NARA — Noriko Yamaue, 58, did not enjoy her first trip abroad.
But 12 years on, she has thousands of friends in scores of countries, a far cry from the initial lack of companions to have meals and share the excitement of travel with. The Nara resident puts it all to joining Women Welcome Women World Wide, or 5W, a nonprofit trust based in Britain.
5W, founded in 1984, aims to foster international friendship by enabling women of different countries to visit one another’s homes.
“After joining the organization, the world has become smaller,” said Yamaue, the main organizer of 5W gatherings this week in Nara and Kyoto. “I’ve found more common things than differences, even though members come from various cultures and backgrounds.”
The organization started after a British resident, Frances Alexander, wrote in a women’s magazine in Europe about her idea of encouraging international friendship by enabling women to stay at one another’s homes.
Her idea drew interest and soon 40 people from five countries had gathered and pooled their names and addresses. The list has grown to more than 3,500 members from 74 countries.
The group, financed solely by member donations, said its planning of overseas trips, striking of new friendships and appreciation of differences in lifestyles can help women gain self-confidence.
Activities include international gatherings as well as more informal get-togethers, which take place when a traveler arrives to stay with a local member, who then invites other local members.
This week’s gatherings, in Nara on Tuesday and Kyoto on Thursday, were the second round in Japan, following meetings in 2000 in Tokyo and Nagoya.
In Nara, 27 members from seven countries visited temples and shrines, tried on kimono and partook in tea ceremonies.
“I enjoyed Nara very much,” said Christa Leroi-Goethals from Belgium. “I especially enjoyed walking in the old (parts) of the town.”
Leroi-Goethals, whose hobby is traveling, came to Japan with her husband. Although she had traveled widely even before joining 5W in 1990, she said the organization has given her greater opportunities to meet people around the world.
For Gill McClare, from Britain, joining the group has led to a wealth of new experiences.
“I’ve learned how to use a Japanese bath,” said McClare, who visited Japan once before joining the organization. “It is only this organization that makes it possible” to know people and their cultures in foreign countries.
Yamaue also enjoys visiting other members’ homes overseas. Since joining the organization in September 1995, she has taken in more than 30 members from seven countries, and in return has stayed with members in Australia and Britain.
“I was so moved by the warm hospitality in some homes. A 78-year old woman in Britain drove me to many places and recited Mother Goose rhymes in the car,” Yamaue said. “Having meals together and staying at each other’s homes makes relationships much closer.”
Yamaue also said that it cuts down on travel expenses as members stay basically for free, something that enables ordinary women to travel more freely. While members range in age from 16 to 88, most are in their 50s and 60s, and have retired from work or finished raising children.
Yamaue, who has just retired from a 36-year career as an English teacher, said that having personal friends in other countries helps prevent international conflicts.
“Although only one person cannot do much, many people can change situations,” she said.
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