Where do I want to visit?: Japan

Growing up, I loved the show Pokémon, so perhaps that is why I love Japan. Maybe it is also my age, as I grew up in the 90’s, where an Asian flair for fashion was a trend at one point. Sometime in high school, two of my good friends convinced me to read manga and watch anime, which opened me up to a whole new culture I had never seen before.

My love of Japan continued as I explored videos on YouTube. I love watching content creators, and eventually, I found channels on YouTube featuring different couples. One channel follows two American women who married Japanese men, and it showcases their lives after moving to Japan. I was captivated by how different American and Japanese cultures are and watched every video these creators had to offer. One of these couples is Rachel and Jun. I always look forward to their content because they often talk about the differences between American and Japanese Culture. I also tune in because they have four precious cats, and as a self-proclaimed crazy cat lady, I am there for the cat content!

Another channel showcases Simon and Martina, a Canadian couple who moved to Korea to teach and eventually moved to Japan. Like other content creators, they talk about the differences between western and Japanese culture. My favorite part about their channel is that they tour Japan and teach about Japanese food. They have so many videos trying out different Raman noodles, omurice, sushi, and onigiri, and more. As someone who is not very adventurous with food, I find these videos fascinating. A fun video feature from this channel is when they spend 24 hours in one city and tour as much as possible that time, often giving the history and cultural significance behind the places they go.

My dream is to go to the Japanese countryside and see the mountains. Mountains are just beautiful, and I find the idea of watching people living their everyday lives in the countryside more interesting than a busy city’s tourism. I’ve read that in the country, there are vegetable vending machines that farmers will put out. The food in these vending machines is taken on the honor system, so you pay what you can and take what you need. I can’t imagine that kind of thing happening in America! I’m also interested in the honor that simple acts illicit. Marie Kondo became so popular here in America for a time, and I remember people making fun of the concept of greeting your house. However, in Japan, greeting your house is about honor. It’s about appreciating the little things that make up your life. I’ve even read about a temple dedicated to pets that have passed away. Monks will say a blessing over the animal who has passed away, and people can spread the ashes of their deceased pet around the temple.   Maybe my love started with Pokémon, but someday I hope to travel there and experience the country
for myself.

A Personal Journey

It seems that so much in my life has been preparing me for my role as Executive Director even before I applied to work at the World Awareness Children’s Museum. 

One lesson I learned early in my life, a lesson that has helped me tremendously while working at a cultural museum like I am now, is that it’s important to open myself up to experiences outside of my own culture. 

In April 2013, I was fortunate to be able to leave my job for a month and backpack through Europe. I packed everything into a hiking backpack, hopped on a plane, and landed in Santorini, Greece. I spent the month traveling all over the place: Athens, Greece; Budapest, Hungary; Bratislava, Slovakia; Prague, Czech Republic; Vienna, Austria; Dublin, Ireland; and the Isle of Wight, England. I was young, excited, and undeterred by the idea of sharing a hostel room with 11 strangers. 

Ekklisia Panagia Platsani, Oia, Santorini, Greece, April 2013. Photo credit: Bethanie Muska Lawrence.

One of my goals for this trip was to experience cultures that were different from my own. The most vivid memory I have of this is from the beginning of my travels, while I was on the island of Santorini, Greece.

The owner of our hostel told me about the Sunday morning Greek Orthodox church service on the island cliffside, right outside of our hostel in Oia. I woke up very early that morning to wind so strong it made me worried to walk to the church on the cliffs. However, I braved the gales and arrived safely. The service was all in Greek, which I expected, and was also mostly sung instead of spoken, which I hadn’t expected. 

Oia, Santorini, Greece, April 2013. Photo credit: Bethanie Muska Lawrence

Once during the service, a woman came and spoke to me in Greek, but I told her I was sorry, I didn’t speak Greek. A few minutes later, another woman came over to me, started speaking in Greek, and touched my knee because I’d had my legs crossed. Apparently, that was not appropriate at this Greek Orthodox service. I had no idea! I was so embarrassed because, on top of doing the wrong thing by crossing my legs, I was very conspicuously foreign, and I was the only one not wearing black. This was a very different experience for me and even though I felt so out of place, the people at the church service were incredibly nice and even offered me treats (that they usually reserved for children) as I was leaving.

I learned a lot from this experience. I had, for the first time, felt what it was like to be an outsider with regards to my culture. It has helped me act more graciously towards people who are of a different culture than my own. It also allowed me to see the beauty in cultures that are different from my own, even if I don’t quite understand the meaning behind the rites and traditions. 

Anytime I teach children at the museum about different cultures, I encourage them to be curious, not scared. There are so many wonderful things to see and learn from people all over the world; all we have to do is look!

Author: Bethanie Lawrence, Executive Director