Day 13: Sayonara, Japan!

This morning we woke for the last time in Japan.  Handsworth students brought their second packed suitcase to the school to store until pick up time.  Our Inage hosts had organized an activity filled morning for us before departure.  The first two blocks of the day were spent in a cooking class making a Japanese specialty – yakisoba!  Handsworth students were paired with Inage students to cook and learn a bit about Japanese cuisine.  We also learned about green tea preparation and some of the ceremony that goes with drinking it Japanese style.  Afterwards, we moved back into the main hall to fill in a survey about our experience at Inage.  This will help inform the itinerary for Handsworth groups to come after us.  Handsworth students also spent some time writing in their journals and enjoying a packed lunch from their homestay families.  Around 12:30 our bus arrived, along with a truck for our luggage.  Outside the school we took one last opportunity for a group photo and some teary goodbyes.  We are now sitting at Narita airport, awaiting our flight which departs at about 6pm.  It’s been a fun and memorable experience – truly an adventure of a lifetime!  We’ll be home soon!

Day 12: Inage Plays Host

Monday morning Handsworth students arrived at Inage filled with stories of their Sunday with the homestay families.  Some went on excursions to various locales, while others spent quality time with the families doing things like preparing traditional Japanese dishes.  Today was our day to experience a typical Japanese school day.  Students went through a specially prepared set of classes throughout the day.  First up was an English conversation class where Handsworth and Inage students compared and contrasted our two cities as well as reflected on the relationship between Canada and Japan.  During second and third period, Handsworth students were treated to a traditional Japanese calligraphy class.  They created a colourful watercolor background on which to write a kanji representing friendship.  After lunch, more active classes were enjoyed with different types of PE. Some students tried dance, some judo, and most tried kendo; the Japanese art of sword fighting.  The final class of the day was an arts and crafts class where students enjoyed making their own chopsticks. After school, final preparations were made for our Farewell Party.  While this was happening, our students were sent to play a few games with Inage students, like rock, paper scissors and simple Japanese song games.  Afterwards, back at the party, all of the Inage host families came out to put on a wonderful potluck style meal for us.  During the meal, we re-watched the slideshow that had been prepared during October from Inage’s visit to Handsworth.  After the video, there were gifts exchanged and speeches made, including a farewell speech by Handsworth students Nuala and Trevor.  Handsworth students were pleased to receive certificates of completion for the exchange from Inage’s school Principal, Mr. Endo, as well.  The finale of the party was the Handsworth students prepared dance performance, which culminated in a rousing chorus of YMCA with all of the Inage students pulled up on stage.  The night ended with some final group photos before everyone headed home with their homestay families for one final night in Japan.  Tomorrow we fly home!


Day 11: Tokyo Disney Sea

This morning all the Handsworth students and their homestay billets met at Maihama train station, just outside of Tokyo Disney.  Tokyo has two different Disney themed parks right next to each other: Disneyland and Disney Sea.  This year, our group elected to visit Disney Sea, which is geared more towards older youths.  The rides are more exhilarating and the park has less of the rides and attractions that younger children might typically enjoy.  Students got to ride on The Indian Jones Adventure, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the Tower of Terror and more!  One of the great ways to skip most of the lines was to try going as a ‘single rider’, or to use your ticket to book a fast pass on one of the more popular rides.  It was also a good thing we chose Disney Sea over Disneyland, because while Disney Sea is open until 10pm, Disneyland was going to be closed as of 4pm for some routine maintenance.  So students got to spent the full day and evening today enjoying the park with their homestay students.  Tomorrow, Handsworth students will enjoy many different activities with their homestay families, so there will be no blog post.  But we’ll look forward to hearing all of their stories on Monday morning! 

Day 10: Views Over Tokyo

Our hosts at Inage were gracious enough to organize a tour of Tokyo for us today.  After meeting at the school in the morning, we once again boarded our charter bus to drive the 35 minutes into Tokyo.  Our first stop was in the Asukasa area to visit the Sensoji Temple and enjoy the surrounding vendor stalls.  We also took the opportunity to pick up lunch in this same area.  From Asakusa we could see in the distance, a few kilometers away, the enormous Tokyo SkyTree dwarfing all the other skyscrapers around it.  This was our afternoon destination.  The greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area is home to some 37 million people, the same number of people that inhabit all of Canada.  And as we looked out over Tokyo from the top of SkyTree today, it was mind boggling to imagine all that activity happening below us.  Handsworth students got a full panoramic view of the entire surrounding Tokyo area, and it was magnificent.  At about 3pm we returned back to Inage school to await our homestay students finishing up their day of school.  Today was a special school ceremony for teachers leaving for new schools, and new teachers arriving to Inage.  So our students were a bit delayed in the finish of their day.  We took the opportunity to, once again, prepare our performance piece in anticipation of Monday’s farewell party.  Inage students arrived shortly thereafter to take their Handsworth guests home.  The weekend has arrived, and tomorrow we’ll be spending Saturday with our friends from Inage at the Tokyo Disney Sea amusement park!

Day 9: Ambassadors to Chiba

This morning, Handsworth students made their way to Inage High School via train, bus, bike and by foot, dressed in their formal clothing for the day.  Students will filled with stories of their first homestay night with their host families.  It sounded like some students had some fairly exotic first dinners with their hosts!  We all met in the school atrium before boarding our charter bus to begin our tour around Chiba.  Our first stop was Chiba’s Natural History Museum where a local guide explained the history not only of Chiba but of all of Japan from about 700AD to the Meiji Restoration of 1868.  Our students know more Japanese history now than ever!  Our second stop of the morning was an official function.  We met with the Mayor of Chiba as ambassadors for the City of North Vancouver.  Official gifts were exchanged, speeches made and commemorative photos taken.  The students also had the opportunity to ask the mayor some questions about Chiba, like what the best local dishes are, and what role Chiba will play in the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.  In the afternoon our group headed over to the enormous AEON Mall.  This mall is actually 4 malls all rolled into 1.  There is Grand Mall, Family Mall, Pet Mall and Active Mall, each with a different type of store.   Students grabbed lunch, shopped, and spent time fawning over the kittens and puppies in Pet Mall.  At 3pm we took the bus back to Inage school to enjoy a school club activity.  We noticed our photos had now been posted in the school hallways.  Today we tried the Japanese art of flower arrangement, or ‘Ikebana’.  The teacher of the class selected the top students, but also commented on how everyone did such a great job that it was hard to decide.  After flower arrangement, students met up again with their Inage hosts to head home for another night of homestay.  Tomorrow we head to Tokyo for our tour of Japan’s capital city!

Day 8: Bullet Train to Tokyo

The trains in Japan always run on time.  Except, apparently, when there’s high winds!  We set out this morning from Takayama with the understanding that we had quite a quick connection between trains in Nagoya this afternoon.  Well, our connection got even tighter when our first train was delayed 15 minutes by winds.  Our 24 minute window was quickly eroded down to 9 minutes.  Suitcases in hand, we ran through the Nagoya station from platform to platform, just in time to make our bullet train to Tokyo.  In Tokyo we were met by a couple of Inage teachers who then shepherded our group through the labyrinthine Tokyo station, along another train to Chiba, and finally via public bus to Inage School.  Here we met with our homestay students, who were quite excited to see us!  We had a brief welcome ceremony where Mr. Burtt, and Evan & Keith gave greeting speeches.  Then it was to home with the host families.  Tomorrow we begin our official visit to Chiba with an audience with Chiba’s Mayor Kumagai.

Day 7: Takayama

We timed our exploration of Takayama perfectly today.  Just two days ago there was snow in the forecast here, and tomorrow the weather report calls for 100% chance of rain.  Today, despite the teacher’s reminders about sunscreen, a couple of our students actually got a bit of sunburn!  (Eat your heart out, Vancouver!)  After another beautifully crafted traditional Japanese breakfast at the Ryokan, student set out in groups to explore the town by foot.  First stop was the Miyagawa morning market where vendor stalls lined the riverside street.  From there it was over to the small local artisan shops where students found wood lacquerware – a local specialty.  An abundance of choices were available for lunch, and some students opted to try the Hida region’s famous beef.  In the afternoon our group headed, en masse, up to Hida No Sato – a traditional Hida village well-known for its thatched-roof houses.  This village has been preserved to look the same as it would have over a hundred years ago.  Here, students played games, attempted feats of strength by lifting boulders, fed the geese, and also took the opportunity to practice their performance piece in anticipation of our arrival at Inage.  Evening time brought a beautiful sunset and the perfect opportunity to write in our journals by the riverside, just outside the Ryokan.  A traditional dinner again on the tatami mats, and a nightly trip to the steaming sento are just what’s required for us to wind down before bed.  Tomorrow is a full travel day as we head further north towards Tokyo, Chiba and our friends at Inage.


Day 6: Miyajima

This morning was expected to be an exceptionally early start:  5:30 alarm, for a 6:00am departure.  But it turned out the wake-up call for some came even earlier.  Just after 1:30am our group got to experience our very own Japanese earthquake!  A 5.7 magnitude quake rumbled just north of our position, but was close enough to give us a little jiggle.  Most of the students slept through tremor, but a few were woken – especially those whose phones were set off with an emergency text alarm from the authorities.  Thankfully, by the time our official 5:30 wake-up rolled around, the only sign there had been any earthquake at all was our excited chatter about it in the lobby.  Our morning began as planned.  Today’s agenda began with a visit to the island of Miyajima – home to Itsukushima Shrine, more commonly known as the Floating Torii Gate.  Our train passes were also valid on the JR ferry that took us across the bay to the island.  We arrived around 6:45, well before the hordes of tourists that frequent the site every day.  With the shrine to ourselves, we took the opportunity to take some fun group photos, including what has become a bit of a tradition – the annual ‘Street Fighter’ photos!  We returned to our hotel in time to enjoy a served breakfast in the lobby before heading over to the Hiroshima Station again to catch a shinkansen northward.  The rest of the day would be mostly train travel.  We paused in Nagoya to catch lunch, and Mr. Barrett picked up a round of Krispy Kreme donuts for everyone for fun.  Our last train of the day to Takayama was a 2.5 hour scenic ride through the mountains of Gifu.  Our picturesque ride ended at about 7:30pm in the hilltop town where we were greeted by the operator of our traditional ryokan.  Our bags were picked up and we walked to the 25 minutes onward to the inn.  Our next couple of dinners and breakfasts will be traditional Japanese style, served at the ryokan.  This evening we enjoyed a local specialty – Hida Beef with an assortment of local vegetable dishes, soup, rice and tempura.  The ryokan also has a sento to bathe in which the students are enjoying tonight before settling down to write in the journals before bed.  Tomorrow we explore Takayama by foot!

Day 5: The City of Peace

The shinkansen, or ‘bullet train’ is Japan’s high-speed rail network, with trains reaching speeds of up to 320 km/h.  Today, our group took our first bullet train from Osaka to Hiroshima.  It took us less than 90 minutes to cover a distance of 330km.  We arrived in The City of Peace just before noon where we promptly dropped our bags at the hotel and trekked over to the Hondori Shopping Arcade area for some lunch.  Hondori is a huge outdoor mall area with shops and restaurants, covered by giant ceiling structures spanning across the building towers.  After lunch it was over to the Peace Memorial park where students learned about the history of the city.  Mr. Forsyth gave a brief lesson on Japan’s involvement in WW2 with particular emphasis on the bombing of Hiroshima.  We also discussed Sadako and the Thousand Cranes – the story of the young girl who developed leukemia from the bombing and attempted to fold a thousand cranes so her wish for health might come true.  Ms. Murphy helped our students folded their own paper cranes and then lay them at the children’s memorial in remembrance.  We were fortunate today, as many Handsworth groups before us have been, to be able to meet an in-utero survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  He shared his compelling and personal story of how the tragic event affected and continues to affect his family.  Our group wandered past the Atom Bomb Dome – the location of the epicentre of the fateful blast – and made our way to the Peace Memorial Museum.  This museum has been undergoing renovations for over 3 years, and while the renovations are still not complete our group finally got to see some of the new exhibitions.  The museum was a gut wrenching reminder of the horrors of atomic warfare, and was quite a moving experience for a number of our students.  Many of them took the opportunity to journal outside by the grass about what they had seen in the museum and heard from the A-Bomb survivor, immediately after finishing the exhibits.  We certainly had a lot to reflect on today.  At night, we returned to the train station area to enjoy a local speciality – okonomiyaki.  Okonomiyaki is a cabbage pancake that tastes a lot better than it sounds!  Tonight we return to the hotel to get a good night’s sleep.  We are leaving the hotel at 6am tomorrow morning for a very full day of sightseeing and travel to Takayama!

Day 4: Universal Studios, Osaka

Today was a special Saturday spent at Universal Studios in Osaka.  It was also Sophie’s birthday today!  We took our first rapid reserved train of the trip this morning from Kyoto to Osaka, where we changed trains to a local line to make it to Universal City.  Before heading into Universal Studios we paused to sing Happy Birthday to Sophie and take a couple of group photos.  Students spent the rest of the day enjoying the rides and amusements in the park.  Highlights include the Hollywood Dream Roller Coaster, and The Flying Dinosaur.  The weather has been a bit temperamental, going from brilliant sunshine, to flashes of rain, and lots of wind throughout!  Today we enjoy real Western style mattresses on a beds!  Tomorrow we take our first bullet train to Hiroshima!