Sixteen years ago I came to Japan to stay with Tomonobu Nakamura and his wife Chizuoko.

Tom and Mayor Chas Poynter had been the major movers to forming the sister city relationship between Nagaizumi and Wanganui (as it then was) and the Nakamuras and my mum and dad had formed a friendship.

Tom knew I loved aspects of Japanese culture - the films of Akira Kurosawa, sumo wrestling (which I used to watch when arriving home after shift work in Europe), and Japanese cuisine - and invited me to stay for three weeks at the end of my university year.

I was at a low ebb. I had just had a book published and it received a couple of damning reviews (it also had some good reviews but negative comments always live larger in one's memory). My girlfriend and I were moving apart from each other. I had no real idea what I was going to be doing the next year with the degree I had just earned. A break in Japan might be a chance to reboot.


It was a sensational journey, visiting temples, and gardens, galleries and sights. I even went to Disneyland for the very first time - Tokyo has its own version replete with fantasy castle.

I recall standing in Shinjuku station interchange for 15 minutes at rush hour. One million people go through that concourse every hour. It was mind-bending watching this massive movement of people. I ate incredible food sometimes in little yakitori down alleyways. I saw some of the rigid elements of Japanese society - where men often walk ahead of their wives, and where status is very important.

And I realised why we have sister cities. It is not just a cultural exchange, though that is important. It is not just the educational or economic benefits, though that gives justification for putting resources towards it - and Whanganui has benefited a great deal from our relationship with Nagaizumi.

It goes back to why President Eisenhower had the idea for sister cities. Eisenhower fought in two World Wars. It was his idea that it is harder to go to war against someone you've met, someone you have exchanged gifts and eaten with, had a shared experience with, that you have an understanding about.

Eisenhower realised also that this relationship was best achieved at a municipal level, as governments are usually too concerned with matters of trade and state to engage at a personal level.

This was what drove Tom Nakamura, who likewise fought in the Second World War, to form a sister city relationship with Wanganui, and by meeting Mayor Chas he found a willing participant.

So I write from a bus driving into Tokyo, on the way to Nagaizumi with a strong delegation from Council and from the wider community. Tom and Chas both died a decade ago, but it is right to acknowledge the work and passion and friendship between them and the work of many others in keeping this relationship going for 30 years.

And I will be reacquainting myself with all that is wonderful, challenging and a bit bizarre about Japan. For example on the flight into Narita, which took only ten minutes to reach from the coast, we passed over some 30 golf courses in an area not much larger than from Maxwell to the city. In one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the number of acre-hungry courses seemed extremely indulgent.