I am standing in an outdoor holding area where 450 journalists, sportscasters, photographers and videographers from around the world are anticipating the unveiling of Japan’s new Tokyo Olympic Stadium, which will host the Games of the XXXII Olympiad from July 24 to August 9, as well as the Paralympic Games from August 25 to September 6, 2020. The air is electric, the excitement palpable.
With three previous Olympic Games under its belt—1964 Summer Games, Tokyo; 1972 Winter Games, Sapporo; and 1998 Winter Games, Nagano—Japan is set to host the Games a fourth time. Under the concept, “Hope Lights Our Way,” the cherry blossom-shaped torch begins its journey at the start of the cherry blossom season on March 26 in Fukushima Prefecture and will travel through all 47 prefectures of Japan.
The country introduced a number of initiatives to ensure the 2020 Games are sustainable—and memorable. For instance, people throughout Japan are donating used mobile phones, personal computers, digital cameras and other small electronic devices to be recycled. Extracted metals from these devices are used in the production of approximately 5,000 gold, silver and bronze medals to be awarded at the Tokyo 2020 Games. Other projects address the use of timber, energy consumption and waste management and recycling.
Not surprisingly, a diverse range of technological innovations are also in the works. And, if plans to ignite the cauldron using the world’s smallest flying car materialize, the lighting ceremony will go down as the greatest ever in Olympic history.
Our group is called and we quickly fall into line. First, the exterior. Our guide directs our attention to the roof structure, a combination of steel and cedar wood designed to direct air naturally into the stadium. For a closer look at the architectural detail, we proceed to the fifth level known as Grove of the Sky, which features an 850-metre-long circular walkway. Wooden benches in 19 locations provide space for visitors to relax and admire the surroundings. This area will always be open to the general public whether games are happening or not.
Finally, the doors to the open-roof interior are unlocked. There are 60,000 seats, 1,000 of which are wheelchair accessible. Two large TV screens face north and south. Down on the field itself, I get a sense of how it feels to be an athlete at the centre of it all. Mighty small, but pretty mind-blowing sums it up. As I gaze up at the spectator seats, a wave of memories of the previous five days wash over me, each one a fascinating story unto itself.
It all began with a two-hour flight from Osaka to Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu where we boarded a coach for a two-hour road trip to Yanagawa to experience a traditional small-boat ride along the town’s scenic canals.
After lunch, we travelled to Nagasaki to visit the Peace Park, a sobering reminder of the devastation that took place at 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945, when an atomic bomb killed 60,000 to 80,000 inhabitants. Established in 1955, the park features remnants of a concrete wall of the Urakami Cathedral, a 9.7-metre-tall Peace Statue, a black marble vault containing the names of the atomic bomb victims and survivors who died in subsequent years, a Bell Tower, the Fountain of Peace and a Peace Symbols Zone on both sides of the park where monuments from countries around the world are dedicated to world peace.
Another interesting Nagasaki highlight was Dejima, a 1.5-hectare man-made island, constructed in 1636 to segregate Portuguese residents from the Japanese population and their concubines and to control the former’s missionary activities. Following the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637–38, the Portuguese and Spanish were expelled and Dutch traders were moved from Hirado to Dejima, which became Japan’s “window on the world” during the Edo Period (1603–1867). Since the 1990s, the site has undergone a reconstruction program in an effort to restore many of its 19th-century buildings, which reflect a unique blend of western and Asian architecture and decor.
HOT SPRINGS IN THE BUFF
From there, it was a one-hour bus trip to the Unzen Miyazaki Ryokan in the Unzen Onsen area. This traditional Doka Japanese-style hotel is known for its exquisite lodgings, hot mineral springs and impressive culinary delights. As we walked the wooden walkways that snake through an area filled with billowing steam and scalding hot water, the strong sulfuric odour was overwhelming.
At the hotel, we were ushered to our quarters, where, in keeping with local customs, we donned our yukata (kimono-style attire). Keiko, our translator, explained “the Japanese way” to enjoy the springs, which involved washing ourselves thoroughly prior to entering the mineral waters. Towels were not allowed in the shower area or the baths. Instead we were handed a washcloth, which we could use to hide whatever part of our nude bodies we wished once we had undressed in the locker room. However, the cloths were not to touch the water at any time. Every effort must be made to keep the waters clean and pure. Following this explanation, a couple of ladies opted for a private mineral bath option. On average, overnight guests follow this ritual four times: before and after dinner, before bedtime and before breakfast.
That evening’s gourmet dinner featured a non-stop parade of appetizers, soups, meat and fish dishes, rice and noodles and desserts. I wondered if there was anything left in the pantry for other guests. Back in my room, the middle compartment of my suite had been transformed into sleeping quarters with a simple mattress topped by a duvet on the tatami-matted floor.
JAPAN’S “HIDDEN CHRISTIANS”
Japanese typically follow Buddhist and Shinto traditions, however about one per cent are Christians. During the Edo Period, members of the Japanese Catholic Church went underground for fear of persecution and practised their faith in secret for about 250 years, without the presence of priests or missionaries. Outwardly, the faithful Christians observed Buddhist and Shinto traditions, which resulted in a unique blend of the three practices and ritual chants that combined Latin, Portuguese and Japanese. The Nagasaki and Amakusa regions are the centre stage of this extraordinary tale, which is portrayed in Martin Scorcese’s film, Silence.
A ferry ride to Kuchinotsu Port brought us to Sakitsu Village in Amakusa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the key components of “Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region.” Built in 1934, a Gothic-looking church overlooks a cove in the fishing village and holds UNESCO World Heritage status. Due to its hidden location, the village was the focal point for Christian propagation and several sacred sites remain to this day.
SAMURAI AND SOY
Our next stop brought us to Kumamoto Castle on the west coast of Kyushu Island. In its day, it was an extremely well-fortified Japanese castle. Unfortunately, due to damage from the 2016 earthquake, the interior cannot be accessed however the city hopes to reopen the central area of the castle in spring 2021.
Another fun place to visit in the area is the Hamada Soy Sauce Factory where we toured a cooking school, sampled soybean-based menu items at the on-site restaurant and browsed through their gift shop. Classes at the school can be booked on the company’s Facebook page.
And now, we’ve returned to Tokyo to visit its numerous sites, such as the Skytree, teamLab Borderless, the Olympic Stadium and Village and the recently opened Japan Olympic Museum, considered among the world’s best of its kind.
I hear my name. It’s time to leave the stadium. As I drift toward the exit, I remember the motto our translator guide, Keiko, shared with us at the onset of this journey that has led up to this momentous experience: “Ichi-go ichi-e,” which, loosely translated, means “Treasure every moment, you never know if it will happen again.” This entire trip has definitely been a series of once-in-a-lifetime moments.
Air Canada (aircanada.com) offers non-stop service from Toronto to Tokyo. In Tokyo, we stayed at the Keio Plaza Hotel (keioplaza.com) across from the most popular shopping and entertainment spots in Shinjuku. Before you go through security at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, be sure to allow plenty of time to dine and browse through the delightful replica of an Edo Village. You might also enjoy a massage in the village before proceeding to your departure gate for your long flight home.
For information on the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Japan, visit here. A new travel brochure introducing a rich variety of hands-on experiences within seven categories (tradition, outdoors, cuisine, cities, nature, art and relaxation) is found here. A compendium of Japan’s most interesting modern art museums, art events, public facilities, commercial buildings and more is found here.
THE TOKYO 2020 GAMES BY NUMBERS
32,000,000,000,000— approx. economic impact nationwide in yen
1,940,000 — number of employment opportunities nationwide
110,000 — total number of city and Games volunteers
18,000 — number of beds at Olympic Village for Olympic Games
11,090 — number of Olympic athletes
8,000 — number of beds at Olympic Village for Paralympic Games
5,000 — approx. number of gold, silver and bronze medals to be awarded at the Tokyo 2020 Games
4,400 — number of Paralympic athletes
540 — number of events in the Paralympic program
339 — number of events in the Olympic program
43 — number of venues, including 8 new permanent legacy sites
33 — number of Olympic sports, including 5 new entries: Baseball/Softball, Karate, Skateboarding, Sport Climbing and Surfing
22 — number of Paralympic sports including the newly added Badminton and Taekwondo
THE JAPANESE WAY
If you visit Japan, it might be wise to adopt some of Keiko’s words of advice.
• Mute your devices and never use cell phones on public transportation; it’s considered disrespectful to fellow passengers.
• Due to the terrorist attack in 2011, few, if any, trash bins are found in public spaces so keep that in mind. Citizens are taught from a very early age to clean up after themselves and visitors are expected to follow suit.
• Accept and present items with both hands and a bow. One hand is considered rude.
• At traditional Japanese-style hotels, companies or museums, staff may bow and wave until you are out of sight. It is customary to imitate this custom as well.
• Sayonara (goodbye) is too sad; use matane (pron. matt-a-nay, see you soon) instead.
• Appreciate everything.