2010/11 Kyoto

Activities and Events

Japan Study Tour

2010 – Kyoto

A personal view by Tim Walker, Head of Waste Management, Belfast City Council

25th July – 4th August, 2010

I had forgotten how fascinated I’d been with Japan. When I was younger, I wrote to the Japanese Embassy and I remember the excitement when I subsequently received an envelope stuffed full with maps, trade catalogues and such-like: I vividly remember blue-tacking the map of Japan above my bed.  Shortly afterwards, my uncle gave me a Japanese “Happi” coat which I wore this for many years although, now, it seems to have shrunk with the passing of time… When in school, I wrote a report on the A-bomb and how it devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the facts were both fascinating and terrifying.  I also started “doing” Judo (the technical term for the sport) which later morphed into Ju Jitsu and Aikido.  After college, several friends went to Japan on the JET Programme but unfortunately, despite best intentions, I never managed to get out to see them while they were there. Then working life started in earnest and, apart from keeping up martial arts for several years, my interest in Japan was supplanted by more pressing but mundane matters.

After a decade working in the private sector, I joined Belfast City Council as their Head of Waste Management – straight into the teeth of best value and the resulting organisational change which entailed much work and produced many gems, such as the resolution of a client and contractor “soft-split”, the formation of a waste partnership and more contracts than I could shake a small stick at.  One thing led to another and, before I knew it, I was in my 40’s.

Last year while reading a Spring edition of Local Government News, I came across an advertisement from the Japanese Local Government Centre seeking candidates for its local government exchange and co-operation seminar, due to take place in Tokyo City (population – 12,749,900) and Kyoto (population – 1,459,600) that summer.  After getting the necessary approvals from my council, I was off.

Eleven hours of flying time later and a short bus ride, we arrived in Tokyo where the temperature was in the early 30’s, we were introduced to Toshi and Rika our ever-friendly stewards, and Mariko, our charismatic translator and the rest of our small group.  Dusk faded really quickly and, to get the show on the road, we all met up in the roof-top terrace bar, what a view over the city – and what prices for a beer.

Dinner that first evening was full-on; the jetlag and hunger meant there was a certain tension in eating but quite quickly each of us managed to master chopsticks…  Thankfully, the jetlag was subtle and wore off over a couple of days. The next day, the seminar started with a bang.  By 9.30 we were all at the Shinagawa Power Station and, following an interesting presentation on electricity production in Tokyo city of which Shinagawa is one of several facilities and which included how district incinerators contributed to the grid and then had a tour.  Wow, it was quiet, empty and terribly clean – and it was our first chance to really sample the heat in an open-sided bus. Throughout our stay, all our hosts quizzed us on our welfare and whether we’d had enough to drink.  It was one of the hottest summers on record and the temperature remained in the high 30’s with humidity at or above 75% most of the time in both Tokyo and Kyoto (in fact, after visiting Kyoto, our return to Tokyo felt cool).

After a sumptuous (European) lunch, we visited our second destination for the day – the Ariake wastewater treatment plant (WWTP).  As earlier in the day, we heard how the facility operated using the advanced A2O treatment.  The facility was built in layers beneath the impressive reception hall and was part of a substantial development that also included a sports hall and tennis courts – many tonnes of concrete had been poured to develop a wastewater facility that had an anaerobic, anoxic and aerobic treatment phases carried out at different levels underground.

It was monumental and, notwithstanding that the temperature was lower underground, there were different zones of heat (from warm too hot to even hotter). The next day we heard about the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR) and how it represented each of the cantons and municipalities in Japan, and had a brief opportunity to see some of Tokyo’s highlights.

The next day, we all met up early to travel by Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, a distance of 513.6 kilometres.  This took 140 minutes exactly! We didn’t see Mount Fuji on the way out, but we got some cracking photographs of it shrouded in cloud on our return trip a week later.

On arrival at Kyoto, we left the station and were greeted by a large blue butterfly circling a tree (very Japanese) – from memory, it was almost 20 cm across and many of us (me) thought that it was actually a remote-controlled child’s toy.

I was wrong; it was stunning with truly vivid colours.  There followed a couple of intense days of meetings, briefings and visits in and around Kyoto in some amazing settings with Mayors and senior officials during which time we moved from our hotel to a traditional “Ryokan” (or travellers hotel) where we had our first experience of “Onsen” or traditional naked sauna/bathing.  I don’t do it justice but, having had one, I think the whole group agreed we’d happily do same again given the opportunity.

The “Ryokan” was one of the highlights of the trip, we shared rooms, had an “Onsen” and ate a traditional multi-course Japanese meal in appropriate clothing. The next day, we went to see the “Carbon Minus” project – the local production and application of biochar to capture carbon and manage waste.  The enthusiasm and knowledge of our host was both impressive and infectious – even in the heat. This was followed by another expansive and delicious meal.

For the culmination of this week’s work and before we went our separate ways for the weekend to a number of host families, we had a stroll through some bamboo forests – which was a chance to get out and see some of the beautiful scenery but it was hot and we all enjoyed an ice cream and some cold tea when we arrived back at the bus.

On our return to the hotel in Kyoto, we unpacked, repacked and departed for what all of us thought was a really engaging part of our seminar – a chance to spend a weekend with a host family and to see and do our own thing.  For me, there followed a whirlwind weekend of temples (the city has 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites), museums that displayed the amazing array of the culture and craft of Japan, eateries of various types – all of which were cracking…

Too soon the weekend was over and we bade farewell to our generous hosts and returned to the embrace of our group.  Monday morning, we walked to our meeting with the Kyoto Prefecture officials – one of the hottest yet most striking walks I’ve had to a meeting.

This meeting with officials was a chance for us to reflect on all we’d learned about local government and environmental services to date during our seminar and from previous research and to develop our understanding through an open-ended question-and-answer session.  Several hours later, we had to call a halt to what was a lively and stimulating session in order to catch the return Shinkansen to Tokyo.

On arrival in Tokyo, for the first time during our visit, we had unsupervised free time to explore, go shopping, or whatever: it felt weird.  There was a briefing on biochar that afternoon at the British Embassy.  It examined the Carbon Minus project and compared the performance from this trial with other schemes underway elsewhere.  The discussion was around how the British and Japanese could work together to commercialise the opportunity for carbon capture, waste management and soil improvement – fascinating stuff.  Later that evening, after a series of adventures, we all met up for our final dinner together – back where we’d started; and, after a beer or two, it made a lot of sense for us all to see out our seminar in true style – with a karaoke session.  Thankfully, there are not too many photos or recordings….

The final day, we rose early and went our separate ways: some to the airport, some into the city.  So ended one of the most interesting, stimulating and thought-provoking work-related experiences I’ve had to date.  I learned to see several environmental problems from a new perspective, I made friends, I had some challenging culinary experiences and it left a lasting mark on me.  Would I do it again? You bet.