School trips help cut the apron strings


My son is leaving home. I’ve always known, of course, that the day would come when he’d strike out on his own. But I never imagined it would happen when he was only 11 years old. Or that he’d make his big break to a mountain in Japan.

My son is going on a fifth-grade school trip. Yes, it’s during summer vacation. Participation is voluntary, but every child in his class is going. He leaves Monday morning for two nights and three days in Hakone.

The stated purpose of the trip, which is called Kaki Gakuen (Summer Academy), is to “enjoy nature” and “build confidence and social skills,” while traveling, eating and sleeping in a group. That’s just what they say, of course. I’m convinced the real purpose is to get the kids away from their mothers.

Most Japanese children don’t help out much at home, and teachers are concerned. Our school regularly exhorts parents to give their children chores to carry out. We got another reminder just the other day. “Summer vacation is a good opportunity to give children responsibility at home, even if it’s just watering the plants or clearing their own dishes from the table,” the handout said.

It seems that the teachers lecture the kids about helping out. I joked with my older son recently, saying he probably wishes he had a “nice mom” who wouldn’t make him put his clean laundry away, like I do. He got a serious look on his face and shook his head. Then he said (in Japanese, which is why I think he heard it at school), “No, because then I wouldn’t know how to take care of myself when I’m an adult.”

For most of the children, including my son, the school trip will be the first time they’ve been away from their families for three whole days. For many, it will be the first time they’ve had to lay out their own futon or pack their own bags. “What’s the most important thing kids will learn on the trip?” I asked my son’s teacher. “To take care of themselves and their own things without relying on anyone else,” she said. “You mean, without relying on Mom?” I asked. She just smiled.

My son and his classmates will stay at a special facility for youth outings that is operated by our local government. It’s a modern building with a gymnasium, recreation room, dining hall and onsen baths. The 20 elementary schools in our ward use it in rotation for fifth-grade summer trips. The cost is very reasonable. I paid 8,500 yen for my son, which covers transportation, two nights’ lodging, six meals and all activities. We were instructed to put an additional 1,500 yen in an envelope marked with our child’s name. That’s okozukai (spending money) so our kids can buy us omiyage (presents). I had to smile at this early training in the very Japanese custom of bringing home gifts from travel.

Our ward provides each child with a 32-page, full-color book that outlines everything about the trip. It provides a surprising level of detail, including a checklist of what to bring and a precise schedule of activities. There are two-dozen photographs showing the sleeping rooms, the baths and even the cubbies in which the kids will stow their gear. It’s very reassuring for the kids to know what to expect.

Teachers spend a lot of class time preparing kids for the trip, including dividing the class into han (small groups) for specific activities. Teachers talk about good hiking manners. They help the kids decide what songs to sing on the bus.

The trip looks like a lot of fun. The kids will get a look at a volcano, ride a ropeway and do nature crafts. There will be games, a ceremony and a campfire. The main event, however, is a hike up Kintokiyama, a 1,213-meter mountain. The climb up and down, including a lunch break, will take most of the second day. My son is strong and used to hiking, but many of his classmates are sedentary. Teachers say such kids gain confidence just from surviving the experience.

Throughout the trip, the students are in charge of monitoring their own health. They have to take their temperature every morning. They are even supposed to record bowel movements. This seems perfectly normal to Japanese parents, but I had a hard time keeping a straight face when this was explained at the parents’ meeting. My son rolled his eyes when we talked about it at home. “They’re into poop checks at Japanese schools,” he observed.

In addition to taking care of their own needs and belongings, each child has responsibilities to the group. My son is one of the shokujigakari, which he gripes is the worst job. He will help out at mealtimes, setting up the dining hall and tidying up after everyone has eaten. He’ll help pass out the box lunches. I asked my son if he’s nervous about the trip. “No, except a little about the kimodameshi.” I’d never heard that word, although I understood its literal meaning, “liver test.” I doubted the school would take students all the way to Hakone to examine their organs, so I asked my son to explain.

“I think they are going to divide us into boy-girl pairs and send us into a dark room,” my son said.

“Um . . . why would they do that?” I asked, hoping kimodameshi doesn’t mean “traditional Japanese sex education.”

“We have to work together to get past ghosts and other scary stuff and reach a goal at the end,” he said.

“Ah,” I said, relieved. “Sounds like a ‘test of courage.’ I’m sure you’ll be fine.” But my husband and I laughed about it later. “Isn’t it a little weird that the school would take kids up into the hills, put them in a dark room and scare them?”

It’s going to be hard to say goodbye, but I’m happy to let my son go on his first trip without us. I’ll be waiting to see if he seems more grown-up when he comes home. And I’ll be waiting to unpack his bags and do his laundry and . . . whoops! While he’s away, I guess I’ll have to do some growing up, too.