Renee Cai


Stanford in Kyoto, Autumn 2017-18
Major: Physics
College year while abroad: Junior
About the photo: The quintessential Kyoto sightseeing spot: Fushimi Inari Shrine. Get here early to avoid the crowds!


Why did you choose to study abroad in Kyoto?

I had always known before coming to college that I wanted to study abroad — the chance to live in a different country and to completely immerse yourself in a foreign culture and language was one I knew I could not pass up. The only question was where. I discovered in my first two years at Stanford that most classes on  art, literature, philosophy, and history focus primarily on Western culture, leaving little room for exposure to non-Western thinking. Kyoto was the perfect place for me to explore an entire culture that was neglected for most of my K-12 education. On top of that, the tight-knit community of the Kyoto program, the lovely homestay experiences I’ve heard about from all my friends who’ve gone, and the endless sights of Japan further convinced me that Kyoto was the place to go. I am so thankful that I came to that decision!

What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Kyoto?

I had no idea what to expect before arriving in Japan. Other than the wild stories about crowded subways during rush hour, fancy toilets, and overly polite citizens, I knew very little about what modern Japan was like. Reading travel guides beforehand felt strange, like looking through a stranger’s rose-tinted glasses who found everything exotic. When I arrived in Japan, I found that things weren’t nearly as strange as I was led to believe — the people are extremely kind and the toilets are indeed a technological wonder, but it felt strangely like home, even from the beginning.

What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Kyoto?

Diversity of classes. For a lot of STEM-oriented majors, Kyoto is the perfect time to explore areas outside of your required courses; as a Physics major at the time, I was delighted at the sheer number of fascinating courses we could take. Not only were these classes varied in subject (e.g. Buddhist arts, queer culture in Japan, energy and the environment) but they also took place outside of the classroom. These field trips were invaluable to me, and one of my favorite parts of the Kyoto program. From visiting 21st generation imperial bow makers to the giant bronze buddha in Nara, these field trips granted us an invaluable perspective that no textbook could ever provide.

What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?

That I can be extremely outgoing! Despite the language barrier and the fact that I had only taken 1 quarter of Japanese before going to Kyoto, I found myself wiling to practice the language as much as possible (and was so grateful to find that everyone else was just as willing to let me practice with them).

What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?

Since I have Asian features, I blended in easily with the locals to the point where many of them would assume I was Japanese and would speak to me purely in Japanese. When I haltingly tried to explain I was American, they became confused -- or sometimes, a bit judgemental, as if I had failed to properly learn the right language. It took some getting used to, but near the end of my time in Kyoto, when I became fluent enough to have natural conversations, it was flattering to have people think I was a local.

What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?

One of the biggest cultural adjustments I had to make was letting my host mom know what my evening plans were way in advance. Since students traditionally eat dinners together with our host family, and host families dedicate a lot of time to meal-planning, it was considered rude not to let them know evening plans. This made spontaneous hang-outs with my friends a bit difficult, but gave me a newfound appreciation for planning activities in advance.

What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Kyoto?

Leaving class at the end of the day and wandering along the Kamo River or through the streets of Kyoto, exploring a new temple, shrine, ramen restaurant, or shopping street every day.

What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Kyoto?

One of the most beautiful temples in Kyoto is the renowned Kokedera, or  "Moss Temple." My host mom recommended this temple to me because she had heard about how much I was enjoying the class on Buddhist art I was taking with Professor Catherine Ludvik. However there were several major problems for me — the only way to obtain entrance to Kokedera was through a special two-way post-card, written in Japanese, to be sent to the temple several weeks in advance. Since I had no clue where to buy the post-card, how to write the address, or request a visit, I thought I would never visit Kokedera. However, the kind Yumi-san of the Stanford Japan Center, who overheard my confusion and distress, not only showed me where to buy the postcard and how to address it, but also wrote the entire request for me.

The temple itself is indescribable — words simply don't do it justice. As I sat in the middle of the garden, surrounded by nothing by rocks and trees covered in a gentle layer of moss as the rain drizzled sweetly and softly through the morning air, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of joy and peace.

What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?

endless adventure, temples, conbini, kanpai!

Fun Questions:

What was your favorite food you had in Kyoto?

This is such a difficult question! I'm going to cheat a little and give a couple of answers since I simply can't decide: okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, steaming-hot takoyaki at night on the streets of Osaka, an incredibly expensive (but incredibly worth it) A5 Kobe beef steak, kaiseki in Kyoto.

What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?

My camera. I spent most of my summer internship money on a brand-new camera and I'm so thankful that I did -- the memories captured on there will be with me forever.

What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Kyoto?

mitsume is an indie Japanese band one of the friends I made at Doshisha University recommended to me.

ふやけた友達 is a new song of theirs that I really like; it's on Spotify!