We have just come back from an incredible 10 day trip to Japan. It was an experience I will cherish forever and when we left we cried. We chaperoned 14 students ages 11-16 on the journey of a lifetime. Yes, Japan is a beautiful country, full of rich green rice fields, dense forests, spectacular waterfalls, deep canyons, history, culture, theater, tradition and amazing architecture. Yet, it was not any of those things that brought us to tears. It was the people. People who we have seen for the second or third time and the bond we formed with our host family. Those people, who like us, have dedicated a part of their lives to making a connection across the ocean into reality, they are the people we cried for.
There are many things to be learned from travel but especially from travel to Japan. These may be things you might not realize if you don’t live with a Japanese family, as we did. Our host family was warm, loving, funny, and exceptionally generous. The parents worked harder than anyone I have ever met. The father works 19 hours a day, five days a week. He is the owner of a bakery and goes to work at 11pm every night… he sleeps maybe three hours a night. The mother leaves for work at 7am and doesn’t get home until 8pm… she has a two hour train ride (standing room only) each way to work. The children are 12, 15, and 17. Their commute varies from 15 minutes to an hour… after school they spend at least 90 minutes in a mandatory club activity and then there is homework. The three girls just started their summer vacation which is 35 days long. When I asked them what they were doing for vacation their answer was…. STUDY…. what?! Yes, study.
Each girl knelt at the shrine in their grandparents house lit a stick of incense, rang a bell, said a prayer and honored their ancestors before leaving for school every morning. We all bowed our heads and said a thank you for our food. We weaved through the narrow streets and watched as bicycle riders of all ages were given space and looked out for… not a single honk, or shout to a bicycle rider or car. People who smoked carried their own ashtrays and there was never cigarette butts on the sidewalk. Recycling is mandatory, people don’t talk on their cell phones on the train, or out in public, and students clean the school before they go home for the day.
We stayed up late into the night talking to the family about the problems of the world, and the problems we face in America. They were very concerned about our upcoming election and the possibility of Trump becoming president. Guns, violence, terrorism, parenting, education, work, sports, and more were things we all discussed in depth. We had similar ideas, opinions, worries and fears.
To me, one of the biggest differences between our two countries was respect. The Japanese are all about respect… respect for their elders, teachers, craftsmanship, hard work, education, the Earth, all people, different religions, and tradition. When they pray, they pray for peace and health in the world – not to win the game, gain wealth, get the gold or anything else for themselves… they pray for the world… it is about the bigger picture.
As part of our Japanese experience we went to several Shinto shrines. At each shrine we participated in a ritual hand washing and then could bow twice, clap twice, throw a coin into the shrine, bow again and finally say a silent prayer. Even though I am not a believer, out of respect for their culture and their beliefs, I participated with joy. I do not have to believe to get something out of the experience or respect their tradition. I can appreciate that hundreds of thousands of people stood where I stood and did as I did… that is a big enough reason to bow and clap… My prayer: ‘Let there be peace on Earth and let us all learn to respect each other’
What did I take away from Japan? A new family, new friends, a renewed love of travel, a reminder that we are all one world family and something we all need more of… respect for all people of the world… I hope that the students we brought with us took those things away with them, too.