Have you ever wondered whether there is any correlation between traveling and teaching? The experience of traveling to, and especially living in, another country shows us how stepping outside of the familiar can open our eyes and minds. Undoubtedly, the more new cultures we experience and the more new places we discover, the more open-minded we become. Can we assume the same about our growth as teachers? Do we become better educators the more we navigate around the world? It is my personal conviction that every teacher should be a part-time traveller, making traveling feed our teaching. The very act of traveling, in itself, has a highly transformative purpose which can be magnified tenfold by solely documenting it.
Recently, I went on a short trip along the coast of Iwate prefecture following a tiny section of the Michinoku Coastal Trail. Michinoku Coastal Trail is a long path that runs along the Pacific Ocean. It is a path that presents us with dynamic kinds of sceneries, both in terms of nature as well as in terms of history. Walking down the Trail allows people to walk down the path of all the victims of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Hours before Typhoon Hagibis was expected to land in Shizuoka and proceed north towards Miyagi and Iwate, local authorities in Miyako were still working relentlessly to cement the memories from the catastrophic damage caused by the 2011 tsunami into huge sea walls offering protection. Nevertheless, some locals see these walls as a barrier that prevents them from living side by side with nature. They find it incredibly hard to adjust to a life side by side 15 m high walls which obscure the views and resemble the walls of a prison.
Japan is a land where people revere and live in harmony with nature. Harsh yet abundant, nature provides Japan’s residents with sustenance. In return, Japanese people work hard to adapt rather than cause damage to the environment. Japan’s Ministry of Environment encourages travelers to “cherish the nature and leave what they find.” It pleads us to take only pictures and memories with us and to leave behind what we come across. And that’s what I did. I decided to take photographs of the places I visited and the things I encountered while leaving only footprints. I subjected the content of some of the pictures to a simple process of interrogation: “Why?” “What’s wrong with this picture?” “Does this add up?” If we can establish and/or sustain this phenomena-investigation practice through questioning in children, we can nurture their mindfulness and critical-thinking skills.
Here are two examples:
Upon reaching Jodogahama Beach or “Pure Land Beach” in the Sanriku Fukko National Park, I was utterly astonished to see a flock of seagulls staying grounded. The flock appeared like a natural extension of the majestic coastal cliffs. Why? Why aren’t these birds, symbol of freedom and movement, high up in the sky? With eyes deeply soaked in the horizon, they felt entirely undisturbed by my presence. Apparently, whatever was approaching from the depths of the horizon, it looked way more menacing than a single human being.
What’s wrong with this picture? The seagulls’ behaviors was clearly sending subtle signals. A storm was coming. Not just a storm but one of the strongest to hit Japan in decades. Yet, these clever birds were not flying far away to some hidden inland forests. Fleeing was not on their agenda. They were standing there calmly, adjusting their behavior in agreement with mother nature. For the Pacific Ocean is ever peaceful, ever blissful in its character and intent. Not a threat to their existence.
“Does this add up?” One way or another, this simply does not add up. If, among humans, “fleeing” is the best way to minimize the loss of life, why is it that the behavior of this flock of birds defies common sense? While a storm was about to emerge in the ocean, carrying violent winds and heavy rain, stillness was the only resort. To me personally, this scene carries the massage that if we tune in with nature, if we achieve stillness in our minds and hearts, we will remain unshaken by the wind just as rocks of solid mass. For “in the ocean’s midmost depth no wave is born but all is still. (Sutta-Nipata)”
The message from the 2011 tsunami is still alive in the coastal area of Iwate. 8 years after the catastrophic tsunami waves stroke Japan’s Tohoku region, destroyed buildings remain part of the scenery. Why? Japan is a land of beauty and perfection yet the ‘ugly’ memories from the disaster loom out of the darkness as something normal. These are the concrete tablets silently bearing the warnings to remember the calamity of the disaster. It will take ages for these tsunami stones to decay – as much as it needs to take the people to remember the past.
What’s wrong with this picture? What clearly doesn’t fit this scene, both visually and physically, are the two (apparently quite fragile) gas station signs located on the ground. The white and red ordinary advertising displays serve to guide people towards a new gas station. In terms of colors, yet not in terms of proportions, the two signs visibly stand out. Would they still stand should another tsunami hit? Most likely not. Unlike the nearby buildings, these signs fall short of delivering a message conveying the dangers of tsunami. Instead, mounting these signs at a height of 15 meters would definitely carry on the memories of the tsunami.
“Does this add up?”
As the saying goes, “after a storm comes a calm”, the day after the typhoon’s passage, the weather was beautiful, warm and inviting. We decided to go to the nearby park and have a picnic. Moved by the unfolding autumn-colored foliage, coupled with the desire to celebrate that which is old and faded (sabi), we collected autumn leaves to make a simple collage craft once we returned from the park.
With vivid impressions from the typhoon, some kids used the leaves to stand for umbrellas. But, why? Why is there a seashell in one of the collages? What, in the first place, is it doing in the artwork and more importantly – what, on earth, is a seashell (along with a carpet of seaweed*) doing in a park located 60 km away from the shore? Apparently, we had ‘received’ souvenirs from the ocean thanks to the power of the typhoon. Filled with surprise and confusion, the kid who found the seashell approached me with a question “What is this?”. He knew from experience to observe and interrogate the nature of things that do not belong. He used it in his artwork to stand for the tornado that hit Japan, along with a character reminiscent of Mary Poppins.