How a Japanese princess became a Camosun student

Questions about Victoria’s bus routes?

Ask Her Imperial Highness Princess Ayako of Takamado, of Japan.

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Ayako, as the 26-year-old is known for short, learned the hard way as an English-language student at Camosun College in 2013.

Her host, Geoff Wilmshurst, took her to the wrong bus stop on one of her first days, not being a regular transit user himself. They waited and waited, until a passing driver set them right.

“The good news about the story is Ayako became an extremely good bus user. And today, if you ever need directions on how to use the bus system in Victoria, Princess Ayako is the person to talk to,” said Wilmshurst, who is also Camosun’s vice-president of partnerships.

Ayako was back in Victoria Monday for a quick visit with old friends after a few days in Alberta where she was on official business, re-dedicating a Japanese garden in Lethbridge and attending the Calgary Stampede.

She is second cousin to the reigning emperor, the youngest daughter of Princess Hisako of Takamado and the late Prince Takamado — who also attended a Canadian school in his day, as a Queen’s University alumnus.

Ayako claims she isn’t “popular” enough to get recognized in Tokyo, although her English-as-a-second-language teachers said fellow Japanese students knew who she was and began adjusting their grammar to acknowledge her stature.

There were subtle security measures while she studied in Victoria, but otherwise, she was like any other student, volunteering as a stagehand for the talent show and sometimes skipping homework.

At the college Monday morning, about 20 Camosun staff and members of Ayako’s entourage arrived to watch her receive the Camosun President’s Award for International Partnership.

She moved down the line of familiar faces, shaking hands with some, bowing to others and giving still others warm hugs. Looking across the room, she chirped with glee to see her former ESL teacher Diana Kohl and began tearing up.

“I love her, because she always gave me confidence, like, ‘you are great,’ ” Ayako said.

Ayako is a woman of few words and still shy using English. But she’s happy to express fondness for Victoria — a place she says is “No. 1” in her books.

She attended Josai International University in Japan, which is a sister school to Camosun. First, she came to Victoria on two short study visits, before moving here for one year in September 2013 to practise her English, then returning the next year for independent studies.

She now works as a researcher of social welfare at Josai, in addition to occasional royal duties such as attending ceremonies and receptions.

On Monday, she exchanged big hugs with Geoff’s wife, Branka Wilmshurst, who she said was like a sister, when she lived with the couple.

“We learned a lot from each other,” Branka said.

“Ayako is a very modest lady. … It was not what people would expect when you host a royal member,” she said.

Geoff and Branka said they’re waiting for Ayako to get married, so they can attend her wedding in Japan and then see her again, when she inevitably honeymoons in Victoria.

Ayako seems keen on the idea.

“I want to live here forever,” she said.

It’s an option, she said, “if I can have a husband who can come or who can buy a house here.”

Camosun was one of her last stops before flying out this week.

Her final stop, she said, would be Tim Hortons for a hot chocolate.

asmart@timescolonist.com

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