Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Welcome to Japan: Orientation and travel

Although it's early for cherry blossoms,
the first signs of spring are appearing around Tokyo.

The team started their day with an orientation to the Kizuna Project before departing via the high-tech “bullet train” to their regional location in Sendai.  The orientation took place at the National Olympics Memorial Youth Center, where the LHS team was able to meet the other seven U.S. high school teams. After brief introductions, various program officials greeted the 200 U.S. guests warmly and elaborated on the purpose of their participation in the Kizuna Project.

Students settle into their place at the NOMYC for orientation.
“The U.S.-Japan relationship is one of the most important in the world,” explained a representative from the U.S. Embassy.  “It’s important to maintain this relationship in the future, and founding an interest in young people is critical.”

“You will be experiencing firsthand Japanese society and culture, and what has happened in the tsunami area. You will also have the opportunity to exchange with Japanese people,” said the Executive Director of the Japan Foundation, Suzuko Nishihara. “The program is aimed at fostering long-term interest in Japan with you and at learning about the Great East Japan earthquake. We hope that you will build lifelong interest in Japan, the language, and the power of kizuna.”

Kizuna, which means “bond” in Japanese, will be a critical aspect of the two-week exchange as the group witnesses the impact of the tsunami in the Sendai community and interacts with the people who live there. 

“[Nishihara] and I went on AFS, or American Field Service, which is an initiative started after World War II to integrate the societies,” said senior Sam Martens. Martens, who studied a semester abroad in Argentina last spring, had decided to strike up a conversation with Nishihara during a break in the orientation. 

“I’m interested in seeing how Sendai is doing,” said junior Kelsey Vandenberg. “We saw photos of the wrecked airport [during the presentation] after the tsunami and its recovery. I think it will be interesting to see what is constructed already and what’s not.”

“I was [in Tokyo] on March 11, 2011. After the tsunami, the resilience of the Japanese people and the grace in which they conducted themselves despite their experiences was incredible.” said the U.S. Embassy representative. “As we approach the two year anniversary of the March 11 disaster, you’ll notice it’s very much on people’s minds. These people have lost a sense of their community and have been displaced across Japan. How do you replace that? How do you go on?”

A presentation given by Masao Kikuchi, the Associate Professor of Public Policy and Management at Meiji University, went into further detail about the events of March 11 and the recovery process since then. His presentation outlined the three disasters that happened: the initial 9.0 magnitude earthquake, the consequential tsunami, and its impact on the nuclear reactors.  Kikuchi also explained the differences in how the Japanese government at national and local levels responded to the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the devastations in 2011.  He also explained the breakdown of the nuclear power plant in Fukushima.

“Ryan [Dinneen], Austin [Sonju], and I all did our Group 4 presentation on the [Japanese] nuclear reactor and their water processes,” said senior Evan Shigaya. The three had completed their Group 4 project, an extensive research lab required by science classes for all IB candidates, before their departure. “It was interesting how the research that we did connected to about what we studied. One thing I learned from the presentation was that one of the reasons why the system broke down [during the tsunami] was because they imported the reactor from General Electric into Japan.  They didn’t account for the difference in Japanese natural disasters.”

The nuclear reactor was designed to have emergency power systems located in the basement of the plant, which is ideal for American natural disasters such as tornados or wild fires. Tsunamis, on the other hand, can still damage equipment located in the basement.

Kikuchi also took the time to answer questions from the group and the other schools present.


After lunch, the team boarded their bus to go to the train station.  During the fifteen-minute drive, the group was able to gather generalizations about the city of Tokyo. The buildings ranged in size and architecture; nearly everyone was dressed in proper business attire; there was close to no litter.

“It’s like someone had scrubbed down every inch of the city,” said senior Catherine Patton. “Everything seems so clean.”

Skyscraper in Tokyo.
Notice the crane?

When photographing the winding roads, it seemed as though buildings would reflect off of each other regardless of their surface. After navigating the streets of Tokyo, the team boarded the infamous bullet train to travel to their regional area, Sendai. 

At top speeds, the train moves at 300 kilometers per hour.  The team will zip out of Tokyo and through the countryside for about two hours before arriving in Sendai.

The team in Sendai, Japan. They will be staying in the Ark Hotel during their time in the city.


  1. Your travelogue, photos, and individual thoughts and impressions give a detailed and colorful impression of your experiences thus far. Your LHS family is thinking about you constantly and journeying along via your wonderful blog. Blessings for safety, enlightenment, and adventure!

  2. Hannah you are doing a terrific job posting and keeping us up to date here in Littleton. What a treat. I especially love the photos and the shinkansen interviews. Please keep them coming. Enjoy your precious time in Japan. Best wishes.

  3. Thanks for the updates! It is so fun to see and hear what is happening!

  4. It sounds like you guys are having a wonderful trip. I will be watching daily to keep up with what you are doing. Have a great time. I think that the trip will be life changing for you.

    Steve Petty (Gracie's dad)