Japan – land of beautiful cherry blossoms, sushi and green tea. From my previous trips to Japan, this was my typical impression of the country. Boarding the plane from Singapore to Hiroshima alongside my fellow Victorians, I had little idea of what to expect of the Humanities Scholarship Programme (HSP) trip. More than just an adventure filled with chatter and banter, this trip proved to be one of the most insightful and memorable experiences yet. For many of us, we departed from Japan deeply enchanted with its rich culture yet also a little more aware of the problems its society faces.
One of the places which left a lasting impression on me was the Sera-cho Fruit farm, our first destination, which is known for its fresh crop of Nashi pears. As someone accustomed to the metropolitan concrete jungles with skyscrapers filling the landscape, the soft bronze and caramel colours of the mountain tops, and the crisp breeze was a refreshing experience.
Standing on the top of a windy mountain, we shivered as we gazed upon the vast expanse of the farm. What caught my eyes were the numerous mini fans that lined the borders of each plot of land. The skeletal figures of the pear trees, devoid of a hint of foliage, were also a puzzlement to me. Laughing at our chattering teeth, and our “Singaporean intolerance” to cold weather, the owner of the farm, took us indoors and explained the farming process to us. He revealed that the trees appeared bare as pears there take 10 years to grow. These pears were susceptible to many threats, such as being covered with snow, and being attacked by pests. At the same time, standing by the Japanese principle of excellence, any fruit that fell to the ground would not be allowed to be sold.
The mysterious fans also played an important role in the farm – they helped to blow the snow off the fragile leaves, and chased the birds away. This farm was a true testament of the farmers’ resilience and dedication – it took them 10 years to make a profit out of the farm. Having been through devastation from typhoons, and pest attacks that nearly wiped out the entire crop, the farm’s story was truly one of perseverance and determination, which was something that many of us felt that we could definitely learn from.
The fruits of their labour were evident in the massive size of the pears – the pears were bigger than one’s palm! Beneath the veneer, however, lurks issues of succession – the average age of workers on the farm is 65! This is a pertinent problem that the farm faces, as our tour guide explained. Attracting young people living in cities to work in rural farming areas is not an easy task. This issue of succession is also paralleled in Singapore society, when we think about our dying trades, such as the frequently discussed “hawker culture”.
The most memorable part of the trip to many of us was the Ujitei farmstay.
As Aida (17A13) recounts, “Staying in the countryside, though only for about 2 days, was so humbling. I realised there was so much we can learn from nature, from living amidst the flora and fauna. It was so rich in traditional culture, and there was really so much love and warmth and love all around for everything and everyone.”
Indeed, we had a whale of a time with the various hands-on activities, including pounding mochi, cooking our own sumptuous dinner, and engaging in various activities like Japanese calligraphy, wood chopping and flower arrangement. As we sat around the table, filled to the brim with warm, steaming radish soup, we talked and laughed over bowls of mochi and fried chicken. The 3 degrees chill outside was nothing compared to the warm spark that ignited our hearts.
Over dinner we conversed with our hosts, and we learnt that he originally held a job in the city, but then moved to the rural areas as he wanted to be closer to nature. To our wonderment, he shared that he built his house out of his own hands! It left me thinking too, of the many skills and values we can learn beyond our books, and how there is a whole spectrum of life beyond the academic world that we are used to.
He shared that he chose to open up his house to tourists as he felt that Japanese society needed to be more open, and he wanted to meet and get to know more people. His sincerity touched our hearts. Aileen (17A11) aptly summed it up, “I could feel cut off from the frantic frenzy of urban living and genuinely immerse myself in human interaction…there was something about it that made it so personal, and hence that much more memorable. The personal narrative made the experience so much more precious, because it was not just some exchangeable commodity but one that was truly unique to that household alone.”
Another unforgettable part of our trip was definitely the chance to experience Taiko drumming.
“Su-tton su-tton tton tton tton tton!” were the passionate cries of the Taiko drummer as he wielded the drumsticks with ferocity, his arms a blurry whirlwind of movement. We sat mesmerized as the drummers adroitly executed a masterful rhythm, leaping about various positions with catlike deftness and agility, with our hearts pounding to the sonorous booming of the drums. We tried our hands at it to find that it was just as difficult as we thought it would be.
Afterwards, with our shirts clinging to our sweaty bodies, we gathered around to asked the drummer questions. We realised that he had just graduated from university. Drawing links from our earlier visit to the fruit farm, and its similar issues of succession, we realised what a challenge it was in Japan for cultural practices to be passed on. Hence, it was heartwarming to see how a young Japanese man like him truly followed his passions, and chose what some might term an “unconventional” job.
In doing so, such valuable cultural practices are allowed to live on. This conversation with the drummer left us in deep rumination, and we subsequently engaged in discussions about how willing Singaporeans would be in comparison, to break out of the mould and take on less conventionally “prestigious” jobs in order to follow their passion.
In our interactions with the Japanese people, what stood out to us was Japanese hospitality.
“Omotenashi” the Japanese word for hospitality – is encapsulated in another Japanese term, “Ichigo Ichie”. This word holds a profound meaning that goes beyond our traditional definition of hospitality. Saying “Ichigo Ichie” means “I am grateful for the chance of meeting you, and because of this chance I have to do my best, for we may never meet again”.
Indeed, what struck many us deeply during the trip was Japanese excellence. Wei Lin (17A13) recounts her experience at Tok Hands: “My friend and I wanted our purchases to be separate, but we had no means of communication apart from hand motions. The sales assistant was very sharp, and realised halfway that we were buying gifts, so she packed it into extra small paper bags for us. Seeing me struggling with the catalogue in my hands, she took it and placed in in my bag”. She further added that “Ichigo Ichie meant a lot to me before and after the trip! It really shows how they are aware of and take the initiative in doing their best to fulfil their customers’ needs”.
All in all, we left Japan with warmth in our hearts, and a desire to learn more about the world around us. Kayleigh (17A14) mused, “rather than simply experiencing the culture and tradition, we were made to do proper reflections and find parallels and disparities between Japan’s culture and Singapore’s. This allowed us to understand the Japanese people better. Hence, we took away a lot more than what I was initially expecting to”.
As humanities students (a minority in VJ), the trip also forged in us a greater appreciation for the arts. For Jordan (17A12), “My greatest takeaway would be the reinforcement of my conviction in the Humanities – throughout the trip we saw how culture, the past, and physical environments directly impacted the lives of people and the human condition itself”.
For Linus (17A11), his biggest takeaway from the trip would be “experiencing the Japanese spirit of excellence first-hand and endeavouring to emulate that in my pursuits from here on out.”
Similarly, this trip challenged me to look at things around me with a more open mind and a greater capacity for wonder, to challenge and question my perceptions, and to learn more ferociously from experiences.
Davene Lye Qian Yi, 17A11