Our welcome home

Our welcome home

This one says it all…

We’ll see you at the trip reunion in May, date and time to be announced shortly!

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Journey’s End

For our final full day in Japan, we took a morning flight to Tokyo, capital of Japan ever since the mid 1800s when the Shogun Tokugawa moved the heart of imperial power from Kyoto to the backwater fishing village of Edo, soon to be transformed into one of the world’s greatest metropoli. Today’s metro Tokyo area is home to a staggering 32 million people, all walking, working, and traveling through an organic maze of skyscrapers, packed neighborhoods, markets and trainways (on, below, and above the ground) that makes Boston seem logically laid out by comparison.

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We drove by the remains of Edo Castle, the current Imperial Palace where today’s Emperor and his wife live, the imposing Sky Tree tower, and the ritzy Ginza, stopping to spend time in the heart of Tokyo’s old city, Asakusa. At the heart of Asakusa lies Senso-Ji temple, dedicated to the female Buddha aspect Kwannon, embodiment of compassion. Senso-Ji is jam packed with worshippers and tourists at all hours of the day, as is the surrounding marketplace where the students found ways to rid themselves of all their remaining yen. 🙂 From sukiyaki lunches to food vendors selling fried sweet potato ice-cream to stores selling katana blades (we didn’t buy any) and used kimono (some of the girls did buy some!), there was always something to see, do, and purchase. For those weary of the material pursuits, some lovely traditional Japanese gardens ringed the area, perfect for escaping the tightly packed masses via a peaceful, contemplative stroll.

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We concluded our study tour of Japan with a visit to the one and only Studio Ghibli, creators of the most famous animated movies in the world, including Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo, and more. Some of the students literally squealed with delight as they clambored through a life-size plush Cat-bus from My Neighbor Totoro, posed with a giant statue of the robots from Laputa, examined original sketchbooks and drafts from animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, ate chili pepper ice cream, watched exclusive, never-released Ghibli short films, and practically bought out the gift shop. For many, this was a magical journey into the cartoon world of their childhood, and two hours seemed to fly by like seconds.

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But fly by they did, as befits the Buddhist concept of impermanence. The Buddha taught that everything is evanescent, and as we gathered for our final meeting at the Tokyo hostel, we started our long journey towards processing the last 12 days, and preparing for the end of this experience and the “re-entry” into our normal lives. For over an hour, the students spoke eloquently and passionately about what they had learned, the personal triumphs they had made in trying new foods, new languages, and new friendships, and thanking one another for moments of kindness and grace during our whirlwind itinerary. They analyzed the differences between their experience of Japan and of the US, and the surprising similarities they found as well.

I enjoined the students to rise to their next challenge, maintaining the relationships they’ve forged on this trip once the hustle and bustle of their everyday busy lives re-asserts itself. Please encourage your son or daughter to keep in email contact with their host families, to consider exploring Japanese language and history through further study, and to consider study abroad opportunities during college and/or a gap year. I am happy to help facilitate future Japan-related projects through my role as sister-school coordinator at CC.

Listening to the students’ testimonies, here and throughout the trip, allowed me to see what has become a very familiar travel experience (this being my eighth or ninth time in Japan) through new eyes, and I thanked the students for helping me to feel all of that “newness” vicariously. I also thanked them for their maturity, for rising to meet the many challenges of the trip, for helping one another out and pushing themselves to grow. I could not be prouder of the work they have done during these past 12 days – they were indeed ideal ambassadors of their school, town, state and nation, helping to plant and water the seeds of good relations between America and Japan. Two atomic bombs may have ended the Pacific War, but what created the peace that followed were the series of collaborative relationships forged by enterprising businesspeople, educators, and citizens in both nations. Our students played their part in continuing that process, and I can think of few worthier activities in which to take part.

Yet these were not the only seeds planted this week. Within each student, something new has begun to grow – I have watched them emerge from this experience with newfound confidence in themselves, a greater sense of independence, and an appreciation for getting to know “the other” (as well as BEING the “other”), be they Japanese or even fellow students: by the end of this trip, they had all grown to know new things about one another as well. As the weeks pass and they continue to process and integrate these new aspects to their identity, they, and you, will come to find that they are no longer quite the same people they were when they waved goodbye to you on a cold and dark Monday morning at the CCHS cafeteria.

I can hardly think of a better return on the investment of their trip tuition.🙂

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It is with both great pride and great humility, then, that I return these “new people” to you this afternoon. The chance to work with students through experiences like these is one of the reasons I remain in the teaching profession, and I would not trade the last two weeks’ experiences for all the sushi in Japan.

It has been an honor.

Sincerely,

Dr. N.

P.S. – Don’t be surprised if your son or daughter passes up a hamburger for dinner and requests something like this!

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From Ancient Days

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A gorgeous spring day in Kyoto, as seen from atop our youth hostel’s roof garden! Japan favored us with perfect weather for our journey to its very first capital, the city of Nara. Nara was constructed in the late seventh century, during a time of terrible crises, including earthquakes, typhoons, and a smallpox outbreak. The Emperor rolled the dice and committed the entire national economy (as well as the labor, reportedly, of 2.5 million people) to constructing massive temple complexes in honor of the Buddha, particularly the Buddha of emptiness. It was a religion that recognized the human confrontation with suffering, and promised a way of life that would allow one to endure and transcend that suffering.

Today, Nara’s temples, shrines, pagodas and statues, reconstructed many times, stand testament to a recognition of the unfathomable powers of nature, and the uncrushable human ability to adapt.

Oh yes, and there is a charming deer park, whose cuddly inhabitants have been trained since the time of the shoguns to bow to visitors in exchange for cookies. Just woe be it to the hapless tourist who isn’t fast enough with the chow — some students got nipped, and one had part of her nametag eaten!

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Click here to see John G. learn not to trifle with the Nara deer.

Below is a group shot of us at the kokufiji temple complex:

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And here were are at the todaji temple complex – the temple behind us is the largest wooden building in the world! There are no nails inside, discounting some metal supports added in modern years. The very first construction of this building, by the way, was reportedly even bigger.

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One of Todaji’s features is a square hole carved into one of the massive tree-trunk support beams, through which visitors are encouraged to attempt to squeeze. The experience is meant to teach humility and the shedding of attachment to one’s pride. Some of our students, however, seemed to take some well-earned pride in making it through a gap meant for much smaller people!

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Our final stop of the day, and of Kyoto, was Nijojo castle, home not to the Emperor (who was largely a figurehead for much of Japan’s history) but to the Shogun, the true power in the Japanese lands from the 1200s through the 1900s. Since photos (and even sketches!) were not allowed inside, we had to hold in our memories our walk through the many chambered rooms of the Shogun’s palace, our stocking-clad feet making the “nightengale” floors squeak with every step…a security measure to ensure that no assassins could ever sneak up on Japan’s ruler!

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Below, a moment of relaxation among the beautiful sakura, the weeping cherry blossoms of Imperial Japanese fame.

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One of Buddhism’s most challenging concepts to accept is that, like the cherry blossoms which bloom for only a few weeks a year, all moments in life are evanescent. Our stay in Kyoto has drawn to a close, and so too, nearly, has our sojourn in Japan. Tomorrow we leave Japan’s ancient capitals to spend the final full day of our trip in its current capital, Tokyo.

Oyasumin asai,

Dr. N.

A journey to the heart of Japan

One very early wakeup for a red-eye flight later, our tuckered-out group arrived in Kyoto….
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…only to be re-energized by this dynamic city of 1.5 million, the ancient capital of Japan, long before Shogun Tokugawa moved the capital to Edo, later known as Tokyo, in the 1800s. From the 700s until then, Kyoto was the heart and soul of the country, so intrinsic to Japanese pride and identity that during the Pacific War the American military consciously avoiding bombing the city, as their advisors told them the Japanese people would never submit if Kyoto were to be destroyed. As a result, Kyoto is one of the very few cities in Japan where ancient architecture survives….and survive it does, jammed between, within and alongside modern skyscrapers.

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Of the literally dozens of temples in Kyoto, one of the most dramatic is Kinkaku-Ji, a 14th century Buddhist spiritual retreat known best for its “Golden Pavilion,” a temple covered entirely in gold leaf. The students showed a great deal of respect for Buddhist and Shinto customs, symbolically cleaning themselves, burning incense and ringing bells to awaken the Kami.

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The other, even more famous site we visited in Kyoto was the world-famous Kyomizu (“pure water”) temple complex, accessed by walking up long, narrow winding hill-streets jam packed with vendors, tourists, pilgrims and (yes) motor traffic. Our reward upon ascending, however, was the most famous and beautiful Zen Buddhist campus in the world.

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We all agreed that a mere 90 minutes wasn’t sufficient for anything more than a cursory wandering, but what a wandering it was — especially since we were in time to catch the blooming of the sakura (cherry blossoms), which transformed the already majestic site into something entirely out of the spirit world.

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We capped off our day with an almost otherworldly experience of Chinese food, in Japan, cooked up by a chef wearing (yes) a motorcycle helmet. Yet one more “you had to be there” experience we have had in Japan!

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I’ll leave you with the following group shots from our spiritual journeys:

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Tomorrow we go back even farther in time, to the even more ancient capital of Nara…but for tonight, it’s time to get some sleep!

Matta ashta,

Dr. N.

A tale of two schools

On our last day in Sapporo, the Scifi Club visited two unique and special schools, the first being the Sapporo Anime Designer college, a place where the most talented of Japan’s youth train to be professional manga-ka and animators!

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Here, as at the other schools, our students found the sister-city relationship had preceded their arrival, and thus the welcome mat was laid out for us quite dramatically.
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Before a tour of the campus — which included not only manga and anime production facilities but also culinary, hospitality, and bridal simulators for other kinds of design fields, not to mention “cake art” (a miniature grand piano made of chocolate? Oh yes!) and an actual furnished Boeing 767 fuselage outfitted for use in training future flight attendants — each of our students was paired with a college animator, with the mutual mission to draw one another in manga (Japanese comic book) form. Here are some of the results!

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After a lunch together full of food, films, and “animated” conversation, we posed for a group photo:
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For the afternoon, we traveled across town to Sapporo Odori High School, a six story concrete urban school designed for “non-traditional” Japanese students.

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Students here don’t wear uniforms like most Japanese schoolkids, and neither do they follow the nation set curriculum. Instead, they can focus on classes that suit their particular learning styles. School runs in three separate shifts (morning, afternoon, and evening) to accommodate all different kinds of student schedules, and, as a UNESCO school site, Sapporo Odori is particularly tuned in to international students and relations with other schools around the world.

The students and faculty here were all very sincere, and gave our own kids a heartfelt welcome that included massive calligraphy painting, games like rock paper scissors in a conga line (which they taught us) and “ninja” (which we taught them). The closing ceremonies included performances on the taiko drums and shamisen (a traditional Japanese stringed instrument), as well as the Scifi Club’s impromptu a capella performance of “Build me up, Buttercup,” for which the club sends all due acknowledgements to Mr. Dentino.

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By the end of the day we all felt exhausted, yet also connected with our counterparts in this seemingly foreign land. We have many friends here across the ocean, some that have been made by our predecessors and some new ones that we have made this week. As Dr. Weinstein said in his speech at Odorii High School, both we Americans and the Japanese value traditions…but today’s actions also build the traditions of tomorrow. Our students did some fine building work today, and I am very proud of them for it.

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On to Kyoto tomorrow! We can’t believe our journey here is almost over. In the meantime, we will leave you with a small vision of dinner, just in case you forgot we were in Japan:

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Oiasuminasai,

Dr. N.

Feeling our place in history and the future

Konichiwa and hello from Sapporo!

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The weather in this alabaster city has been chilling due to fierce winds, but our reception here has been anything but. Reunited after our separate adventures with host families (which included trips to a ski jump, a historical village, a multi-story video arcade, a sushi restaurant where your fish came out carried on remote controlled cars, and feasts of fried octopus), we were all welcomed by representatives of the Sapporo government to the Sapporo Clock Tower. The tower is not only an iconic landmark of Sapporo, but a symbol of US/Japanese cooperation: designed by none other than Concordian William Wheeler and constructed with mechanical parts built in Waltham, the Clock Tower is a little piece of old-timey Massachusetts in a downtown Japanese metropolis.

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Within the Clock Tower lay my favorite spot to bring students in all of Japan: a glass case containing a small child’s doll, one of the few surviving remnants of a doll-exchange program started by American Dr. Sydney Gulick in the 1920s. Under Gulick’s program, a forerunner of our own from a time when taking actual kids to Japan was next to impossible, students in both nations would exchange “friendship dolls” reflecting the culture and tradition of their own country. During the Pacific War, the Japanese military government banned the dolls and destroyed most of them, not wishing for their people to see Americans as human beings. Despite such orders, many Japanese risked their own safety to preserve these dolls, for the same reason. This particular doll was sheltered by a school principal, who put his own family at risk to safeguard the symbol of friendship between our peoples. Our students, on this trip, are the inheritors of this legacy.

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As such, it was with great pride that we went before the Hokkaido Prefectural Assembly, to be addressed by Representative Tomihara, who had himself traveled to Concord 20 years ago. Representative Tomihara gave us an official welcome, and pledged his support for the continuation and expansion of our sister-state, sister-city and sister-school relations. Here was where we really felt our “ambassador” status most keenly!

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All of that diplomacy builds up an appetite! After a trip up the 90 meter Eiffel Tower-replica known as the “TV Tower,” we took a stroll through Sapporo’s sprawling underground mall, and enjoyed some ramen and sushi at the various food courts within.

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We then concluded our day with a long march through farmland on the city’s outskirts to a “gengiskhan” restaurant, where the students and their host families self-cooked up a carnivorous feast on tabletop hibachi grills, and laughed and talked well into the night beneath the meat-smoky haze.

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In short, we couldn’t have asked for a better (or busier!) day. Below are two “money shots” of our diplomatic endeavors:

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This morning, we’re off to our final pair of school visits – wish us luck!

Matta imashio,

Dr. N.

Playing Orpheus

As Paul Simon once wrote, goodbyes “come too fast, and they pass too slow”…on Saturday morning the tear-filled farewells to our Nanae host families seemed at once painfully long and far too quick; in only three days, our students and their hosts had formed real attachments, and amid the flurried exchanges of email addresses and last-minute photo posing I tried to encourage everyone to stay in touch, even when the day-to-day routines of normal life reassert themselves. The real work of this sister-city relationship is the maintaining of ties when we are on our separate sides of the ocean…judging from our five “repeat travelers” on this trip and their multiple counterparts in Nanae, that process is alive and well.

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As I kept repeating to our kids, “this doesn’t hav eto be goodbye – you can always come back!” Or at the very least, come back “virtually” via skype, email, facebook, or maybe even some old-fashioned letters. Can we revive the almost-forgotten-tradition of being “pen-pals?”

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At last our bus pulled away from Nanae town, and began its long, winding journey across breathtaking scenes of mountains and Pacific coastline, until we found ourselves….in Hell!

Well, Japanese Hell, at any rate. But since this is Japan, even Hell is kind of a neat place to be.

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Noboribetsu is the so-called “Mouth of Hell” in Japan, a town built into the face of a live, sulphur-belching volcano that is said to be the site of the legendary story of Momotaro, the “peach boy.” Born in a peach and raised by two humble farmers (kind of like Superman!), Peach Boy uses his strange and wonderous powers, as well as his animal friends, to travel to the lair of the Japanese Oni demons and defeat them, making the land safe for human settlement. Statues of Peach Boy and the Oni ring the town, which makes quite a living off tourists eager to visit mythical sites, eat spicy “Hell Ramen,” and, especially, to relax and luxuriate in the volcanically heated sauna baths for which Noboribetsu is most famous.

We didn’t visit those (I told the students they should organize an alumni reunion trip there someday, when they are all of age), but we did get to explore the surroundings – how many chances do you get to walk across the surface of a live volcano, home to Japanese monsters?

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And, not so monstrous: a bread-dessert in the shape of a turtle. How could this little guy possibly be evil?

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At the end of our very long drive, we pulled into Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city, home to 2 million people and designed back in the late 1800s by none other than Concordian William Wheeler. Alabaster skyscrapers, traffic jams and crowds of cosmopolitan urbanites greeted us as we arrived to meet with representatives from the sister-state relationship organization.

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No, these weren’t the representatives!

This gentleman was:

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The students were paired off with their new host families, with whom they would spend their entire Sunday having their own personal adventures. I look forward to hearing all of the updates when I see them this morning.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this little taste of home we encountered in an underground mall:

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Matta imashio,

Dr. N,

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