Allow me to begin, firstly, by expressing my deepest gratitude to the Japanese embassy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in turn the Japanese Government for being selected to participate in this unique, once in a lifetime programme, the Study Tour of Japan for European Youth 2007, representative from Greece. This intensive tour offered the opportunity not only to visit Japan sightseeing-wise, but also provided an in depth exploration of Japanese culture, politics, history and customs.
Arriving at Narita Airport, Tokyo was the very first striking moment for me personally. It was hard to believe that I was literally at the other side of the world and everything seemed so nicely strange at the beginning! After travelling for more than twenty hours I was not at all tired, observing everything in sight during the bus ride to the hotel.
Following a good night's sleep we began our tour early in the morning visiting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where a lecture on Japan-EU relations was given to us by the Principal Deputy Director of the European Policy Division, DR. Umezawa who kindly put his workload aside and exceeded his time limit answering to all our questions and they were indeed many! We continued by visiting the Japanese Parliament or more widely known as ‘the Diet of Japan' gaining access to many areas with the actual Chamber of the House of Representatives being the most predominant one and very impressive both in structure as well as seating arrangement.
In the afternoon a scheduled visit to Nippon Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation, where we had a briefing and discussion regarding the nature and activities of the organisation and its positive role not only on the country's economy and business activities with partner countries but also on matters such as education and training. Later in the evening we were formally greeted at the very warm welcome reception where we also met delegates from our national diplomatic missions in Japan.
The very next day everyone had a go with their ‘artistic' and creative side as in the morning we visited the Sogetsu Foundation headquarters for Sogetsu Ikebana. I never imagined that flower arrangement could mean so much and totally change the mood of people and also any kind of space.
Later that day we visited Kitajima-Shibori, a medium-size manufacturing company. I was so impressed and it was incredible to see that this company makes parts even for satellites. Most impressive though for me was the fact that the president of the company himself greeted us in his work suit!! And was working alongside his employees!
The day ended with a beautiful evening theatre performance at the Kabuki-za theatre, ‘Kaidan Botan Doro, a two act show with a great plot. I was so amazed to see the response of the crowd who were shouting the names of the actors during the show as an act of deep respect.
The following day our programme started off with a Tea Ceremony at Urasenke. We attended the ceremony of preparing and drinking tea, ‘Matcha' the special form of powdered green tea mixed with hot water. I then understood the true meaning of tea as a deep cultural factor in Japan something that in turn teaches discipline, patience and respect. I have to admit that by now I have developed a heavy addiction to green tea and have brought loads with me back home!!
In the afternoon we ware taken to Tsuda College , an all girls college founded in 1900! The college is situated in a beautiful location with multiple facilities. A very interesting and fruitful discussion that was arranged with student there. gave us the opportunity to learn more about their views, exchange opinions on various matters and finally learn some basic things on student life.
A more than exciting visit to the Panasonic Centre in Tokyo was our next visit the following day. A huge sign greeting us was at the front of the center and was most impressive! I have to say that since I am a ‘tech-freak' I was left speechless by the technological achievements that we were shown. More importantly I was deeply impressed by the weight that Panasonic gives to manufacturing goods that are environmental friendly given the climate situation that currently exists. As part of the tour we visited the ‘Eco-House', a unique technological achievement that not only saves energy but also simplifies life for people.
In the evening we were treated to an exclusive Taiko Concert by an amateur group, ‘Nagisa Taiko'. The feeling of drums pounding in me ears with such an amazing rhythm and synchronism was overwhelming. Indeed it was a very powerful performance plus we were allowed to play ourselves (something that in the beginning seemed chaotic!). However with the instructions we were given I believe that we performed rather well in the end! When we finished, an amazing meal had been prepared for us by the drummers and their families. In the end I was very sad to leave them as we had a brilliant time but I made so many new friends who may someday come and perform here in Greece !
It was by now time to fly to Hiroshima from Hanada airport. The flight lasted less than two hours and I was already wondering how the city would look like. I had a strange feeling as soon as we landed in Hiroshima . Later in the day I was astounded at how the city has developed. A very lively and modern city, very green with a very different pace of life, more relaxed than in Tokyo !
I was so excited to meet my host family and stay with them for a day. They had planned everything and as soon as they picked me up we drove and then took the boat ride to Miyajima island where we visited the Itsukushima Shrine.
The combination of the shrine, the temples and the surrounding nature all added up to breathtaking scenery! The rest of the day I spent at my host family's home where I spent quality time with them and their children dressed up traditionally in a kimono and had a wonderfull meal. I was amazed to find out that they had even made a Greek meal for me from a Greek recipe book!!!
Overall, I was sad to leave them the next day which continued with a tour of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, a visit to the A-bomb dome and later a talk by a survivor of the A-bomb. This was a very emotionally powerful experience for me and for the rest of the group. It is striking to have seen pictures of how the city was after the bombing and how it has evolved since then to a beautifull, warm and modern city both for local people as well as tourists.
Kyoto - Nara
It was time to leave Hiroshima as we embarked on the notorious around the world super express train with Kyoto being our next destination.
Having enough free time we strolled around the city, saw a kimono fashion show and of course I did my shopping as there so many shops and different sorts of traditional Japanese sweets and souvenirs. The Kinkaku-ji, Nijo Castle , Ryoanji and Kiyomizu temples along with the gardens were astonishingly beautiful, especially the Kyoyochi pond with many flowers and vivid colours. That night we stayed at a traditional hotel near the city of Osaka situated next to a river in the countryside. A truly enjoyable experience, all dressed up traditionally we were treated to a fantastic proper traditional Japanese meal and I personally had a traditional Japanese bath which was invigorating and relaxing at the same time.
In the morning we visited the Horyu-ji temple where I was surprised to see similarities with ancient Greek architecture! Later a walk around Nara Park and finally a tour of the Todai-ji temple, home of the huge Buddha, and its surroundings. It was time to head back to Tokyo for our last night, first by taking a bus ride back to Kyoto and then the amazing bullet train. I was very saddened by the fact that ten whole days had passed and for our last night in Tokyo and Japan we all had a wonderfull dinner at a nice traditional restaurant. Finally it was time to start the long journey back home all very and with nothing but many pleasant memories to remind us of this trip to Japan.
During the hours that we had free time I took long walks in Tokyo determined to visit most of the famous areas in Tokyo such as Ginza, Roppongi, and experience the night life in Shibuya and other hip areas and grasp trends amongst the youth in Japan ! I met with my university pen friend from Tokyo who we share the same taste in music and had dinner with people from the delegation at the Greek Embassy in Japan who gave me a very interesting insight on Japanese society having lived there for more than a year and a half.
In conclusion I have to thank once again the Japanese Embassy and MoFA, for selecting me to take part in this unique Study Tour of Japan and of course our lovely tour guides who spent many many hours organising even the slightest detail in order to facilitate us, make us feel comfortable (I can still remember them at 10 pm at the hotel bar having dinner and going through their notes and working very late!) and make this trip even more wonderfull.
I returned home with an extra piece of luggage full of gifts, sweets souvenirs and tea! More importantly though, with an experience for life, new friends that I met, and certainly more wiser on matters of culture, tradition, respect and honour.