Enjoying The Wonders Of Nature In Sapporo, JapanBy Nabilah Saleh
SAPPORO (Bernama) -- The biting sub-zero temperatures of Hokkaido did little to subdue the sheer excitement I felt as I travelled to its capital city of Sapporo.
It was, after all, my first winter experience, and I looked forward to enjoying it in Japan's northernmost prefecture.
The one-and-a-half hour flight from Tokyo via the country's largest airline, All Nippon Airways, was pleasant, but I could not wait for the plane to touch down.
As the airplane prepared for landing in Japan's fourth-largest city, I could not help but be mesmerised by the sight of snow blanketing the city. This must be why the city is dubbed "White Sapporo", come winter.
My mind raced with thoughts of playing with the snow and even going skiing. It would be so exciting!
My hope of going skiing became even stronger upon learning that the foster family I would be staying with enjoyed the winter activity very much.
I was scheduled to stay with them for a short while during the week-long Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youth (JENESYS 2016) programme, of which I was a participant.
The programme was jointly organised by the Japanese government via the Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE) and the Malaysian Ministry of Youth and Sports (KBS).
I was among the 24 participants from the Malaysian media and KBS who were lucky enough to have been selected for the programme.
After resting a night in Sapporo, participants assembled at an information centre where we were each given a paper with information about our foster families.
Mine would be the Ito family, which comprised a husband and wife and their two children Kairu, 12 and Mii, 10.
As I read the brief introduction to the Ito family, I became more convinced that my stay was going to be one-of-a-kind.
To my amusement, insect-catching, tennis and singing were listed as my foster family's favourite pastimes.
The family also had an interesting choice of pets that included fish, geckos and salamanders.
It struck me as rather fascinating that amid Japan's great strides in technological advancements and in the robotics and automotive industry, there were still those who enjoyed going back to nature.
Tomoko, my foster mother, and her two children came to fetch me at the information centre. Together, we rode to their home, which was a 40-minute drive away.
The Ito family has participated in the programme 15 times prior to this, so they were quite at ease receiving me.
This is despite the fact that this is the first time they are hosting a Malay Muslim from Malaysia.
On arrival, I was treated to a sumptuous dinner. I had no qualms about enjoying it as they were informed of my dietary restrictions beforehand, and had taken due care in catering to it.
Tomoko told me, in fluent English, that they enjoyed receiving foster children from such programmes over the years as each one came from a different and interesting background.
"This gives us the opportunity to better learn foreign cultures, in addition to improving our mastery of the English language, " said Tomoko, whom I addressed as 'Okka-san'(a Japanese term of endearment for mother).
Her children were also at ease with having foreign visitors in their home.
Kairu was more than happy to answer any of my queries, as if we had been lifelong friends.
Mii, who had a talent in drawing, was also eager to pipe in. She had slight difficulty conveying her thoughts in English but was aided by her mother and brother.
Despite the language barrier, both kids were keen on communicating with their foreign guest.
I was intrigued by their unique hobbies and schooling routines and thus had a number of questions for them, which they were only too pleased to answer.
PASSION FOR NATURE
Kairu, whom his mother fondly calls Kai, was excited to tell me about his insect collection and pets.
He whispered his intention to his mother who then conveyed it to me.
"Kai wants to show you his insect collection, " said Tomoko, to which I nodded and smiled in assent.
Kai then ran up to his room and subsequently brought down 10 wooden boxes of various sizes. Each contained a variety of insects that had been preserved and pinned neatly inside.
He proceeded to tell me about each species of the impressive collection, which he had started accumulating since he was three years old.
According to Tomoko, Kai's interest in insects took off naturally, without any kind of instruction or motivation from his family.
"From a young age, Kai has shown great interest in dragonflies, butterflies or crawling insects that he finds in nature.
"He would preserve the dead insects and arrange them neatly in his box according to species, labelling them based on the information he gets from an encyclopedia," the full-time homemaker explained.
Tomoko and her husband Atsushi have never discouraged their son from pursuing his interest, despite the occurrence of an untoward incident.
"Once, he became ill after handling what turned out to be a poisonous insect. Luckily, we acted fast and took Kai to the hospital for treatment. He had to be warded for a week," recalled Tomoko.
Kai only smiled sheepishly at the memory.
I cannot help but be amazed watching Kai as he explained about each bug in his collection. As he talked, he fed the various insects, geckos and salamanders in his collection.
His appreciation for the animals was truly impressive, and unlike anything I have ever seen in children his age, back home.
Judging from his passion for insects and the undivided family support, it was certainly likely that Kai would realise his ambition of becoming an expert in entomology (the scientific study of insects).
NOT A FAN OF GADGETS
I asked Tomoko if she made gadgets or other smart devices available to her children during their free time.
She shook her head.
She did not feel that the technology that was so synonymous with her country was essential to her children's learning or growth.
"There is no need to use computers or smartphones all the time.
"I have never forced him to engage in anything he did not want to. Kai found his passion in nature, and we fully support his interest," she said.
Aiding Kai's interest is Hokkaido's unique topography, which made every season interesting for unique finds and exploration.
The family often spends their time in nature, as Tomoko felt that it would be a waste if her family did not appreciate the offerings of the serene environment of the mountainous region they lived in.
From my observations, the Ito family was quite well-off and could have indulged in another way of life if they so chose.
However, they were content to enjoy life at a steady pace, practicing moderation and traditional values in their daily routines.
I was only able to spend two days and a night with them but in that time I learned about how important it was for families to take the time to stop and smell the roses.
Their life was proof that it was still possible to not allow ourselves to be swept away by the pressures of modernisation.