It is hard to believe but my time in Japan is actually coming to an end after nearly three months. So this will be my last report about my experiences.
A few weeks ago my girlfriend came here for a 10 days‘ tour through the country. One sunny day we went on a trip to Himeji castle. The white roofs and walls out of which the castle is built, make the castle a really nice place to visit, in my opinion one of Japan’s most beautiful castles. It was also setting for many Japanese movies in the past decades. Everyone who is interested in visiting Himeji and the castle I can recommend to also make a side trip to the neighboured Koko-En. This garden is layed out typically for Japanese parks and gardens and split up in differently themed areas. It is located just next to the moat and not to dismiss.
Our tour then led us to Hiroshima. The city is famous in the whole world after August 6th 1945, the first militant use of an atomic bomb. Now it especially impressed me by its big Peace Park, that can be found just a few hundred metres of the epicentre of the explosion and which is supposed to remind people of the thousands of victims the bombing counted by the park’s monuments and its museum. It also symbolizes a memorial place against another atomic bombing on a city. One of the most popular victims back then was 12-year old pupil Sasaki who contracted leukemia as a result of the radiation set free. In Japan there is a legend that tells the Gods would make a dream come true for you if you fold 1000 paper cranes. So the girl put all her energy in folding more than 600 cranes before she died of the consequences of her disease, sadly she could not make her wish of living-on become true. Still nowadays many children and visitors of the Peace Park fold paper cranes in memory of Sasaki. Not far away there is Miyajima island located in the bay of Hiroshima. It is famous for its red Torii standing in the sea in front of the Itsukushima shrine. The island offers cute old fisher’s houses and wild deers walking around at the beach like at Nara, in the heartland you can find contetious monkeys. A must-do at Miyajima is a railway trip up on Mount Misen and then walking about 45 minutes to the mountain peek, where you can enjoy a one of a kind view on the bay of Hiroshima and the surrounding islands.
A few days later we headed for Tokyo. The Tokyo Skytree, 634 metres high, offers a breathtaking view over the megacity and when the weather is good you can even see Mount Fujisan on the horizon. Looking at all of the houses beneath you it is hard to believe that the prefecture of Tokyo leaves space for 35-40 million residents! The eastern parts of the garden around the imperial palace is a precious, quiet place in the middle of this busy city. They are just a stone’s throw away from the Tokyo main station, which is basically built in european style. Besides the other highlights Tokyo provides, like Shibuya cross-way or the Tsukiji fish market, I especially liked Odaiba island. It is deposited in the bay of Tokyo and standing there you have a stunning view on the city’s skyline, the Minato district and the Rainbow Bridge.
On my next-to-last weekend here I got invited on a two-day trip to Biwa lake by the Rotact Club.This lake is located in the North of Kyoto and is Japan’s biggest lake. At first we went on Mount Uchimi by railroad, finding many attractions on the top of the mountain. In the summer there is a high rope’s course and a swinging slide, next to numerous sportive activities such as baseball, basketball, soccer, frisbee, skipping or throwing a lasso. Everybody, young or old, finds there something to do! In the winter you can even go skiing or sledding. After that in the evening we cooked and played japanese parlour games together.The next day we drove to a farm that actually appeared to be an amusement park. To my surprise it was a german farm called „Blumen Hügel“ („flower hill“). In the restaurant there we had wurstel, potatoes and other german food, you coud also order real German beer. The farm was really nice with flowers and roses and farm-typical animals to pet and to feed. You also had the possibility of participating several workshops. All in all a very felicitious weekend-trip!
At this point it is important for me to thank again Mrs. and Mr. Okamoto, the management board of the Grünwaldstiftung, the Rotary Club Grünwald and all of my new Japanese friends, they all made it possible for me to spend this unforgettable and wonderful time here! In the past three months I had the opportunity to talk to the locals and also, different to just going on a short vacation, really live like a Japanese. In my time here I got many new opinions and countless impressions and experiences.
During the past two weeks, I went on a hiking trip to Mount Rokko with Sakura, Mrs. Ikawa’s daughter and a friend of hers. While the sun was shining bright and temperature had reached pleasant 25°C, we finally got to the top of the mountain after a 2,5h hike. There we had a wonderful view on the Osaka bay in the South-East and the wooded mountains in the North. After a short break, we went downwards again, heading for Arima Onsen, which is one of the oldest Onsen in Japan and a hotspot for many (also Japanese) tourists. The hot thermal springs are said to have a healing and vitalizing effect on the body. At this place, we rested in the hot water for about an hour, besides men and women have to use separate bathing facilities. After that we returned to Kobe by bus.
Arrived at Kobe again, Mrs. Ikawa and her husband invited us to dinner at their house and we got the opportunity to have an interesting conversation. By chance there was a parade held at Kobe that day, on which many young people attended. They push a chariot all in all four times through town, starting early in the morning until the end late at night. This is all accompanied by loud music and traditional dances.
Because of the hot temperature we have at this time of the year, I decided to visit Kobe Beach for one day. After arriving at JR Station “Suma Beach” there appeared a long, sandy beach in front of me. In the summer the beach is crowded by sunbathers, but in this season the beach was nearly empty. I arrived there at approximately 11 o´clock and I could count the visitors with two hands. After two hours sunbathing I went to the Suma Aqualife Park. This Aquarium exists for more than 60 years and houses hundreds of different sea dwellers. The Aquarium’s highlight is (besides the Dolphin Show) surely the underwater tunnel made of glass. You can go through a tank with Amazon fish and get a special view on the underwater world. Later I decided to see more of the beautiful Kobe Harbor for the rest of the day.
15th of May, I was lucky to participate at “Aoi Matsuri”., which is the oldest festival at Kyoto and has it origins in the 6th century A.D. Back then, many natural catastrophes shattered the region and destroyed the harvest. To comfort the Gods, the Emperor launched ceremonies and rites at several shrines of Kyoto. These ceremonies became “Aoi Matsuri” in the course of time. The festival is visited by many hundreds of people every year. It all starts at the Emperor`s palace, passing the Shimogamo Shrine, finding its way until the Kamigamo Shrine, where a ceremony is held. During the festive day, the streets of Kobe are crowded with people, so many Japanese watch the TV broadcast of the event.
Another day I visited the golden temple „Kinkaku-ji“, one of Kyoto’s top sightseeing hotspots. Pushed tightly on one another, the people try to take photographs of the golden, four-panelled pavillon on the temple ground. Originally only the highest level of the pavillon was shining in golden colour, but after the temple burned down in 1950, it was reconstructed five years later and the other floors were painted in gold as well. Walking up the hill on the temple area, you get by a small house, a place where you can attend a traditional tea ceremony. Even though there are many visitors in the temple area, the garden surrounding the small house is very quiet and offers a pleasant atmosphere. After my visit of Kinkaku-ji I walked approximately 15 minutes to Ryoan-ji. The Zen-temple is famous for its rockery. There lay 15 rock blocks in a bed of small pebbles. It doesn’t depend on the angle of your view on the rockery, you can never see more than 15 of them. There is also a restaurant at the temple area, where you can eat the special Kyoto dish “Yudofu” with a beautiful view on a typical Japanese garden.
Time has gone so fast, and after two more weeks I have made many new experiences. I am really excited about all of the new impressions I will get to see in the upcoming time!
My stay in Japan has been a both wonderful and very instructive time. Japanese culture, developped over thousands of years with only little influence from abroad, offers fascinating insight into its history and traditions. One thing impressed me in particular: The way Japanese people treat each other and foreigners in daily life is always utterly polite and respectful. This contributed a lot to my well-being during my stay. Even if the kindness, that I could experience in every single social interaction, is not always sincere but acquired by education, it allows a very stress-free social intercourse. Concerning this matter, Germans could learn a thing or two from the Japanese.
I very much wanted to further explore this fascinating country. Mr Okamoto was very generous in offering me to stay two more weeks in his guest room, which allowed me to travel to three more very interesting destinations in different corners of Japan.
Being a huge fan of forests and nature, Yakushima island was my place to go. Together with my Chinese friend, I visited the oldest Japanese cedar tree, explored deep forests by foot and by kayak and relaxed in a splendid natural onsen right next to the ocean. Hayao Miyazaki, a famous Japanese anime director, is said to have used Yakushima’s wild nature as inspiration for his film “Princess Mononoke”.
In Kumamoto, I was again very lucky and could spend one night at my friend’s parents’ house. Thus, I could experience a day in the countryside. It is still very exciting for me to see a Japanese home from the inside, especially if it is equipped with traditional tatami mats and shoji doors. During my travels, I also got used to sleeping on a thin futon instead of a bed.
In Hokkaido, the northern island, I got to know a very different side of Japan. It offers vast landscapes, and people are (as in the north of Germany), more calm and reserved. I still didn’t get used to traditional Japanese breakfast yet…
In Sapporo, I spent two nights with my friend’s home stay family. We enjoyed Hokkaido’s fresh fish and sea food. Most of the friends I made during my stay where either Japanese or from other Asian countries. It was very interesting for me to learn about the differences between Asian cultures and their relation to each other.
At this very moment, I am spending my last days in Japan at the Yaeyama islands, located near Taiwan. I especially like Iriomote, offering jungle, mangroves and a great underwater world. During all of my trips, both the owners of my accomodations and other travellers always showed big interest in my culture. It sometimes was hard to have these conversations in mostly Japanese, but every single time it added to my understanding of the Japanese way of life. I am very grateful for all the experiences that I had during the last 3.5 months. I still remember exactly how happy I felt when I was accepted as a scholarship holder by Grünwald Rotary club. My expectations have been exceeded by far.
I would like to sincerely thank Mr and Mrs Okamoto. Mr Okamoto invests a lot of energy and time in his scholarship students and has been very helpful in any situation. Only with his commitment, it is possible to experience Japan from head to toe in such an intensive and carefree way. These last months have been a wonderful time for me, and I’m going home with many new impressions and opinions.
It is hard to believe that time runs so fast for me here in Japan. Now I have been staying here for five weeks and still I got to see only a small part of the Kansai region. It would probably take a whole month just to visit Kyoto with all the temples and shrines. In the past days and weeks I visited the imperial palace in Kyoto, which was the royal family’s residence for a long time. Nowadays they live in Tokyo and the palace in Kyoto is opened for public. In former times there were a lot more buildings on the area, but the houses considered as not so important have been removed. This is because in case of a fire, the essential parts of the palace can be saved from buurning down. On a guided tour through the palace I learned some more interesting facts about the residence. For example there are many wooden beams, which are painted in white. The white colour is made out of sea shells and has the effect that the beams do not perish so fast. The palace is constructed earthquake-resistant as it is built directly on the ground without any fundament or something likely. So if the earth is shaking, the building just swings along with the erruptions. Another interesting characterist is the L-shaped embayment in the Northern part of the wall around the area. Oni (Japanese demons) are associated with the North-East, so many Japanese buildings have these embayments in the North-Eastern part of the territory, also sometimes temples are located in the North-East, so they can protect the houses from the Oni.
Another day I visited Kobe, a town on the other side of the bay of Osaka. It is a 30 minutes ride by train from Osaka for the 35 kilometres distance to Kobe. Mrs Ikawa, a friend of Mr Okamoto, guided me personally through town. Kobe is one of the biggest ports in Japan and an important transfer site for many external goods. A very manifold kitchen can be found in the city of Kobe, even bakeries with German bread. Kobe is located between the Rokko mountains in the North and the sea in the South, so man-made islands (Rokko Island, Port Island and the Kobe airport) were banked up on the shore of the bay. This leaves more space for the citizens‘ houses in town. In the Northern part of Kobe there is the foreign national quarter with many beautiful residences in European style, nowaday opened for the public to visit. Personally I liked Kobe very much as it is slightly more quiet in the streets.
Nara was to visit next on my list. Famous for the many old but well preserved temples I can not help but thinking that the free-running deers steal the show from the stony sights. Nara is, like Kyoto, a popular destination for school excursions. As I arrived at Nara, the town was full of tourists and children in primary school age, who were absolutely keen on petting and feeding the deers. On the side of the roads you can buy cookies for annualised one Euro everywhere to feed them to the animals. The Todai-ji temple is the biggest wooden building in the world and shelters a giant bronze statue of Buddha. On the other side of the Nara park there is the Kasuga-Taisha shrine which charmes with its huge amount of lanterns seaming the path to the shrine. Deers can sometimes be seen between the mossy lanterns, a vision of magic!
Beside my trips to the different cities in the local area of Osaka, Mr Okamoto also took me on a tour to Amanohashidate, the „Sky bridge“. We went there together with members of the Rotary Club. Early in the morning our bus started to the spot located in the North of the Kyoto prefecture. We made our first stop at an old fishing village where we marvelled at beautiful old fishers‘ houses, followed by a little boat trip. We were prepared for the possibilty to feed sea gulls on the boat tour, but we were very lucky and even could attrackt eagles with our food. The shy birds picked our treats directly out of our hands! For lunch we rested at a little hill and had some delicious Sashimi, some of us also made a stop at the restaurant’s Onsen before heading on to Amanohashidate. The weather on our trip could not have been any better, so we had a magificent view on the sky bridge from Kasamatsu park. The sky bridge is actually a 3,6 kilometres long, naturally arrised beach with snow white sand, grown over by pines. To see the „bridge“ you have to stand up backwards to the beach, bend over and look through your legs, only then the illusion of a bridge in the sky is visible for the eyes. The coastline is considered as one of the three most beatiful coastal landscapes in Japan, and everybody who has been there, knows why this is.
At March 30th 2017 I finally came to take my first steps on Japanese ground. For about two weeks now I have been staying in Suita, only 10 minutes away from Osaka Central station, as the 14th scholar holder in the Northern prefecture of Osaka. Every year two young people from age 18 to 25 get the chance to visit Japan – and get to know the country, the culture and the language, everything accompanied by Mr. Okamoto. I have to stress how passionate Mr. Okamoto takes care of each and every one who comes here, so his fosterlings really understand the Japanese way of living.
In my first two weeks here I could already try many typical Japanese delicacies, but there is a difference in the way of eating between Germany and Japan: Here there are many tiny portions served in the course of dinner, likely to the Spanish Tapas.
As my first two weeks at Osaka came to an end, Mr. Okamoto and his wife launched a wonderful „Welcome Party“ for me, to which Mr. Takahiro Shinyo, former embassador at Berlin, and friends of the Okamoto family were invited. We enjoyed a delicious Kayseki menu at Syunsai Yamasaki restaurant and had a fun night full of nice conversation. I also got to meet Suita’s mayor Keiji Goto and learned a lot about the current situation and future of Suita in a 30 minute’s talk.
Another night I had the chance to join a reunion of the „Rotact Club“, where I socialised with many young Japenese. This was another moment where the Japanese kindness was revealed, as they treated me, a total stranger, like an old friend. I got even more flattered as they invited me to a BBQ and other activities right away.
So these were some of the highlights organized by Mr. Okamoto, but I also found time to stroll around at Osaka and Kyoto and to discover the towns on my own. A remarkable experience I made on my tours as a „single traveller“ was how open-minded and kind the Japanese people are. When I am about to take pictures while sightseeing I am often asked by passerbies if they shall take them for me. Eventually the Japanese even strike me into conversations in the streets of town, just to ask where I am from and how I like Japan. And if you have any questions or if you can not find a building or a shop the one’s familiar with the surroundings lead you there personally. In restaurants the staff always have a look at you and take care that you are continiously served with beverages and never sit there just on your own. I have never experienced this kind of hospitality in any other country before, a super positive attribute of the Japanese!
Now and then Mr. Okamoto takes me to business meetings. Among others I attended an interview at the Mitsuboshi Belting Company, done by Mr. Okamoto, Mrs. Kuno and Mr. Sumiya. Two employees of the enterprise were asked questions which will be released in the Japanese-German Society journal. A fact that is commandable is the social engagement of the company. Located at Kobe, the concern has established annual emergency routines since the earthquake 22 years ago destroyed many houses. Not only the evacuation of the enterprise staff out of the building is practiced but also how to turn off fires, transport injured, help people nearby and treat them with food. Habitants of the neighbourhood are always invited to these exercices, too. Beside practicing how to deal with a fire or an earthquake, as of late the right behaviour facing a Tsunami is part of the programm.
In case of an emergency the firm even bought a little fire truck, helmets and clothes for the employees and the people closeby, also they installed an extern water tank on the company premises. This examplary social commitment is obviously honored by Kobe’s people, because the enterprise is more than popular and respected.
I am really looking forward to the nex weeks and all of the new experiences I am going to make. Also I want to thank Mr. Okamoto and his wife here again for welcoming me so cordially and giving me so much of their time to show me Japan!
My first trip outside of Kansai led me to the western part of Japan. After hiking in and around Japan’s biggest limestone cave Akiyoshidai, I spent two days in the vibrant city of Nagasaki. During the period of isolation policy (1630-1853), this city was the only connection to the rest of the world, given by limited trade with China, Korea and the Netherlands. In the early 20th century, many Europeans settled in Nagasaki, amongst them the German doctor Franz Philipp von Siebold, whose extensive research on Japan and the Japanese built the foundation of today’s knowledge about Japan.
Nagasaki is home to many prooves of steady exchange with foreign cultures, for example old mansions of Dutch architecture, churches and Portuguese cake. The Confucius shrine gives a great insight into Chinese culture and also contains a small museum of historical Chinese art. Here, I copied Confucius’ teachings and thereby could improve my calligraphy skills…
I experienced my stay at Nagasaki as very interesting and informative. It was impressive to learn about the first relations between Europe and Japan, which at the time were characterized by way larger cultural differences compared to today.
Next stop: Fukuoka and Hiroshima. I visited several temples, that often differ a lot from those that I had seen in Kyoto in terms of interior and garden design, and the Peace Museum, which deals with the drop of the atomic bombs in 1945. The museum offers an illustrative and touching presentation of the historical events, however, I felt a lack of profound political discussion.
On Miyajima island, I climbed Mount Misen (530 m), and had a beautiful view of the surrounding islands and the famous torii standing in the sea.
The city Kurashiki offers an old town remaining from the Edo period with many residences and storehouses, which are nice to look at, but quite full of tourists and souvenir shops. Before returning to Osaka, I spent one day on the islands of Teshima and Naoshima. There, I explored numerous installations and museums of contemporary art, like the yellow pumpkin by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. I especially liked the Chichu Art Museum with fascinating pieces by James Turrell and beautifully presented pictures of the waterlily series by Monet.
After staying in hostels for one week, I appreciated my cosy apartment in Suita even more and enjoyed Osaka daily life, mainly consisting in studying Japanese (I am meeting my tandem partner Rika on a regular basis, which is a lot of fun!), exploring Kyoto (a never-ending story…) and activities with mixed groups of Japanese and foreigners like Volleyball or hiking. However, soon it was time for trip number 2, which provided me with a lot of new experiences. Travelling to the east, I arrived at my first stop Nikko. There, I visited the impressive Toshogu shrine and encountered unexpected amounts of snow during a hike in the mountains.
The next day, I met my friend Jonas, who came to visit me in Japan for two weeks. Together, we explored first Tokyo and later Kansai. One of my personal highlights in Tokyo was the world’s biggest fish market Tsukiji, which boasts an exciting atmosphere and many exotic sea creatures. Our as-fresh-as-possible sushi breakfast was the most delicious fish dish so far in Japan. I also liked Yokohama with its prominent skyline, it is a beautiful city and way calmer than Tokyo.
During another day trip, we visited Kamakura, home to the impressive Buddha statue Daibutsu built in the 13th century. Right on schedule with Jonas’ arrival, the cherry blossom season started and granted us beautiful views at every attraction we visited, like for example Himeji castle. Back in Osaka, we met my Japanese friend Kazumi for cooking Kushikatsu.
We experienced a big contrast to busy Tokyo during our stay at a guest house in a small village near Nantan. The owners, a very nice couple, taught us how to grow Shiitake, make chopsticks out of bamboo, prepare Mochi, craft moss bonsais and weave vine baskets. These two days felt very relaxing and we learned a lot about traditional Japanese craftmanship, customs and traditions. Special thanks to Kati, 9th scholarship holder of the Grünwald foundation, for the recommendation!
Japan fascinates – not only me, but also the many foreigners who live here. The main reason for this seems to be the incredible kindness and calmness of the Japanese, which contribute to a very stress-free life. Looking at Japanese working environment however gives a very opposite impression and some traditions like mandatory drinking with one’s boss and coworkers after work seems very questionable to me. Luckily, I am in the position of having a lot of free time to explore the country, which I enjoy very much. In the following, I would like to give an insight into some of my recent experiences, including many beautiful pictures, as Japan really offers a splendid setting for photography!
On hina matsuri, the girls’ day, dolls in colourful dresses are displayed in shrines and Japanese homes. They represent the imperial family and court. The kimono worn by the performer who is impersonating the empress during the shrine festival consists of twelve silk layers.
My German friend Mattias, who is currently living in South Korea for an internship, visited me in the beginning of March. Together, we spent one weekend sightseeing in Kyoto. It has been very interesting to discuss and to compare our experiences with Japan and Korea. From the culinary point of view, Japan carried off the victory. In nijo-jo castle, we enjoyed beautiful wall paintings of pine trees, cherry blossom, birds and tigers, which are often painted on raw wood. Like any other Japanese park, the castle’s garden is well-kept and neatly trimmed.
In the north of Kyoto, we visited “Japan’s most beautiful building”: The golden pavilion is located on the temple grounds of kinkaku-ji. The roof is inhabited by a golden phoenix with widely spread wings.
During a weekend in Kyoto, you certainly shouldn’t miss fushimi inari, a shrine for the Shinto goddess of rice and food. We took the one-hour walk up the hill in the early morning in order to avoid the incoming masses of visitors. The walk leads through a countless number of orange torii which have been donated by families or companies. The cost of donating a new torii is about 1500-10000€, depending on its size.
Nobukatsu and Arisa from Rotaract invited me to spend a very special day at a shrine festival in Suita. After improving my calligraphy skills, learning my name in Kanji and wood carving a cat-shaped coaster, I was allowed to slip into the role of a Miko together with a Japanese visitor. Miko are young women who work at the shrine and practice both religious and practical tasks.
Two very nice ladies clothed us in traditional garments and dressed up our hair. Mikos are not allowed to wear any personal juwelery. After a short acclimatisation, we were introduced into the various tasks that come with being a Miko:
We were taught how to wash one’s hands and mouth after entering the shrine and how to dry it with specially folded paper towels. In the shrine, twigs of tamagushi decorated with paper elements are sacrificed to the gods. The shrine grounds have to be kept clean, and the ritual of pouring sake into for example wedding guests’ glasses follows strict rules.
Trying our best to remember all procedures including bowing and clapping, we were allowed to sacrifice the decorated twigs to the gods during a ceremony with a Shinto priest inside the shrine. This has been a very exciting experience! My cordial thanks goes to Nobukatsu and Arisa for this special day!
Emerging from the traditional world of Shinto, the day continued to be interesting! I visited Nippombashi Street Festa, the annual cosplay festival of Osaka. It featured amazing costumes of all kind, which I was not able to recognize as I am still very inexperienced concerning Anime. Maybe the time has come to open up to this side of Japanese culture…
I spent a lovely Sunday with Mr and Mrs Kitano, who I already had met during the Rotarians’s visit in Grünwald last fall. They invited me to their home for tea, and I found it very interesting to see a Japanese house from the inside. We then went to see the Minō waterfall. After a one-hour walk, we enjoyed a fantastic lunch menu at a Kayseki restaurant. Sesame tofu, baby bamboo, tuna sashimi, scallop, tempura, octopus – it was so delicious! We were talking in both English and Japanese, which gave me a good opportunity to practice and improve my Japanese skills. I had a very nice and very interesting day, thank you so much!
Having stayed in Japan for four weeks, I can now say that I have settled in Osaka and appreciate the city’s open-mindedness and high quality of life. The latter is given by numerous cultural and sports activities, by the perfect location right in the center of Kansai, and especially by the people, who I often find to be very interested in me and my culture, open and kind. In Japan, one feels as safe as in no other country in the world (I am claiming that without having travelled them all), but this feeling can probably only be understood if you have experienced it yourself.
I have spent the last two weeks exploring Kansai both from its urban and rural side. Ikawasan, member of the Japanese-German association in Kobe, invited me to visit her city together with her daughter Sakura. We had a nice stroll through the harbour, where the famous red Kobe tower stands, and enjoyed the beautiful weather.
It is fascinating to see how fast the city recovered after the disastrous earthquake in 1995. We spent the second half of the day in Kitano, the former foreigner’s neighbourhood. In the beginning of the 20th century, many European tradesmen settled in Kobe and left their houses and mansions which can be visited today. Kobe is located between the sea and the Rokko mountains, where I spent a beautiful day with Sakura and a group of ten fellow nature lovers, hiking to Kikusui-yama and Nabebuta-yama. Besides the marvellous weather and view of the coast, the highlight at the end of the day were the marshmallows that we grilled in a fire.
I spent several days in Kyoto already – and yet have only seen a small part of the city and especially its many cultural attractions. I enjoy it very much to be able to take my time with exploring the numerous temples, shrines and castles. During my first trip to Kyoto, I visited Heian shrine with its surrounding gardens and Chion-in temple, where I could attend a Buddhistic ceremony and listen to the drumming and singing of the monks.
My hike from the mountain village of Kibune (north of Kyoto) led my through a cedar forest to Kurama, which offers an impressive temple with a magnificent view of the mountains. After a two-hours walk, it was time for my first onsen bath, where I could enjoy the hot spring water together with a view of the surrounding forests and hills.
At my next visit in Kyoto, I rented a bike, which surely is the best way of transportation in this city. I went to Ginkaku-ji, a temple which contains the so-called silver pavilion. Built in the 15th century, it was supposed to receive a full silver plating, which was never realized due to political trouble and financial straits. The temple has been transformed into a Zen temple, one can now find many carefully raked sand patterns and a sand pyramid which represents Mount Fuji. Did the Japanese find their love for clear shapes and plain architecture when looking at the mountain, or has the mountain unavoidably adapted itself?
My way back led me through Kyoto’s beautiful alleys and streets which are often decorated with flower pots. Every ever-so-mall garden is being cared for with love, with accurately cut trees and bushes as well as moss-covered stones.
The third destination of my exploration was Nara, a very beautiful city which hosts the biggest wooden building in the world at Todai-ji temple. Here, I enjoyed the company of Mr. Keisuke Hama, who showed me the most interesting parts of the city during one day. He is a retired architect and urban planner and thus could provide me with a lot of information about the construction and history of the numerous historical buildings.
After watching the deer at Nara park having their breakfast feeding, we walked to Kasuga shrine, where I particularly enjoyed the elaborate stone lanterns lining the way up to the shrine and the metal laterns, which decorated the shrines themselves. The use of various natural materials like stone, wood, rice straw and paper adds to the connection between artificial and nature in traditional japanese buildings.
I found it fascinating that the two religions Shinto and Buddhism do not interfere at any point in Japan. Sometimes you may find shrines in a temple or a temple in a shrine area, one protecting the other. This peaceful coexistence is probably strongly attributable to the fact that Shinto has both polytheistic and pantheistic character, and that in Buddhism, Buddha himself never claimed to be a god or a bearer of the word of god, but to have come to enlightment by contemplation. Therefore, in contrast to monotheistic religious orientations, there is no omnipotent divine being which could compete with another one. Long story short, after having thoroughly visited Kasuga shrine, we walked to the close-by Todai-ji temple and admired the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha, guarded by fierce-looking figures.
In Osaka, I had the chance to meet many Japanese with great interest in Germany and German culture, for example at the montly meeting of “Deutsche Meets” or of the Japanese-German association. The pictures below have been taken in Mr. and Mrs. Okamoto’s traditional Japanese room, where we held a tea ceremony after dinner. The visit of Lorenz, former scholarship holder of Grünwald foundation, and his parents, was a very nice opportunity to exchange the experiences that we made in Japan so far. I am forever grateful for the indefatigable generosity of Mr. Okamoto, who, with his financial support, energy and time, allows the Grünwald scholarship holders to explore Japan in such a light-hearted way.
On February 1st, Okamotosan and his wife gave me a warm welcome in Osaka. Being the 13th scholarship holder of the Grünwald foundation, I am going to live in the nicely furnished and centrally located guest apartment for the following three months. This will be my starting point to explore Japan. Right at the beginning of my stay, I had the chance to get to know the Japanese cuisine in many different ways: We spent a very nice evening with German consul general Dr. Werner Köhler, his wife and friends of Okamotosan at a superb restaurant. We enjoyed a Kayseki menu, consisting of thirteen courses chosen and arranged according to the season. As it was Setsubun, the last day of winter and first day of spring, this was the topic of the whole evening.
During the following days, I explored Suita and was fascinated by how similar and at the same time different it feels compared to my hometown. Even though I travelled to the other end of the world, the feeling of being a stranger is not as strong as I perceived it in other countries that I visited. The architecture of the houses and small gardens, the ever-present feeling of safety as well as the many temples and shrines constantly have to remind me that I am in a country which is very different to mine in terms of culture and tradition.
The Shintoist shrines, which today are viewed in a more cultural than religious way, are highly frequented by many Japanese. Okamotosan has shown me the traditional way of bowing and clapping one’s hands in front of the shrine in order to thank mother nature and to become aware of one’s wishes and goals in life.
We had the chance to meet the mayor of Suita, which was a very interesting experience to me. He took his time to discuss similarities and differences between Japan and Germany concerning the current social and political situation of both countries. Japan faces the biggest challenge posed by demographic change worldwide, as its birth rate is about the same as Germany’s and Japanese have the highest life expectancy in the world. As in Germany, the election turnout amongst young people is rather low in Japan.
While Okamotosan spent one week in Philippines in order to inaugurate a school library donated by Rotary, I immersed in Japanese history by participating in a workshop at “Osaka Museum of Housing and Living”. There, a replica of Osaka during the Edo period (1600-1870) is displayed. The workshop included wearing a kimono, a traditional tea ceremony, calligraphy and classical Japanese dance. While visiting the replica of the 200-year-old townhouses and shops, I was very impressed by the ingeniously built walls, doors and windows that could be operated via ropes and included advanced closing mechanisms. Using shoji (wooden frames covered with white paper) as walls and room dividers allows high flexibility in interior design and creates a connection between inside and outside that I have never seen in my culture. Unfortunately, this goes along with quite poor heat insulation.
After exploring the ancient town of Osaka, I got to know the modern city during a walk through Shinsaibashi, the main shopping area. Here, shops and billboards are piled up both horizontally and vertically. The streets are populated with so many people as I only know it from carnival in my hometown Mainz. Even though one has to get used to all the colours, music and sounds, this area is definitely worth a visit. I also went to see the park of Osaka castle, which was (a bit) quieter and featured a beautiful view of the castle.
At the museum workshop, at volleyball and at the Rotaract club meeting, I had the chance to meet several Japanese as well as people from China, America, Canada, Jamaica, Thailand and Russia. I really enjoyed having dinner with natives and fellow travellers from different countries and cultures and discussing their perception of and experience with Japan. I am looking forward to exploring the Kansai region during trips to Kyoto, Nara and Kobe in the next weeks.
In the beginning I had read a lot about Japan, looked at some documentaries and talked to friends who had already been here. All this information developed the wish to travel to Japan once in my life. I wanted to see for myself whether everything was as different as everyone had told me it would be. But honestly, nothing was able to prepare me for life I have encountered here. For two months now I have been living in Japan, and today I would like to give you another update on what has impressed me in the recent weeks and what has left me pondering.
The cities of Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe are said to have only 15 million inhabitants. If you look around in the streets and pay attention to how much is going on, it is hard to believe. Everywhere there is a lack of space. In the railways, in the apartments, in restaurants or even in front of them. On the streets life literally pulsates. Meanwhile I have conquered the railway network, but to get from A to B here you need at least 45 minutes. The most problems arise when you have to ask someone to show you the way, because one simply cannot expect that anyone speaks English in Osaka. The problem of language has crystallized itself to be most problematic in the last few weeks. I have learned the Hiragana / Katakana alphabet, which seems not to be used in everyday life. Daily routines like trying new restaurants or differentiating the supermarket spices have turned out to be my most difficult tasks.
Nobukatsu asked me if I would be willing to help at one of his almost endless social projects. Glad that I was able to give something in return to this country, I immediately agreed and met him at the station. He explained that he had founded a group which offers free tutoring to young and non-privileged children. Since I was educated bilingually and my English -based in Japanese standards- is probably not far behind that of a native speaker, so I was appointed the job of teaching English to the children of a “Junior High School”, especially training their speaking skills. Many of the children seemed happy to have the opportunity to meet with a foreigner and made real progress in our lesson together. At the same time, I learned what the everyday life of a student in Japan looks like. School, sports / musical training, followed by learning in groups. This seemed to me to be very strict, but on the other hand, it also made me aware of why Japanese can endure and live such a strict life. They get to know and accept it from a young age on.
After the lessons, I went out for dinner and a beer with my new “teacher colleagues”. The “nice guys” even let me order by myself. I am still not sure what I said, but it must have been right, because the cook and waiter laughed loudly together with me.
I am still taken aback on how Nobukatsu and his colleagues have been working for the education and support of others. I would like to let everyone involved know that my deepest respect is with them and I hope that others will join them and help, too.
Osaka also has a different side though. One, that you might not immediately notice as a European. It is incredibly quiet here, even on busy squares or markets. There is almost devotional silence in the railways. Everything is clean, there is no rubbish on the streets. I actually did not see a single graffiti on the walls anywhere in Osaka. The Japanese are incredibly polite people, very reserved and accommodating. Showing emotions does not fit here. Meanwhile it is clear why Japan is one of the countries with the highest suicide rate, as I had read in an article in the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” shortly before my departure. This is the reason why, one can find various barriers in front of the platforms of railway stations. Installed so that no one can plunge them self onto the tracks. Social and professional pressure seems to be incredibly high. However, there are practically no possibilities to let off steam, unless you are celebrating or drinking. In due of this course even the Japanese can be noisy. In clubs the mood is definitely good.
One of the things I have been particularly impressed by is that every day, countless people go to the temple sites of Japan to cleanse their minds and to ask for happiness for their families. The Japanese people are deeply conscious of tradition. Not only the older ones, but also the younger generation. Two generations, side by side, looking for spiritual enlightenment.
Japan can be colorful, can be wild, beautiful and sometimes even insane, too. And I am just beginning to understand why I have fallen in love with this country and would like to return some day. But as I said before. Nothing can prepare you for Japan. You have to experience it yourself.