Thursday, 25 October 2012

Cosmos in Kameoka: In the trail of autumn flowers

Kameoka city is about 30 minutes away from Kyoto city by the Japan Railway rapid train.  It is located in the Tamba region of Kyoto prefecture, a region hailed as the "roof" of the prefecture due to its mountain ranges. A quiet city with a flourishing agricultural industry, Kameoka is worlds apart from Kyoto city. The train ride brings you through valleys and rivers and it is a good place to go for nature lovers.
Some months ago, I read about the Tamba-Kameoka Yume Cosmos Park in the city where 8 million cosmos would bloom in autumn.  The pictures I saw of the flowers were beautiful and I found myself looking forward to that day in autumn in which I would stroll through the fields of cosmos.  And on 20 Oct, in spite of the loads of homework from school, I  found time to make the trip to the city.

Upon arrival at the JR Kameoka station, I took the Keihan Kyoto Kotsuu Bus no. 40 (from Bus-stand number 3) at the bus terminal in front of the train station.  Unlike the Kyoto city bus in which there is a flat rate of 220 Yen as long as you are travelling within the city, the Keihan Kyoto Kotsuu Bus fare is calculated according to the distance travelled. 
When you board the bus, you need to collect the ticket from the ticket machine near the door of the bus.  There is a number printed on the ticket. To know how much to pay when you alight, you need to pay attention to the fare display in front of the bus (see picture in the extreme left of the photo collage below).  If you look under the number display that corresponds to your ticket number, you will see the fare indicated in red numbers.  As my ticket number states "1", I looked under the display under "1". I paid 250 Yen for the trip from the JR Kameoka station to the Kameoka Undo Koen where I alighted.

The Kameoka Undo Koen bus-stop where I alighted is just across the road from the cosmos park.  Once I alighted, I could see the fields of flowers before me.  There were people photographing the flowers from outside the park.  Entry to the park required an admission fee of 600 Yen.  There was a discount coupon for weekday use only which could be downloaded from the website and you could save 100 Yen with it.

Since I came all the way and spent about an hour travelling just to get to the park, I was determined to enter the park. Although it was a Saturday, there were not as many people as I had thought. It could also be because I went around lunch-time.  It had been raining quite often that week and I was glad that the day was blessed with great weather. The sun was at its strongest but it also meant that I could get pretty good photographs.

The flowers started to bloom around the end of September and the flower viewing event was originally scheduled to end in end October. However, it has been extended to 4 November.  When I went there, I could see that there were still many flowering buds so I guessed there were still many "late-bloomers".  When I left the park and Kameoka, I had the feeling that there is more to discover in this city.  I will definitely find time to visit Kameoka again.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

A night at the "evacuation shelter"

"An earthquake has just hit Kyoto. Houses have been destroyed and the public transport network has been disrupted. You have been evacuated to the Kyoto International Community House which is one of the evacuation shelters in Kyoto..."
That was the scenario of the Overnight Evacuation Shelter Training Programme conducted by the Kyoto City International Foundation (KCIF) from 13 to 14 Oct 2012. My neighbour and I had signed up for this programme so as to better understand how to respond in the event of an earthquake.  On 13 Oct 2012 at 4pm, we gathered at the Kyoto International Community House with the essential items that we would need for our stay at the "evacuation shelter". 
The "evacuees" gathered at the Kyoto International Community House.
The programme started with the division of participants into three groups according to the language spoken. The Japanese participants formed a group, the Chinese participants formed another group, while the English-speaking participants formed the third group.  The programme was conducted in Japanese but the Chinese group and the English-speaking group each had an attached interpreter who would interpret for us the information conveyed by the programme organisers and trainers.

Participants of the training program were given some hands-on practice.
After the group division, the training which was conducted by the Fire Department began.  There were three components of the training, namely how to protect yourself during an earthquake, how to perform a heart massage  and use an Automated External Defibrillator (AED), and how to use a fire extinguisher.  The first aid-related training and the fire extinguisher training were useful and similar to what I had learnt before in Singapore.
The earthquake simulation truck was of particular interest to me as it allowed participants to experience the various magnitudes of an earthquake.  I went on the truck with 3 other participants, one of whom was one elderly ojiisan, and we got to experience magnitudes 1 to 5. After that, the Fire Department officers requested the elderly ojiisan to alight from the truck while the rest of us stayed on the truck to experience magnitude 7. It was pretty horrifying and we had to quickly dive under the table and held on to the legs of the table so that we would not be flung off the truck. At the end of the "quake", I felt like my bones were given a hell of a shake and I really hope I won't ever have to go through a real earthquake of that magnitude in my life.

Queuing up for dinner.
After the training, we gathered for dinner at around 6.30pm.  The dinner was provided by KCIF and everyone queued in an orderly manner for the food. We were each given a pack of alpha rice (i.e. cooked instant rice), an onigiri and a bottle of tea. 
I asked one of the facilitators if we would indeed be eating the same food in a real emergency and was told that it was not so.  In fact, evacuees shouldn't expect food and help to be available for at least three days because the government would need time to respond and send aid.  He also shared with me that in an evacuation shelter, even if food was provided, there probably would not be enough to go around. Instead of one onigiri for each person, we could expect five persons to share one onigiri. The learning point therefore was to prepare for yourself at least three days worth of food and water as well as any other basic necessities needed in the event of a major emergency such as an earthquake.

Left: Close up of the alpha rice which I ate.
Right: Bottled water handed out by KCIF. The water could be stored for five years.
Good to buy some alpha rice and bottled water to store at home in case of an emergency.

After the dinner, we were divided into small groups to play a game called "Crossroads".  It was a very interesting game which gave me food for thought. We were first given scenarios to which we had to answer "Yes" or "No". We then had to explain our answers to the group.  There was no right or wrong answer but just a game to understand the reasons behind the many decisions that would have to be made in a major disaster.  Below were some of the scenarios which we went through. What would your answers be?
  • The government has issued an advisory at 1am to evacuate from your house due to the dangers of a flood. There is a storm outside. You are living with your family which comprises your spouse, your aged mother and two very young children. Will you evacuate immediately?
  • You have to evacuate immediately to an evacuation shelter. You have a pet dog with you. Will you bring the dog along?

Playing the game called "Crossroads". 
After the game, it was time for bed at 10pm. Each participant was given a sleeping bag as a present which could be used that night but I brought my own though. It was not possible to sleep well in those circumstances and I found myself staring at the ceiling till 6am. While the whole experience was simulated, I now understand how terrible it must have been for those living in an evacuation shelter for extended periods of time after the Tohoku disaster.
Debriefing exercise where some of our concerns and queries were raised and addressed.
 On 14 Oct, we had to wake up at 6am and joined everyone for the morning exercise which the Japanese called "Rajio taisou" (radio exercise in English).  There were simple exercise instructions issued from a radio and everyone just followed accordingly. After that, we had breakfast (two onigiri each and tea). 
The activity after breakfast was a debriefing exercise in which we got into our groups and shared our concerns and queries from the training programme.  Each group then had to present the points discussed to everyone.  After that, an government official who was present addressed all the points.  It was a very informative session. I really appreciated the efforts put in by the KCIF to ensure that we leave the programme with as much learning points as possible.
I raised many questions during the debriefing session and my facilitator had an interesting answer for me. He said that in a disaster, many people would be asking many questions and seeking help and support. There would be very few people who would be able to provide the answers and solutions. Hence, instead of only asking the questions, we should try to see how we could provide the support needed.  It was a simple comment but it made me realise how important it would be to offer a helping hand in times of emergency.
I learnt that Kyoto prepares itself for two disaster scenarios namely, that of an earthquake and that of a flood. The evacuation shelters for an earthquake and a flood are different and there is a map of these shelters available at the ward office. In times of a disaster, we should head to the community assembly area first where we would be advised accordingly on the next steps. Basically, you only go to an evacuation shelter if your residence is destroyed. We will be able to obtain information about the community assembly area for disasters from the ward office too.  The organisers also emphasised many times the importance of getting to know your neighbours if you are an international resident new to Japan. In times of emergencies, you may need your neighbours' help.
KCIF organises many informative sessions such as this for international residents so it is good to check its website for such activities and training programmes -

Friday, 19 October 2012

"Radio Silence"

The first time I learnt about this term was during my days managing an international event when I didn't respond to some work-related emails and my colleague used the term on me jokingly. I am not sure if there is a term more suitable for the context of the internet but in any case, I like this term and shall use it here.

As my next-door neighbour has moved out, I am left with no internet access unless I stay in the library for extended periods of time, like today. It's 8.30pm by the way and my dinner is waiting for me at home.  I still have a list of topics I wanted to write on and it looks like I won't be able to finish them soon. And it is likely that there will be no update for a while on this blog because of the school workload (like that 2000-word mini thesis). That is the "radio silence" I am referring to ^^

Nevertheless, I shall endeavour to break the silence once every two weeks, at least.

Murphy's Law and the dinner event

The day before my next-door neighbour moved out, I prepared a humble dinner for her.  In spite of the ready-made sauces (thanks to my friends in Singapore who sent them), it took me two full hours to get the food ready. And as with all events, we know that things do not always go the way we plan. It's been a while since I experienced Murphy's Law.

Despite my planning in advance and getting all the ingredients the night before, I forgot to thaw the meat before I left for my class that morning. I realised it only after I got home in the late afternoon and immediately went off to the supermarket again to get fresh meat. The trip to the supermarkets left me a little disoriented and it took me a while to gather my wits back to work on the next issue - how to optimise the two pots and few bowls that I had with me in my pitiful kitchen.

The whole meal preparation process turned out to be a mad rush to get the starter (Prawn noodles) and main course (Singapore curry) ready.  I was fortunate that another neighbour whom I had also invited helped to cook the rice. And as the time drew near for the Guest-of-Honour to arrive, I still had dessert left to do.
I was planning to make corn starch pudding with Azuki beans. The Azuki beans were already cooked the night before to save time. But there was still not enough time in the end.  But my other neighbour saved the day again when she brought dessert with her, along with the rice she had cooked, to my pleasant surprise - milk pudding and Japanese chestnut wagashi.

Although it was a drab evening that brought heavy rain and chilly winds, the mood at my place was a celebratory one. My next-door neighbour had found a job here.  I think the best feeling in life is when you know your hard work paid off.  We were really happy for her.
It was with a great sense of satisfaction that I received the words "Gochisousama deshita" * from my guests at the end of the meal.  As I wrapped up the event for the day, I couldn't help but feel a sense of melancholy that we would all be going our separate ways soon.
On a lighter note, I am excited that I will soon be able to eat the original prawn noodles and Singapore curry in a hawker centre. I can imagine me recounting my Kyoto experiences and talking about the amazing people I have met here, with the people waiting for me in Singapore ^^
An expression used to express appreciation for the food after eating. "Gochisou" literally means "a feast".

The surprise on a rainy morning

Sunflowers blooming in October! 
I have been rather worried about the plants because the weather has been terrible. We got only abit of sun and it has been drizzling for the past few days. But under my landlady's care, it looks like the flowers are blooming prettily.
My landlady said she kept some of the seeds I gave her for next year and she wanted to see if the plants will grow taller and the flowers bigger in summer as compared to autumn. Hmm, I won't be able to see the flowers next summer...

Saturday, 13 October 2012

The few seconds of tremors

About 20 minutes ago, I experienced my first earthquake. It lasted only a matter of seconds (maybe three seconds). After the tremors ended, I checked the NTV news website on my laptop which was running on battery.  The website showed that the earthquake was a weak one.
Coincidentally, I was scheduled to go for an overnight evacuation training programme later in the afternoon and I was just finished with packing my sleeping bag and clothes when the quake took place.
The programme this afternoon will cover what to do in the event of an earthquake. I wonder if the programme was deliberately timed to coincide with the earthquake or perhaps, vice versa?

Friday, 12 October 2012

Portrait of a Ninja

A few days ago, a classmate who often sat next to me in one of my classes made an interesting comment. "You are like a ninja! You disappear from the class when the lesson ends and then reappear again just before the next one starts!?"

While I was amused to be likened to a ninja just for my ability to move around quickly between class intervals, the comments also got me curious about ninjas. Coincidentally, one of my Japanese teachers, though not a ninja, lives in Shiga Prefecture where one of the two major clans of ninjas was based in the old days. So from my Japanese teacher, I learnt a little more about ninjas.

What did ninjas do?

Ninjas first appeared in the Kamakura period (1192 - 1333) and operated until the close of the Edo period (1603 - 1868). In general terms, they were employed by feudal lords to gather intelligence about enemies, spread rumours and carry out assassinations.

Two major clans near Kyoto

Two major clans of ninjas operated during those days, namely, the Iga clan and the Koga clan. The Iga clan was known for their exceptional military art and individual assignments while the Koga clan excelled in intelligence gathering and group operations. The historical ninja bases were not far from Kyoto. The Iga clan was based in Mie Prefecture south of Kyoto, while the Koga clan was based in Shiga Prefecture east of Kyoto. 

Popular myths

When we talk about ninjas, the usual images that come to mind are agile masked Japanese men who scaled walls, flew over roofs, threw darts and disappeared in a puff of smoke.   So how accurate are these popular depictions of ninjas? An interesting article in one of my Japanese textbooks debunked some of the popular myths about ninjas.

What were the darts for?

Many of us might have strong impressions of ninjas fighting off their enemies with darts. However, rather than saying that ninjas engaged in open combat in that way, it was probably more accurate to say that the rule of thumb for ninjas was to first find a way to escape.  Darts were used more as a distraction so as to give them more time to escape the situation rather than as weapons.

Ninja skills and psywar

Ninjas were not just good at martial arts. There were also two other types of skills important to ninja training. The first type was skills related to conversations while the second type was related to causing confusion to the enemies. These skills were very much like psychological warfare, and involved influencing the emotions and manipulating the minds of people to obtain information.  They could be considered as secret agents as well as terrorists.

Ninja fashion

And finally, just a little trivia about ninja fashion.  When they had to go about their assignments, ninjas usually wore a disguise, pretending to be travellers or merchants, and even as women. Quite different from the popular image of black clothes and masks that we often see in the media.

Ninjas in Kyoto?

While ninjas are typically associated with Shiga and Mie which boast a few ninja attractions such as the ninja training village in Shiga as well as the museum and the ninja-themed trains in Mie, there is a place in Kyoto that is pretty popular with ninja fans as well as tourists. It is the ninja restaurant in Shijo.

I am sorry if you thought this post is about my encounter with a ninja. I wish I could find the time to visit all these ninja-related places. With the amount of homework to deal with daily, even the skills of a ninja wouldn't be any helpful I think.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

A student's discipline

I find Japanese university students extremely disciplined when it comes to time management. In addition to school work, they also seem to spend alot of time on circle activities (basically clubs with a specific area of interest e.g. sports, dance, etc), as well as part-time jobs.  The Japanese students seem to have their time-table worked out really well. 
Clockwise from top: 1.Various circles putting up poster boards to recruit members.
2. A common sight at the beginning of a semester is that of students standing in groups promoting their circles/clubs
by yelling at the top of their voices to students passing by. They usually yell about upcoming activities of their circles or clubs.
3. Some circles or clubs show that action speak louder than words - dancers performing during lunch time.
I have also met some extremely proactive and diligent students at school who would look for organisations to volunteer their time and at the same time gain some insights and experience from helping out at these organisations. It is common to hear of students being volunteers or interns at some organisation outside school. They don't get paid but they are happy doing what they are doing. 
However, unlike the Japanese students with their colourful life,  my time is still mostly spent on school work since I do not have a part-time job. Although I volunteer at an organisation which I learnt about through the Kyoto City International Foundation's website for students, it is not too often.   
In fact, there is so much homework that after school, the only thing I do apart from the usual household chores and volunteer work, is my assignments. I would have loved to read some short stories, go out and find some inspiration for my blog posts or watch a movie online during my free time. But I find myself working on grammar exercises, writing essays, preparing presentation scripts or memorising vocabulary most of the time. So I guess this is what an intensive language programme is all about.
There is so much homework I don't know where to start most of the time.
While there were times I felt like I should not be spending so much time on school work and end up missing out on the interesting activities outside school, my rational mind always took over and reminded me that I am here to study the language afterall. So I had better be disciplined and work on those assignments. 

Speaking of which, I still have the "How to create an impression when you first introduce yourself" assignment for Speaking class, and the "How to introduce yourself and your boss in the most polite language" assignment for Business Japanese, which I have yet to do... And oh, there is also the reading comprehension questions related to the story of a woman prone to falling down staircases, and the cross-cultural communication assignments...

Hmm, exactly what did I do during the weekend?

Friday, 5 October 2012

JINS spectacles and a popular pair of eyes

I recently came to know that JINS, which specialises in spectacles, has a new TV commercial.  
I bought a cheap pair of spectacles from JINS a few months ago and mentioned that I wasn't sure if they sell Made in Japan spectacles. This new commercial begins with the huge colourful words, "Made in Japan", thus clarifying my doubt.
What also attracted my attention to the commercial was that it actually featured the eyes (!) of Sakurai Sho, a member of my favourite and very popular Jpop group, Arashi.
I wonder how much JINS air frames cost now that they are endorsed by Sakurai's eyes...

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Introducing the Kamo nasu

Not too long after I finished my lunch in the classroom, my teacher for the afternoon class stepped in to set up the classroom for the lesson. I greeted her and then went about keeping my lunch box. She walked around the class to count the number of chairs and tables and stopped where I was seated.
"Have you had your lunch? Oh, I see you have a lunch box! Did you prepare your own lunch?"
"Yes, I did. I had fried Kamo nasu too!"
"Kamo nasu!"
"Yes, I like nasu very much. I got it at Fresco."
"Wow! Kamo nasu is expensive!"
"It was 98 Yen only because there was a sale."
That's so cheap! Kamo nasu is usually pretty expensive, probably about 250 Yen."
"It is usually around 200 Yen at the supermarkets near my place."
"I think it is cheap because it is autumn."
"I think so too!"
As another teacher walked into the classroom to speak to my teacher, the conversation ended.
While I don't want my blog to become full of tributes to Kyoto vegetables, I really felt that the Kamo nasu deserves a spot in a blog about Kyoto. If you google it, you will find a list of tempting words associated with this famous eggplant of Kyoto.  Tight meat, highly prized, rich taste, creamier, delicate texture, beautifully round. The Representative of Kyo Yasai.
The official Kyoto City page has a page dedicated to the Kamo nasu while soysauce maker, Kikkoman, has a section extolling the cancer-fighting properties of Kamo nasu in its page detailing the "Virtues of Kyoto Vegetables".
I didn't think much about my cooking method when I fried the nasu. I recall frying it with minced meat and soy sauce but read later (a bit too late) that it is most tasty when cooked with miso. How regrettable. 
Here is a picture of the Kamo nasu I bought.  The taste of the vegetable is going to be something I shall miss very much when I leave Kyoto.