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.