Retrospective: My final report

Although this blog has been inactive for nearly four years now, I just recently stumbled upon the final report I had to write for the EU-Japan Centre towards the end of the Vulcanus year.

Since I am getting quite a few visits to this site even now, and I’m guessing a few of those might be potential future Vulcanus participants, I have decided to share the report as it might be of interest. I hope it may answer some questions about life and work in Japan.

Here is the report. Enjoy!

Should you have any questions, feel free to write me to vulcanus@danielrojas.net.

Unexpected holidays? Go to Hong Kong!

So the story goes like this: Since the factory is going to be producing lots of trains starting in Fall, and they will be needing all the workforce they can, they decided to cancel 10 national holidays (starting in July) for the whole production department, and give them back to us in April in the form of two full weeks off work! Also, since the first week of May is a national holiday anyways (more on this in the next post), this meant I had lots of time for traveling, so a few bigger, better, further trips were in order!

Me and James started off going to Hiroshima to meet up with Taka-san, an ex Vulcanus-in-EU guy. Since it was full Sakura (cherry blossom) season, we had a nice picnic in front of the castle enjoying the spring air, like many Japanese like doing in this season, and went out partying i the evening. Feeling horrible and exhausted, I took a bus to Osaka (sadly by myself, James didn’t get the two extra weeks off). I had another dose of Sakura at the castle, enjoyed walking along the river near the Dotonbori area with its gigantic neon signs and flashing screens and stopped for some good old takoyaki.

The main destination for this trip though, was Hong Kong. My first impression was really positive, since when getting on the bus from the airport without having the exact change at hand, i was helped out by Joe, who was coming home from a trip to the Netherlands and was happy to give me tons of information and hints for my trip, so before I knew it, I had more tips that I could possibly use in that one week!
The view of the skyline is spectacular, both from below when taking a ferry between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon on the mainland, and when looking down on it from Victoria Peak. Being in the city, it felt a lot more stressful and noisy than Tokyo, and even the glowing advertisements seemed a lot more aggressive than their Japanese versions. But seeing the awesome mix of people on the streets, from Chinese origin to Southeast-Asian, from turbans to bald monks, it did have the feeling of every culture being represented, an international feel you could never have in Japan.
What helped a lot was meeting up again with Joe and his fiancée Eve; there is nothing like being showed around town by the local people! Also nice was the day trip to Cheung-chau, a small island apparently with very narrow roads, no cars and lots of homes that seem to be holiday apartments, within easy reach of nice beaches and pretty hiking trails, on which you could circle the island in a few hours. Since it was the birthday of the “Goddess of the Sea” in that week, we were lucky to see some of the classic dragon boats in the harbor, too.

Back in Japan I took a day trip to Koyasan, a mountain to the south of Osaka, which boasts an impressive and historically important Temple and beautiful buddhist cemeteries to walk through, which convey a very mystical feeling of ancient Japan. While hiking up a hill I had a chance encounter with a monk meditating at the view of the surrounding valleys, which made the atmosphere even more magical.

The two weeks of travel ended with a quick visit to the temple city of Nara and its free-roaming deer, and a weekend back in Tokyo to catch up on the lives of the other Vulcanus guys. Upon returning to Kudamatsu, though, it was only one week of work before the next big voyage….

More pictures here.

The first days in Kudamatsu

After a long night bus ride from Hiroshima, me and James finally arrived at our final destination: The lovely city of Kudamatsu. An industrial town of about 55 000 people, we could already see the giant Hitachi logo of one of the production halls, just like a big eye watching over the houses and streets below. After arriving at the station and a 15 minute walk, we arrived at our dormitory. It is basically two old, run-down concrete five-story buildings on the bottom of a hill, next to normal-looking, middle class family houses. We guess there are about 60 (all male) Hitachi employees living there. There are some teenagers who probably got their contract before even graduating from high school, but also some who seem to be 30 something. They are all really nice and have helped us out by lending us a vacuum and showing us around.

Our room is japanese style, and 6 tatami mats big (which is maybe 8m^2). We have a desk, a chair and lots of closets, but no sink or toilet, these are shared. When we got there, we found lots of dust bunnies and the occasional bug, but after a quick vacuuming, it didn’t seem that bad. We have an air-conditioner/heater so the winter months should be bearable. The highway outside my window isn’t too noisy so that’s not a problem, either. The dorm has seen better days, though, there are some cigarette burns in the carpets in the dining room and everything looks old. Each floor has about eight rooms sharing sinks, toilets, washing machine and dryer; both Western and Japanese style toilets are available. There is a common shower room with a large hot water tub, similar to what one would find at an Onsen. Since it’s in the other building, though, you have to walk a short stretch through the morning cold… With a bit of sideways rain or snow if the wind is blowing. I found that this helps me wake up pretty good, though!

We get breakfast and dinner at the common dining room, the food is relatively good and cheap. We get a slip of paper for each month, where we can mark what days we want to receive the in-house dinner. On weekends there is no service, but there are some nice restaurants around town. No kitchen to cook yourself, though. In the evening, we hang around here because you have some cozy chairs and a big TV. Plus, the only access to the internet until we get our own, which is sadly not covered and we will have to pay ourselves.

I inherited a bicycle from Marco (last year’s Vulcanus intern at Hitachi), James got one from one of the assistants of the dorm caretaker who has just bought a car and thus doesn’t need the bike right now. This way we will be able to explore the city and surroundings easily. We already went to The Mall (which is literally called “The Mall”) -a fellow dorm resident took us in his car- to buy sheet for the futons that we sleep on and got from last year’s guys as well, some coat hangers, some food, etc. It has the same feel as American Malls, a big shopping complex built in the middle of nowhere. We also saw two other Westerners walking around there, but have no idea why they are in this tiny town.

Pics of the dorm here!
I have added tiny descriptions that show up abve each picture when you click, to know what you are looking at.

To go to the company, while James and I were expecting to be picked up by some suit-wearing person , the HR rep turned out to be a fellow roommate only a few years older than us, whom we had already talked and joked with while transporting stuff in his car and setting up our rooms. When we arrived at the site, a friendly lady took us to a meeting room to do the formalities.

The day began with a video showing the activities and facilities at Hitachi Kasado, what trains they make, etc. Next was paperwork and receiving some simple instructions on secrecy regarding documents and things learned during the internship, as well as some safety measures. While it was in Japanese, most of it was pretty obvious (I will not use Facebook at the office, I will not walk underneath moving cranes, I will not operate a forklift without a license) and more a reminder than anything else. We got a tour of the factory grounds, where trains in different levels of completeness stood all over the place. We also saw a freshly finished Shinkansen humming in one of the halls. The cafeteria has a good selection of lunch packs for a decent price. Different departments take their lunch breaks at different times to avoid bottlenecks. We also received our uniform (light blue jacket and pants) and safety boots from a little shop near the dining room, luckily, free of charge. I later received a yellow helmet, safety glasses and a Hitachi jacket to complete the package. Workshop leaders wear a blue helmet, safety chiefs wear white and quality assurance people have silver. Colored bands and stickers on the helmets indicate additional qualifications, such as firefighting, crane driver, etc.

In the afternoon, I was taken to my department (relatively far from the entrance) to meet my supervisor (30-something years old, and a nice man) and the whole office team. I have a desk in a large office room with about 40 or 50 people, but I have actually spent more time these three days walking (and biking!) to different buildings with my supervisor to see the stages of production. I was not expecting standing out in the cold seaside breeze for hours, but watching whole trains being lifted (and flipped 180° to do work on the ceilings) with gigantic cranes and the activity around the site is definitely more exciting than office work.. as long as I don’t fall sick. For now, I will basically follow my boss around to see more stuff: welding, painting, piping, cabling, testing,… Later on I might get actual work, but the exact contents are not yet decided. I will have to fill out a form every week detailing in short what I have done each day. Today, a group of people from JR (Japan Rail, who buys most of the trains) came to visit and inspect a new commuter train, checking every bolt, seal, door and lever on the body of the car. Tomorrow, the inspection of the inside is due, and everybody seems a bit nervous. Interestingly, most of the work on the trains is done by hand and there are only few automated machines.

In general, I feel there is a good atmosphere among the people in my department, and people are willing to help or explain anything I don’t understand. Every morning at 8:15, music starts sounding across the factory grounds, and workers gather for a little morning warm-up/work-out. After gathering in groups and briefly discussing some issues at hand, a set of motivational phrases and mutual safety checks is shouted in chorus: Two people face each other, and everybody synchronously says something along the lines of “Helmet, CHECK! Nametag, CHECK! Boots, CHECK! I will ensure the safety of myself and others! I will report inconsistencies to my supervisor immediately! May this be a good working day!” There seem to be many phrases so it will take a while to remember them all.

What I find sad is that there seem to be few people returning home at five like me, and many just stay at their desks, the daily schedule even includes a break from 17:00 to 17:15 between “afternoon shift” and “overtime shift”. Also, when I arrive in the office at 8 in the morning, everybody is already working, though officially work begins at 8:30. so the stereotype of overtime work in Japan is confirmed. At least people have the “Overtime work free Wednesdays” to look forward to each week….

The trip southward

After a last visit to an izakaya in Shinjuku and exchanging some good-byes, James, Dom and me hopped on the night bus bound for Kanazawa. After a few hours with little sleep, we arrived at the station early in the morning, only to wait a few hours for the next bus which would take us to our actual destination: Shirakawa!

Driving into the mountains, the layer of snow around us slowly but steadily rising, signs warning us of bears on the road and less and less houses visible, we knew it was going to be a nice change from Tokyo.
Our inn was a family-run Japanese-style “Minshuku”, which we were lucky to find as most houses look very similar, and only a small sign had been dug out of the snow to indicate the place’s existence. We had a room for ourselves, separated from the next one by some sliding doors. While we were out exploring, the lady entered the rooms to prepare the futons for sleeping, and placing dinner on the tables next to the fireplace. The absolute highlight was the table, called a “kotatsu”, which has an integrated blanket to place your legs underneath, only to discover there is a hidden heating element to get your feet warm. Seeing how cold it was outside, once we got under it we barely wanted to leave it again, and even while sleeping it held us warm in the otherwise relatively cold (7°C) room.
During the day we mainly walked around, visiting one of the other houses which displayed the technique to build them, and instruments used for farming, etc. We had some delicious curry udon on a hill, next to a viewing platform overlooking the entire village. And in the evening had some relaxing time in the local onsen.

Returning to Kanazawa on the next day, it was rain instead of snow falling from the sky, which made the trip there a bit less comfortable. We got to see the “Ninja temple”, a building that gets its nickname from the tons of hidden stairs, trap doors, secret rooms and other awesome gadgets which the tour shows. A shame that none of it was ever put to use against a real attack.
We also got to see the small “samurai village”, some old style houses showing a few artifacts, but not as exciting as the name suggests. The visit to the castle ended up being quite short, as the shoes were soaked from the mix of rain and snow, and we were tired and thinking of nothing but going somewhere warm.
Thankfully, the hostel’s owner and his colleagues were extremely nice, first taking us (and a few other guests) in their cars to eat some delicious “white gyoza”, slightly different from the usual style. Afterwards, we spent the evening in the hostel’s lounge (with another kotatsu!) playing karuta, a game traditionally played on new years eve, and folding origami cranes. I think I have never seen such a motivated hostel crew, and i found it amazing that the guy had built up the place in a relatively short time, after having donated everything he owned to undergo some training as a buddhist monk for a few years.

The next day we got up extremely early and were served some “Nanakusa-gayu”, rice porridge with seven different herbs in it, which is eaten on the 7th of January to pray for a healthy year and compensate for all the unhealthy food eaten during the new year’s holidays.
Yet another bus ride later, we found ourselves in Kyoto, temple capital of Japan. Besides the obligatory visit to the Golden Pavillion we went to the big terrace of Kiyomizu-dera, and the neverending rows (literally thousands) of Torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine. With some girls dressed as Geishas and a city map sprinkled with shrines and temples, the only things missing for the perfect Japanese stereotype were some cherry blossoms.

The last stop before getting to our final destination of Kudamatsu was Hiroshima, where we had a few hours to spend before boarding our train. We had a quick look at the A-Bomb dome and Hiroshima Castle, but we will surely return later with more time on our hands, so I will cover it in another post!

Pictures of this trip can be found here!

The last post in 2011

Merry Christmas! It’s finally time for another update here, and lots of pictures!

On the 3rd of November, being the birthday of former Emperor Meiji, we went to Meiji Shrine to see displays of ancient fighting techniques and weapons, such as aikido, throwing knives, swords and archery (also from horseback).
Pictures here!

The trip to Kamakura was also nice, visiting a big temple complex before taking the hiking trail over hills and through the forest, to finally arrive at the Big Buddha. Afterwards, we took a small train towards Enoshima, where a bridge leads to a small island with lots of small (but nice) tourist shops and a shrine on top.
Pictures here!

Another day, me and James headed for Odaiba to see the International Robot Exhibition, with lots of Japanese and foreign companies showcasing the latest in robot development, be it manufacturing, entertainment, human assistance, … I also met a guy from the German company Kuka, who is only starting to step foot in Japan and starting to compete against the local corporations. By far my favorites were a HUGE material handling robot which could carry up to 1.2 tons like it was nothing.
Pictures here!

December started with the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), which was a nice way to check the skills I had learned during the language course, as well as a cool thing to put on your CV. The listening part was relatively easy due to the fact that, living in Japan, you have no other option than to get used to the regular talking speed of people. The hardest thing was the reading, time was barely enough to go through all the texts (news articles, letters, advertisements, …) to be able to know what they were about. All in all, I have a good feeling that the results (due in February) will be quite OK.

The time Bego came to visit was great, and probably the two weeks that passed fastest of my time in Japan. While we didn’t really leave Tokyo, there was enough to see, eat, do and visit!

Talking about trips, the absolute highlight was the trip to the Fuji Five Lakes with Nadia. Waking up at 5 AM, taking a train and climbing up to Chureito Pagoda to watch the sunrise was definitely worth it. I am planning on climbing Mt. Fuji next summer, but the view of the snowed-in cone this time of year must be at least as awesome as the view from above, if not better.
Pictures here!

So, the first part of the Japan stay has ended. 384 hours of Japanese classes later, I am looking forward what the upcoming trip southwards will have to offer, and how much life will change moving from the megacity to the 50 000 people village of Kudamatsu to start the internship!

Astroboy at Baba Fest + Random Compilation 1

This post is not about big trips or long travels. Instead, today we didn’t have to stray far from our home in Takadanobaba to see the (aptly named) Baba Fest.

Starting with a small halloween-influenced parade through the main street, which consisted of about 40 schoolchildren marching, playing instruments and generally not seeming very thrilled about the whole thing, and hundreds (?) of police officers securing the street and making sure that everything went safe. Also walking in the parade was a nice cosplay of Professor Ochanomizu and Astroboy themselves, taken out of the manga. Needless to say, the marching band kept on playing his theme song on and on, as if we wouldn’t hear it everyday as the jingle of our JR station (like in this video).

Following the parade we went to a nearby school. In the classrooms, groups of teenagers were preparing their costumes, probably for some contest or other event. There were art exhibitions (some related to Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astroboy and other manga characters), food stands, merchandise, children’s games, etc. And of course, you could take pictures with Astroboy.

See more pictures here!

Also, here is an album of some random pictures I’ve taken during the past two months, without any big story behind them, but still fun to look at!

Nikko: Temples, spiders and autumn leaves

After the trips west and south of Tokyo, this weekend me and four others headed for Nikko.
The main attraction were of course the shrines and temples, but the amount of visitors (both Japanese and foreigners) sort of ruined the tranquil and meditative atmosphere that usually surrounds places like this. So afterwards, we walked to the nearby Kanmangafuchi Abyss to see the Narabi-Jizo, a series of stone statues arranged in a row, looking at the river nearby. Each of them wears a red knitted hat and a little apron. Some of the statues are partially or completely destroyed, but the remainders still wear the hat, even if it’s just a couple of stones.

After (again) relaxing in an Onsen in the evening, we tried to look for our hostel. Both the map on the website we had printed, and the location shown on the phone’s GPS were wrong, so we were forced to walk through town with no clue which direction to head, black-and-green spiders looking at us from every lamp post, street sign, railing and corner. After the help of some other tourists, we managed to find the right place, but it was not quite as we had imagined it. We had to step over a fallen metal fence and a rusty chain to reach an abandoned supermarket. Apparently, part of its storage rooms had been converted into a little hostel with two rooms and a tiny lobby run by an older man. Some of the stainless steel doors had just been covered with wooden panes, and the “kitchen” (a toaster and little coin-locker-like freezers) looked like they had been designed for industrial use. Needless to say, we were the only guests. The fact that all the manga comics in the bookshelf were all killer-themed didn’t help in making things less creepy. However, the owner was quite friendly and the beds and sheets were clean, so we slept better than expected.

The following day we took a bus to Chuzenji Lake, to see the Kegon and Ryuzu waterfalls, and the autumn leaves, which attract many tourists every year. Japan even has an “autumn forecast” that recommends the best place to view the changing colors at any given time. For that reason, we woke up before 5 AM and took the first transport of the day to avoid crowds and traffic jams. While it was probably not yet the peak of the season, the views were quite amazing.
I am thinking of returning to Nikko in the winter time, when the yellow and red leaves are replaced by snow!

To end the day, we went to see Tobu World Square, an open air museum that houses miniature replicas of world famous buildings. Be it the Eiffel Tower, the Skyline of New York, the Kinkaku-ji Temple in Kyoto or the Great Wall of China, the models were extremely accurately made and the little people arranged in fun poses; definitely worth seeing! Plus, the Japan section gave us an idea of where to go in the coming months, to see the real version of some of the buildings.

Pictures of the trip here! And a video of the craziest drinking fountain here!