In March 2018, I joined an Upper School global travel trip to Japan with 16 high school students and teachers Saya McKenna and Naoko Akiyama. We explored the stunning cities of Kyoto and Tokyo and walked the Nakasendo Trail, a historic public walking trail with traditional villages and inns along the way.
During our travels, I observed a respectful, trusting, and cohesive sense of community in both the cities and in the countryside. I was particularly struck by the public messaging: while exiting the subway station in Kyoto, we passed by a sign that said, “Are you inconveniencing others?” This sign is one of many examples of the way Japanese culture emphasizes the role of the individual as part of a larger community.
I was also struck by the quiet, cleanliness, and privacy afforded on the subway and trains. Japanese citizens do not use cell phones to talk in public and there is one small “phone booth” on commuter trains to make a call.
Our guide, Mario Anton of Walk Japan, articulated the importance of leaving no trace (or, according to a Japanese proverb, “When a bird flies away, it leaves no ripple”) as we moved through all aspects of our journey. We quickly became used to acknowledging those around us with nods and small bows, carefully queueing in areas of public space in a neat and tidy way, and being conscious of our public selves.
We also spent four nights in historic and traditional inns along the Nakasendo Trail. These inns provided us with a deeper understanding of traditional Japanese cultural practices and more practice in sensitively sharing space. Separate slippers are worn in inns, shrines, even bathrooms in order to keep homes and temples clean and to separate inside wear from outdoor wear.
Perhaps one of my favorite rituals was donning our yukata—traditional robes we were all required to wear once we bathed—each evening for dinner. It somehow made our communal dining all the more enjoyable to look around and see everyone in the room wearing the same beautiful robes.
Our trip included visits to two schools: one rural elementary school and one large urban middle-high school in Tokyo. In each school, students were tasked with cleaning their classrooms and public, shared space. Our Head-Royce students joined in the cleaning efforts by sweeping classroom floors and emptying trash cans. Throughout our travels, I continued to marvel at the attention individuals pay to caring for each other, public spaces and the communal good.
Head-Royce has a long-standing global education program that seeks to provide unique opportunities for students in all three divisions to extend on-campus learning in new ways. Fourth through sixth graders recently visited Quebec on a language and culture trip and we have an upcoming Upper School France exchange and a summer Middle School Latin-focused trip to Rome and Italy. These trips are more than a tourist view of a country—students dive deep into culture, history, tradition, and language.
Japan allowed the 19 of us to explore an exquisite country and learn to be more attentive to those around us and take extra care to support the community’s needs.
Crystal M. Land is the Head of School for Head-Royce School in Oakland, California. She (pictured above on the right), along with other faculty and students, visited Japan, traversing the Nakasendo Trail.