Sunday, November 7, 2010

Aizu Wakamatsu - the spirit of Japan


The last weekend of October was home stay time for all Vulcanus students. We applied for it a couple of months ago (while still back in Europe) by filling out a special form with detailed information regarding our interests and preferences towards the Japanese host family that was going to take us under their roof and take care of us for these few days. The whole event was organised and conducted by Aizu Wakamatsu International Association with some help by our own EU-Japan Centre. After some good as well as pretty bad experiences in Japan, we thought we could expect almost anything from this programme and with mixed moods departed from Shinjuku on Friday morning. The four-hour bus trip took us on a relaxing tour around the picturesque autumn landscapes. Through tunnels drilled in enormous mountains we eventually got to our destination - the vast valley of Aizu.

Aizu Wakamtsu, the capital of the Aizu region, is a small city located in Fukushima Prefecture, about 300 km north from Tokyo's center. The moment we got there, we knew the reasons why it had been chosen for the home stay. Beautifully quiet, old, traditional and very different that Tokyo, it looked so promising. Aizu Wakamatsu dates back to 14th century when it was founded around the majestic Tsuruga Castle, the military and administrative center of the Aizu region until 1868. However, during the infamous Boshin War (a civil war of 1868/1869) the whole town was destroyed by the winning imperial forces. Before the war, Aizu was a loyal supporter of the old Tokugawa shogunate and therefore an enemy to the anti-samurai, pro-western reforms of young Meiji emperor. Fortunately for us, the town was re-founded in 1899 and since then, most of it's historic structures have been rebuilt. What can we all learn from this lengthy introduction? Well, Aizu has a strong bushi spirit and might be a good scenery for some kind of 'Last Samurai' movie.

After arriving we grabbed some nice udon in a small, cosy restaurant, the owner of which even took pictures with us. Then we met with Kita-san in front of the town's Boys' Statue and took a local bus for The University of Aizu. This relatively small college is famous for teaching exclusively computer science with international professor staff. This cosmopolitan school was a good place for a discussion about Japanese customs, gestures, art, stereotypes and culture in general. We divided into small groups and tried to figure something out together with Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Russian students of Aizu. Unfortunately, there was not enough time to go through the topics thoroughly but we still had a good time and made some friends. After small presentations of our results (most of which were hilarious) we met with the host families and headed for our new homes to get some much needed rest.

My host family, the Tashiro family, consisted of a mother, a father (both teachers of Japanese) and a cat (not a teacher). Their son, an art student at the University of Tokyo, was staying in the capital at that time, leaving his room just for me. I don't want to get into too much detail about everything I was doing during my stay there - suffice it to say that it was such a warm and funny time, definitely one of my best in Japan. I really felt as if these people were my family and I was just visiting some (very) distant relatives. They prepared some great and diverse traditional meals (like tempura, ramen, mushroom rice, shellfish and clam miso soup, to name just few) as well as the famous, time-honoured, hot Japanese ofuro bath. During the day, they took me out to do some shopping in a huge food market (I stuffed myself with free food samples handed out generously by shopkeepers) and to admire the beautiful and unique Japanese art in small local galleries. Being filled with samurai spirit for centuries, Aizu's people have a love for fine arts and precious craftsmanship. So we went to see the Urushi Festival, which is an annual exhibition of various wares (like paintings, sculptures, dishes or toys) painted with a special type of red or black lacquer (urushi) - the local speciality made from tree resin. One of the most notable examples of these beautiful and very expensive goods are figurines of the town's mascot - Akabeko, a red cow constantly nodding it's head. According to a legend, a long time ago people used cows for transporting wood used to build temples. During the construction of Aizu's biggest temple, all the cows fell down from overworking except for one. Since then, the sole survivor, Akabeko, has become a symbol of discipline, endurance and persistence - the virtues praised by all Japanese. Going back to my activities during the home stay, I was very glad to learn that my 'father' loved to play the guitar. We had some interesting conversations about Japanese music and played a little while sipping whiskey on the rocks. And the guitar was an old flamenco one. Priceless.

Furthermore, probably the most shocking experience was meeting a family friend, Kojima-san. We drove for about an hour into the woods to find ourselves in the middle of rice fields, surrounded by mountains and in front of a big wooden tatami house. As we entered the cold room we saw him in the middle, sitting on the floor with an American cigarette in his mouth and piles of papers, dishes and pillows around him. He was by far the most eccentric Japanese person I met and I was really surprised by his knowledge of Polish history. By the way, a lot of people I met in Aizu knew a lot about my country - from Chopin Year Celebrations to Cracow's Wawel Dragon. Kojima-san, a teacher and an amateur rice farmer, treated me to coffee with a bit of 'magical' water he makes by himself. How does he make it? It's a secret. I also learned he is a direct descendant of a samurai family and that we both shared fondness of Kurosawa's movies.

On Sunday evening we had to go back to Tokyo. Everyone was happy as ever and wanted to stay in Aizu just a bit longer. We felt very welcome and missed the kind of warmth and hospitality only a family can give. After saying goodbye and exchanging contact info, we departed for Tokyo. This time the dusk hid all the trees and mountains from us. But in the end we got to see the lights of the Infinite City, stretching as far as the horizon can go.

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