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Japanese and foreign univ. students cook together as part of Kyushu tour amid pandemic

Tour participants and others make bento together in Kitakyushu's Kokurakita Ward on March 13, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroya Miyagi)

KITAKYUSHU, Fukuoka -- Japanese and foreign students participated in a four-day, three-night tour in this southwest Japan city in March during which they made international food using local ingredients.

    Students at a seminar run by professor Noriko Fukushima at Kyushu International University try food they made ahead of the "Bento Journey" tour. (Photo courtesy of the seminar)
    "Bento Journey" tour participants show the food they made in Kitakyushu's Kokurakita Ward on March 13, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroya Miyagi)

    The tour, dubbed "Bento Journey," was put together by those including students at Kyushu International University in the Fukuoka Prefecture city of Kitakyushu, and was conducted based on their proposal that won the jury's special award in the "overseas graduation trip planning contest" organized by the Japan Association of Travel Agents (JATA). The tour had been at risk of cancellation due to the coronavirus pandemic but four students participated in the event with the goal to promote international friendship.

    The project was organized by six students at a seminar run by Noriko Fukushima, professor of tourism at the university's Faculty of Contemporary Business. Students came up with an inexpensive tour plan of staying overnight in a dormitory and making bento boxed meals using local ingredients for international students who could not afford graduation trips. They were initially thinking of an overseas trip in line with the spirit of the JATA contest, but they changed the destination to Kitakyushu because it had become difficult to travel abroad due to the coronavirus.

    While they sought participants by sending invitations to 30 universities in Japan, no one signed up due to the third wave of coronavirus infections that started around autumn 2020. Though there had been voices even within the university opposing the tour, Shoto Kaku, 21, one of the seminar students, said, "We wanted to seek a way to produce a fun event while people languish because of the coronavirus." They presented measures to prevent infections among participants, and attracted two Vietnamese, a Japanese student and another participant in Fukuoka Prefecture through connections with the seminar.

    Participants visited sightseeing spots in the city including Kokura Castle and Kitakyushu Museum of Natural History & Human History. They also bought foodstuff at Tanga Market in the city's Kokurakita Ward, which is dubbed "Kitakyushu's kitchen," and made bento including yangnyeom chicken -- Korean fried chicken seasoned with a sweet and spicy sauce -- and gimbap -- Korean style rolled sushi -- at a nearby kitchen. After taking photos of the food to upload on Instagram under the guidance of local photographer Tsukiko, they enjoyed the bento at nearby Katsuyama Park with local residents whom they encouraged to join them.

    At a children's cafeteria in Kitakyushu, which provides free or inexpensive meals to impoverished kids, they made bento with Vietnamese food. After treating children to the food, they played Vietnamese rock, paper and scissor games, whose rules are the same as the Japanese version.

    Participants were delighted to be able to interact with locals, which usually cannot be experienced on a regular trip. A 24-year-old Vietnamese participant who studies at a technical school said with a smile, "Kitakyushu is urban, but the atmosphere is good, and I like how people casually strike up conversations." Atsuya Ogawa, 21, a Fukuoka University student who participated in the project, said, "I was worried if there would be smooth communication between participants, but sharing food made in the same pan has strengthened our bonds."

    The students had to repeatedly change plans due to the coronavirus pandemic. They implemented thorough measures to prevent infections during the tour, and took every possible precaution, such as disinfecting places participants touched. Seminar leader Masanori Kurita, 22, said with a sense of satisfaction, "It (the tour) might not have been conducted in the best possible way, but it inspired us to think 'how we can do things' instead of assuming that 'it's impossible' due to the coronavirus."

    (Japanese original by Hiroya Miyagi, Kyushu News Department)

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