Last May term, I had the opportunity to travel with Dr. Mahua Bhattacharya and Dr. Jeff Long to Japan for a three-week cultural immersion trip. We spent two weeks in Tokyo, and the other week traveling all over the country. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
One of the first places we visited was the shrine in Asakusa. Sanja Matsuri, one of Tokyo’s biggest Shinto festivals, was in full swing. In Japan, there is no hesitancy in blending religion and capitalistic endeavors, so stands selling all sorts of souvenirs and food led all the way up to the temple steps. Once in the shrine, as is the tradition, I clapped, bowed, and tossed a five-yen coin in. I’ve never connected much with religion, but I felt a sense of serenity and holiness inside the shrine, despite the vendors and crowd just outside. We also visited the Meiji Shrine, which was more peaceful than Asakusa. It is a popular place to hold weddings, and we saw a wedding procession go by while we were there. In contrast to these shrines, we also visited Yasukuni Shrine, which is a memorial to those who died in World War II. In that shrine, the tension of the war was still palpable. It was uncomfortable, but an important experience.
We also visited a few historical places. One of these was Kamakura, where the Great Buddha is housed, as well as the Hasedera Kannon. The day was rainy, and I was a little grumpy at first, but it was incredible to see these amazing pieces that I had learned about in my art class in real life. We also visited a number of historical places in Kyoto, including Kinkakuji (the famous gold, Zen Buddhist temple) and Nijo Castle, which used to house the shoguns of the Tokugawa period. During our trip to Kyoto, my two friends and I accidentally ordered five okonomiyaki (a huge savory pancake) instead of three – I don’t think I can look at another okonomiyaki for another couple of years.
We saw a kabuki show while we were there, and it was amazing. I had been excited ever since hearing that we were going to kabuki, and I was not disappointed. The costumes and makeup were stunning, the acting was fantastic, and the plot (while a little confusing) was both funny and dramatic. The style of acting, with its sing-song rhythm and exaggerated motions, reminded me of my brief stint in high school as part of a performance of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” We also went to a sumo tournament, which I had not been looking forward too, but which I ended up loving. I wasn’t really into it at first, but I became more interested as I watched more. I found myself rooting for the guy whose loincloth color I liked the best, or for the small guy up against a bigger guy.
One of my favorite parts of the trip was shopping. We went to Akihabara, where my friends and I visited a cat café. We also went to Harajuku, Tokyo’s fashion district, and that was my favorite place we visited. We visited a lot of stores, and for lunch, we went to a food court and I got a beautiful crepe called the “Banana Chocolate Monster” and bubble tea. We also saw a boy band perform!
Unfortunately, this trip was a little fraught too. On the trip from our hotel, my one friend leap on the train as it was leaving the station, unaware that my other friend and I were several steps behind and that it wasn’t even the right train, but he caught the next train back and met us. Our trip home from Harajuku was in the middle of rush hour, and the subway ride back was incredibly crowded. I was pressed up against multiple people, both strangers and members of the trip. There was barely room to breathe. I can’t imagine having to deal with that rush every day going back and forth from work.
We also visited Hiroshima and Fukushima. It was not fun, but it was important. The Hiroshima Peace Museum was honestly one of the most powerful things I’ve experienced in my life. One artifact that stood out in particular was a tattered, bloodstained dress with a plaque beside it describing the girl who had worn it as she died, crushed and pierced by shrapnel. In Fukushima, we learned about the results of the 3/11/2011 nuclear disaster. We saw fields and fields of black bags filled with radioactive topsoil that had to be stripped from the area. It was immensely sobering. But there was also a hope to the place. I guess I’d expected a type of disaster zone with remains of destroyed buildings or something. Instead, it looked like a normal countryside. That was almost more shocking. It was like things were going back to normal at a glance, but when you looked closer, you could see the piles of soil, the economic depression, and know that all was not well. But it was also hopeful. A place that had experienced such devastation only seven years ago was healing.
Going to Japan has changed me greatly as a person. I have gained an immense love of the specific type of soft-boiled eggs found in Ramen. All jokes aside, I am more understanding of other cultures and I have learned so much about Japanese life. I highly recommend that anyone who has the chance to go on this trip or any other study abroad trip does so. May term programs are great, because at least personally, I don’t have time in my schedule to take a whole semester and go abroad, but any chance to experience another country is amazing.
About the Author – Sarah Kaden ’20, May 2018 Faculty-Led Japan Program Participant
Sarah Kaden ’20 is a junior psychology major and professional writing minor. In the summer between her sophomore and junior year, she participated in an Elizabethtown College faculty-led study abroad program to Japan. Japanese professor, Dr. Mahua Bhattacharya and Religion and Asian Studies professor, Dr. Jeff Long lead this three-week trip to Japan every May term.
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