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Japan 2012

International Study Tour Day 3: Kamikatsu

We had a much more relaxed start to the day today: breakfast at 7.45am and no educational stuff until 9.30am, which meant we had enough time to go for a walk and see orange trees, bamboo plants, and a random shrine or two in the countryside around the hotel. It was pitch black when we got here last night, so we were able to see just how remote this place is this morning. There is the hotel we’re in, what looks like another hotel across the river, and the village to one side of us. And wooded mountains on every side.

Our first seminar of the day was in the hotel, from the president of Irodori, Mr Tomoji Yokoishi. Irodori is a group that was set up to help people in rural areas make a living. From climbing trees and collecting leaves. Seriously. One person has made 200,000 yen in one day. That’s £2,000. One woman was still climbing trees until she was 95. The concept is that high-end restaurants like to decorate food with leaves of the season, and Kamikatsu is surrounded by the leaves that are in demand. Irodori has helped mostly older people set up a farmers’ cooperative to take advantage of this, and they are reaping the rewards.We got to visit the warehouse that the cooperative paid for, and saw some of the farmers delivering their leaves.

Back to the hotel for lunch, and then to Kamikatsu Zero Waste project on our way back. This rural area has never had household rubbish collections, but the zero waste facility has been set up essentially as a skip, but with a huge emphasis on recycling. People can bring their stuff and sort it into various boxes, and for those residents who are not very mobile, volunteers do household collections every couple of months. There is also a bric-a-brac shop, but you don’t pay for what you take: just note down the weight. Kamikatsu aims to be zero waste by 2020.

Then the long drive back to Takatsuki. Really long. Slept for most of it. We went out for dinner to a Thai and Bali restaurant because a few people were getting fed up of the choice of fish or raw fish. It was probably my least favourite meal so far and it was quite an expensive night. But up to this point I hadn’t paid for anything so I didn’t really mind.

We asked Hideyuki to translate a tattoo Shaun got when he was 15 because he liked the look of it. The look on his face made us think it must have said something like paedophile, but it says “blood and guts”. It was funny to him because the “blood and guts = courage” analogy doesn’t really translate, so in Japanese it kinda means sickness.

Hideyuki’s students – affectionately termed “the boys” by Neill – were quite taken with Chris’s muscles, so he treated them to a big bear hug before they left, lifting them a few feet off the ground.

The “chin chin” conversation was going on on the other table, so I told Shaun, Liv and Marion what it meant. We decided it would be funny to say “chin chin” instead of “kanpai” on the next round, and received shocked looks from Komal and the 3 Japanese people. Komal asked Hideyuki to explain to us what it meant, and I think he was slightly confused when we said we knew exactly what we were saying!

Japan 2012

International Study Tour Day 1, or Auto Face Focus

Official start of the conference today. Started with a 6am phone call from Komal telling me to be at breakfast at 7.30am. Which we had already been told the night before…

We took the shuttle bus from the hotel to the station and walked in what was probably not the most direct route to Kansai University. Very plush building: Shaun, Liv and I were very jealous of it compared to Ellison Building in Northumbria. Not that Ellison Building is that bad: just looking a bit worn.

Disappointingly very few Japanese people came to see us present, but we still had a chance to present our research (or lack thereof). Despite the fact that I have no findings as yet, I didn’t feel that it went that badly.

We had lunch after the postgraduate presentations. I was presented with a basket of salad sandwiches.

In the afternoon, David Cope (Director of Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology) did an informal presentation; then Neill and Chris from the Fire Service presented, and then a postgraduate from Kansai. Finally Bernard and Hideyuki led a participatory workshop; after which we were all feeling quite tired!

We had long enough at the hotel to change and freshen up, before going to a restaurant on the 15th floor of a building next to City Hall. It was really really nice, and free drinks for the first 90 minutes. We got small glasses to go with our beer, so we had no idea how much we drank, but it led to concepts like “auto face focus” (the feature on cameras that automatically locates and focuses on faces; not it’s real name but sounds funny when said in a Japanese accent).

A few people left early and the stragglers were asked to leave around 9pm. Not because we’d done anything wrong: restaurants just seem to shut early here. There was still a full bottle of beer left which we didn’t want to leave, so Shaun hid it in his coat pocket. But he still had to put his shoes on with a few of the staff hanging around. Cue me putting on his trainers and attempting to tie the laces while both of us were wetting ourselves and no one else had a clue what was going on.

We decided to get some more beers and “cheap sake” in the 7-11 on the way back to the hotel (apparently we hadn’t had enough!). Once again I was Shaun’s bitch, getting beer out of the fridge because he couldn’t bend down.

Six of us congregated in Marion’s room for drinks and giggles. The sake didn’t go down too well (we’re pretty sure the shop assistant lied when we asked if it was sake) but everything else did, and Chris even had to get more beer. The night eventually ended around 1.30am, but not before fun misheard comments like “where are your trousers pet?” (“where’s your trouser press?”) and “where’s your winkie?” (“where’s your room key?”).

Japan 2012

Arriving in Japan, or Fish Paper

The not-so-great view from my hotel room

We arrived in Kansai Airport 10am but had to hang around until 11.30am because Neill’s plane was delayed (Neill is Assistant Chief of Northumberland Fire & Rescue). Once he arrived we took the train to Takatsuki Kyoto Hotel, which took about 2 hours!

One thing that seemed apparent from the train is that Sunday is laundry day. Most apartments (ranging from 2-storey to many-storey buildings) have balconies, and almost all had clothes rails on. We travelled through Rinku town and it was interesting to see agriculture in the middle of an urban area: fields and fields of cabbages in amongst loads of houses.

There is hardly any space between houses. They don’t seem to do terraces like the UK, but there are really narrow gaps between buildings, and very little outside space (usually just room for one car).

So we reached the hotel around 2pm and decided to meet in the foyer around 6pm to go for food. I wanted to work on my presentation, so showered and sat in front of my laptop. And then the tiredness hit me. I climbed into bed and next thing I knew it was 5.45pm.

We went to a mostly fish restaurant for dinner, where me meal began with a tofu salad topped with bonito, or “fish paper” as it became known to us. Thankfully the rest of my meal was a bit more veggie friendly and didn’t involve scraping fish paper aside!

We left around 8.30pm: a few of us went back to the hotel while the rest tried to find the Newcastle game in a bar. I tried to get a bit more work done on my presentation before crashing out.

Electric toilets

Big thing over here. Some offer bidet facilities. Some make water sounds to disguise your own sounds. Some flush when you first sit down. But the best have heated seats. A bit unusual I know, but it is really nice to have a heated seat on a very cold day!

And any electric toilets are a welcome alternative to traditional Japanese toilets, which are holes in the ground.

One irritating thing about public toilets though: the tap water to wash your hands is freezing cold, and they don’t supply paper towels or dryers because Japanese people carry their own towels. So unless you’re prepared, you leave with a warm bum but cold hands.

Japan 2012

Leaving for Japan

So off to Cardiff to get my flight to Japan. I think Komal assumed Cardiff would be my nearest airport because it is in Wales like me. I don’t think I’ll bother telling him that Liverpool, Manchester, East Midlands, Leeds and Birmingham are all closer; and Cardiff is only slightly closer to home than Newcastle.

The reason.

Me, Liv and Shaun were all asked if we wanted to go to Japan as part of a study tour, with the intention of doing research for our dissertations for the MSc Disaster Management & Sustainable Development. It is being funded and all we have to do is come up with some research comparing the UK and Japan. Shaun didn’t have to because he was already well on his way with his dissertation. There was also going to be a UK conference in September which we would attend and write up the conference proceedings to. Originally we were going to Japan in June, but the UK Foreign Office wouldn’t clear insurance in Fukushima because of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster. Then we were going at the end of July, but Hideyuki (our Japanese contact) got pneumonia. By this time Shaun was basically finished and Liv had settled on doing her work on South Korea, which she visited in June and July. Komal said he would arrange for me to go in September, after the UK conference.

As exciting as the trip would be, I looked forward to it less when I found out I would be going alone.

So we got to the UK conference. I missed most of the first day because Mum got married that weekend and I was so tired I overslept. To be fair, I was trying to get up at 3am to start driving at 4am. And Liv couldn’t afford the train ticket, so Shaun frantically made notes on the conference and took audio recordings for the first day. I arrived after lunch and took over the notes for the final session. I then made notes on the next two days, when we visited Tyne & Wear Fire & Rescue HQ, a Community Fire Station, SafetyWorks, and Newcastle City Council. On the third day we travelled to London for a meeting in Cabinet Office. So we put all the notes together and we are now published. Huzzah!

During this conference I found out that Shaun and everyone else would be visiting Japan in January for a study tour. So I told Komal that I would be happy to wait until then, and that would give me time to do background reading and stuff.

So that’s where we’re up to. I’m on the study tour with everyone else, and then staying a week longer to do interviews and research for my dissertation. The students have to do presentations on their research on Monday morning. I have an interview with a Japanese MP and also senior policymakers. Nervous? Me?

Shame I didn’t use all that time between September and now to do more reading. Or more relevant reading at least.