Photo/IllutrationParticipants in Let’s Talk over a Cup of Coffee! listen to Yong Peng, left, at the BiVi Tsukuba commercial complex in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, on April 20. (Mikio Kano)

TSUKUBA, Ibaraki Prefecture--Everywhere one looks these days, coffee shops seem to be crammed with solitary computer users.

But an event here offers an oasis to those who crave the lively conversation that once flowed in the coffeehouse.

Let’s Talk over a Cup of Coffee! offers locals a chance to meet people from all sorts of countries living in Tsukuba.

On the third Saturday of each month, foreigners in the area introduce the culture and history of their homelands to local residents over cups of coffee or tea.

Ayane Shinohara, 15, who joined the session on April 20, said it was her first time to take part.

“I learned a lot. I found out stuff about Malaysia I couldn't get from just searching online,” Shinohara said.

The first-year student at the Ibaraki Prefecture-run Takezono High School heard about Malaysia from a teacher at her school who once taught Japanese in the country.

Participants have soaked up insightful tips on about 30 nations so far at the sessions, which were set up two years ago as an opportunity for those who rarely communicate with people from outside Japan to deepen their understanding of other countries.

About 50 people attended the April 20 session at the BiVi Tsukuba commercial complex in front of Tsukuba Station.

University student Yong Peng, 21, from Malaysia, spoke in fluent Japanese about her country's climate, culture and political system in the first half of the day's 90-minute session.

Yong is currently a sophomore at the College of International Studies of the University of Tsukuba.

She said Japanese restaurants in Malaysia offer Muslims chicken cutlet as a substitute for “tonkatsu” deep-fried breaded pork cutlet, since they are forbidden to eat pork.

In the last 30 minutes, participants peppered her with questions while sipping Malaysia-made tea that Yong bought.

“Do people there marry people from other races?”

“Can people enjoy alcohol in Malaysia?”

“I'm sometimes asked, ‘Is Malaysia the country of the Merlion?’ though it's wrong,” she said, referring to Singapore's famous statue of a mythical creature with a fish's body and a lion's head that is the city-state's official mascot.

Yong's humor and wry smile earned her laughs from the audience.

The intercultural exchange event, which began in February 2017, marked its 27th session that day.

Many countries in Asia, Africa, and the North and South Americas have been introduced in the sessions.

In addition to non-Japanese college students, researchers and international school students, Japanese lecturers also speak about countries they are knowledgeable about.

In Tsukuba, there were 9,542 foreign residents from 132 nations and regions, as of March 1, accounting for 4.07 percent of its total population of 234,171.

Takayuki Nakamura, a senior official of the Tsukuba International Association, which organized the event, explained the significance of the sessions.

“Though many foreign residents who work at research institutes live here as there are a lot of such institutes, the number of foreigners that aren't students or researchers has been rising recently,” he said. “We'll continue our efforts to nurture mutual understanding.”