Japan Travel — Rotary Group Study Exchange Goes to Japan, Article One

The international organization known as Rotary promotes yearly travel that all people between the ages of 26 and 40, male and female, and of all backgrounds – should know about – because it is a Rotary-funded six week study aboard and anyone can apply to be a part of this significant life experience. If you are this age group – you could enjoy the kind of experience that is described in my notes in this article. To find out more about the program go to the international Rotary website and search for GSE – Group Study Exchange – and contact your local Rotary Club for more information.

April 9th – Saturday, and 10th – Sunday, in Japan:

The GSE 2005 Exchange Trip began on April 9th . My GSE Team Members – Harry Abbott, Julia Vasileyva, Antonio Verges and Monica Koller — gathered at the gate to board the plane at San Francisco International Airport to begin our journey to Fukuoka, Japan. It was a long flight – 14 hours with a layover in Nagoya. When we arrived, we were welcomed by our Japanese hosts including Mika, Izumi and Ai – and it was fun to see the sign welcoming the GSE Team that they had posted at the arrival gate. It was about 7PM in the evening on Sunday – 3AM on Saturday at home – and they took us by car through the streets of Fukuoka to our hotel for two nights, the Nishitetsu Grand Hotel. We felt an earthquake after shock as we checked into our rooms – Hisa San said that it was a “welcome shock”. The team crashed for the night, in anticipation of a full day tomorrow.

April 11th – Monday:

Up early this morning – ready to start the day, and in this large city I could hear the roosters crooning. I walked a few blocks down the street for my first cup of Starbucks coffee in Japan (have to admit it tasted good) and enjoyed the bustle on the main street of Fukuoka. On with my team blue blazer, and armed with many gifts to take to our hosts (including Kona coffee from Teri in half pound bags) – we assembled for a Japanese style breakfast back in the hotel. I first noticed how gracious it is here – gentle bowing, smiles, many to escort you – and a people connection that looks you in the eye and sees you (I like that). I’m feeling comfortable here.

Oh, my gosh – we’re blessed with experiences. The team members are elated. We met with Mika San and she outlined each of our plans while we are here, the host families that we will be staying with, and the areas that we’ll visit. They say that the months of April and May are the best months to be here – lucky us. Fukuoka is a city of 1.7 million people and the island of Kyushu is about 280 miles long and 350 miles wide. We will leave Fukuoka tomorrow and go to Rotary Areas 6 and 7 which are more rural.

The cherry blossoms were in full force as we headed down the river this morning. Our first stop was the American Consulate. We met with the Principal Officer & Consul for the U.S., Joyce Wong. She talked about her responsibilities to the State Department and her assignment here for three years. Also about how popular Fukuoka is because people here have a positive outlook and welcoming hospitality. The Prefecture (which is like our state) is known for growing teas, sweet strawberries, fruits and vegetables – and the best seafood in Japan. It produces one third of the world’s semi-conductors and is part of the Silicon Sea Belt (like our Silicon Valley) and produces about 1 million autos that find their way to the U.S. market. Fukuoka was named the most livable city in Japan, she says. We comment on what a beautiful and clean city that it is.

Next we’re off to the Fukuoka West Rotary Club lunch meeting – and most notable, there are no women in this club – imagine that. We meet Dr. Hirohata, who is the incoming District Governor – and he says the he has a Japanese/Boston accent! A RI Director, Mr. Suenaga is from this Club. There are about 140 members, and the club is 50 years old – but not the oldest club in the City. By the way, the District has about 3700 Rotarians, and less than 1% are women – something to consider here. The video that Harry put together highlighting each of our team members worked well to show who we are, since we are limited in our language communication. It was a very stiff men’s Club – with formality that we didn’t understand.

We were received in the Governor’s office in the afternoon (ie. the equivalent of “Arnold’s” office in California) and spoke with the Director of International Affairs – and learned about the Prefecture and the Japanese government.

The women got dressed tonight with high shoes as part of their “look” – and once at the restaurant we were barefoot like all the rest. Our hosts had a party for us at the restaurant Kanzan – and it was lovely. Our hosts were so fun – they laugh a lot, tell jokes and are very playful – by contrast. One host told about his first trip to the U.S. He ordered a grapefruit on the plan and he expected to get a grape fruit – and what came to him was something that looked like an orange – we all laughed hard at that one. We were hosted by Tomoshige Tachibana, his wife and daughter – and he is the current District Governor. He spoke fondly about meeting our District Governor, Ron Sekkel and Cindy – and we presented him with the gift from our Rotary District.

There were about 30 people at the party, including some of the families that we will be staying with. And, Kenji Ogawa (Ken) was there – he’ll be the incoming team leader when this District sends us a team next year. His team has already been picked and we will be meeting them later. We’re always amazed at the beauty of the presentation of the foods here – and know that the diet is going to take a few pounds off of all of us. The presentations are in Japanese, so we miss some of the communication that doesn’t get interpreted – and many of the people we meet aren’t conversant in English – but it’s better than our Japanese. The evening opened with a beautiful traditional Japanese dance – and included plenty of sake and beer to make the evening merry. It was a very full first day.

April 12th – Tuesday:

After breakfast and luggage in the lobby – we headed for the train station to leave Fukuoka and travel into the countryside. Dr. Maruyana took us on the train to Omuta and the Omuta Rotary Club. The room was set western style, and with about 60 – and again – no women in this Club. Julia, Monica and I stood out in the room. As Izumi (Dr. Maruyana) and I talked about women in Rotary – he pointed out to me that it is not only an issue of gender but also one of “class” that has limited women in Rotary here. He was kind and said that there are not very many of me here – meaning that woman have not generally had the access to the economic structure here that I have had in the U.S. Also that women are not considered in the higher class of the society that Rotary chooses its membership from here. Interesting – it is hard for me to hold my tongue. I point out to the Club as I speak that my Club looks very different than theirs – that my Club has 50% women. And further, that many men in America had trouble with this change, that some left Rotary in protest – but that they generally love women in Rotary now. They shake their heads – and someone interprets that they are saying, no women here. They ask what classifications of women join our Club. They don’t think that this will change in the future. Izumi says that he is radical – that he thinks that this change is necessary and that the world’s future requires it.

Back on the train – much like our trains only very clean – we continue down the line to Kurume City. The houses are getting bigger (with Shogun-style roofs) and there are lovely mountains in view. We are going to Nishi-Nippon shinbun (Newspaper) where we meet with a reporter who asks about us and plans to do an article in the largest newspaper. It’s a walk from there, with the wind blowing hard, to City Hall and the Mayor’s Office. The Mayor joins us and we learn that the picture to accompany the newspaper article is taken with the Mayor in his office and his warm welcome.

Izumi has a beautiful house with some western looking rooms, and a room that we gather in and sit cross legged around the table. Japanese sweets and tea is served and computers in mass come out to see what we’ve recorded for the day. Embarrassing to tell but I went upstairs to the bathroom, and pushed the wrong button on the toilet – and water shot all over the ceiling – imagine. They have it all over us in toilets here – they’re heated and do all kinds of things.

Last night at the dinner, Mr. Tanaka served as a Japanese metaphor for me. He put a chopstick on the table – then intended with his mind, as he says – and moved that chopstick six inches in the air without touching it. But that wasn’t all, he borrowed someone’s watch – and by putting his hands on both sides of it – and intending with the concentration of his mind – he moved the time forward by an hour! Amazing.

Harry San, Monica San, Julia San, Antonio San and I go off to our host families from Izumi’s house and started our Japanese stay. From here you will be hearing from each of us individually – with unique experiences and I’ll continue to talk about the things that we are doing together. So lucky – I’m staying with the Tanaka’s. Much baggage is moved and everyone goes off happily, with my cell phone number as needed.

Ai picks me up, with the Tanaka’s and we are headed to a very special Japanese style restaurant – and more small plates of food than I can eat. Quickly, though, after dinner – we decide that we’re going to head to the Hot Springs – wow – am I ready for that. We enter a building with a women’s side and a men’s side – peel off to get in the warm pools, yes – it soothed. By cab we drove to Ogori and the hundred year old house were the Tanaka’s live. I’m staying in a room to myself with a futon bed and slept very comfortably. In the evening we laugh a lot as the translation goes back and forth – with Ai translating – because the Tanaka’s don’t speak much English. I think that his business is importing and exporting, but not sure – but they travel and Mrs. Tanaka has many of the same brands of clothing that I recognize, from her trips – including a beautiful Italian suit that she was wearing. Once I was in their home, all were very relaxed and genuinely hospitable – we’re well cared for here.

This article is a series — so read on — and many days follow in our splendid adventure!