Several Kenyans are seeking less-beaten paths to travel to. Is Japan on your bucket list? It is known for its rich culture, beautiful landscapes, and unique cuisine, a perfect holiday break. BDLife spoke to the Japanese ambassador to Kenya, Okaniwa Ken, about things to do in Japan.
Your tie has an interesting motif. Does it have a meaning?
We follow the lunar calendar, and this is the year of the rabbit. That’s why I am wearing a tie with the rabbits on the moon, making mochi. There is a fable story about this. I bought this in Ginza, the shopping capital of Japan.
How many Kenyans travel to Japan?
Before the pandemic, we received between 2,000 and 2,500 Kenyans per year, which is a very small number.
In 2019, about 13,500 Japanese tourists and business people were visiting Kenya. I want to increase this number on both sides to have a better understanding of each other. Kenyans need to come to see Japan, and vice versa for the Japanese.
How do you get to Japan as a Kenyan?
Usually, we travel via Dubai or Qatar and then connect to Japan.
What can a Kenyan explore while in Japan?
You should know that there are four distinct seasons. The spring is the time for flowers like the sakura or the cherry blossom to bloom. It’s quite pleasant to visit and watch how scenic this looks.
The summer, which is now, is quite hot and humid, and it has its distinct attractions like the fireflies lighting up the night. We also have huge beetles distinctive to Japan, which have horns, and you can find them on trees.
In fall, we have a moderate climate somehow, like in Kenya, and this is the time when various produce from the sea and land is plentiful, like chestnuts or special mushrooms. You will also catch a glimpse of the leaves changing colour to yellow, bright orange, or red. This change of scenery in the mountains is magnificent, something that most Kenyans have never witnessed.
It gets much colder during the winter, and that has its attractions, as one might have snow and go skiing. You have frozen lakes, and some of the lakes, when frozen, you can drill a hole and fish.
If you are an architectural lover, visit the big cities, where you will see the skyscrapers and various modern buildings. There are very innovative modern buildings that are unique because some of the best architects in the post-war era are Japanese.
They are revolutionary and came up with non-traditional designs that are very attractive. Of course, you must also visit the traditional architecture concentrated in Kyoto, which is our ancient capital. Here there are very historic temples, imperial palaces and Shinto shrines which you will never find anywhere else.
Some are set in the forest, mountains, and rivers. But in terms of the festivals, it’s not only in Kyoto but we have regional festivals all around the country depending on the time.
What are some of the foods that a tourist should try out?
Japanese cuisine is very varied. Japanese food is grilled, fried, stewed or raw. We use ingredients from the land and the sea. We have varied cuisine because the Japanese have been incorporating foreign cuisines.
In addition to the standard Japanese cuisines like sushi, rice balls, and tempura, we have other things like curry rice which we incorporated from the British but have been localised.
The standard of Japanese restaurants in any cuisine is quite high. Tokyo has the biggest number of Michelin stars in the world.
What can Kenya and Japan learn from each other about tourism?
Usually, the ambassadors who are posted here stay for two to three years, but because of the 60th anniversary of the bilateral relations, I was able to learn about the various stories of our exchanges between the countries as well as the collaborations and visits over the years.
This has not happened just between governments but individuals of the countries. There is a warm bond of friendship between the two peoples.
The safaris in Kenya are very famous because there are many Japanese TV programmes and documentaries that cover them. If a Kenyan visits Japan and says they are from Africa, the Japanese will say the only country they know about is Kenya because of that.
Our cooperation programme at this moment doesn’t focus on the promotion of tourism but I think promoting Japanese cuisine in Kenya would boost tourism in the country. There are Japanese restaurants in Nairobi and foreign tourists come to want to eat our food in Kenya and this makes the destinations attractive.
What are the dos and don’ts when visiting Japan?
Learn a little bit of the Japanese language before you go. The embassy provides some free lessons and some local Japanese associations of language teachers also provide lessons.
Second, if you need directions, please do talk to Japanese when you are in Japan because even if some do not understand, someone will do their best to assist. I also hope that the visitors will visit other regions in Japan and not just the major cities like Tokyo. That’s where people are more easygoing and warm. Last but not least, please practise how to use the chopsticks!
What is Japan known for?
Japan is the first developed country that is non-Western. We avoided being colonised in the 19th Century. During the Second World War, 85 percent of the economy was destroyed and many people were killed. After that, we worked hard to rebuild our country and became the second-largest economy in the world after the US. Currently, we are behind China at number three.
In addition, the Japanese are known to be polite. Also, Japanese individuals are very much focused on what one is doing. One aspect of society is that we are taught to do one’s our best in what one is tasked to do.
Before we became a modern nation, we had a feudal society where if you were born as a samurai, you would be part of the ruling class, and if you were born a peasant, that’s where you would stay. Since we became modern, that has been eliminated and the society is based on hard work and meritocracy. The rule of law is very strict and the judiciary and police are very efficient.
What were some of the culture shocks you had when you first visited Kenya?
One of the shocks I had was the traffic, which is quite unpredictable and also the norm. In Japan, drivers follow regulations but here it’s not certain, which way they might take and it can be quite confusing. This is my third posting in Africa. I had visited Kenya twice before my posting for official business.
The trips made me quite familiar with the country but of course, being posted in a country and experiencing the day-to-day activities is different and very eye-opening.
What about the food? Have you sampled some?
I have travelled to about 18 counties, and during these visits, I have had the chance to sample their food. I never reject something without tasting it.
One of the things I found quite interesting is the brown ugali because the texture is very similar to the Japanese mochi. If I can advise Kenyan visitors travelling to Japan, they should try dango, which are Japanese rice balls, sweet and tasty.
Which places have you travelled to in Kenya?
Masaai Mara and Coast. I also climbed Mount Kenya last year, which was much more challenging than I thought. I’m glad I did it. In my previous posting in Geneva, I had a chance to climb many mountains and thought that Mount Kenya would be easy but I was surprised to find that it’s a very high mountain.
Which are the destinations you are hoping to explore?
While I’ve been to Turkana County, I hope to go to the lake and explore it. I saw the picture before I came to Nairobi and felt that it was a fabulous scenery.
What do you love about your job?
Our job is very varied and covers a lot of aspects of bilateral relations. Before I was only doing negotiations with other governments and at one time in charge of aid programmes. Now being an ambassador the biggest plus of doing this is that meet so many interesting people from different backgrounds.