Sunday, 29 March 2015

A German trip to Gunma

Going through my photos I realized I left out quite some interesting experiences in Japan in the last 1.5 years, so let's rewind time and go back mid-January 2014.

Following an invitation by the Japanese-German Association Tokyo (日独協会), I went on a trip to Takasaki in the prefecture of Gunma. Surprisingly enough they had their own group of German enthusiats over there, but there were no Germans in Gunma to join their meetings. So Germans from around Tokyo would regularely visit Gunma to keep the exchange more interesting. Since I've never been to Gunma and since my expenses would be paid, I felt it would be a good opportunity to get out of Tokyo and experience something new.

That's the fastest route. I took the cheaper (and longer) one.
Everything was organized and set up very conveniently for me. I was picked up at the train station by Suzuki-san after a loooong ride during which I had to change trains at least three times. Suzuki-san was the head of the local association but couldn't really speak German to my surprise. He was already in his 60s and he and his wife were very much into some German folk dance, including the traditional Dirndl and so on. I've never heard about this dance in particular, not to mention that I don't care much about anything traditional that is from the southern part of Germany (except beer of course). But they were extremly nice and never missed a chance to explain their city and the sites we visited.

First on the list was the famous Shorinzan Daruma temple (少林山達磨寺). The temple was filled with Daruma dolls of all types and sizes, some of them piling up outside where the wish-makers have left them. The story about the Daruma is a fascinating one too. It is based on the Chinese monk Bodhidharma who is not only the founder of Zen meditation and Zen Buddhism, but also the first to have taught the monks of the Shaolin temple their legendary Kung Fu. There is more legend than truth to this, but it is intriguing nonetheless. Thinking of how Shaolin Kung Fu basically started my fascination with Asia as a young boy, it's another of these magic moments when I found myself at this temple, consecrated to that very character. Shorinzan means nothing else than Shaolin Mountain, written in the same Chinese characters 少林.

Lots of large Daruma dolls on a pile


Temple stone garden and pond
But there was something even more fascinating about this temple. For a brief time in the 1930s, it was home to a German architect named Bruno Taut, who fled from the Nazi regime and followed an invitation from a Japanese architect in 1933. He was the designer of some quite famous residential areas in my very own home town Berlin (Hufeisensiedlung, Onkel Toms Hütte), places I've known by name and seen so many times in my life. Again, this was more than a coincidence for me, it connected me to Japan in a magic way. 

The Berlin horseshoe estate
Taut and his wife and people of Takasaki
The temple had a little museum room about Taut and his work. Apparently, he spent 3 years in relative solitude, even though his wife was him. Only later he was able to do actual architect work, but for the main time he was studying Japan's culture and even crafting wodden furniture to survive. From all I could gather, his life wasn't the happiest one, being far away from home and in a strange but alluring environment. I felt even more connected to this unknown man.

He lived in a small, traditional Japanese house on the same hill that the temple was on, overviewing a beautiful scenery with several mountains in the back. How beautiful and how lonely it must have been in the 30s for him there. A lonely paradise on the mountain.

View on the temple and the city in the back
Part of a quote by Immanuel Kant: "...the starry sky above me and the moral law within me."
Painted by Bruno Taut in 1934
("I love the Japanese culture")

Bruno Taut went on to become a professor in Istanbul, Turkey and died on 24 December 1938. He was laid to rest at the Edirnekapı Martyr's Cemetery in Istanbul as its first and only non-Muslim.

After buying some little omiyage, including a couple of Daruma dolls for myself and friends, we picked up Suzuki-san's wife and headed to a good sushi restaurant. I tried my best to do conversation with them while they very curious at what this German fellow would like to try for sushi. I've tried most of the sea food variants so far, so they might have been a little bit dissapointed.

After we stuffed our stomachs with some good food it was time for the German-Japanese association meeting scheduled for today. It was held in a local tea shop with a large variety of (you guessed it) German tea. One after another, the members joined and I was introduced to most of them, especially the fluent German speakers. My Japanese level was at a very low small-talk level, not much more than a friendly conversation starter. But people seemed to be delighted that a German was amongst them for a change.

The members were quite mixed, most of them around retirement age, some in their 30s and 40, not many of a younger age. It was clear to see that the majority was interested in the old history, nature and the food of Germany. They went to romantic, historical places like Rothenburg, Heidelberg, Neu-Schwanenstein and took cruises on the Rhein, sometimes even together as a group during their annual trip to Germany. Typical retirement trips if you ask me.

The younger ones in the group were all more focused on technology, science, the free education and engineering possibilities. One guy was getting helpful tips and ideas for his first semester abroad at a German university.

There was one guy who was just plain weird. What he thought to be a normal conversation was just him throwing all the German words, places and food names at me. Like reading a list. I had no clue what he actually wanted from me. Was he looking for a reaction? Was he bragging? Showing cultural insight? After he didn't react to my first couple of questions about his trips, I just let him finish his list and focused on the more interesting people.

The coolest guy was one of the board members. He used to be an coal mine worker in his youth, which must have been the 1960s! He was quite a tall and charismatic guy. The stories about his life back then were fascinating. What a life he must have lived! Who would have thought that a Japanase guy was working the mines back then.

Another interesting member of the evening was a middle aged women coming to visit with her teenage daughter. Her husband was about to be transferred to Germany because of work and they came all the way down from another prefecture to learn more about their new country of residence. Both of them seemed a bit worried about their future, speaking no German at all. They didn't say it directly, but they seemed to be worried about security as well. Everyone was very supportive and assured them that they would actually have a great time in Germany as a family.

The actual meeting was a little bit dry since it followed a stright agenda. There were reports on various topics, e.g. the deposit system (Pfand-System) for bottles in Germany. The head of the local association and my host for the day held a long monologue about his findings and even showed a TV report about himself. Couldn't tell if people were actually intersted or not. I couldn't really add anything, not just because of the language limitation but mostly because I've never compared the system with the one in Japan.

When Suzuki-san mentioned that people in Germany are not taking off their shoes when entering houses or apartments, I had to formally protest. I stated that's actually not the case, most people take off their shoes. From all I knew it's pretty common in the US not to do that, but even there I took of my shoes when I visited friend's places. A short discussion ensued and I felt like I have sabotaged the whole "oh look how different Germany is" idea of his report.

In general, it was fascinating to see how people were engaging in this hobby. It was very abstract and from a distant point of view, much like people in Europe see Japan and don't really get it or only see a certain, weird part of it. Like the obsession with German Baumkuchen here in Japan. In Germany, it's just a standard cake with no remarkably different recipe, same as Sushi is seen by us Westerners as the peak of Japanese cuisine (it's not, trust me).

When it was time to say our farewells, I was given a 10,000JPY note and dropped off at the station. The money wasn't really necessary, but it definitely made my experience even more of a lovely memory.