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.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Do not litter in "Beautification Enforcement Areas"

On Monday, I was lost in the southern part of Kyoto city for a while. I was on a bus heading south, which was supposed to bring me to the new office of the organisation where I had been volunteering. Or so I thought. 
I stay in the north ward and the new office is located in the south. It never occurred to me that I would have to take the bus on the other side of the road to go further north first before I could get to the south. So I took the bus heading directly south instead. Turned out to be the wrong bus. Anyway, that's Kyoto's amazing bus routes for you. 
As I was lost in the streets, I came across a sign in a place which is a little off the usual tourist tracks. In Beautification Enforcement Areas, you will be fined up to 30 000 Yen for littering regardless of your nationality or status.
The way some of my new friends here asked me whether it is true that you get fined for littering in Singapore, I have somehow been made to imagine that my country is the only place in the world which impose fines for littering. So I was a little surprised at seeing that sign in Kyoto city.
Looking at the sign on a Kyoto street, I couldn't help but wonder where the "Beautification Enforcement Areas" in Kyoto are, and the rationale behind the regulation...Why should there be a difference between areas? Why should some areas be more "beautified" than others?


Poster series: Who are the messages targeting?

The first poster states "Molesters will not be let off!". When I first saw this poster which was pasted onto the wall at a Kyoto subway station, I wondered how the drawings of the angry-looking school girls could have any deterrent effect on molesters. 

More recently, I saw another poster pasted outside a shop in the middle of a residential area near my university. This time, the message stated on the poster is "Bullying is a crime! Absolutely shall not be let off!" The drawing of a gentle-looking lady who seems to be gesturing "no, no" with her hand again made me wonder how a poster like this could deter bullying.

Just as I was thinking that whoever designed these posters had absolute disregard of whether the messages are being diluted or not with the use of the drawings, it suddenly occurred to me that I got the target audience wrong.
The posters are probably not targeting the perpetrators at all, but the victims! They are appealing to the victims to come forward and seek help, many of whom are probably junior high students.
From that perspective then, are the posters effective? What do you think?

Friday, 2 November 2012

Instant ramen stations

Last semester, in one of the speaking classes, a classmate talked about the top most common food prepared by students in his dormitory. It was instant ramen, or cup noodles. 
For the busy student, the convenience offered by instant ramen is irresistible. And I can empathise.  I too got started on instant ramen when I first came to this city, and we all know how the wide variety of flavours they have here and the packaging can be really enticing. Fortunately, it never became a habit because I discovered the fun of cooking with Kyoto vegetables.
At school, there are many students to whom instant ramen is part and parcel of the busy school life. During lunch time, tables with hot water dispensers lined with students preparing their cup noodles are a common sight. Definitely not something our Health Promotion Board will approve of.
The instant ramen stations were a little of a shock to me at first. As convenient as instant ramen is, I really don't think it should be encouraged like this. I guess the onus is on the students to exercise moderation and I do hope they do.

Putting out the garbage

When I first came to Kyoto, how to deal with the garbage was an issue which the school's orientation programme covered with some detail.  I recall the course coordinator telling us to follow the rules in handling our garbage if we want to enjoy good relations with our landlord and neighbours.
In Kyoto city, there are garbage bags with "Kyoto City" printed on them that residents have to buy to discard their garbage in. There are basically two types of garbage bags - yellow ones for combustibles and transparent ones for recyclables.  There are various sources of information online on how to dispose garbage but it is always good to ask the landlord or neighbour for details as there may be slight differences depending on where you stay.
In my case for example, my landlady lines the garbage bins at my mansion with the designated plastic bags so I don't have to buy them. We can just transfer our garbage from home directly into the bins. As we have a "centralised" garbage disposal system at my mansion in which my landlady will clear the garbage bins and put out the garbage for collection, we don't have to be concerned with garbage collection dates either.
Typically, on the morning of garbage collection, properly tied garbage bags placed along the streets at designated collection points are a common sight. The garbage collection trucks will collect these bags from the streets.
A garbage collection point along a street. The yellow plate hung on the railing
shows the collection date for different types of garbage.
As garbage disposal in my case is almost as routine as how it has been in Singapore, it has never really occurred to me to write about garbage collection until I came across this particular sight downtown, at the busy Shijo Kawaramachi shopping street (see picture below).

McDonald's garbage piled up in front of the restaurant at the Shijo Kawaramachi
shopping street.
I was alittle taken aback by the sight as I thought the garbage affected the look and feel of this bustling shopping street popular with locals and tourists. It also led me to wonder why garbage trucks have to collect garbage from the main street and not from the back street.  I guess it probably boils down to efficiency, that it may be quicker to collect the garbage from the main street than to ply through back streets. 
In any case, I do think the bags of garbage piled up in front of shops in a shopping street look really out of place...

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 -