Sep 26, 2019

A Journey in the Land of the Rising Sun

Ayo Chan, a 2011 Sylff fellow at Peking University and one of 20 participants in the first Sylff Leaders Workshop, reflects on his journey in Japan during two eight-day sessions of the 2018-19 Sylff Leaders Workshop.

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I think that life is a journey on which we are presented not just one path but a series of opportunities to experience and be experienced by others, each one of which makes us wiser, stronger, and in most cases happier. I am very thankful for having this fortunate opportunity to participate in the inaugural Sylff Leaders Workshop. There is no doubt that Japan is an internationally renowned hub for workshops, conferences, and other academic activities, and Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto are popular choices for hosting international events. However, this Sylff Leaders Workshop was such a unique experience in terms of not only intellectual exchange among Sylff fellows from a wide range of personal and professional backgrounds but also in the thoughtful arrangements that allowed us to immerse ourselves in the culture, customs, and traditions of the Land of the Rising Sun.

I still remember the excitement during my flight from Singapore to Osaka to join the fall session of the workshop in 2018. As a lover of the Sengoku Period in Japanese history, I always feel excited to visit the Kansai region, where various daimyos and heroes fought and sacrificed themselves to restore harmony, peace, and order 400 years ago. I arrived late but managed to wake up early the next morning to visit Osaka Castle. The castle was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a legendary daimyo who was born to a peasant family but eventually succeeded Oda Nobunaga to become the ruler of all Japan. I was amused by the castle’s picturesque gardens and historic architecture, and the stunning view at the top of the castle tower. The renowned farewell poem with which Hideyoshi ended his legendary life was also on exhibit: “Appearing like dew, vanishing like dew—such is my life. Even Naniwa (Osaka)’s splendor is a dream within a dream.” Indeed, the impermanence of being is a major theme of Japanese Zen.

From Osaka, it took us an hour and a half by bus to travel to Sasayama in Hyogo Prefecture, where the fall session of the workshop was mainly conducted. Sasayama is a small, quiet, and beautiful castle town surrounded by hills with a scenic natural landscape. Under the theme of “The Future of Food Production in 2030,” the workshop aimed at equipping us with approaches to envision a better future for the world and providing a systematic framework to approach conflicting scenarios and to bridge different stakeholders toward common goals.

Despite the intensive schedule of the workshop, we were given some free time to explore the town and visit small shops and houses with centuries-old wooden architecture. As the tallest structure in the town, Sasayama Castle was built under orders of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who succeeded Hideyoshi as the de facto leader of Japan in the 16th century. I was told that the castle’s architectural style was similar to Nijo Castle in Kyoto, and it is exceptional to see such a luxurious castle design outside of Kyoto.

In this historical town gifted with good quality agricultural land and environment, we had the privilege of trying different types of Japanese delicacies with local ingredients. While it was our great pleasure and honor to have French-Japanese fusion, full-course welcoming dinner with Sasayama Mayor Takaaki Sakai, having a Japanese-style barbeque with wild boar meat, black soybeans, and Japanese yams and drinking home-brewed sake was also great fun. We spent a few days in Sasayama before moving to Kyoto and Tokyo, but the tranquility and peacefulness of Sasyama was deeply rooted in my mind in the remaining days.

Chan, center, with Sasayama Mayor Takaaki Sakai, second from left.

Maiko experience in Kyoto.

The spring session was conducted in Beppu in Oita Prefecture on the island of Kyushu, the southwestern part of the Japanese archipelago. Beppu is a famous hot spring resort in Japan, and naturally onsens became one of the biggest highlights for this session. It was a long but joyful journey from Fukuoka to Beppu. The weather was great, and the views of coastlines, forests, and mountains of Kyushu were magnificent. Also, the Sylff Association Secretariat thoughtfully prepared some culture tips and fun facts about onsens to share with us. I could feel the enthusiasm in the coach when we were told that the baths still maintained ancient traditions, including bathing naked with strangers!

Another distinctive cultural highlight that is not easily found outside the country is fugu cuisine. Because of pufferfish’s deadly, toxic parts, the preparation and cooking of fugu are strictly regulated and licensed by the government, and only seasoned chefs are qualified to do the work. From fugu skin and fugu karaage to fugu sashimi and fugu shabu-shabu, we celebrated our successful teamwork and friendships with one of the most dangerous dishes in Japanese cuisine.

The final presentations took place at the beautiful campus of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), located on the top of a mountain in the Jumonjibaru area of Beppu. This was an ideal choice, since the university is one of the most internationalized tertiary institutions in Japan. This echoed the purpose of this workshop to nurture a new generation of leaders who could interact with and learn from people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds.

We were delighted to present our key takeaways, thoughts, and stories to Mr. Yohei Sasakawa, Chairman of the Nippon Foundation, APU President Haruaki Deguchi, and other distinguished guests and to have a dialogue session with Mr. Sasakawa. I spent considerable time in Myanmar where Mr. Sasakawa is well-known in the field of charity and education, development, humanitarian assistance, and the peace process. I had visited a school donated by the foundation in Kayah, a landlocked state in Myanmar, and was very pleased to learn of his views on and insights into the country’s development.

Chan’s final presentation at APU.


Words are not enough to express my deep gratitude to the Sylff Association Secretariat at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research and to the Nippon Foundation for the warm generosity and hospitality throughout the workshop. “Ichi-go ichi-e” is a saying in Japanese that describes the treasured but unrepeatable moment of every get-together. While we will never have the same kind of meeting again, I do look forward to catching up with my dearest Sylff friends again soon.

Ayo Chan

Ayo Chan*

Peking University

Received Sylff Fellowship in 2011.

Ayo is a Hongkong-born, Singapore-based social entrepreneur and angel investor who believes that the HKSAR can play a greater role in regional cooperation in Asia to create a community of equality and prosperity.

He co-founded Governance Partners Yangon, the first-of-its-kind social venture in Hong Kong addressing a broad range of developmental challenges in Myanmar through bilateral policy exchanges, which is endorsed by His Excellency U Phyo Min Thein, Chief Minister of Yangon Region.

As a regular contributor to some of the leading Hong Kong newspapers, Ayo began his career with the financial industry and served as a strategy advisor of a 4As advertising firm in Singapore. He is a member of Hong Kong Internet Finance Association with a major role to facilitate its development and partnerships in ASEAN countries.

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