Showing posts with label kyoto city international foundation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label kyoto city international foundation. Show all posts

Monday, 3 December 2012

The Season of Arts, Culture and School Festivals

Before I came to Japan, my perspective of autumn, an unknown season in my home country, only brings to mind the activity of momiji-gari or maple leaves viewing. While momiji-gari is pretty much one of the main attractions of autumn across Japan (like sakura viewing in spring), this activity does not take place till the later part of the season.

In fact, many weeks before it was even time to get close to nature for momiji-gari, Kyoto was bustling with activities of a different significance. And I found myself being kept really busy because of them.


文化の秋. The Autumn of Culture. I first came to learn about this phrase from my Japanese sensei. One autumn day, he started the class asking us if we knew the words associated with the season. Culture turned out to be one of the words. Yes, autumn is synonymous with culture in Japan and the season is the time in which arts and culture are being celebrated.

From September till early November, there was the annual Kyoto Art Festival. The publicity banners for this event in the downtown streets were so small that they were easy to miss. It was only from the event guide I picked up at the Kyoto City International Foundation (KCIF) that I learnt about the festival. While there were arts and cultural performances which required an admission fee, there were also those which were open to the public for free, such as the illumination shows at the Kyoto National Museum, and the traditional music performances at Heian Shrine in late October.

Illumination show at Kyoto National Museum from 26 - 28 Oct.
Light-up and traditional music performance at Heian Shrine on 26 Oct.
One of Kyoto's three major festivals known as the Festival of the Ages or Jidai Matsuri was also held in October. It happened on a Monday, a school day. As I planned not to miss it no matter what, I actually skipped lunch and rushed to the Heian Shrine to catch the parade right after class. 

Jidai Matsuri on 22 Oct.
As we went into November, it was another month of activities. 3 Nov was a national holiday in Japan known as "Culture Day". Japan celebrates arts and tradition on this day. About a month before the holiday, my neighbour shared with me the news that the KCIF was recruiting volunteers to help out at its annual Open Day event which coincided with Culture Day. We signed up and spent that saturday volunteering, a meaningful day spent interacting with the locals.  My role was to photograph the performances and as I have grown to enjoy photography, it was pretty rewarding. 

At the Open Day 2012 organised by Kyoto City International Foundation on 3 Nov.
At the event, there were international cuisines being sold, Nihongo cafes (where international residents in Kyoto could learn Japanese from locals), flea markets, performances put up by both the locals and international residents, and informative booths etc.  I was really impressed by the efforts of KCIF in promoting international exchange and integration of international residents in Kyoto. As international as Singapore is, I have the feeling that we are still behind in this area.

On the Sunday following Culture Day, I cycled to the Kyoto Imperial Palace which was open to the public for free from 31 Oct to 4 Nov. I was surprised to find free parking area. There was a huge crowd but it was a nice stroll on the palace grounds nonetheless.  The leaves of some of the trees were just turning brown and the scenery was great.  The highlight of that visit was being able to watch Kemari, a ball game played by the court nobles of ancient Kyoto during the Heian Period. I heard about this game from one of our Japanese classes which covered a little on the history of Kyoto.  It was a nice surprise to be able to see it played on palace grounds, like in the ancient days.

Kyoto Imperial Palace opens to the public for free on some days in autumn.

A week after all the arts and cultural events, it was the much anticipated school festival.  November is usually the month in which universities across Japan organise their annual school festivals.  Some of these festivals could be star-studded events with celebrities invited for performances and concerts.  At my school, the highlight of the event was the talkshow by a pair of comedians and a model.

The school festival lasted two days with stage performances by the various clubs and circles in school, flea markets with students selling items ranging from clothes to shoes to handicrafts, as well as food stalls ran by students. In order to attract "customers" to the stalls, many students were in various costumes ranging from Pokemon to Power Rangers. Just seeking out these characters and taking photographs of and with them was good fun.

At the school festival which lasted 2 days - 10 and 11 Nov.
Autumn seemed to pass really fast with all the activities. Of all the seasons so far, I am probably happiest in autumn. But the season also brings with it a sense of melancholy. Perhaps it is because the leaves are falling, and at the back of my mind, I know that this adventure is coming to an end.

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 -

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

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

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.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Prologue: the first three months

When I first arrived in Kyoto on 26 Mar 2012, I wanted to start a blog as soon as possible to share my adventures and observations. But I didn't.

It was because it took me longer than expected to set my life in order in this foreign land.

I didn't speak  much Japanese; I had to look for an apartment; I had to furnish my apartment; I didn't have internet; I didn't have a mobile phone and I knew no one. It was winter then. I remember feeling rather gloomy because of the cold and loneliness. 


The semester started on 2 Apr. A flurry of orientation activities followed. There were the Japanese class placement tests to grapple with at that time, amidst questions on whether and how to get myself a bed, internet and maybe some friends, for a start.  I was kept busy.

By the end of the first month, I was plagued by a different set of concerns.  I couldn't articulate my thoughts in class. My proficiency level was too low. I thought the class placement was a mistake but I was not allowed to rectify it.  I couldn't keep up with everyone's pace.  My classmates are young, in their early 20s. I was too slow for my age. By trying to keep up, I spent most of my time in my apartment studying.

It was fortunate that the sakura trees were in bloom at that time. The transience of the beautiful flowers reminded me of my mortality. I felt blessed to be able to undertake this journey on my own, and in good health. More importantly, I found strength and optimism.


With the passing of the sakura,  the Golden Week - a series of public holidays in the first week of May - brought me my parents and my friends from Singapore. Their short stays with me dispelled my loneliness for a while.
But by the end of May, I started to feel disconnected from society. Every day, when I went to class, it felt unreal.  It didn't help that I live somewhere else while most of the people I would have loved to hang out with stay in the school dorm. I was hardly included in the social activities of people I know in school. 

I felt a desperate need to fill the emptiness that surrounded me after class. I needed to interact with people.  I wanted to contribute to society again. I started job hunting but couldn't make any headway with my low Japanese proficiency. I thought of getting a television but it didn't seem right to replace people with a box.

And so, I started to look beyond the school campus for activities targeted at working adults. I was afterall a shakai-jin (社会人).


Life becomes meaningful knowing you are able to help others. I eventually found a non-profit organisation with a mission I could identify with, where I volunteer my skills.

It is an organisation that promotes international exchange between Japanese children and children in other parts of the world. The founders of the organisation escaped death because of a postponed meeting that made them cancel the ill-fated flight on 11 Sep 2001. They felt that they had to do something for the chaotic world and set up the NPO.  These are people who dared to make the difference.  I was deeply inspired.

I also started searching for cultural activities that I am interested in. For two Saturdays per month, I am now learning Japanese traditional dance.  At the class, I met people who share my interests, understand my difficulties, and are willing to listen and advise. 

Not too long ago, a classmate who is returning to America generously gave me her bicycle.  The bicycle, in its orange splendour, seems to have a message for me. Every time I look at it, I hear the words, Do More, Feel Better, Live Longer!

It looks like life in Kyoto has just begun.