Ms Joy Pakham Changvisommid, 24, a student from Laos, loves it at her international university on the edge of the quiet town of Beppu on Japan’s south-western Kyushu island.
“It is cool that I get to meet students from all over the world and learn from them,” said Ms Pakham who is doing a course in Asia Pacific studies.
As for Singaporean Clement Tan, 29, who is studying international management, while he misses the buzz of big cities, the lack of distraction in the sleepy town of just over 120,000 people means he gets to focus more on his studies.
They are both students at the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University that was set up 15 years ago to help revitalise a declining town.
Many smaller Japanese cities and towns are losing their most talented and youthful residents to the big cities with their better job prospects and better infrastructure. But some cities are fighting back by leveraging on their strengths to focus on economic activity that they hope will retain their best and brightest and even attract others to come and live there.
In Kyushu, the hot spring resort town Beppu and industrial city of Kitakyushu are doing just that, which also means internationalisation - Beppu by opening itself up to foreigners and Kitakyushu by going out to the world.
Beppu in the 1990s was fading as a tourist destination, losing visitors to more exotic destinations like Indonesia’s Bali, Thailand’s Chiang Mai and Hawaii, and losing its young people too as jobs got scarcer. That was when the governor of Oita prefecture to which Beppu belongs, Mr Morihiko Hiramatsu, mooted the idea of establishing an international university there.
The city got as partner in this project the Ritsumeikan Trust, the third largest private education group with a long history in Kyoto city, an old capital of Japan. A piece of land to the north of Beppu, on a windswept hill with a view of the sea, was chosen, the land provided by the government almost for free.
Having an international university was a good idea - it would leverage on the town’s strengths in hospitality and it would bring in young people who would add vitality to the aging town. But not all locals welcomed it at first.
“When the idea of a university was first mooted, the Beppu community didn’t like it at all,” noted Professor Yuichi Kondo, dean of admissions, adding that the residents worried about losing the peace and quiet of their town.
But the Ritsumeikan Asia-Pacific University opened its doors in 2000, with a first batch of more than 200 students.
It was not easy initially, both for the students and the local community. The locals were wary of the foreigners - who make up about 50 per cent of the student population - and the young people found themselves in a sleepy town of mainly old people, said Prof Kondo.
“But the young students helped to revitalise the community,” he said. They went out to the local community, taking part in its activities and even helping to revive old ones.
The local community also quickly adapted to having the students living in their midst, stocking food in their shops that are familiar to the students.
Thus, for Ms Pakham, there is no difficulty finding ingredients to cook Laotian food. “There are several shops selling South-east Asian food like coconut milk, it is more expensive than back home, but affordable,” she said. She lives on campus and goes to town once a week or a fortnight to buy food.
As for Mr Tan, who lives off campus - most students after the first year live off-campus, giving the local real estate market a boost - he is taking away from Japan more than just a degree. He is taking back with him new habits of separating rubbish for recycling and clearing his tray after a meal in a restaurant for the diner using the table after him.
“I take pride in our Singapore culture... but we can develop more as a society, to be more conscious of the environment and the society and not just looking after yourself and your own interests,” he said, of what his country can learn from societies like Japan’s.
As a student on a tight budget, he also appreciates the low rental, 60,000 yen (S$689) for an apartment he shares with two other students, working out to about S$230 per person.
So it works both ways for the local community and the students, who now number about 5,800. The town gets a new vitality and its economy gets a boost while the students save on expenses, study in a quiet town with few distractions and learn something about the Japanese culture too.
Apart from Beppu, this reporter, together with 18 other Asean journalists on a media tour of Japan recently organised by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also visited Kitakyushu, a city to the island’s north and linked to the largest island of Honshu by a bridge.
An industrial city damaged by pollution, it began cleaning up from the late 1960s after mothers in the city took to the streets to agitate for a cleaner environment.
Now, it is leveraging on its clean technologies in its efforts to revive its fortunes. One of the ways it is doing this is bringing its technologies to cities in Japan and in the Asian region.
Thus, in Surabaya of Indonesia, its sister city, Kitakyushu has used its expertise in waste disposal to help the city reduce organic waste and build up compost supply.
In Vietnam, the Japanese city has helped the city of Haiphong to build a water filtration plant using technology it has developed that is cheap and simple, yet effective in cleaning polluted water so that it is fit to drink from the tap.
Kitakyushu itself has been using this technology from 2000. Named the Up-flow Biological Contact Filtration (U-BCF) system, it uses microorganisms in activated carbon to decompose pollutants, such as manganese, ammonia nitrogen and trihalomethane precursors, in the water leaving it clean. Unclean water flows upwards through a thick layer of activated carbon, with the upward movement leaving the water cleaner and higher in quality than otherwise, explained Mr Tetsuji Yoshida, the manager of Honjo Water Purification
Plant which uses the technology. The water that is cleaned through this process then goes through the conventional purification process.
The beauty of the U-BCF is that less chlorine - which can induce other contaminants - is used than the conventional process. The waste generated from U-BCF process is then dehydrated and turned into sludge cakes that are used for fertilizer making.
The cost of the system is “extremely low”, said Mr Kazuya Kubota, director of international projects at the Water and Sewer Bureau of Kitakyushu. It costs just 0.36 yen per cubic metre to produce clean water using the method, as opposed to the more costly ozone processing used in Tokyo, so that Kitakyushu charges the second lowest of water tariffs among Japan’s cities.
In Haiphong, where coconut is in abundance, coconut husks are used to make the activated carbon for the process, thus keeping costs low.
Apart from exporting its existing technologies, Kitakyushu is also offering itself as a testbed for renewable energy such as solar power and hydrogen fuel cell.
Our group travelled on a bus that looks just like any public bus you might find on Singapore’s streets, except that the ride felt smoother and was quieter. The bus runs on electricity - in six lithium ion batteries tucked into the roof - generated by solar power. At 100 million yen per bus and high-speed charger - four times that of an ordinary bus at 25 million yen - the city cannot afford to use this technology.
But it is happy to support Mitsubishi and Toyo, the two companies experimenting with the technology, in the hope that it could lead to business later. The two buses in the experiment are designed in Japan and assembled in South Korea.
Both Beppu and Kitakyushu are by no means out of the woods in terms of arresting decline, but they are not in dire straits either, testimony to the hard work and vision that their leaders have put in to prevent their demise.