Monday, November 28, 2005

Some of the few trees that did show some nice bright shades of autumn

The hi no maru above the hills of Kamakura

Autumn Leaves

In Japan, the changing of the seasons is quite an important phenomenan. While Dutch people seem to take the changes of nature for granted and are rather dissappointed when it seems that the winter once again isn't cold enough to really go skating outside or when the summer again features more rain than sunshine, Japanese people can't wait to see the obvious signs of the passing of time like the turning of the leaves or the cherished cherry-blossoms.
To get a better picture of this attitude and to see if it's really that special, I went to Kamakura with a Japanese friend last sunday to enjoy the autumn leaves. Kamakura is a small historic city about one and a half hour south of Tokyo. Of course, in Tokyo there are quite many trees with turning leaves as well, but in Kamakura the accompanying setting with old tempels, hills and Japanese gardens is more favourable to fully enjoy the natural phenomenan that the Japanese are so fond of. And I must say, Kamakura is really a nice place. There are many old tempels, there's the grave of Minamoto Yoritomo (the first Shogun of Japan, even though most Japanese probably don't really know this. He acquiered the title of Shogun in 1193 and thus established a system that would basically stay in place untill 1868) and the forests on the surrounding hills are easily accessible.
When getting off the train, I got scared seeing how many fellow Tokyo-inhabitants had chosen the same destination for that sunny sunday. It seems like the crowds of Tokyo are inescapable, but when we walked through the backstreets of Kamakura later on it was nice and quiet. So we enjoyed the temples and the nature, but the autumn leaves, the goal of our visit, where only sparsely brightly yellow and red collored. Most leaves just stayed green or turned into a more unappealing brown. However, the few nicely colored trees were popular attractions for the photo-philic Japanese - and indeed it can result in some nice pictures. The forest around Kamakura was nice aswell, but the yellow-red-green dotted hills that I had hoped for showed mostly the usual green/brownish shades of colours. But at the end of the day the setting sun compensated largely by turning into a perfect red circle, what you would call the hi no maru (name of the Japanese flag).
After this pleasant passtime we headed back to Tokyo, but before we got to Shibuya (an important station in Tokyo), we got off the train and visited a friend of my Japanese companion. We had dinner with two other Japanese girls and the menu proudly presented that perfect Japanese winter dish (even after a warm autumn day) nabe. It consists of one large cooking pot filled with dashi, a kind of bouillon, in which all kinds of vegetables, meat, squid etc. are boiled. Being a vegetarian, I could just pick the things I could eat and also enjoy this sociable dish. It was accompanied by beer and nihonshu (Japanese sake/ricewine), so before long the atmosphere got pleasantly lively. I was surprised to be able to understand most of what they were talking about, and if I didn't understand they were kind enough to patiently explain everything to me. I also wanted to study that evening, but maby this first-hand experience of talking, eating and drinking with Japanese is the best way to learn both the language and the culture. Anyway, it definitly is the most enjoyable method ; )

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Can I kick it?

I haven't told anything about it yet, but about a month ago I joined the Taekwondo-club of Waseda. At Waseda University, there are numerous clubs (called saakuru) that engage in all kinds of activities. I think there are at least a thousand of such saakuru, reaching from political discussion groups to the ultimate frisbee sportsclub, and from one of the many karateclubs to the magic-trick saakuru. I wanted to do a sport, and in France I really liked doing Taekwondo, so I decided to join that club. Maybe it's a bit strange to practice a martial art from Korea while I'm in Japan, but I just don't feel at ease with Japanese martial arts. They're all interesting, but I don't like the way they emphasise the standerd patterns of reacting to your opponent. Those standard reactions are only usefull if you've trained on all the possible movements your opponent could make and mastered all the reactions perfectly. Also the kata's, a standard series of movements that you wouldn't really use in a fight, seem a bit useless to me. I think it's better to practice the basic movements and then learn to improvise in using them. This is also what I like about Taekwondo: it leaves quite some space for improvisation and the basic movements themselves are great: spinning kicks, flying kicks, back-kicks and lately I've learned a flying punch. So much fun! I must admit we also practice kata's, but they are only a small part of the training. The biggest part consists of practicing kicks and punches, or series of kicks and punches that actually can be used in a fight. Sometimes we also have short spar fights, but I've only done that twice until now.
The club at the university consists of only students, of whom the best ones teach the others. They train in the 'student center', which is always filled with clubs everywhere practicing whatever they do (there are quite some singing clubs practicing in the corridors each time) because there's not enough space. We practice in a room called 'student lounge' at the 6th floor (with a view on Shinjuku's skyscrapers), but it's good enough. I go there on Wednesday. On Friday I go to a sports center in the direction of Shinjuku, where 'real' teachers (black belt, 6th dan if I remember well) teach the people who come there, only a small part of whom are Waseda-students. The others are students of other universities or employees, so it's quite a mixed group. The training there is more intense but fun to do.
One interesting thing a got to learn about at the circle is the sempai-kouhai system. This is especially strong in sport-clubs, but it actually functions in all aspects of Japanese society. When entering the club (or a company or school), the newcomer or kouhai is a kind of subordinate to everyone who entered before him. Because of this position, he has to treat his 'seniors' or sempai (also when they're not older than him) with respect, adressing him with polite language etc. Actually, at the taekwondo club this is not very important, but it's funny to see how it works. The kouhai always take the practicing materials to the room and afterwards bring them back to the locker. The sempai lead the training and ask for the salute at the beginning and end of the training. This is actually just a general sign of respect, but someone has to give the signal so that everyone says it at the same time. This results in a funny situation when the 'oldest' sempai is too modest and reluctant to take this role. However, he is always reminded of his position by his kouhai. My sempai (there are many, but one guy in particular helped me at the beginning since he's the guy who maintains the contact between the student's club and the sports center) is also quite modest about this and he only occasionally comes to have dinner after the training. First I didn't really know why, since many kouhai do have dinner afterwards. But when he came along one time it became clear to me: because he is the sempai, he had to pay for all of us, even if we say he doesn't have to. I also witnessed a nice example of this last friday when I went to an English pub close by. I was talking to some Japanese guy and asked him if he wanted to have a drink. He said he first had to ask his sempai (they were from a tennis club) who was sitting at another table. The sempai then gave him money to buy a drink for both of us! Not such a bad system after all!
In general, I try to be polite enough and behave in the way that seems the best to me. I don't mind showing respect to my fellow club-members. They are all my sempai, so I don't really have to treat any of them differently. I don't really know how to use polite language in this case though, but they probably don't mind because I'm a foreigner. I actually asked that one sempai about this whole system and he said: 'don't worry about that, just enjoy the training'. So why not follow his advice?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Past activities

I'm really having trouble keeping up with all the things I'm doing here. I was planning to just write about the highlights, but I feel like I'm not even living up to that. So now I'll just write about some stuff I've been doing without getting too much into details.
First of all, quite some while ago I've been to the headquarters of the Sôtô school of Zen Buddhism. The temple in Leiden where I used to go is also founded on Sôtô principles, so maybe you could compare this to a katholic who went to the Vatican in Rome, the religious centre of his or her belief. Now in Zen, there isn't that much belief attached as with katholism, zen is mostly "just doing", so the definition of 'religious centre' should also be put in quite a different perspective. Also in the headquarters, they are 'just doing' their business, mostly administrative business. It's not a temple, no monastary or nice old building that has fulfilled this function since hundreds of years. It's just an ugly high building where the administrative affairs are taken care of. But still it's priests who are working there. So while I was waiting until someone came who could help me (I asked where I could do zazen in Tokyo), there were people walking around with shaven heads, a rakusu (a kind of ceremonial bag worn around the neck indicating that that person is initiated into buddhism) and a business suit - indeed very appropriate. Besides, part of the builing is used as a hotel (and a luxurious one to that) to generate some more revenues, so at the ground floor there's nothing at all that indicates what the actual function of the building is. There's just a sign outside saying something like "central Sôtô Shû office".
In the end I talked a bit with a young priest turned officeworker and got a list from him with some tempels where I could do zazen. In the end I went to a temple that wasn't on that list but that was named in a book I got from Zeshin, the priest in the temple in Leiden. I'll tell more about that later on.
Then I've also visited the Diet, the Parliamentary Building here in Tokyo. I was invited by a housemate to go with the Public Policy and Finance Class. I had dropped that, but because there were so few students left (just two...) we could take some friends with us. So in the end there were more people who didn't take the class, but at least some people now had the chance to see the parliament. Actaully, in the end it wasn't that much special. We just visited the Lower House (House of Councillors, comparable to the Dutch Eerste Kamer), but there wasn't a meeting going on. We just listened to a tape explaining when the builing was build and how much that had cost. Still, it was fun walking through the corridors and seeing signs of the several parties next to certain (meeting?) rooms, knowing that when the parliament is in session those same corridors are filled with politicians of those parties. And of course it was fun to be inside anyway. Some while ago I walked around it from the outside, but at every entrance there are policemen watching and it seems almost impossible to get in. Quite some contrast to the Dutch parliament (at least, the Upper house or Tweede Kamer, I don't know about the Lower house), where you can just walk in without appointment, but after leaving your bag and walking through a metal-detector. Maybe this is one of the signs of how far democracy is developed. Is politics really conducted in public, accessable to all and in a transparent and responsible way? Well, even if you get in during a meeting, most topics are already decided behind closed doors, between the factions of the LDP, the leading party with an absolute majority again after the latest elections in september. I was quite optimistic about democracy in Japan, but after following this course about Japanese monetary policy and now that the LDP again has an absolute majority, I'm not that sure anymore. In that course we talked about how the bureaucracy actually makes policy in Japan, even without that much influence of the LDP. This policy is made in councillation with business representatives, agricultural pressure groups and the biggest bank, but without any pressure from labout unions (which are always connected to a certain company) and almost no environmental organisations interfering. If the LDP really wants to make decisions 'indepentently', it has to have the support of either the business- or agricultural pressure group, the financial sector being too much linked to the Ministry of Finance. Anyway, there won't be too much to see in the Diet building.
So I went to see something that Japanese are also interested in themselves: baseball. And not just any radom match, this was the legendary match between the team of the University of Waseda (where I'm studying) and Keio University, the most important competitor in boasting to be Tokyo's second best University (after the legendary Tokyo University where all the politicians have studied). This same competition is visible in the baseball match. Actually, it were two matches and they were part of the League of Six Universities of Tokyo. Also in this case both Waseda and Keio didn't compete for the first place (that was taken by I think Heisei University) but for the second. The first match, on saturday, was won by Waseda. On sunday I went to see the final showdown. Maybe the most ardent competition was not reflected by the players on the field, but by the way the audience cheered for those players. That's really something special. First of all, they have a perfectly trained army of cheerleaders, both girls and guys. I heard that they practice about five times a week and in the weekend they have to support several teams of Waseda (next to baseball also soccer, rugby etc.) if they're playing. During the baseballmatch the cheerleaders are mostly activated when Waseda is at bat (in Dutch aan slag). Then there would be about 8 girls on a stage with a guy in the middel. While ther orchestra (seated in the gallery) plays certain Waseda-songs the guy would act as conductor (but a most energetic one) and the girls would do all kinds of dances like cheerleaders normally do. But then there are also girls standing in front of each section of the gallery to indicate how the supporters should clap their hand or actually the inflatable cilindrical barrs that produce quite some noise when hit against each other and that can be bought along with a sheet with the lyrics of the Waseda anthem. That anthem is sung before, in the middle and after the match. So when all the cheering is not in vain and the team actually gets a point, everyone put his arms around the shoulders of his/her neighbour, moves sideways to and fro and sings another Waseda song. For the rest, the cheerleading is conducted quite independently from the game (save some moment when either the batter or the pitcher needs some extra luck). So even when things turn really bad, the cheerleaders and the audience act like nothings the matter and keep supporting their team. Accordingly, no one ever shows any sign of dissaprovement, like dutch would do during a soccer game when they don't agree with the decision of the referee. So after nine innings not just the players but especially the cheerleaders and the supporters get quite tired (and then they still have to sing three verses of the Waseda anthem). By the way, the same procedures are followed in exactly the same way by the Keio supporters, but so to speak in a complementary way (cheering when Keio is at bat and with Keio songs etc). At least for Waseda all this effort was rewarded with another victory of Waseda over Keio and thereby a second place in the Six Universities of Tokyo league.
Last but not least, I went for another 'mountain walk' today. Maybe rather a hill-walk, especially compared to my previous experiences, but not less satisfactory. The tops I climbed this time didn't exceed the 857 meters and instead of the rough and rugged rocks of Mount Fuji and the Tanigawa-dake ridge I could walk on soft smooth sandy pathways leading between green forrests with here and there some yellow or red autumn colours. Because the hike was just about an hour away from Tokyo, I could easily make in time to get back in the evening. Next to the usual quiet nature, beautiful winding paths and great views there was also a big temple-precinct on the first hill I climbed, Mount Takao. This originated from a temple of the Shingon school of buddhism founded by Kôbô Diashi himself. He was one of the first to bring buddhism to Japan in the 8th century AD and Shingon is still an important buddhist school in Japan. There were some pilgrims walking up the mountain and even reciting prayers under the Biwa waterfall. Standing under a waterfall is quite a common practice in Japanese buddhism as an ascetic exercise and probably also because of the purifying characteristics attributed to
Probably because of that temple (and the proximity to Tokyo), there were quite some people climbing the mountain and enjoying the sight from the top. I also got to talk to some schoolkids of about 11/12 year old. It was very funny to be surrounded by those young Japanese, explaining about what I did in Japan, in Tokyo and on that mountain.
When I walked on from the top of Mt. Takao it became more quiet while the path was still easy to find and to walk and the weather was still nice; the perfect conditions to fully enjoy the hiking. I got to Mt. Jimba and down to the bus-station perfectly in time to be back in Tokyo around 19.00 o'clock. I got off the train at Shinjuku, strolled a bit around Kabuki-cho (a very interesting part of Shinjuku because of the many Korean shops and restaurants there) and finally walked back home along Meiji-dori. Meiji-dori is a road leading through Tokyo from north to south, providing an easy route from Shinjuku to Waseda. It was so nice to get back from the (relatively) deserted mountains to the lively Shinjuku and then walking along that street, feeling like I got back home.