Japan: A History Major’s Experience Abroad

Driving into JFK to board my flight I can most clearly remember the sense of excitement and anticipation for my journey ahead. As a kid, I had always been interested in eastern cultures. Particularly the Japanese interested me because of how far away their home was from mine, and because of how different their culture was from my own. Slowly I developed a great love and respect for the Japanese and their culture.

Thanks to Geneseo’s Study Abroad Office I had the opportunity to fly over the Pacific and experience the country of Japan personally. The Rikkyo University program was especially amazing in its ability to teach beginners like me the basics of Japanese while giving us the free time to socialize with other students and explore the surrounding city.

Arriving in Japan, I landed in Haneda Airport, a smallish international airport in Tokyo. My initial lack of knowledge of Japanese caused some problems as I tried to figure out where I was and where to go. A recurrent theme throughout my experience in Japan is trial and error: not necessarily a bad thing!

However, thanks to help for some kind locals I was able to find the Rikkyo University campus, and was able to leave my luggage there and go out to explore the surrounding Niiza neighborhood. Exploring the landscape of Niiza in my free time came to be one of my favorite pastimes while attending the school: walking along the quiet streets, noting the blend of urban and rural architecture, the power lines peppering the landscape. It was quite a beautiful sight and something I very much miss from Japan.

A temple in Ikebukuro, Japan.

After the first few days a group of us went to venture out into Ikebukuro, the closest city to us.. Japanese trains are no joke: in the summer, they are as hot as they are fast. Luckily my first train ride wasn’t as crowded as the legends say, though I would be in for a rude awakening on the trip back home. Ikebukuro is maybe a 30-minute train ride from Rikkyo’s Niiza campus and emerging from the semi-air conditioned train car, my friends and I began exploring the city. Ikebukuro was exciting. Though it was no Manhattan I found myself returning here many times for food, arcades, sightseeing, and more. Between the tall buildings and small temples, I found this Japanese city to be a great mix of nature and man.

The historical district of Asakusa was without a doubt one of the great highlights in my travels through Tokyo. The Kaminarimon, though a very touristy destination, was nevertheless breathtaking, with two massive wooden gates preceding a ornate temple, the street lined with merchandise and food vendors. It’s a very high energy place, even during the rainy season the street leading up to the temple was packed with tourists. After this we visited a dog cafe and had the opportunity to eat at a small back alley restaurant where we made our own okonomiyaki (おこのみやき), a savory pancake that we enjoyed very much.

The Kaminarimon

Through my travels I visited other districts within Tokyo like Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, and Akihabara. Akihabara is one of the most interesting places I visited: the old ‘electric town’ of the eighties and nineties has metamorphosed into a cultural hub for anime (Japanese Cartoons), manga (Japanese Comics), and video games. There are at least four multi-level arcades, along with technology retailers like Sofmap and the massive Radio Kaikan. The number of foreigners here was amazing, I met people from all over the world here. Shortly after this I was interviewed by a Colorado news station doing a report on Japan for the Olympics. They interviewed me on Akihabara and how I viewed it as an American.

Akihabara on a Sunday.

My time at Rikkyo culminated in one great experience I had in visiting the home of one of its employees, Kotaka Yuki. She invited me and another foreign student over, and taught us how to make tempura, though I am regretful to say my ability with chopsticks scared her while we were dealing with the hot oil. We also toured a nearby small temple, a graveyard, and a street which apparently had a rather famous fish shop (the husband was good friends with the owner). I am happy to say also that on the way to their house I successfully bought a roll cake from a bakery and could do so using Japanese! Mrs. Kotaka and her family were very welcoming and accommodating, something I can say about the majority of the people in I met Japan.

Besides the obvious tourist sites within Tokyo like Meiji Jingu where I bought some cool charms or Hamarikyu Gardens where I sipped tea with a group of Chinese and Australian students next to the water, I made note of the many subtle blends of culture I saw within this world city. Besides the obvious use of English words on buildings and products, I noticed a lot of places selling halal food, like a Turkish Halal restaurant in Ikebukuro, and in Kamakura on my way to see the Great Buddha I took note of a store that sold not only halal food, but kebab bento boxes, kebab sandwiches, kebab dons, and kebab dogs.

This was an amazing example of what I think is one of Japan’s most notable characteristics: its ability to adapt and absorb other cultures into itself while preserving its own culture, whether through the kebab dog (a mixture of the great kebab of the Middle East and the venerable hot dog of the United States) in Kamakura or the historical Meiji restoration and Japan’s adoption of western technology. I even saw this engrained in the Japanese writing known as ‘Katakana,’ which is used near exclusively for foreign loan words (i.e. a way to say television in Japanese is terebi, or テレビ), and is how someone not from Japan would write their name in Japanese. This text is similarly used in the spelling of kebab (kebabu, or ケバブ).

During my Study Abroad experience, I came to greatly understand how Japan is a country with two faces, a beautiful and intriguing combination of the traditional and the modern, the homeborn and the foreign. And through my understanding of the history and language I feel I came to understand these parts of Japan a little better than I had before.

じゃあまたね、日本 (“See you later, Japan”)

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