June marks ten years since I studied abroad for a month during a University of Delaware program in Kobe, located in the Kansai region of central Honshu, Japan. It would not be an exaggeration to call it a life-altering experience, and not for the reasons I would have expected at the time. Even though it was a major reason I went in the first place, it wasn’t my language skills that improved permanently. Certainly, I ended the month abroad with the best command of Japanese language that I’ve ever had, though that has sadly deteriorated in subsequent years. The teacher in our Japanese class must have made us memorize 15 new kanji, or Chinese characters, a day. Not only can I not remember a single one of those, I struggle to remember a lot of the more basic characters I learned in years of Japanese classes. The changes that month abroad were something more fundamental…an outlook, if you will, that was the first step in becoming a confident traveler and at an even more basic level, comfortable independence.
Confidence in Flight
It’s hard to be a confident traveler when you have a debilitating fear of the very means by which you get from one place to the other. I had never been thrilled by flying, but after the September 11 terrorist attacks I absolutely refused to get on a plane for a long time. For almost four years I didn’t fly at all and barely traveled. The occasional trip to Massachusetts for Thanksgiving was about the only time I left a 100-mile radius around my hometown. The prospect of an incredible experience in Japan forced me to overcome those fears. Still, I remember being in the terminal at JFK on June 2, 2005 looking out at the ANA Boeing 777 docked at the jetway.
“Is that our plane?” I asked Miller Sensei.
“No, that plane would never make it across the ocean,” he answered. Shortly thereafter, we started boarding said plane. Uh oh.
It had been ten years since the twin-engine 777 had first revolutionized intercontinental flight, but it was understandable that most people at the time still thought of four-engine aircraft like the 747 as synonymous with overwater flight.
I hit it off with my seatmate, Samhitha. But she wasn’t much help when the our plane flew into some moderate turbulence. I was really scared. With my masculinity on the line, I really needed some validation that I wasn’t just a big ‘fraidy cat. I secretly hoped that she was more nervous than I was. Heck, maybe she’d be so scared, I’d comfort her.
“Pretty nasty turbulence,” I remarked.
“Not really,” she replied nonchalantly.
Turbulence aside, this flight alone more or less cured my fear of flying. I spent hours transfixed by the incredible views on the great circle route from the eastern United States to Japan. I’d never seen anything as incredible as the snow covered mountains in Canada and Alaska. Every few minutes, it would be an entirely new landscape even more beautiful than the last. You certainly couldn’t experience such wonder if kept earthbound by fear. The seatback entertainment was new to me and a great way to pass the time. I can’t claim I’ve never had preflight jitters since 2005, but I’ve never let having to take a flight stand in the way of going somewhere I wanted to visit again.
My parents still talk about how studying abroad changed my diet. Thinking back, it’s almost hard to believe how picky an eater I was from childhood through college. Grains and chicken I liked. Maybe fruit, if it was banana or cantaloupe. But forget vegetables or fish. I didn’t even like turkey. I suffered through Thanksgiving (back then my least favorite holiday), taking just a breadstick or some corn while the rest of my family feasted.
I’d never even tried certain staples of the Japanese diet like green tea, seaweed, or sushi before coming to Japan. I’d used chopsticks only twice. The first time was during a field trip from Japanese class to a nearby restaurant. Eating rice with those chopsticks was an exercise in pure frustration. I resorted to eventually shoveling the grains into my mouth with a chopstick in each hand. Fortunately, I mastered chopsticks once I arrived in Japan quickly enough that I didn’t starve.
After all these years, I couldn’t tell you exactly when during the month abroad that my horizons started to expand. It might have been the first morning in Japan, June 4, 2005 when I went across the street to find breakfast at the Sunkus convenience store. Despite having three semesters of Japanese classes under my belt, I had no idea what the clerk was saying or what was in any of the food. Pure culture shock. Actually, store clerks use a type of very formal Japanese and you don’t actually need to know what they’re saying. At the time I wrote:
“I spent much of the day hungry, as I didn’t have a clue what was in most items. In the evening I got some ツナ (tuna) noodles – it was the first time I’d had tuna since early childhood. Tasted like chicken.”
What do you know? One day in Japan and I’d already eaten a food that I hadn’t had in about 15 years- though I’m not entirely sure now how I could have ever compared the taste to chicken! At least tuna, being written on the container in katakana, was a recognizable word to me and seemed less scary than trying some mystery meat. It got better. By the end of the month, a had a go-to breakfast dish which I still fondly miss- an omelet filled with red rice.
Perhaps those horizons expanded further on June 8 when I made sushi for the first time during a class at Kobe Shoin Women’s University, our host school. At the time I wrote about the experience:
The girls who instructed us laughed a lot…hopefully only part of the time *at* us. […] I ate all of it (fish, shrimp, cucumber, rice…) to be polite; it wasn’t that bad, but I didn’t actually like it too much. I’m not really a seafood person. The fried tofu rice-filled dumpling things were pretty good though. I drank tea (お茶) for the first time. It had no taste really.”
Those first sushi I made were the ugliest damn pieces of sushi you’ve ever seen in your life. I learned you can actually put quite a lot of things into sushi other than fish, like egg, melon, and tofu. It’s actually the vinegared rice that makes it sushi, not raw fish, and you can have vegetarian sushi. What I called “fried tofu rice-filled dumpling things” are known as inari-zushi. I’d never heard of them before 2005, but ever since then I’ve sought them out wherever sushi is made. It’s a marinated tofu pocket with sushi rice…no fish. Over the course of the month, both sushi and tea grew on me.
There are lots of entertaining (or at least embarrassing) anecdotes about my introduction to Japanese food, but perhaps the most amusing was the first time I tried edamame with some Japanese students. They burst out laughing when I started to eat the entire pod like it was a snow pea instead of removing the bean from the pod first. Oops.
In the United States, Japanese restaurants are one of about two types- generic Japanese, and hibachi or teppanyaki sort of grill or barbeque. The types of Japanese restaurants in Japan are, of course, a great deal more varied. There are places where you grill the food yourself on a tabletop stove, izakaya or pubs, sushi bars, conveyer belt sushi joints, noodle bars, yakitori places, okonomiyaki joints…It’s sad to me that Japanese restaurants in the US apparently have to be generalist to survive.
Regardless of when my transformation into a non-picky eater started, it was probably completed the evening of June 18, 2005 when another student, Susie, and I joined our teachers Miller Sensei and Sato Sensei at Matsushin, an izakaya (Japanese pub- “jack of all trades, master of none” as Miller Sensei put it) in Kyoto. I wrote at the time:
Under heavy prodding from the teachers, I partook in all but red-meat dishes. I tried more new food in that one night than like the past ten years combined. Get ready for a fairly complete laundry list…
冷や奴 (hiyayakko- cold tofu with sauce): pretty good.
ハート(haato- chicken heart): ok taste I guess, but disturbing texture
柳葉魚 (shishamo- smelt fish with roe): disgusting
鱧 (hamo- a sort of eel or fish with mustard dip): good
串カツ (kushikatsu- skewered meat, chicken in this case; note the kanji pictograph): very good
天麩羅 (tempura- fried vegetables and meats, in this case- 茗荷 (myouga, Japanese ginger) and 獅子唐 (shishitou- green pepper)): the ginger was ok and the green pepper was excellent
抹茶 (maccha- powdered green tea which the tempura is dipped in): not sure ’cause it wasn’t eaten separately, but said to be good
蟹コロッケ (kanikorokke- fried crab croquets): good
キス塩焼 (kisushioyaki- kiss fish, salt fried): good
To say that the notion of my calling any vegetable dish (even if it was fried!) “excellent” before this trip would have been inconceivable. After I survived eating chicken heart, the idea of trying turkey at Thanksgiving didn’t seem so bad. That fall I shocked my family when I not only ate the turkey, but most of the other Thanksgiving dishes as well.
Japan provided a comfortable framework by which I discovered the joys of traveling by myself (though in a more limited way than future trips to Europe during which I was alone from start to finish). I’d been on a number of family vacations in childhood but never traveled anywhere or explored a city on my own. With low crime, convenient public transportation in the form of JR trains, and ample downtime in the afternoons, I felt safe venturing out to see various parts of the city and surrounding areas by myself. I had a safety net in that there was always the college group to return to in the evenings. One afternoon, I decided to just keep walking uphill from Shoin University until I came to Rokko Cable, a funicular railway to Mt. Rokko. There is a platform by the upper station that provides panoramic views of the eastern side of Kobe.
The view was unfortunately very hazy during the day, but nighttime was a different matter. The city lights were spectacular. You could see factories, bridges, even the commercial lights of the Sannomiya area.
Another time I explored the Kobe waterfront and visited the Kobe Port Tower. The tower is probably most impressive at dusk when the lights show off the contrast between its red exterior and white internal structural members. The view from the top at sunset was also quite good. The waterfront also features the Harborland amusement park (a small park which a few of us visited) and the Kobe Maritime Museum, which I visited in 2007. On a more somber note, some remnants of piers were preserved after they were destroyed in the earthquake which devastated Kobe in 1995.
I also took a slightly longer train trip to get a look at the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world. There’s a rather ugly green house near the bridge where Sun Yat-sen lived during his exile in Japan.
I still think back fondly about my study abroad experience and Japan in general. I cannot imagine how my life would be different if I’d never taken the plunge and signed up for the trip. I’m pretty sure that even if I eventually became a comfortable traveler, I’d probably still have a lousy diet. Although I haven’t been back to Japan since 2007, I entertain hopes of returning some spring to see the cherry blossoms bloom in their native land, or some summer to climb Mt. Fuji. The curse perhaps, of studying abroad, is that it helped me realize that there is a whole world out there that really is within my reach. Now, when planning vacations, I have to balance my yearning to return to the places I love with the desire to discover entirely new ones.