Wednesday, April 24

Unforgettable memories of Japan

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A group photo of Jenesys media participants and their host families in a farewell party. — Bernama photos

SENDAI, Japan: Reuse the drinking bottle to reduce waste, don’t drag the bags on the wooden floor, see how any waste can be recycled and do not wet the toilet floor except in the shower area.

These are the advice that one may not hear back home but visitors to Japan have to take heed of all these.

A three-day and two-night homestay away from Osaki city here last November brought valuable and memorable lessons in Japanese humility and hospitality for this writer.

The stay with the foster family in Osaki was part of the eight-day Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths (Jenesys) programme that took the 18 participants to Tokyo and Sendai as well.

In Tokyo, the group visited the broadcasting studios there and in Sendai they were taken to the Arahama Elementary School that now stands as a memorial of the 2011 devastating tsunami following a magnitude-9 earthquake.

The programme was organised by the Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE)  to expose the Asean youths on the culture and life in Japan, a preamble in cultivating greater understanding and cooperation between both sides.

Foster family

Before heading to the homestay in Osaki, the participants were briefed on the customs and traditions of the locals to ensure a pleasant stay.

This writer and three of her friends were introduced to the foster father, Aikira Aoki, a freelance tutor. Osaki is a city located an hour ride on the bullet train from Sendai, the capital city of Miyagi Prefecture,.

The participants learnt that the host was a family of four. They love to travel and hike, and have been to several countries including Malaysia. They also spoke English fluently and had hosted the homestay programme more than 10 times.

The guests addressed Aoki as Aoki-san, a polite way to address the Japanese men.  The friendly and down to earth Aoki-san took the guests to his 150-year-old traditional house, located a 30-minute drive from the city. The house was located amidst panoramic paddy fields and vegetable farms.

Going inside, we were awed by its simplicity and minimal furnishing. We were also awed by the fact the house, 90 per cent of it made up of wood and the remaining steel, had withstood the tremors that had rocked the area.

After a few hours Aoki-san told us that his wife had to leave to complete her nursing course in town. His son is now staying overseas and his daughter in the city to complete her university degree.

The guests joined hands with the host in preparing dinner menu called Shabu Shabu, (steamboat) comprising of soup, vegetables and seafood that are eaten with soy sauce and other dipping sauce. As part of the Japanese custom, diners will say ‘ittadakimassu’ (lets eat) before eating and ‘gochiso sama deshita’ (thank you for the meal) after finishing.

Besides, Aoki-san said in most of the Japanese family, the dinner was considered done if all the family members had finished their meals. Or else, they have to wait for everyone to finish their food as a mark of respect.

After the dinner, the guests helped the host in the kitchen to wash the dishes, wipe the table and put the cutleries back in its place. Aoki-san stressed the after meal cleaning session was one of the compulsory routines in his family as it helps strengthen the bonds between the family members.

He also taught us how to compost food waste by putting it into a basin which would later be used as fertiliser for his plants later on. “We do not throw food waste or any waste easily and will recycle or reuse it back as best as we can,” he said.

Aoki-san was a former English literature teacher in one of the schools in Osaki. He has set up a non-profit organisation to help children with learning difficulties and serves as a personal tutor teaching music and language.

Aoki-san told us that he believed that the children’s learning ability could be improved though it would take extra efforts and strategies ‘to shape them’.

As the group were there at the tail end of autumn, the temperature at night dropped to 12 degrees Celsius. It was a cold night where Aoki-san taught us on how to set up the futon — a Japanese traditional bedding set consisting of a mattress and three duvets including an electronic duvet which helped the guests withstand the cold at night. He also told us to wear socks and few sweaters so that we would not end up with a fever.

Sightseeing

After breakfast, Aoki-san took the participants for sightseeing around the village where most of the residents are paddy farmers. The guests learned that Osaki is best known for its agricultural activities especially the cultivation of rice.

The guests were also given the opportunity to try their hands in planting carrot, cabbage, soy and radish in front of Aoki-san’s house and also had the opportunity to feed his goat, Shapron. Aoki-san said he would not use chemical pesticides in order to keep the quality and freshness of his plants.

While we were busy planting seeds, we were amazed by the neighbourhood spirit among the villagers when Aoki-san’s neighbours and his students came to the house and willingly cooked our lunch without asking anything in return. Aoki-san said the people in the neighbourhood viewed each other as siblings and they were always ready to help.

On the last day, Aoki-san gave his guests the privilege to prepare the matcha drink (green tea) during the tea ceremony that

included mooncakes. The tea ceremony is a simple course of hospitality for the guests about to leave. We also gave a few tokens to him as our gratitude and appreciation in welcoming us to his family.

Experiencing the rich Japanese culture and the life of its people is a memorable experience for this writer. The polite and friendly people, the clean and modern metropolis and the natural splendour has etched wonderful memories of Japan for this writer. — Bernama