Mr. Robert Harris
Frank C. Whiteley Elementary School, Community Consolidated School District 15
Ever since I got back from Japan in June, everyone keeps asking me how it was and did I enjoy it. As I reflect, I keep having to tell them that it was absolutely one of the best experiences of my life.
If you would have asked me if I wanted to go to Japan four years ago, I probably would have said no thank you. However, since becoming the Principal at Frank C. Whiteley Elementary School and witnessing first hand all of the Japanese families moving in and joining our school, I have wanted to see where they are coming from, both in culture and in education.
It is an eye opening experience going to another country and experiencing another culture, especially Japan. Each day I was amazed watching and learning about the culture. The one word that describes what I saw in Japan was HARMONY.
The whole experience started at O’Hare airport where my two traveling companions, Ellen and Akemi, were greeted by Tetsuro Mitani and a representative of ANA and escorted to the executive lounge to await our plane. It was a wonderful start to this adventure we were going to take together. This also gave us a chance to get to know each other a little bit since we had all only met once. I was very lucky and fortunate to receive this gift of taking this wonderful tour of Japan, but I was also lucky and fortunate to have met and traveled with these two fellow educators. We then took the longest plane ride of my life, but it actually went really fast, like the rest of the trip. We arrived at Narita Airport and we were immediately greeted by a friendly gentleman who escorted us to our bus to the Shinagawa Hotel in Tokyo. Just on the bus ride to Tokyo, you noticed the harmony of the busy roads and congestion – everyone working together to get where they are going in a smooth and functional way. When we arrived at the hotel, we were able to relax and get ready for the next day.
The next morning, we were able to have breakfast with others and get to know each other a little better. The whole group was made up of 28 educators from around the US and Belgium. We then walked across the street to meet for our Orientation meeting. Just the walk over you saw thousands of people moving in harmony to get to their location, never bumping into each other or being rude to one another, unlike what we see in the states. At the meeting we were greeted by many people from IEJ who we would see and guide us through our tour of Japan. We also got to know others who we would team up with at the end of our adventure and have a wrap up meeting before we left Japan. The IEJ reps that we met at the meeting set the tone for the whole experience. They were all so kind and giving to us, and always so friendly. I have told everyone that has asked about the trip, that that was one thing that I did not expect. We were honestly treated like royalty the whole time we were there. We then all boarded a bus and visited our first school, Hiroo Gakuen Junior and Senior High School in Tokyo. This was an amazing first school to visit. Beautiful and new looking and the students and staff were all so welcoming and we were able to observe them in the classroom setting. A lot of the teachers and students were speaking English most of the time, which surprised most of us, however it was an international school. We then had an opportunity to talk to teachers and several students who answered any questions that we had for them.
The rest of the day we had on our own to explore the Shibuya area. We saw the busiest intersection in the world, and again, the simple word of harmony. Nobody crosses the intersections without the lights turning green – ever. The amount of people moving together harmoniously made me wish America was more like that.
The next day we ventured to one of my favorite experiences, the Tachiai Elementary School. We were greeted by the principal and several others where we had to remove our shoes for the first time as a group and they had slippers for all of us to wear. The whole school then greeted us all outside, showing us so much respect and friendliness. We were able to meet our classrooms that we were going to have lunch with. They asked us questions and we tried to answer the best way we could. This was the first time I felt the frustration of trying to communicate with others that did not speak the same language as me. It made me remember what my families and students go through when they first come to my school in Hoffman Estates. This was also where many of our teachers were able to do a “demo” lesson and teach to the classrooms of students and not knowing the language. We were all exhausted after the lessons, because it was so much work trying to get your point across to students who did not speak English. Very eye opening again. We then were invited to have lunch with the students in their classrooms. As soon as the bell went off for lunch, harmony struck again. All the students and the teacher moved their desks to form little pods to eat from. They all brought out their placemats and eating utensils and moved flawlessly. Then the food was brought in where four students had put on white outfits and began to dish up their food everyone was going to eat and distribute it to all of the students. Nobody ate until everyone had their food, and there was a lot of food for everyone. They all then said a saying together and then everyone ate their food. One thing I was amazed by was that everyone ate everything except myself and Ellen, we just could not finish all of it. We were able to talk to the students while we ate and got to see how they interact with each other. The teacher also ate in the classroom with the students, which I would never see in our schools in the US.
That evening we went to have our Kimono wearing experience which I was curious about. Again, we were treated like royalty by everyone at Suzunoya. They had a team of people dressing us all up in beautiful Kimonos. It made everyone feel special and we all knew we were given a gift just to wear one, even for a little while.
The next day we transferred to Hiroshima by the Shinkansen (bullet train). This was a moving and memorable day for everyone. We were given a tour of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and museum. We were then given the opportunity to hear a lecture about the bombing from Mr. Koji Matsuo, who was alive when it was dropped. I went away from this experience of seeing all of the damage that went on there, and not that long ago. It made me feel bad to be an American. The devastation was just unbelievable. It was something that I will never forget seeing and I will now try to be as peaceful as possible to the rest of the world.
The next day we visited the Motomachi Elementary School which was located in “the projects” of Hiroshima. The principal and staff were awesome! They had such great attitudes for their school and for their students who had to deal with things that others did not have to deal with. This principal was unique in the fact that he had been there, I think, for well over 10 years at the same school. We found out that most all principals and teachers do not stay at a school for more than 4 to 5 years before they move on to another school. I am not sure this is a great idea, but it works for them. We then took a bus and ferry to the island of Miyajima. What a great experience. We were escorted to a restaurant where we were given one of the best meal of my life. It was a superb Japanese meal that had many courses and it was all written out so we would know exactly what we were eating and when. It was one meal I will never forget. We then toured the island, which was just breathtaking. We then went back to our hotel and had the night off to ourselves. Many of us went out for sushi and were joined by Mr. Hattori, one of our main guides on the trip. He was also one of the nicest and friendliest men I have ever met in my life. He took us to the Kyoto train station, which was one of the most amazing structures I have ever seen. Over seven stories of open air escalators and shops. Many of us then went out for a little night life and enjoyed each other and the people of Kyoto.
The next day we had on our own to tour Kyoto. This was a great experience for all of us, all doing different things, and yet running into each other on many of our adventures. Akemi and Ellen and I met up with others from Michigan and toured the Bamboo forest and also hiked up a mountain to see the monkeys and a beautiful view of Kyoto. Having the time to tour this beautiful city and move about, not knowing the language and still getting to where we needed to go and buy different things was extremely memorable.
One thing that I found out about Japanese people as a whole, is that they are always thinking about WE and not about I or ME. They stop to help out people like us all of the time. To guide us through the train station or walk several blocks with some of us, just to show us how to get somewhere. These types of stories were told by all of us in our large group. All of us experienced it in one way or another. The people make this country great.
The next day was a whirlwind for all of us. This was the day we were going to meet our host families and stay with them for two nights. All of us were very nervous about this part of the trip. However, we were again treated like royalty and were given tours of the Horyuji Temple and the Todaiji Temple. They were both incredible sights of wonder and amazement. The architecture and craftsmanship was mind blowing for all of us. Of course we were given amazing guides for both temples. However, when we visited the Todaiji temple, we were met by one of the monks and given private access to the back of the temple for a talk which he gave about the temple and its history. We were then escorted inside and given a private tour or the extremely large Buddha that takes up most of the largest wooden structure in the world. Truly breathtaking.
We then split up our group to go to either Nara or Ikaruga to meet our host families. I was in the group that went to Ikaruga where we were greeted by many people of the community. It felt like we were heads of state greeting their town. They made us feel again – like royalty. They had a drum group perform and also taught us how to play them. It was there that I met the mom of my host family. She did not speak much English, so it was tough to show my appreciation for her and her family at that time. She drove me in her little car to her home not too far away from the school where we were greeted by everyone. I was then greeted by the whole family.
The family was made up of Dad, Mom, two girls, and a little boy. The house was small, but it had three bedrooms, a kitchen and a beautiful bathroom. Everything had its purpose in the house and everything was put away in the main room, where everyone usually hung out. Again harmony was found in the home. Everyone helped getting ready for the meal. They had a hibachi steak meal planned for me and it was incredible. It was tough to communicate for awhile until the dad and I got our phone out and used Voice Tra to help translate what we were trying to talk about. We were all a bit nervous. We ate together outside in the open garage around the table that they always put away for more space. They all sat on the floor, but provided me a chair. We ate and drank sake and enjoyed getting to know each other. I slept in a room by myself on the floor. I found out later that the family all slept on the floor in the room that I had, except for the dad, he had his own room. The next day we went for a walk and they showed me a temple in their town that they were very proud of. We then went out to eat and then went to an onsen, a public hot water spring where they all swim naked in separate areas for boys and girls . This was a very new experience for me. It was very weird at first for me, but it seemed very normal for all of them and they enjoyed it as a family. We then went back and played games with the kids. The next day, we had a wonderful breakfast that everyone helped prepare. I was able to see the kids off to school on that Monday. It was interesting to see them in their school uniforms. Overall, it was an amazingly positive experience that I will never forget. Seeing how the family unit works together to accomplish things. There was also so much laughter and love shared in that little space.
That same day after saying goodbye to our host families, we visited Ikaruga East Elementary School. We were greeted by the principal and also the superintendent. We were able to visit classrooms again. Every school we visited was a little bit different, and yet the same. It was so nice to be able to see how the teachers taught and what was expected of the students. One thing that was a surprise to all of us, was the lack of technology that we saw in all of the schools, except for the international school which we saw at the beginning of our trip. I thought that I would see a lot of technology used, however, that was not the case. We then all met up as a large group again and shared a buffet lunch and shared stories of our home stays. Everyone’s story was different, yet everyone had an incredible experience. We all then took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo to again stay at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel. I was able to meet up with a fellow coworker there and she took several of us out to a wonderful Japanese meal called Shabu Shabu.
The following day was a day to tour Tokyo on our own. I had Yuko Nakagawa there, my co worker from Hoffman Estates, to guide me and several others around Tokyo to see the fish market and tour downtown Tokyo. Again, we saw so many versions of Harmony. People helping each other out, people getting in and out of the trains so flawlessly, never seeing any trash on the streets or sidewalks, traffic moving so smoothly, and the general politeness of everyone.
The final day of our trip together was spent talking with each other about our common tours, yet different experiences. We were then given the opportunity to have a final meeting where we had our wrap up meeting. Each group was given the opportunity to get up and talk about what they saw in Japan that meant something to them. We then had a final meal together where we were given certificates by members of IEJ and also say our goodbye’s to all of our tour guides. They were all so incredible and loving. We could not have asked for better people to show us their country. We celebrated as a whole group and it was sad to see everyone leave for the night knowing we would not see many of them ever again. For a group that we had only met for the first time ten days earlier, we all grew very close and shared an incredible experience together.
I have gained a new respect and admiration for Japan and the Japanese people as a whole, that I will be bringing back to my school at Whiteley. Not only to help my new Japanese students and families assimilate to the US, but also to our own staff and students. I want them to realize that through HARMONY and working together – so much more can be accomplished.