During the fall of my junior year, I decided that my undergraduate experience wouldn't be complete without a study abroad. I chose Japan as my destination, with food, language development, and the desire to experience a non-Western culture being my biggest motivators. I applied to a transfer credit program through the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) and was accepted into the Nagasaki University of Foreign Studies (NUFS). With an enrollment of less than 700 students, the university is less than a quarter of the size of my old high school. Most of the students who go there are native Japanese students who are pursuing degrees in foreign languages, or international students, so I thought it would be the perfect environment for me to improve my skills in Japanese.
I consider my study abroad one of my best undergraduate experiences so far! There are few better ways to test your abilities to problem-solve than to travel to a country with a native tongue you can barely understand. Before my semester at NUFS began, I traveled around Japan on my own for a week, visiting various sites in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka, and making use of their extensive railroad system. On the left, you can see a picture I took at the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto.
Considering how my poor my Japanese was at the time, looking back, I am amazed by how I managed to survive on my own for a week without even a reliable Internet connection to rely on!
Nagasaki is a beautiful coastal city described as one of the best natural harbors in the world. The modern city is a far cry from the scenes of destruction a Google image search is likely to come up with. The picture on a right is a photograph I took from a viewing deck near the city's penguin aquarium, near the end of summer. 72% of the Japan is covered in mountains, and Nagasaki gives a good idea of how the country's 120 + million people manage to make efficient use of the land.
Perhaps number one on the list of Nagasaki's must-see sites is the 平和公園, or Peace Park. Built in order to remember the lives lost when the city was hit with an atomic bomb at the end of World War II, it lies in the center of the city just a short walk away from the bomb's epicenter. It is a beautiful place to visit, possessing walkways adorned with flowers and artistic statues gifted to the city of Nagasaki from countries all over the world bearing messages of peace. The statue in the picture to the right faces the bomb's epicenter. I learned from my Peace Studies professor that the arm extended outwards is meant to gesture towards the prosperity peace brings - the wealthy, modern city of Nagasaki - while the arm pointing upwards serves as a warning of the potential danger of future weapons of mass destruction
Believe it or not, studying actually took up a decent chunk of my study abroad. The Nagasaki University of Foreign Studies, or "Gai-dai", as shortened from its Japanese name, was about an hour-long commute from my host family's house via bus, and 20 minutes away if driving directly by car. It's situated in a town called Togitsu, which lies north of Nagasaki. I took 16 hours' worth of classes - Japanese 3, Peace Studies, Modern Japanese History (MJH), Introduction to Japanese Society (IJS), Kanji and Vocabulary 2&3, Tea Ceremony, Calligraphy, and Shogi. I am proud to say I only got one A! Such a statement may sound odd coming from an honors student, but the Japanese grading system is different from ours, with an S, corresponding to an A+, being the highest achievable grade. I was surprised when all of my classes, barring Peace Studies, MJH, and IJS, were taught in Japanese, but I quickly adapted and am grateful for the listening practice.
We went on a number of school-sponsored excursions throughout the year. The first turned out to to be the most memorable. Before classes began, we went on a overnight trip to an onsen, or hot springs, located on an active volcano called Unzen. Before heading to the springs, we visited a museum commemorating a number of disasters caused by the volcano's eruption, and the nearby Shimabara Castle. The inn hosting the hot springs is nestled deep into the mountains, and can be seen on the left (I recommend squinting). Unfortunately, steam clouds from the sulfuric hot springs and a typhoon raging above collaborated in order to make it impossible to take a decent picture of the place. Naturally even a typhoon couldn't prevent me and several of the other girls from braving the outdoor hot springs!
My recommendation for anyone considering a study abroad is to try out a home-stay! I stayed with the Akagi family. The mother, Tomiko (or Tommy, as she prefers to be called), is on the far left in the picture. To the right you can see her daughter and two granddaughters, who came to visit for Christmas. Staying with a Japanese family helped me learn a lot more about Japanese culture, and allowed me to improve my language skills at a faster rate than most of my classmates who decided to stay in a dorm. In addition, I got to eat yummy, home-cooked Japanese food every day! I'm shy, so living with a family of complete strangers was quite intimidating at first, but thankfully Tommy, like most people who decide to host students, was extremely nice, approachable, and eager to tell (or show, in some cases) me anything I wanted to know about Japanese culture.
I'm really glad I decided to go on a study abroad before I graduated, and even more glad I was stubborn enough to make Japan my destination even though none of the programs available through A&M could offer any courses that fit with my Animal Science degree. What makes a study abroad unique is that you have so many more opportunities than normal to learn outside of a classroom. I feel like my study abroad has really helped me prepare for life outside of the relatively safe bubble of academia. Knowing you can survive in a foreign country with only strangers to rely on makes other important steps forward in life seem a little less daunting.