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Trip Report: Alternative Fall Break in Japan

The Japan traveling group in traditional kimono dress with Samurai host.

By Judith Mallory

The Tickle College of Engineering sponsored its Alternative Fall Break to Japan, on August 10–19, 2019. This marks the 25th trip for the Global Initiatives Program. Participating in the trip were Roscoe Beitel, electrical engineering major; Reece Emery, materials science major; Jacob Hale, aerospace major; Alicia Matavosian, biomedical engineering major; Seth Street, chemical engineering major; and Tarun Kukreja, Molly Mays, and Matthew Ramos, all mechanical engineering majors. TCE International Coordinator Judith Mallory led the trip. United Planet of Boston, Massachusetts, provided accommodations and in-country coordination. It was the third trip for Global Initiatives to the Asian continent.


» Read Molly Mays’s student trip report.
» Read Seth Street’s student trip report.
» Read Reece Emery’s student trip report.
» Read Jacob Hale’s student trip report.
» Read Tarun Kukreja’s student trip report.
» Read Matthew Ramos’s student trip report.
» Read Roscoe Beitel’s student trip report.
» Read Alicia Matavosian’s student trip report.


The kanji, or adopted Chinese character, which symbolizes Japan’s name, translates to “sun origin,” and explains why Japan is sometimes called the “Land of the Rising Sun.” This is also symbolized on the country’s flag. The country of Japan is the world’s fourth largest island country, made up of about 6,852 islands. The stratovolcanic archipelago is made up of five main islands: Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku, and Okinawa; these comprise about 97% of the land area of Japan. The country is divided into 47 prefectures and eight regions. By population, it is the world’s second most populous island nation, with 126 million inhabitants. Of these, 98.5% are ethnically Japanese.

A framed photograph with a candle and plants serve as an altar.

A personal altar in a kimono shop.

The two main religions are Shinto, the ethnic religion of Japan, and Buddhism, the former originating with the country and the latter borrowed from neighboring Korea in the sixth century. Japanese Buddhism would come to be more influenced by that practiced in China. Among Shinto practitioners, some degree of syncretism with Buddhism is common, praying to and worshipping ancestors and gods at shrines or private altars. In Shintoism, kami are the venerated spirits or phenomena. These can be actual beings, elements of the landscape, forces of nature, or spirits of exalted dead individuals. No one word in English accurately conveys the meaning of the Japanese word kami. This ambiguity conveys the ambiguous nature of the kami themselves.

Japan is a sovereign state and constitutional monarchy, where the power of the emperor, essentially a ceremonial figurehead, is limited. The prime minister and his cabinet wield executive power. The constitution of Japan is the oldest unamended constitution in the world, having been in place since 1947.

Japan enjoys an educated and highly skilled workforce, with one of the world’s largest proportion of citizens holding a tertiary degree. A highly developed country with a high standard of living and Human Development Index, Japan has the third lowest infant mortality rate in the world but is experiencing issues due to its aging population and low birth rate. Japan is known for its cinema; its film industry is one of the oldest and largest in the world. In addition, the country is renowned for ongaku, its influential music industry, manga (Japanese graphic comics or novels), anime (hand-drawn and computer animation), video games, cuisine, and major contributions to technology and science.

The TCE travelers arrived at the Nagoya airport, located in the Chūbu region, then traveled on by train to Okazaki. The city is about 250 miles from Tokyo to the southwest. The city is in the coastal plains of Southeastern Aichi Prefecture. The area around the city has been inhabited for many thousands of years, as evidenced by archaeological remains from the Japanese Paleolithic period and the Jōmon period (around 1000 BCE), including many kofun burial mounds, which are tombs constructed from the third to seventh centuries. Following the Meiji Restoration, the modern town of Okazaki was founded in 1889.

The group spent the first two nights in town, two at a guesthouse, two at another guesthouse, and the last two nights back in town. Dinner the first night included sushi, sashimi (thinly sliced raw fish), onigiri (rice wrapped in nori seaweed), and tsukemono pickles. The next morning, a traditional Japanese breakfast was an option; it was comprised of: tamago gohan a raw egg cracked over a bowl of rice and mixed together, tofu, miso soup, tuna sashimi, and nori seaweed.

Other foods sampled on the trip include tempura (battered and fried fish and vegetables), yakitori (cooked chicken pieces on a stick), udon and soba noodles, ramen, wakame seaweed, kare raisu (a Japanese-style curry, sweeter and thicker than the curry of India), edamame (soybeans in the shell), bitter gourd, flavored shaved ice, and the controversial natto. This is made by fermenting soybeans in bacteria naturally produced in the human gastrointestinal tract. Smelling like molded cheese and having a sticky/slimy texture, natto has a full-bodied salty and savory flavor known as umami. Students tried their hand at making okonomiyaki, batter with cabbage and savory ingredients, fried like a pancake. Drinks on the menu included traditional green tea, barley tea, hogicha tea, and the healthy, antioxidant-filled matcha.

One of the stops in town was the Okazaki Castle, known best for its association with Samurai Tokugawa Ieyasu, born on the site in 1542. The current donjon, or inner tower, was rebuilt in 1959 to promote tourism. The ferroconcrete building has three roofs and five floors. It contains exhibits of items from the original castle, including swords, knives, suits of armor, and dioramas. The surrounding area is now a park.

A mean cleans a gravestone surrounded by other gravestones.

A local man cleans a gravestone for the Bon celebration.

An event of significance taking place during this week was the Bon Festival. Bon, which honors the spirits of one’s ancestors, has been celebrated in Japan for over 500 years. A Buddhist-Confucian custom, it has evolved into a family reunion holiday in Japan. People return to ancestral family places, as well as visiting ancestors’ graves to clean them. During this time, spirits of ancestors are supposed to visit household altars. The Bon Festival includes a dance, the Bon Odori, whereby participants perform a folk dance around a central stage of drummers and other musicians. The Festival of Obon (synonymous with Bon) lasts three days and starts at varying dates within different regions of the country, according to the solar and lunar calendars. Participants in the festival believe they are ameliorating the suffering of their dead progenitors; the dance is a time in which ancestors and their sacrifices are remembered and appreciated. Since the festival occurs during the summer, a lighter cotton kimono, or yukata, is traditionally worn. Although not official public holidays, it is customary for employees to get time off to celebrate. The group was able to participate in the Bon Festival at two different locations, one in Okazaki and one in a village in the countryside; at this location, they helped erect a stage at a local school for the festival, including the placement of 30’ decorative bamboo poles and streamers. In addition, they ran wire for lighting and attached decorative lanterns. This was one of two service activities for them while in the country.

The TCE visitors were fitted with kimonos at a traditional shop in town, in preparation for taking part in a traditional tea ceremony. In addition, everyone was given a pair of geta, or Japanese wood flip flops, to wear with the kimono. The ceremony involves the preparation, serving, and drinking of matcha, presented in a meditative and ritualistic fashion. Details of the etiquette of early tea ceremonies are found in writings as old as the year 1103. Chinese methods of preparing powdered tea came to Japan with Zen Buddhism in 1191 by the monk Eisai. After the ceremony, the group enjoyed a boat ride, complete with fireworks.

Several students sit at a long table with their calligraphy work in front of them.

calligraphy workshop

Several traditional workshops were included in the itinerary. The first was shodō, or Japanese calligraphy. Students practiced their skills duplicating characters on newsprint, using several different brushes and black paint. Following was an origami workshop; this is the art of paper folding, most often associated with Japanese culture. The goal is to transform a flat square of paper into a finished product resembling an animal or object. The group started with the traditional paper crane and ended with a newspaper Samurai helmet, or kabuto. Traditional Japanese origami has been practiced since the Edo Period (1603–1867).

The third workshop took place later in the week and involved the practice of furoshiki. It was taught in a community civic center, which had a large digital display of real time energy consumption in its lobby. Originally meaning “bath cloth,” the furoshiki’s origin was likely during the Edo Period, in the traditional sentō, or bathhouse. The bather would stand on a specific cloth to undress, and then wrap his or her clothing in the cloth, to avoid a mix up of clothing with other bathers. It grew into a way for merchants to transport goods and is now largely used as a means of gift-wrapping. Modern furoshiki can be made of a variety of fabrics, including silk, cotton, rayon, and nylon. There are no standard sizes; they can range from hand sized to that of a bedsheet. Furoshiki went out of fashion with the advent of the plastic shopping bag; however, it is recently enjoying a renewal as a way of cutting down on plastic and helping the environment. Commonly used to transport lunch boxes, or bento, they double as a tablecloth for the meal.

The group displays their furoshiki.

furoshiki workshop

In 2006, the Japanese Minister of the Environment created a furoshiki to promote its modern use. The upcoming Olympic events in Japan will give away souvenir furoshiki cloth. Its use is being promoted in Argentina and Venezuela as a means of reducing plastic bag usage. The gentleman teaching the class is the proprietor of one of only three remaining kimono shops in Okazaki, which used to have dozens of them. Apparently, the desire of young people in Japan to wear “western clothing” has led to a drastic reduction in the need for traditional kimonos. This particular shop has been in business over 200 years. The class provided instructions and the hands-on opportunity to wrap a tissue-sized box, a confectionary box, and a wine bottle, all using the furoshiki and its folding methods. Lots of symbolism is inherent in furoshiki; the wrapping itself shows the importance of the gift and shows affection. The gift is portrayed as a baby being protected in the womb. It shows that the giver’s heart is in the gift.

The students visited and worked with a wood cutter, Mr. Karasawa. Specifically, they learned to use two different kinetic log splitters. This tool replaces the manual splitting of fire logs with an axe. This was the second of two service activities.

Reece Emery and Jacob Hale load a log into the kinetic log splitter.

Reece Emery and Jacob Hale work on the kinetic log splitter.

About thirty minutes out of town, in Kanzui, Hokkyu, is a family-owned sake distillery, and a tour was included on the agenda. Sake is a rice wine, and a typical alcoholic beverage of Japan. The Shibata Brewery has operated since 1830, with eight generations of the family participating. The tour was led by Yaki Shibata, and involved two sake storerooms, a showroom/tasting room, and views of the actual operations. Visitors were instructed to put on hairnets, remove shoes, and slip into Crocs, used only inside the distillery. The company have one Toji, or director of manufacturing, and it is a woman, which is apparently quite uncommon in Japan. Shibata had worked in an after-market auto parts factory in Ohio and spoke perfect English. He explained that brewing takes place only in the winter, happens in a vat which keeps a constant temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and is checked every two hours (“Like raising a baby,” he noted.) Two large wells next to the nearby dam supply water to the distillery. The product is stored in tanks for six months to one year for aging.

While in the area, the group also visited a tea plantation, in operation for six generations, since 1820. They were able to walk among the tea bushes as well as see a tiny teashop on the grounds.

Nearby, they went to a cemetery and neighboring Buddhist Temple for a look around.

Shopping opportunities included an archery shop, two traditional teashops, and a knife and cutlery shop; unfortunately, the candle shop was closed. The huge Aeon Mall provided a more contemporary shopping experience.

The journey provided the opportunity to stay in several locations, meet many local people, contrast a medium-sized city with the countryside, eat lots of Japanese food, and be immersed in an ancient and fascinating culture. Along the way, the visitors had an opportunity to give some informal English instruction to interested Japanese students they met while on the trip.

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