2014 Kurashiki Student Ambassador Essay: Isaiah Hastings
Before I launch into a summary of my trip to Japan, I want to be sure to thank those from the Japan-America Society and from Kurashiki City who made this extraordinary experience possible: Patty Woods and Lydia Kanki, who organized the trip and prepared us before we left; James Benson and Reito Adachi, our navigators during the group events in Kurashiki; my host families, the Endo family and the Fujii family; and everyone else who had a hand in allowing the four of us from Kansas City to visit our sister city in Japan. For everything all of these people did to allow me to visit Kurashiki, I am more grateful than words can express.
I had been to Japan once before this trip, but my previous experience was of a completely different nature (being more of a study tour, while this trip consisted almost entirely of homestays), so while I had travelled overseas before, this trip was very much a new experience. The first “new experience” of the trip was navigating the Dallas and Tokyo airports and getting to and on our flights without a chaperone, which thankfully went very smoothly (especially considering I had been warned time and time again that I would probably have problems taking my violin on board the planes), and after a full day of travel, we finally arrived in Osaka. Waiting for us in Osaka was the ever-friendly James Benson, with whom we, after finding our hotel, walked around the neighboring streets in search of food. We eventually settled for a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant where we had, among other things, yakitori. Everything was very hot, but very good, and eating at that style of restaurant was, again, a new experience.
The next day, we rode the Shinkansen to Kurashiki, where we met our first host families. For the first week, I was with the Endo family, which consisted of my host father, Shin, my host mother, Keiko, and Kou-chan, who is quite possibly the cutest baby I have ever met. From that first afternoon, when we went to an udon restaurant and then rode bikes around Kurashiki, I knew we were going to get along well. With the Endo family I went to many different places in and around Kurashiki and the neighboring city of Okayama. It would take hours to describe in detail all of the neat places we went, so I’ll limit myself to a brief description of some of the highlights. Early on, we went to a museum showcasing, of all things, Japanese weapons modeled after what I eventually figured out were weapons of characters from the Dynasty Warriors video games. We went to Korakuen, one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan, and Okayama Castle, which overlooked the huge garden. I also spent a good deal of time with both of my host families in the Bikan Historical District, right in the center of Kurashiki, and with the Endo family I had the opportunity to walk through the Ohara Museum of Art, a western-style art museum situated along the canal that runs through the center of the Bikan Historican District.
While I was with the Endo family, there were two activities involving all four of us who came from Kansas City. We went on a day trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima, led by Reito Adachi. In Hiroshima, we visited the Peace Memorial, which was extremely powerful. Although I had seen photographs of the Atomic Bomb Dome, none of them compare to actually seeing the huge structure up close, standing as a testament to the atrocities that brought the Pacific theater of World War II to a close. The Peace Memorial Museum was very impressive and horribly saddening. Hearing story after story of those who died in the blast reminded me of visiting the areas afflicted by the 2011 triple disaster when I came to Japan a year prior. The key difference, though, is that the bombing of Hiroshima was caused by human hands.
Visiting Miyajima, on the other hand, was considerably more cheerful. We rode a ferry from Hiroshima to Miyajima, where we visit Itsukushima, a shrine consisting of bridges spanning shallow water. There were many deer wandering around Miyajima as well, and while we were there, we made a snack consisting of chocolate inside a cake shaped like a maple leaf, and then we had Okonomiyaki for lunch, after which we returned to Kurashiki. A few days later, we went to Kurashiki’s city hall, where we met the delegation of students travelling from Kurashiki to Kansas City, and then participated in a meeting acknowledging all three delegations: the one from Kansas City, the one to Kansas City, and the one to Christchurch, New Zealand.
Outside of visiting places of historical significance, I also did some more everyday (but no less entertaining) things with the Endo family. I visited three different bookstores, and spent a good deal of time wandering through each one. Japanese bookstores are fantastic. I also had the opportunity to visit an arcade and play Persona 4: The Ultimax Ultra Suplex Hold, a fighting game developed by Arc System Works and Atlus that, despite having been released in arcades in Japan, had, at that time, yet to come to the United States. Given that I’m a huge fan of the series, I was quite excited to have the opportunity to play the game several months before the U.S. release. Near the end of my stay with the Endo family, we went to an eel restaurant in the Bikan Historical District, and I discovered that eel is absolutely fantastic.
Halfway through the trip, we changed host families, and I spent the second half of my stay with the Fujii family, which consisted of my host father, Akio, my host mother, Takako, and my host brother, Katsuyoshi. With the Fujii family, I took two longer trips—one to Izumo Taisha, a famous shrine in Shimane prefecture, and one across the Seto-Ohashi Bridge to Konpirasan in Shikoku. It’s also worth noting that while in Shikoku I had the best kakigori I ate during the entire trip—and I had kakigori several times, so that’s saying something. I also had the chance to visit the workshops and private galleries of some friends of the Fujii family’s who, on top of being impressive artists and sculptors, were fantastic at cooking.
During the latter half of the trip, the four of us from Kansas City went on an excursion in which we visited historical buildings (one of which contained the nicest piano I have ever seen—I wish I could have played it) and went yachting. We also visited two high schools and conversed with students there, and later in the week, we went to Kurashiki’s summer festival and met with some of those same students, which was one of the highlights of the trip.
At the end of the third week, we toured Kyoto briefly, seeing both the historical architecture of Kyoto’s temples and shrines and the bustling, modern heart of the city, after which we flew home. The entire experience was wonderful, and I feel like I learned more about Japanese language and culture than I thought possible in a mere three weeks. Once again, I would like to thank everyone who made this possible. I will never forget my time in Kurashiki.