“The Best Three Weeks of My Life”
In late July, a small group of students chaperoned by Middle School Drama Teacher Tim Reagan landed at Washington Dulles Airport, concluding their immersive three-week stay in Japan.
The trip was one of Sidwell’s numerous global engagement programs, which encompass areas as divergent as the rural communities of the Appalachian mountains to the sandy beaches of Guanacaste, Costa Rica.
The group this year included six Sidwell students, as well as a Richard Wang, a junior from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Sidwell senior Sophia Roberts-Weigert said she was initially drawn to the trip because she was eager to learn about Japanese culture and had a particular interest in Japanese artwork.
Junior Sydney Yi said that her Korean-American heritage played a large role in her decision to apply to the trip. Yi explained her belief that a strong sense of unresolved tension still exists between the Japanese and Korean populaces as a result of the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th century and the ensuing sexual enslavement of thousands of Korean women. “There’s still a lot of residual animosity between the two countries, and I kind of wanted to address that on my own without having other Korean people tell me just automatically to hate Japanese people, despite never having met a Japanese person in my life,” she said. “I would say now that Japan has reversed my understanding of this issue … it’s not beneficial to South Korea or Japan to hold onto these feelings of anger when they could be moving forward.”
The students began and ended the excursion at Narita International Airport and spent the majority of the first week touring as a group before breaking off to stay with local Japanese host families. A central aspect of the program was a several-day trip to Hiroshima, where the group visited both a memorial and museum dedicated to the lives lost in the atomic bombing.
“You could literally see the shadows of people who were there during the bombing,” said Roberts-Weigert, describing the haunting photos the group saw of human figures burned onto Hiroshima’s streets. The students were also fortunate enough to speak with Keiko Ogura, a victim of the 1945 attack.
“You learn about the bombing at school here… but I don’t think a textbook and a couple of words on a page can really prepare you for how just gut-wrenchingly awful the Hiroshima bombing actually was,” Yi said. “You look at everything, and you see how many people died, and you see what the after-effects have been… It’s so much more than what the textbook captures, that it kind of shocks you for a bit.”
The students also visited various Buddhist temples throughout the trip and spent one night at Manpuku-ji Temple, where they participated in an early morning reading of the sutras. The trip itself is funded by Chief Priest Kimura of Zenrinji Temple, who the students had the opportunity to meet on several occasions. Senior Zachary Wu said Kimura, who has been sponsoring the trip since as early as 1985, “wanted to give American students this unique perspective on Japan.”
The students navigated their way through the island nation by means of the Japanese metro, taxis, and bus system. They were aided by three tour guides, Akira Kaji of the International Education Center, Rei Hayashi, and Noriko Nakahata, with whom the students still remain in touch even over a month after their return to the United States.
Other highlights of the trip included spending the day at Katase-Enoshima beach, learning kanji calligraphy from students at Igusa High School, and climbing Mount Takao at seven in the morning.
“I said this during the trip, but I’ll say it again,” said Wu. “I honestly think these three weeks were the best three weeks of my life… Both from just the sheer amount of fun I had, all the friends I made – both in Japan and in the group that we traveled with – and the additional perspective that the trip gave me. I loved it.”
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