Thirty-three students from Great Falls Elementary School recently had the chance to put six years of Japanese language and culture study to the test. In July, the sixth grade Japanese Immersion class took a 10-day, seven-city trip to Japan, stopping to visit their sister school, the Hiroshima Kake Educational Institution, along the way.
The Great Falls Elementary Japanese Immersion program began more than 15 years ago. The program requires students in grades 1-6 to learn math, science and health in Japanese. Students also learn about Japanese culture and history.
During the visit to the Hiroshima Kake Educational Institution, students stayed with Japanese families and attended classes with sixth grade Japanese students. They also observed an origami class, played basketball and made Japanese rice cakes, called "mochi."
Mark Paulson, 12, said he enjoyed having the opportunity to use his Japanese.
"Communicating in Japan was fun because we could understand what other people were saying, but our parents could not," said Mark.
Daniel Dixon, 12, said that he was impressed with the way the school was run and the behavior of the students.
"They welcomed us to the school in a great way, and when I went to class with them, everything was organized, and everything was in place, and there was no talking," said Daniel. "The kids are really disciplined."
Before leaving, the Great Falls Elementary students and the Hiroshima Kake students planted a tree on school grounds to commemorate the visit and honor their sister school relationship.
AS THE STUDENTS and their parent chaperones traveled by bus and train from city to city, they had the chance to experience a variety of Japanese food. Parent Karen McSteen said that the students would pick out stuffed rice balls and raw fish boxes at local grocery stores.
"Many times the kids were more adventurous than the adults in the types of food that they would try," said McSteen. "They did find a McDonald's along the way, but even the Big Macs didn't look quite the same."
Students also spent several nights in a "Ryokan," or traditional Japanese Inn. While there they slept on the floor, ate dinner seated on the floor in a traditional Japanese robe, and bathed in a large bath house with other hotel guests.
"The kids really got used to hanging out together in their robes, something they'd never consider doing at home," said McSteen.
Daniel Dixon said that the floor was actually quite comfortable.
"It was very nice and everything was really clean... the gave us nice comfortable sheets, and when you went to the bathroom you had to take your slippers off and put a different pair of slippers on," said Daniel.
The group also learned to master the Japanese subway system during their visit.
"Because Japan is such an honest country, school kids actually ride the subway alone to school," said Simone Unwalla, 9. "They don't have to worry about anything happening to them. I still don't see how any of them get lost. I mean I get lost even with a parent. Anyway, riding it was cool."
However, Daniel Dixon said that he was blown away by the bullet train.
"It went 200 miles per hour," said Daniel. "We saw it go by and I could hardly see it because it was so fast. Then we rode on it –– it was pretty amazing."
McSteen said that another memorable experience was their visit to the daily morning fish market.
"It reminded me of Wall Street and the opening bell," said McSteen. "The kids were really amazed because you could see these humongous tunas, and I think they were in awe of the inspection process, and the auction which is all in Japanese and goes very, very fast."
SOME of the students made a particularly meaningful day-trip to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. While there, the 12 students and their families learned about what happened when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.
The Children's Peace Monument, built in the memory of Sadako Sasaki, made a profound impression on the Great Falls students. Sadako was a sixth grade student who had been diagnosed with leukemia in 1954 –– nine years after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. She believed that if she folded 1,000 origami cranes, she would be granted her wish to survive her cancer. Sadly, she died before she could finish her cranes. The Great Falls Elementary students folded origami cranes of their own and left them on the monument.
Alexis Unwalla, 12, said that visiting the park helped her to understand World War II.
"What impacted me the most were the stories about children and how they fled from the bomb site to their homes," said Alexis. "I don't know if I could have been that brave if I was in Hiroshima at the time. I now realize how lucky we all are that we live in a safe environment and community, and how lucky we are to be alive."
Karen McSteen said that although she had been to Japan several times for business, this time she really felt like she got to see the country.
"It was amazing," said McSteen. "We laughed a lot and we learned a lot, and what was so wonderful about it is that these kids have known each other since the first grade, so they are good, good friends. Their eyes were wide open and they were such troopers... it was such great exposure for them."
Daniel Dixon said he would love to do the whole trip over again.
"I think it was one of the nicest places that I've ever been," said Daniel. "It was very clean and it felt organized like everything was in place and perfect... the people were very intelligent and they were always welcoming, and the loved Americans. Sometimes everybody would wave to us on the street –– I felt like a celebrity."