Glowing and growing in Japan: an ode

I always knew that I wanted to study abroad. As I neared my graduation date, however, I had accepted the fact that this opportunity had passed me by. While it wasn’t something that caused me great feelings of despair, I was disappointed that I never got to continue my studies in a different country. It felt like a loss of personal growth that I so desperately needed, and I didn’t feel like you could get this from anything other than immersing yourself in a completely different culture. 

Around the beginning of Spring 2023 semester, I got an email about the study abroad program for London and Paris in the upcoming summer semester. On a whim, I applied for the program. London and Paris seem like easy places to adapt, I thought; it shouldn’t be an intimidating shift from the life and surroundings I am already familiar with. 

I was soon informed by my adviser that I didn’t qualify for this specific program due to class conflicts. With the dues paid and all of the forms filled out, I felt like I was already in too deep. I asked what other study abroad programs I did qualify for, and was sent two: London/Hamburg or Tokyo/Kyoto, Japan. While London/Hamburg more aligned with what I originally expected when signing up to study abroad, I found myself drawn to Japan. 

I had always thought of Japan as a place that was out of my reach. The Japanese language and alphabet were vastly different from English, and the culture and customs were nothing like anything I had experienced, and not to mention, the distance from the home that I knew and loved.

These aspects fascinated me though, and I welcomed the challenge. Before I even realized what I had gotten myself into, I was officially part of the SJMC Japan Team for the Summer 2023. 

With each meeting I attended, I got a better idea of what was to expected. After we got our detailed itinerary for each day, the magnitude of this trip hit me. This was when I really started to get excited. I spent the majority of the days leading up to our departure looking up each site and attraction, and I found that I was already familiar with a few of the places we were going. As the biggest fan of sushi I’ve ever known, Tsukiji Outer Market was near the top of my list. The Harajuku Fashion District was also something I knew I would enjoy, along with the baseball game. 

My anticipation almost got me through the 13-hour flight, which I found to not be as bad as I expected. Being served traditional Japanese dishes on the plane truly instilled in me that I was no longer in the U.S. – and I was enjoying every second. As we soared (very closely) over the ocean and into Toyko International Airport in Haneda, I honestly had no idea what I had gotten myself into, but I put on a brave face as I exited the aircraft.

One of the first things you notice about Japan is the people and how they act. Their culture revolves around not standing out or drawing attention to yourself, and I found myself constantly trying to make myself small in all public spaces. Their manners and respectfulness were something I will always remember. They are some of the kindest people I have ever met. No one makes you feel uncomfortable and they are always eager to help. I was surprised to find that they were just as interested in my life as I was theirs.

Our visit to Rikkyo University was the first instance where I actually interacted and had conversations with Japanese people. I was absolutely shocked with how much I enjoyed this outing. As someone riddled with insecurity who finds it hard to make friends with others and often keeps to myself, as soon as we sat down with the students and began conversing, all of my fears dissipated. The unrelenting and genuine warmth that I felt from these students is something I will never forget. 

Another thing about Japan that took me by surprise was the sheer amount of natural landscapes that they had preserved for hundreds of years. Even more impressive was how these plots of land were intertwined between the tall skyscrapers and bustling city life. It made the huge cities feel much more breathable. This was something that the U.S. simply doesn’t have, and I wish we had more of an incentive to protect the environment.

Japan also differs from the U.S. when it comes to public transport. This was the main way we got places and I was completely out of sorts trying to figure out. Luckily we had our amazing guide, Jennifer Norris with Asia Institute, who planned out every trip for us and how we would get there. Now that I’ve come back home, I miss the freedom we had from subway rides, even if it was stressful at the time.

The many shrines and temples we visited were not something I had lent much thought to prior to the trip. As someone who isn’t particularly religious, I didn’t have much knowledge on these sites and how they affect people. I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed each shrine and temple. Each one was different, with differing stories and very rich history and culture to go alongside them. The trees and gardens that often accompany these places were simply breathtaking. You could feel the energy radiating from each shrine and temple and I had never experienced a feeling quite like it before.

My favorite place was Kamakura, about an hour train ride south of Tokyo. This visit fell on a day where my energy meters were at an all time low. I was irritable and my body ached with every step we took. When I saw the mountain we were meant to hike, I felt completely defeated.

However, the temple at the top of this mountain was the most incredible award. I had never seen such a beautiful and serene scene, with ponds filled with large koi and hundreds of colorful hydrangeas. This was also the first time we could see the ocean. On the walk down, we had free time to visit all of the shops and restaurants. It was an unforgettable experience and I hope I can go back to Kamakura again.

Our company visit to Kyoto Shimbun newspaper was very educational. On the guided tour, we got to see all the working parts of a newspaper company and how they must come together to get the finished products out in the morning and the evening. They even created a sample newspaper about us with our picture on it. I will keep this souvenir forever.

I will forever be grateful for the people I was given to experience this with. As mentioned before, making new friends is not my forte. The openness and support I experienced from each individual was something that made this massive change so much easier to adapt to. On our last night in Kyoto, we declared a “girls’ night” and went to karaoke to celebrate Ally’s birthday. I was so exhausted by this point and barely found the motivation to join this excursion. I am so glad I did. This was one of the best experiences of the trip. All of us completely let go, belting out each song together and for once, just forgetting about assignments and stressors. The energy that was in that karaoke room that night made this one of my favorite memories. 

To say this trip was life-changing is an understatement. It’s hard to put into words how much studying abroad can change your perspective on life, and I know it will continue to change me as time passes. Not only did we learn to live in a country that’s quite different from our own, we also had to balance deadlines and exhaustion. 

Jen had told us that once you visit Japan, you will want to come back. I’m already attempting to explain to my friends how amazing this country was and how we need to book plane tickets immediately! I think it’s almost better to go into it blindly, because no piece of writing or video can adequately convey what it’s like being in Japan.

I grew so much as a person on this trip, and I found a sense of independence I never had before. If you ever have the chance to study abroad, do it. It seriously will change your life and you will love the person you become. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

A woman sitting on a photo prop at Arashiyama Monkey Park.
Personal Essay

A taste of Japan: how I sampled the culture and cuisine

I spent my first 30 minutes in Tokyo quietly crying in the Tokyo International Airport.  Prior to my arrival, I was feeling pretty proud of myself for my roll-with-the-punches attitude I’d had all day. I’d been traveling about 30 hours, 17 of which were in the air, and only about five of which were spent […]

Read More
Personal Essay

A professional discovery: finding a new part of me

My mother has spent the last 30 years of her life as a teacher, molding the minds of the youth. My only explanation for how she has survived this career path is that she is a superhuman, à la The Flash, or Wonder Woman.

Read More
A few of us laying in a circle in the grass.
Personal Essay

An emotional trip

To be completely honest, I didn’t know how I felt about going to Japan. As someone who’s been interested in various aspects of East Asian culture nearly my whole life, I’ve seen a lot of discourse between people who romanticize/admire Japan far too much and those who demonize it because of its bad traits. Both […]

Read More
css.php