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Discovering Japan

Before my experience in Tokyo, I always pictured it as one of the “busiest cities” in the world, and perhaps, it was. However, when I slowed down to really observe it, I began to admire the respect and kindness of the Tokyoites. In some ways, my entire trip was like this—a real-life narrative in which expectation after expectation gave way to a reality that I never could have imagined...

In the first few days after arrival, we visited several sites and museums including Tokyo Skytree, Senso-ji, Ghibli Museum, the Cup Noodles Museum… Senso-ji, for example, was the place where you could learn about Japanese rituals and norms, including the praying process when entering Japanese temples (this would help me later in the trip). As an anime lover, the Ghibli Museum was one of the best parts of the first few days. The museum displays the drafts and studio environment of Mr. Miyazaki, which allowed me to experience the process of anime production in detail.

Kanagawa Nishi was the high school that I visited for two days. I was able to participate in class activities and communicate with Japanese students during English classes. The school's International Committee also put together social gatherings for us—which were great. Although some of the students were shy in the beginning, all of them were so nice and friendly. They even prepared snacks for us!

During the classes, each instructor seemed to have a different teaching style. Some focused on English grammar and sentence structure, while others focused on daily conversation. This allowed us to practice Japanese while also helping students practice English. Both Mr. Sugawara, the main Japanese teacher, and other school staff were very supportive. Mr. Sugawara was a brilliant teacher. His impact goes far beyond helping his students succeed academically. He also takes a strong interest in his students’ personal lives, counseling them on their future plans in addition to encouraging them to become more active in civic life. I was glad to have improved my knowledge both of Japanese culture and the education system through this school experience.

Kiwanis Club Tokyo Xuan Chen 500The best part of my experience in Japan was the four days that I spent with my Kiwanian host family. During the four days, I was able to experience Japanese family life but also witness the impact that Kiwanis has made in the world. In addition to sharing about our lives and experiences at Kiwanis Club social gatherings (Saitama and Tokyo), we also volunteered, making dolls for children in the hospital. I was glad that our host families treated us just like their own family! In my case, our host parents did not speak that much English, so we spent more time with our host sister who could. Of course, we were able to practice Japanese as well.

While my homestay experience might have been the best part, it was certainly not the last. I was able to do and see many more things before heading back to the States. One of these was visiting the Edo-Tokyo Museum. This was very insightful for me, as it allowed me to begin to understand the Edo period (1603 - 1868) of Japanese history—prior to industrialization and social changes associated with becoming a bit more Western—in addition to the history of Tokyo itself (formerly called “Edo”). I was also able to visit Kawagoe, an Edo-period castle town northwest of Tokyo. There, we were able to try on yukata (a casual kimono) and walk around the traditional Edo-period streets.

Kyoto, the capital of Japan before Tokyo, is another place I was able to visit and another place that I would definitely like to return to one day. The city is characterized by more traditional Japanese art and architecture (very similar to the Tang Dynasty of China in the 7th to 10th centuries). I was amazed that Japan is able to preserve its culture and history so well, especially when some of their antiques are more than a thousand years old!

Additionally, we also visited Hiroshima. Visiting the Hiroshima Peace Museum was one of the most impactful experiences. Although I had learned about it in history class, visiting the museum changed my view completely. It's not simply about the result of World War II but the importance of peace itself. I value the importance of peace more than ever as a result of this visit.

In all, this two-week experience was one of the best of my life. I am thankful that I was able to participate as a Key Club member and exchange student. This made the experience more about learning while also enjoying the culture. I would not be able to do this without the help of Kiwanis and PAX Laurasian Exchange in addition to the support of the many friends I made in Japan! Thanks so much!

—Xuan Chen, Brunswick County Early College High School Key Club (Bolivia, North Carolina)

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Xuan, front right, poses with his fellow K Corps participants and students from Kanagawa Nishi High School.