Stanford in Kyoto, Spring 2016-17
Major: Product Design
College year while abroad: Junior
About the photo: This is a photo from my trip to Shirahama during Golden Week with some other Stanford students. We had a great time taking a break from schoolwork and seeing what else Japan had to offer. Incidentally, we also ran into a man from the Bay Area teaching English in Japan at a footbath in the middle of the night!
Why did you choose to study abroad in Kyoto?
When you think of Japan, you think heated toilet seats and little powder kits that turn into candy when you add water. Okay, maybe you don’t, but I do. Japan produces some of the most amazing technology in the world and I think its culture plays a large part in that. As a Product Design major, it was amazing to experience first-hand how people-oriented all the technology is there – details that don’t seem that important at first but make so much sense in context of how its used. Think bathroom mirrors that don’t fog up, heated train seats, and the most amazing convenience stores you will ever experience. Tl;dr, if you’re a nerd who likes pretty, cool, and nice things, you’ll love Japan. Extra points if you go to Kyoto, which is arguably my new favorite place ever.
What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Kyoto?
I honestly think I was too awestruck with the idea of “omg I’m finally going to Japan!” to really have a concrete expectation. But when I finally got there, I can tell you it wasn’t at all what I expected but also a million times better. Kyoto is indeed a city, but nothing like the New York City that I had grown up near. Aside from the city center or major streets, the rest of the city was not overshadowed by tall buildings or concrete walls. I also lived in the outskirts of the prefecture (think a couple of mountains away) so walking along the river and rice paddies to the train station every morning made me feel like I was really living there rather than a parading as that crazy American tourist/exchange student. I think what really surprised me was how comfortable I felt there and how different everyday things were. Nature lives alongside the city, so I always felt like I was just a corner away from discovering a story that had been hidden away for hundreds of years.
What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Kyoto?
For one, escaping the Stanford bubble. I had no idea how liberating it was to not live at school and have the ability to go anywhere without a car (public transportation in Japan is honestly the most amazing thing in the world). It was also a great opportunity to explore classes not necessarily in your major and learn about Japanese culture in the literal heart of Japanese culture (aka Kyoto). From field trips to temples hidden away in the mountains to the ever-popular cat café (despite being allergic to cats), taking these classes was a great way to see a part of Japan you may not see as either a tourist or a normal student. My only suggestion is to not bog yourself down with too many units – you’ll find it a lot harder to focus in psets when there’s all of Kyoto to explore!
What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?
For a person with a hopelessly awful sense of direction, the thought of having to go places on my own and navigate public transportation in another country (much less another language) sounded like a complete nightmare. However, I soon discovered that Japanese public transportation is the best thing ever invented next to sliced bread and cough drops, and I now had all of Kyoto and surrounding areas in the palm of my hand (literally – Google Maps is a lifesaver). Something that I’m really happy about is that I was able to gain a sense of confidence in going and doing things on my own. From simple things like memorizing the route to club meeting locations to spontaneous trips to new train stations in Kyoto, I feel like I was able to overcome a fear that always prevented me from doing anything besides sit in my room surrounded by homework. Now I just have to hope that this newfound ability also translates to American public transportation.
What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?
At Stanford, even when I lived at the edges of campus, it only took about a ten minute bike ride to get to wherever I needed to go. In Kyoto, it took me 15-20 minutes just to walk from my home to the train station and another hour of trains and subways to get to school from there. Although Japanese public transportation is a wondrous thing, spending at least an hour just to get from home from school often made me too exhausted to want to do anything after classes (and also highly unmotivated to do homework at home). Having a long commute to school is not unusual in Japan, and I also had friends who commuted from Osaka or Kobe, meaning 1-2 hours one way. Eventually, I began to enjoy my commutes because watching the mountains fly past on the train ride each morning and afternoon was a sight I could never see where I grew up in America. Also, it was a great time to study some last-minute vocabulary for Japanese class quizzes. It became a routine and something that gave me comfort knowing that I had some time to think and relax with myself, even if I never got a seat on the train. At least it was funny to see people’s reactions when I told them I lived so far away from school.
What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?
I love talking and I love speaking Japanese, so you could say I was very excited to finally be able to do both at the same time all day every day. However, I also have this thing where I can be unreasonably shy in approaching new people, especially when I have no confidence that I’ll be able to understand a word of what they’re saying. While it’s cliché to say that the language was something that was hard to get used to, Japanese is unique in that they have many “types” of language, and let’s just say that most public workers use a very formal language that consists of really long and different words that do not come up in daily conversations. Don’t even get me started on my visits to the ward office. Another challenge was mustering up the courage to talk to Japanese students that I met. I didn’t want to just be known as that crazy American student so I tried my absolute hardest to converse in Japanese, often asking them what the words they were saying meant. I think embracing the challenge of their language instead of hiding behind my foreigner status allowed me to gain their respect, and I was often praised for how serious I was about learning Japanese. By the end of the quarter, I felt a lot more confident in just starting a conversation in Japanese without ever needing to give the excuse that I was an exchange student. At least if I messed up, we could all have a good laugh over it.
What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Kyoto?
Is “Japan” a sufficient answer? Honestly, I woke up every day with such a sense of excitement for the day that I hadn’t felt in a long time. It might have been actually waking up early and feeling the start of a whole day ahead of you. Or the daily commute walking along the river and watching mountains rush past on the train. Or laughing over lunch break with my classmates as some crazy club performance happened outside our building. It was definitely rushing to table tennis club practices after class some days and spending time with other Japanese students who were way too nice to me. Or going home after a productive day and eating the delicious meal my host mother had prepared. Some days, it was exploring hidden streets in Kyoto, stopping every once in a while to buy some taiyaki or ice cream. Other days it was yelling with friends at the game center. I think my favorite part of my everyday life in Kyoto was really just living. No day was the same as the one before or the next, and each was filled with exhilaration. “What will today be like? What about tomorrow?” I found myself thinking, “and what story will be written next?”
What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Kyoto?
I will never forget the friends that pushed me to finally muster my guts and send that LINE message to join the table tennis club at Doshisha University. At first thinking it would be nice to get a little exercise in and also a little curious as to what college table tennis was like in Japan, I did not in any way expect to make lifetime friends in the club. Practice was 2-3 times a week and those 2-3 hours a practice were never enough. To my Japanese sensei’s: you can thank the table tennis club members for my sudden growth in Japanese as well as my newfound knowledge of silly Japanese slang. From competing in a local tournament together to throwing me a Japanese snacks party to making me a good-bye album full of photos and memories at the end of the quarter, I feel like I was really able to make a connection with so many new and unexpected people while literally thousands of miles and an entire language away from home. Even over the summer while in Tokyo, I exchanged letters with some of them and tried to practiced English with another. If I have any advice for someone going to Kyoto, it would be to join a club! You’ll have an amazing opportunity to meet Japanese students and make amazing, once-in-a-lifetime memories!
What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?
When can I go back?
What was your favorite food you had in Kyoto?
Every flavored ice cream you can imagine from sakura (cherry blossom), bamboo, ume (a sour kind of plum), to egg! 100/10 would recommend sampling unique ice cream flavors wherever you go.
What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?
A phone that can take good photos and my sketchbook! Bonus because my phone had unlimited cloud back-up storage space so I could be trigger happy at all times of the day. I even tried to make a one-second-a-day compilation of videos I took every day whether they were classic shots of the train passing by or exciting moments on trips. As for my sketchbook, I really wanted to use this experience as a chance to record interesting scenes through sketching. I wasn’t aiming for anything amazing or refined – just rough pen scratches of what I saw at the given moment. If I had some time or was waiting for a friend/train, I would sometimes just sit (or stand) and sketch whatever was around me. At the end of the program, I could look back at my sketches and remember how important even the mundane scenes felt to me. (Note: bringing around a small notebook is also useful for the many stamps to be collected around Japan).
What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Kyoto?
To be honest I’ve always been a fan of J-Pop so going to my first concert was literally my dreams coming true. If anyone’s interested, I would recommend Morning Musume ’17 and Angerme!
Every Stanford undergraduate should give serious consideration to studying overseas.
Regardless of the academic path you choose, you will be enriched by time spent in another country. Achieving cultural literacy and gaining substantive understanding of other perspectives in the world will deepen your awareness of yourself, your educational goals, and your own society. Nearly one-half of each graduating class studies abroad through one of Stanford's overseas programs.
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