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Thomson High teacher reflects on Fulbright trip to Japan

As a participant of the Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program, Kelly Flanders spent three weeks in Japan with two hundred other American educators, studying the Japanese educational system in a fully funded program. The following article outlines the highlights of her trip.

The flight from San Francisco to Tokyo was long -- long enough for three movies and three meals, none of which I watched and all of which I ate. I sat next to a Japanese man, working in Denver, who sold beef to restaurants in large Japanese cities. When he noticed I was looking over my schedule for the next day, half in Japanese, he began to chat. He started drawing Kanji, the strange characters imported from China, and explaining ways to remember them. An upside-down Y, two graceful strokes, looks like two legs walking and represents "person." The name Japan is made with the symbol for "sun" in front of the symbol for "foundation;" thus, the sun is the foundation of all good in Japan. The word "sea" combines the symbols for "water" and "mother." My seatmate spent several hours teaching me rudimentary characters, relating historical tales, making the long trip pleasant, and beginning my informal lessons for my three weeks of study.

During the flight, my seat companion sniffled his nose frequently. After a several times, I offered him a Kleenex from my purse. He refused it graciously, then promptly wiped his nose the length of his shirt sleeve. Although aghast, I ignored the action, diving back into the Japanese lesson. Several days later, at one of the lectures, I quietly blew my nose into a Kleenex so I wouldn't have to leave the hall and disrupt the meeting. The American woman next to me leaned over and whispered that in Japan, one doesn't blow in public; rather one sniffles or wipes her runny nose on her sleeve.

When we arrived in the Tokyo airport, I snapped pictures of signs with English and Japanese, "Arrivals," "Baggage," "Toilets;" I look at these pictures now and laugh: in a few days I would be snapping temples, shrines, castles, and the endless ocean bordered by hazy, purple mountains rising at dusk to meet a red lacquered sun. Our first night, though cramped and tired from our flight, we ate dinner in groups of three, hosted by a fourth, Japanese alumnae of the Fulbright Memorial Fund program who lives in or near Tokyo and who awaited us at the Keio Plaza Hotel for this occasion. My hostess, a witty, white haired waif, is a professor emeritus of American Literature at Rissho University: her English was flawless. With short but quick strides, she led us across the street to the tallest building in the Shinjuku area where we had our first Japanese dinner -- happily, at a table and not on the floor.

In the days to follow, our group of 200 hunkered into the routine of breakfast (buffet Western-style), lecture, lunch, lecture, and, often, dinner on our own. We heard a member of the Japanese Diet, the Director of the Tokyo Star Bank, a Minister of Education, university professors, teachers, and Japanese performers. Each experience gave us a more focused and quite candid picture of the country and its peoples. Perhaps the most emotional lecture was by Koji Ikeda, a survivor of the A-Bomb that devastated Hiroshima in 1945. His talk underscored the Peace Education Initiative begun by Japan against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. By the end of the first week, we had learned much about the Japanese, and every member of our extended American family gained enormous respect for our Japanese hosts.

The first weekend was totally free to explore Japan on our own. Two Americans, Jeff Abney from Tallapoosa, Ga., and Donna Dial from Miami, Fla., and I set off for Kyoto, the oldest Capital of Japan. Unbombed during World War II because Roosevelt realized the enormous historical value of the city, Kyoto is filled with thousands of temples and shrines and some of the oldest wooden structures in the world. A full day tour of Kyoto and nearby Nara took us to the temple of the great Buddha, a statue so large that 15 grown men can move around on his open palm and a grown man can fit into his nostril. The wood in the base of the statue comprising his crossed legs is 1,200 years old. In another part of the city, we strolled around the lake of the Golden Pavilion, a brilliant and delicate structure covered in gold leaf. Today's structure is an exact replica of the one originally built by the third Ashikaga shogun (1358-1408), which was later destroyed by fire. Finally, we visited Nijo Castle, palace of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616). This palace is famed for its ornate interiors rather than its unassailable walls and motes as are many other palaces. The nightingale floors of the exterior hallways make bird-like noises when walked upon and thus warned the guards of intruders. Ironically, this most exquisite of palaces is also the place in which the last Tokugawa shogun resigned in the presence of the Emperor Meiji. (The movie The Last Samurai was partially set in this palace; one of the rooms depicts the historical moment with life-size wax figures.)

The heart of our time in Japan was the visit in our host city. Our group of 200 broke into 10 groups of 20, representing a mixture of ages, states, teachers/administrators, disciplines, and grades levels. Our group also gained a guide, Megumi Hamada, and an interpreter, Kachiyo Koda, to make sure we could negotiate the supercharged schedule planned for us in Isahaya, Nagasaki prefecture.

Our host city, Isahaya, is located in the southwestern most tip of Japan, 580 small remote islands splashed into the azure Pacific Ocean. In 1570, the port of Nagasaki, forty miles to the east, opened and was the only port to remain open during the 300 year isolation begun under the shogun Tokugawa in the 17th century. Through this port entered the first Christian and the first gun. Over time, both changed the course of Japan. Ironically, several centuries later in Nagasaki, a split second changed the history of the entire world. Isahaya, unharmed by the blast, took in 4,000 survivors of the A-bomb, many whose families still live in the town.

Today, Isahaya is a city of 96,000 people whose main businesses are semi-conductors and aerospace related industries. In March of next year, Isahaya and five smaller neighboring towns will consolidate to streamline governmental procedures. The amazing land reclamation project on the city's coastline has already reclaimed 3,000 hectares with 1,500 more under construction. Isahaya has 15 elementary schools, eight junior high schools, and three high schools. Each of our school visits highlighted a dynamic principal: Yashiteru Nonaka-san at the elementary school dons a reflective body suit every morning to direct traffic in front of the school. Toshiaki Matsuo-san at Nishi Isahaya Junior High School believes that music and flowers set the tone for harmonious learning. High school principal Masuru Nakano-san leads a diverse and energetic faculty with a sense of humor and a clear vision of the future. Each principal, in his own way represents the values of a gentle but single-minded culture and a city that is clearly future-sighted.

Shopping in Isahaya was a cultural delight. On three separate excursions, my new cronies and I were offered tea in delicate tea bowls and tiny sweets on porcelain dishes as refreshment while we shopped. Twice, a closed shop, with lights out, opened up and ushered us inside when we peered into the window. Twice, a blushing shop owner pressed thank you gifts into our hands, happy that we chose their shop. The tea mistress and the pottery shop gave us posters that weren't for sale when we unwittingly asked if we could purchase them. And often, a smiling local would change directions to lead us, hopelessly lost tourists, to our destination. Always and in every way we were made to feel not only welcomed but also honored to be guests of a gracious city.

Perhaps the most extravagant experience in Nagasaki prefecture was our night in a ryokan (pronounced yo-can). A ryokan is a typical Japanese hotel, featuring tatami mats, sleeping pads, communal rooms, a gata (kimono) for in-house wear, and hot tubs. After three of us arrived in our room, a kimono-clad woman knocked on the doorframe, knelt, bowed low to the ground, and entered to serve us tea in an informal ceremony. After tea, we went to the hot tubs. Our ryokan was actually an onsen, meaning that the tubs were fed by hot springs with natural healthful mineral salts in the water. Women use one tub, men another. We chose the tub on the roof, over looking the ocean rimmed by hazy mountains made purple by the sinking sun. Since the tubs are communal, and since clothes are not permitted, everyone showers and shampoos briskly before entering. Four American and three Japanese women cheerfully exchanged broken phrases watching the sunset.

Dinner was at least 18 courses. The low tables, flanked by square, flat pillows, were already set with gold lacquered trays at each place when we arrived. On the trays were three bite-sized salads, three sauces, a glass of plum wine, a narrow-bowled silver spoon and a set of chopsticks. Each place setting had a poem (in Japanese) next to the plate. After we clapped softly and said "Itadakimas" ("Thank you for the food I am about to eat."), we toasted our host and began our meal. After the salads, came a steamed crab, a fan shrimp, a clear broth, an orange-shrimp bisque, three kinds of raw fish, a fish head, eels, fish baked in a salt brick, rice, noodles, several vegetables, and plenty of wine, beer, and green tea. Each item was an individual course of several elegant bites, served on its own diminutive dish. By the end of the meal the tables were crowded with dishes and glasses, and we pushed ourselves away with a delightful feeling of decadence.

In the morning we began our trek back to Tokyo, ending our journey where we began. We reunited with the nine other city groups, sharing our experiences which were relatively similar although we were spread across Japan. I backed my bags for the final time, hugged my new, far-flung friends, and each of us hopped our individual flights, arriving back home, magically, before we left, sad to have left so gracious and congenial a country, but ready to return to my own community and patient husband.

This remarkable experience was possible for me because of the generous gift of the Board of Education who allowed me to take three weeks from a busy school year. Many thanks to the board and to the city of Thomson.



Web posted on Thursday, January 13, 2005











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