Liou's quiet little life...or is it?

Friday, March 24, 2006

News from the peaceful capital

Just a short update as I am quite tired from all the cycling through Kyoto today!

I have arrived here last Saturday with the nightbus, quite an horrible experience, which I will have to redo tomorrow night again, due to financial concerns :) Even though, I am seriously considering whether the Shinkansen (=Japanese high speed train) isn't simply the better option, even if it is three times the price of a busticket.

It is only now that I realize how lucky I am to have relatives here in this beautiful city. My uncle and aunt have been living here for the biggest part of their life, and I am able to stay at their place, somewhere north in the city. The weather has been pretty awful at the beginning of this week, but is very sunny by now. Unfortunately, I am just a week too early for the beginning of the various spring blossoms, of which the cherry tree is the most famous one. It is kind of bitter to see a nice landscape with bare trees almost burgeoning. But all disadvantages have advantages (quote from our Dutch philosopher/ex-soccer player Johan Cruijff), since the city will be completely packed, as spring is Kyoto's busiest season.

I have more or less avoided the most touristic spots, such as Kinkakuji (the gold temple in the west of the city), as I have seen them 4 years ago on my last trip here. Of course, it is hard to avoid the crowds, since everybody wants to see beautiful things. But I have focused on more tranquil spots and actually a lot of shops as well. I have taken a liking for Japanese handcraft products, and especially lacquerware, one of the many specialities of Kyoto. Enough shops (with sometimes exorbitant prices) to go around here.

Furthermore, I have been able to communicate much better than before with my aunt, since my level of Japanese has greatly increased since the last time we saw each other.

Below is a somewhat blurry (and therefore maybe even more artistic?) photo of Inari, a famous temple with a path surmounted by an incredible amount of red gates.

Below, you can see me with my aunt and uncle at a traditional Japanese restaurant, serving sashima (raw fish) and tempura (batter-fried vegetables and fish). The appetizers included yurako, which is actually fish semen. I heard so after eating, which I think was for the better! My face is quite red in this picture, and I hope it is due to the sun instead of the beer. The latter would mean that my Japanese genes are somehow becoming more dominant here, as a lot of the people here can't stand alcohol very well and become red after just one or two glasses. This is apparently due to a lack of enzyms that break down alcohol.

This was a nice teahouse in the garden of the former castle of the shogun (highest military ruler who for 300 years possessed the real power, while the emperor was more or less a puppet). Macha is the tea you get here, which consists of green tea leaves grinded to a fine powder.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Violin is in the air

Last November I was surprised and very much happy to hear one of my high school classmates, Frederieke Saeijs, had won an important prize in Paris for violin and piano solists, the Long-Thibaud concours. The prize consisted mainly of concerts given in Europe, as well as one in Japan!

Since my uncle and aunt like classical music, they bought tickest for both them as well as for me, a very kind thing to do. A couple of weeks before the concert Frederieke told me she had reserved three invitations, not knowing we already had bought the tickets. So I was invited two colleagues and a friend of mine. The concert was started by a french violonist, who didn't participate in the contest, but who was here as the evening was more or less based around a french theme. Then came the second prize winner, Minami, a girl who just turned 17, 10 years younger than Frederieke!!! When we caught a glimpse of her backstage, she seemed even really young. She was very shy when she appeared on stage, but this shyness completely disappeared when she started to play (a piece by Saint-Saens btw). When the concert finished and she received her rightfully diserved applause, she turned into a schoolgirl again.

Frederieke played a more contemporary piece (by Berg), which was maybe slightly less suited to the taste of the more conservative Japanese audience. For me it was a very interesting, intriguing and hypnotic composition. I don't pretend to know a lot about classical music, but this play reminded me of a concert of Yuri Bashmet, which I saw in Moscow during my travel through Russia. It is not so much about harmonic melody as more of a soundscape or a musical journey, which conjures up all kind of images in the mind.

We briefly met with her backstage, but as expected there were many people eagerly waiting to greet her. This was no problem however, since I spent most of the following weekend with her. We went to Kamakura on Saturday, and were quite lucky because of the sunny weather after what must have been one or two weeks of continuous rain. We strolled around and saw some beautiful japanese temples, both zen and shinto. Kamakura is famous for one of the biggest buddha statues in the world. Unfortunately, since we were too late the temple complex was already closed when we arrived. We hoped to see the buddha to outside, but yet it is not that big :)

After this sightseeing we went back to the appartment of one of her friends Olga, a Russian woman having studied the violin at the same school in the US, and now living with a banker in the centre of Tokyo. I must say that their appartement is the most impressive I have seen in Japan. It is just next to the Tokyo tower and offers stunning views over downtown Tokyo as well as the bay separating it from Chiba prefecture. Maybe I have chose the wrong business, but considering the type of work involved, most probably not. From there we were able to walk to Roppongi, the night district of Tokyo where we danced salsa until I had to leave to get my last train home. We found out in Japan that we both really like dancing, which we both didn't expect of the other person!

Saturday we went to see a Kabuki-play in the most famous theater in Ginza - the most expensive shopping street of Tokyo with brand shops of Louis Vuitton, Armani and the like. I remember going to Kabuki 5 or 6 years ago with my stepmother, and I didn't appreciate it as much as now to be honest. At that time, there were only one or two actors, and one was playing various roles by using several masks. This was all rather cryptic and difficult to follow. This time however, it was a very engaging tale of samurai's, honour and revenge, involving quite a lot of violence, although acted out in a stylistic way. Olga's partner had bought a pamphlet with a summary of the story, which really helped us a lot in understanding the play. The stylised acting together with the repetitive background music (played by live musicians using a small set of notes), gave the whole a very meditative feel to it. After the show finished, it almost felt like if I had done some yoga. Frederieke made the exact same comment curiously enough! Full kabuki plays are long, about 4 or 5 hours; this theatre offers you to see one act of one hour, which I think is more than enough for an untrained spectator! Even though, a very interesting experience. A funny anecdote is that the otherwise silente, polite Japanese audience will shout out the stage names of their favourite actors when they enter and leave a scene. This took us all by surprise, since it was such as contrast with the otherwise peaceful public.

Monday, March 06, 2006


Three weekends ago I went on a ski-trip together with most of my colleagues. This has been the first time ever I was moving on something else than my own feet over snow or ice. I have never learnt to skate either so far, even though most of the Dutch people have; a thing I have been often reminded of by my friends when living in the Netherlands. And neither have I ever skied since this time I chose to learn the snowboard, based on the advice of some of my friends. Even if the majority said snowboarding was easier, it remains a controversial issue. Until I try out skiing though I will not be able to compare both.

As you might already have heard from me, Japanese holidays are very scarce. So in order to make the most of our weekend, we hired a bus for 20 people, left Friday night, tried to sleep and arrived rather exhausted Saturday morning. After this we changed to our hired snow outfits, which were desperately due to renewal and definitely not fashionable - my jacket stated "Skiing Master", somewhat ironic for someone snowboarding for the first time ever. Christian, a German colleague, was kind enough to teach the snowboard novices the basic concepts and then we were off. This led to a weekend full of falls and sore muscles, that lasted for a couple of days after restarting work. Even though, the learning curve was fortunately not too steep, meaning that I actually managed to improve enough to enjoy it. Apart from that, it is really fun! One of the bests things however, was to dip in a incredibly hot bath in the hotel after a hard day of snowboard exercises. This practically boils your muscles, but tend to relax them as well. And after this nothing better than a cold beer :)

Actually, I would definitely like to do it again, maybe at the end of this month, or when I come back to Europe. As I mentionned to one of my friends, so far I always thought of snow sports as something of a proletarian form of amusement. This was associated with the image of Dutch people drinking beer after some hours of snow activity, loudly singing along with "oompahpah" medleys while dancing in a long queue. But as my friend assured me after skiing in the Haute-Savoie (France), things can be a lot more civilized. Which reconforts me and might offer to see a different side of France.