In late July of 2018, twenty-three students and two teachers got the opportunity to experience a cultural immersion when they traveled to Japan. As the group left Ridgewood High School, they were eager to begin their journey but knew little of what to expect as they flew to the other side of the world. The only thing they did know was that they were being sent to Japan on the terms of the Kakehashi Project, introduced by The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to create a cultural, social, and political bridge between America and Japan. In order to achieve this goal, the program fully funds the travels of American students to Japan and Japanese students to America in hopes that this will strengthen the bond between the two countries. The program sends thousands of American students per year to partake in a homestay program, as well as experience the culture, government, and schools in Japan.
Ridgewood High School students experienced both vibrant city life and rural living on their once-in-a-lifetime trip. Once the students arrived in Tokyo, they realized that Tokyo was unlike most cities in the United States: it was clean, not congested, and was quite energy efficient. In fact, every hotel room required the occupant to put their hotel key in a slot to power the room, ensuring that power was not being wasted. In the city, the students saw various shrines, which are sacred buildings that hold religious value. They soon realized how much every Japanese local appreciated these shrines, and learned little traditions such as the washing of hands, rinsing of mouth to cleanse the soul, writing of wishes, and throwing coins to pray. In the District of Asakusa students found the Buddhist temple Senso-Ji, which was especially fascinating due its size, architectural style, and empowering structure. Students also discovered the value of yen as they explored the traditional markets surrounding the shrine. Many chose to purchase Kimonos to celebrate their new excitement surrounding Japanese culture. Clare McCooe, a Ridgewood High School student said, “I still wear my Kimono everyday to remember and celebrate Japan”. In addition to the shrines, students were also able to see Harajuku, the pop-culture section of Tokyo. Similar to Times Square, Harajuku held some of the trendiest food crazes and most popular anime characters for the students to experience and enjoy.
Although students thoroughly enjoyed their stay in Tokyo, the experiences with their homestay family were by far the most influential part of their trip. They spent three days and two nights with their homestay families in the Tochigi Prefecture, which consists of immense farmland and beautiful scenery, and is best known for its strawberry production. While staying with the families, students were able to taste new foods, experience new traditions and learn fun, new ways to communicate and create bonds. The students expected their families to have a child their age and speak English, so it was quite a surprise when many only knew the word “hello”. Therefore, for many students Google Translate soon became their best friend. Despite the language barrier, many students became close with their families because of the host’s generous willingness to share their culture and their excitement to entertain American students. Hannah Thompson, another student who traveled to Japan said, “I still communicate with my family through Facebook and my host mom became like a real mom to me. I can’t wait to be reunited with my family.”
The group also spent a day at Sano High School, meeting students their age and participating in a live debate. Ridgewood students learned a lot about the differences in Japanese education, such as different summer breaks and a more structured learning environment. This was the first time many of the Japanese students were putting their English to use, and it was exciting for all. After the debate, students celebrated with refreshments and by screaming Kumpai, which means cheers.
Students left Japan with a new perspective on life in different parts of the world. In order to celebrate their new love for Japan, those who traveled are meeting to plan ways to contribute to the Kakehashi Program. As of now, they intend to share their experiences with students and faculty, as well as participate in Asian Fest. Going to Japan was an experience that all the students and teachers will remember and cherish. Many Ridgewood students are now eager to bridge the gap between America and Japan by sharing their knowledge with others.
Hannah Thompson & Caroline Gervolino
Graphic: Sarah Gnall