Thursday, September 29, 2005

My dormitory

My dormitory is called the International Student House, of which I'm living in the South Wing on the 3rd floor. In this wing there are about 30 inhabitants, all of them international students except for the 'student assistent' who is a 5th year japanese law student from Waseda. Miss Nakamura takes on the function of both landlady and housekeeper and she's here 6 days a week during the larger part of the day.
With those 30 students (I think there are even more, but I don't remember the exact number) we share 6 showers and one kitchen with 6 cookers, some rice-cookers, toasters and microwaves. I thought this would result in a big chaos and long queus, but until now it hasn't been a problem at all. Nevertheless I think I should adapt a bit and switch to a bit easier and quicker way of cooking than I was used to. But this won't be too difficult since all I can eat here are noodles (in soup or fried) and rice, which are both quite easy to make. I still have to find out how to make it taste really good though. The kitchen is located on the 5th floor (by the way, here, as in America, they call the 'begane grond' or 'rez de chaussee' the first floor and count up from there, so the 2nd floor is actually the '1e verdieping' or '1ère étage'. I will use the Japanese/American system in this blog). On that 5th floor there is also a room where you can eat and another place where you can smoke and watch television. The showers are located on the 1st floor, so my room is conveniently halfway between both. Next to the showers there are washing machines and dryers that you can use for 100 yen (about 80 eurocent).
My room is about 18 square meters, but because it's equipped for two persons, most space is taken by the furniture. Everything is quite basic but sufficient. One nice thing is that I have my own sink and toilet, so that's already quite some luxury for me. For the rest I use one desk for my computer, and the other desk for studying (once I'll get to it). There's a small balcony, but I've only used that to dry my laundry until now - it's too hot to sit in the sun anyway. From the dormitory it's a 10 minute walk to the campus, so that's very convenient. It's somewhere between the metro-stations Waseda and Takadanobaba, from where I can easily get to more central Tokyo. I can even go to Shinjuku by foot in about half an hour. Around the dormitory there are also quite some restaurants, bars and karaoke-places, so it's always a lively city.
Since most people living in this dorm are international students the main language is still English, even though I hear a lot of Mandarin, Kantonese and Korean aswell because the asian mostly get along with people from their own country, and there are quite some asian people. For the rest there are American, French, Spanish, one guy from Uzbekistan, from Israel, Sweden etc. Even though there's just one Japanese guy living here, everyone still adapts to a more Japanese way of living, eating rice in the morning, taking off the shoes at the entrance of the dorm (according to the rules) and greeting each other in Japanese. Some asian people speak better Japanese then English, so with them I do speak Japanese. Mostly it's English though, and sometimes a bit French.
The rules here are quite strickt. We can't invite any visitors, not to stay the night but not even during the day. Only inhabitants are allowed to enter. This is quite a pitty, especially because this means that people travelling to Tokyo (family, exchange students from other cities in Japan) can't stay at my place - I'm sorry guys.
All in all I'm quite happy with this dormitory. Even though it's not completely furnished to my taste and I haven't put up any posters yet I do feel at home here. That's quite strange; maybe I even feel more at home here than in Leiden. I think that's mostly because in Leiden I was constantly looking forward to the day that I could go to Japan, so living in Leiden was just something I did in the meantime. Now that I am in Japan, I'm not longing for anything - I'm happy to be here and I'll try to enjoy this year as much as possible. I feel comfortable in this surrounding, this big city and the people I meet here. I really hate it that I have to go back next summer, but maybe I'll think differently when that time comes.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Ignas above the clouds on Mt. Fuji

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Ten tremendously thrilling days

It's already been more than 10 days ago since I arrived in Japan, but until now I didn't really have the occasion to update this blog, sorry for that. It took some while before I got the login-name and password for the internet in my dormitory and once I got that it took until now before I had the time to sit down and try to produce an interesting account of my activities here.
Those past ten days surely have been lively, exciting and a lot of fun. I came to Japan together with Ignas Jorritsma, a friend from high-school. Normally he's studying international economics in Tilburg (the Netherlands), but this year he'll be an exchange student at the university of Oita on the Japanese island Kyushu. Before going there, he's spending two weeks in Tokyo, so we've been roaming around the city enjoying the last weeks of our holiday. Since we've both been in Tokyo before, we've already seen most of the tourist hotspots. Therefore, we tried some unconventional sightseeing and explored several Japanese passtimes. After arriving in the youth hostel in Asakusa in the north-eastern part of Tokyo we went to a public bath in that neighbourhood. This quite simple and regular Japanese custom was a perfect way to relax after a long flight and dragging our luggage from the airport to the hostel. Not just the three different baths ranging from cold to very hot and a special electric massage-feature (when sitting between two rows of electric chargers electric shocks electrify the body) were worthwhile, but especially the Japanese customers made it a nice experience. A businessman who had been travelling a lot ceased the occasion to practice his english by talking to Ignas and I tried if I could communicate in Japanese with another guy who appeared to be a buddhist priest of a local Tendai temple! Now there's already one example of Japanese culture without the exotic exterior. Instead of seeing him in his priestly robe in a temple burning incence and reciting sutra's I was just sitting next to him in the bath chatting about studying languages and buddhism in Japan, but my Japanese was not good enough to get into details. However, it was interesting to hear about the many temples in that area of Tokyo. If I remember correctly, he said that only in Asakusa there were about 260 temples (most of them small ones).
In the evening we went to eat in an izakaya near the youth hostel. We actually wanted to get a good bowl of soba or ramen (Japanese noodles), but only after we had taken a seat we discovered that we were in an izakaya. This means that they don't serve big dishes but small portions of food to accompany the drinks. To have this for dinner is more expensive than some noodles but also more fun and you can spend more time enjoying the food, the drinks and the atmosphere. Wether more expensive or not, I wanted to go there anyway because it was called Tanuki, just like the association of the Japanese Studies department in Leiden. It appeared to be a good choice, cause it was a very nice place with friendly 'bartenders' who served us drinks and prepared our food. We were sitting at the bar so we could see all the vegetables, fish and meat they were frying for us and the other customers. There were businessmen who came there after their work, a family who spend a nice evening there, a couple (or soon to be couple) and some groups of friends or colleages all having a good time and creating a lively atmosphere.
After this first day we spend our time going to a baseballmatch in the Tokyo Dome (the Giants against the Tigers, 2-7 if I'm correct and we had joined the Giants supporters), the sumo wrestling tournament that's taking place now, the Yasukuni-shrine and it's museum, some museums for modern (post 1868, the year of the Meiji revolution) and contemporary (post WWII) art and I moved from the hostel to my dormitory on the 16th. One great experience that I just can't leave out is our 17 hours walk (from last friday afternoon until saturday morning) to the top of Mount Fuji and down to Kawaguchiko. We went there with an american and a french girl who are also living in this dormitory, taking the bus from Shinjuku to Fuji fifth station (that's as far as you can go by bus). From there it's about 5 hours to the top, so we arrived there just in time to see the sunset around 18.00 o'clock. It was cloudy, but on top of the mountain we were standing above the clouds and we could still see beautiful pink, purple, orange, yellow and red colours. There was no bus going back to Shinjuku from fifth station in the morning, so we just climbed down to Kawaguchiko, which took about 12 hours so that we could take the bus from there at 7 o'clock. Maybe the bus company has a deal with the many small hotels on the mountain where you can spend the night for about 40 euro's. It's really amazing how they profit from all the people climbing the mountain: even on the top there are small restaurants and even a post-office so that you can send a postcard from mount Fuji. However, when we arrived there those were closed because the climbing season had already ended and apparently nobody climbs the mountain to see the sunset. Most people climb at night to see the sunrise, but the bus-schedule did't allow us to do that without staying at one of those hotels or just wait for hours at fifth station. At night when we climbed down, the sky cleared and next to the beautiful star-speckled sky above we could see the lights of the cities in the valley underneath.
When we finally got back to Tokyo I and the two girls had to go to the university to register for the courses we want to follow and after that we got some sleep to get ready for the party that was organised by two international student associations. Next time I'll tell more about the courses I choose, the people I've met and the dormitory where I'm staying.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Everything changes

"Quand on vit, il n'arrive rien. Les décors changent, les gens entrent et sortent, voilà tout. Il n'y a jamais des commencements. (...) Ça, c'est vivre. Mais quand on raconte la vie, tout change." Jean-Paul Sartre, La Nausée

"During life, nothing happens. The scenery changes, people come in and leave, that's all. There are no beginnings. (...) That's life. But when life is told, everything changes." Jean-Paul Sartre, Disgust

Even though the above quote is taken from a gloomy, depressive book written by the near-nihilist Sartre, I recognised it as something I experience myself often aswell. The whole thing of going to Japan is a nice example. I've been planning and thinking about it the past year and all the time it seemed like something magnificent - when I told myself: "I'm going to Japan", I felt like I my life would suddenly change as soon as I would get there. But now that it's getting closer and closer (in a few hours I'll go to the airport), I realize no sudden disruption will appear. Logically, I'll go to the airport, get into the airplane, arrive in Tokyo, get to my hotel and there I'll be: nothing sudden or unexpected. In the same way, things often seem nicer beforehand or afterwards than when you're actually expriencing them. At that moment, it all seems completely normal.
However, I'm still curious what it will be like to really go there, to get to Tokyo knowing that I'll stay there for one year. And after all: life is what you make it, and I'm definitely going to make the most out of it. I guess zen-teachings about focussing on the present try to deal with this past-present-future problem by just forgetting about the past and the future. There's nothing more important then the present and that's all you have. Looking at it in that way makes my time behind this computer now just as (or even more) important as my future in Japan. Well, that future will naturally become present very soon, and I can't wait for that moment. Finally, finally I'll go there and see for myself how my life will change. I can't wait to get into that plane.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

What will it be?

I've been studying Japanese for two years now, but I still don't know what I should expect of daily life in Japan. During my study, I've realized that it's useless to maintain the attitude of surprise and awe, fitting the foreigner who's interested in Japan on a base of exotism. I also started my study because I thought Japan was so different from what I was used to, and I was facinated by all those unkown phenomena, but now I want to go beyond that surface and see Japan through its own eyes. In essence, there's not that much difference between Japanese or Dutch people - just the conditioning is different (the surroundings where they live in and the things they learn). To me, it seems too superficial to just focus on this difference of conditioning instead of trying to find out what it means to live in Japan as a human being. Accordingly, it would be too easy to keep looking at Japanese culture as an exotic phenomenon instead of looking at it unprejudiced. It's like determining the essential characteristics of something, of das Ding an sich. What remains of Japanese culture if you leave away the blinding colours, the deafening sounds, the intoxicating smells and the tastes that leave you craving? (What is culture anyway?) I hope to touch the true core of Japan or at least Tokyo during my stay, but I wonder if it's possible at all. However, I'm sure I have a better chance to succeed while living there than if I would stay in the Netherlands and keep looking at it from such a distance. It's probably not possible to describe such an etheric subject, so I won't learn it from books and I won't be able to tell about it myself, but I'll try to describe the experiences I have on my exploration through Japanese life.

Three days before take-off it seems like nothing ever changes. After preparing for my stay in Japan the past year, I still don't fully realize that I'll change Holland for Japan in a few days. I already left my student's house in Leiden yesterday, after celebrating my last night there in The Hague. (Thanks to everyone who joined me there, you really made it a joyfull night!) However, here at my parents place everything's still the same old same way and seems to remain like that forever, but for me a big change is about to happen. Now let's wait and see.