In Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s movie Cold Fever – the story of a young Japanese man who travels to Iceland – there is a scene where the protagonist and an old Icelandic farmer are discussing the similarities between their two countries. The farmer speculates that both countries have a great number of ghost stories because both countries are volcanic – death is cold, he explains, so the ghosts stay close by in both Iceland and Japan in order to stay warm. For whatever reason, many Icelanders feel a connection to Japanese culture, as was evident at the 2006 Japan Festival held at the University of Iceland’s main building last month, an event that was a joint effort from the Japanese Embassy, the Iceland-Japan Association and the Japan Studies program at the University of Iceland.
When I arrived in the early afternoon, the place was packed, despite the fact that the festival comprised four classrooms and one large hall. Milling about the main hall, there were stations set up displaying manga comics, teaching origami paper-folding, offering samples of sweet saké and green tea, as well as Japanese calligraphic artists writing people’s names in the katakana phonetic alphabet. There was scarcely move to walk, especially during demonstrations of judo and aikido martial arts, which took place on a stage at the front of the hall. As interesting as all this activity was, we decided to explore some of the classrooms, where there seemed to be fewer people.
In one room, the walls were adorned with some fascinating photographs taken by an Icelandic exchange student. Rather than the typical pictures of Mt. Fuji or cherry trees, these slice-of-life photos showed everything from street musicians to people dressed as popular cartoon characters. It was refreshing to see Japan depicted from the point of view of an average person walking the streets of a new city.
I decided to skip the “karaoke bar,” as I’ve heard “Total Eclipse of the Heart” butchered enough times already to last me a lifetime, and went instead to the game room. Here, the traditional Japanese board games Igo and Shogi were being played by some Icelandic college kids in deep concentration. Across the hall, Japanese music was the theme. There I learned that if I ever visit Japan I will probably spend a great portion of my day watching music videos. While some “J-Pop” (Japanese pop music) acts like Hitomi don’t seem to be any different from their western equivalents, I was particularly impressed with Bennie K. This female duo combine hip-hop, rock and pop (not to mention Japanese and English) in their songs; drawing from outside influences yet creating something uniquely Japanese – something the Japanese have been doing for centuries.
Overall, the festival provided a fairly thorough introduction to Japanese culture, both ancient and modern. Here’s hoping that next year they’ll find a larger space to hold the event.