UW Bothell Voices from Around the World

Blog by Linda Cung, UW Both­ell Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence Major, Study Abroad–Japan


When I was ini­tially invited to go on this study abroad trip to Japan with Aaron Hus­ton, all I could think was, “are you kid­ding me? Of course I want to go!” Trav­el­ling to other parts of the world has always been a dream of mine. Thrilled hardly would have begun to describe my feel­ings at that moment.

How­ever, as the day of depar­ture drew nearer, I real­ized I had no idea what to expect or what I was expect­ing. What was being expected of me? I had never been this far away from home on my own, let alone on a study abroad pro­gram with stu­dents from other parts of the world — Indone­sian and Japan­ese. It was all new for me, but the thought this was prob­a­bly a once-in-a-lifetime oppor­tu­nity over­took any anx­i­ety that may have crept in. All I knew was I was ready to absorb every­thing – the peo­ple, cul­ture, expe­ri­ences; what­ever was wait­ing. I was ready for it.

The fif­teen hours of fly­ing plus lay­over time passed by pretty quickly for me. (The secret is to sleep as much as pos­si­ble if you can.) We even­tu­ally found and had the plea­sure of meet­ing Ruth Sen­sei, who we were expect­ing to be Japan­ese and were sur­prised to find she was Amer­i­can. As she took us to the share house where we would be stay­ing, I noticed how the pas­sen­ger side of the car and the roads seemed back­wards rel­a­tive to the ones I was used to see­ing; they were both posi­tioned on the left side instead of the accus­tomed right. It was bizarre but some­thing I’d even­tu­ally get used to.

When we entered the share house, we were imme­di­ately wel­comed by the Indone­sian stu­dents who had arrived the night before and by the few Japan­ese stu­dents who were there at the time. They were the friend­liest, not-shy-at-all set of peo­ple I had ever met, not hes­i­tant to intro­duce their selves and ask us ques­tions. Every­one, even the ones who weren’t very flu­ent in Eng­lish, all con­nected with Aaron instantly. All that was needed to be said was “tall” and it was under­stood. That was often fol­lowed by a ref­er­ence to play­ing bas­ket­ball. Me, I talked some but observed as much as I could — there was a myr­iad of objects, peo­ple, and places I couldn’t wait to get to know bet­ter and famil­iar­ize myself with.

Within the first two hours, I got a taste of what the Japan­ese cul­ture and sys­tem towards sus­tain­abil­ity were like. The whole group (Indone­sians, Japan­ese, Aaron, and me) was taught what not to do with chop­sticks that would be con­sid­ered improper or offen­sive to the Japan­ese, prop­erly sit­ting and bow­ing, to slurp when hav­ing soup to show you were enjoy­ing it – things of that nature. Then recy­cling was the topic of dis­cus­sion. The cit­i­zens in each neigh­bor­hood were respon­si­ble for their own proper sort­ing of garbage (plas­tic, com­postable, burn­able, or recy­clable). This was a community-managed, col­lec­tive effort and the cit­i­zens fol­lowed through with it because they knew the impor­tance of its effect to sus­tain­abil­ity overall.

Group site-seeing and tour­ing were mixed into the scheme. There we learned more about the cul­ture of Japan, and at times even got to expe­ri­ence it our­selves in a sense (if you don’t know what I mean, refer to Aaron’s pic­ture on his blog of him wear­ing Samu­rai armor :) .  One of my favorite mem­o­ries was when we were on our way up to the Mat­suyama cas­tle, rid­ing on a chair-lift. That had the best top-of-the-view of the city — specks of trees, itty bitty rooftops, and the hill­side spread out along the hori­zon and fill­ing up the city space.

Cook­ing was another one of the impor­tant aspects of the trip as every day, we would alter­nate between who was cook­ing which meal. We had been divided into groups of about five for this. There was a cook­ing and a clean­ing team for every meal. From this expe­ri­ence, I’ve become much more inter­ested in cook­ing. It doesn’t seem as – well, maybe it was with the food I only knew back at home which seemed bor­ing, like a sand­wich, bread, ham, let­tuce. Here there was diver­sity and vibrancy, fla­vor, taste. Taste for sure. And being there too when the food was being made and watch­ing. Taste and curios­ity for how it has been done and what ingre­di­ents – that was what has changed for me.

After almost a week at the share house, we moved to a rural area, Kawanouchi Vil­lage where we learned about the ter­race paddy fields, their sus­tain­abil­ity, and their uses for crop pro­duc­tion. We lived right in the cen­ter sur­rounded by a beau­ti­ful view of ter­raced paddy fields that lay­ered down­ward and seemed to move inward towards us as well as the moun­tain­side. We were men­tored by and worked along­side a few vil­lage lead­ers who worked with the non-profit orga­ni­za­tion there called the Satoyama Ini­tia­tive. This NPO’s mis­sion was to bring peo­ple and nature in har­mony with one another through the under­stand­ing of the value of the land and diver­sity. Only when this was reached would the coun­try be able to over­come its food-insufficiency period and become self-sufficient. The sep­a­ra­tion between rural and urban com­mu­ni­ties was the major obsta­cle to this, and the NPO was work­ing to close this divide through cit­i­zens and farm­ers work­ing together on the field, grow­ing and har­vest­ing their own crops, and learn­ing about the prac­tices that went into that.

In the place we stayed at, there was lit­tle to no elec­tric­ity. It was quite the first-hand expe­ri­ence, using heaters we had to jump-start by light­ing with matches. At night, when all the heaters were shut off, we all slept on futons with lay­ers of blan­kets and snug­gled up against one another on top of the flat Tatami mat floor­ing to keep warm. The weather was ridicu­lously chilly dur­ing our time there. This expe­ri­ence, always being with the other girls day and night as well as when all of us, the guys and girls were alto­gether through­out the day — how could I not find myself grow­ing closer to and fonder of these peo­ple by the hour? We all were com­fort­able goof­ing around with each other, came to under­stand the other’s jokes, and were deter­mined to learn about the other’s cul­ture and lan­guage whether it was Indone­sian, Japan­ese, or Amer­i­can. We became a lit­tle family.

Aaron’s and my last day was the hard­est. All of us went to a beau­ti­ful tem­ple painted gold at some parts that seemed to float peace­fully in the mid­dle of a pond. It felt Zen. There was a sou­venir shop at the end of the trail with lit­tle designed fab­ric pouches and other lit­tle items to pur­chase meant to bring you things like good luck. Then we took the bus to the sec­ond tem­ple and real­ized we had bet­ter hurry if we wanted to get through it and get Aaron and me to our flight on time. It began to rain dur­ing this time. We took a final pic­ture on my cam­era with all of us in it. We fast for­warded through the tour of the tem­ple which had a unique feel­ing to it. I wish we could have had more time to explore it. It seemed to be giv­ing off a vibe of being alive almost, with its vibrant red-colored wood and it was quite enor­mous in height.  Then we were head­ing back through it to find the bus to take us back to the bus sta­tion in Kyoto.

Then we had to wait for the bus that would take Aaron and me to the air­port. This felt like the longest part, antic­i­pat­ing, until it came and then time seemed to speed up! I needed more time to say bye. It was hard leav­ing them. There was talk we’d see each other again, but when? Would it really hap­pen? Say­ing good­bye felt rushed. It always does. I tried to soak in each of their faces to mem­ory as we took turns hug­ging.  There were tears involved. Then the bus almost left because we weren’t board­ing, but we man­aged to get on still. The ride to the air­port was silent between Aaron and me. Nos­tal­gia had already kicked in.

We barely made it to our flight in time; we got there as peo­ple were lined up to board the plane.

All I wanted, all I still want, was for the bus to go in reverse at break­neck speed and be back where we had left every­one, left all I had become tightly attached to. The fact this had all hap­pened in over just two weeks — it was too lit­tle time look­ing back, and yet so much had taken place. I would miss it all. This expe­ri­ence and every­thing that went along with it is a keep­sake I have every inten­tion of hold­ing tight to and trea­sur­ing forever.