JET Program CIR Report





CIR Report from Kanazawa (18)

By Sophie Bocklandt
(Coordinator for International Relations)


2011 has come upon us and for me it will be a year of change. Beginning of August (in mere five months) my contract at Kanazawa City Hall will come to an end. After five years I will have to look for a new job and a new place to live. I hope I can find a job where I can use my living experience in Japan, my multiple work experiences at city hall and my language abilities. I just attended a 3-day conference for returning JETs in Yokohama, during which I received a lot of useful information on possible career paths, networking, resumes and interviews, and reverse culture shock. Of course I combined the conference with sightseeing in the beautiful harbor city of Yokohama and nearby Tokyo and I was able to get in touch with some Belgian colleagues and friends in the area. I really hope a new job challenge will present itself soon!

In the meanwhile I keep busy with my CIR job, which seems to have a wave pattern. There are periods in which I am buried in work and then there are times that I don’t have much to do and ask around where I can help. The past months were a good example of this wave pattern. Last fall right until the year-end I was extremely busy, with only a few free weekends. In December I held another Saint-Nicolas event, a cooking class and a Christmas event, and I participated in a bunch of school visits.

This year’s Saint-Nicolas event had to be organized far away from Kanazawa center, near the beach in neighboring Uchinada city. Therefore we couldn’t count on our regular participants and I had to make full use of my Kanazawa network to gather 16 children. But it worked and together with the parents we made speculaas cookies, marzipan potatoes and the traditional miter. For the Belgian cooking class I was asked to teach how to make waffles, so we tried our hand at Brussels waffles and Liege waffles, and “Gentse waterzooi”, a specialty stew from Ghent, as a main dish. Since this would be my last Christmas event, I wanted to prepare a full course meal instead of just a Christmas cake. The response was so overwhelming that I decided to do two events on the same day, a full course meal at noon and a cake in the afternoon. For the full course meal I picked a recipe from my father that is very popular in my family around Christmas: coq au vin. Accompanied with a creamy carrot soup and the traditional Buche de Noel cake, we set a festive mood in Kanazawa!

Then came the new year, and with all my work projects of last year completed, it took a slow start. That doesn’t mean that there was no work at all, I wrote some reports, did English translations on Korean events and I volunteered at school visits and international events of other CIRs, but time management was a key word. At the same time though, my American, Korean and French colleagues were very busy with translating brochures and organizing language classes, so we all have our own wave pattern, even doing the same job.

One of the events I helped out with, involved playing “Hatagenpei”, a traditional game from the Kanazawa region that is played during the New Year’s season. The game is based on a famous battle in the Ishikawa prefecture between the Genji and the Heiki, two warrior families that existed a thousand years ago and often fought against each other. So “genpei” refers to the Genji and Heike families, while “hata” means flag. The point of the game is to capture as many flags of the opponent as possible, based on your luck throwing two dice. Every dice combination involves a certain action, which can be in the favor of your team or your opponent’s. An easy game that is made even more fun by the loud cheers of the two teams!

Five years I had to live in Kanazawa to finally experience the heavy snowfall that people had been telling me about ever since I arrived here. A record snowfall hit Japan and especially the Hokuriku region. Trains stood still for several hours, in some cases even days, 70 centimeters of snow in one night; it had been ten years since Kanazawa got hit so badly. It was tough for all people commuting to work by train or by car, on foot you had to endure cold and wet feet and take care not to slip, cycling was just out of the question. People had to dig pathways to their front door, throwing all the snow on the side of the roads, which resulted in big snow piles of two meters alongside the Saigawa river where I live. Snow is a burden for many, but personally I was excited to finally experience the big snowfall and I enjoyed every walk, taking dozens of pictures.

Unfortunately winter also means a cold house. The average temperature in my apartment during winter is 3 to 5 degrees Celsius and there is no central heating. Japanese houses in the Hokuriku region are heated with a fan heater on kerosene, hot air conditioning, a kotatsu (low wooden table with a heat source built into it; you cover it with a futon so the heat stays underneath) and in my case a hot carpet. And of course we all have our tricks to stay warm: many layers; warm scarves, hats and gloves; thermal clothing including leg warmers and stomach warmers; disposable hand, foot and body warmers; hot water bottles; using the steam of the shower to heat the bathroom and the steam of washing dishes to heat the kitchen. Still, in winter I wake up every day seeing the condensation of my breath, probably the only thing I won’t miss when I leave here.

However, it wasn’t here that I got hit by the flu, but in Belgium! After a year of not seeing my family, I wanted to spend the holidays back home. But the trip was not without trouble. Because of the heavy snowfall in Europe at that time, my flight to Brussels got cancelled and related to that I was without luggage for almost a week, leaving me empty-handed on Christmas Eve. I eventually recovered my suitcase by going to look for it myself at Brussels Airport, where lost luggage had taken over the entire luggage arrival hall. Besides that, I fully enjoyed being reunited with family and friends in Belgium and having delicious Belgian food. On New Year’s Eve I was eating my fill of a gourmet, when I started to feel ill. After the fireworks I went to bed, only to come out on January 4th! A flu attack kept me in my bed for three whole days, missing out on family reunions, but nevertheless it felt great to be home after such a long time.

The year-end and New Year are reasons to celebrate in Japan as well. Our office enjoyed a Japanese full course dinner at a sushi restaurant in the Nishi Chaya District, the lesser known western (as opposed to the famous eastern) tea district in Kanazawa. We had the wonderful company of three geisha, who entertained us with their stories and jokes, their performance of traditional dance and music, and who had us all participate in taiko drumming and drinking games.

The New Year event of the Hokuriku Belgium Friendship Association involved another Japanese tradition: the tea ceremony. For the first time in my life I was asked to attend, not as a guest but as a member of the staff. Dressed in a vibrant kimono I had to serve Japanese sweets and green tea to the numerous Japanese guests. Normally it takes months, even years of practice to do this flawlessly and in an elegant way, I had one night only! I was invited to the house of a tea ceremony master, where I learned to walk around taking small steps, in a straight posture with arms elegantly next to the body. Afterwards I had to practice sitting down and getting up without losing balance in a tight kimono. And then actually doing all this combined with boxes of sweets and cups of hot tea. I was very nervous on the day itself and my performance wasn’t really flawless, but it was yet another unique Japanese experience which I embraced fully.

February 3rd is Setsubun in Japan, the bean-throwing festival, held the day before the beginning of spring according to the Japanese lunar calendar. This festival centers on the bean-throwing ritual, meant to chase away evil spirits at the start of spring. Some people go to a temple or a shrine to see this ritual, others might throw roasted beans around their house. While throwing around the beans you are supposed to shout “devils out, happiness in”. The Utasu shrine is the most famous spot to celebrate the Setsubun festival in Kanazawa. Visitors are treated with two different kinds of sake, before enjoying traditional dances performed by geisha. At the end they throw small bags of roasted beans to the visitors and whoever catches one is said to enjoy a healthy year. I went to see the festival with two Chinese friends, who happened to celebrate the Chinese New Year that very same day. A funny coincidence, which reminds me of wishing everyone a belated but wonderful new year!

Half February we had a 3-day weekend thanks to the National Foundation Day in Japan. I took advantage of the occasion to organize a day out to the hot springs with my colleagues at Yuwaku Onsen, the hot spring resort right here in Kanazawa. First we visited the recently opened nearby Edo Village, a collection of traditional Japanese houses that give an insight into the lives of local farmers and merchants of more than hundred years ago. After this visit in the cold, we entered an inn, where we enjoyed soaking ourselves in an outside hot water bath amidst a snowy landscape. Feeling re-energized, we put our feet under the table for a delicious Japanese meal with local specialties, including crab and a yuzu-based lemonade. That same weekend I took the bus to Takaoka in neighboring Toyama prefecture to go see the famous outdoor Buddha statue. By doing so, I completed visiting the three major Buddha statues in Japan: the Buddha of Nara, Kamakura and Takaoka.

On Valentine’s Day the women at the office traditionally give chocolates to all the men in the office. Japanese women will also give chocolates to their boyfriend or husband, their father and other important men in their lives. The men are supposed to return the gesture on White Day, one month later. To me it is strange that Valentine’s Day is just a one-way event, and that it is all about chocolate. But as a Belgian I can proudly announce that the most popular chocolates on Valentine’s Day in Japan come from my country: Godiva, Pierre Marcolini, Champs d’Aromes. Going against tradition I organized a ladies’ night out on Valentine’s Day, enjoying a fancy western-style full course dinner, ending with a mouth-watering hot chocolate cake!

During winter it is very important to keep your spirits up by going out with your friends and having fun, even if it’s cold and dark outside. Dinner parties are a good excuse to gather friends and eat your fill of good food. I attended several house parties, organized my own for the French club, and enjoyed the fancy New Year dinner of the Japanese-French Association in Kanazawa. My Chinese colleague invited us to make gyouza dumplings from scratch, fun and delicious! I also attended a lot of music-related events like the opera La Traviata, an a cappella concert of my colleague, a gospel concert, a koto concert (the koto is a traditional Japanese stringed musical instrument), and the open mic event, a charity event organized and performed by my fellow JET colleagues. And another first for me this winter: horse riding!

Belgium’s record-breaking run without a government has been on the news in Japan as well. It is hard to explain to people here, so I hope a solution is finally in the making. In the meanwhile I keep proudly representing my country the best I can.