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Japan Study: Part One

August 30, 2011

This is a picture of kids paying attention during a visit to the archives room at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens library. Archivist Jason Kirby is showing them samples of the materials used to build the teahouse in the BBG's Japanese Garden.

About a month ago, I borrowed some cool neighborhood kids that are a couple of years older than The Bean to come over and hang out with us for a couple of weeks. We decided to call our time “Camp Unschool” and to focus on studying the history and culture of Japan.

Birmingham just happens to be a great place to be if you want to study Japan and can’t actually go to Japan. One of our sister cities is Hitachi, Japan; the Birmingham Botanical Gardens has one of the handful of authentic teahouses in North America in its excellent Japanese Garden; and the Birmingham Museum of Art has an excellent Japanese Collection as well as a free-for-members-to-check-out “culture case” full of items and activities for learning about Japan.

The kids decided that they would create activities and displays for a “Japan Fair” for the neighborhood. After reading about Japan, watching some documentaries, making bento lunches, building some models, making a bunch of origami, rolling some sushi, studying some maps, and taking the most epic field trip ever to the botanical gardens, they put on an amazing event. I took a bunch of pictures, so this will be a two-part post. Today, I’ll focus on our awesome field trip.

A little background: There is a public library at our botanical gardens. In the library, there is an archives room. In the archives room are all kinds of amazing treasures, many of which relate to Japan. I wouldn’t have known about the archives room at all if I hadn’t “liked” the botanical gardens’ Facebook page … but I’m a hopeless Facebook junkie, and one day in my feed there popped up a new photo album titled Archives Room at the Library. I got a little geeked. 😉 There may have been happy dancing.

Anyway, when we were doing our Japan study, I made an appointment to take The Bean and her friends to the archives room, letting the archivist know we were interested in items relating to Japan. (Click here for more info about the archives room and contact info for the archivist.) This turned out to be one of the best things we’ve done as homeschoolers. The archivist, Jason Kirby, gave us the royal treatment, pulling out all kinds of Japan-related items from shelves, drawers, and who-knows-what-hiding-places, putting them on display for us, and telling the kids about all the items. It was a custom class just for us!

Checking out a model of the teahouse located in the Japanese Garden.

A stunning fully embroidered Japanese wedding dress. Did I say stunning? Yes. Stunning.

Stunning embroidery on the stunning wedding dress. See how the feathers on the birds' backs look ... feathery?

This is one of the hammers that were originally intended for ringing the bell in the gardens. For practical reasons, it is currently rung with a wooden beam.

Here Jason is demonstrating "laying down the dragon," a ritual to appease the earth-dwelling spirits before the ground was broken for the teahouse.

Kimono and obi.

This is a samurai doll that would have been given to a child in a coming-of-age ceremony.

Next we headed to the Japanese Garden, which we saw in a totally new way after our class in the archives room.

The teahouse in the garden. I want one in the back yard.

Camp Unschool class picture at the Torii gate.

Deep in the bamboo forest ...

The hidden Buddha. Hint: NOT in the bamboo forest on the far end of the Japanese Garden.

A moment of zen with the hidden Buddha.

The bell, with the beam ringer instead of the original hammers.

On the zigzag bridge.

At the very end of the garden.

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