In early April, Cabot High School Japanese language teacher Yaeko McNeil found herself with a too-good-to-be-true offer. However, it was indeed true — an all expenses paid, two-week trip to Japan for 23 students with two chaperones.
"It was like a dream come true," McNeil said.
Helen Goodman, who chaperoned with McNeil, said the trip was organized to promote understanding of Japan’s recovery from the great east Japan earthquake of March 2011 and the devastating tsunamis that swept the country’s eastern shores.
"They want people to know that Japan is a safe place to go," she said.
The trip was under the Kizuna Project, McNeil said.
"Kizuna" translated means a strong or close bond of friendship, she said.
The project is administered by the Laurasian Institute at Seattle with the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership.
Students who made the trip said it quickly turned from a vacation into a life altering experience.
"I will never hear of another disaster and not think of the people who are in it," Amber Roderick said.
Sandra Cookro and Mark Kingan Jr., echoed her feelings.
"I mean, you see something like this on TV, and it is just pictures. Being there is completely different," Cookro said. Meeting the people, seeing faces, hearing firsthand accounts made it personal, she said.
Cookro, Kingan and Roderick, not yet recovered after their return home Friday, met on Monday to speak about their experience.
Students who went on the trip were Nicholas, Dunaway, Grant Reed, Kingan, Wylie Holitik, Timothy DeNomie, Will Gambill, Waylon Moses, Caeron Asselin, Drew Yates, Cookro, Roderick, Kristin Scott, Anna Applegate, Kelsey Miller, Nikki West, Melissa Mosqueda, Melenda Ros, Jessica Long, Codee Park, Margaret Abegglen, Morgan Gurke, Jessica Lawley and Jordan Lakin.
McNeil said the offer, made through the Laurasian Institute at Seattle, had some minor conditions.
"It was for 23 students. It must be 23 or no one could go," McNeil said. She had two weeks to put it all together, including passports.
Usually, filling the trip would have been no problem.
"But many of the students were on other trips," McNeil said, including a band trip to Washington, D.C. "We did not know until just a few days [before the deadline]."
Students who were not in the Japanese class were considered on the recommendation of other teachers.
The trip included three days and two nights with a host Japanese family, and included going to school with their counterparts.
"I learned to say thank you and excuse me a lot," Kingan said.
Getting to school involved a mixture of walking, trains and buses, Kingan said.
"It took about an hour to get to school," he said.
Speaking with other students included a brief geography lesson to show where Arkansas is.
"They understood better when I said it was by Texas. They knew where Texas is," he said.
Roderick said all she had to do was say Arkansas.
"They said ‘Yes. Bill Clinton,’" she said.
Goodman said attending school in Japan is different, with competition for the best schools beginning in kindergarten. Attending school is compulsory only to the ninth grade, and high schools select students in the manner used by American colleges, even to the point of requiring entrance exams.
"If your grades are not good enough, they will not ask you to come to their school," Goodman said. "If you do not get to the right high school, you will not get to the right college."
Part of the trip included visiting areas struck by the tsunami, though much of that portion was because of rain, Kingan said.
"They did not want us to get hurt," he said.
But they were able to visit temporary housing used for people whose homes had been destroyed.
"We could not ask personal questions, though," Kingan said. "That is considered rude."
Everyone was very gracious, even people who still did not know what had happened to family members, Cookro said. Many people did not know their relatives were walking around somewhere, buried under wreckage, or washed out to sea, she said.
Kingan said the earthquake simulator gave them a taste of what it is like to experience an earthquake.
"It gave you everything. The rocking, the noise, everything," he said.
He also told of seeing the "Miracle Tree," the lone survivor in a forest of about 70,000 trees.
"They won’t let anyone close to it. It is being protected," he said.
Not all the trip was related to the tsunami.
The schedule included visits to home-based industries, shrines, temples, museums, palaces.
"It was go, go, go, all the time," Goodman said.
Roderick said the ride on the 300 mph bullet train was exceptional.
"You have no idea you are going so fast. There is no rocking, no clack, clack at all," she said.
Cookro was touched by the reception people gave them.
"We had people coming up to us all the time, thanking us for coming," she said. "People would stop on the street and wave when we went by [in the bus]. We felt a little bit like celebrities."
Each said they were changed by the trip.
"I have a better understanding what a disaster is," Cookro said. "I have a new respect for people. I was touched by how kind they were even after going through what they did."
"I can’t look at destruction the same way anymore," he said.
Roderick said one account particularly touched her. She said some senior citizens warned children that the shelter in which they were taking refuge would not be safe, that they needed to seek higher ground.
"[The seniors] said in all their years they had not felt anything like [the earthquake]. They said the kids needed to get to higher ground. If they had not had done that those kids would have died," she said.
What about the senior citizens?
"They could not move fast enough," Roderick said. "So they turned toward the wave, knelt down, and accepted it."