Words cannot describe the incredible country that is Japan. The people, the culture, the food and history is as unique and inspiring as you can imagine. It’s a society where old meets new, where tradition is embedded in all areas of modern life, and where the most outlandish thing is innovative, exciting and cutting-edge.
I was fortunate to be one of five Kiwis and ten Aussies selected to partake in the 2016 Jenesys programme, run by the Japan Overseas Cooperative Association, and aimed at promoting international exchange and cooperation with Japan. It was an incredible, insightful and intense week of immersion in Japanese business, culture, and local cuisine.
We started off in the metropolis of Tokyo, a city of just under 14 million (and yet with a similar sized economy to that of the UK)! We then bulleted down on the Shinkansen high-speed train at 300km per hour to visit cities in both Aichi and Mei Prefectures, including Nagoya, Taiki, Ise and Suzuka.
Aside from getting excited over automatic taxi doors, canned coffee from vending machines, and real life sumos on the streets of Ryoguko, we were introduced to the successes and innovative entrepreneurship from some of Japan’s leading businesses.
We visited Mitsui & Co., Japan’s largest sogo shosha or global trading and investment company, as well as Seven Dreamers Laboratories, a technology innovation company soon to launch the world’s first laundry folding robot (that’s right, the future is here)!
We had a well-anticipated tour of Toyota’s Motomachi factory to see Lexus, Crown and Mirai cars being pieced together, as well as the opportunity to taste world-class sake produced by Shimizu Seizaburo Shoten, a company which has been brewing traditional sake for nearly 150 years and recently served their sake to world leaders at the 2016 G7 summit in Tokyo!
We also met with the Japan External Trade Organization, the Australia New Zealand Chamber of Commerce Japan and our respective embassies to talk about doing business in Japan, a lot of which involves patience, long-term relationship building and significant time and investment.
Many people consider Japan being a rigid and hard market to tap into, however what was highlighted was that businesses who persevere and form the foundations of trust and respect in Japan, gain unwavering loyalty, success and opportunity.
Aside from gaining tremendous business insight, we were also treated to the wonders of Japanese history, culture and tradition. This included wandering through the famous Yakimono Sanpomichi or ‘pottery path’ in Tokoname, Nagoya, and seeing first-hand the long history of ceramic and tea ware production dating back to the 12th century from a local potter.
We then trekked through the walls of Nagoya Castle, regarded as the finest masterpiece of modern castle architecture in Japan. The palace oozes of imperial regal, with its elevated white walls towering above large stone fortresses, and adorned with golden statues of shachihoko, a legendary half-fish and half-tiger mythical beast said to provide rain and protection from fire. Most of the castle buildings were destroyed by air raids and bombings during World War II, but had been beautifully reconstructed using traditional materials and techniques. Several parts of the palace, including the entrance and reception halls, elegantly replicate the elaborate style and decor of 17th century Japan.
Three hours south of Nagoya, we found ourselves stepping into the allure of the famous Grand Shrine of Ise in Mie Prefecture. The shrine is based on traditional Shinto worship, and dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami. Walking beneath the lush green canopy of cyprus forest, and bare wooden structures resembling ancient rice granaries, you cannot help but feel the sense of calm and tranquility that exudes from the place. It’s a kind of peace that not even the one million visitors could disturb. Yet, the hustle and bustle is easily found outside in a little market alleyway filled with tea merchants, fish mongers and food vendors filling the air with sweet and salty aromas.
We then headed to Taiki village to learn the art of making mochi! Japanese rice cake or mochi is a popular sweet made from rice beaten with giant wooden mallets, a tradition known as mochitsuki in Japanese. The lovely ladies who let us into their kitchen were masters of mochitsuki, churning out hundreds of pieces of fresh and warm mochi. We were also taught how to make the traditional yomogi mochi, a novel type of mochi made with a Japanese wild plant known as mugwort. The soft chewy yomogi mochi is filled with a generous amount of red bean paste and hand dusted in kinako (roasted soybean flour) before being served!
We were also introduced to the very special art of preparing and serving macha green tea. In Japanese culture, tea is much more than just a drink. It is rather a ceremonious and quiet celebration of mindfulness and respect that is performed with immense grace and beauty, and has been so for centuries. From welcoming your guests to pouring hot water, as well as mixing and serving the macha, the entire ritual is thoughtful and serene, with a series of precise hand movements that is truly hard to perfect!
For some, Japanese food is solely worth a trip to the country itself. And after having the local cuisine, I see why. Nothing compares to the meticulous care and thought that is put into eating in Japan. Everything we had, from freshly sliced sashimi and hot bowls of miso, to sizzling plates of teppanyaki and deep fried tempura (not to mention the mouthwatering bowls of ramen and taiyaki stuffed with warm red-beans), shows the immense consideration the Japanese give to eating well (no wonder they live so long)! Add to that a glass of Asahi beer or Suntory whisky and you’ll be happily skipping (or rolling) down the street each night.
Our final dinner together as a group was a chankonabe or a traditional “sumo feast”, which was a delicious hot pot of meat, tofu, noodles and vegetables. Most of us gave up after our third helping. The challenge of eating over ten portions capped with rice and beer was simply too much too handle! Coincidently we bumped into a very friendly sumo on our way home, happily proving to us how much endurance is needed to bulk up (he was 170kg and yet to reach his goal weight of over 200kg)!
A week is definitely not enough to experience the complexities of Japan, but it was enough to get a tantalising taste and realise how much more of the country there is to explore.
Although Japan is vastly different to Western countries like New Zealand, there also lies many similarities which form the basis of our connections, be it shared beliefs of tangata whenua to people’s passion for business, food, sports and culture. These connections bridge our differences, and form the basis of mutual and long-standing ties.
New Zealand currently has 42 sister city relationships with Japan, many of which have been built on the basis of these grass-root people-to-people links. Japan is also one of our most longstanding export markets, and although we have had a long history of trade in food and agriculture, there is room to further foster connections through its growing service industry including education, construction, architecture and tech innovation. We just need the confidence to get on the ground and start forming those relationships.
Being on Jenesys has no doubt fuelled my curiosity in Japan and I will sure be back sooner rather than later, hopefully with more fluency in Japanese than before!