The Japanese Connections students of 2016 embarked upon their journey on April 4 with expectations past the stratosphere and somehow, possibly due to the multi-faceted heated toilets or abundance of exotic marine foods, their expectations were exceeded. Upon arriving in the archipelago, the students found themselves in a completely different world.
What better way is there to fend off the encumbering effects of jet-lag than to stay in a top-quality hotel in the center of the largest city in the world? Although the students awoke on the first morning with a vague sense of reality, they were quickly enlivened by Japanese life.
The first week or so involved guided educational trips directly related to each individual student’s project mixed with visits to various museums and historical sites. First, the group went to the street where the famous artist Hokusai allegedly lived and they roamed around looking for their destination. That same day, Simone Hansen guided the group through her project at Keio University, founded by the famous teacher and scholar Fukuzawa Yukichi. After visiting Sengaku-ji, the burial site of the renowned 47 ronin, the Tokugawa museum, where they gained powerful insight on imperial life during the Tokugawa era, and the ninja museum in Iga Ueno that sported a vast array of cool ninja tools and techniques, it was time to explore.
“It’s like the Times Square in Japan. It was overwhelming, yet at the same time breathtaking. It was kind of like the Japan you see in western media. It was great,” participant Devon Mann recalled about her free day in Shibuya. The other students’ experiences were just as great though, and some even more adventurous. Vinny, Pasha, and sensei Joe all spent the day in Ueno where they visited the zoo, flea market, and a bustling carnival scene with some shishka-bobbed pig-tongues in their hands. Enzo visited a family friend and got an insightful look at a day in the life of a Japanese person.
Although the trip had been beyond stellar already, the climax hadn’t even arrived. With only four days left, the students packed their bags to take a ferry ride to a nearby island where they would spend the day interacting with students at a local junior high school. They got to the school, and only a couple hours later they would be screaming “I love you” to the students as they made their departure.
“It was honestly the most touching experience. The connections and friendships we made between the students will be unforgettable and overall the school trip was probably the highlight of the tour,” Thixton noted about the school experience.
Immediately following that seemingly unbeatable experience, the students visited Hiroshima. The day was primarily spent sauntering around the Hiroshima Peace Museum like zombies, completely shocked by the terrors of the city’s struggle. The shift was astronomical. Everyone entered the museum still riding on the high of the day before, and left in a state of deep thinking.
“It was tough because we were faced with humanity’s ability to commit cruelty,” said student Devon Mann.
However, the coordinators of the trip would feel it to be unjust to end the tour on such a somber note, so, onto another ferry — the next stop was Miyajima Island, a massive tourist attraction only 15 minutes from the coast of Hiroshima. Most of the students would agree that the highlight of their trip was spent on this “peaceful,” “amazing,” and “heavenly” island. The first taste that the they got was of the beautiful natural scenery, which, from the foothills of the mountain, seemed to just spill out of the ground. The majority of the students rode on the scenic chairway that brought them to a spectacular view of the coast while another smaller group decided to expend pent-up energy on a run up the mountain to an equally amazing panorama.
That night, the group went down to the traditional-style onsens — hot-spring baths — where they relaxed and let the whole trip soak in. Immediately following that was the very traditional dinner meal. The students wore the yukata with toe-socks and slippers and sat down on the tatami-mat floor to begin their meal. The course was long and alien to most students, including oysters, eel, codfish eggs, octopus, calamari, and many more foods. After a belly-busting meal, the students took a night walk to the Torii gate on the beach of Miyajima. Afterwards, there was only one thing that the students wanted to do: sleep on the ground in their rooms traditionally. So they did.
The flight back was a mixture of emotions. There was happiness due to a longing for home, sadness due to a wishing of extra time in the country, even anger because of the uncomfortable sleeping environment on the plane. Most of all though, students came back with an understanding, not only of the country that they had just visited, but of themselves. Kramer longingly recounts his recent self-understanding that immediately got echoed by the rest of the group: “the whole trip and the country in general was so eye-opening. I felt like coming back home I was a more open-minded and understanding person, and I think that I have a much firmer grasp on who I really am.”