ink ice cream (tastes like vanilla but looks awfully grey)!

Golden Week at the beginning of May is another week devoted to traveling, this time for Japanese who don’t have much more time off than this one week and the week at the end of the year. I myself spent the weekend in Kyoto, climbing the Daimonji mountain and strolling along the Kamogawa river with my friends. The next day we explored the traditional village Omihachiman in Shiga prefecture, followed by a drive around the Biwako lake, Japan’s largest lake. After the weekend I came back because another Belgian friend, living in Tokyo, was passing by for a relaxing Golden Week holiday in a lot less crowded Kanazawa. In fact I also had the opportunity to reunite with yet another Belgian friend who I hadn’t seen in more than five years. He is traveling around the world and was passing by Kanazawa while visiting Japan.

With all those Belgians flooding Kanazawa, it is definitely the right time to launch the Hokuriku-Belgium Friendship Association! This association was the initiative of a Kanazawa citizen who loves Belgium and put all his effort in gathering all people involved with Belgium in these areas into one association. During the launching party the Belgian exchange students and I had to go in front to answer questions about Belgium. It seems my experience on the JET programme has cured me from my shyness of talking in Japanese in front of a public, because the students were more than happy to leave all the talking to me! The Hokuriku-Belgium Friendship Association already counts 70 members, so I hope they make a 100 soon. I wish them all of luck!

Until my next report!

Sophie Bocklandt