The Rising Sun That Never Sets: Cumbrian Scouts return from World Jamboree in Japan

Heather Dempsey and her HoHo partner Hannah Andrew with the four girls from our host family in Izumo City

Heather Dempsey and her HoHo partner Hannah Andrew with the four girls from our host family in Izumo City

Heather Dempsey reports on the recent trip by 18 scouts from Cumbria who attended the Scouts world Jamboree in Japan.

After 18 months of fundraising, numerous days of preparation camps, and 34 hours in the air, the long awaited World Scout Jamboree in Japan has been and gone. It held many wonderful and wacky experiences we could not have imagined, and the greatest of these was the immeasurable, lasting impact it would have on ourselves.

From the first selection camp we heard ‘life changing’, but the weight of this claim was never truly understood until we were plunged into the first hand experience, and it exceeded all lofty expectations.

Even as we took off on our 6,000 mile journey, we had already overcome a sizable challenge: bonding with a group consisting of mostly complete strangers: 18 Cumbrian Scouts, nine Girl Guides from Merseyside and nine Scouts from Botswana, tied together only by the solidarity of the Scout Movement.

To my knowledge, we were the only UK unit with such a varied demographic. It almost feels strange to mention this at all, as we became such a tightly knit group that those first meetings and online communications seem a world away.

An early lesson from the Jamboree was the value of solid friendships from sometimes just across the county, as well as the world. Our support for each other was invaluable in Tokyo, where we crammed a three night visit with exhilarating and eye-opening activities: climbing the 634 metre Skytree, the city’s tallest tower; visiting the historic Asakusa and the cutting edge Shibuya; experiencing a simulation of the disaster that struck Japan in 2011 at the Earthquake Centre. Many of these activities were chosen and organised in small groups, giving us a truly independent and empowering experience.

After navigating the Tokyo Metro, I feel like I could do the London Underground blindfolded. Some of the best moments came from simply observing everyday life.

We battled through Monday morning rush hour, in trains brimming with scores of identically dressed businessmen, and witnessed gaggles of young cosplayers in elaborate homemade costumes in Harajuku.

Our visit to the Metropolitan capital of the world culminated in Tokyo Live, an illustrious showcase of Japanese culture and entertainment. Beginning with sumo wrestling matches, the evening encompassed the traditional and modern; sets from J-pop girl groups rolled on into ninja stunt shows, and later the climax of the evening: a tribe of mesmerising Japanese drummers. The celebration was accompanied by carnival games and food, and many of us lingered long after the close among the buzz of new friendships and under the Tokyo Bay sunset.

The morning heralded the next chapter of our journey: the 580 mile trip to the Jamboree site at Yamaguchi, via the world famous bullet train. The comfort of the 200mph slingshot ride was pleasantly surprising, and the scenery on offer from the train’s porthole windows breathtaking, if slightly blurred.

All 1500 of us filed out at Yamaguchi in just under one minute. Not bad, but far from the usual 20 seconds the locals are used to. With an average daily delay of 54 seconds, these trains make the Virgin Pendolino look like a National Express bus.

The character of the Jamboree site was apparent as soon as we arrived; from the first step we saw numerous nationalities, familiar and unfamiliar, and we couldn’t walk a hundred metres without somebody stopping to say hello and welcome.

The next 12 days held the biggest adventure and the biggest challenge of our lives.

A typical day began at around 6am, when it became too hot and bright to sleep, or 5am if it was your turn to collect the food for the day from the distribution tent. Despite the early wake up, this offered a pleasant spell of cool weather before the sunrise peered over the striking mountainous horizon.

We cooked breakfast, lunch, and tea, and quickly learned how important it was to keep stocked on energy in the hot and humid weather.

Activities usually began in the afternoon, their expansive range adding to the breadth of the experience; we learned about global good causes and bang-up-to-date scientific projects from all over the world in the onsite Global Development and Science Villages.

Our offsite activities included a ride on a Japanese Defence Force aircraft carrier, categorised as a ‘water’ activity; certainly more novel (or naval) than a dip in the sea.

After the nature activity, perhaps the warm waters weren’t so appealing after all; the giant horseshoe crabs looked like something out of an old school sci-fi film!

A poignant moment was the day trip to Hiroshima, including a visit to the A-bomb museum and the peace crane memorial, where we laid hundreds of colourful homemade paper cranes. Since a young victim of leukaemia (or A-bomb disease as it was known in Hiroshima) folded over a thousand during her time in hospital, the origami creations have become a symbol of peace throughout Japan.

The harrowing recounts of the explosion and speeches of goodwill from scouts the world over at the memorial service left us with a profound sympathy, and a glimpse of understanding few are so fortunate as to achieve.

A personal highlight for me was the being selected from 3000 participants to Imperial Highness The Crown Prince of Japan. An entourage of other dignitaries, including the Prime Minister, also tagged along.

Representatives from each nation, including myself, met with The Crown Prince in a formal dinner. I was immensely proud and astounded to have been chosen as an ambassador for our nation, and the special visit was an eye opener to say the least; the security made me feel like I was somewhere between a Bond film and a supermax prison, in the best possible way.

The dazzling day trips came one after the other, each one fresh and inspiring, and sometimes all too fleeting; we could have spent hours wandering through the peaceful park in Yamaguchi, in awe of the ancient five storey pagoda as the koi carp swam lazily in its shadow.

However, the most powerful aspect of the Jamboree was the ubiquitous goodwill and spirit of unity on the campsite. Everybody wanted to learn and experience all they could about the huge spectrum of culture, religion and way of life accommodated by this most celebrated of all Scouting events; minds were opened, parties were many, and negativity slunk back into its dark cave to die.

After the mammoth mother of all camps was over, we reduced what had final chapter: HoHo.

In this two-night home stay programme, scouts enjoyed the hospitality and kindness of local families, who volunteered to put us up and give us a taste of authentic Japanese life.

The Jamboree has left me with the opinion, which I firmly believe I will hold for the rest of my days, that if everyone were so fortunate as to do and see what we have done and seen, the planet would be a vastly different and better place for everyone in it.

Among gloomy news bulletins and scaremongering headlines, one can develop a bleak outlook on human nature; the Jamboree proves every four years, beyond doubt, that people with open minds from all over the world are more than capable of just getting on with each other.

Even more than that, of being proactive in learning about different cultures and expanding their personal horizons, of confronting and conquering their own prejudice, and of seeing the world as a global village full of citizens of equal value.

This is the true aim of the Scout Movement, something I only understood during Jamboree; all the knot tying, team games and tent pitching are only a means to this brilliant end.