Inspiring Land of the Rising Sun | 07 September 2019
Jet lag, tiredness caused by fitful sleep after an almost 11-hour nonstop flight and a five-hour time difference were all quickly brushed aside as a group of journalists dumped their suitcases in the hotel room and donned light attire to go and explore their surroundings in Hibiya, the upmarket neighbourhood of Chiyoda City in central Tokyo.
Facing the Imperial Hotel Plaza, the Remm Hibiya Hotel offers a splendid view of the bustling but not too crowded part of Tokyo city with its myriad of appealing brand shops in whose window facades were elaborately displayed expensive garments, shoes, bags and other beauty accessories making it impossible to remain indoors even with the light but cold drizzle of this late Wednesday evening of the first week of July.
The group had been invited by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to learn more about Japan’s relations and development cooperation with the African continent through the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (Ticad) of which the seventh meeting was held in the Japanese city of Yokohama at the end of last month.
Aside the formal programme of meetings and numerous presentations at the different agencies which help the Japanese government to deliver its support and development programme in Africa, time had also been set aside for the group to discover and appreciate the culture, historical landmarks, the country side, and other interesting aspects of the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’.
For this first evening, shortly after reaching the hotel in the amazing city of impressive skyscrapers and beautifully paved streets, three of the six journalists went off to discover the myriad restaurants that lined the streets and alleyways of that part of Hibiya. Food, food and more food was everywhere and the delightful aroma that clings to the evening breeze was as appealing as all the attractive posters of mouthwatering Japanese and other oriental dishes that adorned the entrance of the countless eateries enticing potential clients to come in. A real feast for the eyes indeed! After more than 45 minutes trying to choose where to eat for this first experience of a lifetime, we settled for a mix of Japanese and other oriental dishes, a real feast indeed at a relatively high price.
Walking down the streets in the cold late evening breeze proved to be the best way to help digestion after a hearty meal while feeling the pulse of the city at this late hour.
The amazing world of innovation and technology
A visit to the Maraikan National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Odaiba a few days later left everybody fascinated and lost for words faced with the size of the place, the way it is laid out and organised into different zones with permanent scientific and robotic displays, the level of technological development, the expanse of the different zones to be explored, the level of innovation and most of all the commitment and interest shown by the Japanese people of all ages who converged on the place in large numbers is just unbelievable.
Equally fascinating was the train ride from Shimbashi Station to Odaiba. The 45-minute ride was an opportunity to admire the coastal area of Tokyo.
Once inside the Maraikan everybody was astounded by all there was to see and it was not long before each and everyone got lost in his or her own zone of interest. But the zone which attracted the most visitors was the robotic area where visitors could discover different robots as well as interact with them.
Takahashi Atsushi, our Japanese guide from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, explained that the Maraikan is like another world. It is a place where people come to explore the earth using the latest scientific data and tools. It is where using the latest technology people can not only imagine a future society and lifestyle they want but they can also create their dream future and make it a reality.
To add to all the excitement, visitors can enjoy movies on a huge globe-like display screen as well as watch Asimo demonstrate amazing movements and speak to the crowd. Asimo is a robot created by Honda and whose name stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility.
“At Maraikan people come to explore the present world while they can also try to find their own clues for the future,” one of the exhibition guides told us.
Maraikan also boasts a splendid ground of tall trees and endless promenade lined with flowers and it is popular with visitors seeking calm and tranquility away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
A walk down the vast promenade leads us to the Aqua city in Odaiba to an hour-long cruise on the Sumida River onboard the waterbus Queen Emeraldas.
Disembarking from the water vessel we climbed a series of steps before alighting in the busy and crowded touristic and entertainment district of Asakusa.
The wonders of the Kaminari-mon and Tokyo Sky Tree
Tourists from all corners of the world mingled with the local Japanese, thronged the crowded and boisterous streets of Asakusa which are lined with mostly traditional Japanese souvenirs, snacks and sweet shops and restaurants. As we meandered our way towards the entrance of the Kaminari-mon or the ‘Thunder Gate’ which is the outer of two large entrance gates that leads to the Sensō-ji Budhist Temple, the crowd became thicker as everybody wanted to capture their historic moment in a souvenir photograph. The gate, with its lantern and statues, is very popular with both local and foreign visitors.
Once inside, we strolled along the Nakamise Dorishopping districts with its endless souvenir shops.
We let ourselves be carried by the large groups of tourists and Japanese families making their way to the Chozuya or purification area on the right side only a few metres from the steps of the temple. There, using small bowls like recipients attached to a long handle, people of all ages take water from the fountain which they splash on their faces and wash their mouths as a sign of purification before entering the temple.
Just opposite the Chozuya, right in the middle of the walkway leading up to the temple, is the incense burner where people also gather to let their heads be engulfed in incense smoke believed to have healing powers. Once inside the temple, people lower their heads onto their outstretched hands in respect and pray before making their monetary offerings. A very poignant moment indeed for the believers.
Another interesting and spectacular landmark which we was exciting to visit that same day was the Tokyo Sky Tree, an observation tower in Sumida just some 20 minutes’ drive from Asakusa. The Sky Tree with its tall and imposing metal structural design seems to be looking over Tokyo City. Using the lift we climbed to the different levels each time taking in the panoramic view of the city while at the same time enjoying the other attractions. The Sky Tree became the tallest metal structure in Japan in 2010 and reached its full height of 634.0 metres (2,080 feet) in March 2011.
It was completed in February 2012, with the tower opening to the public in May the same year, offering a large variety of entertainment activities, sightseeing and scenic discovery tours of Tokyo City down below, shopping and dining possibilities on each of its different floors. From high in the sky we were able to discover and admire a breathtaking view of Tokyo City.
Discovering Sendai and Fukushima
The excited group of journalists also had the opportunity to discover the city of Sendai, in the Tōhoku region situated in the north of Tokyo. After a short 20-minute taxi ride from the hotel to the Tokyo Station, we made our way inside the vast structure with its intricately designed, complicated and tricky railway system following Mr Atushi whom we would have lost in the crowd as we tried to catch up with his agile steps, was it not for his white notebook that he waved in the air.
The Shinkansen or bullet train journey to Sendai lasted around 90 minutes followed by another short taxi ride to Miyagi Prefecture and the AER Building to meet members of the African community living, working and studying in Sendai.
The African Association of Miyagi (AFAM) is headed by Dr Isaac Asiedu from Ghana who first came to Japan in 1987 to study and has stayed to work and settled in Sendai.
“The African community has integrated well here and we have been accepted. Our children go to school and they speak fluent Japanese,” Dr Asiedu said.
Contrary to the belief that the Japanese people are very conservative and reserved, Dr Asiedu said they are friendly, warm but serious and attach great importance to respect, good family values, cultural values and hard work to achieve great things in life.
“Once they know that you are a hard worker, you are respectful, serious, and trustworthy, you have principles and you keep your words, you will earn their total respect,” he affirmed.
Dr Asiedu admitted that it was not easy for him at first as he could not speak Japanese but now he can speak the language fluently and this he pointed out is a great asset.
Now he considers Sendai as his second home and his son is married to a Japanese.
During a short presentation our group learned of the different activities the AFAM organises in the region.
It is to be recalled that in March 2011 a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequently a big tsunami hit Miyagi Prefecture causing great damage to the area.
The region was hit again a month later by another quake this time of a 7.4-magnitude.
Dr Asiedu talked about the African community’s experience of the quake and how they helped out in the community.
AFAM was established in 2002 with the aim of promoting social interaction between the Africans in the Miyagi Prefecture and the Japanese community. It is the only registered African association in Miyagi that is fully recognised by all relevant bodies dealing with Africans in Miyagi. AFAM organises public seminars on Africa development, events and activities which promote African values and culture through different musical and theatrical performances, the services rendered and work its members do in the local community. From a few hundred some 10 years ago, the African community in Sendai now amounts to several thousands.
Leaving Sendai, we travelled by bus to Fukushima – a drive of over two hours during which we enjoyed the lush green Japanese countryside as well as the charm and hospitality of the people we met during our short breaks .
Tall trees and interesting looking plants lined the highways and as we neared Fukushima, moving in and out of kilometres and kilometres of tunnels carved in the rocky hillsides neatly covered with lush green vegetation, we discovered vast expanses of rice fields and vegetable plantations.
The air was fresh but filled with the smell of manure as farmers tilled their farms and mixed the soil with manure in preparation for growing. A very picturesque scene indeed which met the eyes as we passed by.
Fukushima is located in the central northeast section of Fukushima Prefecture, approximately 50 km east of Lake Inawashiro, 260 km north of Tokyo, and about 80 km south of Sendai. Excitement mingled with tiredness built up as we neared the Fukushima Prefecture, a place so reminiscent of the 2011 earthquake. Of course from where we were there was no trace of the destruction suffered by that prefecture as we were still very far from the coast.
As we travelled further inside Fukushima towards the town of Inawashiro, it got colder, proof being the icy breeze that struck our faces from the bus window as our journey neared its end.
It was not long after that we alighted from the bus in the cold afternoon breeze just outside the Hideyo Noguchi Memorial Museum in the town of Inawashiro.
The Hideyo Noguchi Memorial Museum of re-known Japanese bacteriologist and the man who features on the 1000 yen bank note
The group was welcomed by the museum’s director, Yasuo Yago for a guided tour of the memorial museum. The tour started firstly with a visit to Dr Hideyo Noguchi’s birthplace and the thatched roofed cottage in which he lived with his parents. He was born Seisaku Noguchi and later changed his name to Hideyo Noguchi.
It was amazing to see all the effort and measures that have been taken to ensure the cottage with all its artifacts and history is preserved for generations to come. A metal structure has been built over the roof of the cottage to preserve it from the elements. In March this year Dr Noguchi’s birthplace was registered as a tangible cultural property of Japan.
Seisaku Noguchi was born on November 9, 1876 in a poor family in Inawashiro, a town in the Fukushima Prefecture. Mr Noguchi grew up to become a world famous doctor/bacteriologist and scientist. At the age of one and a half years he fell into a sunken hearth in his parents’ house and burnt himself badly. As a result of the severity of the burns, all the five fingers of his left hand were stuck together.
He was aged 15 years when surgery was performed on his hand to allow him to regain the ability to move his thumb and fingers, thus enabling him to hold things.
So impressed was he by the surgery that he vowed to study medicine to become a doctor so he could help others. He left his home town for Tokyo in 1896 to take his exams and study to become a medical doctor.
In 1898 he joined the Institute of Infectious Diseases keen to become a bacteriology researcher.
Dr Noguchi travelled the world and worked in different reputed research institutes around the world and took part in different research, namely the groundbreaking discovery about syphilis in 1913. He returned to Japan in 1915 after a 15-year absence to leave again in 1918 for Ecuador to control a yellow fever outbreak there.
Dr Noguchi unfortunately died of yellow fever in Accra, Ghana in 1928 at the age of 51 years. But his great legacy lives on. One of the world’s famous scientists, his photo features on the currently circulating Japanese 1000 yen note.
The memorial museum, a fascinating place which brings Dr Noguchi to life in all that it offers people, welcomes over 200,000 visitors from all over the world every year and this number is increasing continuously according to Mr Yago.
“We have a lot of students studying medicine both from all corners of Japan and the rest of the world who travel all the way here to learn about the career and accomplishment of Dr Noguchi,” Mr Yago said.
Our visit to Fukushima Prefecture would not have been complete without a stop at Tsurugajo Castle in Aizu Wakamatsu, a city located in the western part of Fukushima. Visiting a famous ancient Japanese castle very early in the morning after a restful overnight stay at the Hotel Route Inn in the same city was something everybody was looking forward to.
An impressive building indeed, the castle, with its red roofing, has been rebuilt several times since the 14th century and a complete reconstruction was done around the 17th century. Over the years many renovations have been carried out. It was built in 1384 and changed hands many times between the different rulers of the Aizu region. The castle survived numerous historical civil wars as well as the disastrous 2011 earthquake.
It sits on a high wall in a well-tended lush green compound surrounded by a moat.
It is one of the most popular and interesting attractions in the city. Its rich history and different era is told through a series of photos and charts all throughout its different floors. Its top-most floor and tower offers a panoramic and breathtaking view of the city below.
On the ground floor where all visitors ended up after a memorable tour of the fortress is a souvenir and snack shop selling items branded with Akabeko, the legendary red cow believed to be a lucky charmfrom the Aizuregion.
Recycling education at its best at Bairin Elementary School
Back to Chiyoda City after a train journey of over two hours, the group was yet to complete the programme of discovery of Japan which had been carefully planned for it.
Bairin Elementary School in Yokohama City, some two-and-a-half-hours drive by bus from Chiyoda was of great interest for the group. After a warm welcome by the principal Hideharu Kuroki and his staff, the group toured the different classrooms where pupils had reserved a special welcome for each member of the delegation. Our respective country’s flag was well displayed on the blackboard in six different classrooms meaning that each delegate would stay in a class for lunch.
A wonderful experience indeed where discipline, courtesy, respect, orderliness, the sense of ownership for everything in the classroom was the order of the day.
Lunch was a moment of togetherness where the pupils organised their classroom into a dining hall in less than 10 minutes and in an orderly manner they fetched the three-dish meal from the canteen and served each other in the most organised manner under the watchful eyes of the teacher.
Lunch over, together the pupils reorganised their class for lessons tidying up everything and taking the utensils to the canteen and emptying their plates of left-overs in the appropriate containers for disposal and separating all the empty milk packs, placing them in orderly stacks for recycling.
The group of journalists also had the opportunity to follow an art class where the pupils learn Japanese calligraphy as well as a music lesson where they learn to play different instruments.
The most impressing thing about the school which holds some 450 pupils is the cleanliness and the great sense to protect the environment.
For all the journalists, the lessons learnt from the pupils aged between six and 12 at the school is discipline and respect for each other, the school’s property and environment as well as the sense of belonging to the institution.
By Marie Anne Lepathy