On February 14, the time had finally come – after weeks of anticipation, I arrived safely at Osaka airport. The view out of the window was overwhelming – the city seemed to have no end. How would I ever find my way around?
From the moment I stepped on Japanese soil, however, the uneasiness was instantly gone – I have never met such friendly staff at any airport in the world. I was also immediately struck by the quietness – in Europe I only know airports associated with hustle and bustle and noisy people.
Despite hours of delay, Mr. Okamoto kindly picked me up and brought me to the cozy “girl’s house” that will be my home for the next three months. I can consider myself lucky, because normally there is no underfloor heating in Japan, and in winter it is drafty and cold in most apartments. The rest of the furnishings are also very reminiscent of German houses in style.
The first meal with Mr. and Mrs. Okamoto was immediately the next lesson: not only do I quickly notice that the two of them are incredibly generous, but I am also directly introduced to Japanese cuisine: Okonomiyaki, yakisoba and fresh vegetables are cooked up right in front of us on the table in the restaurant and, in short, are all pretty “umami” – which, in addition to meaning a fifth flavor, triggers a feeling of “more of that, please!” for me.
The first two weeks were full of special experiences and encounters with interesting, warm-hearted Japanese people, who were all open and interested. I also met inspiring people at my welcome party and was able to enjoy a kaiseki menu, which consists of many small dishes that look like works of art and is a firework of taste. I notice every day that in German cuisine, compared to Japanese cuisine, food is prepared rather lovelessly and quality plays a less important role.
I also started to discover Osaka in the first day. It’s a vibrant city, but it’s known more for its food culture than – like Kyoto – for temples and shrines. Compared to Tokyo, which I also visited during my first few weeks, Osaka is far more relaxed and has its own casual vibe. On a bike tour through the city (during which it suddenly started snowing) and a food tour, I got to talk to many locals and learned quite a bit about Osaka’s history and food culture. My premature conclusion: I can discover this city for weeks/months!
In addition, I had the chance to visit Kyoto three times in the first week: With Yoko (Mr. Okamoto’s wife) to visit an exhibition, to a tea ceremony in a temple and with Mr. Fukuda, who showed me several wonderful temples. I learn a lot from him about Japanese Buddhism and especially how different its teachings and practices are. Another learning: Sumo is a kind of religious practice that pays homage to the Shinto gods and is by no means, as I thought, just a wrestling match with often overweight men.
Now I am looking forward with curiosity and joy to the weeks ahead, which include celebrating the Hinamatsuri festival (also known as Dolls’ Day or Girls’ Day) and visiting Kobe and Naoshima. What an incredible opportunity for young students to be able to explore such a fascinating country as Japan and rethinking our belief system. I am already convinced that it will have a great impact on my life. A thousand thanks to Mr. Okamoto and his Grünwald Foundation for letting me experience all this.