Japan 'beautiful and safe to visit'
Andrea Hawtin has come back from a student fact-finding trip to Japan, brimming with enthusiasm for a country still recovering from the 2011 tsunami and earthquake.
Andrea, a Kerikeri High School graduate, was one of nine university students, selected from 90 New Zealand applicants, who visited Japan in December as part of the Kizuna (Bond) Project.
The group included 105 university students from New Zealand and Australia.
"We went to discover what really happened during and after the disaster, because there have been many harmful assumptions made. I feel as New Zealanders we can relate to the disaster even more considering the earthquakes in Christchurch."
She says it will take 15 years for the country to repair the damage but the Japanese are doing an impressive job at rebuilding.
"We visited one centre where 80 tiny temporary homes accommodated 170 people.
"Perhaps the biggest struggle for many is losing a sense of community. Some people lost their home towns and will never be able to return because of the radiation. The economy was hit hard. One ski resort lost 22,000 bookings in a year. Rice growers couldn't sell produce because of fears that it would be tainted. In fact the Japanese have very strict radiation standards."
The group visited Fukushima and Tokyo.
Andrea says the country needs to be treated as a normal economy again.
"It's a beautiful place, with wonderful scenery, incredible culture, amazing architecture and welcoming people. We asked one woman waiting at a bus stop directions and she walked with us for 10 minutes to show us where to go.
Andrea studied Japanese at Kerikeri High School.
"Being from a school that is so involved with Japan and international students offers so many opportunities for young people," she says.
And she sees many opportunities in Japan - such as working ski holidays in Minami-Aizu, English teaching and exchange programmes.
"My overall message is Japan is beautiful, the people are amazing, their food is safe to eat and the environment is safe to visit."