It has taken me awhile to post another blog about my trip to Japan. Not because I didn’t have anything to say. In fact, it’s the opposite. I have so many things I want to talk about it has been hard to know where to start.
Thanks to the Hitachi Teacher Exchange program, I went on a 10-day trip to visit Japanese schools in Odawara, Japan. Along with fellow Norman Public Schools educators Calypso Gilstrap and Ellen Kraft, and our Hitachi host Jeannie Green-LaCroix, we visited four schools, met with the Odawara Mayor, Odawara Superintendent and the Odawara Board of Education, toured Hitachi and met with officials there; we went to shrines, temples, volcanoes and mountains; we ate amazing Japanese cuisine; and we shopped to our hearts content. I arrived back in Norman Sunday.
We ended our trip by spending two days in Tokyo, the world’s biggest city. We took a car tour and saw the must-sees and then spent a day navigating the subways, trains and streets on our own. Calypso and I even ventured to Tokyo Disneyland and spent several hours with Mickey Mouse and company.
I have written previously about the similarities about Japanese students and American students. Kids are kids wherever you go. They speak universally with their smiles and kindness.
Although there are many similarities with Japanese and American children, there are major differences in the schools we saw in Japan and the schools in Norman.
I made a wrong assumption going into this trip that Japanese schools would have all the latest and greatest technology in their classrooms. Japanese teachers not only do not have Intelligent Classrooms, smart and interactive boards that project on a large screen, they do not have computers in the classrooms at all.
Japanese teachers use a chalkboard the old-fashioned way. Chalk and erasers are used and teachers write everything on the board by hand, as opposed to being able to project images from your computer onto a screen.
Students do not have phones. Students were fascinated by my smart phone when I used it to take pictures in the classrooms. I handed my phone to a student and asked him to take a photo and he had no idea how to use it.
The Japanese did not have their heads buried in their phones constantly as we do. It was a striking contrast to see human interaction and conversation in Japan as opposed to walking with our eyes on our touch screens.
The only advanced technology I saw in Japan at all was in the Hitachi plant where several types of robots were working. That was truly impressive.
Weather & Nature
The Japanese schools only had air conditioning in the principal’s offices and maybe a conference room. Classrooms were not air conditioned. Instead, oscillating fans were bolted upside down on ceilings to cool the rooms. Japanese students go to school through July and start again in September, which makes summer months in classrooms sweltering.
Japan is very, very humid. Oklahoma only gets that humid right before a storm. While Oklahoma’s heat certainly is not dry, it can’t hold a candle to the humidity we experienced every day in Japan.
Students never complained about the heat. They drank water from thermoses and had towels to wipe the sweat that would run down their faces. Teachers also never complained. They were up teaching, many times in pants and long shirts, sweating right along with the children.
I’ve experienced lots of types of Oklahoma nature and weather; wheat fields, red dirt, hills, small mountains, down bursts, tornadoes, thunderstorms, ice storms, blizzards, heat waves, wild fires and more. I have even felt a couple of small earthquakes in Oklahoma.
But while in Japan, I experienced three major natural events for the first time: a typhoon, a volcano, and a large earthquake. In fact, I experienced a typhoon ON TOP of the volcano we were touring! I know, it sounds like I made that up, but I didn’t. I have video to prove it.
Early Saturday, July 12, I was first awakened by a loud alarm alert coming from my phone. “Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!” Then there was yelling in Japanese that I didn’t understand. I was very startled and trying to figure out what was happening and then I realized my bed was shaking and the high-rise hotel we were staying in was swaying back and forth and creaking. Tokyo had just experienced a 6.8 magnitude earthquake, the fourth largest quake Japan has had since 1900.
My adrenaline kicked in and I ran to Ellen’s room to see what was going on. Breaking news bulletins popped up on my phone reporting the quake and issuing a tsunami advisory. While we fortunately did not have a tsunami, it was still scary. I now understand why every single school child has a hard hat attached by a net under their school chair for an earthquake.
The natural beauty of Japan is amazing. Very tall green trees, mountains, waterfalls, the Pacific Ocean and lakes and rivers were everywhere. We would be driving down a highway and our tour guide would pull over on the side of the road and show us gorgeous waterfall to our right or a natural bubbling spring to our left. These natural landmarks were everywhere we went.
Buildings and Infrastructure
Japan is a very, very old country. Likewise, may of the places we visited were hundreds of years old. It was so interesting to step back in time and visit places where emperors ruled hundreds of years ago. I learned so much about Japanese history.
Japan has a great public transit system. Trains go throughout cities and from city to city. Tokyo also has a subway system. Japan has a bullet train that speeds along and transports people to and from cities in Japan.
As great as their public transportation system is, their roadways were a little scary to me. Although we never saw a car wreck, I am not sure how that was possible. Because the streets are so old, they are extremely narrow, many times fitting only one vehicle at a time. Many times our driver would have to pull over and wedge himself on the side of the road and bring in side mirrors to allow another car to pass, even on the highway.
I also never got used to driving on the left side of the road. Every single time we would turn a corner I had a moment of panic thinking our driver was going the wrong way.
Buildings were much older. I have taken for granted how many new things we have in Oklahoma. Homes, businesses and schools were very old and out of date.
I also became very grateful for a community who continually approves bond issues to update buildings and technology at our schools. Odawara does not pass bond issues, which is the reason for the old buildings and lack of technology. School officials said they spend much of their money to work toward the government standard of earthquake precautions and readiness.
I’m not saying Oklahoma is not clean, but it’s something we have to remind each other to be. Remember that “Don’t lay that trash on Oklahoma” campaign a few years back? Japan was very clean. Even Tokyo. We never saw trash on the streets.
The schools were very clean, too. At first I didn’t know why, but then we were at a junior high school at the end of the day. Every student is responsible for cleaning the school every day. And I mean cleaning it, not just picking up after themselves. They used brooms and rags and scrubbed the floor on their hands and knees.
I think if our students were responsible for cleaning the schools every day, they would take better care of it to start with. There have been many times I have had to make a student clean up when he/she dropped trash or spilled something. They have looked at me blankly when the drop/spill happened as if they didn’t know what to do. These children took pride in their schools, and I believe that carries over into their communities.
I absolutely LOVED my time in Japan. Their people were kind and helpful. They were respectful of our western culture. They were interested in what we had to share with them. They were happy to see us, and they didn’t tease us when we tried to speak Japanese or use chopsticks.
While this trip was once-in-a-lifetime, I would love to come back someday and bring my family. I would also highly recommend visiting Japan to anyone thinking about going. That is, if you are OK with typhoons and earthquakes.
Michelle Sutherlin is a NewsOK contributor and a middle school counselor in Norman, OK, who works with students ages 11-15 daily. She is also a mom to two boys, Ryan (12) and Will (9). She and her husband have been married for 16 years. For more articles about parents and middle school, check out her blog.
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