By Beth Koughan
I recently (yesterday) returned home from Japan, where I and 215 students from 52 countries participated in the first ever “Japan Study Program” (or as we affectionately called it, “United Nations, University Version”). Organized by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), the program sought to raise awareness about the post-disaster situation in Japan, and to reestablish the country as a destination for travel and study.
The program consisted of a rigorous schedule of activities, each balanced out with an equally long seminar or lecture. Lecture topics included (but were not limited to): Current Situation of Tourism in Japan; Promotion of International Student Exchange; Responding to the Great East Japan Earthquake; and Tokyo’s Bid to Host the 2020 Olympic Games. These lectures were meticulously prepared with accompanying Powerpoints, and those of us non-Japanese speakers got to enjoy simultaneous English translation via an earpiece (torturous).
What made this experience better still was the borderline sleep deprivation that nearly all the participants were subjected to. This lack of sleep is explained by the fact that MEXT, when organizing the Program, did not factor “free time” into the schedule, thinking it too dangerous to trust eager international students to their own devices in the world’s largest city. Nevertheless, when the 12 hours of lectures and learning came to an end, most students would take to the streets of Tokyo with their new international BFFs for some exploring, then return to the hotel for a few hoursè sleep and do it all again the next day.
Besides learning a lot about Japanese universities and scholarships —come talk to me if this interests you!— I experienced some pretty sweet karaoke bars (felt very Scarlett à la Lost in Translation) and discovered the wonder of Izakaya, which offer all-you-can-drink for an hour or two at under 15 dollars. I also had the good fortune of attending a FOUR HOUR kabuki play (visually stunning, but never again), gazed upon some real cherry blossoms, visited the Harajuku district, and saw a robot dance (thank you, Asimo).
After six days in Tokyo, my group ventured several hours north to Fukushima, where we spent time at the university exchanging with students, touring some of the worst-hit tsunami regions, and visiting temporary housing for the disaster victims. Here, we had lectures about the “Status of Environmental Radiation in Japan” that informed us that a long-haul flight poses more radiation exposure than living in the community surrounding Fukushima. While uncertainties about radiation in the food and water have halted the fishing and agriculture industries, everyday life was determined to be safe.
We were also lucky enough to spend an evening with local families in Fukushima, which was a lovely and heartwarming experience filled with much smiling, nodding, and broken English. Other noteworthy outings included a Samurai school, an aquarium, and the quintessential Japanese tourist experience: a Hawaiian spa.
According to the Japanese Tourist Agency, surveys show that the #1 reason to visit Japan is the food… but I just can’t eat that much rice. For me, it was the people who made the trip. The students, officials, suits, tour guides, ambassadors, and gawking street people. And the bowing! I was not prepared for such respect. The Japanese people were nothing but polite, welcoming, cute and curious. Program participants were made to like feel some kind of ambassador-celebrity hybrid, and that was pretty awesome.
Equally enriching were my amazing fellow participants, who hailed from such exotic places as Nepal, Malaysia, Belarus, Mongolia, and Quebec. The Japan Study Program was a hilarious, hectic, and extraordinary experience that I will not soon forget. Its goal was to boost international interest in Japan and visitors to the country, so please, go forth my fellow students, you have my word: it’s friggin’ awesome!