Monday, March 20, 2006

Dutch in Japan, French in Tokyo and Germans in France

The last week I've had the chance to meet some of my fellow students of Leiden who visited Tokyo. Right now, ten of them are studying in Nagasaki in the South of Japan and lately five of them came all the way to the north to see Japan's capital.
First, I met Gijs, Bart, Colling and Rob who were here for about five days. Eriko, my girlfriend, was planning to go to a musical by students of the University of Tokyo, so we ended up going there with all six of us. Even though the campus was somewhere in a residential area with nothing of any interest nearby, it was fun to see what the university looked like and the musical was definitely worth watching. Later that week we also went to a kabuki play (Japanese theater), which was wonderful as always. Even though kabuki is a traditional form of theater, they use such exquisite sceneries, costumes, make-up, 'special effects' and jokes that it looks more like you're watching some futuristic play instead of something that's written a few hundred years ago. We saw Touryu Oguri Hangan, about the hero Oguri Hangan who has to protect his lover and himself from an evil warlord (daimyo) who wants to expand his power. To give you some examples of the 'futuristic features': when there is a set change between the scenes, then really everything changes. But even during a scene the scenery can change because of the revolving stage. The costumes are basically traditional Japanese clothes, but they wear the most luxurious materials in all kinds of colors and patterns. Together with the strong make-up they wear (especially the bad guys to accentuate their evil looks) this makes for a spectacle even without the acting. During the play, there was also a horse that consisted of two man in a costume, but which looked quite natural and on which Oguri Hangan even performed some tricks. Also the death of any character is always spectacular, especially in this play were it ended with the death of one of the good guys as the apotheosis (of course sacrificing himself for Oguri's lover, thus making his death more something of a brave, laudable act than something sad).
Anyway, we had a nice time at the Kabuki theater. For the rest I showed my dutch friends Waseda University, we ate ramen (actually chinese noodles but now almost more famous in Japan) at one of the many ramen restaurants at Waseda-street and we went to a club were the American DJ Premier was playing. It seemed that the Nagasaki-students weren't very enthousiastic about that last part, but I really liked to hear that DJ again.
The next day they left for Nagasaki, but Kim, another student of Leiden studying at Nagasaki, had already arrived in Tokyo with a dutch friend. With them I went to a party at the French-Japanese Institute, where ambassies of french-speaking countries offer food and drinks. After that we also went to a party at a French club, so we fully enjoyed some of the international aspects of Tokyo. Now that I think of it, even though there are relatively few foreigners in Japan, there are many opportunities to enjoy foreign culture in Tokyo. Music, theater, movies and those kind of parties are quite numerous, but I think the Japanese fancy for fashionable foreign influences is a more important cause for this than the many different cultures of the foreigers living in Tokyo.
Actually, after going to that club, I went to a French movie (after eating at a Mexican restaurant) with Keyaki, who I had met in France when I studied in Avignon. He's still studying French, so this closing movie of a French Film Festival was sure something of interest to him. It was the movie 'Joyeux Noël' about the way French, English and German soldiers celebrated Christmas Eve together during the First World War. Even though Japanese liked to stress the fact that they were very much moved by this wonderful story and that they hope that nobody will ever make war again, the director (who was there to give some explanation and answer some questions) said that it was actually about the fact that, even in this world with so much bad and horrible things, people can make something good happen. So whether it's the First World War or just a rainy monday, it's important to try to make the best of it, help other people and create happiness.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The beach close to our bungalow at Koh Chang.

Some buildings on the precincts of the Royal Palace in Bangkok. The main tourist-hot-spot, but indeed worth visiting. The king in Thailand is highly esteemed by the population, and portraits of him decorate many restaurants, offices, stations and other public buildings.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


So now I think I should write about what we did in Thailand. When we went from Hong Kong to Bangkok it was as if we changed from spring to summer as we felt the warmth of the evening right when we got out of the plane.
The hotel in Bangkok where we stayed was unbelievably luxurious. Actually, our room was a studio with its own kitchen, couch, television, stereo-set and a big bathroom. If you wonder how we got to stay at that place: Eriko was offered to stay there for 1000 yen (maybe 8 euros) a night by the Japanese owner of the place. He had read a question she had posted on the Japanese community-site mixi about Thailand and because he was born in the same city and went to the same university, he was so generous to help us out and keep us from staying at some obscure, cheap, small hotel in the center of Bangkok. So now we stayed in a shopping area, about 10 min. by bus from the center. After we had dropped our suitcases we explored the neighbourhood, walking along many stalls where you could buy everything from fruit to dinner to clothes. In Thailand, you can find these kind of stalls practically everywhere and they're often a cheap alternative to normal shops selling the same stuff.
They also show the transition that Thailand is making as a developing country. While most Thai people earn too little to go to a fancy restaurant or expensive clothing-shop, some people and most tourists have enough money to try some of the upper-class establishments where they can spend an average monthly (or yearly) salary in one night. This sharp division between rich and poor made me feel a bit ambigiuos about staying at that hotel, but who could turn down the offer Japanese guy had made us? However, we also found out that maybe half of the people who start talking to you on the street just want money from you. Many expensive shops only have tourists as customers, but they're only interested in you as long as they think you'll buy something. Their greedy, cold attitude stands in sharp contrast to the friendly, relaxed way 'normal' Thai people treat you. For example people who have one of those foodstalls would normally try their best to make us something vegetarian and try to communicate as far as possible. They don't try to get as much money as possible by charging more for tourists and their smile really expresses happiness. It gave me the impression that middle-class (that is: quite poor) Thai people are generally much more satisfied and relaxed than those rich shop-owners who only think about how to make more money.
Thailand is a buddhist country, and this religion is still very vivid. Therefore, we could visit many temples that were beautifully decorated. I think not really with gold, but maybe gold-coloured paint, but also mozaïks with ceramics, small pieces of colored glass or mirrors. And of course the typical Thai roofs with those pointy edges. Also some ruins about 100 km. north of Bangkok (in Ayuthaya) were impressive to see. While many people think Thailand is very touristy, it was only the main sightseeing-hot-spots were most foreigners came. All the other temples, ruins or roads, even very beautiful ones, were quiet or only visited by Thai.
After three nights in Bangkok we took the nightbus to Trat, from where we would take the ferry to the island Koh Chang. After arriving at the island, we took a kind of taxi to the south where we would stay at a bungalow/hut at Bailan Family Bungalows. Even though it was just a basic facility with bed and shower, it was all we needed and the whole place had a very nice, relaxed, friendly athmosphere. Even though it was very warm, the sky was clouded and from time to time we even had some rain. But it would have been too hot anyway if the sun would directly shine down on us. The bungalows were very close to the beach, so we could go swimming or watching the sunset easily. And it wasn't just any beach, but the one with palm-trees and coconuts scattered on the sand like you would only see on pictures or in movies.
At the island we mainly enjoyed swimming and snorkling. On the second day we took a boat trip to some smaller islands nearby were there where beautiful fishes, coral reefs and other sea-plants and animals. It was unbelievable how colourful that underwaterworld was. We were also lucky enough to have a restaurant with a separate vegetarian menu closeby, with delicious food made by the woman who owned the place and her daughter, and served by her young son. On the last evening we were on the island (we stayed there for three nights again) there was a reggae concert where all backpackers and festive locals gathered (which still didn't result in a very big crowd, but the place was not that big anyway). It was a great, uplifting conclusion of our stay at that paradise on earth.
Even though the island is known to be one of the least touristy ones, there were already many resorts and luxury stores with suits or juwellery. While driving from the ferry-harbor in the north to our bungalow in the south, we could also see that they were building many more facilities, mostly made of grey, gruesome concrete. When we talked to the owner of Bailan Family Bungalows later on, he said the government actually supported the construction of such solid constructions, to fit the needs of the decadent tourists. He had even had difficulties obtaining a licence to build his nine bungalows made of only natural materials. It showed the ambigious relationship Thai people have with tourists: on the one hand, many are dependent on tourism for their income, but at the same time they regret the growing number of ugly buildings and disrespectful foreigners. If even the government promotes this process, there seems to be little hope that a balance between authenticity and prosperity can be maintained. Like with any profit generating industry, there's always a trade-off.
After leaving the island, we went back to Bangkok and from there to Hong Kong. After staying there for one more night, we finally returned to Japan. It had been a great 12 days during which we had seen so many different places, met so many people and had such nice experiences that it seemed like we had been away for months.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The nightview from Victoria Peak, with the Central District on the foreground and the bay and Kowloon further away in the north. During daytime it's more clearly visible, but also at night the smog covers the city with a disturbing blur.

Eriko and Shi Nang in Kowloon Park (close to our hotel), in front of some older appartment buildings and modern office buildings.

Hong Kong

Now let's tell something about my trip to Hong Kong and Thailand of which I already came back almost two weeks ago. I'll start with Hong Kong, were we (me and my girlfriend) stayed three nights at the beginning and one night at the end of our holiday.
Besides interest in the city, I had chosen to go there because Shi Nang Koo, a friend of mine who I met in France three years ago, lives there now. It was great to see him again, and nice to have him as our guide. Not only isn't everyone as fluent in English as you would expect from a former English colony, also the fact that vegetarian food is hard to find (especially if you can't speak or read chinese) made the help of my friend, who is also vegetarian, very usefull.
The very first thing that stood out when the bus from the airport arrived in Hong Kong was the hight of almost all buildings. While in Tokyo skyscrapers are dispersed throughout the city among lower buildings, with just some concentrations in Shinjuku, Yoyogi and some other places, in Hong Kong it's like there are no buildings with less then 20 stories. Also the shape of these buildings is interesting: in some cases because of it's originality, in most cases because of it's poor maintenance and cold concrete construction. Even though Hong Kong is a properous city (at least compared to Bangkok), it seems that there isn't much money for the maintenance of appartments, only for the construction of new ones. So between dilapidated buildings brand new appartments are being erected, so that the richer part of the population can live in well-equiped housing while the middle class has to settle for very small apartments in the older buildings.
Regardless of class, the government tries to 'educate' (or just control) the population through advertisements on television and posters on the street, encouraging you not to throw trash on the street, to keep your electrical installation in good condition and to hand your private poultry over to the authorities in the fight against the bird-flu. Whenever applicable, the considerable fine for non-compliance is also clearly shown.
Of course, Hong Kong mostly thrives on the commercial activity in the harbour, which considerable size is visible from the airport-bus: loads of containers and long rows of cranes to load and land the ships that come from all over the world. But apparently, Hong Kong is now trying to increase income from tourism, since 2006 was announced to be 'Discover Hong Kong Year'. In the offensive to lure more tourists to the city, the brand-new location of Disneyland just outside Hong Kong is widely promoted, new attractions are to be opened this year and several events will be held. Actually, we didn't notice most of this until we were about to leave Hong Kong, but at least they make an effort.
However, to me the most interesting of the whole city is just it's general atmosphere. Of course it's nice to visit some temples, see the lightshow at the bay that incorporates the most prominent buildings of the city's skyline, see contemporary traditional ink-paintings in the Museum of Modern Art or visit some of the lively streetmarkets and shoppings-streets. But the most interesting is the high percentage of foreigners living there, the impressive skyscrapers, the many small restaurants, the compact set up and accessibility of the city-center and the ever-continuing activity. This great diversity and high concentration of commercial and cultural activity in such a small area is what made the most impression on me. Maybe Hong Kong isn't and will never be a typical touristic hot-spot, but it is very interesting for anyone who is curious about how Asian cities or countries can develop through links and influences from all over the world. It makes me wonder how Tokyo failed to develop a similar diversity (at least of its population: only rarely you see a foreigner in Tokyo), and even though I haven't been to Shanghai or Beijing, I guess the rest of China will roughly move into the same direction as Hong Kong.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Job-hunting activities

A funny phenomenon that has been going on now for some months here at Waseda and any other university in Japan are the job-hunting activities of third year students (of whom Eriko is one). A bachelor here takes four years, but already in their third year (or right before becoming fourth-year student, since the college-year starts in April here) students start job-hunting. In the timespan of a few months they go to congresses, information fairs, interviews and read all kinds of books and magazines explaining the characteristics, opportunities, carreer prospects and requirements of the major Japanese companies. And everybody wants to work for a major company, because that assures a stable employment, the most opportunities for promotion and the highest salary. So everybody does his best during the application for the job and the several rounds of interviews that are needed to select a few hundred or a few dozen future employees out of the thousands of applicants. This system is so different from what I was used to in Holland that I'm still surprised by its massiveness. In Holland, companies just place an advertisement in newspapers or magazines if they need new employers, and students who have already graduated from university apply for certain positions in reaction to that advertisement.
I really wonder how Japanese companies can predict during those few months of job-hunting activities what kind of and how many employees they need for the rest of the year. And I also wonder how third year students can by and large decide how the rest of their life will be in a few months. For even if it's less and less prominent, lifetime employment is still very common here. Luckily more and more students want to have more freedom, think about working for the company they enter now for just a few years or about going abroad. However, for those people it might be difficult to find a (good) job afterwards, because once they're graduated they won't have access to the enourmous job-hunting system anymore. That way, it is made sure that most students shift smoothly from university to company, without spending any time doing nothing in between.
I still wonder how I should look at all this. As a liberal, 'nuchter' (sober?) dutch guy it all seems like Japanese society tries very hard to keep control of every stage of life of its citizens. Like it's one more example of how Japanese prefer to do everything in groups, following the well-known paths that everybody follows without taking any risk. The way companies acquire those future graduates makes it look like they still feel responsibility for them, because they offer them stable positions without being sure that they need them in the future.
Luckily I just stand at the side, looking at the whole proces as an outsider. I wouldn't know what I would do if I had to choose between getting a job now or having much less job-opportunities later. In Holland, I can just wait and see.