It looks nothing like this when written in “barbed wire” (Mick Shaw’s colourful phrase for Kanji Japanese writing) but this translates as one, two, three, four five in Japanese and these were some of the few Japanese words that everyone on the 2010 Study Tour learnt. Of course, we also learnt to say good morning (ohayo or Ohio to us), hello (konichiwa) and thank you (arigato or “had a gutful” according to Mick). More importantly, we learnt to order a beer (bi-ru) and to raise a toast (kanpai!).
This was just about enough to get us through a couple of weeks in Japan. Of course it helped that most of the locals knew a lot more English than we knew Japanese, plus we were in the care of a fantastic guide (Naomi Matsuda) and her part-time apprentice (Laura Dowling).
We visited the incredible Tsujiki fish market in Tokyo and got up early for a great visit to a sumo ‘stable’ training session. We saw the mesmerizing lights of Shinjuku, actually saw Mt Fuji and rode the shinkansen (bullet train) around the country. We visited the snow monkeys, were treated to a Maiko dance performance in Kyoto and went to the Hiroshima Peace Park. We watched Toyota Prados going through the production line at Toyohashi and were lucky enough to see sensational cherry blossoms just about everywhere we went.
Of course, we weren’t there to feed our faces and act like tourists, but to look at farms and Japanese agriculture generally. We visited cattle breeding and fattening farms (Wagyu and others) in Hida, Kobe and Tokachi. The operation in Tokachi on Hokkaido used mainly male Holstein calves from the local dairy farms and was a world class enterprise in anyone’s language.
We visited a wasabi farm and rice farms on Honshu. And we visited larger farms on Hokkaido growing winter wheat, sugar beet and other crops in what goes for extensive farming in Japan – farms up to 200 hectares. We probably started with a slanted view of their system of heavy subsidies, but a couple of weeks in the country puts the cultural importance of farming and preservation of the rural landscape into perspective. Especially when we realized that this small island country with a long history of conflict with powerful neighbours has a level of food self sufficiency of only 40 per cent. They want to lift this to at least 45 per cent and are desperate to keep farmers on the land.
In fact, farmers are revered to the extent that the Japanese give thanks to the farmers at every meal for working to provide the food for the table. As part of the Buddhist tradition, they also thank the plants and animals which gave their lives to provide the meal.
That’s the thing about Japan. They live an advanced, largely western lifestyle, but they also maintain their traditions which are the cement which holds their society together. The big cities and populated areas are very crowded, but they work well because the people are incredibly polite and considerate of each other. They are also very friendly and helpful to strangers.
And despite the large population, most of the country is hilly to mountainous and preserved in its natural state. The scenery is beautiful and you don’t have to travel great distances to appreciate it. Plus when you do travel, the roads are great and the rail system is the best in the world.
This was the first Greenmount Travel tour to Japan, but it is now definitely on the schedule for future years. I think all of our 20 study tourists had their expectations exceeded on this tour. At least one passenger who has been on many Greenmount Travel tours, is convinced that this was the best of them. When the next Japan trip comes up (probably 2012) give it plenty of thought. Its not too far away, can be done in two weeks and is guaranteed to exceed your expectations.