Through some stroke of luck, I was offered the chance to participate in a four-month cultural exchange program. The university where I studied medicine established an academic affiliation with a university in Japan (names withheld for now, just because). One of their future projects is to create a program that will allow the graduates of the latter to pursue medicine in the former. This, however, is an idea barely in its conception, and as most good academic programs do, will take some time before it is birthed. The two institutions are currently focused on establishing initial relationships with one another at the most basic level: people.
This is where we come in. I suppose ‘teaching’ is the simplest explanation of what I do, at least it is the one people understand best. Technically and formally, we are not university-issue lecturers. We spend most days in the English Village, a glorified, glorious student center, teaching Japanese students who want to learn conversational English and biomedical subjects in English. We spend most days teaching, and most days learning.
The Landscape of the Rising Sun
Possible focus group words for Japan, in my imagination’s focus group discussion for people who have never been to Japan, would be: Tokyo, Osaka, sushi, animé, Mt. Fuji, harajuku, and Voltes V. These would be my focus group words, at least, which is why I was really happy to see a different side of Japan. The university where we spent the last four months is nestled, in storybook fashion, in the middle of mountains. The town itself is the sleepy, quiet sort – where people greet each other in bike paths and rivers remain homes to ducks and, if I’m not mistaken, herons.
It amazes me so much that despite their limited land area, the Japanese were able to build into the mountains and not over them. Of course, I am neither an architect nor an engineer, so everything here is just from a layperson’s perspective. Still, I do appreciate the design. For example, highway tunnels are built into mountains instead of simply quarrying the land and making it a flat free for all. Near our apartment is a running path that follows the curve of the river, with the requisite safety railings built in the area. While it’s not ‘all natural’, I think it’s a good compromise, seeing as how most of the runners are old men and women, and occasionally, children with their precious few hours of after school freedom.
We also went to Fukuoka for winter break. Fukuoka is to Tokyo like Davao is to Manila. Our foster family was all sorts of awesome. They brought us to at least three different Japanese shrines (including the Daifuku shrine, which I think was a favorite for students who want to pass entrance tests), Mameda Town in Oita, Akizuki Castle Town, and the Kyushu National Museum.
Fukuoka is decidedly a city, but what was strange and sad for me was how clean it was. It made me happy that this was possible, and it made me sad because I wanted so much for the Philippines to be like it. I also think that it’s wonderful how the Japanese have managed to preserve their 300 year old castle towns and at the same time, pioneer advances in technology. There is so much respect for both the old and the new. I think I am infatuated with Japanese discipline.
When Lea Salonga tweets about having Japanese food in Japan, you know there’s something to be said for that.
I have an admittedly rudimentary palate, though I would try almost anything once. While I did try raw horsemeat, octopus and some species of Nautilus about the size of my hand, I was happiest with home-cooked meals like tamagoyaki, okonomiyaki, sukiyaki and korokke. This experience has also lobbied a place for yakiniku in my theoretical last meal course.
I learned that the preparation of sushi, wagashi, tea, and many other types of Japanese food requires a license if you want to do it professionally. I suppose this discipline, and the freshness of the ingredients, is what makes it distinct. In Fukuoka, we stayed with a Japanese family for more than a week. We were beyond lucky that okasan was a licensed chef, so you can just imagine the epicurean happiness that was breakfast, lunch and dinner. We had to spend the rest of January on a diet. It was the first time my skin and bones self had to do so, but it was worth every awesome meal and I would eat like that again if I could, no questions asked.