Today, we were very lucky to visit Kushiro Shitsugen National Park, a beautiful wetlands area not too far from the city.
This area is a natural treasure for Japan, and one of the only places where you can see the horizon line in all directions. It is very flat and unique landscape. Sometimes I felt like I was in a marsh on Cape Cod, and I kept wondering if I’d see the ocean when we turned a corner.
Professor Kanda from Hokkaido University of Education accompanied us and showed us around. We were very lucky that he was with us, because he is an expert on the area, having studied it for more than 40 years. If we had been alone, we would have passed over lots of little features, but he was able to teach us about them and point things out that we never would have figured out. For example, I noticed on the map that there was a little note saying “be careful not to fall into the bottomless pits.” We laughed when we saw that on the bus. But then Professor Kanda showed us what that means. What looked like puddles on the side of the path were actually very deep!
We saw lots of interesting plants — huge leaves, beautiful flowers, ones that eats insects, and the second most poisonous plant in the world. It was really beautiful and peaceful out there.
We had an amazing lunch and next visited a Hokuto historic site, where they’ve found archeological artifacts dating back to the Jomon Period (12000 BC – 300 BC). We visited a museum to see some of the artifacts and learn about the history of these people. I have to admit that I got frustrated being with the group. We were spending so much time talking and I wanted to be out hiking and exploring! I wasn’t a very good listener at this time. I wanted to be respectful of Professor Kanda’s time and learn the information, but even more, I wanted to be outside exploring.
I asked if I could go walking in the woods after our program ended at 3 pm. It wasn’t clear if that would be ok, because I’d need to figure out transportation back on my own. Eventually, two other teachers and I were granted permission to go exploring, and we said goodbye to the tour bus and made a plan to take the public bus back to town at 4:31. We were told many times that we HAD to catch that bus — the next one didn’t come for two hours.
So, we set off into the woods. It was so great to be moving and exploring. I felt like a detective, trying to figure out each sign and every new thing that we saw. The landscape was more woodsy than the marshland. We crossed a suspension bridge, climbed a viewing platform, and meandered the trails. It was wonderful.
After not too long, we came across a treasure — the actual site of the ancient houses! There were even replicas that we could go inside of, and one had a smoking fire. It was so cool to be there and touch it.
Then, we saw an old man standing by one of the houses. We greeted him in Japanese, but then he started saying other things. So, I said, “Wakarimasen. Eigo?” which means “I don’t understand. English?” He shook his head, but then proceeded to do something amazing. He got out a piece of wood and started drawing for me. It was stunning.
We couldn’t resist. We pulled out gifts from our bags and showered him with treats — balloons, a stuffed moose that Josh brought from Maine, and a frisbee from Rick’s school in Detroit. It was truly a special moment.
We wanted to stay longer and miss the bus! It was so great to be out exploring, but we were responsible and made it to the bus by 4:31. We weren’t sure how the payment worked, but we saw others getting tickets, so we got them too. We tried to give our money to the driver, but he ordered us in English: “sit down.” Once seated, we figured out the system — our ticket was stamped with a number 9 when we got on (automated in a machine), and there was a big board up front that told the price if you got off then. So, over time, the price increased, and we paid when we got off. It was a neat system!
Shortly after we sat down, we met a really nice couple visiting Hokkaido from the Tokyo area. We learned that he was afraid to fly, and so he had come by land, including one of the longest underwater tunnels in the world — which takes 20-30 minutes to get through! He was really interesting to talk to, and then we recognized the neighborhood of our hotel and said our goodbyes before paying the driver and getting off the bus.
This whole day was a reminder about the power of experiential learning. It can be exciting to hear from an expert, and it is even more exciting to have an expert take you out into the world and show you things. But the most powerful thing in the world is discovery! When you figure something out yourself through exploration, that’s the best kind of learning. That’s what I want to do in my classroom.