Wednesday, May 31, 2006

weekend at urasa & nagaoka - 27 may 2006

Last weekend was another road trip by the local train. Since IUJ was having its annual ASEAN + Japan Nite, we decided to pay our future campus and fellow coursemates a visit.

It took us about 2 hours and not less than 15 stations to reach Urasa. Knowing that we would be exhausted by the time we came back, and not wanting to waste time, we brought along our shukudai (homework). Nevertheless, the sceneries outside were a sight for sore eyes for us city folks used to seeing concrete and metal.

Upon reaching Urasa station, an IUJ-bound taxi was already waiting for us. Hiura-san, whom I have been corresponding all these while was pretty efficient in arranging for us transportation, lodging and the campus tour.

We had a brief chat with Associate Dean Yamazaki on course requirements, a walk around the campus to familiarize ourselves with the place where our home would be from September onwards. Just before 6pm, we headed towards the gym where the ASEAN + Japan Nite would be held.

There were food samplings from each member country, followed by some cultural presentations. Unfortunately, Malaysia showcased a video presentation given by the Tourism Ministry. Now Farhana and Konan wants to visit the pristine beaches in East Malaysia and play with orang utans, both of which I’ve never done before myself.

We were invited for breakfast the next morning with a most hospitable Bangladeshi couple who were doing their Masters in Ebiz. Their version of the roti canai, payasam and tea reminded me of the mamak sessions back home. Methinks the last time I had mamak food was at least 2 months ago.

We decided quite spontaneously to visit Nagaoka on our way back. The weather had been looking quite gloomy all morning, but that didn’t deter us from stopping by the city which was struck by a major earthquake some 2 years back.

We were greeted by Konan’s compatriots from the Ivory Coast who took us for a little tour around the city. Nagaoka is relatively smaller than Niigata is many ways. There aren’t as many commercial buildings and almost everywhere you turn, you see paddy fields. Because of that, Nagaoka looks expansive. Our first stop was their campus, the Nagaoka University of Technology. Apparently, there are as many as 50 Malaysian students studying here.

Our next stop was the grayish uninspiring looking Nagaoka Institute of Design. The whole façade reminded me of post-war buildings with no colour or life in them. What a contrast compared to our bright and loud looking Limkokwing University of Creative Technology.

Before going back home, we were treated to lunch at Saizeriya. Thanks to our new found Ivorian friends, Floren and Pierre, we capped off our road trip nicely and managed to see bits and pieces of Nagaoka. After visiting Urasa and Nagaoka, I appreciate Niigata more. Can’t believe I’ll only be staying till September. Better explore more and do as much as I can before my Masters course drown me!

Friday, May 26, 2006

natto sushi party - 19 may 2006

My new found Japanese friends invited me to try natto, a stinky smelling but healthy delicacy which Niigata prefecture is famous for. Yuko brought along Maki and Yumi, while I extended the invitation to Alden, Farhana and Konan. We shopped for the ingredients to make natto sushi at Harashin, a supermarket down the hill.

They already made rice earlier, so we just had to prepare the rest at school. Yes, that's right, you read correctly. Apparently, the final year students have their own study lounge. So for each department, there is a room in which they can hang out and study together. There are even refridgerators and microwave ovens for them to use.

First, pour some sushinoko, a powdery substance into the rice and mix it well. I understood then where the sweetish sour taste of sushi comes from. Then prepare some nori (seaweed), cut into palm size squares for the sushi.

Next, open the prepacked natto, pour some shoyu (soy sauce) and mix well. It looks like something from Alien vs Predator. Fermented soy beans with really gooey stuff all over it. It should have an even more sticky feel after mixing for 10 minutes or so.

Get the rest of the ingredients prepared - cut the kyuri (cucumber - looks like zucchini to me), mix the maguro (tuna like fish) with mayo, make miso soup and voila, you have easy-to-eat sushi.

Singgih, an Indonesian student who will be going back to his country this year, Seki, the grrls's senior, and Mr Megillan (I'm very sure I got the spelling wrong), their Canadian lecturer also came to join us for the party.

It was a good time exchanging information about each other's country and culture. Alden and I taught them how to use "lah" at the end of sentences, just like how most of Japanese sentences end with "desu". Konan was telling them that when Alden and I speak Manglish, he cannot understand a word. So most of the time, we end up speaking proper English.

We actually planned to cycle to Niigata City, which is about half an hour's drive from Niigata University, after dinner. But because it was still raining, we decided to stay back and chat more with our Japanese friends. Since they insisted that they treat us this time, we promised to invite them to try our national delicacy the next time we meet.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

sasagawa house - 17 may 2006

The last period of Wednesday is the Japan Now class, taught my Shibata sensei. Since he has a limited grasp of the English language, Ikeda sensei helps translate his lessons. When Mrs Ikeda gave birth recently, her husband had to miss some of the classes.

L-R : Our most gungho tour guide, Shibata sensei, Ikeda sensei

Other than Japanese, Shibata sensei is also proficient in Mandarin. He had studied the language in China for a few years before. With Ikeda sensei absent, Alden and I, the only people in the class who understood Mandarin had to double up as translators. You can bet that only 10% of what he said got translated accurately!

The path on the left leading to the Main Gate can only used by the head of the family and his family members, whereas guests and servants use the one on the right.

One of the highlights of this class was the class trip. Compared to some Tokyo students who get weekly trips, we only have 5 altogether. The first was to the Sasagawa House, noted as an “Important Cultural Asset” in the village of Ajikata.

This house was built without the aid of nails. Our tour guide showing the base for the sliding doors which are made of different kinds of wood, the hardest of which is used in the middle section of the groove.

According to the tour brochure, Mr Sasagawa has been performing the duties of O-Shoya, the area’s biggest village headman, and controlled 8 villages including Ajikata village during the Edo period. The O-Shoya ruled the Shoya of each village and was given the rights of levying land taxes, transmitting orders, enforcing laws and holding trials.

The designs on the wall are inspired by patterns found in rice fields. This area is probably known as a “tokonoma”, an elevated stage area where decorations such as calligraphy are displayed.

Since the 3rd lord of (the) Sasagawa family had been appointed as (an) O-Shoya in 1649, the family had (held) the post of O-Shoya through 9 generations, for about 220 years until the Meiji Restoration. Also after (the) Meiji Restoration, Mr Sasagawa dominated as a head land owner and because he devoted himself to improving river irrigation, the Sasagawa House was left in its original state.

The family crest of the Sasagawa family

Built during the Tenshyo period (circa 1570), it is presumed that the magnificent Omotemon (the Main Gate), of which the thatched roof is remaining, and the Ishitoro (Garden Lantern) are the originals.

One of the upper floor corridors overlook the family grave yard

The Sasagawa House nowadays serves to illustrate the situation in which the O-Shoya were placed at that time, and moreoever provides a way for people to learn about the lives of the O-Shoya and the families and farmers who supported him. This house with its boundary of lush countryside is a symbol of the rich history and wealth of the surrounding Kanbara farmland.

Poetry in motion – Haiku calligraphy. The art lies not just in the writings, but the picture as a whole

Even though the tour guide only spoke Japanese, we were ooh-ing and aah-ing at the enormosity of the whole structure. Almost everything that were used by the original Sasagawa family were left intact. It gave us a glimpse of Japanese agriculture through one of the more powerful farmer families in Japan. I was told that the family could not maintain such a huge asset and have been residing in Yokohama since the 1970’s.

Excerpts taken from “The Sasagawa House, Echigo’s Big Village Headman, Important Cultural Asset” brochure

Monday, May 22, 2006

urasa dam - 30 april 2006

We went on a road trip to Urasa one fine morning end of last month. The Malaysian students from Niigata University drove down southeast to meet their counterparts from the International University of Japan. Syakir & co. led the way with his black Altezza, while Saiful drove the rest of us in Syakir’s 2nd car.

It took us about 2 hours before we could see the snow-capped mountains that this “snow country” was famous for. That meant Urasa was just around the corner, I was told. We paid Y2550 at the toll plaza. For that amount, we got a toothy grin from the tollkeeper, who was most sporting when he found out we wanted to take his picture.

We stopped by to pick up Aidil & Marina, the only Malaysian IUJ couple who stayed off campus. Their apartment was very near the ski slopes. We also saw a dented car which was apparently crushed by the heavy layer of snow the previous winter. I shudder to imagine what would happen should an avalanche hit them. But that’s just my imagination.

We arrived at Urasa dam to see beautiful koi streamers (koi nobori) hanging across the water. The decoration for the recent Children’s Day (kodomo no hi) was still up, giving the otherwise serene area a festive look.

I bet this will be one of the places I’m gonna visit often when I’m studying in Urasa. Without the streamers, this will make a good place for quiet contemplation. That is, if I get to have any free time to venture out of my room in the first place. I hear the E-biz students have the most packed schedule because the course is condensed into 1 year.

It’s not an exaggeration when we say that whenever there are Malaysians, there will be food. Each of us prepared something for the little picnic by the dam. We must’ve scared off the couple next to us with our gregariousness and excited chatter.

After the yummy lunch, we took a stroll around the area. The koi fishes here must be really well-breed. They’re bigger than the ones I’ve seen back home. But then again, Niigata is also well known for their prize-winning koi’s. One of them was as sporting as the tollkeeper. It blew a kiss back at me seeing that I was aiming for the cutest fish around.

Can you imagine if there is still snow in Urasa at this time of the year, how much snow there would be during winter? The seniors told us snow can go up to as high as 5m. I can already imagine myself looking like a walking Michelin mascot, all covered with layers and layers of winter clothing and looking all snuggly and warm.

I’ve heard of overseas students eating ice-cream during winter. I think it’s a universal thing, coz they do it here in Japan as well. At first I thought they must be nuts, but after trying it out for myself, maybe not. Perhaps it’s becoz the ice-cream don’t melt as fast. We had some gelato-like ice-cream at this little dessert shop called Yummy. That little treat capped off the Urasa road trip quite nicely.

Friday, May 19, 2006

warming up to the onsen

My very first experience at the onsen was awkward to say the least. The only time I bared my body to a stranger when I went for my massage about 2 years back. That wasn't so bad coz there's only the masseuse and you.

The Japanese public bath is usually outdoors and use naturally heated hot water extracted from a natural volcanic spring. The one I went to last night, even though it was a man-made one, was really tastefully done. Imagine zen Japanese aesthetics, dim warm lights and landscaping in the garden as you walk in. You start to get relaxed and look forward to the experience.

walking down the corridor, you see massage chairs on your left and the massage parlour on your right

I went with a Malaysian senior who taught me how to get myself accustomed to the rituals of the public bath. We had to first undress and put our clothes in the locker. Then head to the public bathroom, like those you've probably seen in books, and wash ourselves clean. It's considered rude to just dip your body in the baths without bathing first.

We sat on short stools facing a miror each. They have a shower head and tap with a temperature gauge. We set it to about 35degC to get our bodies acclimatized to the hot water after that. There are even bottles of 'rinse shampoo' and 'body shampoo' for you to use. But you can always buy these, and other toiletries at the vending machines outside. In fact, you can get almost anything in vending machines, but that will be another story.

you can buy toiletries and anything you need for the ultimate onsen experience just before you enter the baths

After getting ourselves clean, we headed to the outdoor area where they have small pools in various themes. We tried the well-like pool first. It felt like the hot water just washes away the stress and tension in the body. I could've stayed there longer if not for the heat.

We also tried the hot stones. It's like lying down on your back on the hot pavement with a small layer of water running underneath, while exposing your body to the open air. At first I thought the stones were going to burn off the fats off my butt, but later as I got more comfortable with the heat, I began to feel sleepy. Another friend commented that it's great just lying down there during winter when the snow falls on your body. Maybe I'll get to try that in winter in Urasa!

there's even a dining area should you get hungry after the pampering session

We ended with the jacuzzi back inside. Having the jet of water pushing against the body was like having an indirect massage. At the end of it, I almost melted away in the onsen. It was just a wonderful experience. Too bad I can't bring it back to Malaysia.

It's beginning to get a little warmer as summer approaches. I'd better go for more onsens as much as I can before then.

feeling all soft and relaxed, didn't feel like cyling back uphill to my apartment!

Monday, May 15, 2006

hepi mama day!

Wishing all the mothers out there a Happy Mother's Day! Albeit a little late, this wish comes all the way from Japan with much love.

I wanted to buy something nice from Japan for my mum, but I still wasn't sure of my way around, and last week was about only the 2nd time I had been to Niigata city. So I decided to surprise her by calling her early Sunday morning, just before she left for church.

There I was, walking in my peejays (or what must've looked like it, coz some Nihon-jins were looking at me one kind) to the campus. That was the only place I knew that had a public phone with access to make international calls.

Couldn't get mama at first, so I called papa and he said he was already in church. Asked me to try calling home instead. But I got my brother instead, who was half-dazed when I got him on the phone.

Finally reached my mama, who was most delighted to hear from me at such an hour. Hearing a familiar voice on the other end of the line on a foreign land is like a soothing balm to the weary soul. (Not that I was weary per se, heh)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

yahiko shrine - 30 april 2006

Mt Yahiko may only be slightly more than 600m above sea level, it nonetheless is an imposing presence on the coastline of the Sea of Japan. It overlooks the vast Echigo Plain inland and provides an expansive view of the rice paddies of Niigata, a region well known for its rice production.

The students from the Nihongo-0 class organised a trip to Yahiko last month. By then we had roughly gotten a hang of the train system and how to recognise basic kanji characters. We took the JR line from NiigataDaigakuMae, switched at Yoshida and continued on to Yahiko Eki. The interesting part was that the front entrance of the Yahiko Eki is built in the likeness of the Yahiko Shrine.

Yahiko Shrine, the primary shrine of the Echigo Country (old name for the Niigata area), is nestled amidst forests of cedar and zelkova trees at the eastern foot of Mt Yahiko. The shrine grounds are surrounded by a dense grove of old trees, such as Japanese cypresses, creating an awe-inspiring atmosphere.

Visitors to Yahiko Shrine buy wooden tablets on which to write their prayers and wishes and have then hung here. I'm not sure what happens to the tablets, perhaps the priests collect them at the end of the day and chant some prayers for the people. Wish there was a tour guide who could explain the ceremonies that took place in the shrine.

There's actually lots that can be done up on Mt Yahiko - hike up the hill, enjoy the natural onsen, ride on the ropeway to get to the top where Sanjo Park awaits you, have picnics near the playground or cycle on the trails around the hill. Since some of us had to rush back for the Coffee Hour*, we left after lunch.

For more related stories...

*Coffee Hour - Tea time gathering held every 10th, 20th and 30th of each month at the International Student House for international students to mingle with Japanese, where they can make new friends and improve their Japanese language.

You can tell that this post sounds quite blah. Updating the blog takes up so much of my time! Writing something that has already happened in the past takes away the oomph la.

Monday, May 08, 2006

church seeking

Think I might have found a church that I would like to attend regularly. After the case of "Lost in Translation" at the JW church the previous Sunday, I became quite cautious whenever I meet Christians here.

I really don't want to be skeptical, but with my limited Japanese, it's hard to tell one from another. For the first 4 weeks, I have been careful to avoid them whenever they come knocking on my door. This family of 3 (the elderly lady, her daughter and son-in-law) have been visiting me and were being characteristically persistent.

To cut the long story short, all my efforts went down the drain when I actually ended up in their church because I misunderstood a grrl from the uni who happen to be their church member. If you would like to know the full version of what happened, please email and an unedited version will be delivered right to your doorstep. ;p

Anyways, I finally managed to contact an AG church in Niigata after much dead ends. During my 1st try, the guy on the other line couldn't really understand English and what I wanted. When I called again the week after, they gave me the Pastor's number but no one picked up the phone. Then I tried the church again just to verify, but this time there was no response. Even the emails I sent went unreplied.

That was why when I heard that the grrl above was a Christian, I got quite excited and somehow got myself invited to her church. I never had a personal encounter with the JW back in Malaysia, and on hindsight realised that I should've been less naive.

So anyways, after that JW incident, I decided to give it one more try. It was about 630pm and I had just woken up from my nap. I didn't expect anyone to still be in the office, but lo and behold, the guy not only understood English, but managed to get someone to contact me back.

sitting through the japanese service
Pastor Tsuchiya preaching at the Japanese service

This Sri Lankan lady returned my call within 1 hour and arranged for us to meet before going to the church. So it was a rainy day when I met her yesterday morning and she drove us to the Grace Chapel. The morning service was in Japanese but I could immediately feel the warmth of the atmosphere.

welcome lounge
We had coffee and cakes at the Welcome Lounge after the service

They have a proper building with 3 floors, stage at the front, pews and a band for worship! It looks really modern and their 1st service had no less than 100 people in the congregation. It was all I could do to stop my tears from flowing when they started singing. It felt like home. I recognised some of the songs, and the music just flowed beautifully.

It was as if my thirst was finally quenched. I'm not looking for a superduper church with fancy facilities, just a place where the people are genuinely seeking God and simply enjoying His presence.

lunch at church
Some church members having lunch before the 2nd service

After the service, I managed to meet the American pastor whom I was trying to contact earlier. He had just returned from Tokyo with his family, and was pleased to hear my story. I also took the opportunity to tell him that I would like to serve in the music ministry. I realise I wouldn't have done that on normal circumstances, but you should've seen their expression because they were actually looking for a pianist to serve in the English service.

Even though I think I will settle down in this church, it's too early to say what I will do here. There are lots to be done, no doubt, but at the moment, I'm just glad I found one where the people are warm and receptive, where opportunities abound. And oh, they're having a little bible study group in the campus tomorrow evening. I'm gonna check it out and see how things go.

God is slowly but surely answering my prayers.

sushi for dinner
Joining new friends from the English service for a sushi dinner