November 5, 2002
Greetings to all,
I have been home now close to 2 weeks. I have started sleeping through the night and gone back to work. I have thought on this experience of a lifetime almost every day trying to figure out the highlight of this trip and how to share with you as a closing. I have come to the conclusion that it can't be done as highlights were a daily occurrence. I will touch on the top contenders.
The time at the ryokan or traditional Japanese inn was superb. It came at the end of our stay in Yokote. We were expecting, I believe, a small bed and breakfast type facility. What we came into was a 5 story hotel with a home touch. We were greeted in the lobby by staff with green tea for us. We were ushered upstairs to our rooms and shown how to dress in the yukatas or cotton kimonos. Our room was a tatami room with a low table and pillows in the center. Our group of 20 met downstairs in our dining room for a meal of a lifetime. Blowfish, raw squid, eel, crab, sashimi(spelling?), sushi, lotus root, chrysanthemum, fish, and so much more. We followed up the meal with the traditional Japanese bath or onsen. Very different for us as we are so private in our personal cleaning. Yet I am so glad I was a part of it. I can see why the Japanese believe so strongly in the power of a good bath. Once we were clean head to toe, we had three baths to choose from, 2 were outside. It really was blis.
The Japanese themselves are such good souls. I believe it may have been Sue that said since it is such a crowded country that the Japanese are very respectful of each other's privacy and space yet will bend over backwards to help even despite any language barrier. I recall the man at the fish market who was obviously headed in the other direction. One person in our group stopped him and with his Japanese guidebook in hand was able to ask the man where the nearest subway station was to us. That man abandoned his errand, turned around and personally walked us to the entrance. We were so impressed. I remember taking an express train for the first (and only time). A lady waiting in the area for the same train helped me understand there was a specific place to line up then gestured for me to wait when the train pulled in as she was one of several there who had to board the train to clean it. There may have been a language barrier there but the goodwill and kindness was plentiful. I loved that the ambulances announce themselves on a loudspeaker as they approached intersections essentially saying, "Excuse me, may we come through?" Cars honking were rare as that is impolite. Signs on freeways remind drivers that they are driving through residential areas where people may be sleeping so please be quiet. I think the most powerful incident for me involved my own family indirectly but requires some background information. This summer my Mom and Dad were in Arizona taking care of my Dad's older brother, Bill, and Bill's wife, Ginger. Bill had been given just months to live in May and Ginger (who was Japanese), who had had a brain aneurysm maybe 10 years ago, was not doing well either. This August my aunt passed away and was buried on a Saturday. The next day my uncle passed away. This made my trip to Japan even more meaningful. My uncle had lived in Japan for 17+ years and had met and married my aunt there. I was even going with my group to the area of my aunt's mother - Yokote. I knew this trip would perhaps offer a little bit of insight in the reasons my uncle fell in love with the country and my aunt. Before I left, my Dad gave me the address of one of Ginger's sisters who lives outside of Tokyo. A few days after I arrived, I was able to get the phone number. I had never met this woman much less spoken to her. She would probably never even know Bill and Ginger's niece had come through Tokyo. I just felt, though, it was the right thing to do - to pay my respects in honor of Ginger and Bill. So, during lunch, I got a Fulbright staff member (FMFer) to one side and explained my situation and why I wanted to call. She got into the phone booth with me, made the call, then spoke to Ginger's sister for a few moments. Then she handed the phone to me. I spoke in English about the fond memories I will always have of Ginger and Bill and the special place they will both always hold in my heart. Ginger's sister spoke in Japanese then the FMFer took the phone and translated for us both. This went on for maybe 15 minutes. As the call came to a close, I watched this staff member bow repeatedly to the phone out of respect to an elder. Nobody was watching but me. It was so sweet while speaking so powerfully about the culture of the Japanese and the high honor they hold their elders. What an emotional and wonderful moment for me.
No way can I forget the opportunity to visit the Temari Museum. I made my way through the subway with the help of a local friend from the board of education. With Sue's excellent directions found at Ginny's site and the map that was with it, we made our way through the neighborhood to the museum. The lady behind the counter seemed delighted to see an American visiting. We spent a few moments in the lobby as my friend translated a letter Ginny had sent. We then proceeded to the back rooms. I was in heaven. The craftsmanship was beautiful! I went over every showcase two or three times then spent time looking at the books. I ended up buying a pattern book, v-rulers, and a Temari-of course. Look at the picture I sent through Ginny and posted at her site (http://www.temarikai.com/accompblairjapan.html). It is the dark blue one on the left and in the back with pink flowers all over it. Time at the museum went by just too quickly.
The subways were so overwhelming at first, especially living in a town of 14,000. I think we have one cab service with maybe a "fleet" of 3 or 4 cabs. I often went out in Tokyo with small groups and allowed others to take the lead. I was observant, though, soaking in the details and my surroundings. I picked up how to use the token machine and where I can find help to figure out what train to take. It all came together the day I went to my sister school in Ichihara about an hour and a half outside of Tokyo in the next prefecture - Chiba. I did it all on my own. I was scheduled to go with 3 other teachers who all backed out on me as they were tired. So off I went. I took a subway to Shinjuku, transferred to another line to Tokyo Station (a REALLY big station), went to the other end of that station and found my express connection to Soga in Chiba. On my way back, I forged into the crowd, found my platforms with no problem, and stepped onto the subway with the confidence of a native and barely a reassuring glance at the signs. I was puffed up that evening!
The children, oh - the children! They are so beautiful anywhere
in the world. The schools we visited were all so excited to have us. The
school wide assemblies in our honor were wonderful. The open door policy
allowed us to explore and learn. The freedom to interact was just delightful.
We watched students roam unsupervised on the playground during recess yet
they knew their place and where they had to go when the bell rang. One of
our teachers commented, "Our kids would have been in the next county by now."
We watched students serve lunches to the peers and clean up after. We watched
students clean their rooms, the hallways, the bathrooms, etc. They took ownership
in their school and it shined! We understood the students had a hand in the
beautiful grounds, flowers everywhere. I watched students create from their
imagination in art class, not follow a dictated project. I participated in
a kite club and observed a tea ceremony club, an ikebana club, an ancient
archery club ...
My host family were super. My host dad is a grocery store "baron" and took me on a tour of one of them. He had many questions about our own. He had visited some in the Dallas area but wanted to know more. He drove me anywhere and everywhere. He had made arrangements for me to go to a wedding rental place and try on gorgeous kimonos. He gave me and his daughter free reign in a crafts store where I made a Japanese stamp for my classroom - the character for congratulations - and created some colorful chopsticks. My host sister is in college yet was home for the time I was there. She was my translator and was as sweet as could be. My host mother I only saw briefly when she came home to cook dinner then breakfast the next morning before she went back to work. Dinner was a wonderful time with dictionaries and gestures in strong use. My family put me at the head of the table and gave me the best chopsticks while everyone else appeared to be using the "everydays". I even .
The ability to bring home Japan to my students through pictures and items was crucial for me. I made sure to get pictures of many things they would recognize from their own culture (a yield sign, Circle K, etc.). So many students really have no concept of the world outside their own backyard. That was one reason I applied because as a teacher, I am a role model. Students can learn from me that boys and girls across the world may look different but they are similar in so many ways. It has been absolutely delightful to watch my students react to the news that many Japanese children wear clothes like their own, that some have their own cell phones that they use primarily for games, that they read comic books like you but the books are as thick as "Harry Potter". These are the same students that believed everyone in Japan wore kimonos everyday and that Mrs. Heald was driving to Japan.
I have mentioned the food but I will mention it again. I was a bit apprehensive about it after being told not to ask what it is until after I ate it. It was fantastic, though, from start to finish. I think I had red meat maybe one time and I love a good steak. I even ate sea urchin. My food highlight, though, will have to be the abalone that was crawling on my plate as I sat down. Yes, it got cooked before I ate it. It was delicious too.
Learning from my peers on the tour and from Japanese educators was great. I attended lectures on aspects of Japanese education given by Japanese leaders in the field. I met with Japanese teachers and administrators and discussed common educational issues found on both sides of the Pacific. I connected with educators from all over the United States. Talk about networking! I have hooked up with several gifted education teachers from around the US and hope to work with some to present about this experience at the National Gifted Education Conference next year.
The Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program, funded by the Japanese government, is to be commended for the highly organized way they took care of us. Someone was always there for us every step of the way. They made us feel at home and treated us like royalty. They truly made this trip the experience of a lifetime. Many may believe that this trip is a vacation. I think it may be but ONLY in the sense of being able to travel to someplace new. It is physically demanding yet emotionally gratifying. My days were full yet many evenings were open to exploration. I kept thinking I needed to go to bed many nights but then adventure won out as this was Japan and when was I going to be able to do this again?!
I so highly recommend this trip to any educator or educational administrator. Participation in the program hinges on a plan that you want to implement in your system and at your school. You will bring so much back, though, physically and emotionally, that your enthusiasm in implementing your plan will carry you through. Read more about the Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program at http://www.iie.org/ and email me if I can help in anyway.
Ginny, thanks for broadcasting my trip and making me a part of your website. I hope that temarikai members have enjoyed living through me in these entries. I know I have enjoyed bringng it to them all. (Ginny's note to Blair- thank YOU for sharing this all with us - it's the experience of a lifetime and for those of us that can only dream about it you've made it seem like we were with you..... I'm honored to have the opportunity to make your story and photos a part of the site for all to see and learn from.)
All the best,
Blair "now happily back to normal" in Fairhope, Alabama
Forgot to mention - some of you had not heard of Flat Stanley who traveled with me to Japan. This is a character in a children's book of the same name. A bulletin board falls on Stanley and he becomes flat. This turns out to be very interesting as Stanley gets rolled up, mailed, and flown like a kite. He even gets to stop crime. Many teachers have a Flat Stanley for each student who, through family connections, has their Stanley flown all over the place by the end of the school year. The unit offers great writing opportunities, geography skills, and much more. Make a little better sense now?
Here are representative pics of the Japanese students - elementary, junior high and high school...