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Hagio Prize 11th Year Winner: Kasia Zaton

Kasia Zaton is our 11th winner of the Hagio Prize. Here is Kasia's report.

First and foremost, I would like to thank everybody for allowing me the opportunity to visit and study in Japan. Initially I did not believe this would be possible but my coordinator was so kind to persist and convince me to participate in the competition, something I will always be grateful for especially because it allowed me to meet Mrs. Hagio and her niece, both amazingly nice and kind people who showed me many interesting places in and outside Tokyo.

Table laid with Japanese food

Originally it was my plan to use the time in Japan to deepen my proficiency in Japanese, especially with regards to the Keigo, or formal Japanese; and to study the Japanese art of Buddhist temple cooking (Shojinryori). It was my intention to open my own restaurant back in Europe offering this very special and unique tasting type of food which, to my knowledge, at the moment can only be enjoyed in Japan. The time at the cooking school was immensely interesting and rewarding. The teacher was a very kind person who told me many things about the way Japanese food is prepared, cooked and served. The food she showed us to cook was very tasteful and healthy, especially since it does not use any chemicals and animal fats. When I prepared the same food for my family back in Poland they were very surprised about the quality of the food and the richness of the taste.

Table

During the time I spend in the traditional cooking school I fell in love with the smell and feeling of the tatamis we had in the dining room. An idea started growing in my mind. I had never seen tatamis being sold in Poland and started wondering if this was due to any specific reason or just lack of actual offer. After studying as much as I could through the internet and local friends in both Poland and in Japan I realised that nobody had ever bothered to assess the feasibility of importing traditional living room tatamis to Poland. After discovering this, I immediately set out to establish contact with different tatami makers, culminating in the visit of one of the main factories. After checking all the types and prices as well as the cost of shipping and duties, I realised that even considering the high cost of the product and of shipping, a business opportunity was available.

Besides the cooking classes and my infatuation with the tatamis, I also considered volunteering at a shelter for older people as a way to help, but also to practise my Japanese and to learn more about Japan. Unfortunately I was advised that a three month training period was needed.

In addition to the above, I did the usual tour of temples, shrines, museums and other sightseeing spots in and outside Tokyo. It was very impressive to see how an ultra-modern city like Tokyo, with massive skyscrapers, could have so many temples in the most unexpected and, sometimes, hidden places. Besides Tokyo, I also visited Osaka, Kyoto and Nagasaki.

Man Pushing Trolley

First Osaka, what was impressive most was the small but significant differences between Osaka and Tokyo. Osaka is, by all standards, one of the largest cities in Japan and one should expect it, and the people living in it, to be similar to the people in Tokyo. To my surprise, I discovered that the city and its people are very different. To start from the way they walk on the street and stand on the escalators, to the way they are much more outgoing and talkative compared to the people in Tokyo. All this came as a very big surprise to me and made me understand that Japanese are not as uniform as one would think at the beginning.

Yukata

Next on my list was Kyoto, a city with so many temples and shrines, that at times I felt I was transported to a previous century. One has to understand that one side of the hill is surrounded by temples and shrines and one can spend a full day walking around from one to the next, all being somehow different but also similar at the same time. Some of the temples had remarkably beautiful gardens which must be even more striking in the spring and summers. But most extraordinary were the geishas in the Gion district, all of them going and coming from work in the different restaurants around the area.

Nagasaki

My last trip took me to me Nagasaki, one of the two cities bombed at the end of the Second World War with an atomic bomb. Even though the city is completely new, one can feel the sense of history and solemnity of the effect the bomb must have had on the city, its population and the country itself.

In conclusion I have to say studying and living in Japan was an amazing and very rewarding experience which I will treasure forever, especially for the special people I met, and I really recommend everybody to consider doing the same. This experience will forever stay with me and I would like to thank again everybody who encouraged and allowed me to visit Japan.