A Thanksgiving in Japan with a Wise Teacher

Note: this post was originally published in 2016 and updated here.

It was in November 2015 that I spent a few weeks in Japan and Thanksgiving with my son, Justin, who had lived there over three years teaching English to school kids. He works and lives in the mountainous town of Maniwa. I have visited him several times, and cannot get enough of the Japanese countryside. Yes, of course the cities are where most visitors go and great fun, but after awhile, to me, the big cities start to blend into the same.

Well, this blog entry is not about Thanksgiving day, but about one day at a school where Justin teaches…a day I will never forget. Justin rotates around a half dozen schools teaching English from Kindergarten through grade school.

The Kusakabe Elementary School principal was interested in meeting me, so I went with Justin in his car to the school for his teaching day. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay the entire day sitting around a Japanese school, and it was a little too far to walk home, so figured I was there for the day. After the first hour I didn’t want to leave!

Kusakabe School
Kusakabe School

It was a drizzly cloudy day.

As soon as we arrived, the principal was expecting me, and he and some teachers royally greeted me. In Japanese schools, upon entering, you take your outside shoes off, and put your inside shoes on. They have slippers for visitors, so I ‘slipped’ into those, and followed the principal to his office. We sat down in some sofas in front of his desk, and chatted a bit, somewhat in English with Justin doing a little interpreting.

A few teachers came to greet me, and before you know it, I had rice paper, ink, and a Japanese brush in front of me and everyone expecting a ‘masterpiece’. Whoa! Japanese art such as this simplifies everything into just a few strokes. I am so unfamiliar with this, I just brushed out what I had seen the day before, Kamba Falls…and it didn’t turn out well.

Kamba Falls near Maniwa, Japan

The first class of the day Justin taught was pre-school. I have never seen such a lively bunch of precious little kids eager to learn. Justin taught a few words for the day…banana, ice cream cone (can’t remember all exactly)…he put them in a song, talked, continually interacted with the children, and invited me to to come up and draw pictures of the words he was teaching on the board.

I was so impressed by one student confined to a walker, seemingly the happiest of all. I didn’t know his condition, maybe palsy, but all the other kids just constantly came over and embraced and loved him.

Watching those kids with all their enthusiasm was one of the sweetest and lovely things I have seen in my life, and it made me realize why Justin loved to live and teach there.

After that, I went to a number of other grade school classes with Justin, but after an introduction, and a little talk, I would exit the class.

I wanted to go paint the Asahi River close to the school, so walked a few blocks with my acrylic travel kit, found a bench by the river, and started to paint.

Asahi River
Asahi River

Like I said, it was an inclimate day, and it soon started to drizzle and found it impossible to continue.

Paint kit by the Asahi River
Paint kit by the Asahi River

Heading back to the school, I asked them for a couple chairs to sit and finish the painting outside under the eves. Almost the entire time, I was surrounded by school kids asking me all kinds of questions in a few English words, using gestures, but mostly unable to communicate.

I finished the painting under the eves of the school, and at the end of the day, presented it to the principal as a gift to the school.

Asahi River, 8x10, acrylic on canvas
Asahi River, 8×10, acrylic on canvas

School was soon over, and all the school kids lined up to be dismissed to go home. The principal wanted me to stand with Justin as he spoke to the student body eager to go home. I had no idea what he said for about 10 minutes as he held that little 8×10 acrylic painting up over his head for all to see. Occasionally there were oohs, and aaahs from the kids, with everyone looking at me, and I just grinned and nodded not knowing at all what was being said.

Justin later told me what the principal said, in summary and paraphrasing —

Art is a universal language which we all can see and appreciate, and even though Mr. Neff can’t speak our language, and we can’t speak much of his, Mr. Neff brought an expression which we all can relate, enjoy, share, and bring us together.

I kinda like that principal!


The school framed the painting, and it now hangs in the entrance by the shoe racks.

Kusakabe School Entrance
Kusakabe School Entrance

Kusakabe School Entrance
Kusakabe School Entrance

11 thoughts on “A Thanksgiving in Japan with a Wise Teacher”

  1. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story – The painting you left behind will continue to be a wonderful reminder of that life lesson to all who pass by it each day!

    1. Thanks! …and a fitting comment…didn’t think about that! They actually put a plaque under the painting explaining the circumstances on it’s creation. My son still teaches there.

  2. Thank you Don. Your paintings reveal the beauty you see in the world and I love it. I have a friend in Vermont who shares nature’s beauty through her photographs. She helps me see the things I overlook.

    1. Thanks, Ken. Much of art, at least the traditional kind, is just observing and seeing. Half the reason I go paint on location is to just sit and observe for a few hours. Vermont is on my bucket list to paint the fall color!

      1. To your point “to just sit and observe”, Nancy and I visited Claude Monet’s manse and gardens in Giverny France. We learned that the artist sat in, observed, and painted his gardens from at least three locations to catch the morning, noon, and afternoon light.

  3. Don, your paintings are wonderful. It is a joy to view them. Thanks for sharing your experience at the school. It is so nourishing to observe unity and goodwill in this divided world.

  4. Triple – such a moving story!! Thanks for sharing. You must be bursting with pride on what a magnificent teacher Justin is. Love your painting & especially love what Justin’s principal had to say about communicating through art. So glad you were able to leave behind such a valued gift for all to enjoy. Keep on doing all that you do. Don’t know when you’ll be back in Texas, but I hope to be able to see you when you’re here.

  5. Thank you so much, Don, for posting this story. It’s such a happy story and worth re-reading when the news becomes less than enjoyable. I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the children’s reaction to a disabled student there compared to the many stories here where children with disabilities are bullied. What a peaceful place for your son to work! You must be so very proud of him.

    Your paintings are such an inspiration! I wish I could buy one or more. Your talent is outstanding.

  6. What an inspiring story Don. It’s amazing how art can open doors and bring people together. I have a couple paintings I have attempted and it gives me a greater appreciation for those like yourself who can actually paint! Thanks for sharing and especially the insight of a different culture. I won’t forget your description of the little guy in the walker being encouraged and loved upon by the other children. Your son’s profession and desire to help others is a reflection on his upbringing. I know you are proud of him.

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