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The early morning of Friday 14th of April, more specifically at 5:00 am, marked the beginning of the first Exchange between Kasukabe Senior High School (KSHS) and Melbourne High School (MHS) since 2019, following the COVID-19 pandemic. Mr. Fujino, Dr. Kemp, Dr. Mordini and twenty VCE Japanese Second Language students embarked for Japan from Melbourne International Airport, filled with excitement but drowsiness due to the demanding wake up time as a result of our holiday sleep schedules.

Delays and at a certain point, “no further confirmed information,” caused our initial 7:00 am flight to be rescheduled to past 8:00 am, in which we finally took off for Narita. Since Japan is only an hour behind Melbourne, we spent our entire Friday on the plane, bullet train and local train and finally arrived at our hotel at around 10:00 pm after almost 18 hours of travelling and a swift dinner at Ikebukuro Station. This marked the beginning of the first stage of our trip; sightseeing and travelling across Japan.

The following day, we headed to our first destination via bullet train: Hiroshima. Each of us lugged around a minimum of two bags, whilst trying to hold onto our train bentos with our last pinkie finger. Thankfully, our three hour bullet train ride meant that most of the weight of our now three bags was alleviated, and we were able to fully enjoy our Japanese bullet train experience. With folding tables, free, but not very good, wifi and reclining chairs, the bullet trains provided us with the perfect environment to do work, eat, sleep or do all three across the travel time.

Our arrival in Hiroshima was coupled with some free time in the area before checking into our hotel. For dinner, many of us went to eat Okonomiyaki, Japanese savoury pancake, the flagship dish of Hiroshima, but finding seats during a Saturday night dinner rush proved a challenge in itself.

The next few days involved visiting Miyajima Island, where we met Mr. Slocombe, visited Itsukushima Temple and almost had two students enter the ferry before the rest of the group, as well as visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the Atomic Bomb Dome. We, students, were tasked with finding the route and leading the rest of the group to the destination, allowing us to develop our navigation skills and familiarising ourselves with Japan’s public transport system.

After Hiroshima, we took two more bullet trains to get to Kyoto Station, which, very conveniently, had what seemed to be infinite floors filled with restaurants, small shops, as well as a multi-story department store. In Kyoto, we visited numerous temples, and us students were once again tasked with finding the way to Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and Ryoan-ji.

The responsibility of navigation and leadership of the group from our time in Hiroshima and our brief time in Kyoto thus far, prepared us for the highlight of our time in Kyoto — our Language Day. During this day, we made our way around the city by ourselves and travelled in groups to destinations that were set by the teachers. And while it may seem easy as we could have just referred to Google Maps, usage of the app was prohibited, and we were left to what many of us considered the ‘old fashioned’ way of only using a map and our developing language skills. Many of us had to ask locals for directions, nervously wait at a bus stop to see if the bus would arrive or if it even existed and constantly fold and unfold our copy of the Kyoto City Map. This big day marked the close of the first stage of our trip.

Thursday 20th of April signalled the beginning of the second stage of our trip; homestay and going to school at our brother school, Kasukabe Senior High School. Our entrance to the school was met with a big round of applause and gift bags filled with souvenirs, and we said our temporary farewells to the other students we had spent the last week with, and went home with our host brothers.

Everyone’s homestay experience was inevitably different — it is safe to say that this period was a time filled with challenges, unfamiliarity and change, but also a time filled with shared laughter, long conversations and big smiles, amidst crowded trains, even more early wake up times and numerous reciprocal English and Japanese lessons between KSHS and MHS students. Our welcome assembly was likewise filled with English and Japanese speeches from the Principals and student representatives of both schools, and we were able to witness Kasukabe High School’s strong school culture through their performance of their school song.

In the classroom, despite many of us being unable to understand our lessons, particularly Mr. Fujino’s least favourite subject from his time at school – Classical Japanese, we were able to make new friends, meet different teachers, attend cultural activities, such as calligraphy, and overall experience Japan’s education system first hand. This experience, as Dr. Mordini said to us, was and will continue to be an experience that we cannot get from simply studying Japanese from our iiTomo textbook. It is an experience that we will reap benefits from, especially when we return to T37 at MHS, and a time that is abundant with fond memories that we will remember for the years to come.

To our KSHS students and teachers, we deeply thank you for your hospitality and continually warm and friendly nature in welcoming us to your school. To our host families and host brothers, thank you for showing and letting us experience Japanese culture, for being patient as we settled into the new environment and for your support throughout this stage of our trip. And of course, from the twenty senior students, a huge thank you to Mr. Fujino, Dr. Kemp and Dr. Mordini for accompanying us on and coordinating this trip, and for your unwavering commitment to making this Exchange a time we will continue to look warmly upon.

Farewells of this nature are often bittersweet, but Kasukabe High School students will be coming to Melbourne next year, and it will be our turn to host. We look forward to seeing them again, and likewise wish the graduating students of KSHS every success in their future endeavours.

 short, the 2023 Japan Exchange was a memorable trip filled with new experiences and a constant push beyond our comfort zones, but one that we have grown from immensely. We thank everyone who made the 2023 Japan Exchange possible, and until we can return the favour in 2024, we thank Kasukabe Senior High School for hosting us! 春日部高校のみなさん、ありがとうございました!

By Eric Vien