[From August Issue 2015]
Wife of the Ambassador of the Republic of Latvia
Located in Northern Europe, the Baltic state of Latvia gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Mrs. Dace PENKE has been living in Tokyo since her husband Mr. Normans PENKE was stationed to Japan on September 2013 as the Ambassador of Latvia. She studied architecture at university and finds Tokyo’s combination of traditional and modern very interesting.
When she has time, she goes to exhibitions at galleries, and attends craft classes and workshops. She is particularly impressed with the transportation system in Tokyo. “I can go anywhere by train, subway, and bus. It is amazing! However, the only challenge for me is the language barrier as I’ve found that not so many Japanese speak English. Learning Japanese is not an easy task, but I try to do my best,” she says.
So many things have impressed her in Japan. For example, the fresh and delicious Japanese food; sushi and sashimi are her favorite dishes. She talked about a special experience at a traditional Japanese restaurant in Kagurazaka where she ate Japanese kaiseki.
“The attention to detail, the presentation of the food, the seasonal and local food, the food textures, the service, and so on, is amazing. I saw a geisha performance for the first time and I really felt the hospitality of the Japanese in this traditional setting. Japanese hospitality is something we want to introduce in my country. Japan’s old traditions, like wearing kimono, tea ceremony, traditional crafts, and its many religious ceremonies, are still alive. I hope that these traditions will be practiced for many years to come. One of the strengths of the Japanese people is the way they keep traditions alive,” she says.
Speaking of Latvia, the four cornerstones of the Latvian economy are agriculture, chemical industries, logistics, and woodworking. Other prominent sectors include textiles, food processing, machine production, and green technologies. Innovations made in Latvia are highly appreciated by world markets. Recently Latvia is focusing on design.
“The Latvian Embassy in Japan just organized the Latvian design and art week in Minami Aoyama at the gallery Athalie and it was very successful. Art and design traditions are very strong in Latvia; rooted in traditional craftsmanship they also draw on contemporary global trends. Many young Latvian designers that have been studying abroad are now coming back to Latvia and expressing their creativity in amazing ways. I really want to promote such things to Japan,” says Mrs. Penke.
“The most important national festival of the year is Jani (Summer Solstice Festival). On this day the cities empty and every civil servant and bank clerk shows their pagan side. It started out as an ancient fertility festival celebrated after sowing the crops and before gathering the harvest. Families get together in their countryside homes. They make bouquets and wreaths out of herbs, flowers, and leaves. Women traditionally wear flower wreaths, while men have theirs made of oak leaves or twigs.”
“The livestock and fences are adorned with wreaths. Gates and rooms are decorated with birch, oak, and rowan branches. Latvians sing, dance, eat and are merry during Jani. Cheese with caraway seeds, meat patties, and beer are a must for every table. People light bonfires and celebrate until the sunrise. Romantic couples leave the crowds to look for the ‘flower of the fern,’ which is alleged to bloom only on the night of Jani,” says Mrs. Penke.
“The Latvian folk singing tradition is more than a thousand years old and those folk songs are deeply connected with our spirit. For Latvian people singing and music is not just a form of entertainment, but the core of our identity and one of the most important reasons why Latvia, a small nation, was able to preserve its language and culture for many centuries. These factors also played major role when Latvia first gained independence in 1918 and re-gained it after the collapse of the Soviet union in 1991.”
“These folk song texts are called dainas and come in a format of four short lines. Dainas can be sung as songs or recited as short poems. About 1.2 million dainas with 300,000 different melodies have been identified. Our dainas have been included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World list. Being brief forms of expression dainas and haiku have something in common,” she says.
“The musical relationship between Japan and Latvia is very active. “More than ten years ago the Latvia Japan Music Association was established by Japanese people who had visited Latvia and been impressed by Latvia and its music. One of the most interesting things is that there is a choir called Gaisma (Light), where Japanese men and women from the association sing Latvian songs in the Latvian language.”
“Ms. KATO Tokiko’s song ‘A Million Roses’ became a big hit. This song was composed by the Latvian composer Mr. Raimonds PAULS. Culture is the bridge between nations that reflects that we all share the same core human values. At a basic level we are all the same, with the same aspirations for peace, freedom, and happiness,” says Mrs. Penke.
The people in Latvia appreciate nature. “I recommend that Japanese visit my beautiful country. A must see is the capital city of Riga which has more than 400 Art Nouveau buildings. It has been named as one of the most attractive tourism destinations in the world by leading newspapers. The wonderful old town – old Riga – is 800 years old and is on the UNESCO heritage list.”
“The seaside town, Jurmala, with more than 500 kilometers of pristine white sand beach, is beautiful. If you want to see an old castle, Sigulda has great views of a river and valley. I also recommend Cesis, an 800 year old castle town.”
“It takes about 14 hours from Tokyo to Riga via Helsinki. In Latvia a lot of information is available online and printed material is available for tourists. Every city has a tourist information bureau with maps and clear explanations, mostly in English. There are several companies specializing in attracting tourists to Latvia from Japan. So please come to Latvia,” she says.