Sunday, 30 September 2012

Mid-Autumn Festival on a moonless night

Typhoon No. 17 was last heard heading for Kanto. My friends had planned for a moon viewing party by a nearby river today to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. But the rain and strong winds brought by the typhoon kept everyone indoors. 

After hearing the rain and strong winds for most of the day, the silence outside in the night seemed unnatural. When I sensed that all was quiet, I quickly dropped by at the 24-hour supermarket to do my groceries.  The streets were quite a mess with fallen leaves and tree branches here and there. Bicycles parked along the streets were knocked over by the winds.  Few people were out in the streets. Those whom I saw walked with a sense of urgency, as if the quiet might bring with it another storm.

At the supermarket, tsukimi dango was being sold at discounted prices and I bought a packet to try. I had received numerous flyers from supermarkets which featured a range of traditional foods that were being sold for moon viewing (or tsukimi in Japanese)They made me very curious.   Unlike the Chinese who eat mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival, the Japanese have the custom of eating tsukimi dango during their moon viewing gathering.  Moon viewing, or tsukimi, was said to have spread from China to Japan during the Heian period.  In addition to tsukimi dango, another common traditional food in Japan on Mid-Autumn day is taro roots or satoimo. These foods along with a vase decorated with susuki grass and autumn flowers are placed on altars as offerings to the moon for abundant harvest.
My neighbour had also treated me to some of the mooncakes that she had made earlier that evening. They contained meat fillings. I learnt from her that there were many types of mooncakes in China and those containing meat was just one type.  It was interesting how a tradition that originated from China was celebrated with different foods in different countries. The aroma of my neighbour's moon cakes still lingered in my apartment. It tasted so good that I am going to try making them one of these days. I don't think we have meat moon cakes in Singapore, do we?
Although we had the traditional foods all ready, the moon was not in sight at all. My first Mid-Autumn Festival in Japan and it had to be a moonless night.


Accessing Japanese TV and radio on the internet

When I first came to Kyoto, I considered for the longest time if I should get a television so that I could watch Japanese TV shows and improve my listening skills. But I didn't want to spend money to dispose of the TV set when I leave so I didn't get one in the end (yes, you need to pay to dispose of electrical appliances such as TV, fridges etc).
I also tried to tune my mobile phone to receive radio signals but could only receive the signal of one boring radio station.
Not too long ago, my school mates shared two websites with me where I could access Japanese TV shows and Kyoto radio networks for free.  I am sharing them here, if anyone's interested.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Lunch time musings

One thing I really dislike about school life here is the lunch time. Lunch time is fixed at 1210-1300h so almost everyone would try to have their meals during this time. Although we have two cafeterias and one small cafe, these are extremely crowded during lunch. There are other options such as the convenience store in school, and the food kiosks set up around school grounds to sell bento sets and convenience foods. However, long queues are a common sight too.

Students queuing to buy food from a food kiosk set up outside the cafeteria.


A simple lunch prepared on the late night of
27 Sep for lunch on the following day. 

I have classes before and after lunch and I really don't like to rush through my meal. From the onset, I made the decision to bring my lunch from home.  To my own surprise, I actually managed to keep that up for one whole semester. Last semester, I prepared my lunch in the morning just before going to class and it was often a mad rush. I subsequently learnt from school mates that they would prepare their lunch the night before. So for this semester, I am adopting this new practice.

A quiet lunch in the classroom.

The school recognises the problem of crowding in the cafeterias and classrooms are open for students to use during lunch. Hence, it is a common sight to see students bring their trays of food from the cafeterias to eat in classrooms.
I usually spent lunch time in the classroom as well, away from the crowds.  Last semester, I had a few classmates who would do the same and we would chat as we ate during lunch time. This semester, the new classmates seemed to prefer eating among the crowds.
While I still sat at my favourite corner of the classroom eating my shoddily prepared lunch, the people who used to share that time with me were not in the seats where they used to be.  I wonder if they thought of me back home just as I thought of them while I was eating my lunch.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The first day of the second semester

Received an encouraging message from a friend 
- "Let's work hard together this semester!"
The attitude of a "returning student" towards a new semester is totally different from that of  a new exchange student.  I not only lost the enthusiasm I used to feel on the first day of class, I also lost the impetus to make new friends.

When I first started out on this programme in spring, I was anxious to know people. Now that I am into my second semester, I have sort of taken on the perspective of the onlooker, smiling to myself at the familiar scenes of new students busy exchanging contact details and chatting about where to go after class.

I am now back in my comfort zone because there are some wonderful people from the last semester who have become my friends. Even my self-introduction in class was over in a matter of seconds. I used to put alot more effort into it but now, I knew that everyone would be too nervous thinking about their own self-introduction to care about what I had to say.
There were the usual comments which still surprised me even though I had them from classmates and teachers in the last semester. A new classmate asked me today if I had studied in America as I was speaking in English to an American classmate, while another asked if I were from China, as I was conversing with my Chinese friends in Mandarin. And then there were the usual reactions when I explained Singapore's bilingual policy - "I didn't know that!"

Classes were as interesting as they could be. In my class, there were 15 classmates from 13 different countries spanning the US, Middle East, Europe, Northeast and Southeast Asia and Oceania. A multi-cultural mix of students, just like the last semester in which I got to know people from 9 different countries.

Our Japanese sensei was a humorous gentleman who started the class explaining the geography and history of the prefectures in Kansai region, and then an account of how he met his wife when he was studying abroad.  He shared abit of trivia about Kyoto, that it is not just temples and shrines but also an important education hub with close to 40 universities and the base for major companies such as Nintendo and Wacoal.
Scribbling in the notebook.

It looked like the classes with my new sensei would be very enjoyable.  "For the sake of world peace, please make as many friends in this international environment as possible and learn to appreciate the many different cultures. For the sake of world peace, please do your best towards international marriages!" And with those inspiring words, he ended the class.  We would be reading Japanese literature in his class and for the first lesson, we did a short story from one of  my favourite writers, Hoshi Shinichi. 
My second class with another sensei was alittle unsettling actually. It was conducted in the Japanese seminar style, and we could expect lots of discussions and project work with Japanese students on topics related to cross-cultural communication. We also had to write journals reflecting on every discussion in class.

After classes, I went around campus taking photographs. I know I would be very busy this semester with school work and my volunteer activities, which means time will fly past without me realising it. From the often-used staircase at the back of the classroom building where most of my classes were held, to the staircase landing where I love to stand after class to look at the view of the school grounds (and also because it reminded me of a scene in Hana Yori Dango), to my usual classrooms.  I wanted to remember every part of this school well. 

It was exactly six months since I first came to Kyoto for this exchange programme. In four months, it will all come to an end.

What I am looking forward to

There are a dozen things I am looking forward to in the next few months.
For example, the autumn colours in Kyoto, the famous Kyoto festival known as the Jidai Matsuri, the light-up at Arashiyama, the JLPT exam, the overnight disaster drill, trips with friends from Singapore, the resuming dance classes, the winter school vacation, the possibility of attending a concert of my favourite Jpop group in nearby Osaka, etc.  
But what I am most looking forward to is the sunflowers blooming outside the mansion. The sunflower seeds which I gave to my landlady after returning from the sunflower fields  in August seem to be doing well under my landlady's care. If all goes well, they are expected to bloom in autumn.
Can sunflowers thrive in the cold? I do get abit worried for the young plants when I see them outside in the cold of the morning. I am keeping my fingers crossed.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

A symbol of autumn

This morning, I was on the way home from doing the groceries and I saw a few ojiisans and obaasans looking at this huge tree. I have often cycled on the bridge next to this tree but have never paid much attention to it. 

As I have come to realise that I share many interests with Japanese ojiisans and obaasans, a tree that is an object of interest for them must indeed be an interesting tree for me too.  So I stopped in my tracks and looked hard at the tree.

I couldn't stop very long as there were vehicles coming from behind me so I quickly took a photograph of it with my mobile phone.  
I will make sure I get back with my camera next time to get some better photographs of the ripen chestnuts.
Yes, autumn is here.

The Tango Region of Kyoto II : The tale of the Bridge to Heaven

To many of us, the mention of Kyoto most often conjures up images of ancient Buddhist temples, shrines and age-old Japanese traditions. But Kyoto, as a prefecture, offers alot more than history and culture. It is also a prefecture resplendent in natural scenic beauty.
I know people are going to say, which part of Japan does not boast scenic views? Well, the northern part of the Kyoto prefecture known as the Tango region is home to one of Japan's three most scenic views. A reputation not just any place in Japan is worthy to claim.
One summer day in early August, I decided to head for Amanohashidate where the famous spot of scenic beauty is.  Amanohashidate is not accessible directly on the JR train network. Instead, you need to transfer from the JR Nishimaizuru station to the private KTR or Kitakinki Tango Railway. As I had bought the KTR one day train pass (1200 Yen) to get to the Yosano sunflower fields in the Tango region, I used the same pass - which allowed for unlimited use on the KTR within the same day - to get to Amanohashidate.  
According to an ancient myth, the scenic spot in Amanohashidate - which is actually a sandbar covered with around 8000 pine trees - was once a bridge built by one of the Gods to connect Heaven and Earth. Due to the carelessness of the God, the bridge collapsed one day and fell to Earth, becoming the sandbar seen today.
The famous sandbar is said to be best viewed from the hills on either ends of it. From pictures I had seen of the spot, I thought the view was better from the south and so headed for the observatory on the southern hills. The only way up the hills was by cable car or chairlift. I bought a two-way ticket for 800 Yen which could be used for either the cable car or chairlift. The original price was 850 Yen but I got a discount coupon from the Amanohashidate Tourist Information Centre. It might be a good idea to head for Tourist Information Centres when sightseeing as you never know what kind of discounts you could get.
At the observatory, it was a common sight to see visitors bent over appreciating the scenic view of the sandbar from between their legs. Through that position, it was said that one could see the sandbar extended into the heavens. Of course I had to try that too! But I was so concerned about losing my balance and toppling down the hill that I could only stay in that position for a matter of seconds. I did manage to capture a photograph of the view when I was bent over though. A friend in Kyoto told me that it was just a stretch of land with sand. I guess it really depends on individual perspectives. I thought the view was fantastic.
There were various other ways to appreciate the views from the southern hills. There was a small amusement park with a ferris wheel and a cycling track in mid-air, as well as observation decks at greater heights where visitors could go to enjoy the views.  I didn't stay too long on the hill (probably 45 minutes or so), as I wanted to walk on the sandbar.
I went up the hills by cable car and came down by the chairlift so that I could take in the breathtaking sight of the sandbar both ways.  The chairlift made me a little nervous at first. As it had no seatbelt, I was worried that I might be flung into the woods below me.
But as usual, I worried too much. I survived the short 5-minute journey down and was able to experience the walk on the bridge that once led to the heavens.

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Tango Region of Kyoto I : In the trail of summer flowers

One summer day in early August, I left my mansion at 4am in the morning and cycled to the JR Enmachi station near my place so that I could catch the early local train to the Tango region.  I had read from the prefecture newsletter about the sunflower fields in Yosano, a town in the Tango region. If sakura is the flower of spring, then the himawari, as sunflowers are known in Japanese, is the flower to see at the height of summer. Yosano was to be my first destination that day.
Using the economical Seishun 18 ticket which allowed me travel only on the slower local or rapid trains on the JR network, I took a train to the JR Nishimaizuru station, which involved going through two train transfers at JR Sonobe and Ayabe stations respectively. From Nishimaizuru, I then had to transfer to the privately-run KTR or Kitakinki Tango Railway to get to Nodagawa which is the nearest station to Yosano. The JR Seishun 18 ticket could not be used on a private railway train so I bought a one-day train ticket from the KTR station master at 1200 Yen. 
The train journey including transfers took me about 3.5 hours for one way. Upon arrival at Nodagawa, I got some directions from the station master on how to get to Yosano, since I couldn't find details online. The kind man told me it was possible to walk there in 30 minutes. I was glad I didn't have to incur additional transport costs.
My leisurely walk probably took me an hour as there were many pretty sights along the way. From the wild flowers along the path to a massive pond of water lotus in bloom to the expanse of rice fields and more, the long walk under the hot summer sky was definitely worth it. It was so peaceful a place that all you could hear were the songs of the insects in your path.

At the Yosano sunflower fields, I was surprised that there were not many people. I had expected there to be many visitors as it was the second last day the fields were opened to the public. The access to the fields probably deterred tourists and those without private transport. How many people would have the time I had to spend 4 or 5 hours traveling just to look at some flowers?  But then again, it was not just some flowers. The fields were quite a sight to behold and definitely worth losing sleep and traveling for! I didn't know the flowers could grow so tall! 

One observation though was that many flowers were drooping, which meant they were close to withering.  The fields were opened to the public for a limited period from 4 to 12 Aug (admission fee of 200 Yen). It would have been better to go in the beginning of the period in order to see all the flowers in their best form. A surprise from the visit though was that visitors were each given a small packet of sunflower seeds as a souvenir so we could grow our own flowers.

After spending a morning at Yosano, it was a long walk back to the station and the sweltering heat didn't make it easier. But with the beautiful images of the sunflowers at the back of my mind, my spirits were high and I walked with purpose towards my next destination.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Counting my blessings

This post is for my friends.
The people from back home who have kept me in their mind, and sent me their love all the way here in the mail. 

Food mix from home. Enough to last me till the end of the tough winter.
The people who listened and responded to my homesickness, and made me miss home all the more with their kindness. 

The sweet  (and spicy!) taste of home. Made with love delivered in the mail.
The many others who have sent me their blessings and concern through other ways.

The friends who remember my birthday when I don't even remember it.
And then, there are the people close by who opened their arms to me, and shared what they have.

Bonding through food at my neighbour's place.

The lunch treat prepared by a school friend when I visited her at her place.  

The people with whom I am happy to share my most priced possession.

Hainanese Chicken Rice prepared for recent lunch gathering with school friends.
 Counting my blessings every day. Thank you.

Poster series: "Please move only after the bus has stopped"

After taking the city bus a number of times, I noticed that generally, passengers would only walk to the front* of the bus to pay and alight after the bus had completely stopped.  In fact, some passengers even took their time to walk to the front.  And the whole busload of passengers would be waiting patiently for them to alight.
At first, I couldn't understand this. Japan is afterall well-known for its civic-minded and considerate culture. Why wouldn't the passengers get ready to alight earlier by moving to the front as the bus is nearing their destination stop? In that case, they wouldn't hold up the rest of the passengers.
Then one day, I saw a poster on the bus which I had initially mistaken as one about giving  up your seats to those who need them. Upon closer reading, I learnt the reason why passengers would always take their time to alight from the bus.
The bold words in pink background in the centre of the poster read "It is dangerous. Stand up from your seat after the bus has stopped". And the smaller words in yellow background state that accidents and injuries on the bus are on the rise. So there is actually a more important consideration behind the passenger behaviour.
So if you are boarding a Kyoto city bus for the first time, don't be in a hurry to alight because safety comes first.
* The standard procedure for getting on and off a Kyoto city bus is quite different from that of a Singapore SBS bus. You board from the back of the Kyoto city bus and alight in the front. Before you alight, you pay your fare. The official Kyoto City Web provides a detailed set of instructions on how to board a Kyoto city bus complete with illustrations.

The unsettling class placement result

 The class placement result for the second semester of my intensive Japanese programme was released this afternoon.  I was informed that I have qualified for the Advanced class, based on my results from a 2-hour placement exam on Monday. I should be happy but I have mixed feelings.
The placement exam was only a written exam. I know that my listening and speaking skills are still not up to the mark, which is pretty obvious from the day to day interaction I engage in. For example, when you make payment at the cashier in a supermarket in Japan, you will usually find yourself being asked a few questions by the cashier. Do you have a member's card? Do you need a bag? These are some of the common questions. If you buy a bento or a cake, you will get questions like Do you need chopsticks? Do you need a spoon? Most of the time, I couldn't catch what the cashier was saying and used my common sense to guess what he or she had just said. And with the conversations with my landlord, it was the same. I guess alot, from the context, from body language, from facial expressions etc.
My classmate commented that we could only improve if we keep challenging ourselves. Of course I know that. But with language learning, being placed in the wrong class can affect learning progress. I recall how I was always struggling to listen to what the teacher and my classmates were saying in my class last semester and how I could not respond during discussions because I didn't follow the flow at all.  And once, I was called suddenly to summarise my thoughts about a discussion in front of the class while I was still busy trying to grasp the points of discussion.  It totally spoilt the whole learning process because I just couldn't follow.
There is no way I will accept being placed in the Advanced class for listening and speaking, as it probably means I will be lost most of the time, again! So I decided to veto the result and requested for a change to a lower-level class. Your teacher should know your proficiency level better than you, said the programme coordinator when I approached him.  It was a no-go and I was told to try my luck again with my teacher after a few lessons.
It looks like the next semester is going to be a tough one...

Thursday, 20 September 2012

The food on the table

After the first month in Kyoto, a miscalculated budget forced me to cut back on my meal expenses and I found myself having to give up the luxury of school meals and supermarket bentos for cheaper home-cooked meals.  
This turning point in my life opened my eyes to a perspective of food which I have often overlooked and taught me to truly appreciate the circumstances I am in.  If I had not started cooking for myself, I would not have fully experienced the goodness of living in a city where I can get the ingredients for my meals fresh from the farms every day.  
One of the joys of cooking in Kyoto is being able to get fresh ingredients for my meals.
In particular, Kyoto's traditional vegetables, or Kyo Yasai (京野菜) as they are known in Japanese, have a reputation for their rich colours and taste.  Just as the masters of traditional arts strived to perfect their craft, the  farmers of the old capital too worked hard to ensure the highest quality in their vegetables. Whether it was to delight the palate of the nobility or a response to the spread of Buddhism and vegetarian dishes in those days, the tradition of cultivating Kyo Yasai  seemed to be as important a tradition to the farmers of the old capital as any other Kyoto tradition then.  Today, even as Kyoto modernises along with the world, the tradition continues and Kyoto's vegetables and vegetarian cuisines are considered a must-try for visitors.  Those with a discerning palate often found the vegetables refreshingly sweet.
Vegetables from different parts of Japan are available in supermarkets in Kyoto but some supermarkets 
have a special section to promote Kyo Yasai of the season.
While Kyo Yasai could be slightly more expensive than vegetables from other parts of Japan, there are occasions when the supermarkets give discounts for seasonal vegetables. There is a variety of Kyo Yasai in season at different times of the year. In summer, eggplants cultivated in Kyoto are widely sold in the supermarkets.  I have never had a craving for eggplants in my entire life but since I saw them in every supermarket I went to, I decided to try some. They were really sweet and delicious! I have to admit that I have become somewhat of a fan of this vegetable.

In summer, eggplants from Kyoto can be bought at about 100 Yen for three.

Apart from Kyo Yasai, Kyoto also has its own rice fields in  some parts of the prefecture. When I took the local trains out from the city for my summer excursions, I passed many of these rice farms. The view of rolling green fields from the train windows was a picturesque sight. I couldn't possibly miss an opportunity to stroll through the fields. And that I did one summer day.  When I eat my rice today, the image of that lone, elderly farmer toiling under the hot sun tending to his fields always comes to mind.

Main picture shows rice fields in Yosano, a town in the Tango region, north of Kyoto prefecture. Top right picture shows a pack of  rice produced in the central Tamba region of Kyoto prefecture, which I recently bought. 
Before coming to Kyoto, I hardly stepped into the kitchen to prepare my own meals. I ate whatever was conveniently available and finished my meals without as much as a thought as to the origin of the food on the table.  But now, when I eat my meals, I taste the sweetness of the vegetables and the texture of the rice. And I feel grateful to the people who work closely with Nature to provide the food on my table.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Statistics series: Japan's Grand Generation

The third Monday of September is Respect for Elderly Day, a national holiday in Japan.  So today is the day to show our respect to the aged and to celebrate their contributions. 
The Nikkei Shimbun carried on its front page some figures relating to the number of elderly in Japan released by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. According to the figures, there are 30.74 million Japanese citizens who are aged 65 and above, making up 24.1% of the total population. This is an increase from the previous year, making the number of elderly the highest to date.  The number of elderly who live alone has also increased, making up 16.4% of the above 65 age group. On the other hand, the number of those aged 64 and below has decreased by 1.28 million. So there it is, an indication of the gravity of the aging issue in Japan.
I was hoping to read a little more about the Japanese government's response to the rising numbers but did not see it anywhere else in the article nor the rest of the newspaper.  Just for comparison on where Singapore stands against the numbers from Japan, about 6.8 per cent of Singapore's total population are aged 65 years old and above, based on the population statistics as of end June 2011. In absolute numbers, that is about 352 000.  I just cannot imagine that there may one day be millions of elderly people in Singapore too.
Vegetables sold at a special discount at Nakamura, a supermarket,
in conjunction with Respect for Elderly Day.
While Respect for Elderly Day did not seem to be given a more reflective treatment at the national level in Japan (the Senkaku issue probably overshadowed everything else), it was definitely given more thought at the local level. I gathered that on this day celebrations were commonly held for the elderly at the community level. The supermarkets also held special sale as part of the holiday and one I went to even put out a special edition of the daifuku or rice cake.

Respect for the Elderly rice cakes on sale at Fresco, another supermarket near my place.

An acquaintance at the place where I volunteer told me that the Japanese elderly didn't like any references to be made to their age. Hence, in recent years, there have been efforts to come up with a more politically correct term such as the "Grand Generation". It appeared that the phrase was often abbreviated to "GG" which sounds like the Japanese slang for "old man" which isn't very nice either.  I guess there is room for further creative thinking to come up with a cool-sounding term to refer to the aged.

On a daily basis, I find myself in the midst of the Grand Generation so even without the numbers, the aging population is evident in the Kyoto streets. It is nice to see them playing sports in the nearby park, volunteering as guides at tourist attractions, or speeding past me on their bicycles uphill with a load of groceries. This is what active aging is about.  But there were times when I was reminded of the seriousness of the aging issue. And on those times, I couldn't help but shudder at the frightening thought of a country with only a minority of young people bearing the burden of an aging society. 

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Poster series: Recruitment ads for police officers and fire fighters

I came across two recruitment posters for police officers and fire fighters recently and couldn't help but be attracted by the designs.  
The recruitment poster for police officers has a tagline that says, "Youths with great aspirations, come on!" The calligraphic paintings of a female officer on horseback and a male officer on a motorbike look as if they may spring out of the posters into real action right before your eyes.
"さすが京都だ!" I thought to myself when I saw it.  Just as one would expect from a city steeped in traditional arts and culture. The use of calligraphy just turned a common poster into a piece of art.
An A2-sized poster found on a notice board near a sunflower farm in the town of Yosano, Kyoto.
The recruitment poster for fire fighters, on the other hand, cleverly plays on the words of a proverb.  "I want to borrow even if it's a cat's paw" (猫の手も借りたい) is a Japanese proverb which is used to describe a busy state a person is in.  The explanation for the proverb is that when you are so busy, you probably wish that even the animals around you can help you. Instead of using the original proverb, the poster uses the words, "A cat's paws can't be borrowed" (猫の手は借りられない), to emphasise the gravity of the fire fighters' mission.
You may ask, why a cat of all animals? The guess (according to this website) is that perhaps the image of a cat chasing after rats gives Japanese the impression that cats are good helpers. 

An A2-sized poster found alongside other random posters pasted on the walls of a subway station.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

The noise outside the door

I woke up in the darkness, frozen in fear. Someone was just outside the door and was obviously meddling with it. There was no mistake. With a door made of metal, even the smallest object hitting against it would send a reverberation loud enough to be heard in my tiny apartment.
I turned to face the door while still on my bed, not daring to move, and listened keenly.  I had been studying for my upcoming placement exam late into the night and had barely fallen asleep when I heard the noises coming from the door. Could it be someone who was drunk and got to the wrong door? 
I looked at the clock, and then relaxed. It was 5.20am. I was expecting him afterall! I jumped out of my bed and rushed to the door. 

A picture of my mail box that is affixed to the door.
I don't receive all my mails in this box. Only important stuff was dropped off here.
 Sometimes, the postman just left the mail in the letter box at the entrance
 to my mansion, if the mail is not deemed important.

I peered into the box affixed to my door meant for the postman to drop off important mail such as my bills. There it was, what I had been waiting excitedly for in the past week - my first Japanese newspaper! Yes, the person who woke me up from my sleep was none other than the Nikkei Shimbun newspaperman! He must have been trying very hard to fit the newspaper into the narrow slot on the exterior of the door!
Nikkei Shimbun, 15 Sep 2012 morning edition received at around 5.20am.

Nikkei Shimbun, 15 Sep 2012 evening edition, which I found in my mail box
when I returned from volunteer work in the evening.
Not too long ago, my neighbour told me about a mailer she had received in her letterbox regarding a newspaper company providing a one-week free trial reading of their papers. As I often threw flyers in my letterbox straight into the garbage bin, I missed out on that application for the free newspapers. Following that lesson, I had since made it a point to go through the stack of mailers in my letter box more carefully.
Last week, I saw in the mail Nikkei's mailer offering a one-week free trial reading of its newspaper. I sent out my application on Monday, received an acknowledgement from their Osaka office on Friday and got my first newspaper on Saturday.  With the summer vacation now gone and my Japanese deteriorating into a most lamentable state, the newspapers should come in helpful as I work hard to bring myself up to speed again with the language.
And if my sensei should ask me if I had followed her advice and started reading more Japanese texts in the summer vacation, I could at least let her know that I am attempting to read newspapers now.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Autumn is near!

Autumn wear is decked out in the departmental stores, signaling that summer is coming to a close.  I have survived the humid summer.
How will I fare in autumn? I can't wait to find out!

My landlady's pride

One reason I am in Kyoto and taking this long break from work is to take time off to smell the flowers, as the saying goes.

Coincidentally, my landlady is a person with green fingers and I am in no want of pretty flowers even at my Kyoto home. The patio of the mansion where we live is where my landlady proudly displays her plants.

Around mid-August, I saw a plant prominently placed at the patio which I had never seen before. It caught my attention because of the small, yellow star-shaped flowers flanked by two white petals.

The flowers were in bloom for only a couple of days and I was glad I took a photograph of them.  I wonder what they are called.
A day after I saw the wilted yellow flowers, another new flowering plant was in their place. And I began to realise why I didn't see these plants before. 

My landlady probably kept some of the plants in her house and brought them out only when the flowers started to bloom so that others might admire them too.

"Come look at this flower! It only blooms for one day," she said enthusiastically when she saw me at the patio, and pointed to the huge, crimson flower which looked like a variety of the hibiscus.

"Okusan, you really like flowers, don't you?" I commented. "Yes, I love them!" She said happily and then started to bring me through the various plants at the patio, for the third time in the five months I have lived here.

How nice it will be if I could always be here to listen to Okusan talk about her plants.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The dilemma over the "right of way"

I have come to discover that a conformist culture does not necessarily mean a law-abiding citizenry. 
The Kyoto City Government announced its intensified efforts to remove illegally-parked bicycles in May but the announcement didn't seem to have much effect. People continue to blatantly flout the rules by parking exactly where the "No Parking" signs are clearly visible.
The City Government said in its information release that the illegally-parked bicycles on the streets "disturbed the pedestrians and traffic of emergency vehicles even if left for just a short time".
I can understand the rationale for the bicycle removal but I am not sure if I support it, especially when parking space for bicycles is so scarce.  And even if paid parking lots are available, I don't think I am prepared to pay a few dollars just to park a bicycle.
So when I do park on the streets, I try to ensure that I don't obstruct the traffic in anyway and then pray for good luck that when I return, my bicycle will still be waiting for me.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Getting a taste from home at Jupiter

Jupiter is an import food shop located in the underground Porta Mall at Kyoto Station, near the fast food restaurant, Lotteria.  I learnt about it from a classmate who has now returned to his university in Australia. He knew that I was desperately looking for durians some months ago when the fruit was in season in Malaysia around June and July.    A Singapore favourite, the "King of Fruit" is imported in large quantities from Malaysia to Singapore every year during that period.
As I had a craving for the fruit then, I made it my special assignment to hunt for it in Kyoto.  I wasn't successful of course. Durians are a rarity in Kyoto. My Indonesian neighbour pointed me to AEON Mall near Kyoto Station but I didn't see any by the time I went there. So when my classmate told me that Jupiter was selling durian chips, I thought, well, I could settle for the chips instead.

Durian chips from Thailand (second row) spotted at Jupiter.
I paid 197 Yen for the bigger pack and 147 Yen for the smaller pack and happily brought them to class to share with my classmates, some of whom had never heard of or seen a durian before. It turned out that the chips were made of durians from Thailand and were specially treated to remove the strong aroma of the fruit to suit the Japanese tastebud. The feedback from my classmates was that they tasted not much different from potato chips.  Disappointing! The chips did not live up to the reputation of the "King of Fruit" at all!  I felt like I had misrepresented the "King" by sharing the chips.

Well, although my craving for durians was not satisfied with the durian chips, Jupiter sells a variety of other foodstuff from different parts of the world. So for an international student like me craving for a taste from home, it is still a good place to look if one does not mind paying abit more. 
That is not to say that Jupiter is the only solution though. The other day, I found the cocoa mix that I was craving for in a local Japanese supermarket and apparently, there is a local factory producing the product here.  So we just need to be alert and keep a lookout!

Statistics series: Singaporeans, wherefore art thou?

I was at the Kyoto International Community House to check out the cultural programmes available and found some statistics on the notice boards in the lobby.

Source: Kyoto International Community House.
There were 6032 international students studying in Kyoto based on the statistics (as of May 2011). The ranking of the countries in terms of the number of students was as follows:
1. China
2. South Korea
3. Taiwan
4. America
5. Vietnam
As for the number of registered foreigners in Kyoto City (as of Dec 2011), the top 10 countries were:
1. Korea
2. China
3. America
4. Philippines
5. France
6. UK
7. Thailand
8. Indonesia
9. India
10. Vietnam
If you look at the number of native English speakers in the above list, the competition is probably against 1000 over people for English teaching positions in this city. Assuming half of them already got the job so there could still be about 500 in the competition perhaps, and I am not sure if there are so many positions available. 
In any case, I digress. The number of Singaporeans registered in Kyoto City was 35. It has been five months since I came to Kyoto and I have not come across one. I wonder where they are...

Monday, 10 September 2012

A gift from the heart

My Chinese neighbour, J-san, knocked on my door one evening and presented three matcha cookies she had baked.
I looked at the star-shaped cookies which were carefully arranged on a pretty little ceramic plate and felt like hugging her but I didn't. J-san was very apologetic that she only had three cookies for me. Being the honest girl that she is, she explained that she had actually made a batch of them but most had ended up in her stomach.
The number really didn't matter. I saw only a gift which came from her heart. And I felt very blessed that evening.

Participating in a disaster drill

In mid-August, I received an invitation from the Kyoto City International Foundation (KCIF) to participate in the "Kyoto City Comprehensive Disaster Drill" held on 1 Sep.
Although Kyoto is pretty safe from earthquakes and other natural disasters, it is always good to be prepared and gain more knowledge in the area of disaster preparedness. So without hesitation, I replied to confirm my participation.

Left: Fire Department officers handing out emergency handbooks and programme to participants.
Right: Volunteers at the registration desk assisting participants with registration.
The drill was held on 1 Sep for a reason.  It was on 1 Sep 1923 when Japan suffered the Great Kanto Earthquake.  It was then the most powerful earthquake in Japanese history until the Tohoku Earthquake in 2011 broke that record. In conjunction with the anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake and to remind citizens of the importance of disaster preparedness, nationwide disaster drills are conducted in Japan on 1 Sep every year. 

The location for the disaster drill was a huge open space in a park. Upon arrival, participants were given an emergency handbook and the programme of the event (both only in Japanese) by the Fire Department staff. We were then led to a registration desk where we registered our attendance and received our transport reimbursement. I thought it was very considerate of the organisers to reimburse participants for the transport. 
Participants watching disaster simulation drills.

After registration, we were invited to sit under the tentage to watch the various types of simulation drill involving the emergency responders and the local community emergency response teams.  We were also free to tour the public education booths set up in the area.

As I was hoping to be involved in an actual drill so as to learn more about how to respond in a real emergency, I asked one of the staff if there was any activity international residents could participate in.  "Yes, we do need participants for the bucket relay," said the staff.

Bucket relay

Together with a new friend from Indonesia, we volunteered to join in the bucket relay.  The bucket relay is a method to transport water in buckets from a water source to the location of a fire incident.  During the relay, all the participants stood in two rows facing one another. A few participants would fill the buckets at one end and the half-filled buckets were first passed along by participants in one of the rows, all the way to the "incident area". The empty buckets were then passed along by participants in the other row, back to the water point.  The bucket relay drill seemed to be part and parcel of a disaster drill in Japan. A chapter in the emergency handbook was dedicated to explaining the standard operating procedures (SOPs) for bucket relay.

A student volunteer from the Fire Department.
After the relay, we were brought on a tour of the exhibition booths by volunteer guides. Our guide was an ojiisan who spoke in fluent English.   There were also many student volunteers recruited by the Fire Department who were ready to answer our queries.  I learnt from them that the Fire Department conducted student volunteer recruitment once a year and the volunteers had to undergo a couple of basic training programmes. There was no specific criteria; you just had to have the desire to volunteer.
Mobile toilets set up by the residents.
As we toured the booths, I saw, along the way, resident groups working together to set up mobile toilets for use during a disaster. Some groups were moving huge boxes of items simulating logistical transportation during an emergency.  I gathered from our guide that a drill of such  a massive scale involving various local organisations and community groups happened only once a year.  I supposed the locals would be busy exercising their SOPs and  that was why it would be difficult to involve international residents who were there for the first time.

A booth displaying the type of food and protection items to prepare and keep
at home in case of an emergency.
From the exhibition booths, I learnt that the Kyoto City Disaster Prevention Centre provides alot more disaster prevention information and training programmes.  I was also informed about an overnight Evacuation Shelter Training Programme in the pipeline. I have signed up for that and am looking forward to receive some practical training on what to do in the event of an earthquake.  You never know when such knowledge would come in handy one day, where ever you may be.