I applied for the Idemitsu Scholarship on a whim, never dreaming I’d actually get it. Even after the “Congratulations!” email from Mr. Downes and a celebratory phone call with my dad, I didn’t really believe it was happening. It didn’t hit me at any point during the months of online prep, or when I was packing and printing my itinerary, or during the 20-something hours of flying. Reality only sank in after I saw the first Japanese ad in the airport and realized I had no idea what I was looking at. All of the excitement and nerves that I should have been able to process and come to terms with over the previous six months overwhelmed me instantly, and I was torn between the emotions of “Oh my gosh, I’m in Japan!” and “Dear Lord, I’m in Japan. By myself. For a month.”
In an attempt to keep a panic attack at bay, I threw myself into the program. My first few days were full of shy introductions and orientation procedures at the National Olympic Memorial Youth Center, our Tokyo residence, but soon enough the days fell into a comforting routine. Every morning, I had three hours of Japanese language classes where I learned the essential words and phrases I needed to survive the month. Following classes was our daily “Into the Community” activity where our group leaders took us out to different parts of Tokyo to experience the city and the culture. My favorites of these trips included activities such as Washi paper making, a visit to the temples in Asakusa, a seminar on Japanese cooking, and an excursion called “Experience Nihonbashi” where we were dressed in traditional yukata kimonos and learned about the history of Nihonbashi.
My absolute favorite part of each day, however, came after these trips when we were allowed a few hours of free time. My friends and I always used this time to explore the city together, going to places like Shibuya Crossing and Takeshita Dori in Harajuku to do some shopping, eat some incredible food, and experience the city without the structure of planned activities. It was on these trips that I got to try out my new language skills, and with the exception of one incident where I proudly asked the clerk how much a box of chopsticks cost only for her to flip the box over and point to the large and obvious price tag, I managed not to embarrass myself too much in front of the locals.
The first three weeks in Tokyo wrapped up with a weekend homestay that I spent with a family of four. We taught each other card games, and they showed me how to make tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette) and takoyaki (essentially octopus puff balls). My host family was incredibly kind and welcoming, and my experience with them was the perfect way to end my stay in Tokyo. The following week in Kyoto went by even faster, but the highlights include visiting the Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ju, and Kiyomizu-dera temples and climbing Mt. Arashiyama to go to Iwatayama Monkey Park (which is exactly as fun and full of monkeys as it sounds).
By the time the trip came to an end, I felt like I’d aged about ten years. I had a greater sense of independence and responsibility, and I was proud of myself for leaping out of my comfort zone to experience a completely new and wonderful culture. I made a lot of friends from all over the world and further developed my understanding of and respect for life outside of the “American bubble.” Of course, my desire to travel and become a global citizen and scholar has only increased, and I cannot wait for my next opportunity to experience life abroad.