Day Seventeen - Osaka/Narita/NZ

Sunday we woke up for our last day in Japan! We had a bit of a sleep in before double checking rooms and for some of us squishing down our bags to make sure everything was in them. We checked out of the Youth Hostel, hopped on the bus and headed off to the Osaka Aquarium. The Aquarium was HUGE! It’s about 6 floors with a really big range of aquatic life. It was pretty special seeing the two resident whale sharks. 

At the end of the aquarium there was of course a gift shop where more purchases were made with the last remaining yen. A popular purchase was for a game where you give 1000yen (approx. $13) and you stick your arm in a dome where papers are flying around. You catch one and then the number on it relates to a teddy bear you win. Quite a few kids had a go and got number 3 (the smallest soft toy), then Grant donated 1000yen to the cause and said it was my pick and I got number 2, which was considerably larger than number 3. I think Grant knew how tight my bag was and was hoping I would get number 1 (way too big!). 

After this it was off to the bus for lunch and then heading straight for the airport for our domestic flight from Osaka to Narita (Tokyo). We were all split up on the plane which was interesting and I can’t tell you much about the flight as all the full on days caught up with me and I fell asleep before take off. I can tell you just before landing that (according to Kirsten and Grant) it took the air hostess at least half a dozen shakes to get me to wake up!

When we hopped on the tarmac we realised we would be catching buses to the terminal which was fine except the majority of the kids were at the back of the plane and we were at the front. However, we didn’t need to worry. The kids are clearly now seasoned travellers and they made their way to the terminal with no issues. 

Once we arrived at Narita and went through customs etc we had a few hours of time to kill, especially since our flight was delayed, We claimed a spot near our gate and then took turns going off in twos and threes to check out the shops and get some food. Many of the kids ended up at McDonalds!

Once we boarded our flight we settled in for the long haul back to NZ. Everyone watched a few movies and most had a bit of sleep with varying success. It was a little surreal landing in Auckland and then coming out of customs to see everyone. It was an amazing, life changing trip and I know that everyone has made new life long friends.

I hope you have enjoyed keeping updated with our trip. For the final time, click here for the last few photos. ​

Day Sixteen - Osaka/Nara/Kyoto

​Today was a bit of a later start, which I think was necessary after such a full on day yesterday. After breakfast we jumped on a bus and headed for Nara, which was about an hour away. I Nara we were visiting the Todaiji Temple. This temple was situation within a large park that was home to a large population of deer. These deer are not scared of people at all and in fact the children were able to purchase special wafers to feed to the deer. Mr Sweeney gave them some money to purchase the crackers and feed the deer. The kids really enjoyed patting and feeding them but realised soon after running out of crackers that the deer would reman persistent and became somewhat annoying. A few people had the deer nibbling on their clothes even. 

After seeing the deer we headed off closer to the Temple. When you see the photos they will look good but they really wont do it justice. This particular temple is MASSIVE! It houses a giant Buddha an the kids were particularly excited about the challenge of fitting through the Buddha’s nostril (a small hole in the base of a structural pole). Most of the kids were game enough to have a go at it and then myself, Karin and Grant plucked up the courage to have a go (check out the photos). 

After this it was a short bus ride to the sheen of a thousand lanterns, This was a very picturesque, and tranquil location. The kids enjoyed a short walk through the woods and checking out sights. Check out the photos on this one too!

Next we were back on the bus heading for Kyoto. Part way through we stopped for lunch at a buffet restaurant and the kids benefited hugely from the sugar injection in the form of ice ream - some were a bit sluggish from the day before. 

After a big lunch we headed off to the Kiyomizu-dera (Pure water temple). This temple was in the mountains in Kyoto and was up a long steep tourist shopping street. We all met at the top for a group photo before heading in and checking out the Temple. One significant part of the temple was the Romance Pathway. There are two big rocks about 10m apart and the story goes that if you walk from one point to the other with your eyes closed, without going off course, you will have a smooth romance path. The kids had a good time attempting the walk, which was particularly difficult given the high number of visitors at the temple. 

Next we headed further into the temple grounds and the students were able to line up, use special cups on the end of long poles and collect water from the mountains to drink which is meant to be good luck. After this we were able to split into small groups and make our way down the tourist shopping street and back to the bus. From here it was another bus ride to the final temple of the day; the Golden Temple. The Golden Temple really is a sight to see. It is set in a stunning surrounding garden and the top two layers of it are covered in real Gold Leaf. Seeing it nestled in the garden and the reflection of it in the surrounding water was breathtaking. As we walked through the gardens students were able to use some of their smaller change to throw into a wishing bowl. It became quite a challenge. Grant was particularly pleased with himself to have made it three times in a row. 

By this time it was late afternoon and time to head back to the Youth Hostel in Osaka. It was a bit of a long ride so the kids entertained themselves with songs, games and very clearly had a a great time together. 

Once we were back at the hostel there was time for quickly getting ready, eating dinner and the heading straight back out to the trains and off to Namba for shopping. This shopping was an intense experience. There were a lot of people, a lot of light and a lot of noise. As it was our last big shopping time many used this time to make their final big purchases for the trip. Tomorrow morning I will be doing a final count on the popular items (shoes, socks and jumpers). 

We met up at 9.30pm before heading back to the hostel and furiously packing bags for the beginning of our trip home tomorrow. I has been an amazing trip and I think everyone is really sad that it is ending. Tomorrow we are heading off to the Aquarium in Osaka before the journey home starts.

Check out the photos from today by clicking here.

Day Fifteen - Osaka/Universal Studios

Today was Universal Studios and it was an incredible day! Firstly we need to thank Grant for upgrading our passes to Express passes, this guaranteed us an amazing day!! We got up nice and early for breakfast and headed off so we could be there for the opening. We all entered as a big group and very quickly moved off to our first ride; Hollywood Dream. We had a very short line for the first ride, maybe 15-20mins and enjoyed the thrill of a rollercoaster. Following this we all had a scheduled in time for Harry Potter World. Fair to say there was a large number of students (and maybe a certain teacher who writes the website) who were really excited to the there. It really was magical to be there. It was themed like the movie, had a musical backdrop and such cuttle little shops in the village to make you feel as if you were in Hogsmead ( a reference some may know). There were so many options for things to look at and we had 25mins before out first ride so we spread out and hit the shops. Quite a few students (also myself) purchased some Harry Potter paraphernalia. 

At 10.30 we met outside the first Harry Potter ride; Harry Potter and the forbidden journey. The ride was a mixture of roller coaster, motion master and 3D movie. It was great (although Kathryn and Kirsten would beg to differ). Following this we went on Flight of the Hippogriff, which was perhaps a little more for younger kids but still something we got to do. After this we split off into groups for the day. Grant, myself and the 5 boys were one group and Kathryn, Kirsten and Karin had the girls split amongst them . From here we all kind of headed off in our own directions that meant we all had similar but slightly different days. So to make sure I captured the best of everyones day I got the kids to tell me about their top moments of the day.

Later on we all met up together at 7pm and everyone talked very excitedly about their day and the look of pure joy was stamped all over their faces. We took some last group photos of the day and then hopped back on the trains and headed back to our hostel for dinner. It was a massive day so after dinner it was relaxing and then an early night to bed. Tomorrow we are out for a day of temples, shrine and shopping and of course our finally night in Japan!

Click here for the photos from today. Please note that I could only take photos of the group I was with but once we return there will be a collection of all photos to share with everyone. 


Day Fourteen - Hiroshima/Osaka

Today was another drizzly day in Hiroshima so after some breakfast at the hotel we packed our bags and raincoats and headed practically just across the road for the Peace Park and Museum. The kids had been studying up on the bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki ready to learn a bit more. It was an eye opening and really sombre experience. There were a lot of donated personal artefacts in the museum telling different stories about death, sickness and suffering that came from the Atom bomb being dropped in 1945. The museum was really busy but you could hear a pin drop in the rooms as people looked at the exhibits. It’s difficult to describe the feeling you get from visiting a place like that. There will be some stories that stick with the kids forever. 

Following this we headed into the Peace Park for a group photo by the and then headed into another smaller museum that housed information and photos on all the people that have died as a  result of the atom bomb. On our way out we stopped in a small room that was playing short videos of peoples recounts of their experiences on that day. The story we watched was about a young girl who had been standing by a window when she saw the flash of the bomb across the sky and then had her whole world changed. She spoke about her injuries and the teacher who had helped her escape the building and get to safety by swimming across a river. Many times she wanted to give up and die. Her injuries were very painful. She blacked out later on and woke up quite far away from her home in a make shift hospital where she dreamed of going home and seeing her sister who she loved dearly. A few days later he father had managed to find where she was and came to get her. She asked about her sister and was devastated to find out that her sister had been burned so severely that she had died. It was just one of the many stories from today.

After this museum we headed to the monument paying tribute to Sadako, a girl who had been a young girl when the bomb had been detonated. At the time she had faced no issues from it and had grown into a very athletic and busy school girl. Around the age of 10 she got really sick and was diagnosed with Leukaemia, a common disease affecting those exposed to the radiation of the atom bomb. While she was in hospital she had heard that if you fold 1000 paper cranes then you could have a wish. She worked constantly to make these paper cranes, some no bigger than a finger nail. She made well over 1000, showing her commitment and determination to get better, even though doctors had said she was terminally ill. In September Sadako passed away from her disease. Sadako’s classmates from school had visited her while she was in hospital and knew all about her paper cranes and decided that to create a tribute to her and share her fighting spirit with the rest of Hiroshima and the world. The school was responsible for organising an amazing structure in the peace park with a figure of Sadako and paper cranes on the top. Every day hundreds of people visit this part of the park and all throughout the year schools and individuals visit to see the monument, ring the bell and hang paper cranes in the display cabinets next to the monument. Teaorina and Jenna L hung the cranes on behalf of Pukekohe Intermediate and then the group got together for a photo in front of the cabinets. 

Following this we visited the Atom Dome which is also near by. The Atom dome is a building whose  frame was largely undamaged by the blast and is now known as a symbol for the world to see. The message being that the Japanese believe that never again should another human have to suffer from nuclear warfare.
We did not get to spend a lot of time here due to the rain so on our way out we stopped at one final  monument. The monument was erected to pay tribute to the 6500 school children (around our students age) who had to come to Hiroshima and be the clean up crew. The majority of these students died from poisoning or falling buildings. 

Around this time the rain really set in so we headed off to the near by shopping street which is covered over. Had some lunch and last minute shopping time before heading back to the hotel, packing our bags into the bus and heading to the train station. It was quite a sight to see such a large group walking single file through the station with bulging bags. We caught a bullet train to Osaka (about 1.5 hour trip) and then walked with our bags about 5mins to our Youth Hostel which is our final accomodation stop for the trip.

Once everyone was settled in their rooms we met in the cafeteria for dinner and then headed out again to catch a train to the Sky Garden in Osaka. The Sky Garden was at the top of a tower, and was 172m up. Even before we reached the top the kids got to go up in a glass elevator and then a space aged looking escalator tunnel. At the top you could walk around an inside and outside level with 360 degree views of Osaka. A lot of lights and buildings as far as you could see. The kids really loved it. On our trip back to the hotel we stopped at Mister Donut and bought a staggering 32 donuts for the us all to share. After our sugary dessert the kids headed off for a reasonable night for our big day at Universal Studios tomorrow. 

For the photos from today click here.

Day Thirteen - Hiroshima/Miyajima Island

Yesterday was our first full day in Hiroshima. We started out bright and early with short walk to the Peace Park to catch a ferry to Miyajima island. I think some of action packed days have finally caught up with some of the kids, as some needed a little more rest during the 45min trip (see photos).

It was not a fabulous day weather wise but still we made the most of it. Once we arrived the kids were informed about the deer that just hang around in town and in the mountains and that they were tame but probably not a great idea to touch. They were also told about the potential for Baboons on the island that they should definitely stay away from. This got them pretty excited, many hoping to see some of the wildlife. Within a few minutes of walking we came across some deer and of course took photos. 

The kids got a chance to walk along the beach shore and some even opted to take of their socks and shoes and get a feel of the Japanese ocean. Miyajima island is one of the top three tourist destinations in Japan and a popular spot for weddings and photography. The reasons being the really unique Istukushima Shrine and the beautiful mountain range you can go up and then see out into the bay and back to Hiroshima city. 

Once we had walked through the walkways and some students had stopped and made prayers at the shrine (ask them about the protocol for this) we started trekking up the mountain towards the Ropeway station. The Ropeway is the equivalent of the Gondola’s in Rotorua and Queenstown in NZ (alhtough perhaps slightly older). Despite the raining fog it was quite a hot day so by the time we reached the station we were all quite wet and sweaty so Grant shouted everyone an ice cream!

The first rope way we got on could fit about 6-8 people per carriage so in small groups we made our way up to the next station. We managed to get a few photos of the view during this part. Then at the next station we al hopped in one massive Gondola and heading further up the mountain. This is when it became way too foggy to see more than a metric out of the carriage. It was a shame because on the wall inside the carriage there were photos of what the view of the bay is like from there and it really was quite stunning so we missed out on that one. At the top we split into two groups, some wanting to walk to the summit and see some more shrines and those who wanted/needed a little downtime. In the end 8 of the kids chose to go a bit further so a group of us headed up the mountain in the fog and quickly increased our heart rates with some steep hilly parts and quite a few stairs. Along the way there were multiple shrines that we stopped at but not for too long as again there wasn’t much to see with the fog having so low. When we reached the top there was a large observation deck (3 levels) where we stopped to sit in some shelter, catch our breaths and have some lunch. Then we headed back to the station to meet up with the other group and begin making our way down on the Ropeway. 

When we reached the bottom we got some time to wander along the shopping streets but really spent most of the time running to and from different places as the rain really began to set in. We caught the ferry back to Hiroshima and walked back to our hotel for a bit of a relaxing afternoon. The kids spent an hour in their rooms updating their trip books and getting Mr Sweeney to check them off and reading their information booklets about Hiroshima in preparation for tomorrow. 

At about 5pm a small group ventured out to do more shopping in a nearby arcade style street. IT was great, there were 3 ABC Marts and the shoe count definitely increased. At 7pm we all headed off to a buffet dinner at a nearby restaurant which we shared with a large school group from a Japanese school. The kids were really friendly and spent a bit of time talking to the other group.

After this we headed back in the drizzle heading for an early night at the hotel to let the kids catch up on some much needed rest to get us through the last few days. Tomorrow they are heading the Peace Park in Hiroshima and the Museum to learn more about the history of the city.

Click here for the photos from today.


Day Twelve - Tokyo/Hiroshima

After Disneyland yesterday we had a bit of later start. We met downstairs for breakfast at 8am before heading upstairs to do all our final packing. It’s interesting seeing those who are not having to pack a little creatively after making some purchases (some adults may be having similar issues). Once bags were packed they were loaded into truck to meet us later on at a train station. We headed out on foot and were greeted by 26 degrees first thing in the morning and made sure our first stop was for plenty of water!

We headed off to a nearby shrine and market street. The markets were closed (and probably quite lucky when you read about some of the shopping further on) so we headed straight to the shrine which was incredibly large. Most of the students had already had a shrine experience so knew what was expected and what usually would have been quite a cultural experience got derailed rather quickly when nearby there was a bit of a commotion going on. A few people were already standing near by it and when I moved closer I had a rather large panic attack when I noticed a man holding a woman hostage with a gun in his hand and another man with a knife in his hand. I went into full panic mood and was about to start grabbing students and dragging them as far as I could when Kathryn noticed by face and started cracking up laughing before pointing out the big sign explaining that there was Terrorist training taking place in the area and that’s when I noticed the big barriers around the people and the fact that the gun was ridiculously plastic. Once I caught my breath I stayed to watch and the crowd got bigger as the scenario being played out got more and more interesting.The scenario included a police dog that took out one of the “terrorists”, some “gunfire” and then a bomb robot (the poor shrine didn’t stand a chance).

Following this we headed off to Kitchen st which was close by and a request from the adults so that we could purchase very sharp knives! Then we headed back underground to catch more trains to Harajuku district which is famous for shopping and crazy fashion. Quite a few purchases were made at this stop, there were a lot of shops and in particular some of the boys were quite happy to find themselves at some rather large sports shops. The group I was with also had an extra special moment while out shopping. In one of the first shops we went into we couldn’t help but notice a brightly dressed charismatic young woman, she had tattoos and quite a striking American accent. I sneaked glances at her a bit before doing a quick check on my phone and then the girls (Freya, Ella and Maddy) rushed up to me asking “is it her?”. Once I confirmed it they had a fan girl moment and tried to decide who would be brave enough to approach her. They went as a group and Maddy asked very politely if she was indeed who we thought she was and……. It was Halsey!! This name may not mean a lot to all but to myself and the girls with me we were pretty excited to meet the American singer (Google her - famous songs “New Americana”, “Colors” and “Castle”). She was so lovely to girls and asked them where they were from etc and took some photos with them. We left the shop absolutely buzzing. It was such an unexpected but low key encounter. Then it was back to the task at hand….shopping. 

Since there have been so many purchases at this point I thought I would put together a table with the running total of the popular items. ​

Once we were all shopped out we met again and caught yet more trains to get to the truck that had all our luggage. From there we hopped on the bullet train and headed off the Hiroshima. It was a four hour trip so many kids played cards games, ate food, read, listened to music and even had little naps. 

Once we arrived in Hiroshima it was a quick bus ride to our new hotel a quick drop off of gear in the rooms and then straight back out again to make our dinner reservations. We went to a nearby restaurant and ate a famous Japanese dish (best made in Hiroshima) called Okinomiyaki. It’s kind of like a noodle pancake with egg and meat and lots of veggies. It was massive and really tasty. As we were leaving the restaurant the kids got talking to some locals outside about where they were from and after saying NZ one of the men they talked to started talking about the All Blacks and even started trying to do The Haka So the kids decided to give him and a few other people and impromptu performance, check out the video. This was a really cool experience and was greatly appreciated by those who stopped to watch.

Once we got back to the hotel it was around 9.30pm and it was straight off to bed after two action packed days and with the prospect of a few more very busy days to come.

Click here for the photos from today.

Day Ten - Disneyland

Today was Disneyland day. It all kicked off nice and early, leaving our hotel at 7.30am. We caught three different trains and trekked through the Tokyo underground to get there at the opening. The kids were amazed by how packed the trains were and the fact that they would have to squish in and stand for the majority of their journey.

 As we got closer the excitement in the train mounted as students got their first glimpses of the iconic Disney castle. Once we got inside we all took off to Thunder Mountain as a big group to to our first ride. We had a 45min wait which, for those who have been to Disneyland know, that’s not a bad wait at all. Once the first ride was done we got out first fast passes to ride Thunder Mountain again and then groups split up and headed in their own directions. The majority of people ended up  at Splash Mountain for their next ride and they were all pretty pleased to be splashed at the end of it because it was rather hot and sticky!

Each different group had a different approach to the Disney experience so I got the kids to each give me a bit of info about their day and what they enjoyed the most. Check out the table below to see what they thought.

At 5pm we all met up again as a big group to secure a nice big area for the night parade at 7.30pm. During this time small groups and individuals went away to make some more purchases or catch another ride. At 7.30 the light parade began and it was easy to understand why they call Disneyland “The happiest place on Earth”. The music was upbeat, infectious and loud. All the popular characters came out and performed but the most magical part was all the lights for the parade floats. There’s more than 1millions lights used in this parade. This went for about 20mins and then following this we all moved to a spot opposite the castle to watch the lights and the fireworks display. It really was a magical experience and not one the kids will forget. 

At 9.30 we hopped on the train and made the trek back towards our hotel and headed to the nearby McDonalds to get some late dinner. After such a full on day it was shower and bed time before an action packed day on Tuesday.

For the pictures from Disneyland click here.


Day Nine - Tokyo

Today we said farewell to our host families and Hara Mura. It was a beautiful sunny day today so we all got to finally see the stunning mountain surrounding and at about 8am we all met at the Council building one last time. A rather impressive crowd of people turned up to see us off, and before leaving our students performed the Haka again; once by themselves and then once with the Japanese students. It was an emotional goodbye with lots of hugs and a few tears before boarding the bus. We had an absolutely amazing time in Hara Mura and I know a lot of the kids will keep in touch with their new friends.

Once we were on the bus we headed straight for Tokyo. We had a few small stops on the way and then arrived at The Great Cycling Tour in Tokyo City. We split into two groups. One group went on the cycling tour first and the other group went to a near by mall for some retail therapy. I was in group two which went shopping first. The mall we went to was MASSIVE. Six floors that stretched further than you could see and it had a great selection of shops to choose from. It wasn’t long before some purchases happened and of course many of them were shoes from ABC Mart. I think that tomorrow we will need to start an official tally. 

After shopping we headed back to meet the other group who had finished their cycling tour. They looked a bit pink in the cheeks but really happy about their experience. It was then our turn to go on the cycling tour. It was 10km and the temperature in Tokyo today was about 28 degrees. It was a really cool experience and the kids really got to see a lot more of Tokyo than they could from the bus. It was interesting to hear them pick out things they thought were odd or even similar to NZ. We did have a few accidents on our tour, Maddy was the first off. She somehow managed to rather delicately fall into a bush and just laughed. Callum was speeding a little too much and used the wrong break so has a little scrape on his arm as a souvenir. I would also like to point out that when you see the photo's they were all done while riding, so apologies for any shaking photos.

After this we all met up as one big group again and headed off to our hotel for showers. At about 6pm we all met up in the lobby to head off to dinner. We walked to a Korean BBQ restaurant where you choose what you want to eat like a buffet but it’s all raw. Then you take it back to your table and cook it there. The kids had a great time making their own meals, and particularly enjoyed making their dessert from the Candy Floss machine! Following this we caught the first of many trains to come to Akihabara (electric street) for some sight seeing, people watching and maybe just a little more shopping. We split into groups and headed out to find different items. Unlike previous years there was not as much interest in buying electronics like headphones, however a few of the girls were happy to find phone cases and some cute socks!

At 9pm we all met up again to head back to the train and back to our hotel. Tomorrow we are off to Disneyland and it’s going to be an early start so i’ll leave this here and catch you up on Tuesday since tomorrow we will not be getting in until quite late. Also from this point it does get a little harder to make sure I get photos of everyone as we tend to split up a bit, but I know all the kids are taking plenty of photos to share with you when they come home and I will try and get them to share some with me from tomorrow so you can check out their perspective on Disneyland.

Click here for the photos from today.

Day Eight - Last in Hara Mura

Saturday was our last day with our home stay families. Everyone had different plans, although as you will see from the comments below a lot of people ended up at activities with a big group of students. 

Day Seven - Last Day at Hara Junior High

Today was our last day at Hara Mura Junior High. The kids had an action packed day of activities and lessons. They stayed in the same groups they had on Tuesday and their first lessons for the day were Science and English. The group taking English worked with a smaller group playing games and taking turns introducing themselves in Japanese while the Japanese students introduced themselves in English. One of the games they played is called Guriko. It starts out like paper, scissors, rock. Then once you win you take a certain number of steps forward depending on what gesture you won with. So if you won with rock then you take three steps, and with paper and scissors you take six steps. The Japanese competed against our students to be the first to have all members reach the top of a staircase. NZ won!!

The other group was taking science so they got to make popcorn! It was loud, messy and smelly but the kids had a great time. After a short break the next lessons started; Japanese and English. The group who had already done English went to Japanese where they learnt some Japanese characters and got to practice writing their names using calligraphy brushes and ink. Hopefully some of them make it home in one piece for you to see. The group doing English did the same as the other group this morning. 

After another short break it was time for the next lessons. P.E for one group and English again for the group who had done it first this morning. The group doing P.E were playing badminton. It was great to see them get amongst all the other Hara Mura students and have fun competing against each other. The Principal from Hara Mura Junior High joined in and so did I for a while. The group doing English for the second time worked with a different group of students doing other activities. The session was focused more around getting our students and their students to communicate with each other to complete set tasks. To begin with they had to buddy up with someone from the other school and tie their legs together for three legged races. It was really funny to watch and see who had, had more success getting their ideas across and those who had to do a bit of an interesting run to make it work. Following this they had a go at leap frog races. The kids had a great time, make sure you check the videos on this one. 

After this there was another small break before Music and Japanese. The group who had already done Japanese went off to music class where they learnt a Japanese song. It was relatively easy for the kids to pick up until they added rounds in which mucked them up, but it was all in good fun. The group doing Japanese got to have a go at the Japanese calligraphy the other group had done earlier. 

After a really busy morning it was finally lunch time. Today’s lunch was a bottle of milk, noodles with veggies and tofu and potato balls. All the Japanese really slurp their noodles/soup which made quite a bit of noise. They explained that in their culture it is more polite to slurp and make noise than to break noodles off and not eat them whole. This was really interesting to think about when in NZ its considered rude to make lots of noise while eating etc. 

After lunch they had their final classes. Science and just for a change…English. The group who had only done English once went and did the communication activities (three legged races) while the other group went and had their go making popcorn in Science. 

That was their final class before they began preparing for their farewell assembly. They also got the chance to have their go at helping with the school cleaning, it was important they got this experience to appreciate what the students here do every day. After this they got into their performance gear and practiced a little before heading down to the hall to perform and say farewell to the whole school. We were welcomed into the hall with a round of applause and thanked for our time at Hara Mura Junior High. Gary thanked Hara Mura Junior High on our behalf and then they played a slideshow of photos from our week together. After this our students and a group of their students performed the Haka which was really special. After this our students performed their other items and gifted their performance sticks to the school. Then at the end our students were gifted with photos and nice messages from their new friends in Japan. It was a great way to say goodbye to the school and I know the kids really enjoyed all their experiences here in the short time they had.

Tomorrow (Saturday) is our last full day with our home stay families and I know everyone will be doing something special with this time. I will catch up with everyone on Sunday morning and include it in the Sunday update. For the photos from today click here.


Day Six - Public Holiday

On Thursday it was a public holiday so everyone did different things with their host families. Today (Friday) I caught up with all the students and adults and have put it into a table below for you to read. As you will see some went into more detail than others...I am sure that everyone will have taken their own photos from this day.

Day Five - Elementary School

On Wednesday all the students were dropped off at the Elementary School instead of Hara Junior High. When they first walked in they were welcomed into a massive hall with lots of cute little kids running around playing games. They had access to unicycles and an abundance of sports gear and had a great start to the day playing games. At about 8am four adults (Kirsten, Grant, Karin and Myself) left for Matsumoto. Kathryn was left to hold down the fort but was joined not long after by the lovely Georgina Kimi who used to work at Pukekohe Intermediate but now lives in Japan. 

Once school started there was an official welcoming ceremony where Yuki spoke on behalf of the group and the students performed the National Anthem and the Haka. After that the students went to classes to do some teaching and to get to know the kids better. They played some ice breaker games like a Japanese version of musical chairs. Then they did some impromptu speeches and talked to the elementary students about themselves.

After this they went back to the gym to learn traditional Japanese games and they were also taught two traditional dances. One dance is for a festival and the other one is done only by Hara Mura students (see photos with the embellished hats). 

The students had a wonderful day playing lots of great games and speaking a mixture of english and Japanese. When school was over most of the students were able to take a quick trip to the local supermarket in Hara Mura were they got to see a wide variety of different food and of course buy some candy!

Fair warning - the next paragraph is about the adults trip in Matsumoto, so if you’re not bothered about us then please skip past.

We caught a train to Matsumoto which was about 45mins away leaving two very anxious council members behind wondering if we were would be able to work out their train systems and make it back. When we arrived we walked about 1km to the Matsumoto Castle. The Castle really was stunning and so rich in history and detail. We had a english speaking tour guide (free) who explained all the history (which I will not repeat - I would be here too long). After that it was about 12 so we decided lunch was a good idea. We had been given some rather poor instructions on how to get to a famous Soba Noodle house in Matsumoto and when we failed to find that we found another lovely restaurant. We each had Soba Noodles (buckwheat noodles) with tempura veggies, Soba dumplings, duck, egg and we even tried some horse! Everyone, except Grant, was hesitant to try horse but once it was on the table and you could see/smell it, we decided why not!? I have to say I thought it was delicious. Not something that you would usually have in NZ either so an interesting experience. Following this we hit the local shops and got some of our first purchases of the trip. Kirsten and I started the ABC Shoe collection off with 3 pairs between us. This number will increase quickly over the next week. We successfully caught the train back to Chino and then got driven to Hara Mura. From here myself, Kathryn and Georgina Kimi (Kimi san) headed off the Kobuchizawa which is an outlet mall basically in the middle of the forest. We only visited one shop…ABC Mart! Kathryn was incredible. She was organised, determined and efficient. Within the space of about 50minutes she had purchased 11 pairs of shoes (for friends/family and herself) while no one else had any luck! This was followed by a delicious dinner. A fantastic day! 

Click  here for the photos from Wednesday.


Day Four - Hara Junior High

Today was our first day at Hara Mura Junior High. We all met up nice and early around 7.15am. School in Hara Mura starts at 8am and finishes at 4.15pm. We were officially welcomed into the school with a ceremony in the school hall. All students and staff attended, the roll here is 200 students. The principal welcomed us and then the students at Hara Mura sang their school song and presented a slide show about their village. This was followed by our teachers, students and parents presenting their speeches and then performed the National Anthem. From here they were split into two groups and went off to their first lessons of the day. One group went to “homemaking” where they learnt to cook Takoyaki, which is a specialty dish from Osaka. To make these the students were working at different stations and had these special heated units, a bit like a donut cooker without the ring for the middle. They filled rows of these units with a mixture made up of flour, eggs, cabbage and bonito broth. From here the students were presented with a range of items to put on top including: Octopus, sausage, cheese, banana, chocolate, red ginger, bonito flakes, spring onions and some sauces and fish flakes to top it off. Everyone was encouraged to create their own combinations for their Takoyaki and then use kebab sticks to turn the mixture in the tray so they create round balls (see photos). It was great to see them get so into it and give all the food a try. One of the weirder combinations I saw was the mixture, onion and chocolate. 

While this was going on the other group of students attended an industrial arts lesson. During their time there they were split into smaller groups and challenged to make a ramp using set materials that a ping pong ball can roll down without going off the sides and the extra challenge was to make your one the fastest. It was interesting to see the different approaches to this task. Some put a bit of thought into their design and planned before building, others jumped straight in and started building with varying degrees of success. They had lots of time to test and adjust before they had to present their ramp to the class and be timed by the teacher. Check out the photos to see how they got on. 

After cooking and industrial arts the groups met up for a quick snack break before heading off to English class and Maths class - much to the disappointment of some! We all met up again at lunch time. In Japan most schools provide lunch and it is expected that students and staff eat all of the food they are given. You are also given a small bottle of milk in a glass bottle. Today’s lunch was deep fried roots, a coleslaw type salad, rice with shrimp, mushrooms and a tasty sauce and a pot of blue jelly. It was a pretty cute lunch and the kids seemed to enjoy it. 

After lunch we all went to the hall as a group and the students performed E-Papa to about 70 students with their sticks before each student had to take their own group of 5-7 students and teach them how to do it. This was an interesting insight into what way each person thought was the best way to teach it. Some broke it down into individual skills and did the copy and repeat process while others taught one person at a time and others seemed to focus on one skill and then see how fast they could do it before dropping their sticks. After this the students performed their haka for the group and then split into a boys and girls group to teach the Hara Mura Junior High Students. The girls group were amazing. Teaorina took charge and within 20 mins the girls group were confidently singing the haka and doing the appropriate actions. The boys group took a little longer and needed some teaching tips from Mrs Woods and myself but before long the boys too had taught the lyrics and the actions to the Japanese boys. On Friday they will be performing this with the Japanese students in front of the rest of the school which will be exciting, stay tuned for the video.

For the next session the students were split back into their groups. One half stayed in the hall for P.E and the other half went off for Japanese lessons. The P.E group played a lively game of tag. We thought at this point of the day the kids might be starting to get tiried…we were wrong. The group doing Japanese lessons got taught a Japanese card game and some new key phrases before heading off to meet up with the P.E group for a big game. Now usually at the end of the day the Japanese students have 15mins to clean the school, today our kids got away without having to help out with this as they were asked to carry on playing the game. Hopefully they will get that experience on Friday. I think that experience is quite an eye opener for students when they see how dedicated they are to keeping their school clean. It’s pretty obvious that the method works because walking around the school during the day you don’t see any mess or rubbish. The kids know that any mess they make the will be cleaning up so they keep it really neat. 

When classes finished at 4.15 today some students headed off home with their host families while others had to stay at school until 5-5.30 while their host students were involved in club activities/sports. Before they headed off though I got each student to talk to me specifically about their experiences over the last three days. I asked them three questions: What is best thing you’ve done so far, what the weirdest thing you’ve eaten is and what you had for dinner last night. Check out the table below for their responses. 

Tomorrow they will be going to the elementary school and the adults (except Kathryn) will be going to Matsumoto and Thursday is a public holiday so we won’t all be back together until Friday now. That means there won’t be any updates from me until Friday night but rest assured that photos will be taken tomorrow and that I will catch up with all the kids about what they got up to on Thursday with their host families. Click here for the photos from today. 

Day Three

Today most of us met up again at the Library in Hara Mura, Yuki and Blake did not come out with the group today. Their host families treated them to a day out to Matsumoto and the hot pools! I will catch up with them tomorrow.

We started off in the library gardens visiting our official Pukekohe - Hara Mura friendship site and the trees previous groups have planted on their visits. From here we went into the library to see the books and momentos gifted to the library by past trips and the Intermediate School. It also gave everyone a good chance to catch up with each other and talk about the differences and similarities of their first nights with their home stay families. There was a lot of talk about three topics: Food, Beds and Toilets. At this point no one has had to try anything too different food wise but I know this will change. There is a wide variety of bedding situations some have their own rooms with a “proper bed” while others have futons, mattresses or sleep directly on traditional bamboo threaded floors. The big topic really was toilets. After seeing the “hole in the ground” toilets yesterday many were relieved to find normal toilets in their home stay homes and marvelled at the heated toilet seats and bidets. Still no one has tried one but I know they will update us should this change!

After the library we visited a Buddhist temple and the gardens there. The gardens were beautiful but because today was not a great day weather wise the photos really don’t do it justice. When we went inside we were invited to sit on cushions facing another person and then we learnt about the process for preparing for proper meditation. We had to prop ourselves up on smaller bean filled pillows while sitting on a square pillow, cross our legs just so (really hard), breathe from our guts, clear our minds, hold our hands just so and look at one point on the floor just in front of the person opposite us. We were told about how people meditate for quite long periods of time and that the priest is there to help people when they are struggling to focus. This help takes the form of the priest standing in front of you, bowing and then you leaning forward while he hits you on the back (twice on each side) with a rather large stick. Lucky Grant got to demonstrate this for us - it did sting a bit. We were then told we would use the information to have our first go at meditation for ten minutes. I would be lying if I said it was easy. It’s hard to clear your mind when your legs are starting to go numb from being folded and you do start to get dizzy staring at one spot. However, we were successful in meditating for ten minutes. We were pretty proud of ourselves and glad to have had the experience…But….then we were told now that we knew how it worked we would meditate for 30 mins. This was a real challenge, some of the Japanese students needed some reminders from the priest about how to focus and really some our students needed it too! We managed 20mins before the priest decided to end our session. At this point my legs were dead, and it was actually painful to unfold and get back to normal. It’s hard to put this experience into words as it was just so different from how you might perceive meditation to be. At the beginning it’s more about shear will power and commitment to sitting absolutely still, no matter how uncomfortable.I have a new respect for people that do it in the traditional way. 

After this we headed off to a Japanese tea house. We did not take part in a tea ceremony but did get to try out other traditional Japanese activities. First we had a go at sewing/making our own brooches from fabric. This was a good challenge and it was really interesting to see who struggled with it and who was able to keep up. There are some great photos showing the concentration and emotions the students went through to finish their work, which they all did! After this they split into groups and had a go at some traditional weaving on looms and trying on Kimono’s (for the girls). The girls really looked amazing trying on the traditional Kimono and for every photo I took they took  a million more of themselves, I hope you enjoy seeing them.

After this we headed off to the observatory to have a go on the the ‘Crazy Bikes’. Luckily the weather held off for a while so everyone could have a  go. At this point I let Freya be in charge of the phone/camera and after the ones I took earlier and the multitude she took my battery went flat so from here on out Kirsten Moxon took photos for us and I will be getting these from her tomorrow to share with you. After the Crazy Bikes we to the park for a run around and games before the rain returned. When we went inside we got to check out the exhibits on Space and on Bugs. The bugs were massive! Some were even alive. A lot of the kids got up close and personal with a Japanese rhinoceros beetle which I thought was pretty brave - I certainly kept my distance. After checking out the bugs we got to go into the star dome and watch a film on astronomy and some Japanese stories about the constellations. As we left the star dome we were dismayed to find the rain had really set in for the afternoon and couldn't finish our outdoor activities. So host families were called and one by one people were collected and taken home. Callum, Grant, Chase, their host students, families and Myself ended up going over to Grant’s homestay home and playing lots of games. We played Halli Galli which is a bit like snap except the cards have fruit on them and you make sets of five and then have to be the first to hit a bell to win a round. We also played indoor soccer, ping pong and Chase, Grant and Callum got to try on male Kimono’s. We had a quite a large group so shared some great food and got to know each other a little better. It was a fabulous day and night and I am sure everyone else’s night was just as interesting. Tomorrow we are off to Hara Junior High for our first day of school. Tomorrow I will be able to spend more time talking to individual students about their experiences so I can add them to the website tomorrow night. If you have any questions you’d love to ask send them through on viber and I will get you some answers. Hope you’re enjoying the photos, click here for the photos from today.

Day Two - Tokyo to Hara Mura

Today we had another early start. Up at 6am for our buffet breakfast at 6.30 and then packed up and checked out by 7.30am to hit the road, heading for Hara Mura. The weather has been pretty miserable today, a lot of rain and grey clouds…but none of that could dampen the excitement of being in Tokyo, Japan. On our way through Tokyo we saw some great and different sights. Driving past Disneyland certainly created a bit of a buzz. Along the way we stopped at a few different places for bathroom breaks. The first one was down a rather scary hair pin turn off of the motorway. Upon entering our first rest area we were greeted not by the shop and people we had expected (as it was two years ago) but by a rather large and impressive selection of vending machines. We are not talking about your average everyday NZ vending machines either. These ones were filled with the largest range of items you could imagine. From drinks and sweets to hot dogs, spaghetti rolls and baked good. It was so impressive most of the kids nearly forgot we were there for a toilet break. Once they realised this though it was time for their first encounter of some different Japanese toilets (hole in the ground - see photo). None of the girls were game enough to give it a go instead opting to wait for the one “normal” toilet. 

Once we were on the road again the kids headed for the back of the bus (where all the cool kids go) and enjoyed a good old fashioned travelling sing along. At our second stop we were greeted by another impressive bank of vending machines and a neat store filled with baked goods and souvenirs. A popular stop amongst the adults was the Nutty Bavarian stall where they sell almonds, peanuts and cashews with a deliciously sugary coating (YUM!). Once we were on the road again the weather really settled in and visibility got pretty low so it was time for a movie. The kids enjoyed watching the latest version of Peter Pan and relaxing. At our third stop we saw and tasted some huge, juicy grapes and saw the first lot of plastic meals. It is common for Japanese restaurants to have a plastic version of their dishes for you to see so that you know what your dinner will look like. Some of them looked pretty real! We then hopped back on the bus to complete our 4.5 hour journey to Hara Mura and used our last bit of time to practice speeches and performance items ahead of our big afternoon.

As we drove into Hara Mura the excitement and nerves started to mount. The council members and host families gave us a warm welcome and we enjoyed an afternoon of meeting people, eating delicious food and presenting the  performance items. The students from Hara Junior High presented a traditional dance followed by a power point with some key Japanese culture insights, followed by a taste test of pickled prunes. It was great to see all our kids give it a go and while many didn't like it some thought it was delicious (check out the photos for reactions). Following this it was our turn to put on a show. I am so proud to say our Pukekohe Int and Puke high students represented themselves and NZ so well. Their speeches were great and their performance items were fantastic! The hard work definitely paid off! Another notable speech was the one done our very own Grant Donaldson - something you should definitely ask him about when he returns!

At about 2.45 the welcome party finished and it was time to head off to our new homes for the next week. It was clear the reality of this set in for some of our students, as they realised they would be away from everyone else, but it was great to see them face their fears and get on with what needed to be done. Now that we are all split up for the evening we will have to wait until we catch up tomorrow to find out what everyone’s first night was like. I had a wonderful night out with my new host family and Chase’s host family, eating lots of food and making new friends. I will update you tomorrow once we’re all caught up. For the photos from today click here.

Day 1 - Arrival in Japan

Today we left Auckland, NZ at 8.45am ready for our Japan adventure. The day got off to a bit of a bumpy start for some (drama with a loose horse) but once we all arrived, checked in, ate McDonalds and bought way too many sweets we were ready to say goodbye and board our plane. After 10.5 hours on the plane, many movies, TV shows, songs and chocolate we arrived at Narita Airport in Tokyo where we were greeted with the harsh reality of 29 degrees and a fair level of humidity. The lovely Yasu (guide) was waiting for us when we arrived and we hopped on a bus to get to the Narita View Hotel. After very necessary showers and some time to let it sink it that “we are really in Japan” we headed downstairs for our first dinner together. As it was a buffet dinner many opted for some safer food options while some did branch out and try some new things. We have an early start tomorrow and a 4.5 hour trip from Tokyo to Hara Mura where we will meet our host families. Check out some photos that were taken today by clicking here. Another update will come through tomorrow night.

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