When Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School leaders speak about developing global minds, global hearts and global hands in students, there is no better example of that than the partnership between HIES and Asahigaoka High School in Sapporo, Japan.
Since the two schools were formally united as sister schools in March 2003, the relationship has been well nurtured and has deeply impacted students, families and teachers in both countries through travel, homestays and immersion activities.
The 17-day visit to Japan in July 2019 included travel throughout Kyoto, with 10 Upper School students visiting historic sites, temples, the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Hiroshima, a monkey park and food markets. The students were accompanied by Robin Gafford, Lower School administrative assistant and longtime coordinator of the exchange, and Paul Barton, head of school, making the first-ever visit to Asahigaoka by an HIES head since the exchange trips began in 2004.
In the second half of their Japanese adventure, HIES students were paired with Asahigaoka students and their families for homestays and the school visit. On campus, students participated in classes, toured the campus, took an overnight field trip to a hot springs bath resort, presented stories about their life in Atlanta and at HIES, and took part in the school’s annual festival, a weeklong celebration similar to homecoming. Their host student served as their guide and partner on campus.
Mr. Barton and Ms. Gafford also went on homestays with school faculty.
“The homestay is an important component of the trip,” Mr. Barton said. “It’s not easy to immerse yourself and assimilate to new food and a time change. Some of our students were kind of uncomfortable but had to work through that discomfort, which can be transformational.”
To prepare for the homestays, the group attended meetings to discuss different aspects of the trip and watched videos about protocol, food, baths, Shinto and Buddhism. They found that food, in particular, presented some challenges but also a unique reflection on the culture and the local resources. They were overwhelmed by the Japanese hospitality, Mr. Barton noted, even while eating items such as eel for breakfast.
“The students embraced it and dove right in,” Ms. Gafford said. “They found a way to communicate that transcends a language barrier and the bonds formed so quickly. What really sets the trip apart is the students’ chance to get to know each other and form relationships with their host families.”
HIES will have the opportunity to play host in January when the school welcomes 10 students and two faculty members from Asahigaoka. The Japanese students will stay with the HIES family of the student they hosted in Japan, which allows them to further the friendships they started in Sapporo. The visiting students will spend time on campus but also will tour CNN, the Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, the Atlanta History Center and the Center for Civil and Human Rights, eat lunch at the Varsity and enjoy some free time with their host families. They may go to church with them or to other activities.
“Japanese kids are very enamored with Western culture and they want to practice their English,” Ms. Gafford said. “Their visit gives us a chance to return the hospitality.”
Mr. Barton hopes that some of their takeaways from Japan will continue to penetrate their lives as well as school culture. For example, part of the HIES mission is to develop “respect for self and others,” a lesson that was demonstrated frequently in Sapporo, from the way people greeted each other to the lack of trash throughout the cities.
“There is an incredible sense of respect and reverence for each other, the environment, their elders and their culture,” Mr. Barton said.
Josie Barton ’16 has treasured memories of her 2014 trip to Japan, especially the friendships she formed with Asahigaoka students. Since that time, she has expanded her circle of friends after traveling through Southeast Asia over the past year. After graduating from Tulane University in spring 2020, she plans to return to Japan and also visit South Korea and Thailand before starting work in London. Josie encouraged other students to explore the country, the culture and new friendships and to embrace the differences between Asia and the Western world.
"[Japan] has preserved its culture and traditions in an unparalleled way,” Josie said. “My fondest memories from the trip were spending time with my friends, both American and Japanese. Even though we couldn’t speak perfectly with each other, I learned a lot about them and their culture.”
Look for the visiting Japanese students on campus Jan. 4-11, 2020. Students interested in going on the Japan trip in 2021 may speak with Robin Gafford in the LS office.
Asahigaoka High School has 960 students and 80 faculty/staff members. It is at the top of the rankings of more than 50 high schools in Sapporo.