- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

Many home-schoolers incorporate travel into their studies, either as an adjunct to some other project, or within the context of visiting relatives or friends.

I’m writing this from Tokyo, where my husband and I are accompanying a group of college students - several of whom are or were home-schooled - to encounter the language, culture, geography and history of Japan in situ.

It’s nice to see how flexible these young people are, merging into this culture without too much resistance. Many have a love of some of Japan’s artistic products: manga (comic book art) and anime (animated films and television programs.) Quite a few of the young men are enamored with the high-tech gadgetry Japan produces so well.

Visitors today have advantages unavailable just decades before. The Internet helps with finding one’s way and learning information about each site, not to mention getting translations for hard-to-decipher terms.

Japan itself has become so internationalized that nearly every restaurant, shop, hotel and train staffer seems to have at least a working knowledge of English. Of course, as all travelers seem to find: Pointing and using gestures helps a lot.

It’s interesting to see how our world is melting together, with the former delineations between borders and cultures being blurred. Words such as “sushi” and “karaoke” are part of every American’s lexicon, while the Japanese are following the U.S. primaries as if it was their own national news. One town here - which happens to be called “Obama” - is holding rallies, creating songs and lobbying other Japanese for the nomination of its namesake. The news programs each day report the number of delegates and “supa-delegates” that each of the Democratic candidates has captured.

The former homogeneity of Japan is changing, too. The major tournament season for sumo is being held, and this sport, which once was known as a Japanese-only martial arts form, now has 30 percent foreigners in its ranks. Even more surprising: There were no native Japanese in the latest group of applicants. Just as American baseball has been refreshed by a wave of Japanese players, and basketball by players from China or Europe, it seems that many formerly national pastimes are rapidly developing into international ones.

One of the most moving experiences for me took place at the Meiji Emperor’s Shrine, where traditional Japanese custom dictates that one write a sincere prayer on a small wooden plaque and hang it upon a prayer wall. Circling the walls, I saw prayers for peace, health and blessings - in dozens of languages. I spotted Arabic, Vietnamese, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Thai, Farsi, Hindi and German. From the ones I could translate, the sentiments were remarkably similar: wishes for love in the family, peace in the world and advancement in various endeavors.

Encountering another nation’s language and people intensifies learning. The ability to decipher the written language - or to communicate verbally - has an automatic consequence. One young man who had never studied Japanese was thrilled when he successfully ordered vanilla ice cream and paid for it. I’m guessing he’ll sign up for a course the minute he gets home.

I really feel that travel stretches our minds and bodies. We put ourselves into new environments, with new input and our minds very obediently adapt, picking up the vital clues that allow us to cope. Our bodies adapt to new sights, smells, tastes and other sensations.

Home educators may find that investing in travel bears huge dividends in developing both academically and in terms of inward growth. We don’t simply go out into the world, we incorporate that greater world into the inner self. We don’t return merely with photos and stories, we come back enriched with a deeper sense of one’s own role in the world. This is something no curriculum can deliver.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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