How I found my way back to reality in Japan: a traveler’s memoir

I signed up for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication study abroad program in Japan having no idea what opportunities would arise for my future self. I have not always been a person that wanted to branch out and take risks.

When Dr. Gilbert D. Martinez spoke in my MC 1313 Media Writing course last spring, a light bulb switched on in my brain. It was not until later on when the program started that I realized why I felt so inclined to sign up. 

I have always had a deep appreciation for Japanese pop culture and traditions. I enjoy watching a variety of Japanese anime and recently reading works from famous Japanese authors like Haruki Murakami. I had looked forward to getting to experience what Japanese pop culture looked like in person. Especially in Harajuku, Japan, Takeshita Street is famous for being the youth and fashion epicenter of Tokyo.

I had done little research besides that prior to my journey to Japan because I really had no idea what to expect. In March, it still did not feel real in my mind that I was going to travel out of the country for the first time. Even though this trip was set in stone, I actually could not believe it. 

In May, I felt so nervous and was filled with anxiety. Someone once told me that anxiety can be confused with excitement but I could not tell the difference at this point. It was a month away from my departure and I still could not grasp the idea of traveling to Japan.

I was afraid of saying something wrong or not knowing how to correctly communicate with locals. Luckily, thanks to the Asia Institute, I learned a lot of helpful information from the CulturaGo course that they set up for the team and that seemed to ease my mind a little bit. 

Something else that eased my mind was knowing that I was not alone. I trusted everyone on the team almost immediately, which was odd at first. I usually never feel comfortable around people I don’t know, but everyone had great energy and we had each other’s backs because we all individually felt alone. Eventually, we figured out that we shared this anxiety as a whole and this made me feel extremely relieved. 

It was not until I stepped onto the airplane that I felt that this trip was real and my heart felt heavy. Not due to being afraid, but for the feeling that I was living a dream. 

Arriving in Japan was filled with initial culture shock, vending machines and tasty Japanese cuisine. It was better than I could have ever imagined.

The SJMC Japan Team walking across the street in Kyoto, Japan.

One of my key memories from Japan was going out to dinner the first night. Being clueless on the streets of Tokyo was an experience that I will never forget. Exploring our options and looking for a place that could seat at least five people is when it clicked in my mind — I am in Japan!

Me(left) and Sofia Psolka (right) eating fresh cherries at Tsukiji Outer Market.

The first full day in Tokyo was exciting, and we were booked and busy to the max. The Tsukiji Outer Market was the first official outing, and I got to try authentic matcha tea! It was such a cool experience that you will only get in Japan. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden was calming and relaxing, Harajuku was an adventure with a shopping spree at Sanrio down Takeshita Street, and Shibuya Crossing was booming with people at every corner. This is also where most of us discovered Don Quijote which is similar to a crossover of Walmart and Target. 

By far, my favorite outing in Tokyo was to Kamakura– a smaller town that sits right next to the Pacific Ocean. I loved the sea breeze and also visiting Daibutsu, the Great Buddha statue. That was a major highlight for all of us on the trip.

Arashiyama took the gold for me in Kyoto and became one of my favorite places on Earth. 

I traveled to Arashiyama with Jamie Gonzalez and Oli De Los Santos and we absolutely fell in love with everything the mountain region had to offer. The Oi River that leads the path to Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama flowed rapidly, and the waves bashed against each other, making it the only sound to be heard. When we got to the entrance of the park, we were surprised to find out that the only way there was by walking up hundreds of steep stairs and following curving pathways. It was an arduous journey, to say the least, but the almighty view of Kyoto put the difficult path far out of my mind. 

Oli De Los Santos (left) and I sitting on the banana bench at Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama.

At a whopping 160 meters from ground level, viewing the macaque monkeys in person was a wild experience that I cannot begin to describe. I can only say that to be able to actually take it all in, you have to be there. It was a defining moment for me where I was in touch with nature and my surroundings.

I am prone to being unaware of the world outside of my own, but it was then that I began to get a good look at what the world had to offer. I discovered one of Mother Nature’s creations on top of Arashiyama Mountain. It was serene and beautiful and I felt so happy to be there and grateful for the opportunity that many do not get in this life. 

We have been calling this trip a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The truth is I desperately hope that for all of us, it won’t be the last time. I draw back from my introduction when I said I figured out why I had been called to Japan. I needed to go there to gain a sense of self. I also needed to remember why I decided to become a journalist.

I have to say I learned so much in a short amount of time that my mind was constantly racing with ideas. I consumed a lot of information on what the career of a journalist looks like when visiting the Tokyo bureau office of the Wall Street Journal. Writing on the go and collaborating with other writers was something essential to do on this trip. It was the first time I felt completely comfortable sharing my work and offering advice on other feature stories and posts. I used my creative freedom to the maximum extent while also adhering to AP Style, of course. What this trip gave me was the confidence and ability to trust my writer’s instincts. 

The Kyoto Shimbun newspaper was another outlet we visited, and it was amazing to see the process of production and distribution. Learning how much time it takes from the point of a daily meeting to printing the morning issue reassured me of my goal of becoming a journalist. I am super meticulous, and I only love my work if I put all of my effort into it. This is something favorable in the journalism world. 

Now that I have acquired some fieldwork, It has spiked my interest in travel journalism in the future. Reporting on locations that do not have much exposure to the public is also something that I have thought about since the trip. This program meant so much to me and to my future. My goal was to gain some clips for my portfolio and be able to put this on my resume.

I believe I have gained so much more than that academically and personally. My career goal may look a tad different, but I still have many options I would like to explore. My work in Japan gave me the opportunity to do just that. 

I have also gained a special perspective on the world and the way we make connections with others and express our gratitude. As an American, it was definitely difficult to adhere to the way of life in Japan. Being quiet on the subway, not eating while walking, and staying on the left side of the street were drastic differences.

However, a part of me felt that I was home. I have a timid personality, and I always keep to myself and feel bad if I am a bother to others. I also would call myself kind and welcome any new experience and knowledge. This isn’t to say that that is the personality of Japanese locals, but it does fit in.

I never felt out of place in Japan. Everyone was welcoming and helpful, and that is something I wish was an everyday occurrence in the States.

Suzanna (left) and Nanako (right) from Rikkyo University and I.

It is a unique bond that Japanese locals have with their homeland, and it is so great to witness and experience. I have also created a bond with Japan, and I will have to go back someday to do everything I could did not get to do. A visit to Enoshima is on the agenda. 

Overall, what the future looks like for me is full of opportunity. I now know that what I can accomplish is limitless. I strive to gain a career that I am so happy with that it does not even feel like work. Who knows, maybe one day that career can soar in Japan. 

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