Sunday, June 22, 2008

[not so] important announcement:

In this completely unrelated and pointless post, I would like to announce that I am now in the outskirts of London. Specifically, here.

A nice redbrick building surrounded by greenery in the middle of nowhere. As my boss (who I'm traveling with) put it "It's nice. We'll be bored to death, but it's nice."

But this is not important. What is important is that with my arrival to London, I have officially completed the "hotel reception world clock cities" collection. That is, when I return to Amman, I will have visited the three most featured cities in the world clocks behind hotel reception desks!

I'm talking about New York, Tokyo and London, of-course! (sorry Paris, you are disqualified)

All at the little age of 2#!!

I went to New York in 2000, but Tokyo was especially tricky. It took me four years of studying Japanese and two sempais to reach it. And I learned something very helpful: If you wait long enough and keep trying, eventually you will run out of rivals and hopefully you might win.

I think I will write two more posts about the Japan trip and then pull the plug on this blog. Next will be about 'one free day in Tokyo'. Just you wait!

dewa, cheers mate.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Muslim X Japan X 2 weeks ムスリムX日本X2週間

Just as the title says, this post is about my thoughts and feelings, as a Muslim, on two weeks in Japan.

Two clarifications first:

- Although it was an intense program and I tried to 'take in' as much I could, two weeks are just too short. So, while I speak my observations, I understand that I might be off somewhere. You too, please understand this.

- By saying "as a Muslim" here, I mean a Muslim who puts Islam in front of him/her and not on the side; a Muslim who constantly tries to learn about and abide by Islam's teachings to the best of his/her effort.

With this out of the way, be warned that this is a very, very long post and prepare for a detailed, frank and unapologetic report (with pictures!).

On the way to Japan
After all the urgency and stress of preparation for travel, I finally stepped into the plane and took my seat. For me this was the beginning, and I found myself thinking, just like I did on the bus seat on my way to Madina and Makkah 3 years ago, what will this trip hold for me? Will I be better off after it or worse? or will I just return without gaining anything? So, during the flight, I kept hoping and asking God just a small request: That I return a better, even if a little better, person than when I left. That I come back with more understanding and useful knowledge; just like I asked Him on my way to Madina.

I will first get the basics out of the way and then talk about the more important stuff.

The west always trumpets hygiene as something very important, and yet for some reason, in the two times I went to the US, I did not find any toilet with a flusher. Don't they use water?! I don't know, but I had a very difficult time because as someone who prays frequently during the day, I need water for me and all my clothes to stay clean at all times.

In Japan on the other hand, using toilets was, I'll venture to say, delightful. Unlike America, they use water and the toilets they design are super convenient. As a product design enthusiast, I think that the large variety of 'toilet solutions' is worthy of a seperate post, but unfortunately, I did not take pictures and without pictures it will need too many words to describe. In short, the toilets had all sorts of things to ensure that you and the toilet are clean before and after you use it. whether it is sterilizing wipes, flushable paper seats (wonderful idea that works perfectly) and so on. Japanese toilets are also designed to save precious water. In the high tech electronic toilets, there are sensors around almost every water outlet to ensure that no water is wasted or spilled on the floor. In some of the lesser tech toilets, when you flush the urinal, the refill water flows externally from a faucet on a small basen above the flush water container, meaning that in addition to using it for filling the water container, it can also be used for washing. Again, delightful.

Very clean and very environmentally friendly. Two things that are very important to a Muslim.


The story with food isn't as nice. As you all probably know, a Muslim's diet should not include any alcohol or products from pigs, be it pork, lard or gelatin. We also can only eat Halal meat. Halal meat means two inseperable things: First, the livestock should be slaughtered from its neck, not electricuted, suffocated or drowned to death, etc. Second, it has to be slaughtered either by a Muslim, Christian or Jew. All livestock meats that don't meet these two conditions are not halal.

At first, I thought that things would be easy because I like Japanese food and they use a lot of veggies and fish. But it wasn't that simple, because a lot and I mean A LOT, of products include pork products and alcohol. It appeared to me that they put pork and/or alcohol in almost everything. A lot of bentou shops put nihonshu in sushi and onigiri rice. Once, in a combini, I thought to myself "hmmm, I didn't try chips in Japan" so I took a fish/shrimp flavoured chips from the shelf and turned the pack around to find 豚を含む (includes pork) in the back, I put it back and rushed outside the combini without buying anything. "Even in SHRIMP chips!!" I thought to myself as I returned.

During homestay, when we were in Kappazushi, a beef sushi passed away on the conveyor belt and, as a joke, I lowered my head on my hands and said whiningly "美味しそうだったのに" ("but it looked so yummy :(") and this cracked up homestay mom. Hehe. Homestay dad's reaction was to hold the next beef sushi and give it to me and I refused, of-course.

That is not to say I didn't enjoy the food. I loved many dishes, including Kitsune Udon and I recommend it to everybody. I also tried a rice with salmon eggs and other stuff at "ザ・ドン" and recommend it. Many tasty stuff, but I had to be careful and trust my Japanese friends at the same time. It was very awkward for me sometimes when I asked them about what a dish infront of me is, they think I'm checking for pork and alcohol and they say "大丈夫、大丈夫" (It's alright), when I'm only asking to know what the dish's name is or ask about a new ingredient I never saw before.

Introducing the 'What the HELL is this' look(tm).

In Jordan, on S-sensei's birthday, I ate a really tasty sweet sembe called 'yuki no yado'. It was so tasty in fact that I was planning to bring loads of it back with me from Japan. So before I went to Japan I checked it on the Internet and I found that it had gelatin. When I arrived to Japan I called Sanko Seika (the company that makes it) many times to check what kind of gelatin it had in it and finally got the answer "豚の肌" (from pig's skin)..

Halal meat is particularly an issue. With the exception of Tokyo, finding halal meat anywhere in Japan is very difficult. There are companies offering halal meat with shipping services but because of limited demand and freshness issues, I guess.. They are expensive. Fortunately for me, the JF cafeteria offered halal meals every day. Unfortunately for me, since anybody can buy the halal meals, they finished fast. Really. I rarely ate halal meat in the cafeteria, but no worries. When I returned to Jordan I compensated for those two weeks.

And now here's something very amusing to me:

美味しそうぅ~・・・ ジャナイ!!
Looks so very not yummy!!

A few years back, I heard that Mcdonalds in the UK was preparing halal foods, and the initiative was unofficially referred to as "McHalal". If so, then this must be "McHaram"!!

Prayer and worship
Again, since I was constantly travelling for two weeks, prayer was not much of an issue for me. When travelling, a Muslim can shorten and group the five prayers into three. I had a compass and a praying carpet at all times. The Kansai center also had two rooms fully dedicated for praying (for males and for females).

You know, I read on the Internet that some workplaces in Japan give Muslims hard time because they pray and fast during work hours, but this might be the usual press reporting extreme cases. I heard from friends there that they don't have any problem and that they are given complete religious freedom and that Japanese people helped them and escorted them.

I for one had a great experience with the Kansai center, especially since Ramadan started while I was there. They had special preparations for Ramadan with the cafeteria changing closing hours to give Muslims time to eat after sunset and they prepared take away 'suhur' meals everyday. They also held a brief meeting with Muslims to explain the special changes for Ramadan. Basically, they did everything they could to help us, short from spoon feeding us.

I fondly remember sitting in the center's cafeteria, waiting for the sun to set over the ocean beyond Rinkuu town's shoreline to start iftar after we returned from the hiroshima/kyoto trip.

Kobe Mosque, the oldest (but not first) masjid in Japan.
Picture taken for me by my friend from Osaka

As for living anywhere outside Tokyo, I'd imagine it would be difficult. The Muslim community in Japan is small and dispersed, so outside Tokyo, there are few mosques and it would be difficult to go to group prayers like Jumua (Friday prayers). For example, the closest mosque I knew of in Osaka was in Ibaraki, which was around 1 hour away from where I was staying (Rinkuu town).

Life and the environment
Everywhere around you, you will see respect for life and nature. The city planning is great and almost everywhere the streets are clean. I say 'almost' because I happened upon a heavily littered street in Rinkuu town and heard from other program participants about some poor and dirty districts they saw in Osaka. Anyways, let's forget about this, shall we?

In many places provisions are made for the handicapped, especially the blind. In the pedestrian walkways and train platforms, sections of the ground are specially paved for the blind. And there is a recorded announcer and brail on buttons in elevators and some cars even speak when they are about to turn left or right.

I guess this guy's job is to convince you to buckle up your seatbelt.
(psst, am I the only one who finds this highly amusing?)

I remembered a silly thing: I always used to make fun of the elevator in the center which keeps saying "~階です" "ドアが閉まります" "ドアが開きます".. I would continue "人が入ります" "人が出かけます" and extend to other stuff "人が寝ます" "車が動きます".. I said this to my Japanese friend in Osaka and he said "this is not a joke by the way, some cars do speak when they move". And then I gave him the blank stupid look (Those who know me know what I'm talking about).

Vending machine for the disabled (Nanba station, Osaka)

There is also an elaborate recycling system in place (that can be confusing sometimes). Really, there is nothing overlooked when it comes to the environment.

On top of the natural beauty given to Japan, being a wealthy country, it not only looks after the environment, but also decorates it and makes it more beautiful. Check out Saqf-dono's blog for more about visual Japan.

美しさはマンホールまで.. (上野公園、東京)
Beauty to the last manhole (Ueno park, Tokyo)

When I see all these right things being done, and I see almost none of them being done in my country, I keep asking "why?" Why don't we also do so? Why don't we do so when we have divine orders telling us to respect life and the environment?..

A rhetorical 'why' that is, because I know the reasons very well.

The people

This is bumpy territory, because of all the subjects I talk about here, this is the only one that can read what I'm saying about it!

When I first went into the plane in Amman, everything was normal, but when I was checking in on the JAL plane in Bangkok, I was like "damn, this is the real thing!". Everybody around me was Japanese. This is the first time I was surrounded by this much Japanese people and being alone I felt like an absolute stranger!

So, about the people in Japan. I noticed many things, somethings I liked and others I didn't. The first most important lesson I learned was that my conception of Japanese people was ways off. In my head, I split them to traditional Japanese and Japanese who acquired western traits (I used words like 普通の日本人 and 本物の日本人) but when I went there and met lots of Japanese people, I realized that it's very erroneous to hold the concept of ordinary Japanese in my mind; everyone is different than the other and I really can't simplify and have expectations, especially if I want to avoid mistakes and impoliteness.

You don't need to go to Japan to know that Japanese people are polite and hardworking. Other things I noticed only there from meeting everyday people, is that they are highly educated and highly organized. Where else would you meet a person at random in the station and he'd tell you the capital city names of your group's countries? When I was in the US, I'd say Jordan and they'd go "Michael Jordan has a country?! The guy's damn rich!!".

Once I was in a combini and a bunch of rugged dusty girls (wearing what looked to me like pajamas) riding rugged dusty motorcycles entered into the store. If you saw them you'd think they're unrefined, vulgar, uneducated, etc.. I personally was intimidated because I didn't see anything like this ever before. Anyways, one of them asked me where I was from and I was sure she wouldn't know Jordan, so, fingers crossed that she might not even know that, I said "中東" (Middle East) to which she replied "イランとか" (Like Iran and such) and I point my finger at her in surprise and let out "そうそうそう!" (Right on!). If I said Jordan she would have probably known it.

And about their organization, one example is homestay dad: on farewell day he gave me a paper with a table detailing every place we went to and at what times we went there and what I ate. Maybe JF requested this, but that's still freaky if you ask me.

One thing important to me as a foreigner, is how much the Japanese would be understanding of our differences. I had a general idea that they are respectful of such things and they respect a person's believes and convictions.

Sure enough, I didn't have trouble explaining to my friends there things like I can't drink or sit down with people drinking and they respected that (but those are mostly people who already spent a considerable amount of time in Jordan). Other people, like the JF cafeteria staff and teachers were very graceful about it (but again JF's job is cultural exchange). Homestay mom's reaction was unique. Everytime she saw me checking the ingredients and politely refusing some stuff she offered, she would be impressed and say stuff like 偉い (you're great).

I actually had a very bad experience with one Japanese person who didn't respect our different customs and cultures but I don't want to mention this here. I will just say that I understand that this person is the exception, and not the rule, but that it left a very bad taste in my mouth and was perhaps the only low point of my entire trip.

One thing in particular that I didn't like, especially when I was walking in the streets, was that I didn't feel warmth in the people around me and I didn't feel liveliness. I don't know why I felt this. Could it be because I was in a completely different country and I couldn't properly read the faces? Maybe a Japanese person would feel the same way in his first weeks in the streets of Amman? I don't really know and I don't want to jump to any conclusions, but what I know is that many times while I was walking in Osaka, I felt a strong urge to leave the open and just return to my room in the center. I also really missed the angry drivers who would shout at me "احلق لحتك ياشيخ" "shave your beard, sheikh!" if I made a mistake or something they didn't like while driving. Now those guys were lively!

I felt that everybody was composed and minding his/her own business and that relationships were difficult in Japan. In the last session of the program, the teacher said stuff that made me think that my feelings were spot on..

Many of us in Jordan have quite unhealthy lifestyles. We eat a lot. We eat unhealthy food. We don't do regular exercises. Many of us have a Pepsi belly (the Arabic equivalent of a 'beer belly'?). Most of us don't read books outside of school textbooks and so on. Most of us spend all our free time unproductively. If you're from Jordan, chances are that atleast two of these sentences describe you.

This actually doesn't only apply to Japan. If you go to any western country you will also see people doing it 'right'. People eat healthy food, read non-school books, exercise and so on.

Once me and my Arab fellows wanted to buy fruits (why? refer to the food section and you'll understand), and we asked the hiroshima program guide, an elderly lady easily above 60 or even 70, if there's a supermarket around, she said 'follow me'. I never though that 'follow me' would be so difficult to do. she started walking so fast, and I was barely following her while breathing loudly. I looked at my Egyptian fellow in amusement (and disgrace).

Did you know that the average age in Japan is increasing year by year? Did you know that the average length of an American is also increasing year by year? We here are the only ones becoming shorter in length and lifespan as time passes.

So, I ask again even though I know the answers: Why?

One thing I strongly noticed in Japan is how the infrastructure affects lifestyles. Homestay dad asked me "do you have trains in Jordan?", I said "No". "Why?", "because the infrastructure doesn't allow it". Again "do you ride bicycles in Jordan?", "Very little". "Why?", "the streets are all bumpy and there are no spaces made for bicycles like in the West and Japan".

The train stations

I feel I have to talk seperately about train stations. In the stations, I saw all kinds of people and felt many emotions. I saw the whole spectrum of civilization, from the bottom to the top. I saw the rugged homeless people with no family or house to return to, I saw drunkards staggering left and right and moaning loudly, I saw women wearing so unbelievably little on themselves and school girls with their skirts rolled upwards to shorten them (the shorter the skirt, the cooler) and then I saw very decently and elegantly dressed people, I met very knowledgeable and cultured people, and very helpful and friendly people and I saw a woman reading a book as she walked and went over a staircase without taking her eyes of her book. All in the train stations. What an amazing panorama of human lives, subhan Allah.

I love and hate trains. I love them during daytime because there is a lot to see and because my hands and eyes are free to hold a book and read it. I hate them in the night because they are so quiet, lonely and gloomy. I hate the train's repetitive mind-numbing sound, I hate the boring and sad looks on people's faces. I hate the loneliness.

The final session

The last session of the program was "Training conclusion" (研修のまとめ). We sat with one of the many JF teachers and talked about the new words and things we learned, the things we liked and the things we didn't. Towards the end of the session he said something that sunk in. I'll paraphrase in Japanese (keywords emphasized) and then translate. 「日本にはいいことも良くないこともあります。国へ帰った後、家族や友達に良くないことも教えてください。例えば、たくさんの人が寂しく感じて、そして、病気になります。その人の中、自分を殺す人 がよくいます」. "There are both good and bad things. When you return home, please also tell your friends about the bad things. For example, many people feel loneliness and their hearts become deseased and then they kill themselves" As he said that he motioned with his hand to show someone jumping from a building.

When I heard this I really felt sad. I felt how harsh life can be even if we have everything we materially need. For more than twenty years now, more than 30,000 people kill themselves in Japan every year.. this is somewhere between 500k and 600k who took their own lives in 20 years. Everytime I remember this and I remember what this teacher said, I also remember the Japanese word "mottainai" (It's a waste). It's a popular expression used to express displeasure if something is wasted, such as water, food, time, etc.. And I ask, doesn't anybody think about those people's lifes as "mottainai"? Aren't all their emotions, memories and energies 'mottainai'? Or are they 'muda' (another popular word in industry, which means 'waste') and should be eliminated?..

Whenever I think about this, I can't help but think that all the recorded voice and special pavements I mentioned above, all the precautions made to protect life and make it more convenient, are superficial.

Why isn't anybody concerned about life? or about the young people and even children who take their lifes? And if people are concerned, why are the suicides not going down?

This time its a real 'why' because I don't know all the answers.

The most important lesson
So going back to the first paragraph, do I feel that I was better off after going to Japan for two weeks?

I definitely saw and learned a lot of things. There's no going wrong about that. Through seeing and learning about an absolutely different culture, we can learn a great deal about ourselves and what it means to be a human. We can also come to appreciate more and more the similarities and differences between us and the haves and have-nots of both sides.

I remember that many Japanese volunteers in Jordan were trying to tell us to appreciate the things that we have here, but we didn't really listen much. When I went to Japan, I experienced firsthand what they meant. I saw the things they have that we don't and the things we have that they don't.

The biggest impact this trip had on me was when I saw the many things done right around me (the same things that are done wrong in my country) and I thought "What the hell was I doing all this time?! Thinking that I was doing okay and improving.." "We all were idling all this time".

The truth is there are different conditions and legitimate reasons for each country's status. But this should not deter me from learning and working on the double. We have to work harder than everybody, we have to sacrifice our time and our energy if we are to achieve our hopes and go forward. We should force ourselves outside the comfort zone. Japan wouldn't have achieved all this if it was in its comfort zone all this time. Millions in Japan were hungry and suffering during and after the war, and the end result is Japan now. But I was never hungry, so I have to sacrifice time spent having fun and energy spent doing the things I enjoy. And finally I should not shy away from any improvement, no matter how small.

Congratulations, you reached the end of this post. I feel happy for you.