One of the most common questions asked of me during my travels was "Why Japan?" My stock reply was "My parents lived here when they were younger, and I wanted to experience the culture firsthand." True. But mostly I came to Japan, and specifically to Kyoto, because of a conversation I had some time ago with my best friend, from whose journal the quotation at the top of this page was lifted. I wrote down snippets of the conversation in my own journal, which I came across later when deciding where to travel:
"New York is the size of corporations...Kyoto is human-sized...Everyday is treasure hunting, but I still haven't found the greatest treasure...You could spend six weeks, months, years digging through the city's layers, in search of some mysterious essence...The beauty of travel is to be swallowed by your location."
I wanted to go treasure hunting myself, so I made arrangements with a volunteer program through workaway.info and booked a ticket to Japan.
This is what I found.
"We get strength and encouragement from watching children." -Hayao Miyazaki
Upon arriving in Kyoto, I quickly fell into a pleasant routine.
I got up early on weekdays, did my house chores and had breakfast with the other volunteers before going to the Yasui Kindergarten or the Utanosato Nursery, where I took care of babies and kids ages 1-7 from 9am-2pm.
My responsibilities were to make sure the little ones were safe and happy, and lend the teachers a helping hand, which mostly involved cleaning. Teaching English was not a priority.
Because we did not speak each other's language, the days passed by with minimal verbal communication. Stripped of common words and shared cultural nuances, we developed a vocabulary of kindness. The little ones came to know me as "Mia-San" or "Canada Mia," and slowly but surely I learned most of their names (there were hundreds of students).
One time I was buying groceries at the local supermarket when I heard a (big) little voice shout "Mia-Saaaaan!" I turned around and one of the four-year-olds from the nursery, Nika-Chan, was barrelling towards me. She jumped into my arms, took off my glasses, and burst out laughing.
A country's education system, especially at the primary level, is one of the clearest windows into how societal norms and expectations are forged and inculcated. From my observations, here are some things that I found interesting/surprising:
- There is very little conventional, Western-style teaching that takes place during the day, by which I mean learning math,
- Discipline consists of moral modelling, i.e. if a student hits a teacher, instead of reprimanding him she'll pretend to cry in order to illicit a reaction of guilt.
When I wasn't volunteering, I had plenty of free time to explore Kyoto and its surroundings. Usually I did so on bike, visiting temples and gardens, museums and castles, restaurants and shops. I often got lost, and would spend hours marvelling at the ancient architecture or reading in one of the city's many parks. On weekends the other volunteers and I would venture further out to Nara, Kobe, or Osaka, where we would sing karaoke, go to arcades, and eat lots and lots of 100-yen sushi.
The solo excursion
But of all the things to do, my favourite was hiking. It's a goal of mine to climb at least one mountain wherever I visit, or if the terrain is flat then to go on a long hike. Kyoto is a hiker's heaven, located in a valley in the eastern part of the mountainous region known as the Tamba highlands. The city is completely surrounded by mountains, and rivers flow throughout it.