Annual Newsletter of the Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University
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English News  No.7 , December 1999
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From the Director
Foreign Visiting Fellowship Program
Our Current Staff
Research Funded by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture
Guest Lectures from Abroad
Visitors from Abroad
Awards for SRC Staff
Publications (1998-1999)
The Library
Essays by Foreign Fellows
Cynthia H. Whittaker
Isabel Tirado
Kuili Liu
John P. LeDonne

Visitor's Impressions

Cynthia H. Whittaker
(City University of New York, USA, Foreign Visiting Fellow, SRC, 1999-2000)

The author on Mt.Iwaonupuri in the autumn.

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 hours.
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 arigato gozaimas.

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