Its back to Singapore for me, and university life has already started. But as all things must move on in time, I have to admit that the trip to the Tohoku region, Japan as a Youth Ambassador the week before has certainly been memorable.
The March 11 earthquake has been one of the biggest, if not the strongest in the history of Japan. A tsunami followed suit, and it struck the coastal areas of various prefectures in the Tohoku region. Fast forward the scene a few months till today, and through the trip which I’ve been through, I’ve seen the reconstruction efforts take place, the atmosphere and hum of the cities getting back its momentum, and smiles striking up from cheerful faces again.
My first activity in Japan while at Sendai City was to take part in the Mini Tanabata Workshop. The Sendai Tanabata festival as mentioned in my earlier blog post became popular during the feudal period when Lord Date Masamune attempted to raise the awareness of the tasks done by women. However, it was only after the First World War and economic recession which hit the country did the Tanabata festival come into significance again. Merchants wanted to raise the people’s spirits and the local business, thus the Tanabata festival was reinvented again.
One of our instructors in the Mini Tanabata Workshop explaining the reasons behind each of the seven items made.
After the workshop, it was time to head over for the Welcome Ceremony at Sendai Kokusai Hotel. Talk about a Samurai’s welcome.
Day 2 of the journey begin with all of us heading down to the Tsunami affected area, Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture. The bus ride from the ANA Holiday Inn Sendai hotel took approximately two hours, so along the way we were all entertained by the landscaped scenery along the road sides.
As the bus rolled on, the whole group prepped themselves with the necessary gear before our volunteer work. Safety goggles, breathing mask, and metal insoles were all necessities.
As the bus arrived closer to our destination, I must admit that many of us were speechless. This moment of deafening silence was enough to cast a deep impression on anyone. Being within the hit zone and witnessing the images on the television or the internet are two entire different experiences altogether. Its hard not to feel the strength in which the natural calamity has wrought upon the coastal towns, the homes which families have lost, and the natural memories all washed away.
Some structures still stood, others like the expressway had fallen. But amidst the destruction, we saw signs of hope and recovery. We saw an elementary school resuming activities with children playing soccer and baseball, while rubble stood pile high all around. And we saw the slow but sure effort in sorting out the destruction.
My group’s efforts were placed in helping clear the fallen remains of a house. It was an arduous and tedious task which lasted only two hours and by then we were all clearly exhausted. We removed many items liked soaked tatami mats which weighed a ton each time we dragged them out from under the debris, or pushing up a freezer on a trolley with uneven and flooded ground all about. The main structures we could not touch, and we tried to salvage as much personal belongings like books and photographs. What we saw were once people’s memories.
The weather was definitely hot, with the sun glaring down at us. With all the sweat and tears, we were all amazed by the efforts placed in by the recovery effort teams. Every fallen building is combed through one by one, and only later will the bigger machines come in to clear what human hands can not. And only then, will the process of reconstruction begin.
At the volunteer centre headquarters, the Japanese citizens tasked to run the daily operations were all smiles and generous in their words of thanks. We washed our boots, put back our equipment in proper order, gargled our mouths with antiseptic, washed our hands and were given refreshments to replenish the body. We were not the only ones there though, as busloads of people kept coming and going. All volunteers, the tasks at hand were insurmountable, and every brick had to be removed.
I am sure that physical help is always appreciated, but for the international community, I guess the biggest assistance that can be provided is the emotional, spiritual and economical support that we can give. The daily operations are very organized, but it takes more than that to inject life back into a society again. Just my thoughts and ramblings, but perhaps one that is true. Hopefully.
We headed to a Japanese restaurant for dinner in town before heading back to the hotel. Awesome food, every bit was good. A true Japanese dining cultural experience.
We begin the second leg of our Cultural Immersion Exchange programme on the third day, and here the group headed up to Mount Zao.
Impressive scenery awaits at the crater of this dominant volcano, and a beautiful lake slowly unveils itself as the fog lifts past.
Mount Zao itself has a temple someway further up the slope, I captured this photo as I felt that the pathway was really apt in expressing the simple humble approach it takes when it comes to finding inner peace.
And then its time for lunch. The students headed for one of the more popular tourist pit stops just someway down the mountain, where we all could get plenty of souvenirs, and goodies (like cherries and pears) from around the prefecture.
Its like a Japanese festival all over again =D
Lunch was a surprise to us, I never knew Japanese vegetarian meals could taste so good. See that pink noodles up there, they are Pink Soba noodles, essential soba made the with floral colourings from pink flowers widely found in the prefecture.
And then I had the famed Cherry Soft Serve Ice Cream. Awesome stuff, and the sweetness permeates ever so gently in fruitly fashion.
After lunch, we all headed to Yamagata Prefecture’s Office where we were all presented to a briefing on the prefecture’s efforts on the actions taken after the disasters. To welcome us all, the office flew the Singapore flag in honour.
We first attended a sharing session by the Professor and students from the Yamagata university where the main topic was on the recovery efforts in the region and on volunteerism. Insightful, and it set many of us thinking of what we could do in giving back to society both locally and internationally.
And then the fun begins for the evening – the Yamagata Hanagasa festival. Everyone (including officials from the Japanese Embassy, ANA Singapore, and Japan National Tourism Organisation) learned the traditional Hanagasa festival dance.
Hanagasa which means flower hats is considered one of the major festivals in Tohoku.
Its like a Singapore chingay with many participants being part of the crowd and dancing the same beat and movements to the tune. 45 repetitions in 3 sets from start point to end point.
Everyone took part, I was amazed by the crowd!
People were out in droves to watch the festival!
And as the night drew further, even more people turned up!
Its the dance which you must see. I managed to find a clip on Youtube which had the Singapore delegation performing (fast forward to 4:45). Not too bad considering that we had a 45 minutes crash course in learning the dance steps.
Oh and if you noticed, I am in the front row, with my camera around my neck swinging to the rhythm while I dance.
We were all pretty much beat after the performance from start to finish. For me, I felt that it was rather unique as I managed to experience part of the Japanese culture and the activities that the people do. Everyone can see the scenery and enjoy the food, but to be a performing item in the festive spirit, that’s awesome!
We spent the night at Togatta Onsen for both the onsen and a Ryokyan experience. Its my first time at an onsen and to have both the hot and cold baths was a refreshing enlightening experience that caused howls of laughter throughout. Dinner was a traditional full set meal with about 12 dishes to slowly finish the experience from.
Traditional Japanese attire before heading to the onsen.
Day 4 and we were all back in Sendai for the full Sendai Tanabata festival. The whole street was buzzing with activity, and it was a real beautiful sight to see the different designs set up by the different organizations.
Rina Sasaki (my team’s Japanese university student) and me posing for a picture
At the tanabata festival, all of us also wrote well wishes for Japan’s recovery.
I saw the messages of support, and even if it were in the Japanese language which I could not comprehend, I felt certain that words of encouragement were aplenty. This outreach in mental support is an essential aspect of any society, and one that can be a powerful driving force.
The Sendai Tanabata festival was also a day where many families were out to partake in the festivities, indulge in the food and games which a whole street of booths provided.
Children trying to catch fish with a stick, some string, and bread. I wonder what’s the success rate like.
At this Kushiyaki stall, I had a serving of wonderful smoked grilled Chicken skin for 100 yen and the stall assistants were glad to pose a photo for me. Awesome.
While I might not have gone for the chocolate covered banana which seemed to be a popular sweet treat, I went for the candied apples instead. Available in both snack size and the traditional huge apples, they cost 250yen and 300yen respectively.
Red gems all lined up to be enjoyed.
After enjoying the sights and sounds of the Tanabata festival, the group headed to Mitsui Outlet Park near the Sendai port.
A decent selection of branded goods sold at discounted prices were available. We went slightly before lunch time so we managed to drop in a few stores before the masses started streaming in.
Ferris wheel at Mitsui Outlet Park.
Lunch was at a Japanese food court for my group mates and me. The concept is pretty much similar to Singapore except they have selected stations for free flow water, and everyone has to return their trays and bowls to the stall they bought their meals from.
My lunch choice was from Don Tatu. I was deciding between ramen, tonkatsu, to curry rice, but I just felt that my craving for sashimi has just begun.
The Sashimi Moriwase rice bowl cost me 1000yen, with ingredients like salmon, tuna, scallop, sweet prawn, salmon roe, cuttlefish and egg.
There was also Cold noodles on the table.
And Cha Soba if you like.
Day 4 afternoon, we had a trip down to Sendai Airport. In the news a couple of months back, this is the very airport in which the tsunami savaged pretty badly. The airport is now up and running serving domestic flights within Japan, international flights are scheduled to begin soon.
Upon entering the airport, a section of it was decorated with well wishes and thoughts from all over Japan and the world. A printed poster pasted on one of the pillar at 3.02m made way as a reminder to everyone that the tsunami flooded the 1st floor of the airport till that very height.
We were treated to a tour of the airport and from the rooftop could see that most of the facilities are good and a segment is still being reconstructed. Our guide told us that the surrounding landscape around the airport used to consist of trees and dotted with houses, but now all that remains is a barren stretch of green plains.
Our last night in the region, and we checked in to Kinugawa Onsen. As part of our farewell to both the Tohoku journey and to our Japanese friends who have accompanied us throughout the past 3 days, we had a mini Sayonara party. The traditional Japanese set meal was laid out in full glory before us in individual portions.
The wonderful experience to choose and savour each dish slowly while performances entertained us throughout the dinner.
Group A3 posing for a photo with a stance I guess comes from AKB48.
The honorary Ganbai! to all
And our signing of the Youth Ambasaddors for Tohoku banner. A memorable experience and many of us ended the night with a dip into the onsen again.
I woke up the next day at the hotel and I was simply amazed by the spectacular view which unfolded before me in the light of the rising sun.
The lobby of the hotel was designed with a natural overlook against the picturesque scene.
On the trip I also met Minako Seki, who happened to be a mutual friend to my friend, Angeline. Talk about a small world eh.
The hotel front had a ramen shop. But we had to go off to the train station early in the morning.
Its our last day with the driver uncle who drove us tirelessly throughout the 4 days and we were all very appreciative of his efforts. Driver-San Arigato!
Bye bye Aunties from the hotel!!
From Kinugawa Onsen, the group headed to Utsunomiya Station for the Shinkansen (i.e bullet train). Not all were to head to Tokyo though, as our newly found Japanese friends had to say goodbye.
The trip together had been short, but for the bonds made with the university students from Tohoku, I guess we all have left a deep impression on each other’s lives. As we departed at the station to board the bullet train, its hard not to shed a tear.
Parting smiles, emotions ran high. It seemed like our friendships were getting on so well, and then we had to move on again. I am sure many of us will remain connected through this Youth Ambassadorial programme, gosh its hard not to think about the great times we had.
The Shinkansen is a truly amazing service. It took only about 40 minutes to travel from Kinugawa to Tokyo. As compared to our bus journey from Tokyo to Sendai, it took us 5.5 hours.
At Tokyo Station, we were all left to our own for an hour and a half to settle lunch. I settled for this mixed Sashimi bowl containing fatty tuna, sea urchin, salmon roe and tamago. Oishii!
In all true honesty, I was having a very hard time making up my decision. I nearly settled for the Sea Urchin bowl but decided that a mix and match of everything would be in order. Just imagine, that bowl above cost about 1500 Yen. Fantastic prices!
Our Tokyo journey marked the 2nd last day we would all be in Japan, and as our itinerary would have it, we visited Tokyo University for a series of lectures and sharing.
I am intrigued by the mix of architecture featuring the traditional entrance to renaissance building within.
The route we chose also led us to walk between the aisle of trees. Imagine this very scene in autumn with gold and red leaves abound, beautiful.
Vice President of Tokyo University giving his opening address
At Tokyo University, all the Youth Ambassadors were exposed to lectures about Civil Engineering, Statistics models, and Young Change Leaders. Invigorating. Students from Tokyo University also set up booths outside the auditorium were they presented their project work and shared their experiences with us.
Our last night in Tokyo, and we spent it at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel located at the Shinagawa district. Getting around is very convenient as we were near the train station, and it was easy to get to places like Shinjuku and Ginza.
My night adventure in Tokyo was with my Uncle KY. I’ll come up with a post on that later together with my food experiences with one of the best Yakitori’s I’ve had thus far.
The last day in Tokyo, and all that was left was the Closing Ceremony. Suitcases all packed, goodies all bought, rooms checked out. And when we entered the Grand Ballroom, our endorsed banner with all our signatures were up there, hung up for all to see.
My team specially prepared a scrapbook of memories as a momento of thanks to the organisers.
It was put together with pictures and handwritten notes of appreciation.
Group Shots, Scenic Shots, and even Candid shots of us snoozing during the long bus journeys.
My team posing for a photo with officials from the Singapore Embassy in Japan and the Asean Japan Centre.
Group A of the Youth Ambassadors with an “OK Japan” pose with the officials and organisers of the entire event.
We brought our culture to Japan as we toasted off a successful Ambassadorial journey with a lengthy Yum Seng!
Josephine, my Junior College classmate also on the same programme.
Me and Mr. Mizohata Hiroshi, Commissioner, Japan Tourism Agency
Me with with Mr. Motonari Adachi, Executive Director, Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) Singapore Office
Me with Mr. Tadatoshi Mamiya, President, Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)
Me with Mr. Nobuhiro Nishimura, Vice President, Marketing and Sales Asia, General Manger, Singapore Office, All Nippon Airways Co. Ltd
Me with (from R to L) Mr. Soo Siew Keong, Regional Director, North Asia, International Group, Singapore Tourism Board, Mr. Yoshikuni Ohnishi, Secretary-General, AJC and Mr. Lee Kia Yoke, Consultant, AJC
Representatives from supporting organizations, JTB Corp. and AJC. (From R to L) Mr. Yoshikuni Ohnishi, Secretary-General, ASEAN-Japan Centre (AJC), Mr. Hiromi Tagawa, President &CEO, JTB Corp. , Mr. Lee Kia Yoke, Consultant , AJC and Mr. Hiroyuki Imoto, Senior Managing Director, Global Business, JTB Corp.
The Youth Ambassador for Tohoku programme might have been a short experiential journey to Japan, but the real life experiences learnt there during this time has been momentous. Cultural exchange has been witnessed, international relations has been forged. The strength and resilience of the Japanese society is one where many of us can learn from. It was an eye opener on many fronts, and definitely one where we can all see hope and inspiration shining through.
I would like to give my thanks for the opportunity given to the organisers of this programme and the various institutions for supporting the journey. This is one fantastic journey where I have learnt many aspects of the Japanese people, society and culture. Still, what I have experienced is just a brief introduction of a country and I would love to go back there one day, perhaps to study or take part in a full exchange programme. And meet up with the friends I have made, for a world for tomorrow.