Monday, February 18, 2013

Kyoto, Nara, Heading home...

After being in a peaceful, small town of Shitara for four days, it was a bit of a shock to the system to get on the Shinkansen (“Bullet” Train that travels at 185 mph) and arrive in the bustling city of Kyoto with a population of 1.5 million.

The city of Kyoto contains many beautiful temples and historical landmarks dating back over 1,000 years. 

Kyoto is filled with every traditional and modern quaint shop, restaurant and amenity imaginable. 

Just outside of Kyoto is another town of historical significance, Nara. In Nara, we visited the Tojodai Temple that was constructed 710-794 AD. Similar to cows in India, the deer by this temple are considered sacred, so they are free to roam the grounds.

As I take the long plane ride back to Chicago and am looking forward to seeing my family and friends, grand memories of all the kind people who helped us during this excursion fill my heart with gratitude. Toshiko, Shiho and Patrick were wonderful translators throughout our entire visit. The Shitara Board of Education provided such careful, safe driving through the narrow, winding roads of their city. Mr. Hiramatsu worked diligently with the Shitara Board of Education, the Mayor of Shitara and Arlington Heights District 25, and made possible this wonderful opportunity to expand our global relationships and world focus. 

Schools in Shitara

Touring the schools in Shitara, Japan was the highlight of my visit. I learned so much by communicating with the students, teachers and principals, and seeing firsthand what happens in the classrooms. It was so interesting to learn about the similarities and differences between the schools in Shitara and Arlington Heights.
All of the teachers' desks were in one large office. The principal and the assistant principal had a meeting with the teachers every morning before the start of school. 
We were warmly greeted and welcomed by the children and staff in every school.  Even though they were often shy at first, everyone was very kind and helpful in trying to communicate with us in English. 
Students stood and bowed to show respect each time a teacher entered the classroom to teach a lesson. 
The preschool had a large outdoor play area. The children were collecting nature artifacts. 
Lunch was eaten in the classroom. Students took turns serving the lunch.  All of the students and staff were required to eat the school lunch, and everyone had to eat everything that was served to them. 

These bird houses were covered in plastic for warmth and protection during the winter, but I can imagine the fun learning the children will do there in the spring!

I peeked inside and saw beautiful breeds of chickens and ducks. 

There were many areas where children learn gardening outside. 
Children wrote recommendations and displayed books outside the library. 
There were tatami mats in this library where children can sit and read. 

Every student had a similar leather backpack. It is a tradition for the grandparents to purchase the backpack. The child uses the same backpack throughout their elementary and middle school years. 
Helmets for earthquake safety are kept close by. Students who walk to school wear the bright yellow vests on their backpacks for extra safety. 

Students carefully carved blocks for printing during an art class. 

A group of third grade boys constructed this creative play house.

There were unicycles at each school for recess time!

Students had special shoes to wear in the classroom and during P.E. 

It was fun to shoot some hoops with these students. They were much better than me!

Students enjoyed experimenting in the science lab. 

Learning calligraphy was a special part of the Japanese curriculum.

People wear these white masks to prevent the spread of coughs and colds. These first grade students made paper origami gifts for us. 

The middle school students had to wear uniforms to school. 
I wonder what they will think when they meet the middle school students in Arlington Heights this spring!
Here they were studying landslide simulations on the computer. 

The teachers and principals were impressed by Dryden students' research projects and the way we use technology. Just like in Arlington Heights, the teachers from Shitara were very enthusiastic, child-centered and hard working. The classrooms had a warm, friendly feeling, yet the children were very focused and completed their work carefully and in detail.

Views from Shitara

Before the Kabuki performance, we had some time to visit Damine Castle. Inside the castle was Samurai warrior armor.

South Middle School Principal, Mr. Chung, dubbed me the Dryden Dolphin Warrior. What do you think of that? The helmet alone was very heavy! I can only imagine how strong the ancient Samurai warriors must have been to don such heavy armor while in battle.

The view from the lookout tower was breathtaking. In a country about the size of California with a population about half that of the United States, it was surprising to see so many beautifully preserved mountains and freshwater rivers all around me.

A tradition I greatly appreciated during these cold days in Japan was the expression of warmth and hospitality with the offer of a fresh hot cup of tea. Everywhere we went, we were offered tea in such beautiful ceramic cups. These brief moments with a cup of tea helped me get to know people more closely through conversation while having a chance to relax and re-energize for the busy schedule that lay ahead.

After sitting for 6 hours to watch the Kabuki performances, we were ready to stretch our legs. We walked through a rice farm that was over 1,000 years old. The rice farm continues to be tended in traditional ways rather than with modern machinery due to the hilly landscape. To see how the different levels of the farm was tiered with stones was impressive. I tried to visualize how green and lush everything would look during the spring and summer as I walked through the peaceful area, only hearing the pleasant trickle of the streams.

Kabuki Theater

Kabuki is a traditional form of Japanese theater, dating back hundreds of years. The make-up, costume, movement, music and vocalization are very dramatic and carefully choreographed. Historically, only men performed Kabuki, even the female roles. At Damine School, all of the children learn about Kabuki each year. Dr. Sato, a retired professor of Japanese Arts from the University of Illinois, came to Damine and worked with students, teachers and community members on this year’s Kabuki performance. This is such a meaningful way to pass on rich, artistic cultural traditions from generation to generation.

Damine’s Kabuki performance is a big event in the area. News reporters came to take video and photographs.

The artistry and detail in the set design, costumes and make-up were stunning.

Even the school superintendent had an important role of clapping wooden blocks in various rhythms to signal important aspects of the performance; he never missed a beat!

Men, women and children of Damine performed for 9 hours in an outdoor theater, starting at 11:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. I was in awe of their precision and grace throughout the entire performance.

Audience members sat on the floor. They brought cushions and blankets to keep warm since the temperature was about 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Around the outskirts of the theater were many food booths, with warm, fresh, delicious snacks. Mrs. LeBlanc and I are enjoying “gohen-mochi”, very soft rice on a stick glazed with sweet soy sauce.

Coins are wrapped inside these papers. Audience members toss coins wrapped in colorful pieces of paper at the exciting parts of the performances. This is their way of saying “Bravo!” You can see the colored papers on the stages. It sounds like an applause when you hear the coins land on the stage. 

Festivities in Damine

The village of Damine has a very special annual celebration dating back a few hundred years. The local shrine is open for this one day out of the whole year, so everyone in the village comes to take part in the special ceremonies. The local residents perform lively songs and dances to express thanksgiving and wishes for future safety and prosperity.