Art History Students Find Inspiration in Japan's Cultural Tapestry

This spring, 40 Marist School students in Dr. Michael Bieze’s Advanced Placement (AP) Art History class embarked on a journey to Japan, a destination rich in cultural heritage and artistic marvels. Dr. Bieze’s passion for immersive learning experiences has led countless Marist students on transformative journeys across the world for more than three decades. This year, Japan emerged as the canvas for their next adventure, marking a significant milestone with a larger cohort that reflects the enthusiasm among Marist students to explore art internationally.
In line with Marist’s commitment to providing meaningful learning experiences for students, the AP Art History trip to Japan exemplifies the transformative potential of travel. Japan provided a unique learning atmosphere, where experiencing art through the lens of Japanese culture and nature amplified the experience for Marist students.

In preparation for the trip, which spanned from March 2-10, Dr. Bieze emphasized the importance of experiencing a place firsthand, free from preconceptions or guided tours. Prior to departure, he introduced two essential Japanese concepts to the students: omoiyari and shinrin-yoku. Omoiyari, which entails considering others in one's thoughts and actions, explained why Japan's streets were remarkably clean—an observation that resonated strongly with the students.

Senior Gabby Ovadje noticed this cultural value present even in small ways, observing that at tea ceremonies, it is expected that guests make a large slurping sound to show one’s enjoyment of the tea and to appreciate the host of the house. “I definitely think that seeing Japanese art and experiencing Japanese culture changed the way I see the world. It made me appreciate the smaller things, trying to absorb all that I saw and did,” she said.

Shinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing," emphasized the therapeutic benefits of immersing oneself in nature, urging the students to disconnect from technology and embrace the natural world, a sentiment Marist students encountered abundantly throughout Japan.

“You must disconnect from technology and hear the birds, feel the wind, and become aware of yourself and the natural world,” said Dr. Bieze. “I know that the students found the presence of nature and the sacred everywhere in Japan.”

The trip began in Tokyo, where they visited the Matsuchiyama Shoten Temple renowned for its offerings symbolizing life's harmony. They also explored the Ghibli Museum, an homage to the renowned animation studio's fantastical creations. Both destinations directly tied into their studies of Hayao Miyazaki's film, "Spirited Away."

“I love to hear the audible gasp of surprise upon seeing an artwork for the first time in person. One’s preconceived ideas are suddenly shaken and there’s a rush to try and make sense of the real thing,” Dr. Bieze explained. “Part of travel is realizing how little we actually know until we experience a place. I always hope students leave a place with many more questions than answers. To understand another culture on its own terms, not ours, is a daunting, humbling challenge.”

From Tokyo, the students boarded the Shinkansen, Japan's high-speed bullet train, to Kyoto. They explored sites like the Zen stone garden and UNESCO World Heritage Site Ryōan-ji, the Buddhist temple Kiyomizu, and the iconic vermilion torii gates of the Fushimi Inari Shrine, each imbued with spiritual significance.

For Elizabeth McCall ’24, the fusion of spirituality and nature at Ryōan-ji enhanced the impact of her experience. She expressed that as she approached Ryōan-ji, “walking through the serene evergreen forest under cloudy skies, a sense of intimacy and reverence surrounded us.” Upon reaching the shrine, the ritual of removing their shoes and entering in silence heightened the sacredness of the moment. “I found myself lost in reflection, contemplating my place in the world, counting my blessings, and marveling at the greatness of everything around me. The combination of the tranquil scenery and the intense spiritual connection I felt made Ryōan-ji truly unforgettable.”

Their itinerary included a memorable excursion to Nara, where they encountered wild deer in Nara Park and marveled at the ancient wonders of Tōdai-ji and Kasuga Shrine, fostering a sense of connection with nature and history.

Lucy Mehre ’24 said, “I loved Tōdai-ji because I got to see one of the coolest art pieces that we learned about in class. Even though we saw pictures, the colossal buddha, or Daibutsu, was so much bigger than I had ever imagined it could be. It took a second for my eyes to adjust when I walked into the hall from the bright day outside, but when they did, I was in awe.”

McCall added, “Entering the free-roaming Deer Park in Nara was like stepping into a realm where nature and history intertwined seamlessly.” In the tranquil setting of Nara, McCall was able to reflect on her place in a vast world. “Amidst the beauty of the nature and the echoes of ancient history, a profound realization washed over me. The world, with all its wonders and complexities, stretched out in every direction, reminding me of my own insignificance in the grand tapestry of existence. Yet, far from feeling diminished, I felt a deep sense of belonging and presence in that moment.”

As the trip concluded in Osaka, the students realized their interactions with Japanese people throughout their travels enriched their experience and enhanced their understanding of art as a tool for connection across differences.

“Through shared games, laughter, and the universal language of TikTok, we forged connections that transcended cultural boundaries,” McCall reflected. “I am reminded that travel is not just about seeing new places, but about opening our hearts and minds to the richness of the world around us. It is in moments of connection, amidst the grandeur of nature and the warmth of human interaction, that we find artistic meaning and fulfillment in our journeys.”

She described a quiet moment in Nara when she met a local man who approached the Marist students with genuine warmth despite his limited English. He invited them to share about themselves in a notebook he carried. As they penned messages of gratitude, he surprised them with gifted handcrafted origami. When they realized he inadvertently left out a member of their group, he pulled out his origami paper and began teaching the students how to fold origami, ensuring every member of the group could have their own creation.

“It's encounters like these that leave a lasting impact, shaping us into more considerate and compassionate individuals,” McCall said. “The beautiful origami gifts served as a tangible symbol of the universal language of art—a medium that transcends cultural boundaries and fosters connection. Through his gesture, the local man affirmed the notion that art is indeed a gift, a means of expressing oneself and spreading joy to others. This experience in Japan has deepened my appreciation for the power of art and the power of spreading kindness to the people around us.”

By immersing themselves in Japanese culture and art, Marist AP Art History students not only expanded their understanding of global perspectives but also built connections that transcended cultural boundaries. This co-curricular trip reflects Marist's belief in the value of travel as an educational tool, empowering students to become compassionate servant leaders equipped to engage with diverse communities both at home and abroad.

Those interested in learning more about Marist student travel opportunities should please direct inquiries to Director of Global and Humane Studies Mrs. Kelly Mandy '96.

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