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Four years ago I arrived in the Netherlands. In a few days, I return to the United States. I don’t know exactly where this post will go, but I feel it is important to say something about my time in Europe, both as a person and as a fan of anime and manga. I apologize for the rambling that’s about to ensue.
I’ve lived outside of the United States before, having spent a few months studying abroad in Japan (almost 10 years ago at this point!), but never had I been in a foreign country for so long. I can’t say I ever truly acclimated myself to this environment (I never even got fluent in the language, after all), but I managed a comfortable existence. Even putting aside amazing culinary cultures such as France and Germany, food has been an (often deep-fried) adventure. I’ll miss the Indonesian cuisine and the herring especially.
I could go on forever about food, though, so I’ll speak mainly about things that are more directly pertinent about being an otaku. One aspect that I had been somewhat aware of in the past but that had rarely entered my mind was that different countries have unique relationships with Japan, and this is certainly the case with the Netherlands. Famously the Dutch were the only foreigners allowed in Japan for a long time, and they stayed exclusively on the island of Deshima (or Dejima). So what does a Dutch group dedicated to bringing Japanese music to anime conventions in the Netherlands call itself? Deshima Sounds. It makes sense.
It was fascinating to see a different anime con culture compared to the US. The conventions certainly never even approach the massive attendances of an Otakon or an Anime Expo, but they have their own charm. From my first convention experience here, one aspect that really stood out to me was how the Artists’ Alleys greatly emphasized the production of full-on comics (one might even call them doujinshi) over individual images. While I don’t know if this is truly relevant, I do know that the Netherlands historically has been considered a strong country for book-publishing, allowing things that could get one in trouble in other countries (and I don’t mean pornography). It’s actually something I wouldn’t mind seeing more of in the US.
Speaking of fans, I must apologize to the folks over at Manga Kissa in Utrecht for never really going, but I am fully behind their endeavor to provide an actual manga cafe with a wide selection. If you’re ever in Utrecht, I recommend you check it out, as it’s a nice place to relax.
While my focus has been on anime and manga for a long time, I was also presently surprised to find out that the Netherlands has its own comics culture. Whenever I went to a new city, I often looked around for a comic store, and while many of the comics were simply French or Belgian comics translated into Dutch, even that was interesting because of how the Dutch preferred less expensive paperbacks over the elaborate hardcovers one would find elsewhere. It was actually amazing to be able to attend an event and just walk straight up to some of the biggest names in the industry and get a sketch at no cost and without a significant wait in line.
Around 2009 or so, I began to get into Japanese mahjong after having watched shows such as Akagi and Saki. Having originally played online, I eventually found a group to play with in real life, but it wasn’t until I lived in the Netherlands that I had the opportunity to actually attend tournaments and to compete for pride and glory (there were never any cash prizes but that’s okay). This country is small enough that even a tournament at a fairly obscure location was never too difficult to get to, and to find a fairly thriving riichi mahjong scene makes me incredibly grateful. I’ve met people from all over the world at these tournaments, gained some nice friends, and it’s even legitimately improved my mahjong to boot. Many of the Dutch players had originally come from a different style of mahjong, and so when playing them I had to learn that my style, which was built from playing the Tenhou online ladder, simply did not work. I had to re-evaluate how I looked at the game, and this experience is something I’ll never forget. I leave being fairly satisfied with my own performance, having attended three European tournaments and having placed 10th, 20th, and 6th.
Then there’s the rest of Europe to talk about! I wasn’t able to go to every country I had set my eyes on (Sweden, Luxembourg, and Switzerland I’ll perhaps regret not seeing most of all), but of the places I did have the pleasure of visiting I actually discovered quite a bit about geek fandom in general. I visit New York’s “Forbidden Planet” regularly, but it pales in comparison to the one in London. The comics museum in Belgium was a blast and made me want to read European comics more than ever.
Paris is, perhaps predictably, the most notable of all. While I had heard that the French were big into anime, it didn’t hit me until a simple trip from the hotel to the city center involved passing by not one, but multiple cosplay shops, in areas that didn’t even necessarily show signs of otakudom otherwise. Upon entering the toy and comic stores, I was continuously greeted by the ubiquitous presence of one UFO Robo Grendizer. I was already aware of the fact that Grendizer was a big deal for the French (and the Italian), that it was basically to them what Voltron was to the US, but in a way it was so much more. At the time, I suspected that the French benefited from the fact that Japan still continuously produced new Grendizer merchandise, and I think that theory still holds today.
I also got to attend a few Starcraft II events, which was wild.
Thank you to everyone who helped me out while I was living in a continent I had never even visited before. You’ve made my life that much richer, and I hope we can meet again someday. And yes, I am now aware of Alfred J. Kwak.
In a few days, I head to Otakon in Baltimore, which itself is undergoing a big transition with its eventual move to Washington, DC in 2016. Otakon is familiar territory at this point, yet I can’t help but feel that there will be some strange kind of culture shock for myself.
After years of wanting to go but never finding the opportunity to do so, I decided to finally visit the Stripmuseum in Groningen. “Stripmuseum” means “Comics Museum, so don’t get any funny ideas. Then again, I feel like there’s a greater acknowledgement of nudity in Dutch comics compared to especially American comics, and so maybe the joke isn’t too out of place.
The museum is fairly small but it’s easy to spend a few hours there. The first exhibit that greets visitors is the work of Don Lawrence, a British artist who drew the fantasy comic Storm before passing away. Apparently it has always targeted a primarily Dutch audience, to the extent that the later artists who continued the work have all been Dutch. Another early introduction is artist Don Kriek, creator of Gutsman, not to be confused with a certain Robot Master.
There are a lot of comics samples to look at, going from the earlier days of Dutch comics, such as Tom Poes to ones that have been around for ages such as Suske en Wiske, Agent 327, and Franka, as well as more recent works like Dirkjan and Sigmund. It also touched on properties that may not be “Dutch” or even “Dutch-language” necessarily but have left a mark such as Tintin and Donald Duck. As I can’t really read Dutch, I’m sure that my experience was somewhat limited (though remedied to an extent by an English-language pamphlet), and I can only imagine that people who are literate in the language could spend an even longer time there.
One thing I found interesting was that there was a small section dedicated to “Dutch manga.” Given some of the arguments and disagreements that people get into in terms of what “is” or “isn’t” manga, it’s kind of fascinating to see the Stripmuseum just outright state that, yes, there can be such a thing as Dutch manga, and that it operates under a somewhat different visual grammar. Though my experience with Dutch comics history is pretty shallow at this point (most of the museum information was new to me), I wonder if this ability to accept native-produced material as “manga” is but the newest step in a long line of appropriation, and I mean that in the best way possible. Not only is there the example of Donald Duck (where the magazine named after him is the longest-running Dutch comics magazine ever), but Dutch artists even took the American comics character Perry Winkle, renamed him “Sjors,” and paired him with a kid from Africa, essentially turning it into an entirely different work.
I also thought it was notable that Sjors & Sjimmie has been drawn by a number of artists over the years, especially because Sjimmie’s design started off as quite racist but was changed significantly over time. Another interesting fact I learned is that Mark Retera, the artist of Dirkjan, was inspired by Gary Larson of The Far Side. Seeing as The Far Side is one of my favorite comics ever, I feel like I should give Dirkjan a shot.
If you’re ever in the Netherlands, give it a shot, though I must warn that the train ride can be pretty long if you’re traveling from one end of the country to the other. It was also my first time in Groningen and that city is beautiful. Maybe I should stop by there again just to take a look. It reminds me a bit of Los Angeles mixed with Amsterdam.
Out all Japanese foods there are two I feel particularly attached to. The first is curry rice, which is an extension of my general love of curry. The second is the more divisive fermented soybean product known as nattou. I ate it a lot when I lived in Japan, and it’s a food which I find fulfilling in a way few others are.
Nattou is often times considered one of those culture shock foods, the thing that’s served to scare foreigners away, and although it’s not on the same level as, say, durian or surstroeming (SPELL CHECK), nattou is indeed generally an acquired taste. The problem with that, of course, is that, even if people want to try it and potentially grow to aprpeciate nattou, there may not be many opportunities to do so. In the Netherlands there are Japanese communities such as the one in Amstelveen, but it may be inconvenient to travel there.
Amazingly, I’ve discovered a company which produces and delivers nattou in the Netherlands. Nattodan is a company interested in spreading nattou as a health food, and is actually capable of shipping nattou directly to your door step (provided you live in a Dutch town or city of course). I just recently received my first delivery, which costed me 32 euros for 900 grams’ worth. It’s fairly steep, especially compared to prices in Japan or even a larger city with a decent Japanese population like New York City or Los Angeles, but it does have that delivery convenience in its favor, and it does come with a freezable gel pack which I’ll probably keep for future use for other things.
In terms of taste it’s definitely nattou. I’ve been told that I’m a poor judge of whether an exotic food is safe for normal people to consume, but if I had to describe why I like nattou it’s because it has this combination of a savory and nutty flavor which mixes tremendously well with rice. It’s somewhat known for its smell, being a fermented product and all, but I know that Nattodan has taken efforts to make it less pungent compared to the nattou you’d normally be able to find in Japan. I enjoy the smell so it doesn’t bother me either way, but keep in mind that the scent isn’t entirely gone. The delivery also didn’t come with the bit of spicy mustard and soy sauce which usually accompany Japanese-made nattou packs. It’s not necessary, but it’s one of those things that can make eating nattou more pleasant for some.
If you’re living in the Netherlands and you’re just curious about nattou and its many mysteries, give it a shot. Due to delivery costs it’s not “worth” it to only buy one or two packs, but of course it’s not a food people are guaranteed to like. So, my advice is to hold a party or something, possibly themed around Japanese foods, and just order some so you and your friends can all try it out. Call it a dare, call it a culinary adventure, but see if nattou is right for you.
This past weekend I was able to attend my very first ever “Riichi Mahjong Tournament” (quotes and capitalization used to convey my sense of awe), and to put it simply, I had a blast. I managed to do well at the tournament, and accomplished a number of things I can feel some sense of pride in. On the other hand, I made a number of mistakes that are a sign of my own greenness in competition. I’ll be trying to make this post fairly accessible, but keep in mind that I’ll be throwing a bunch of terms around, so it may wind up being obtuse for those unfamiliar with mahjong.
One thing that I realized while playing with the USPML over the last couple of years or so is that my mahjong stamina is not so great, and knowing that each day of competition would last many hours I tried to make up for it as best I could. I ate balanced breakfasts (making sure to include one egg for protein content) but also tried to avoid overeating (an easy problem for me to fall into), I took effort to stay hydrated, and I avoided overly sugary snacks in order to prevent a sugar crash at crucial points. I think it worked out okay in the end, though I still felt a sense of fatigue after a while which I think compromised my play.
In general, I’m not much of a tournament person for games at all (in my life, I’ve attended one Guilty Gear XX tournament, a handful of Smash Bros. tournaments, and some online Pokemon stuff back in the day), but I have to say that it was genuinely fun and exciting. This offline tournament was an intense experience with a really fun social component, both outside the game talking to fellow players, as well as inside the game. I think on some level riichi mahjong feels especially social because the rules, however daunting they may be for players to learn, encourage a high level of interactivity where you have to battle your opponents machinations as well as your own greed and cowardice. I might even go as far as to call mahjong a kind of window into people’s souls because of how the luck component combined with the potential decisions one makes in response to them shows how people may end up responding to situations beyond their or anyone else’s control. Go watch Akagi, and Akagi’s comment about someone being “weak against coincidence” makes that much more sense.
Interestingly, unlike the USPML which consists of mostly young folks who were exposed to mahjong through anime, the Dutch mahjong scene consists of older people (most at least 40 and up I would reckon), who came to it after playing other forms of mahjong. Talking to some, they had started to tire of the other formats and found riichi more exciting and interesting. I’ve never played other forms so I can’t agree or disagree, but I feel like I can see where they’re coming from given the interactivity of riichi mahjong. There was also a smaller contingent of international European players who just do this sort of thing semi-regularly, a world for which I hold a tiny bit of envy.
As for my accomplishments (which I hope you’ll let me bask in until I get smashed the next time), I played through nine full east-south (hanchan) matches and managed to avoid getting 4th in every single game. I even had a game where I was in dead last at the end of the east round (I was down 20,000 points!) and was able to surge back with some well-timed risky play to take first by the end. On the other hand, I actually misread one tile for another which cost me a round, drew from the wrong part of the wall at one point, and even dealt into a super obvious hand because I had too much tunnel vision while playing that round.
The tournament used the European Mahjong Association’s “Riichi Competiton Rules” (or RCR), and it made for a somewhat different dynamic compared to playing on the Tenhou ladder. The most obvious peculiarity of the European rules is the restriction of closed tanyao only (which means people cannot steal tiles to make this normally very basic hand) in combination with the presence of red 5s, tiles which can easily bolster your score and can turn weak hands into monstrous ones, but the one that caught my attention the most was the points system. Normally, you begin with a set of points (on Tenhou it’s 25,000) and whoever has more points by the end wins a match, and there is the added risk where if you go under zero points the game ends with you in dead last. However, with RCR there are no default starting points and everything is counted in terms of the points gained or lost. What this ends up meaning is that it is impossible to go bankrupt, and you can lose 1 billion points and still be able to play in subsequent rounds, though your morale might be shot.
The reason this was done, I think, was so that no one felt left out early in the tournament and everyone could play as much mahjong as possible. Supporting this was the fact that the format of the tournament was almost but not quite a round robin tournament, in the sense that it was not an elimination tournament like you’d see in Saki or Starcraft where 64 players/teams enter and then 32 advance and so on. Instead, everyone got the chance to play nine games (with time limits), so everyone wound up playing roughly the same amount of mahjong overall, whether they got 1st place or dead last. It’s quite a different format, but because it fosters enjoyment I like it all the same.
There was a second factor to the scoring system as well, what is known as “Uma” or the amount of points you gain or lose at the end of a match. In the most recent incarnation of the European rules, you get added to your existing score +30,000 points for a 1st place finish, +10,000 for 2nd, -10,000 for 3rd, and -30,000 for 4th. Thus, if in a game the 4 players wound up getting 10,000 points, 1000 points, -1000 points, and -10,000 points respectively, the final score of that session would be 40,000/11,000/-11,000/-40,000, and then you carried your score to subsequent matches. Thus, if the same results happened again to each player, they would end up with 80,000/22,000/-22,000/-80,000 going into their 3rd game. The gap isn’t entirely insurmountable, but the more 4th place finishes you have, the tougher it gets, which is why I was glad to not have any.
As a result of this format, your placement in a match alone doesn’t matter as much as your place in a match alongside your points earned, which is different from other forms of riichi mahjong. In my case, I was in a game where I was practically guaranteed 2nd place at the end of a match, and was in potential range to get 1st so I took a risk and went for a hand and ended up dealing in and losing 8,000 points. While I still got the 10,000 point bonus for being 2nd, I would’ve had an additional 8,000 added to my total score if only I had played it safer. Similarly, if you’re in 4th and there’s no chance for you to take 3rd place, do you try to get as close to 3rd as possible to mitigate the damage, or do you just play safe in case you end up falling even more, and what would’ve been a big loss is now a gigantic one?
Mahjong, especially in this particular tournament style, is a funny thing in terms of competitiveness because you really have to decide what’s more important, your chance at claiming a top spot (or even the top spot), or being satisfied with where you are and not wanting to fall further. If you’re in 2nd in the overall tournament ranking with 1st place is 50,000 points ahead of you but 3rd through 10th place all nipping at your heels, do you avoid risks and try to hold onto your 2nd place position as much as possible, or do you take a chance and aim for 1st with the likely possibility that you’ll crash and burn and fall 10, maybe even 15 places? Which do you value more? It’s an interesting psychological test, I think, and I realize in hindsight that every time I imagined myself getting a top spot I ended up doing worse. Maybe it’s a lesson I need to learn better.
So overall, I’m more than glad I decided to participate. If I get the chance to attend another one, I most likely will.
When it comes to comics, the Netherlands is an interesting country. Situated close to Belgium and France, the Dutch have had close ties with that bande dessinée (Franco-Belgian comics) culture, particularly when it comes to the Flemish comics, but they’ve also developed a comics culture all their own. While I’d learned about this a fair deal before, when I went to the Dutch comics festival “Stripfestival Breda” this past month, I was able to see it much more clearly.
Taking place in the city of Breda and spread across different locations near the center of town, Stripfestival Breda is a two-day event to celebrate comics. There, you could buy comics from a variety of venders, get your picture taken with your favorite characters (whether that means cosplay by fans or actual people hired to dress up), and even meet the artists responsible for all of these comics. Each location specialized in a certain area, such as one for events and awards, though I didn’t attend all of them due to time constraints and other inconveniences such as my lack of Dutch fluency. Instead, I primarily looked at the industry area, located in a theater, and the self-published area, located in the city’s Great Church (every Dutch city seems to have one).
The industry locale was the epicenter of the festival, and companies from both inside and outside of the Netherlands were there. They had plenty of books to sell, but what I found to be most impressive is that in a lot of cases, not only were the artists themselves there, but they were offering free sketches. The biggest booth was the Eppo booth, home of a variety of Dutch comics both classic and new (and in some cases the comics have run long enough to be both), which housed about 8-10 artists each with their own lines. With big names in Dutch comics such as Martin Lodewijk of Agent 327, as well as Jorg de Vos and Roman Molenaar, the artists behind Storm (which is available in English), it was a collection of heavy hitters, but amazingly the lines were short enough that I could get multiple sketches in well under an hour.
In fact, by my estimation, the combined lines between all of the Eppo artists was about as long as a line for Fred Gallagher (Megatokyo) at Otakon. This isn’t to say knock either Fred or the Dutch artists, but just to say that I was amazed by how accessible these artists were.
Interestingly, the most popular comic among young Dutch kids is an Italian series called Geronimo Stilton. I don’t know much about it other than the fact that it features an anthropomorphic journalist mouse who goes on adventures, or whether it’s doing well in the US, but its success was clear as kids line up to take photos with a real Geronimo Stilton, Disneyland-style.
There was definitely a French/Belgian presence as well, though I didn’t spend much time with them, and there were vendors selling a huge variety of comics, including (what I assumed to be) old, hard-to-find items. Many of the vendors sold comics with some erotic content, but there didn’t seem to be any particular separation or shame in it. In some cases they were shrink-wrapped, in some cases they weren’t.
There was some presence for manga and American comics, especially the life-sized Iron Man statue, the anime fan artists who I’ve seen at the Dutch anime cons, and the requisite maid cafe, though they definitely weren’t the main focus. Asking one vendor of superhero comics about the status of American comics in the Netherlands, he told me that The Walking Dead is quite popular.
The independent/alternative comics area was quite a different experience from the hustle and bustle of the industry location, though I think that may have had to do with the fact that it was held in an old-fashioned gothic-style church and featured many art pieces which I might call not very church-like at all. Featured here were many comics which strayed from convention, featuring really erratic character designs and strange subject matter, the artists were not just comics makers but sometimes contemporary art scene artists as well. Items were generally more expensive for the alternative comics than they were for the industry items, but often times not by much.
I spoke to one artist, who told me that his favorite comic was the one that had the sold the least because it wasn’t really to Dutch tastes. Intrigued, I asked him what he meant by Dutch tastes, because I don’t have anywhere near as keen a sense for European comics as I do for American and Japanese, he mentioned that it had to do with round, cartoonish characters with big feet and so on. It’s something I’ll have to do more research on.
In the end, what probably stood out to me most was the fact that gender and age distributions seemed very even. I saw people from five-years-old to fifty-year-sold both male and female lined up at booths, whether it was to buy comics or to meet the artists or their favorite characters, often times for the same series. It made me realize how much comics is a thing for all ages in the Netherlands.
As promised in my con report, here are the doodles I did while in the drawing room at Anime 2012. My favorite one is the creepy cult leader hitting on the lady.
Nattou, that Japanese food which divides families and shatters nations but which I love immensely, is hard to come by in the Netherlands, so when a friend said he knew a way to get some, I knew what had to be done. Upon receiving it, I had a strange epiphany, to combine it with another food which embodies cultural adaptation and assimilation: The McKroket.
The McKroket is a sandwich from McDonald’s available only in the Netherlands, taking the Dutch fondness for fried meaty goop and shaping it into a disc suitable for bunnery. Just as a word of advice, be careful when eating all krokets and kroket-like products, as the ragout can and will burn your tongue if you bite in too suddenly.
Anyway, I opened up my pack of nattou, added the soy sauce and mustard, and gave it a mighty stir before placing some on top of the kroket part of the sandwich. With the top bun back on my culinary Frankenstein monster was complete.
And you know what? It was fantastic. I know 99% of people reading won’t believe me, even the people who do like nattou, but I am completely serious when I say I would do this again if given the opportunity. It is a complex mix of savory flavors between the ragout and the strong nuttiness of the nattou, and the combination of the crunchiness of the fried crust and the chewiness of the fermented soy beans made each bite strangely satisfying, hough keep in mind that I find nattou itself to be a purveyor of contentment, so your mileage may vary.
I guess if you’re in Japan, you could just buy some nattou and put it on a croquet pan but it wouldn’t be quite the same. Maybe you should fly to Europe just to do this.
One day I went to the supermarket with a mission: buy a relatively inexpensive cereal because I’d been eating out too much. That quickly went out the window once I laid my eyes on this:
Now I’m not much of a Hello Kitty fan, and I have never been a collector of Hello Kitty merchandise, but the combination of the very existence of this cereal and the fact that its full name is actually “Hello Kitty Fruity Chocs” meant I had to try it at least once.
According to the box it is chocolate cereal outside with strawberry-flavored inside, which is kind of surprising given that the cereal actually isn’t that sweet. I probably won’t buy it again, but I’m definitely keeping the box.
The city of Leiden has an annual outdoor market called the “Japanmarkt” (Japan Market), where people and booths gather along one of the canals of the city in order to celebrate all things Japanese. I actually went last year but forgot to bring my camera, so I made sure this year not to forget and to also actually report on the danged thing because it’s pretty cool overall.
Held this year on May 25th, Japanmarkt is not terribly different from any of the Japan-themed festivals I’ve attended back in the US, but what is very clear is that the festival reflects to some degree the unique history the Netherlands has with Japan. Back when foreigners were for the most part not allowed in Japan, it was the Dutch merchants who were the rare exception. Moreover, the first Japanologist, Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold, was a German living in Leiden, and his old house is now a Japanese museum on the same street as Japanmarkt. And of course, there are a good amount of Dutch anime fans mixed in there, creating this convergence of Japan-loving generations that’s different from an anime convention. That said, there were actually anime con booths there as well.
Food was a popular item, and for my part I tried two things in particular. The first was a curry (for charity!). The second was something that could only have come out of a Dutch-based celebration of Japanese culture.
If you don’t know takoyaki, they’re essentially fried chewy balls of batter stuffed with bits of octopus and covered in savory sauces, a kind of convenient comfort food (and quite delicious if I do say so myself). There was a takoyaki stand at Japanmarkt, but it had a twist, mixing the concept of takoyaki with that of “poffertjes,” tiny pancake-like snacks typically served with powdered sugar.
These “takoyaki poffertjes” were something I felt I could never get elsewhere, their uniqueness compelling me to try them out. I can’t complain.
At one of the tables which was selling manga, I overheard a girl helping her friend out by finding volumes of My Girlfriend is a Geek (Fujoshi Kanojo). I don’t often see people interested in those otaku/fujoshi romance manga, especially ones giving lists to their friends to hunt down those books wherever possible, so that put a bit of a smile on my face.
Getting anime and manga merchnadise in the Netherlands is actually not that difficult I’ve learned, particularly when you live closer to the bigger cities. Though a lot of material is in Dutch, because a lot of people here know how to read in English already a lot of it is also imported from the US. I could be in worse situations.
That said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss New York City and the amazing amount of access I can get with just a short train ride. When I think about how to spend a summer day in New York for me, it involves going to Kinokuniya first, followed by Bookoff (or vice versa), and then moving on to eat at Go Go Curry. They’re all around the same area so it also makes for an enjoyable walk. The sheer weight of my bookbag as it’s stuffed with manga is also a strangely pleasant and familiar feeling, and even reminds me of my high school days. It’s even more fun to relax on the train ride back, preferably with friends, just sharing everything we got while simultaneously peeling off layers of Bookoff price tags (those things tend to accumulate as the same book gets resold over and over).
Perhaps the New York routine is special mainly because it’s where home is. Probably if I gave myself more time here (and actually went to Amstelveen), I could build up a similar routine, but for now I’m content to wait for the moments I go back.