For several weeks previous, anticipation had been building for our "school excursion", to which I was invited along. For some reason, this is the English translation of the word ensoku that apparently every Japanese learns in English class. Hearing teachers talk about this excursion business made me rather excited about what we might do. However, it seems that rather than "excursion" - which conjures up images of some voyage into jungle primeval, trek across the frozen tundra of the Far North, or perilous attempt at the summit of some great slag of rock - it turns out it would be much more accurate to render the word as "field trip", with all the banality that term usually conveys.
For banal our field trip was. All students in all homerooms of all three grade levels were loaded off into buses in the morning, each grade bound for a different exciting location, one homeroom per chartered bus. Since I'm teaching first-year students mostly, I opted to go along with the intrepid explorers of 14 HR. Due to rain that morning, a trip to a historic village and hiking was called off in favor of a visit to the Toyota Museum. I thought it might still be fun though, since some of the greatest art to be seen in Japan is owned by various corporations.
A 2-hour bus ride later, I discovered that this was not, as I had assumed, a museum of art owned by the Toyota corporation, but in fact a museum of Toyota cars. As in, a car museum. As in, a museum about the history of the automobile. As in, line after line of cars with placards in front of them. Kind of like going on a field trip to the exotic "Mile of Cars."
Look at the expression on the girl's face in the front in this picture. That's how we all felt. Upon our entrance, we were given about an hour to walk around and enjoy the exhibits. I finished my cursory walk around with some students in about 5 minutes. I gave a personal tour to the kids with commentary: "And here on your right, you will see...another car. And if you walk a little farther, coming up on your left is...this other car. Ah, now we've come to my favorite part of the entire tour - the part where we can all look at this car. Isn't this a particularly fascinating car?" Then I pretended to take an exhaustive series of pictures of the car in question. The tour was over in 5 minutes because I couldn't even amuse myself for that long, and I find myself quite amusing usually. I still can't believe we went to a car museum, but I guess it's hard to find a place to just throw a couple hundred kids in for hours at a time.
After a long lunch, we still had too much time leftover to just go back to school, so we headed to Nagoya to see Nagoya Castle. One teacher, noting my disappointed look leftover from the last stop, tried to buoy my spirits a little by talking up the castle. Unfortunately, I'd been there twice already, and that was already two times too many. Nagoya Castle is a reconstruction, and like many Japanese reconstructions, it's now a concrete edifice lacking any charm, soul, or real historical merit. Not only is the entire castle fake, essentially, but it's not even attempting to be an authentic fake; the rooms have all been replaced with lame exhibits on the castle's history and the center is hollowed out with a modern staircase and elevator. Once you pass within the imposing gates, it's a lot like walking around some public library built in the 50's. Sometimes I really think the Japanese have a gift for ruining their own historical sites.
Still, we managed to have some fun. It was a good chance for me to interact with the students outside of a school setting - although they were still wearing their uniforms. These girls walked around with this other teacher (the young tennis coach) and I most of the day. The tour of the castle didn't take much more time than the museum, so we hung out in the shade and ate ice cream. I chatted with kids in Japanese - it was their day off, after all - took lots of pictures, let them try on my sunglasses; the usual.
In the end, of course, the destination is not so important for the trips here, because it's more about fostering bonds between members of homeroom classes. The school system prepares kids for a place in Japanese society by emulating it on a smaller scale with the bonds formed as a class. Just like the sports festival, it encourages a sense of (and need for) belonging to a social group bigger than oneself. Even by the end of just one day trip, I could see this in the kids in my group and others.
We eventually piled back onto the buses for another couple hour ride back to school. By my estimation, we spent about 5 hours on the bus that day, and only a little over a 2 hours actually walking around.
"Excursion" my ass.