Fifth-graders find the Heart of Japan

Something magical can happen to a child who goes on a Capstone trip after years of TIS language immersion.

Rocketing across Japan in a bullet train is cool, as Yukako Owen and her four fifth-graders did recently. So is reaching the top of Tokyo Tower to gaze across the megalopolis of 28 million, as the kids did with some of us parent hangers-on.

But the real magic comes during home stays, when each child goes solo, experiencing family life in a culture so different from our own.

Connor Onitsuka's home-stay brother, Seiichi, started out shy. But they soon became friends. Seiichi shared Connor's passions for soccer, curry and baseball.

Jack Malsin was nervous about the home-stay concept. But he plunged into the experience, writing a journal that he may share someday with his grandchildren.

Nehalem Kunkle-Read found her host sister, Ellena, was much like her, playing the violin, lip-syncing for You Tube, and enjoying animals, basketball, and reading -- notably Harry Potter.    Katie Yotsuuye loved the udon breakfast noodles her family served. She made crafts with her home-stay sister, Kaname.

"They said I could come back anytime," Katie said.

Yukako-sensei meticulously organized the Oct. 24-Nov. 7 trip, while preserving an air of spontaneity and discovery for Japan veterans and newcomers alike. The group, including six parents and Katie's little sister, Anna, learned on the fly how to roll luggage through train-station crowds, darting on and off cars with occasional drama.

A sleek white bullet train whisked us past Mount Fuji, shrouded in mist, to Kyoto, the old imperial capital. We explored Nijo Castle, tiptoeing across wide floorboards built to squeak like nightingales to warn of intruders.

We toured Heian Shrine and its stunning gardens, stopping to feed the fish. The kids made works of art at the Kyoto Crafts Center, and marveled at the Golden Pavilion and the Pure Water Temple. Everyone confronted the extremes of Japanese restrooms, ranging from old-fashioned squat toilets to sensor-equipped technological wonders that do everything except button your pants, emitting fake flushing sounds to mask embarrassing noises while conserving water.

In Nara, aggressive deer pursued us for handouts, biting bottoms at will. At a temple housing a giant Buddha, all the kids and some of the parents squeezed through a hole the size of the Buddha's nostril carved in a wooden column.

Somehow in Kyoto, Nehalem lost her camera. An officer at a "koban," neighborhood police station, diligently wrote a report. Hmmm, would a cop do that in the United States? And would a home-stay grandmother, on hearing of the loss, buy new cameras for both Nehalem and her host sister?

The TIS students attended school with their host siblings outside Tokyo, finding the classes big, the students friendly, and the food sometimes unusual. Even numbers-whiz Connor found the math challenging. Traditional-manners class was taxing, too. But the TIS students communicated easily in Japanese, stumped only by some slang and a few words such as "stock market" and "orphanage."

While the children settled in, TIS parents explored Japan, basking on the beaches of Okinawa and shivering in the mountains of Nagano. The Yotsuuyes -- who had traveled first to China, so Katie could visit the village where she started out -- toured Tokyo's hotspots.

Everyone reunited for a banquet with the vivacious host moms, whose gusto for  celebration quite possibly reflected profound relief at relinquishing their young foreign charges.

Goodbyes were filled with hugs and tears and promises to keep in touch. Some of our hosts waved us off at the airport until we at last passed out of sight through security.

The TIS kids had missed Halloween, Obama's victory, and family and friends back in the States. But they returned so much richer in friendships, language and experience, bringing back the magic they found in Japan.

-- Rich Read, Japanese Track 5th grade parent

Former TIS Board President