Mr. Mark Noltner
4th Grade Teacher
“How was your trip to Japan, Mark?” Naturally I got asked this question many times when I returned to the U.S from my trip with the IEJ (International Educators to Japan). To be honest, it has been difficult to answer that question. Amazing, life-changing, and beautiful are the first words that come to my head, but those words still don’t capture the true essence of my experiences in Japan. Throughout the trip, we said multiple times, “There is no way we can top what just happened.” But lo and behold, something always did. So as I reflect on my trip, these events continually pop into my head as extremely memorable.
Seeing Japanese schools and classrooms was wonderful. We saw three different educational settings; a private school (Hiroo Gakuen) and two traditional public school (Tachiai and the elementary school attached to Nara’s Women’s College). We were greeted at all three schools with open arms, but Tachiai went above and beyond by welcoming us with a chorus and a brass band performance. What a way to start one of our first days in Japan!
We also had the chance to teach two lessons at Tachiai Elementary. Being able to teach Japanese students was great and it gave me an appreciation of how kids from another country learn and interact. The students served lunch to their classmates in the classroom and I sat at their desks with them to eat. Although many didn’t speak english, we shared a lot of laughs.
The elementary school attached to the Nara Women’s College was my favorite school visit since it resembled my classroom and the experiences I try to give my students. They had what was called “Comprehensive Learning Hour” where kids got to explore and create on their own. The principal was very open to discussing this format of education and I took away ideas to implement in my classroom.
The opportunity to live with a Japanese family was an event that I was most looking forward to. It gave me great insight to what life was like in Japan.
My host family was very welcoming. No more than 30 minutes after arriving at their house, the grandfather was playing songs for me on his guitar and showing me his garden. That evening, we lit off fireworks after eating homemade takoyaki for dinner. After all that excitement for the evening, I laid on my mat on the tatami floor and thought about how fortunate I was to be with such a caring family.
With my host family, we also visited Yatadera Temple. Here, we stopped to get some matcha tea in one of the old buildings that overlooked a small garden. As we drank our tea, we watched the kids play while we talked. Sharing this moment with the family is one that I will always remember for its beauty and tranquility.
The family was so wonderful and even though there was some-what of a language barrier, I felt like I was with friends. Each moment with this family holds a special place in my heart.
There was so much Japanese history we experienced. I was in awe at the amazing architecture while learning about how Japan has changed throughout history.
Peace Park and the Hiroshima Memorial Museum was very heart-moving. Being immersed in the area where the bomb detonated, seeing thousands of paper cranes, and reading first-hand accounts of the survivors made me reflect on what we can learn from the past and what my role is as a global citizen.
Todai-Ji in Nara was another great experience. We learned about Buddhism from a monk who then gave us a tour of the temple. Walking into the temple and seeing the massive statue of the buddah was awe-inspiring. It was amazing to hear the hard-work and dedication to building, and rebuilding, this structure over the years.
In addition to these memorable moments, we also got to see other historical places such as The Golden Palace, the grounds of the ancient Nara capital, Miyagima, and Fishimi Inari Shrine.
The schools, my homestay, and the history were just a few of the many experiences that resonated with me. My list could go on to include going to a Tokyo Giants game, hearing a traditional drumming group in Ikaruga, hiking Mt. Takao, dressing as a Samurai, eating amazing Japanese food like okonomiyaki, or simply riding the Tokyo subway.
All of these great experiences culminated to my final thoughts which were even though Japan and the U.S. may share differences and similarities between our cultures, we all have unique stories. We share these stories as nations, communities, family units, and individuals. The common element in all the stories is caring. Caring about our children in schools. Caring about others by helping them out when in need or inviting them into our homes. Caring about our history to try to make the future a better place. This ideal is universal and this experience helped me see that this ideal is held around the world.
An experience like this was once in a lifetime. The organization and attention to detail by the IEJ and JCCC was impeccable. It impacted me in so many ways and I am forever grateful to those who helped plan, organize, and implement all that happened in Japan.