Sofia takes a close up shot of a bush with blue hydrangeas.

Photo Credit: Maurice Epps

My life has been changed by this study abroad experience— and my inner child is happy.

I have this distinct memory of being in a fro-yo shop with my mom and younger brother. I’m like maybe 6 or 7. I just got done with tennis practice— or baseball practice… who knows? Anyway:

In hand, I have a paper bowl of vanilla yogurt with gummy bears topped off with a single maraschino cherry. Behind my mom’s head, a beautiful animated movie plays. A man covered in raven feathers hugs a silver-haired girl, as embers swirl around them (Goosebumps still arise every time I think of this moment). It was a scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle.” That moment— in a fro-yo shop— marked the start of my love for Studio Ghibli.

When I moved on to middle school, manga helped me cope with the transition to teenhood. During this time, my perspective on piano was going downhill. However, the manga, “Your Lie in April,” inspired me to play music not for others but for myself. Around the same time, I picked up “Noragami: stray god.” I was (and still am, as the series isn’t done yet!) captivated by the story of a stray god, a spirit and a high school girl. The series incorporated Shinto gods and traditional values and discussed socioeconomic issues in Japan. I found it all fascinating! I started to see that there was more to Japanese culture than pretty drawings and animations.

From then on, I carried on with my life. I never really thought I would see Japan in the flesh. It wasn’t even an idea in my head until I learned about the Texas State School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s study abroad programs.

In October, when I saw the SJMC Japan program I immediately got in line. I can’t remember how I found out about the program. I just saw an opportunity to see Japan and knew I needed to apply. When I did more research, I noticed how perfect the program was for me: not only was I going to Japan, but both courses being offered also met my degree’s elective requirements!

During my interview, Dr. Gilbert D. Martinez told me that at least fifteen students were required to make the program possible, so I got nervous after a few months went by. Only five students had applied at that point.

I remember volunteering alongside Jon Zmikly at a tabling event on Bobcat Trail (It was a very chilly day and I wore a mini skirt… I couldn’t wait to change into some pants). Hardly anyone looked us in the eye which was a bit discouraging. But, there was no need for us to fear!

In the spring, we garnered enough students before the deadline.

It was official: we were going to Japan!

I wanted to go on this trip with no expectations — and I don’t type that as a bad thing. I have a terrible habit of trying to predict the ending. It ruins a lot of experiences for me. On this trip, I wanted to take each moment as it came. Relieving myself of that mental burden left me full and satisfied (Did you catch the call-back to the day one blog post?).

Coincidentally, one of the first things I did in Japan was play the piano. The Haneda airport had one for anyone to play. I was nervous, but I knew I would’ve regretted not playing. Even without sheet music, I sloppily played a piece. Maya Hicks got a video clip of this moment (Thank you, Maya!). Playing that piano was healing for my inner child.

It’s impossible to recall everything, but my memorable moments were getting to see wild hydrangeas at Hasedera temple and interacting with local shopkeepers down the hill where the Kiyomizu-dera Temple stands.

I was blown away by the variety of colors hydrangeas have — and they grow in garden beds on the city sidewalks in Japan! Our tour guide in Kyoto informed us that the petal color depends on the soil’s composition; it was all so fascinating! We photographers who brought our own cameras — Gabby Fiorenza, Maurice Epps and I — took tons of pictures. Occasionally, we held the group back but the hydrangeas were simply too gorgeous to pass by.

The shops were just as lovely as the flowers. Despite not having expectations, I intended on purchasing a matcha bowl. At Kiyomizu-dera, I noticed a variety of pottery shops and made mental notes about each one I wanted to visit. When we were given free time, I basically zipped through as many as I could, observing each of the bowls and settled on a pink bowl with handpainted sakura blooms. The interaction I had with the two women working the shop was magical. They wrapped the bowl with such care I have yet to open the box! I feel guilty unfolding their hard work (Eventually, I’ll have to get over this…).

Scrolling through my iPhone photo album, there aren’t many pictures I took from these moments (Most of my digital footage was used for Jon Zmikly’s Mobile Storytelling course, which you can find on our Instagram page!). Luckily, I brought my film camera to capture sights I didn’t want to forget. I really embraced the tourist stereotype.

When I landed I Texas, I was eager to get it out on social media that I went to Japan. When I started writing this essay, I got time to think over the value of this study abroad program. After a few days of decompressing and reflecting, I reread my captions on those posts. It was embarrassing how rushed and poorly thought out they were, and I went in to make a few edits. So, after considerable meditation, I learned valuable lessons about the professional world.

To put them simply: I learned the importance of a work-life balance, attention to detail and patience.

My first blog post didn’t get done until past midnight. The next day I was too exhausted to have fun with my peers (Such was my punishment for poor time management). I knew I never wanted to miss out like that again, so, for the next writing assignment, I used my spare free time to finish work for the Tokyo feature stories and Instagram posts. Even though my stories and posts weren’t perfect, I felt better about the way I wrote and designed them (My sleep schedule was far from perfect, but for now, that’s okay. There’s still much for me to learn).

To put them poetically:

set aside time

to get stuff done,

so you can be proud of your work

and go have fun.

Sofia Psolka sitting on a Fujicolor bench, shot on Fuji Film color 200.
Photo credit: Maurice Epps

I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity. I’m thankful to Dr. Martinez, Mr. Zmikly and Jamie Gonzalez for all their hard work. Their organization, writing, social and management skills are admirable. This whole project wouldn’t have been possible without them. And— of course— a huge thank you to Jennifer Norris, Mitsuru Sakai (aka: Mr. Mark) and John Wells (aka: Tour Guide John).

Thank you, SJMC and Texas State University. My life has been changed by this study abroad experience and my inner child is happy.

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