Language Students Visit Japan – Group hones skills, experiences local culture and traditions

Buddhist temple in Kyoto; the inside is plated with gold

Buddhist temple in Kyoto; the inside is plated with gold

A peaceful Zen garden pictured on the front cover of a language textbook might lead to daydreaming about being there. For 19 GCC students of Japanese language, that dream sprung to life in May, when they found themselves contemplating that very garden – the stone garden of Ryoan-ji – in person.

The students, accompanied by Japanese language instructors Tomomi Hayashi and Shigeko Toyota, co-directors of the GCC Japanese-language program, travelled to Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Hiroshima and Miyajima on a six-day study trip.

The trip was made possible by a generous grant from the Japan Foundation’s Japan-American Collegiate Exchange Travel Program.

It was the fulfillment of a dream for Shigeko Toyota, who has taught Japanese language at a public high school and Arizona community colleges for 25 years. “Being in Arizona, my students rarely have a chance to converse with native Japanese speakers, so I was curious to see if they could communicate effectively in various situations.” Mission accomplished!

Getting Ready

Reserving tickets for 21 passengers on the same flight was the first challenge, requiring creative

Itsukushima Shrine and its famous floating Shinto gate

Itsukushima Shrine and its famous floating Shinto gate

routing through Detroit and a two-hour layover before embarking on a 13-hour direct flight to Narita International Airport.

For most of the students, it was their first plane flight, and for some, possibly the first time they had traveled outside of Arizona. Thus, even the smaller details of the journey were eye-opening experiences, never to be forgotten.

A Spectrum of Sights

May proved to be the ideal time for the trip, with the flowers, especially the azaleas and irises, in full bloom. Not a single day of rain marred the visit and tourist areas were uncrowded.

Japanese counterparts helped arrange a fulfilling itinerary, which included lectures and visits to museums, temples and other sites that helped to illustrate the history, language, arts, architecture, culinary traditions and culture of Japan.

The students took in famous temples, tea houses and gardens, traditional shopping districts and modern shopping arcades; participated in a tea ceremony and sampled different teas and marveled at perfectly manicured Japanese gardens.

The itinerary for the group included UNESCO World Heritage sites such as Mt. Fuji, Itsukushima Shrine and its famous floating Shinto gate (considered one of Japan’s three most scenic views) and Hiroshima, where the A-bomb dome is now preserved as the Children’s Peace Monument.

The monument dedicated to Sadako, of Sadako and the Thousand Cranes, was another memorable sight. “In elementary or middle school in America, most students read the story, said GCC student Samantha Bautista. “But actually standing in front of the monument was an emotional experience.”

In Tokyo, the students visited a high-school classroom, where they enjoyed conversational exchanges and officially presented GCC Gaucho T-shirts, water bottles and brochures.

Tokyo also offered wide-ranging opportunities for exploring personal interests, from visiting Tokyo Disneyland, to judo practice in Kodokan.

Japanese high-school students sharing lessons

Japanese high-school students sharing lessons

Happenstance Creates Unforgettable Memories

Unexpected experiences punctuated the scheduled lectures and tours. Students immersed themselves in memorable experiences, starting on their first night in downtown Tokyo, when they stayed at a ryokan (a Japanese inn similar to a bed-and-breakfast) and discovered the pleasures of true ryokan experiences such as:

  • bathing in onsen (hot springs);
  • wearing yukata (casual summer kimono);
  • sleeping on futon mattresses;
  • being served a Japanese style breakfast every morning, with nori, tamagoyaki, misoshiru, and more (some of the more daring students tried natto, or fermented soybeans); and
  • walking out the front door of the hotel to many historical and famous buildings.

Later in the trip, they encountered a Shinto-style wedding ceremony, with bride and groom in traditional wedding attire and participants in montsuki (elaborately decorated black kimono with a family crest).

As they walked through Nara Park, feeding shika senbei (deer cookies) to domesticated deer, they did a double-take when the deer bowed to them, making it seem that even the animals take to heart the Japanese sense of ceremony and politeness.

And who could forget the unexpected glimpse of a sumo wrestler walking down the street?

Food Traditions

Students learn to make big sushi rolls (GCC student Simon Dong and instructor Tomomi Hayashi)

Students learn to make big sushi rolls (GCC student Simon Dong and instructor Tomomi Hayashi)

A home-economics teacher explained the concept of “umami,” taught the group basic Japanese cooking techniques and demonstrated how to make a big sushi roll, Japanese soups and turnip with vinegar sauce.

Throughout the journey, the students sampled traditional Japanese dishes such as tempura, sashimi, udon, katsuo no kakuni, yaki tori, and regional specialties such as momiji manju (maple shaped sweets), kaki (oyster) anago (eel) and Osaka-style okonomiyaki, sometimes compared to an omelette or a pancake and known as “Osaka soul food.” Students liked the okonomiyaki so much they made it a point to have another on their last day in Japan.

Out Among the Local People

Except for two occasions on a chartered bus, the group relied on Japan’s public transportation system:  Skyliner express railway service from the airport, subway, taxis, ferry boat, local trains and Shinkansen (the high-speed “Bullet Train”) to Tokyo. The students were thrilled by the speed and efficiency of the train, from which they enjoyed a glimpse of a snow-covered Mt. Fuji.

In Arizona, most people rely on personal automobiles and are unfamiliar with public

Waiting on a local train.

Waiting on a local train

transportation. Riding on trains and subways with the local people provided opportunities to:

  • see how Japanese people commute and travel on a daily basis;
  • acquire practical knowledge about the various transportation systems;
  • observe different types of conversation: male/female, formal/informal, different age groups, use of keigo and regional differences in dialect;
  • have a sense of being a part of  the community; and
  • to interact and exchange short conversations with native speakers, which increased their confidence and proficiency in speaking Japanese.

Regardless of their competency level in Japanese, all the students tried their best to communicate with the native speakers, boosting their vocabulary and cultural knowledge. They also enjoyed talking to people they met on street, including shop clerks, hotel employees and other tourists, including elementary and middle school students on field trips to cultural sites within their own country.

Modern shopping area in Osaka, where students enjoyed “Osaka soul food”.

Modern shopping area in Osaka, where students enjoyed “Osaka soul food”

Six Days of Learning

Students gained an abundance of knowledge regarding Japanese history, from ancient eras to modern pop culture. They found lessons in the organization and efficiency of modern-day cities like Tokyo and Osaka, where they marveled at the contrast between an ancient castle and the astonishingly futuristic buildings.

Conversely, they cherished contemplative moments in Buddhist temples and quiet communion with nature on an island retreat.

Human Interactions Spark Most Important Lessons

GCC student Brooke Dong celebrated her birthday while on the trip and received a hand-made origami card (Brooke’s photos accompany this article).

GCC student Brooke Dong celebrated her birthday while on the trip and received a hand-made origami card (Brooke’s photos accompany this article)

Every place they went, they were welcomed with gentle kindness and were touched by how humble and polite Japanese people are. They were moved by the hospitality and generosity of real “Edokko.” In one instance, a group of students got lost and a businessman went out of his way to walk with them to their hotel.

At Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, a volunteer guide’s gentle disposition conveyed the true meaning of world peace. Any discomfort these American students might have felt at Hiroshima was quickly eclipsed by central truths:  facilitating mutual understanding and promoting friendship and international cooperation are essential to solve world conflicts.

“We will not be able to forget the term ‘Ichigo Ichie,’ which means a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” said GCC student Kira Lewis.

Horizons Continue to Expand

Upon their return, students were required to submit individual essays and make presentations in their Japanese classes.

Collectively, they expressed renewed determination to study Japanese language and to someday return to this beguiling country. Most have already registered in a Japanese class for fall 2013.

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