Sunday, 23 February 2020


The adventure of a lifetime

I was excited to be one of the six senior Japanese language students who participated in this year’s Mercury Bay Area School study trip to Japan. We were accompanied by MBAS teachers Judy Evans (the MBAS Japanese language teacher) and Monique Taylor.

Equipped with our trip hoodies and curious minds we left Whitianga on Saturday afternoon 6 April for the adventure of a lifetime.
We arrived in Tokyo the following day, one of the largest cities in the world. I remember the city being so quiet and the streets so clean. Despite the number of people, everyone was respectful and minded their own business, even in the trains that were packed and crowded. One thing I learned about Japanese culture was that it’s rude to walk and eat on the streets. You sit somewhere or stand outside the store to finish your food and drink before walking on. I think this is because of litter and people trying to keep their communities clean and tidy.

Seeing all the Japanese writing everywhere, on signs and on tall buildings, was extremely interesting. It was fun recognising words and phrases. There were English translations on restaurant menus and on train information boards, but we had a great time trying to focus on the Japanese writing only.

We spent three nights in Tokyo. A highlight was going to Team Lab, an art collective made with lights, moving images and projectors. It was beautiful and we had a great time with the interactive activities, such as colouring a sea creature (I coloured a seahorse) and having it scanned so you can the follow it as it swam around the room.
We also visited the Tokyo Skytree (the world’s tallest tower) one evening. It was cloudy when we were there, but the view was breath-taking. I could see the city lights and tall buildings for miles around, the entire world down below looked tiny.

We travelled from Tokyo to Takayama where we stayed for two nights. I wasn’t expecting to see any snow as it was spring in Japan and usually the snowfall would have ended. However, this year was colder than normal and on the Shinkansen (bullet train), we saw high up in the mountains a winter wonderland out the windows. It was white and beautiful, and we were very excited.
While in Takayama, we took a bus tour to Shirakawago and visited traditional gassho zukuri houses. The biggest houses were five storeys high. The roofs were thatched and in the shape of a triangle, just like when you put your hands together and keep your elbows out. The bottom floor of each house was where the families lived, while the other floors housed silkworms. Silk used to be a big industry in the area. The families also used to make gunpowder in secret using the silkworm droppings.

We also went into Kanda House in Shirakawago. It is the only house in the town still using a fireplace instead of modern air conditioning. The top floor had air so smoky it was almost hard to breath.

We had a meal which included a small whole fish. After seeing Ms Evans and Ms Taylor enjoy their fish, I was brave enough to give it a try, even eating the fish head. It was actually pretty good. Some of the other students didn’t want to touch their fish, but Ms Taylor was happy to take it off their hands.

During the bus ride to and from Shirakawago, we passed a town that only had nine houses. I think that’s a bit crazy.

From Takayama we travelled by bus to Gujohachiman for two nights. On our arrival, we went to visit Nishi Chugakko School. We joined the students for lunch and I loved being able to talk to everyone, hear about what they like doing and speak some Japanese. They also sang a lovely song for us. We helped them to clean the school, which is the students’ responsibility in Japan. I helped to wash the floors. We also sat in on three classes. It was fun listening to the classes in Japanese and joining in a PE game.
The most nerve-racking part of the trip was next. Homestays. I was nervous about being separated from our teachers and my friends, but when I was introduced to my host family, I realised everything would be alright. Looking back, I think that the homestays were the best part of the entire trip. It was challenging, but exciting, to be able to use the language we’re learning at school. It was very interesting to see how people live in their houses in Japan and the similarities with the way we live in New Zealand.

My host family took me to a museum and an old castle, which allowed me to learn about people and places of centuries ago.
I did other cool things with my host family too. We drove along a river that had lots of cherry blossoms either side, the view was amazing. We also went to a place where you can make fake food. I made some lettuce and tempura. It was hard, but enjoyable. In the evenings, I helped my seven-year-old host brother with his English homework, reading out words and having a small conversation. He was full of energy and a lot of fun.

I’ll always remember how welcoming everyone in Gujohachiman was - the Japanese students and teachers, our host families and everyone we met along the way.

In Gujohachiman, some of us started to feel unwell and unfortunately we had to leave Ms Evans and one of our students who was hospitalised for flu behind, when we took the train to Hiroshima for three nights.
In Hiroshima we explored the Peace Park and went to the Peace Memorial Museum. Learning about the atomic bomb and seeing some of the ruins that remained after the bomb, made what happened to the city in World War II very real to all of us.

The bug that started to “bug” some of us in Gujohachiman got to me in Hiroshima. I’m very grateful to Ms Evans for taking me to the doctors not long after she and the student who was in hospital in Gujohachiman, caught up with us again. All-in-all, almost half of Ms Evans’s time on the trip was taken up looking after sick students. A huge shout out to her and Ms Taylor for taking care of us so well. We were in the best hands imaginable.

After my morning at the doctors, we joined the rest of our group at Miyajima Island. When we arrived, the tide was so low that we could walk out and touch the torii (gate) of the Itsukushima Shrine. Standing underneath the gate was magical, it was tall and very strong. Covering the sand around the gate were coins. There were so many of them. The sunlight shining on the coins and the water beyond, made the gate so much more beautiful. There were also deer that wandered the streets and mountains of Miyajima. They were friendly and allowed us to pat them.

From Hiroshima, the Shinkansen took us to Kyoto for our last three nights in Japan. A highlight was a narrow shopping street with stalls and street food along both sides. The street was packed and the variety of food that was available was almost overwhelming. It was another opportunity for all of us to practice our Japanese in an authentic setting.

On Saturday morning 20 April, we boarded the train in Kyoto and headed straight for Tokyo for our evening flight back to New Zealand. We were all sad that our adventure was coming to an end, but also excited to see our families again and to enjoy the last week of the school holidays in Whitianga.

My two weeks in Japan were one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. I’m privileged to attend a school where I’m not only able to learn Japanese in the classroom, but was given an opportunity to experience the language in action. I’m more motivated than ever to put everything I have into my Japanese language studies. I have no doubt that I’ll visit Japan at some point in the future again and I want to be much more fluent when I do so.

Pictured: The six senior Japanese language students who participated in this years’ Mercury Bay Area School study trip to Japan.From the left - Hannah Humphris, Ellise Williams, Cara Bosman, Hannah Murphy, Aidan Kays and Patrick Ear. The small town of Shirakawago is in the background.


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