Tuesday, February 7, 2012

8th Cross Cultural Forum

The cross-cultural forum has for the past 8 years been an event where foreign residents and Japanese alike have a chance to give speeches on some very difficult topics. This year’s Cross Cultural Forum, held on January 29th, was no easier, with all the presenters, myself included, presenting on the theme, “What is Happiness?” Not an easy question to answer, even in English.

 After the standard introductions, our first presenter was a Jamtso Tenjin from Bhutan, a country well known for its policy of Gross-National-Happiness(GNH). In addition to giving us a rundown on GNH and its basic tenets, he also went into detail about life in Bhutan, and how people live much the same as hundreds of years ago. But what really took me by surprise was his devotion and admiration of the king of Bhutan. In the news you hear about the king’s popularity, and he does come across as a good man, but to hear it directly from a Bhutanese citizen made it very clear how much he actually means to his people.


 Next, Roi Yang-yang from China gave a presentation on what constitutes happiness to younger Chinese. Though she started off on the education system, and how until college more than happiness, the lives of Chinese students are devoted to study and work; she eventually moved into talking about love and marriage. She explained how, for many educated, independent women in China, marriage is becoming less of a priority. Apparently, for these career-oriented women, happiness has become less about having a family and more about having a successful career. Clearly as the world changes, so too do people’s definitions of happiness.


 Following these was the Seika Nishi Middle School International Exchange Club, talking about what happiness is to middle school students. By polling their classmates, the club was able to get a lot of feedback on what these kids are looking forward to most in life. Of course there were the standard hopes and dreams; a nice family and enough money, but there was also some surprising elements too. I was a little taken back that the most popular activity for middle school students was “sleeping.” Now don’t get me wrong, sleep is wonderful! But for that to be your favorite part of the day seemed a little depressing, especially for all these young kids.


 Bringing up the rear was yours truly, and I had decided to talk about how for many people, immigration is the key to some kind of happiness. In particular I introduced how folks like myself don’t fit into the traditional immigrant role; those looking for work, freedom, or reunification with their families. Instead, I felt that there were special reasons for us coming here to Japan specifically. Namely; the thirst for adventure and new experiences, a love of Japanese culture or history, feeling more comfortable in Japanese society, and the attention that we foreigners receive in Japan.


 The first three are fairly self-explanatory, but I’d like to explain the idea behind the last point; that many of us foreigners like the attention we get in Japan. And whereas in some countries this attention can turn to hate, in Japan most of the attention is fairly positive. Japanese people see you and want to talk to you; myself and many friends often get people coming up to us to strike up conversations while walking around town. Of course it can get annoying when you just want to be treated like everyone else, but I do think that many foreign residents do, to a certain level, enjoy being “special,” and being representatives of their country.


 The whole event was a really interesting insight into what happiness is for so many people, from Bhutan to China, to Japanese middle school kids and even myself. Hopefully next year’s topic will be just as thought provoking.


Friday, November 25, 2011

Seika Festival 2011 / せいか祭り2011年

 As November comes around, it’s time again for the Seika Festival! With over 35,000 visitors last year, the festival is far and away the biggest event of the year, and despite a bit of rain and clouds, it went off without a hitch this year!

Like last year, I was posted at the Seika global Network booth, where we held a small international photo contest, using photos from out sister city, Norman, Oklahoma. We had the kids and their parents pick their favorite picture and then handed out balloons. We also had information about Seika Global Network and Norman up, and a lot of people seemed really interested to learn more about our sister city!


Wandering around the festival during lunch, I saw different stalls selling all kinds of fresh fruit, toys, takoyaki, and all kinds of other things. There were hands-on activities too, set up by different groups and organizations in Seika. At one for instance where you had to try to power a TV with a bicycle. There was even a giant inflated Mario which kids could bounce around inside of.


Inside the Suikeien were different dance performances, covering every genre from hip-hop to cheer squad. Additionally, all kinds of different bands performed at the Music Street concert, though my favorite was probably a group that looked like regular salary men, but rocked like Spinal Tap.


 The whole festival was a lot of fun this year too, and it seems like many kids and adults were interested in our sister-city. Here’s hoping everyone who came out had a great time and that next year is just as fun!


Monday, November 14, 2011

Our guests from Oklahoma・オクラホマ州からのゲスト

As part of the 26th National Culture Festival held in Kyoto this past week, Seika got a visit from some very special guests. Students from the University of Oklahoma’s school of dance and the marching band came to Seika to show off their skills.


The students visited both Higashi Hikari Elementary School and Seika Nishi middle school, where they got to perform for the students there and afterwards interact and play with them. The performances were great, and I especially enjoyed the dance portion, which was very modern and really grabbed the attention of the kids in the audience. Of course the marching band was exciting too, most of all when they performed big band versions of some classic Japanese songs.


At Seika Nishi middle school, after the show our guests from Oklahoma broke up and went to different first year classes for some closer interaction. The middle schools students taught them how to write their names in Katakana, make origami and speak some Japanese. The students from Oklahoma also took the time to introduce their state and answer some questions about life in America. Some even brought CDs and gifts for all the kids!


Although people seemed a little shy at first, it wasn’t long before everyone was laughing and having a lot of fun. Though I had originally thought it might be necessary for me to interpret, after a while I realized that everyone was having a better time communicating directly, even with the language barrier. Since I no longer have much trouble speaking Japanese, I had forgotten how much fun it can be trying to communicate and break through the language barrier with another person.


Although they could only stay in Seika for a short while, we all hope they had a lot of fun, and made some good memories about our town to take back with them.


Friday, October 28, 2011

The 9th Children's Festival! 第9回の子ども祭り

I know it’s been a while since the last update, but let me tell you, it’s hard to get anything done in Kyoto in summer. Honestly I was having trouble not melting most days. This heat also means that there’s a distinct lack of events due to the overwhelming heat.


But now that Seika is heading into fall the calendar is starting to fill up again. For instance last Saturday we held the 9th Seika Children’s festival in the Mukunoki Center. The festival last year is still one of the highlights of my time here, so I was really looking forward to this. Like last year I worked at the Seika Global Network’s booth, where we supervised kids in making some crafts.


The children’s festival was started off with a couple of performances. A youth brass band covered a song from juggernaut girl group AKB48, which I don’t necessarily associate with a big-band sound, but somehow they made it work. Next, a group of preschool kids sang their hearts out, and though their pitch needed a little work, you’d be hard pressed to find a cuter choir. Lastly was the Seika boys and Girls chorus who will be performing at the National Culture Festival at the start of next month.


After the performances the kids scattered around the arena, trying a lot things at the different booths set up in the arena. We at the Seika Global Network booth, we wanted to teach the kids a bit about our sister city, Norman, and the state of Oklahoma. So knowing the long history of native Americans in the state, we decided to make dream catchers.


Other booths had kids trying out traditional instruments, learning sign language, playing with tops, and making paper fans with their pictures on them. The fire department even had a place where kids could try on a fireman’s outfit and learn how to make all kinds of knots.


Unfortunately I was suffering from a nasty cold, so I was initially less than enthusiastic. But the kids did a great job of cheering me up, and a lot of them remembered me (more likely my facial hair) and asked when I was coming back to see them.


Though I was about ready to collapse by the end of the day, it was great to be able to interact with so many kids, and teach them a little bit about one part of American culture.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bon Dance at the Japanese Language Class

So I know it's a little late, but on August 2nd, all the students and teacher's of Seika Global Network's Japanese language class got to do the Bon dance!


If you're interested in the Japanese Language class, check out their blog, or contact me.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Gion Matsuri / 祇園祭

 Though I enjoy it when people, especially family, come to visit, I occasionally have trouble when showing them around Kyoto and Seika. By this point I have seen pretty much every famous temple, shrine and sushi bar this side of Osaka. So while my guests are all in awe of the beautiful Japanese architecture and culture, I’m wondering where the nearest all you can eat place is. However, this past week, my mother was kind enough to come when one of Japan’s biggest festivals, Gion Matsuri, was being held. As I’ve never been, this seemed like a good chance for both of us to see something entirely new.


 The festival was started in the 800s, when a terrible plague was devastating Kyoto. Deciding that the gods were miffed about something, the emperor decreed that 66 halberds, one for each prefecture, be raised at Yasuka Shrine in the Gion district to appease the gods. This practice was repeated every time a plague hit, and the festival became a yearly event in 970. Over time Gion Matsuri gradually changed into a kind of parade, where portable shrines were carried throughout the town.

 Gion Matsuri lasts the entire month of July, and has more events than you can shake a stick at. The most popular and famous has to be Yamaboko parade, a parade featuring giant floats known as Yamaboko that goes down on the 17th of July. The Yamaboko floats(technically two distinct styles, one called yama and one called hoko) can be huge, towering over 25 meters and weighing in at near 12 tons and requiring a team of near 50 men to pull them. All the floats are decorated with beautiful tapestries, some woven in areas like Persia, Belgium and Turkery.


 However, as Mom and I found out, the three days leading up to the parade are a blast too, and in some respects, the real “festival” part of Gion Matsuri. The floats are set out for people to see and even go into, and thousands of people wander up and down the streets of Kyoto. Food vendors open up and start selling friend chicken, pineapple, and nearly every corner had someone hawking cold drinks and beer. Almost every girl was decked out in her yukata, and it was clear that the Japanese folks were getting just as much fun having a “Kyoto” experience as my mom and I were.

 The parade itself was quite something, if just for the fact that the guys pulling the floats didn’t pass out from heat stroke. The sidewalks were packed with people and despite the fact that progression of the floats was slow (you wouldn’t move fast if you were dragging 12 tons either), watching the huge floats moving through the city was kind of like seeing ships sailing through the city streets. Musicians followed every float, and some had dancers or performers following along, swinging staffs or hopping around.
Gion Matsuri was exciting not only because we got to watch huge floats rolling down the city streets, but also because I got to show it to my mother, and be just as excited as she was about it. Hopefully it’ll be just as fun next year.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Animal Refuge Kansai (ARK)・ 「アニマルレフュ-ジ関西(ARK:アーク)」

 One of the downsides of living in an apartment is that it is generally forbidden to own pets. Having grown up surrounded by cats and dogs, I do feel a distinct lack of fluffy animals in my life. So when a coworker asked me if I wanted to volunteer with her at one of Japan’s best animal shelters, ARK animal refuge center, I literally jumped at the chance.

 ARK was started in 1990 by an English woman living in Japan who, upset the lack of facilities for animals in Japan, enlisted some friends to open ARK and give some dogs a place to call home. Though starting small, the organization began to grow and was instrumental in housing hundreds of dogs left homeless after the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake hit Japan in 1995. Nowadays the shelter houses some 200 dogs, as well as cats, geese, rabbits, goats and even a fox.


 My coworker and I got there pretty early in the morning and after a quick introduction were put straight to work as dog walkers. Since ARK is located far up in the northern countryside of Osaka, there is plenty of space to walk and explore, and with so many young and “energetic” dogs, dog walking seems to be one of the most important activities volunteers do.


 Our first group of dogs was a whole heard of the smaller breeds, including a toy poodle, a miniature pinscher, and quite a few Chinese crested, both the haired and hairless varieties. Despite the fact that many of the dogs had come from breeders with little chance for socializing and play, they were pretty much all very excited to be out and about for their walks.


 Taking them out in twos, we got to wander all over ARK, which is a huge complex. The dogs of course were super excited to sniff and roll around in all manner of things, and even the few that seemed nervous leaving the safety of their pen warmed up to the walks soon enough. Many of the dogs there were also rescued from areas destroyed in the Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami, so it was really good to see them bouncing around and being happy, just like normal dogs.


 Lunchtime gave us a little time to breath and rest, as well as interact with the dogs kept inside to keep from overheating. One bulldog in particular captured my heart with her friendly attitude and expressive face. This is despite the fact she would eat the food she kept throwing up. Dogs are majestic creatures, eh?


 As the afternoon heat was too much to take dogs for a walk, our next task was “socializing cats,” basically playing with and brushing some of the cats housed at ARK. The older cats had clearly gone through a lot, with some missing eyes or parts of their tails, but they were some of the friendliest and most playful cats I had ever seen. As anyone who owns cats can tell you, an extremely loving cat is about as rare as a fluffy iguana, but these guys were all clamoring for attention and love. There were also bunches of kittens, and as adorable as they all were, it was all I could do to keep from taking them home myself.


  We were then set to brushing the dogs, which is always a right bit more difficult than brushing cats. The brushing generally turned into a game of tag, as you’d try to grab the dog and brush it a few times before he’d inevitably bound away. But since summer in Japan is closely reminiscent of summers on Venus, brushing the dogs can be just as important as walking them. So despite the fact that it ended up looking more like wrestling than grooming, we made sure the pups were looking mighty fine.


 After one more quick walk with two new friends, we finally had to say goodbye, but are sure to be back. It’s good knowing that there are places like this in Japan working to help abandoned or abused dogs and cats. Personally, I got to play with puppies and kitties, which totally made my week. We also ran into lots of other volunteers, who ranged from children to retirees, with some people clearly being regulars and visiting every week. Like every other animal shelter, ARK is always looking for volunteers, so any help would be great.


 If you’d like to know more about ARK and what they do, check out their homepage: