Day 6: Ainu Understanding

The Ainu (pronounced “I knew”) are the indigenous peoples of Japan, and today our grade 9 Japan Exchange group had the opportunity and privilege to learn about this historically marginalized people in their ancestral home of Hokkaido. Throughout the day, students were asked to consciously draw parallels, where possible, between the plight of the Ainu and our own Canadian indigenous peoples.

Our day began in Sapporo where our guide took us on one last walking tour through the city, past the clock tower, Sapporo Tower, and back into the underground labyrinth of shops.

At 11am we hopped aboard our rapid train south towards the small town of Shiraoi, the epicentre of Ainu cultural understanding. The landscape in Hokkaido has been dramatic and breathtaking. On one side of the rail the Pacific Ocean stretches out, and on the other gently rolling slopes rise up to form snow-capped shield volcanoes.

As we got off the train in Shiraoi we were greeted wit the gleeful cries of local junior high students, excited to see foreigners in their sleepy locale. “So beautiful!” and “I love you!” cried the school kids – and that was just what they said to Mr. Burtt!

Our bus wove its way through town towards the Porotokotan, an Ainu village museum and presentation house next to a lake. Here, students saw local animals including a couple of captive bears in enclosures. We were assured that the bears had a larger recreation area and that they were just recently waking from hibernation, but it was sad nonetheless to see them in such cramped quarters. In the village we also got to enjoy a music and dance performance in a traditional thatched Ainu house. Some Handsworth students even had the courage to join in on the show. Afterwards we wandered through the museum, reflecting on the cultural legacy of the Ainu and the comparisons to be made with Canadian indigenous peoples.

Our hotel tonight is situated in the heart of hot-spring country. The thermal vents with their sulphur scents surround the area around the hotel. We took the opportunity to head out in the late afternoon to visit a local footbath, as well as Jigokudani, also known as ‘Hell Valley’ because of its geothermal activity. The smell was so powerful in some places the students had to cover their noses with towels.

Tonight we enjoy a sumptuous buffet dinner at the hotel. Students are writing in their journals in their tatami rooms, or in the lobby. As some of the only western foreigners we’re pretty popular here and have been making easy friends with locals who want to chat.

Tomorrow we head further south to beautiful Hakodate!

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Day 5: Sweet Sapporo!

Hokkaiko, the northernmost island of Japan, is also Japan’s largest prefecture. And although it has particularly bitter winters, the early spring sun shone brightly for us today. We bid sayonara to Hiroshima in the morning, boarding our JAL flight to Hokkaido’s capital city, Sapporo, at 10:50. The runway we lifted off from at the Hiroshima airport was particularly remarkable, as it has been extended and suspended in the air to accommodate a greater length.

Upon arriving in Sapporo we were greeted by our JTB guide, Tomomo. She provided insightful commentary about Hokkaido and its peoples on our drive towards the centre of the city on our charter bus. Among the things she discussed were included great information about the local indigenous people of Hokkaido, the Ainu, who we will be learning a lot more about in the days to come. It was uncanny to hear some of the many historical parallels between the Ainu and the indigenous people of Canada.

In Sapporo our first stop was Mt. Moiwa, where we got the chance to take a gondola ride to the summit for great views of the city. By evening we had checked into our hotel and were ready to take the city on by foot. One of the most interesting features of Sapporo is the extensive network of underground walkways, shops, and restaurants. Our group took advantage of the pedestrian friendly underground and wove our way through the subterranean city towards a well-known little street named Ramen-Alley. Hokkaido is well known for many foods, including its dairy products, but tonight for dinner we had the chance to experience Hokkaido’s famous miso ramen. We had a quick dessert and shopping stop at the underground mall on the way home, and are now back at our hotel journaling and prepping our bags for the morning.

Tomorrow we pack an overnight bag for the day and send our suitcases ahead. Our focus tomorrow is on learning about Ainu culture and will be highlighted by a museum visit in Shiraoi.

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Day 4: Hiroshima Highlights

Today was an exceptionally busy day for us. After grabbing breakfast close to the hotel we jumped aboard our first Shinkansen. The bullet train whisked us south towards the Peace City of Hiroshima. After dropping our bags off at the hotel we immediately headed out towards the Hondori Shopping Arcade for lunch. By early afternoon we were back marching towards the Peace Memorial Museum and children’s monument. We paused close to the Atom Bomb dome where we sat and discussed some of the historical context of the bombing of Hiroshima in World War 2. Ms. Marshall then led the students through the folding of paper cranes. Next we had the extraordinary privilege of hearing an in-utero survivor of the Atomic Bombing speak about the horrors of atomic weaponry and the impact it has had on his family and the wider community. We paused to lay our folded cranes beneath the statue of Sadaka and then headed into the Peace Memorial Museum. Inside the museum students learned more about the history of the city. With the sunlight slowly dimming we decided to do one more late excursion out to see the famous torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island. We jumped aboard a train which took us to a ferry onward to the island. Here we took some fun group shots and enjoyed the ambience and spectacle of the majestic torii gate by night. Then we turned back around to train back to Hiroshima station for a very special local delicacy for dinner – okonomiyaki! This dish, while not unique to the Hiroshima region, is particularly well known here. We arrived back at the hotel late at night around 10, just in time to write in our journals before bed. Tomorrow we catch a flight in the morning to head north to Hokkaido!

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Day 3: The News from Nara

The weather was in our favour again today, because despite ominous clouds overhead we managed to get all of our site-seeing in before the night’s rains arrived. Our day began in earnest with our first train ride of the day from Kyoto to Nara. Students learned the ins and outs of the JR Train system and how to use their new train passes properly. Upon arriving in Nara we were greeted by the famous Nara deer, who bow for anyone willing to give them a biscuit as reward. As tourists are oft to do here, many of our students opted to feed the deer from their own mouths with some amusing results. Next we left the deer to go and visit Todai-Ji Temple – one of the largest and oldest wooden structures in the world. Here students tried crawling through a hole in the base of one of the temple pillars to prove their capacity for enlightenment! After lunch by Nara station we hopped back on the train to see the Fushimi Inari shrine close to Kyoto. Here the rows and rows of tori gates up the side of the Inari mountain made for great photos. A group of about 10 students made the effort to race to the top of the mountain during our 90 minutes here. In the evening students had dinner in the Kyoto Station area, reflected in their journals and once again enjoyed the spa and hospitality of the traditional Sanoya Inn. Tomorrow we grab our first bullet train south towards the city of Hiroshima.

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Day 2: Kyoto Amazing Race Day!

Today was a day of firsts for our group. It was our first full day in Japan, and as a group we managed to squeeze in our first experience that was unique to this year’s experience. As everyone knows this year is the first time we’re including Hokkaido on our itinerary, but we’re also finding opportunities to infuse other new, unique and different cultural experiences along the way. Our day began, maps and bus passes in hand, with visits to the Golden Temple of Kinkakuji, the Zen rock garden of Ryoan-ji and the Gion district of Kyoto. At Kinkakuji we ran into a famous familiar face in Conan O’Brien, who was gracious enough to take a couple of selfies with the kids. From there we moved on to take in sweeping and solemn views of the city from atop the city graveyard, and then headed back through the throngs of people to go and see a traditional Japanese dance performance – a first for any Handsworth exchange group. And although the rain threatened throughout the day, it wasn’t until early evening when we finally started to feel our first drops of precipitation. A late afternoon visit to Kiyomizu Dera temple, and some street-side shopping was squeezed in before heading back to the train station under brooding skies for dinner. This evening we unwind at the hotel by writing in our journals and visiting the sento spa. Tomorrow it’s on to another old capital of Japan – Nara!

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Day 1: Yokoso Japan!

The welcome signs in the airport read “Yokoso Japan!” Welcome to Japan! 

And we’ve arrived! After 10 hours from Vancouver to Tokyo, dropping our bags off on the truck to Inage, and then getting on another hour flight to Osaka and a 45 min bus ride to Kyoto we finally arrived exhausted to our traditional Japanese style hotel just outside of Kyoto Station. A few of the students we’re hungry, so a handful of us went out to a local conbini for snacks before turning in for the night. We have a big day ahead tomorrow with our Kyoto Amazing Race day planned! The weather forecast for tomorrow is calling for a bit of rain, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed. Oyasuminasai! Good Night!

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Japan Upcoming!

Welcome to the weblog for the grade 9 Handsworth trip to Japan for 2017!  This site will be updated daily as we travel across the country between April 4th and 18th, 2017.

Before we leave you may want to brush up on your Japanese, or learn a little bit more about the places we are going and things we’ll be seeing.

April 4th we will meet at the JAL counter of the international departures area of YVR airport at 10:40am.  We will NOT be meeting at that school that morning.

In the meantime, here’s a few sites for you check out.  Click on the links above to see information about language and some of the locations we’re going to.  Here are two guides on Japan from Japan Airlines and All Nippon Air.



And finally, here’s a look back at last year’s Japan blog!:

Mr. Barrett, Ms. Marshall, Mr. Burtt & Dr. Overgaard

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