Reflections on the First Week

Today’s entry is by Christie Herbert, Academic Director.



At the Tokyo National Museum: Culmination of a Week of Intensive Study

After a trip that essentially took 24 hours, and one night at a hotel near Narita airport in Tokyo, our group made our way to the National Olympic Youth Center in the heart of Tokyo. Built for the summer Olympics in 1964, the campus shares an architectural kinship with our Edward Durrell-designed buildings in Vermont, including the colonnades that connect the buildings. The campus is huge and accommodates educational groups from Japan and around the world. There is a cafeteria, several restaurants, a coffee shop called “Friends, and a bath house with a large Japanese soaking pool. Sangubashi, a local town with a wonderful mix of small restaurants, and a train station, is a five minute walk from where we are staying. The women are on one floor, and the men on the floor above, with everyone in very small single rooms, and a nice shared common space, where people can gather to watch Japanese television, do homework, eat, etc. The Center is situated adjacent to Yoyogi Park, and several students have gone running each day there. It is an easy 20 minute walk through the park to the Meiji Shrine, and the districts of Harjuku, and Shinjuku. A perfect location!

The students have acclimated well to finding where they want to eat, and exploring Tokyo. On Thursday afternoon, they were given an assignment to explore a district in Tokyo in small groups. Because Japan is so safe, and they all have a card with our address in Japanese in case they need help finding their way back, it made it easy for them to be adventurous and not become too preoccupied with getting lost.

This week we met every day in our classroom (very nice space with air conditioning and modular furniture) from 9-12, and essentially laid down much of the informational infrastructure for our trip, covering the topics of Japanese cultural values, history, language, Shintoism, Buddhism, and core aesthetic principles. Students have assigned readings each evening, and I design the classes to be as interactive as possible, with a lot of discussion, small group work, reflective writing, mapping of ideas, and use of visuals and slides. The students are remarkably engaged—eager to learn, and ready and willing to work. Ruth taught a short lesson on Japanese writing and from the back of the room I could see all the students taking notes, photographing the board, and expressing real curiosity and excitement about what they were learning. Yesterday we explored such concepts as mono-no-aware (the transience of things) and wabi-sabi (the aesthetic of appreciating the beauty of that which is fading/fleeting), and the many varieties of elegance in Japanese design and art. Students were able to make connections between the Buddhist concept of emptiness (ma) and the use of empty spaces or emphasis on negative space in Japanese art. In other words, their knowledge of the ways in which Japanese art and culture intersect is growing exponentially.

In the afternoon, we all went to the Tokyo National Museum, where we walked through an exhibit called “Highlights of Japanese Art,” which could not have been a better reinforcement of all that we studied this first week. The students were asking a lot of questions, taking pictures of the work, and spending time with particular pieces of art. We now have the weekend off, with optional outings each day and time to do laundry, and complete the first bigger project on Japanese culture. On Monday we have class in the morning and go to the Ghibli museum in the afternoon. Tuesday we take the bullet train to Kyoto.


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