Eating up Japanese culture

A restaurant trip gives pupils learning about Asia a connection to their studies


Sitting with classmates around a grill at the Sakura Japanese Steak House, Mackenzie Wiedecker and Caitie Boles watched as a chef prepared their lunch on the grill in front of them.

They said they were excited to use chopsticks to eat the rice, vegetables, chicken and steak the chef was cooking.

The two seventh-graders had walked the short distance from West Middle School to the Westminster restaurant as part of a class field trip.

The pupils had been learning about Japan, and the trip was designed to give them a first-hand look at aspects of Japanese art, architecture, culture - and food.

Mackenzie's mother, Debbie, chaperoned the trip and said eating at Sakura was fun and entertaining.

"I think it's a wonderful idea," she said. "The unit could be tiresome. Learning about other cultures could be tricky and boring, but this makes it interesting for them."

Before the trip, the pupils completed a unit in their social studies class about the history of medieval Asia, particularly Japan.

They also learned to use chopsticks.

"We got popcorn in one bowl, and we had to move it over to another bowl with the chopsticks before we could eat it," said Mackenzie, 13.

She said she had never really used chopsticks before.

Caitie said that since learning to use chopsticks, she eats a lot of foods at home with them.

"They are like the most fun things in the world," said Caitie, 12.

Nearly all of the pupils used chopsticks to eat the meal, while most of the parent chaperones opted to use the forks provided by the restaurant.

"You just have to be able to hold it right," said Jane Sussman, 12. "It's easy once you get the hang of it."

Jane said they learned a lot about Japan in class.

"We learned about the different governments ... and the progression of how [Japan] grew," she said.

While dining at Sakura, the pupils had to use class material to complete a page of questions.

The assignment asked them to identify things like the bonsai tree at Sakura's entrance and why it reflects Buddhism.

The pupils also were asked about a picture near the restaurant's front desk that depicts Japan's largest mountain peak, Mount Fuji.

"The Japanese love nature, so a lot of the pictures are of nature," Caitie said. She also pointed out that the cherry blossom, a samurai warrior's symbol, was prevalent in the restaurant.

The prize for the group with the most correct answers was a nice pair of chopsticks.

Rick Parker, the pupils' social studies teacher, said he decided to bring them to Sakura to show that learning about another culture is fun and exciting.

"One of the things about teaching history is that it is very difficult to give kids a reason why something that happened 1,000 years ago is important to them," Parker said. He said the trip gives them a way to buy into what is being taught.

"In order to get them to absorb information about the past, you have to give them a reason," Parker said.

The chefs at Sakura helped make the trip fun. In addition to creating a tasty meal, they also entertained the approximately 10 guests seated around each grill.

One chef created a volcano out of sliced onion rings for a table of boys. Some had seen the trick before and eagerly anticipated the flames that came shooting out the top.

Another chef skillfully rotated an egg on his spatula before tossing it and cracking it in half. He joked with the pupils about picking eggshells out of their food.

Amanda Hise and Alexis Harrell, both 12, eagerly watched the antics of their chef as he prepared their food.

"My favorite part was when he played music with the salt shaker," Amanda said.

Alexis jumped back in her seat as the chef lit a large blazing flame by combining oil and vodka on the hot grill before he started cooking.

The restaurant was crowded, as about 110 pupils along with parent chaperones and teachers dined there.

The group was one of the largest to visit the restaurant since it opened a few years ago, said manager Yang Yan.

Yan said he hoped the pupils took with them an appreciation of the art and other items in the restaurant that represented Japanese culture.

"It's not just about the food the chef cooks in front of them," he said.

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