Japan. The land of the rising sun. During my childhood, I only knew Japan as the country which produced my favorite cartoon, Pokemon! (just like most other kids). General people know Japan as one of the most technologically advanced country, and that despite of many natural and man-made disasters affecting the country, it has made a marvelous progress to become a developed, urbanized, and clean economy. Yes, it’s absolutely true. BUT how much do you actually know Japan? If you think Japan is only a smart nation with cool gadgets, skyscrapers and Hello-kitty dolls, YOU ARE VERY WRONG.
From 6th March- 15th March 2016, I had the amazing experience of visiting Japan as a member of the Bangladesh Team for JENESYS2015. JENESYS2015 was a youth exchange program between Japan and ASEAN countries to promote mutual trust and understanding between the nations, and to disseminate the acquired experience and information about Japan to the general public of the participant’s home countries through the participants of this project. It was jointly organised by Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) Japan, SAARC and Japan government. Good part is, all the costs of the program (including plane tickets and accommodation costs) was paid by the organizers!
It is better to state that our team consisted of 12 members, including 7 high-school students, 4 young adults, and 1 supervisor. I was one of those lucky high-school students selected for the program.
Okay, enough blabbering. Now let’s get down to the fun part!
DAY 1 AND 2
After almost a 17-hour long journey (including 5 hours transit in Malaysia) starting from Dhaka, we finally reached Narita Airport in Japan.
Upon reaching, our coordinators warmly welcomed us and took us to visit the Miraikan Museum (The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation) on the very same day. Our excitement clearly outweighed fatigue, and we had the wonderful privilege to watch ASIMO the robot in action! Not only could it talk and move, but it could also run and kick balls (by balls, i mean footballs).
Apart from that, we learnt about various inventions made using quantum physics, astrophysics, geoscience, advanced medical technologies and witnessed interactive exhibits.
On the way to our Shinjuku New City hotel, we observed the Rainbow Bridge, National Diet (parliament), the Tokyo Tower (tallest broadcasting tower in the world) and many other architectural wonders.
Day 3 began with an orientation lecture about Japan and what rules to follow during the program. The organizers provided us snow-masks and Kairo (pocket-size warmers) to stay warm in the cold. Additionally, they told us how punctual Japanese people are, how they take off their shoes before entering houses, how to use the high-tech toilets, how waste is disposed in Japan into separate trash cans, etc.
Next, we visited the Toyoma High School, a Super Science High school (SSH) prioritizing science, technology, mathematics education. ‘Self-management and independence’ is the spirit of the school, thus there is no school uniform. The school had well-equipped labs and great sports facilities (I even saw a student making a 3D-printer on his own!). Together with students of the high school, we played a Japanese card game called Karuta.
At the high school closing ceremony, each of the 8 SAARC countries had to perform a cultural performance to represent their own countries. We Bangladesh team performed a traditional song and 2 of our girls performed a traditional dance!
After having a sumptuous breakfast at our hotel, our day started with a key note lecture on Japanese Culture at the Shinjuku Conference Centre, where we got to learn about the rich and fascinating history and cultural background of Japan. We learnt how Japan used to marked by infighting of Samurais until 1603, when the Tokugawa Shogunate (military government) took control and made Japan a chain-locked country. Japan only traded with Holland, China and Korea during this period. After about 1868, The Meiji Government took control and established bureaucracy.
On the same day, we visited the Shibaura Water Reclamation Centre in Tokyo. Here, we had the opportunity to learn all the steps and processes that are used by Japan to purify its water before it is discharged to Tokyo Bay. I was fascinated to know that micro-organisms are used in the reaction tank to eat away the dirt from water! The discharged water is so clean that it is not always neccesary to add clorine. Furthermore, even the waste water heat is utilised by the purification centre to produce energy!
We took the Shinkansen bullet train (which travels at a speed of 320 km/hr) to move to Fukushima. Fukushima is truly beautiful, with its abundance of trees and open land, combined with snow! After dinner at Resort Inn Daikura, we secretly sneaked outside and engaged in a snow fight. It was my second time experiencing snow, but I fall In love with it every time.
In Fukushima, we stayed in a small town named Minamiaizu. The day started with an introduction of the beautiful Minamiaizu region. We learnt that 91% of the town is covered by forests! In the past, people used to stay together in houses with horses in this region. Now, the town has become a popular tourist attraction.
Our next event for the day was one of the best memories I will have from the trip. We were taken to an open space covered in snow, and were given the freedom to play in snow as much we want. There were snow carts and tractors ready for us to ride! Together with my friends from my country and other SAARC countries, we built snow mans,and not to mention, threw snow balls as much as we want at whoever we wanted.
After lunch, we went to observe the facility for biomass boiler and renewable energy by utilizing snow. It’s amazing how the people of that region uses wooden chips from old trees and snow to make energy, which greatly reduces the use of fossil fuel and emission of CO2. At the same time, the cost of production of energy is much lower when these methods are used.
Our program in Fukushima consisted of 2 days of home stay with a Japanese family, and this was the first day of it! All of us were very excited to meet our host family members.
But before that, we visited a famous historical landmark of the region: The Tsuruga Castle, which was built 600 years ago. This castle was destroyed several times, mainly by a earthquake in 1611 and war between the Aizu Clan and the Meiji Government. Yet, it was rebuilt due to local enthusiasm, and it clearly reflects the rich history of Japan.
Next, we enjoyed a cultural experience of the Aizu region when we were given the chance to paint an Akabeko (red cow), a cute traditional toy made of wood. Legend has it that among the cattles which were used for constuction, there was a large red cow. The red cow remained in the site even after the constuction, so the local people embraced it as a holy cow. Akabeko is so loved by the people that it is used as a local symbol character in Aizu area.
The painting activity was followed by a journey by the Aizu train, a train which operates popular sightseeing tours. Passengers can appreciate the beauties of the nature along the way riding on unique trolley cars. Along the journey, the train stopped at a station where the stationmaster was a cat!
Finally, in the evening, we got to meet our host families. I was assigned to a Mori family along with two of my friends and our supervisor. Our host father and mother were two of the most generous and warm-hearted individuals I have ever seen in my life. As soon as we reached their house, our host mother prepared green tea and some delicious meals for us, including Miso soup, tempura and sushi.
We spent the night getting to know each other, talking about ourselves, our families and our own cultures. Language was definitely a barrier, since they hardly understood English (Thank God I had google translate downloaded on my phone). It also took quite a time to learn the art of having food with chopsticks. Nonetheless, we gifted our host parents with souvenirs from Bangladesh, and helped them to clean the dishes before sleeping (we three friends engaged in an imaginary competition as to who becomes the most impressive and lovable child).
The whole day was allocated to be spent with our host family. After having breakfast, we were surprised to see the 4 girls from our team come over to our place, alongside their host father and mother! Apparently, the host fathers both the families were cousin brothers, belonging to the Mori family. There was a festive mood inside the house, with endless gossip and laughter. The 7 of us from our team even practiced a song together which we needed for our farewell party performance, and our host family members loved it.
Our host father took us outside in the afternoon to teach us how to clear snow with shovels. I was amazed by my host father’s fitness. Even at the age of 73, he could not only drive cars but also lift and put away huge chunks of snow using shovel with ease! Next, we went over to the other Mori family’s place, where we had a wonderful time learning origami and playing traditional Japanese games.
I, personally, loved the Japanese food prepared by our host mother. Although Japanese food is much less spicier or saltier than that which I am used to having in Bangladesh, Japanese food has a unique taste and should not be judged by anyone before trying. My friends and I cooked dinner with our host mother on this last day of our home stay, and found out that the food was ‘Oishii Desu’ (very delicious).
We arrived at the farewell party with our host families at 10a.m in the morning. All 7 of us from our country were wearing our traditional outfits, i.e., panjabis for boys and sarees for girls (yeah, we surely looked fabulous). Each of the 8 countries presented a performance about their own countries, and we Bangladesh team performed the song “Ami Banglay Gaan gai” , a song expressing the love we have for our language and country.
After we went back to our hotel in Fukushima, we had a workshop to work in groups and prepare a presentation for the next day’s reporting session. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal were in the same group, and we worked hard for hours to finally come up with a good PowerPoint presentation. There were 9 presenters in total from our group, and we had to allocate the time between us and practice together accordingly.
This was our last full day in Japan, and we knew we had to enjoy every bit of it. We had a courtesy call at Minami Aizu Town Office in the morning, where we exchanged our views and learnings of the JENESYS program with local town officers. Then, we took the Shinkansen bullet train again to move back to Tokyo, where we were taken to the Pasona Urban Farm. It is a fascinating and innovative endeavor, where unique mechanisms and eco-friendly technologies are used to grow agricultural crops and plants within an urban building! In our future world, these urban farms might be the next scenario in most other countries.
The time for our reporting session had come. We moved by bus quickly to the venue, where embassy members, MoFA and JICE officials were all present to see our presentations. The reporting session for our group thankfully ended up great, where I myself was a presenter. The session ended with speeches from the respective embassy members of all the 8 countries, and a marvelous closing speech by the head of JICE. We students and young adults were all provided certificates for our participation.
Afghanistan, Nepal and Pakistan Delegation had their departure flights on the very day and had to leave immediately after the reporting session was over. We, the members of other countries, were sad that they had to leave early. So we hugged them, took pictures with them, and wished them a safe flight back home.
Our departure flight was at 10:30 a.m the next day, so we knew that we only had this night to enjoy. We prepared a playlist of party songs on our way to the hotel by the bus, and danced together like crazy to the songs late at night. We were literally jumping over beds and dancing! Some of us (including me) didn’t even sleep that night, spending the night gossiping about life along with friends from other participating countries.
While checking out of our hotel in the morning, we felt that these amazing people of the JENESYS2015 program have become a second family to us. We gifted some of our souvenirs from Bangladesh to our coordinators, who worked extremely hard throughout the program. I felt really sad to leave this amazing nation which gave me my best trip abroad so far. Not only did the program help us to learn about Japan and Japanese culture, but also know about other SAARC countries, and helped us to make lots and lots of international friends. Overall, it was an experience I will never ever forget!
What I have learnt is, Japan is a country which has successfully implemented planned and sustainable development in almost all sectors of the country’s infrastructure e.g. earth-quake proof buildings, efficient water and waste management, production of renewable energy, efficient transportation facilities etc. In spite of such large-scale urbanization , Tokyo has successfully managed to make spaces for growing trees. At the same time, the rich culture and history of the country has been preserved and not been forgotten due to development. Japanese people are very punctual and hard-working, which is truly admirable. Through proper education,sheer will, constant effort, and by learning from their numerous mistakes, Japanese people have taken their country up from a developing country to a developed one. I strongly believe that Japan is an ideal example for other developing countries to follow and thus take steps towards development.