Sugoi Japan!

I started watching “Terrace House” and I’m hooked. This is a Japanese reality TV show about six strangers living in one house as we observe how they live their daily lives. It’s a peak to Japanese culture and an analysis of human dynamics as you get to eavesdrop on the conversations of the housemates. Yes, it’s like “Big Brother” only better.

When I went to Japan for Hopes and Dreams for Miyako, I asked my friends there about the show but it seems like it’s not as popular.

Japan and its people are fascinating. The maze-like train lines which are always on time; quiet and polite people almost dressed alike, keeping to themselves; bento boxes, ramen, and soba; vending machines on every corner; realistic looking fake food displays in front of restaurants; kawaii (cute) stuff and cool inventions only the Japanese could think of; minimalist and compact rooms; and the list just goes on.

We went to Shibuya which was teeming with tourists and locals alike. Finding your way around Tokyo can be overwhelming. It’s a good thing I could simply rely on my friends who did all the navigating.

We mainly had to be in Miyako, a refreshingly small city located in Iwate Prefecture of Tohoku. Those who are into fresh seafoods could eat all the sashimi they want. The place is famous for its salmon.

We stayed at Guest House 3710 (Minato), a hostel type of accommodation. I though it was cool that this is managed by a group of young friends who have been supporting Miyako after the 2011 tsunami.

A tour at Taro Kanko Hotel, a disaster memorial, made me realize how fleeting life can be and it was sad to learn how everything – homes, material possessions, even lives can easily be taken away by natural disasters like the tsunami. The tsunami reached the fourth floor of the six-floor hotel and only the structural foundation remains of the bottom two floors. Japan experiences a lot of natural disasters but I appreciate how resilient its people are.

I’ve been exposed to Japanese culture through exchange programs and opportunities of visiting the Land of the Rising Sun. And now I’m starting to understand the fascination. Whether brought about by the proliferation of anime, an influence of novelty-seeking experiences, or due to Japan’s version of Hallyu or Korean wave, Japanophile (appreciation and love of Japanese culture) will definitely grow. Japan is sugoi (amazing) after all!

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Humans of the World: Akira from Japan

Meet Akira. A wife, a mom, and a zero waste warrior.

Akira heads the Zero Waste Academy, an organization promoting the zero waste movement in Kamikatsu. In this small town in Japan, wastes are segregated into 45 categories achieving a recycling rate of 81%.

During the World Economic Forum, she was one of the six young people selected to co-chair the conference in Davos.

To further promote the idea of circular economy, she created a zero waste card game which is meant to educate both children and adults.

An epitome of a strong, independent woman, Akira is driven by the mission to do something now for our generation’s sake and that of her daughter’s otherwise there won’t be any future to speak of.

Busy as she normally is, Akira admits it’s a challenge to juggle between work and family but she tries to stop working after 6PM and devote the time to her husband and child.

Photo Credit: Kel Almazan

HANDs!: Hopes and Dreams for Miyako

How can the element of fun be possibly be integrated to something serious like disaster education?

This is where Iza Kaeru Caravan comes in. A disaster drill comprising of games, storytelling, toy exchange, and other fun activities for kids.

The event organized by Japan Foundation Asia Center as part of Hopes and Dreams (HANDs)! Project and Sanriku International Arts Festival took place in Miyako, a coastal area of Iwate Prefecture, which was hit by a tsunami in 2011.

HANDs! Fellows from Japan, Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand took part in the said event. Aside from the caravan, they also participated in the Miyako City Walk and Mapping, as well as a group discussion about creating a better future for Miyako.

In time for the anniversary of the Great East earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, the fellows likewise learned more about the disaster through a tour and a Memorial Ceremony.

The local tour guide said reliving memories of the disaster can be painful but she stressed its importance in raising awareness so we become more prepared in case such disaster happens again.

She added that the sea can bring about nature’s wrath taking lives. But being a fishing area, residents acknowledge the providence of the “mother sea” as they call it. A demonstration of nature as a hazard, a blessing, and a tragedy.

One of the HANDs! Fellows, Makoto Sasaki who initiated this effort is committed to making her hometown, Miyako, a better place. For her, this is just the beginning of greater things to come for the city.

Photo Credit: Shinji Yoshida and Carlos Ortiz

Zero Waste January: The Japanese Way

Japanese World Cup fans pick up trash after the game.

A Japanese guy voluntarily cleans up an overpass in Baguio.

Kamikatsu, a zero-waste town in Japan, segregates their waste into 45 types in 13 categories.

Marie Kondo’s “Spark Joy” is inspiring people to tidy up.

I do admire how the Japanese do things. Especially on how they deal with garbage. At an early age, kids learn how to clean their own classrooms that they grow up expecting no one to clean up after themselves.

In the Philippines, it’s a different story. People litter because they think it’s someone else’s responsibility to dispose their garbage. There are laws against littering and laws mandating us even to segregate but who cares about these laws. We blatantly litter because simply, we can get away with it.

In a so-called poor country, disposing garbage properly should be the least of our worries since day to day survival is what we’re focused on. Yet what’s exasperating is educated Filipinos, you wouldn’t expect, also litter!

Recently, devotees of a religious event left 15 trash of garbage not in garbage bins or garbage bags but scattered everywhere!

The same thing happens after people spend time in public parks, the beach, or the mountain. We leave the garbage behind.

How can this mindset and behavior change? There’s constant reminder, and education, and campaigns on proper waste management. Maybe we should step it up and charge people fees for garbage they produce. And I mean, not just the measly amount but the real cost of disposing this garbage. Because in reality, the government is spending a lot just from hauling all these junk.

Out of sight, out of mind. But I do hope the Japanese way could rub off on us some way, somehow.

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Kamikatsu, a zero-waste town in Japan (Photo from Business Insider).

HANDs! Project: Looking back and looking forward

People often choose to forget the past as looking back can be painful. But when it comes to disasters, lessons from history should always be remembered. This could help you survive when disasters strike again.

This is one lesson I got from the second and final leg of the HANDs! (Hope and Dreams) Project, a research trip organized by the Japan Foundation Asia Center, focusing on disaster and environmental education + creativity.

In 2016, the HANDs fellows visited Manila, Philippines and Bali, Indonesia. This year, we headed to Phuket and Phang Nga, Thailand and Kobe, Japan.

The Thailand phase started with a site visit and dialogue at the Bangla Village Mangrove Forest. Members of the community expressed how the mangroves helped protect them from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and are therefore very motivated in preserving the forest.

We then headed to Baan Nam Kem where we listened to stories of the tsunami survivors and learned about community based disaster risk management.

The rest of our stay in Thailand was spent in Yaowawit School, a real-life education facility for orphans and less privileged, which was founded by German philanthropist Philipp Graf von Hardenberg initially meant to help tsunami victims.

Lectures and workshops on sustainability and gamification were given by Robert Steele, a sustainability expert, and Ruttikorn Vuttikorn, a game designer. After which, fellows had to design games and activities for the “Alarm Cat,” a disaster and environmental education program for students of Yaowawit. It was a joy to interact with the children of the school and be able to promote disaster preparedness and environmentalism through creative means.

We said our khop kun krap (thank you) and bid goodbye to the heat of Thailand as Kobe, Japan’s cold embrace welcomed us.

The trip in Japan began with a tour of the Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institute (DRI) which was established to archive and preserve the memories and lessons from the 1995 Great Hanshin-awaji earthquake. Hearing stories and going through the interactive exhibition of DRI was emotional but the importance of learning from the past to minimize risk and damage in the future is further emphasized.

A session and site visit of another disaster, the Toga River flash flood highlighted how providing sufficient information and education on disaster could save lives.

We learned about local initiatives on disaster prevention and environmental education from non-profit organizations namely Plus Arts, Kiko Network, and Tamba Greenpartner. We also participated in the “Iza! Kaeru Caravan,” a disaster drill program of Plus Arts, and facilitated games and activities for children.

Guided by HANDs adviser, Hirokazu Nagata, the fellows developed disaster and environmental education action plans to be implemented in our respective countries. We got additional inspiration to be more creative and to think outside the box from Kiito, Design and Creative Center in Kobe, which served as our work station.

HANDs Project provided a rare opportunity of visiting many places, learning from various experts and institutions, and forging friendships with co-fellows. And though the research trips ended, this is simply the beginning of more collaborations as we continue building our hopes and dreams towards a more resilient and more environmentally sustainable future.

Photos from HANDs! Project for Disaster Education Facebook Page.

Learn more about HANDs! Project here.

The Land of the Rising Sun

The chilly wind blew against my skinny frame. I was just wearing a thin long-sleeved shirt with a scarf wrapped around my neck but I welcomed the cold. This is really not new to me. After all, my hometown, Baguio, is also cold.

I took a deep breath. The smell reminded me of England. My eyes became busy trying to take in all the details of my surroundings – the color, the structure, how things are arranged; my senses on a hyperactive mode as I want to re-create the image in my mind when I’m not in the place anymore.

Autumn in Japan is how I have visualized it. Trees changing its color, leaves gently falling like feathers, people rushing by in their gray and glum coats in consonance to the season.

My mates and I took a stroll around Tokyo. Where are the people? So empty. Deserted. Then I realized it’s around 8:00 AM. It’s Wednesday. People obviously are in their offices and their workplaces. We took pictures of anything and everything. Like a typical tourist would do. Pictures of trees, rocks, people, places, of each other. Serious pose, model-esque, wacky or free style. The locals would stare, maybe wondering why, in the world, are we taking pictures of signage, buildings, stores, etc. But for someone new in a place, everything is fascinating.

Lunch time came. People started emerging from their nooks and began to line up in restaurants. They are so… behaved, not impatient at all. No complaints about the long queue. And they eat their food in peace, without so much chatter, which is the complete opposite of what most Filipinos do.

We managed to order our food. Thanks to the universality of gestures and body language. We would point to the menu. The waitress would speak to us in Japanese. We would nod in agreement thinking, hoping, we understood.

Itadakimasu!” I love saying that all the time. It’s the Japanese way of showing appreciation for the food. Trying out the cuisine of other countries is exciting. For me, the first bite can be a surprise, a pleasant one or otherwise.

“Oh, that’s a familiar taste. Similar to what we have back in the Philippines.”

“I can have this for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!”

“Er, I think I’ll eat something else, thank you very much…”

Japanese food is very simplistic. A reflection of how the people are like. The Japanese, in fact, are minimalist. Their flag as a big statement of that, and I really appreciate that about them. I’m also amazed at how they do things, like everything’s all planned out, no room for mistakes, so efficient… so Japanese. And talking about being precise, being late would be unacceptable. It’s not even about being right on time. You have to be there 15 minutes before an appointment or else you would be considered late.

I have observed the way they work. Now I know why most concepts on quality in the workplace which we study in my Management Class originate from Japan. For a result-oriented person like me, the Japanese work ethic is ideal which I wish to see in companies and organizations I would want to be a part of in the future.

***

The five-hour Shinkansen trip from Tokyo to Nagano Prefecture wasn’t as eventful as I hoped it to be. Nagano is this quiet, peaceful place where I met my new family. Yes, we’ll be having homestay here, a chance to get to experience the real culture of Japan! The Yazawa family welcomed me, together with an Obama look-alike Indonesian lad, Jusak. We stayed with the family for the two nights and two days.

At first, I was concerned about the language barrier. The only Japanese I knew, aside from itadakimasu were ohayo (good morning), konichiwa (good afternoon/hello), konbanwa (good evening), ogenki desu ka (how are you), and arigato (thank you). So how in the world would I be able to communicate to them?

Surprisingly, I was able to connect well with the Yazawas – the grandparents, Boss and Baba; our homestay mom and dad, Shinya-san and Yumi-san; and the kids, Tatsuki, the quiet one, Hana, the bundle of energy young girl, and Keita, the curious little boy.

Baba would speak to me in Japanese, I would answer back in English and for some reason, we would understand each other. I showed pictures and talked about the Philippines. They did the same thing sharing their culture and I could feel their genuine interest in getting to know me more.

We discussed and compared how things are culturally done. Whoever gave us the idea that people from another country would be any different? I mean, yes there are little nuances here and there but that’s all there is to it. Big differences if you wish to see it that way but for me, I see it simply as diversity.

We walked around the neighborhood, had soba for lunch (noisy slurping required), went to a monkey park, had a feast for dinner and ended the day with conversations, music, and laughter. I hated to think that we’ll be saying good-bye the following morning.

And so the day came. The inevitable. We had to bid farewell to strangers turned family, whom we have met for such a short time but felt like we’ve known each other longer. I hugged everyone and when it came to my oka-san (mother), she started crying and then tears began falling from my eyes, too.

“Don’t cry…” I said, which was funny because I was also crying. People call me cold-hearted because I don’t usually show my emotion specially when saying good-bye. But I don’t know what happened that day. Maybe they were tears of gratitude for the warm Yazawa family, for sharing their home, their lives to me, even for a brief moment.

Home is where the heart is. I certainly left a piece of mine back in Nagano.