Saturday, June 18, 2011

Culture Shock vol.2 - Kanagawa


Since I usually tend to write about my trips around the country, I decided it would be nice to mention something about my everyday life for a change. Believe it or not, normal job and other prosaic problems fill most of my time here in Japan. At least that's been the case since the internship started in January. Now all the parties and sightseeing moved to weekends or other holidays (which are rather sparse) with little time to do anything other than job on weekdays. I work at NTT Communication Science Laboratories in the city of Atsugi, the hilly heart of Kanagawa Prefecture, just south of Tokyo and west of Yokohama. NTT, although maybe not as well-known in Europe, is the dominant telecommunications company in Japan and Asia, as well as the second-largest in the world. It's currently ranked 31st in the Fortune Global 500 ranking of the world's top 500 companies in terms of revenue. Pretty impressive, huh? As a leader in its market, NTT can afford to maintain specialised research laboratories, therefore investing in the development of new technologies in the vast fields of engineering, physics, communication science, human perception analysis, etc. My internship belongs to the Communication Environment Research Group in in the Media Information Laboratory. If that doesn't tell you anything, that's probably good because the subject of my work is secret and I'm not supposed to reveal it, even though it's quite interesting. I can tell you, however, that the main office of NTT CS is located in the outskirts of Kyoto and lately I've been lucky enough to get invited to the Open House event held over there.

Going back to the theme of my new home, I live in a NTT workers dorm in the city of Isehara, quite close to my office. The town's not that bad, but it's mainly a bedroom community for the nearby Yokohama and greater Tokyo areas. With it's population of around 100.000 (and Atsugi has twice as much), Isehara could be a medium-sized Polish town with some attractions, whereas in this case it's just a residential area with few stores or restaurants. It basically plays the role of some distant Tokyo suburbs. Fortunately, I can always get on the train and reach some bigger cities with ease if I want to do some serious shopping, meet with my friends or go to the cinema. Of course, living in the calm "country side" also has its advantages, the biggest of them being the captivating surrounding nature. Some of Isehara's outskirts belong to the Tanzawa-Oyama Quasi-National Park established to preserve the beautiful landscape of mountains, forests and lakes. The vast Park is great for hiking or late-spring bike trips, which can be as exciting as any other excursion around Japan. I've added some pictures taken during the trips to the Hakusan mountain and Miyagase Dam. Thanks Bartek for talking me into them!

The main shock, apart from quite different work culture in the company and interpersonal relations, comes from all those Japanese traditions and customs that appear in everyday situations. It feels a bit different when you're just a tourist. They show you the most representative tip of the iceberg and then off you go. But living here for a while makes you immerse in this lifestyle deeper and appreciate it more for what it is, understand it. Although I will probably never truly get it and they will always treat me as a layman outsider, I'm slowly starting to grasp the language and the culture behind it, at the same time learning a lot about myself and my own heritage. I'm happy to see that happening because it was one of the predefined goals of the whole Vulcanus experience.

Luckily enough, there's a unique lady in our NTT office, called Narumi, who's fascinated with Japanese tradition and keen on passing the knowledge to eager foreign interns. She's overflowing with positive energy and organises all kinds of activities for us, including cutting out cups and chopsticks from bamboo, rolling sushi for Setsubun (the beginning of spring holiday) or playing taiko (big Japanese drums) with a local club in preparations for the summer gig. All of this is really fun and proves how much Japanese care for their customs. Another big event was the world-famous cherry blossom (Sakura) period which comes down to cheerful family picnics under the phenomenal white trees. The sight of a snow-like shower of cherry flower petals is truly a one of its kind experience and one of the symbols of Japanese culture. The culture I now bask in.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hiroshima - the city of water


Golden Week (actually ten days) is the longest Japanese holiday period (except Christmas/New Year celebrations) on the turn of April and May. However, while the December winter holidays are a time of family reunion and religious rites, the nice spring weather strongly encourages you to do some serious tourism. And in fact, most of my friends embarked on long trips to some more exotic locations, like South-East Asia, Korea, Kyushu or Hokkaido. Unfortunately, I had to show up in my company in between the individual national holidays (or more precisely, I found out that I don't have to but it was way too late to do any reservations). I was then left with only a weekend-long trip to the south-west of Japan, the Chugoku region, namely to the neighbouring cities of Miyajima and Hiroshima, the latter known as the Japanese City of Water.

I slept through the horror of a twelve-hour-long bus trip (too cheap to take a Shinkansen? yes!) and found myself in the westernmost region of the main island of Honshu. With sunny weather and good moods, my friends and I began the standard sightseeing procedure through the town's history. First, the Hiroshima Castle ruins making a vast park with the reconstructed main keep, ninomaru gate and Hiroshima Gokoku Shrine inside its premises. Second, the lively modern city centre with a shopping district, a j-pop gig, some friendly locals and cabbage filled okonomiyaki lunch. Third, the world-famous Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, being a vivid and honest testimony of indescribable suffering which led to humble understanding and heroic reconstruction. The completeness and accuracy of all the symbols and monuments really touches the heart and shows how mature the post-war Japanese society has come to be. Especially that they never seem to hide their own faults in bringing the catastrophe upon themselves. The whole place strongly reminded me of Auschwitz because of the all-around scars of the past and feelings of historical importance. Hiroshima, however, seems to leave you much more optimistic about the future, not only exposing the pain, but also putting emphasis on the town's resurrection and subsequent worldwide peace campaigns. And also thanks to the rainbow-hued origami cranes - symbols of good fortune.

Leaving the elevated tone behind, we took the evening tram (yes, a tram in Japan) to the nearby Miyajima, where we stayed in a party youth hostel. We were sharing a huge common bedroom with an international and at least tipsy crowd of Americans, Aussies, Mexicans, Japanese and various Europeans (English, Swedish and so on). It's easy to guess that the atmosphere was loose and we had a good time. The following morning, fresh and well-rested, we took a ferry to the beautiful island of Itsukushima. Combining all the most prominent elements of a typical Japanese landscape (the sea, the green mountains, amazing temples and shrines, deers wandering the streets), the island is included in the Three Views of Japan, the canonical list of Japan's three most celebrated scenic sights, compiled by Confucian scholars in the XVII century. This of course speaks for itself and further comments seem unnecessary - just looking at the photos is enough to tell how magical the place is, especially the World Heritage Site of Itsukushima Shrine with its famous gate that seems to be floating during high tide.

Why is Hiroshima called the City of Water? Probably because it was founded on a river delta coastline and consists of many islands separated by canals. Some parts of the town even used to be waterside marshes, now obviously reclaimed by people. Hiroshima is also an important port town, overlooking the whole Seto Inland Sea. Originally, I wanted to mention the atomic bombings in the title of this post, but opted against it. For me, Hiroshima and its region are simply much more than just victims of past violence. They are a symbol of Japanese endurance and the beautiful, traditional lifestyle, always so close to the sea.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

After school 2


I do realise that I finished the Japanese language school last year and have been working in a company ever since, but I've still got some after-school stories to tell. They simply didn't make it to the first post or happened afterwards. So get ready for more incoherent thoughts on...

Zen meditation. One Friday afternoon, instead of practicing new verb forms, we took a brake and went on a small cultural bus-trip with our teachers to a nearby Buddhist temple. Inside we met some nice monks who explained us the main principles of zazen ("sitting meditation"), gave us pamphlets and allowed to try the whole thing ourselves, watching over us with bamboo sticks in their hands. Generally, the have the authority to (slightly) hit anyone who's not doing it right, but we were lucky (or just gaijins) and no one got "corrected". Afterwards we met for a short meal, discussed the everyday life of a Japanese monk and went our own way. That's it. For me, the most impressive part of the ceremony was the mantra they sang at the beginning, accompanied by a powerful taiko drum. A truly magical experience, a trance perfectly setting the mood for meditation that followed. And zazen itself was simply about slow, controlled breathing with your stomach and freeing your mind from any thoughts. It's more difficult than it seems and so much different than just reciting some earlier remembered phrases.

Tsukiji Fish Market. Officially known as the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, it is situated in a district of Chuo called Tsukiji. The word itself means "reclaimed land", as the whole neighbourhood used to be a marshy delta of Sumida River. Tsukiji was, however, dried and built-up throughout the XVII century, becoming the site of the commercially and touristically important market after the previous one in Nihonbashi was destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake. The Tsukiji Fish Market is the biggest of its kind in the world and offers foreign visitors a unique chance to witness the early morning tuna auctions. The massive fish are brought in by smacks straight from the ocean and some incomprehensible rituals are then conducted by the auctioneers. Is it really worth the hassle? Well, you have to queue up first thing in the morning (the market opens around 5.00 AM so staying overnight is highly recommended), it stinks and there's fish blood everywhere. But people still get attracted in vast numbers because of the market's uniqueness and a chance to have some incredible fresh sushi for breakfast. Also it's a great experience after a crazy drinking night when you just want to sober somewhere up and wait for the first train to take you home.

Miki's Party and End Year Party. Miki-san from the EU-Japan Centre had just went on a maternity leave and was not to come back to work before our programme would finish. As a way to thank her for the support she had always given us and to congratulate on her new role in life as a future parent, we decided to throw a surprise party. Well, maybe it wasn't exactly a surprise, because she and her husband had to come to a community centre in Shinjuku, which we had rented for the evening, but still she was happy and mesmerized by the amount of food from our home countries we'd all prepared. Some people might say that I hadn't done anything and had just stood there drinking beer but that's not true! Anyway, the party was a huge success, felt so warm and familiar. On the other hand, the End Year Party was held in the EU-Japan Office right after our December presentation session. It included the school graduation ceremony as well as a meeting with some of the future Vulcanus in Europe students and instructing them a bit on how to survive in the Old Continent. It was a lot of fun and a perfect opportunity to finally thank our teachers and the EU-Japan Centre staff before we would go on a well-deserved Christmas holidays. The end.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Refugee in Kobe


The earthquake caught us during the Vulcanus mid-term reporting session on March 11th. We were all in the EU-Japan Centre building giving our presentations and making plans for the evening reunion party. Just 5 minutes before the coffee break the shaking started and left us quite panicked under the desks. For all of us, including the Japanese, the earthquake was the strongest we'd experienced in our lives and we were just glad the ceiling hadn't come down on our heads, which at some point seemed very much possible. Fortunately, the epicentre was too far from Tokyo to do any significant damage to the city, apart from a few collapsed buildings or fires, especially in the industrialized area around Odaiba. The trains, however, stopped, as well as the mobile phone networks, but the peninsulas surrounding the Tokyo Bay shielded the city from any tsunami threat. At first we didn't quite realise how serious the disaster was and would be for Japan and our lives here, but it slowly got to us as we spent the rest of the day watching the horrible news from the north and, well... drinking, to celebrate we were together and alive. Late at night, the trains started running again, so I went back home, almost suffocating in a wagon packed with commuters returning to their families after a few worried hours of imprisonment in the shaky capital. Most of the Vulcanus students were still in the centre and some of them, especially those living to the north of Tokyo, wouldn't be able to come back home for weeks.

I spent the weekend mainly resting after the exhaustion of Friday, following the news and realising that more and more of my foreign friends were leaving Japan, or Tokyo at least, heading south-west. The reason for that was certainly not the vision of an aftershock (which by the way came a few days later but failed to really impress anyone) but the rapidly escalating nuclear threat of the now-infamous Fukushima I atomic power plant. While the western news agencies heralded the end of the world as we know it, the Japanese media and people themselves were relatively calm and trusting in the officials. This quiet confidence did not stop them, however, from panic buying all the pastry, mineral water and cup noodles (yeah) they could lay their eyes on. The situation got slightly more nervous when the electricity shortage caused by the tsunami damage to the plants resulted in controlled blackouts and train holdup. Initially cool, I also started to feel insecure with time, which was propelled by some embassies (not mine) evacuating their countrymen from the capital, indefinite holiday at work (cancelled after one day) and widespread panic among the Vulcanus community. Eventually, I snapped and with no regular trains running I got out of my place (don't ask how) and boarded the earliest Shinkansen out of Tokyo. It was Monday, March 14th. Finally calm, I was heading for the safer Osaka to stay with my friends, think things through and watch the uncertain situation from afar.

My second stay in the Kansai region wasn't quite as fun as the first one. A drowsy collage of nervous Skype calls home, disturbing news of hydrogen explosions (I also learnt the meaning of the word "millisievert") and rain that seemed more radioactive than ever before. After arriving to Osaka I learned that the Kozenji dorm, where I'd stayed last time, was full of runaway Vulcanuses and their friends (around twenty people in three small rooms) so I had no choice but to invade my friends in Nara. Along with Inigo, Cristina and some occasional Japanese guests, we established a second Vulcanus Refugee Camp and spent most of the week in the idyll of Nanto, playing with sika deers. Even though we were probably a bit of a drag to Giuseppe, Nadia and Emmanuel, they were always very supportive and uplifting. Despite working in the morning as usual, they still took us out a few times and simply were there for us when we needed them the most. Thank you guys...

Although I did little to no sightseeing during that time, always preoccupied with more important worries, I still visited some interesting locations in the wonderful Kansai. Along with the Kasuga-taisha in Nara (a shrine famous for its many stone and bronze lanterns) and the modern, seaside Cosmo Square in Osaka (where I went to get a re-entry permit in case I had to leave Japan and return here later), the highlight of the whole week was the trip to Kobe on the last day of my stay in the south-west. Kobe, a city itself experiencing a major earthquake in 1995 and still recovering from its long-term consequences, is one of Japan's most important sea ports and its sixth-largest city. With an uncontinous history reaching ancient times (which includes being the capital for five months in the XII century), Kobe has always been a cosmopolitan hub for international trade, hosting waves of foreigners from old Chinese Empire, Korea, Vietnam and more recently the West. No wonder that Kobe has both the beautiful Chinatown and the Kitano estates modelled after European or American houses of the colonial era. A large combined group of Osaka and Nara Vulcanus refugees spent the whole day walking around the coast and earlier mentioned exotic foreign districts. We saw a local j-rock festival, the Kobe Port Tower and lots of ships. We also witnessed some kind of traditional dancing event in Chinatown and tasted the legendary shark-fin soup (but not the more legendary Kobe beef). We made new friends and simply had a good time, forgetting about our recent problems and finding new confidence in our group. Thanks to this, going back to Tokyo in an overcrowded evening Shinkansen was a lot easier and even a bit hopeful.

Of course, these difficult days were full of other events I don't really want to elaborate on (like the tough negotiations between the students, the EU-Japan Centre and the companies to save our contracts). I like to think that despite the general confusion and panic, we still managed to hold on together. And Japan also proved to be a strong country of brave and cheerful people that now deserve some peace from mother nature as well as help and kind words from the rest of nations. Unfortunately, some of my friends had to leave Japan anyway, not to return even after the situation got more stable. I'm sorry it had to be this way and wish to meet them someday to reflect on what's happened here.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Osaka - the big finish


Sunday 13/02/2011 10:00, Kozenji, Hirakata, Osaka Prefecture
We woke up after a late-night manly beer / YouTube session and found out that Bartek, a morning bird, had already left for Kyoto to see some other temples we hadn't had time to visit two days before. Being already a bit tired from all the sightseeing we decided to take our time, said goodbye to our hosts and slowly headed for our last stop - Osaka.

Sunday 13/02/2011 11:00, Kyobashi Station, Osaka
We met up with Bartek and continued our excursion to the famous XVI century Osaka Castle. The streets looked kind of familiar and we all agreed that it was like a smaller, more compressed version of Tokyo. Unlike the neighbouring Kyoto or Nara, Osaka has always been a mainly commercial city. Thanks to its large seaport and continuous development since ancient times (with dynamic industrialization in the XIX century) Osaka ended up being Japan's second largest metropolitan area (just after the combined forces of Tokyo and Yokohama). Although there are still some historic places to visit (unfortunately and similarly to Tokyo, many of them were destroyed during World War II) they are overshadowed by a modern landscape of glass, steel and concrete. Compared to the nearby skyscrapers of Osaka Business Park, the castle seemed like a small and fragile handicraft, although itself being quite tall and beautiful. The castle grounds composed a pleasant, open to public park with street performers and additional buildings like gates, turrets and temples.

After having lunch and walking around the financial Chuo district we took a train to the harbor with a mandatory Ferris wheel (this one's called Tempozan) and decided to visit The Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, one of the largest in the world. The whole aquarium tour is built around an interesting concept: the visitors first go to the top floor and then descent around the main tank observing how the sea life changes with depth. Of course there are some other displays unconnected to this idea, showcasing around 500 different species of Pacific animals, from penguins to manta rays and whale sharks. As the sun was starting to set behind the Osaka Bay, we took a quick look at the Port and went back to the city, this time to the entertainment district of Namba.

Bartek and Tomek left to catch the evening Shinkansen back to Tokyo, whereas me and Javier headed for the touristic and lively Dotonbori street running alongside a channel of the same name. With its many theaters, shops and restaurants it proved to be a real pleasure district for both our eyes (the marvelous mechanized and neon signs) and stomachs (okonomiyaki, even better than in Kyoto). We saw the landmarkish Glico Man and the Giant Crab, met with Nadia and Jarek and had a great dinner. A perfect day, not ruined even by a stressful search for my bus stop in a rather confusing maze of passages and tunnels of the main Osaka Station in the business district of Umeda. Thanks to Javi's undying support I had managed to eventually board the bus a few minutes before its departure for Tokyo. We ran like crazy and I almost spat out my lungs. Waving goodbye to the astonishing Umeda Sky Building, I was content with how great the weekend turned out to be and happy to be going back home.

At that time I didn't know that a month later I would return to Osaka as a refugee from a quake hit and panicked Tokyo...