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9th Grade Expeditions: Japan

The November 2023 9th-grade Expedition to Japan was my first chaperone experience outside of Mexico and it surpassed all expectations I had for the trip. In the build-up, I was focused on preparing for the trip, including the informative sessions with America-Asia, past chaperones, and other information from ISR Travels along with making sure all of the students had everything they needed. The informative sessions were beyond helpful in preparing me for what was to come: a trip with the first group I ever taught at ISR and one of the best experiences of my life!

I carried a pin on my backpack that read “I am very busy,” which fit the bill. From the moment we arrived to the day we left, we were always moving. Every day started with a full breakfast to fuel up for the itinerary of the day. Typically, we commuted via trains. Students got used to hearing “Rail Pass!” as they lined up so we, as chaperones, could hand out passes and collect them immediately after passing through the toll. The highlight of our train experience was riding the Shinkansen, or bullet train in English. They didn’t seem that fast while riding them but if you were waiting at the station and a nonstop bullet train went speeding by, woah!

Trains, buses, and most of the time our feet, brought us to enchanting places. Our first city was Kyoto and the first sight we saw was the serene Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. As an introduction to Japan, it was wonderful. A highlight of our stay in Kyoto was the Tea Ceremony. First, our host welcomed us into a specially constructed room where we sat in a U-shape. The host kneeled near the top of a kettle, or chagama, poking out of its built-in compartment in the floor. In front of each one of us was a little Japanese sweet called Yōkan, a tea cup with a serving of matcha powder, and a bamboo whisk. We learned how to mix matcha with the whisk and the proper way to drink it. Then we observed the ceremony. The host quietly brewed the tea and served it to a volunteer student. Afterward, she explained the dedication it takes to master the ceremony, including attending at least 10 years of special school. We learned it was important to be free of distractions during the ceremony. Be focused. Listen to the kettle. Be deliberate in your movements. We were completely immersed in the experience. The Fushimi Inari Shrine was another highlight of Kyoto. We hiked up Mount Inari while passing through thousands of torii gates leading to a breathtaking view of Kyoto. The experience was unforgettable!

Kyoto is a tough act to follow, but our next stop was the Himeji Castle. As soon as we got off the train, we were met by the white castle, sitting upon a hilltop in the distance. It’s Japan’s largest castle, and I can see why it is their most visited one. It was a beautiful place, and I could feel the history around me.

Hiroshima was another highlight for all of us. We took a ferry to Itsukishima, or Miyajima, which is an island in Hiroshima Bay famous for the Itsukushima Shrine and the many deer that run freely around the island. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is a necessary experience for all and we were lucky enough to sit with a Hiroshima survivor as she shared her powerful story with us in a private room. We were grateful for that. As much fun as everyone was having on the trip, it was a moment of weight and reflection. I think we all appreciated it.

Our final days were spent in the one and only Tokyo. We ended our trip with days at Disney and the Making of Harry Potter, which brought out the kid in all of us. Before that, we traveled up Tokyo SkyTree, the world’s largest tower with a bird's-eye view of Tokyo, in addition to teamLabs Planets TOKYO, a museum that was like walking through different worlds. However, as memorable as those experiences were, I think one of the best was the percussion lesson we received at Taiko-Lab, and I am not just saying that because I’m a drummer! We all stood around our own traditional Japanese drum, or wadaiko, as our instructor took us through a combination of rhythms and performance art that felt a lot like exercise. At the end, our instructor performed an impressive drum solo we all enjoyed.

At the end of each day, we asked our students to reflect by summarizing the day, what they learned, and how it made them a better person. This process will later contribute to a video essay every 9th-grade student will complete. The students all found elements of Japanese culture with which they identified, contributing to their global citizenship and understanding of others and the world around them. Students had opportunities to practice their independence often on this trip such as when they decided where to eat or how to manage their time. Finally, one of the biggest highlights as a chaperone was watching so many students come out of their shell, make new friends, and in a way, find out a little bit more about who they are, becoming more confident along the way.

There are many memories I could write about–including the alluring aroma of every Japanese dessert that made me feel like the dog in those old cartoons floating to the pie on the windowsill– which made this one of my life’s best experiences. All in all, I hadn’t laughed that hard, that much in a while. Not only did the students bond with each other, but we all bonded with each other–chaperones, tour guides, and students. We were all a little sad when it ended but I think it’s safe to say we were all happy to be home.

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