Armenia and Japan: Asya Links Two Cultures in bonds of Discovery and Delight


Every time Asya Harutyunyan makes a business trip to Japan she never forgets to take grape leaves with her. In the land of the rising sun, a Japanese woman, Mika Ohira, takes the sun-kissed grape leaves and turns them into the famous Armenian dolma. Japan may be thousands of kilometers from Armenia and even further away in terms of culture and philosophy. But Asya jokes that Mika makes dolma more often than Armenians do.
“Many meals in our cuisine are made of boiled vegetables and meat, and maybe that is the reason I loved the Armenian grape leave-wrapped dolma,” says Mika.
Ohira learnt to make dolma from Asya when she visited Armenia as a tourist. Harutyunyan, 30, is president of the “Asya Ararat” tourism agency, which specializes in introducing these two ancient cultures to each other. An expert in Japan and the Japanese language, Harutyunyan is a translator by profession and says she opened a tourism agency only by accident in 2002.
“For three and half years I studied in the university of the former capital and one of the oldest towns of Japan, Kyoto. I was always an admirer of Japan, the Japanese language and music even before I went there,” says Asya, whose room is filled with the sounds of Japanese music and the walls are decorated with artifacts reflecting Japanese culture. Asya says that after completing her studies and returning to Armenia she continues to keep links with her friends in Japan, who remain close to her heart. Once when they visited Armenia as tourists, they asked her to take them sightseeing; Asya showed them Garni and Geghard and told them the history of these Armenian monuments.
“I then learnt that the next day they went to the same places with their tour group as set out in their program but the guide gave such poor information that my friends told the other Japanese the things that I had told them the day before,” says Asya.
“After that my friends advised me to open my own agency and promised to become my first clients.” Harutyunyan says that, although she lacked financial means, she took her friends’ advice and registered her tourism agency soon after with a focus on connections between Japan and Armenia.
“Before that people from Japan visited Armenia only on an inter-governmental level. Armenia wasn’t seen by Japanese as a country for tourism,” says Asya. The specialist of Japan says her friends and acquaintances are beginning to give her customers, paying attention to her knowledge and understanding of the culture of communicating with the Japanese.
“Our cultures and manners are very different,” says Asya. “If a Japanese person suddenly sneezes, which is considered impolite for them, the Armenian “Bless you!” is doubly inappropriate and impolite. Such important details I learnt while in Japan. Being aware of Japanese manners, I try here to present Armenia to them with all its look and charm.”
Mika Ohira says she heard about Armenia for the first time in 1975 at high school as part of lessons about the Soviet Union. She became acquainted with Asya through the internet, where she learned about her tourist activities, and decided to fulfill a long-held dream to visit the Caucasus region and Armenia.
“I am confident today Armenia is more interesting in terms of tourism than Russia for instance. I think Armenia is the country with the best reputation among the CIS countries, besides it is also safe and everything is quite cheap which is no less important,” says Mika.
Ohira says Armenians have impressed her with their friendliness. Another tourist from Japan, Hiraoka Hirako, heard about Armenia for the first time while traveling in Iran.
“We went to an Armenian village in Iran that interested me very much. When I came back from my trip I began collecting information about Armenia on the internet and decided to come,” says Hiraoka.
Harutyunyan says she can’t tell exactly how many tourists have come from Japan. She adds: “Everything depends on the time; at times there are many visitors, at others only a tourist or two. But these trips are really unique. Visits from Armenia to Japan are unique not only for the high prices (7-10 days tripd including the airticket costs nearly between $2,200 and $4,000), but also for their originality and sense of interest.
“Those leaving for Japan from Armenia are mainly upper class people, who do not care about money. They have traveled across the world and seek new original sensations,” says Harutyunyan. “People coming to Armenia from Japan are interested in the ancient treasures of our country, those wonders registered by UNESCO.” According to Harutyunyan those wonders are divided into three groups. The first place of visit is Ejmiatsin ` the Ejmiatsin Cathedral and churches of Gayane and Hripsime. The second are Geghard and the Azat gorge. And the third group where all the Japanese tourists wish to visit by all means regardless of age and occupation are the Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries. A visit has been organized also to Karabagh upon the tourist’s request. Besides the visits to historical and cultural places, trips are made also to the capital’s restaurants, where usually the Japanese who love healthy food consider the offerings to be too salty or greasy, and the smoking and alcohol not very pleasant.
“The Japanese do not like Armenian spas (yoghurt soup) for they are not very much used to dairy products,” says Harutyunyan. “But they always take with them Armenian brandy, silver jewelry and handmade table cloths that have been kept carefully for a long time.

By Marianna Grigoryan ArmeniaNow Reporter

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