Essays by Foreign Fellows
Cynthia H. Whittaker
(City University of New York, USA, Foreign Visiting Fellow, SRC,
Upon learning that I had received a grant enabling me to visit Asia
for the first time and spend ten months in Japan, I immediately fell
into an enchanted reverie at the prospect of exploring an exotic
culture, and visions of the mysterious East floated in my imagination.
Then I landed in Sapporo - a busy, modern, Western town complete with
L.L. Bean and Tower Record stores and nary a kimono in sight. The
Slavic Research Center is just as cosmopolitan, with conversations
switching genially from Russian to English; outside the window of my
large computerized office, I can watch Hokkaido University students
practicing tennis on one of the couple dozen courts that dot this treed
campus, whose landscape reminds me of my graduate school days in the
Midwest. At the end of the first week, I complained to Mochizuki-san,
the guardian angel of the Center's gaijin, that my husband, at 6'5",
was the most exotic thing here.
My first impressions were wrong. I like cooking, hiking, and the
arts, and Japan has brought the thrill of novelty to all three.
Japanese food is as good as any in the world, and it's best on our
island of Hokkaido. Nearby farms provide fruits and vegetables at their
seasonal peak, fish stores sell crabs that smell of the Sea of Okhotsk,
and nowhere are potatoes and strawberries so good. With ingredients
that fresh, even a novice can dazzle in the kitchen, and I've tried my
hand at everything from atsuyaki-tomago to zaru soba and have become a
fanatic soybeaniste. Japanese take cuisine seriously - fifty percent of
all television programs concern food. The Center's Hayashi-san is our
resident expert, and he promises to teach us the fine art of tempura.
Hokkaido's unpopulated stretches of natural beauty offer superb
hiking possibilities, although the first mountain I climbed was within
Sapporo's city limits. Short trips have taken me to caldera lakes, old
smoking mountains, fifty-year-old volcanoes, boiling geyser ponds, and
fields of lavender and Arctic flowers. And, everywhere, there are
sulphuric hot springs, with facilities for a customary Japanese scrub
and a long, mellow soak out of doors in water that Mother Nature has
heated to about 100 degrees fahrenheit.
Traditional arts are harder to explore, but worth the effort. The
twangy sound of the thirteen-stringed koto, the elegant and stylized
unfurling of a fan in a presentation of N™ drama, the slow and sensual
dance of a heart-broken heron in a Kabuki play, or the 100 gestures
used to prepare each cup in a tea ceremony are cultural moments that
are unique to Japan. After viewing an exhibition on kimono design
during the Tokugawa era, I became convinced it was the most beautiful
garment ever crafted. Happily, the best-priced antique kimono store in
Japan is located in Sapporo, and the owner will let you browse for
In Kyoto, the castles, shrines, and temples are as spectacular as
everyone says, but the gardens are edenic. The Katsura Imperial Garden
was the most aesthetically refined man-made place I had ever visited;
at every turn, the "frame" of bent tree, rounded bush, moss-covered
bridge, and curved pond were in perfect balance and proportion. A
garden is intended as a place for meditation; as one pamphlet pointed
out, the visitor should keep silence since the trees have much to say
to us, the stones are old and wise, and the sound of waterfall cleanses
our ears so that we may hear the voice of Buddha in the mountains.
Other less spiritual things astound the visitor from New York.
Japanese cities (although their architecture is aggressively ugly) are
clean and safe; I've left my back pack, with perfect confidence, in a
city park while I went on an hour's hike. The other thing I will sorely
miss is the polite and smiling service in stores and restaurants, where
the entire staff shouts "Welcome!" when you walk in. However, I will
gladly say sayonara to the ubiquitous crows that caw at me from above
or the gnat-like cyclists who swipe at me from every direction as I
walk to and from the Center.
But all the above is frosting on the cake. I came here hoping to
read, think, and write about the Russian monarchy in the eighteenth
century, and I was not disappointed. The Slavic Research Center has a
serious academic atmosphere, a surprisingly rich library collection,
colleagues with a wonderful sense of humor, and a computer staff, to
whom I owe debts of gratitude that can never be repaid. I soon came to
realize that I will never again in my life have working conditions as
idyllic as those I'm enjoying this year, and I bow and say domo
|The author on Mt.Iwaonupuri
in the autumn.
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