Reflections on studying abroad in Japan

Sharing an experience in the Hokkaido International Foundation’s Japanese Language and Culture Program and the advice received from Professor of Asian Studies Naoko Nemoto.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been interested in outer space, leading to my love of physics. And for years, I’ve had wanderlust for a more easily accessible destination: Japan, the home country of my aunt. My first semester at Mount Holyoke, in addition to classes in physics and astronomy (Force, Motion and Energy; The Sky), I decided to start taking Japanese. To pave the way for my dream trip and better connect with my aunt, who was so excited when I told her!

When I mentioned studying in Japan to my Japanese professor, Professor of Asian Studies Naoko Nemoto, she gave me a list of potential summer programs. I chose the Hokkaido International Foundation’s Japanese Language and Culture Program because of its proximity to Sapporo, the city my aunt is from.

As my June departure date approached, my professor’s advice was invaluable. She recommended when to buy plane tickets (as soon as possible, as I was leaving during Japan’s peak travel season). She shared ideas on what to do and try while in Japan (most of them food recommendations, such as shio ramen) and what the climate would be like (quite humid).

When I first arrived, I met the family I would be spending the next two months with: my host mom, age 35, my host sister, age 8, and my host brother, age 1. And — as I knew would be the case in seeking out this ambitious experience abroad after just two semesters of Japanese — I struggled to speak the language and communicate. I was so nervous that I kept forgetting everything I had learned.

Homemade soba and onigiri
Homemade soba and onigiri, made by K. J.’s host mom

My host mom would ask me “what would you like to eat?” and I would stare at her, blanking on any and all words. After I had a great time meeting my very energetic host aunts, my host mom turned to me and asked how I liked them — likely to make sure I wasn’t overwhelmed. I told her they seemed really kind and … annoying. I quickly corrected myself. But, so embarrassing!

Nothing was more nerve-wracking than commuting to class, though. My first day taking the bus, I got on the wrong one. By the time I realized what had happened, I was at the other end of the city. Another time, I missed the bus entirely because I wasn’t wearing my glasses and couldn’t read the number (apparently “30” looks like “78” when blurry).

Kinkaku-ji, or Rokuon-ji, a temple in Kyoto
Kinkaku-ji, or Rokuon-ji, a temple in Kyoto

Despite all the times I messed up or made a fool of myself, I learned so much: How to take mistakes in stride and grow from them. That it’s the small moments that really matter — not just visiting the great tourist attractions, but also interacting with my host family. That the gains that came from pushing myself out of my comfort zone — and into the realm of soaring nerves and sweaty palms — were worth it.

Remember my professed lifelong interest in space? When I was 4, what I wanted more than anything was to be an astronaut. Until I realized that I’m afraid of heights. You might be thinking, “K. J., this is fascinating, but… how do astronomy and Japanese relate to each other?” Beautifully: JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. All science fields rely on international cooperation, but none more than astronomy. I would love to work with or for JAXA in the future, ideally for their space and asteroid exploration missions.

K. J. Lewis ’22 (left) and Professor Naoko Nemoto
K. J. Lewis ’22 (left) and Professor Naoko Nemoto

After having lived in Japan for two months, I would love to go back. I had an amazing time and met so many wonderful people, and I’ve kept in touch with my host family and new friends. All in all, it was a great summer. Thanks, Nemoto-sensei!