Throwback Time

Time flies! It’s already been over a year since I came back from my one-year stay in Japan. I’ve grown pretty nostalgic these days, thinking back to all the good stuff, and maybe forgetting a little bit about the things I liked less. I am planning to go back soon to do fieldwork for my research, but in the meantime I have saved some eye candy for you from my last trip, showing you what exactly I can’t wait to go back to. Now, let’s begin our stroll down memory lane.

The nature

Many people who have travelled to Japan will tell you that excursions outside the vibrant cities are certainly worth the trip. Especially for this journey, my family brought a nice camera – spot my brother in action among the sunflowers. As you can also see from the pictures below, we travelled around Japan during summertime. Being totally surrounded by nature was overwhelming, in particular because we Belgians aren’t really used to that much green (and the weather was also extremely hot for our standards).

The Japanese island is for 70% mountainous and for over 60% covered with forests, which results in sparse low-leveled, but densely populated areas popping up in between vast woods, rivers and mountain ranges. Lots of nature to explore, in other words. Below you see some of the “99 island” (Kujukushima 九十九島), a bamboo forest, a view of Kyushu’s countryside and colorful koi fish.

But even in metropolis centres, you can find quiet, green spots among the many touristic attractions. Below are two pictures from Kobe (the ropeway up to Rokko Mountain and the Nunobiki waterfalls) and two from Kyoto, displaying a magnificent temple garden and a proud heron in the garden of Nijo castle.

The culture

Well, isn’t this my favorite part about Japan! Living in Kobe, I was situated close to the cultural and historical heart of Japan. You probably know that I am more into (let’s call it) the ‘traditional’ stuff. Hence, the tourist in me is more drawn towards castles, temples, medieval art and so on. That doesn’t mean I don’t value modern cultural phenomena – on the contrary, I think they’re fascinating research material! Since this post is trying to be as visual as possible, the pictures below can seem a little cliché in that sense, since they depict mostly ‘the classics’. For the reason that I’m into ‘traditional’ stuff, I actually never visited Tokyo during my round trip (oh, the shame). Of course I would recommend it to everyone, but personally I do not really feel attracted to the hyper-modern, current capital of Japan (the previous ones I love, though – Nara, Kyoto, you name it). But one day, I’ll go to Tokyo, for sure! *pinky swear*

Besides the extraordinary craftsmanship, I love the abundance of colors, yet at the same time serenity of temples and palaces. Kyoto was great (how many temples can you visit in one day?) and as a Buddhist geek, I thoroughly enjoyed all the religious references in Japanese culture such as the many Buddha statues. During our journey, we often stumbled across unplanned festivals and other celebrations, for example the Gozan fire festival. On the other pictures, you can see the beautiful white Himeji castle and the ‘floating’ torii of the Itsukushima shrine on Miyajima island.

Typical for smaller Japanese towns is that they specialize in a certain product which then attracts a lot of shopping tourists. That is the case, for example, in Uji, a town close to Kyoto and  famous for its matcha – but also known for its prominence in The Tale of Genji and its stunning Byodo-in temple. Another example is Arita, famed for its ceramics and pottery. Also, when nature and culture come together, great stuff happens. Like, deer in Nara. Or the Korakuen garden in Okayama.

Japanese architecture, traditional or modern, keeps fascinating people. Take for example the huge main temple in Nara (with my parents posing in front of it), the innovative water architecture of Osaka city station, the golden pavilion in Kyoto or the modern office constructions you see everywhere in big cities.

And last but not least, let’s talk arts. Japan is known worldwide for its origami, ikebana, kimono designs and performing arts such as puppet theater, kabuki and noh. These arts are constantly developing and modernizing, yet maintain their ‘traditional’ character. In Hiroshima, we saw ‘1000 folded cranes’ and a Kagura performance. On Shikoku, I was so lucky to watch puppet theater (they were so kind to pose with us for a picture), and kimonos were a common sight in Kyoto.

The Food

Apart from culture and history, food is also a big interest of mine. The Japanese cuisine is very different from the Belgian one, and this also influenced my taste palette and culinary preferences. I have been a vegetarian for some time now, so there are lots of Japanese dishes out there that I never tried – I had to make an exception for the unavoidable dashi (fish stock), though. Yet, I was often surprised about the availability of vegetarian dishes, and the willingness of the chefs to adapt to the (vegetarian) customer’s needs. Japanese people eat a lot of vegetables, tofu is everywhere and I enjoyed some great vegetarian meals, like the ones below. On one or two occasions, I had a fancy vegetarian set meal, and the Buddhist, vegetarian food on mount Koya was also a pleasant experience.

Okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake with a filling of choice, proved to be the perfect alternative for pizza. Back in Belgium, I also had to get used to the idea that there is no concept such as izakaya here: places where you can drink alcohol and order lots of food at the same time. You could say I mostly went to izakaya together with friends or colleagues to drink, but I always ended up stuffing my face with delicious foods. Not that I didn’t drink at all – sake was love at first sight.

Sushi is, of course, always a good choice. Try kaiten-zushi (conveyer belt sushi) for a lot of fun and a full stomach! If I didn’t have time to prepare a lunch box on a busy school day, I used to buy onigiri (rice triangles) or inarizushi (seasoned rice in a marinated tofu skin) at the supermarket. Other standard meals I often ordered in restaurants include udon noodles with tofu or don (rice) dishes with egg. From time to time, I treated myself to some curry: I like the Japanese ones with vegetables as well as the curry set menus at Indian restaurants.

An example of how my taste buds adapted to Japanese flavors, is the fact that I started prefering Japanese sweets over western, much sweeter and sugary desserts. There have been many days lately that I crave mochi! Also, matcha is a gift from the gods – I love all kinds of desserts stuffed with it (don’t the phoenix matcha pancakes from Uji look amazing?). Another favorite snack of mine is red bean paste, especially in manju, like the ones from Miyajima shaped like leaves on the left. I also cannot express enough how tasty mitarashi dango are (am I the only who feels like this?): Japanese rice dumplings with sweet soy sauce. Yummy!

The people

Japanese people and me went along pretty well! I always felt at ease because they would try to make me feel welcome as much as possible, be considerate and show me the utmost respect. It was a reassurance that the Japanese would never make fun of me or embarrass me – at least not in my face. Most conversations are pretty predictable (no sarcastic remarks or surprises from people you don’t know very well) which also helps you to follow and respond better by anticipating the rest of the conversation. One thing that is not supposed to be annoying but actually is when you live there for a while, is the complimenting: hearing time and time again how good your Japanese is and how baffled they are by your knowledge about Japan (“Even I as a Japanese didn’t know that!” – but then again I am the one majoring in Japanese studies and not you, and I am not an expert in Belgian history either, is what I would have liked to reply), can get a little tiring.

They often say that Japanese people do not have a sense of humor, but I don’t think that’s true. Of course, the slapstick on Japanese television doesn’t crack me up either, but contextual jokes and puns were as funny in Japan as anywhere else. Another pro is that politeness is prioritized over personality – being rude doesn’t make you cool. And with people you want to befriend, you can discover a whole new personality behind this polite “façade” (tatemae). I believe I’m not a very warm person and a little distant myself when I don’t know another person very well, so I could relate.

In general, Japanese people were kind and always willing to help me. I experienced this while studying and researching at uni, as well as in the Shorinji martial arts club I was a member of. From my first day in Japan, I received a lot of help and friendship from the Japanese at my faculty. The professors, unlike in Belgium sometimes, were supportive and respectful towards their students. During shorinji training as well, I  was never left on my own. The more experienced “fighters” taught the newbies, and I learnt a lot from practicing together. Because I was mainly focused on my research, I wasn’t the most social one in the group but I had a lot of fun in my free time.

I could go on and list up many other experiences I had during my stay there, but I think it’s best to go back to Japan and make more memories! In the meantime, I will write a couple of new blog posts with a more academic content. Feel free to share your memories in the comment section below!

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