On Monday, June 6, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited us here at our C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust in Shinano, northern Nagano Prefecture.
Myself and members of the trust’s staff who needed to know were informed of the impending visit three months before, but we were instructed not to tell anybody about it, not even family members.
I certainly didn’t breathe a word to anyone but, within about a week, pretty well everybody in our little town — which I prefer to call Kurohime, because that’s the name of the station and the grand mountain overlooking us — seemed to know about it.
Then, two months ago, I was in a supermarket when a local lady shrilled, for all to hear: “Oh Nicol-san, congratulations!
The Emperor is coming.”
The problem in keeping tight security about the Imperial visit was that the mayor and a couple of town councilors had to be told because they would be involved. You cannot keep secrets, at least, not happy ones, in Japanese country towns. However, I’m absolutely sure our staff didn’t say anything.
Even without anyone spilling the beans, though, our neighbors would have been bound to notice the almost daily visits of men, and a few women, in black.
Our imposing new Afan Centre, our woods and all the approach roads, were meticulously inspected. One day, no fewer than 84 Imperial Household personnel, security types and police officials visited us. Even so, I still refused to answer the stream of inquiries from locals until finally, a week before the actual day, the visit was officially announced.
The fact of the matter was that this year’s Imperial tree-planting ceremony was to be held on Sunday, June 5, in the city of Nagano at its annual National Arbor Day Festival to promote forestry and environmental protection. And with our woods being just a 40-minute drive from there, the Emperor himself had said he wanted to come and visit.
Everything was carefully choreographed. I was to stand on an exact spot in front of our Afan Centre, in order to greet the Imperial Couple as their car arrived and they got out. I was then to turn to the mayor and a senior town councilor to introduce them before walking round the back of the car ready to lead the Emperor and Empress up the stone steps of the building.
Once inside, the Imperial Couple would go to the upstairs VIP room for 15 minutes’ rest, in private, while I waited with security and other officials. And so on. We could not invite anybody along as guests, and our staff all wore distinctive orange jackets with our logo on them.
After that, I was to escort the Emperor and Empress for a 20-minute, carefully rehearsed and measured walk through the woods.
Following behind the three of us would be the Nagano prefectural governor, our local mayor, other dignitaries, various officials and security people — while there must have been at least another 100 protection officers scattered through the woods.
It was a hot, sunny day, but the woods were cool and green, with lots of flowers blooming, birds trilling, frogs croaking and cicadas shrilling. Both the Emperor and Empress really know their botany, so there were lots of questions.
Meanwhile, media people were cordoned off at a spot where I was to stop, giving them a good chance to take photographs as I pointed out a section of the woods that had really come alive with plants and animals since we trimmed it out and replanted it 20 years ago.
After that, one of our horses, named Yuki Maru, was to start hauling a log through the trees from a point more than 100 meters distant until its handler brought it to a stop 10 meters away. I was told it was absolutely forbidden for the horse and log to be any closer to our illustrious guests.
Well, both man and beast obeyed their orders to a T — but as soon as the Emperor saw the horse come to a standstill and the log being uncoupled, he grabbed the Empress’ arm and they headed off through grass, sasa (bamboo grass) and thistles right up to Yuki Maru.
As the Emperor began stroking his neck and long silky mane and asking questions, the security and media folk were in an almighty flummox all tripping over each other and darting hither and thither. It wasn’t my fault, honest!
His Imperial Highness loves horses and is very comfortable around them. Yuki Maru was good. He is a gentle and very intelligent 7-year-old gelding, so there was no problem with him — in fact, he appreciated the attention.
We then strolled back to the Afan Centre, and when the Emperor and Empress went upstairs for 20 minutes of quiet and some green tea, my wife, Mariko, and I were asked to join them.
We had some enjoyable talk about horses, about Wales — which Empress Michiko had visited as a student — about the town of Neath, where I was born, the surrounding hills and valleys and John Ford’s classic 1941 film “How Green Was My Valley” that was set there, and about the Welsh tales of mischievous woodland elves.
It was a brief but memorable meeting that I regret to say I am not supposed to write about in detail.
That was actually the second private conversation I have had with the Imperial Couple. The first was in February 2011, when I was invited to the Imperial Palace for a whole hour alone with them.
One could never meet a more kindly, gracious, soft-spoken and thoughtful couple. Our conversation was almost entirely in Japanese, although Empress Michiko speaks perfect English.
I’ve lived here in this little Nagano country town for 36 years now, and have appeared in dozens of television documentaries and hundreds of magazine and newspaper reports, so lots of people had an idea of who I am and what I have done.
However, after the Imperial visit, everybody I saw smiled, bowed and said “Go kuro sama” (“That was a good job”) or simply “Omedeto” (“Congratulations”).
For me, and my wonderful, patient staff, it has been the greatest honor.