In 2014 I was fortunate enough to take part in the KAKEHASHI Project, a large-scale cultural exchange program promoted by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The aim of the program is to expand people-to-people relations between the youth of Japan and the United States. During this program, I was dispatched to Tokyo and Shizuoka Prefecture. I realized that I haven’t created a proper post to reflect on the experience itself. Now that two years have elapsed, I feel that mt views have matured and the way I view those experiences has changed as well.
Following a rigorous application process complete with forms, essays, and an interview, I joined the ranks of 26 other undergraduate students from various universities in the state of Kansas. Our flagship university was the University of Kansas (Rock Chalk Jayhawk!). We were joined by University of Califonia (Irvine), University of Pittsburgh, United States Military Academy, Five Colleges Consortium, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Clemson University, University of Hawaii at Manoa, and the University of South Florida during our intake on June 24-July 3. Each flagship university selected for this program was assigned a host university in Japan. Our host university was Shizuoka University.
Our first few days were in Tokyo we attended basic orientation where we observed lectures focusing on Japanese history, politics, economy, language, and popular culture. We were given basic outlines for each day and had general ideas of where we were going. Most of the time it was a one step at a time process.
After orientation, we visited Asakusa Shrine and the Tokyo National Museum. I appreciated that these two visits were placed on the same day because I felt that we were spending a sort of “hard culture” day where we were actually exposed to the cultural fundamentals of Japan. I also enjoyed comparing the architectural differences between temples I had seen in Korea and those I was seeing in Japan. Needless to say, the temples in Japan were HUGE and there were wayyyy more people.
The following day, we took the Kodama 643 to Shizuoka City where we would stay for a large portion of our remaining days in Japan. Shizuoka Prefecture is known for its green tea and being home to Mt. Fuji. Can it get more Japanese than that??
Shizuoka City, the capital of Shizuoka Prefecture (naturally) boasts a population of ~700,000 and is the second largest city in Shizuoka Prefecure after Hamamatsu.
On our first day, we visited Shizuoka Castle and the residence of the final shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu. From what I remember, the castle grounds itself has in large part been reconstructed as a fire destroyed the original way back in the day (like the 1600s).
Mtv Cribs had nothing on the final shoguns pad
The next day we visited Shizuoka University where we held a discussion with the University’s President and several faculty members. We also visited an English class and made friends with our Japanese peers.
Sidenote: Shizuoka University’s mascot, IS MT FUJI. MT. FUJI.
Later that night we met up with our friends from Shizuoka University and spent the night at Karaoke. Even though we may not speak each other’s mother tongues fluently, karaoke really brought everyone together. I also learned that there is a Japanese version of Ricky Martin’s “La vida loca” complete with spectacular choreography. Look it up. Ah yea, the power of music is real~
So the next morning we awoke tired but ready to take on the day. We visited Shizuoka’s revered green tea fields and tried our hand at picking tea leaves in the rain. It was refreshing. I felt like I was in a Lipton ad.
We advanced then to Kunō-zan Tōshō-gū, the resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Getting there is no easy feat complete with cable cars or 1000 steps. We took the cable car up and the steps down.
The next day we did cloth dying where we made our own fishing banners because well, fishing is a huge deal in Japan. We were told that seafood is safe to eat, even though many people in our group had expressed concerns about radiation resulting from the 2011 disaster.
Keeping with the seafood theme, we visited a fishing port where we observed fisherman unloading (tuna??) from their ships.
The landscape of Japan is another thing worth mentioning. The amount of greenery and trees mixed with mountains, beaches, still stays in my mind to this day.
Our last stop in Shizuoka was BANDAI Hobby Center. Where I was able to see and meet this guy. GUNDAM! On our tour of the Hobby Center, we were able to see the BANDAI creators in action. Although we were unable to take photos of their creative process, I was impressed at their commitment (and their outfits). I was also surprised to see how much of the production and line work within their facility was carried out by robots. It was explained to us that the Japanese economy has become increasingly dependent upon robots for certain job positions dues to the declining population. Whether or not this is totally true, I’m not sure (seems more like a cost-saving maneuver more than a demographically driven strategy???) but I guess it makes sense.
We hopped back on the Kodama and zipped on back to Tokyo the next morning. Our last several days in Tokyo consisted of visiting the Miraikan, Harajuku, a cat cafe, and of course, because when in Japan, more Karaoke.
Shinjuku is a hub of nightlife in Tokyo. Shinjuku station is actually the busiest train station in the world with over 3.64 million people using the station every day. Sooooo more people than even live in Kansas, use this train station every day. Wow. WOW.
Calico Cat Cafe is also located in Shinjuku. I can’t even remember how much we paid to sit around cats for an hour but we did it and it was totally worth it. Totes.
Japan was by far one of the most fascinating and charming countries I have ever visited. I am most thankful that I had the opportunity to visit not just Tokyo, but also Shizuoka prefecture and really see a side of the country that I feel many people may overlook. The bonds and friendships that were created during this experience are what is truly precious to me. KAKEHASHI means bridge, and I am positive we have formed a bridge between the US and Japan.
Although our time in Japan had come to an end, the KAKEHASHI Project continued. That Fall I conducted several lessons on Japanese culture in local elementary schools and in March of 2015, we hosted students from Shizuoka University here in Kansas! I will follow up with that part of the program in a second post.
Ad astra per aspera,