Touching get well gesture with 1,000 origami birds from Japan deepens the bond with Conwy

Conwy Castle and the Himeji Castle, Japan; Cllr Bill Chapman received 1,000 origami cranes from Japan which is an ancient custom they have to wish someone a full recovery. Pictured are Jim Jones from North Wales tourism and Cllr Bill Chapman. Picture Mandy Jones

A former Mayor of Conwy who is battling cancer was deeply touched by an extraordinary get well gesture by the town’s new tourism partners in Japan who sent him 1.000 origami paper birds.

Cllr Bill Chapman is among seven delegates travelling to Japan to witness the historic twinning of Conwy Castle with the ancient Himeji Castle in Japan, which featured in the James Bond movies, You Only Live Twice.

The special ceremony sealing the unique partnership between the two communities will be held at the remarkable five-storey wooden castle in Himeji on October 29, coinciding with the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

The twinning has come about because North Wales Tourism has been forging close links with the Japanese tourism industry and it’s already led to an extra 4.400 visitors from the Land of the Rising Sun coming here on holiday.

Between them they have boosted the local economy by spending an estimated £4.4 million while they were in the region.

Bill, 68, who as a town councillor has played a key role in efforts to strengthen cultural and educational ties and promote tourism around the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, was diagnosed with lung cancer in May and is receiving chemotherapy at Ysbyty Gwynedd in Bangor.

Upon hearing the news, Himeji cultural leaders initiated an ancient Japanese custom called ‘Senbazuru’ involving the collective folding of the origami cranes.

The crane in Japan is regarded as a holy creature and it is tradition to send a thousand of them, sewn together, to somebody suffering serious illness as a special prayer for their recovery.

Legend has it that whoever receives the cranes will be healed.

Bill, who was a guest of Himeji Mayor Toshikatsu Iwami and Himeji City tourism representatives in Japan earlier this year, said it was one of the kindest and most compassionate gestures he had ever experienced – and believes it may well be helping him to get better.

“I’m not superstitious at all but since I’ve received them I’ve had results back to say the tumour is shrinking,” said Bill, who lives with his wife of 47 years, Pat, in Deganwy.

“Originally, I told one of my contacts in Japan that I had this affliction and that I wasn’t sure about my ability to travel in October. I wasn’t angling for sympathy at all but he must have taken it upon himself, with eight of his colleagues, to fold the cranes and send them to me.

“The parcel arrived at my house unexpectedly. I was absolutely delighted.

“It was very poignant and I was deeply touched – I’ve never received anything like it in my life.

“They enclosed a photograph of them making them all and wrote me a letter in the international language Esperanto expressing their get well messages and how they hoped to see me soon.

“It just shows you how hospitable and generous the Japanese are. My tumour has shrunk as a result of the treatment but maybe also as a result of the cranes from Japan,” he said.

“I’m now into my fifth cycle of chemotherapy. I have one more and then maybe some radiotherapy later on but I have permission from my consultant to travel to Japan and I’m responding very well to treatment.”

Bill will travel with council and tourism colleagues to Japan for the second stage of the historic twinning project, which is thought to be the first of its kind in the UK.

During the visit, which is funded by the Trinity Foundation Programme in Bangor, a Co-operation Agreement will be signed as part of the ceremony at Himeji Castle, which will see a Japanese quartet singing the countries’ respective national anthems as well as the famous Welsh hymn, Calon Lân.

Last summer, delegates from Japan including Himeji Mayor Toshikatsu Iwami joined their North Wales counterparts to sign a Memorandum of Understanding at Conwy’s Guildhall during a four-day tour which saw Conwy Castle bedecked with Japanese and Welsh flags.

The blossoming new partnership between the two destinations has already increased visitor numbers to North Wales from Japan, with 4,400 of them coming via travel agencies that have not previously featured North Wales on their itineraries.

North Wales Tourism, which has more than 1,500 members, has been working closely with the Japanese Association of Travel Agents (JATA) to promote the region.

The ancient walled town of Conwy, with its World Heritage Site castle and walls, was selected by JATA in 2015 as one of the ’30 Most Beautiful Places in Europe’ – and was the only place in the UK to make it on to the list.

In 2018, the team also submitted an application for North Wales to be included in one of the 20 ‘Most Beautiful Roads in Europe’ and was successful.

In addition, JATA named the A55 ‘The Road of Castles in Wonderland’ with Conwy at the centre of the promotion of the and as a result 2016/17 saw an 83.3 per cent increase in Japanese visitors to North Wales, especially attracting ‘older cultural explorers’ and ‘scenic explorers’.

Representatives are now exploring plans to expand educational and conservation links and increase the opportunities to study both cultures and learn more about the history and natural heritage of the two communities.

Delegates from Himeji, including their new Mayor Hideyasu Kiyomoto, will be paying a return visit to Conwy in early November.

Jim Jones, managing director of North Wales Tourism who has been instrumental in bringing the twinning agreement to fruition, said: “It didn’t take long to realise the huge opportunities that we are generating from the Japanese tourism and business market. You only have to take a look at the fantastic work that the Welsh Rugby Union have been doing to see the potential of promoting Wales in Japan.

“Over the last four years a considerable amount of work has been undertaken to bring the Japanese visitor market to North Wales, activity that has successfully seen a rapid increase of Japanese tourists in North Wales, especially in Conwy.

“Japanese tourists are a high-spending visitor group, but along with the economic benefits, our relationships with them will bring tremendous cultural links too.

“This project is to build on that momentum, to further increase the number of Japanese visitors to Conwy and North Wales.”

Goronwy Edwards, Mayor of Conwy, added: “I would like to say as the current Mayor of Conwy how much I appreciate the hard work and commitment my fellow town councillor Bill Chapman has given to developing this exciting and valuable project to build on the growing interest from our Japanese visitors to expand both our cultural, educational and economic development going forward.”

Emiko Corney, the Japanese Ambassador to North Wales Tourism who lives in Betws y Coed,  said: “The twinning of Himeji and Conwy castles presents wonderful opportunities to develop relationships both cultural and business activities.

“I foresee student educational and sport exchange visits. Of course, we will promote each location as fantastic tourist destinations. I am really excited about our future together and developing tourist, cultural and business strategies.’