Editor’s note: Register-Pajaronian reporter Todd Guild is traveling with the Watsonville Sister City Exchange program to Kawakami, Japan. Depending on the availability of Internet connections, he will continue to report on his experiences, and share those of the students.
TOKYO — We arrived at Tokyo Haneda Airport at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday Japan time, which was 5:30 a.m. in California.
So, according to our body clocks, we should be just getting up and starting our day. Instead, we’re going to sleep after a grueling 11-hour flight.
We arrived and went through customs with few hitches, then took a 30-minute trip on packed local trains through stations that were bustling with hundreds of people despite the late hour.
It was a challenge keeping the group together, but we arrived at the New Otari Inn in the outskirts of Tokyo, and the kids are settling in for the night.
In the morning, we will eat breakfast, then leave at 8 a.m. for Kawakami.
We left the hotel in Tokyo after a buffet-style breakfast featuring several Japanese and Western foods, and boarded a tour bus for the three-hour ride to Kawakami.
Our tour guide is Yohei Kazama, a tall, thin man with a quick smile who gained my respect by successfully bringing 15 teenagers and four adults, all of them exhausted from an epic flight, from the airport in Tokyo via two trains through a crowded city to their hotel.
Along the way to Kawakami I saw a sign offering gas for 160 Yen per liter, which equals out to roughly $8 per gallon. It’s no surprise, then, that so many people opt for public transportation.
According to Kazama, the train system offers several lines that span the entirety of the island. Japanese trains are famously efficient, and when a schedule says a train will arrive at 11:22 a.m., that is precisely when it will be at the platform.
The bus wound through the streets of Tokyo, which are so narrow in places that the bus had a hard time navigating.
Even the main thoroughfares through the huge city are small compared to the highway and Interstate systems of the U.S.
In addition, some of the buildings in the dense city are no wider than a single apartment and crammed in between other tall buildings almost as an afterthought. Everything here seems compacted by necessity to accommodate the fact that several million people live on a relatively small island.
When asked about their first impressions the Japanese students visiting Watsonville almost invariably remark about how big things are—the wide expanses of farmland, the wide structures, the wide streets.
The city streets gradually were replaced by tree-covered hillsides as the bus entered rural areas and snow-capped Mount Fuji appeared briefly in the distance
As we neared the school, the students chatted loudly in the back of the bus, snapping photographs and singing songs.
We stopped once for lunch, and for ice cream at the Jersey Hut ice cream shop, a rustic wooden building nestled in a valley that offers sweeping views of the nearby mountains. There, we ate some of the richest, smoothest most delicious ice cream I’ve ever tasted and briefly took part in a footbath, which evidently is somewhat of a local tradition.
Upon arrival at the school, we were marched into the massive gymnasium, where a quartet of students played music and the rest of the students sat politely in folding chairs, applauding as we entered.
“This is awkward,” Steven Hernandez said, not being used to such attention.
In fact, the Japanese students sat politely throughout the ceremony, their hands folded neatly in their laps.
Built four years ago to be eco-friendly, Kawakami Junior High School utilizes a gigantic passive solar system that covers most of the rooftops and provides roughly half of the school’s heat during the cold winder months, said Vice-Principal Yoshimi Nakazawa.
Moreover, the rooms are lit by large numbers of windows, and the building is made from locally sourced wood, Nakazawa said.
But it’s clear that the building’s architects also took into account the aesthetics of the structure. Kawakami Junior High is beautiful, with tall ceilings, a grand entrance and polished, natural wood floors and walls.
The school is spotless and gleaming, thanks to the school policy of having the students do the cleaning.
Administrators say the policy gives the students a sense of ownership in their school and encourages them to take care of it. Indeed it’s obvious that the staff and students are proud of the building. The students clean the place,
Finally we were introduced to our host families, and after a welcome dinner we embarked on the second half of the journey, and essentially the reason we all came—to experience traditional Japanese home life.
“I feel pretty confident about it,” said Karla Soto as we prepared to meet our families. “I’m really good with people, so I’m not worried.”
On Friday, we were planning to go to an amusement park at the base of Mount Fuji that evidently boasts the second tallest roller coaster in the world.
Share on Facebook