Mika Nakashige ’13 spent the 2011-2012 school year in Kyoto, Japan, at the Associated Kyoto Program. The Honolulu, Hawaii, native is a Chemistry major.
Why did you decide to go to Kyoto?
Since my family is from Japan (my father’s side came to Hawaii from Kumamoto and my mother’s side of the family came from Hiroshima), I have always longed to travel around the country and study the history of my ancestors. I had previously visited Japan on short weeklong vacations, but the cultural experience that is gained through months of living in an area rather than being a weeklong tourist is very different.
I was drawn to Kyoto because of its central location within Japan as well as the many traditional aspects that the city has retained. Kyoto is the home to so much beauty amidst the bamboo groves and vermillion shrine gates, but this beauty is not to be outdone by the history that is encased in what used to be the capital of Japan. I chose AKP (Associated Kyoto Program) because it stood out as a program that strived to make sure their students were taken care of. AKP takes care of everything that is needed prior to arriving in Japan; they organize a field trip every semester and they had obtained grants to help cover a portion of research and travel expenses for each student.
What was your biggest “culture shock” as you got used to living in Japan?
My biggest culture shock was that since I come from a Japanese background, everyone expected me to speak perfect Japanese. As my Japanese was far from that, I confused a lot of the locals. Some people even gave me looks of disapproval as they thought I had been living in Japan and had neglected to learn their language. I usually had to explain to them that I was an American student studying in Japan for a year and that being a fifth generation Japanese American, my family no longer speaks Japanese.
Did you stay with a host family? If so, how did that affect your experience abroad?
My host family was absolutely amazing! My host mom made a home-cooked Japanese meal every night and my host sister would go out shopping with me from time to time. It was great to be able to consult someone about directions to a temple or shrine; my host mom would even tell me the best days to visit a particular place. My host family was definitely the best aspect of my study abroad experience because of their incredible hospitality and willingness to help me whenever I needed it.
Did your experience abroad change your initial perceptions of Japanese culture at all?
I did have a taste of Japanese traditions and practices through my family as well as from studying Japanese at Williams. Before arriving in the fall, I expected the local Japanese to be more traditional. I also thought that living with a Japanese family would come with strict rules, but my host family was very lenient. I had no curfew and I could go wherever I wanted as long as I messaged them where I was going and what meals I would be eating at home. Throughout my year in Japan, I found that the older Japanese traditions were being phased out and that the younger generations were becoming more ‘westernized’ than I had previously thought.
Do you think that you will incorporate your study abroad experience into your major, for example through a thesis or an independent study?
Many of my friends who have majored in a natural science did not have the opportunity to go abroad for a full year, or in some cases they were not able to go abroad at all. Although I do not think that my experience in Japan will be directly applicable to my Chemistry major or my thesis in organic synthesis, the experiences that I had in Japan will definitely influence how I proceed with my classes and research in the future. Watching my host mother work everyday to take care of her family showed me the value of not having any excuses finish what needs to be done. I also had the opportunity to travel to Hokkaido through World Student Environment Network and I got to meet with graduate students interested in sustainability. Hearing their ideas showed me how important it is to have global communication about research efforts, and I hope that I will continue to have opportunities to travel and meet with people from all over the world. It is also possible that a wider range of resources will be available to me since I have a better knowledge of the language as well as many friends who can translate for me!
Why do you think it’s important for Williams students to study in foreign countries? Do you recommend a full year abroad?
Although we get only four years at Williams, I think living and studying in a foreign country gave me an experience that can’t be found at Williams. Because I was in Japan for a year, I had a lot of time to visit the places that were important to me without feeling rushed. I was able to experience at least a bit of every season, which gave me a chance to try an array of seasonal foods and attend a wide variety of cultural events.
What was your favorite food that you ate while in Japan?
Japanese girls are known to love their sweets and my friends would always take me to various sweet shops in Kyoto. My favorite place was as ice cream shop in the Gion district called Kinana. The shop is known for its ‘dekitate’ (just-made) ice cream. It’s super fresh and has never been frozen, which gives it a very smooth and creamy texture, kind of like the Japanese version of gelato. They also had a Chestnut Autumn Parfait that I was lucky enough to try since they only make 20 every day during the months of October and November. The parfait contains many types of Japanese sweets such as mochi, anko, soba boro (my favorite cookie!), kuromame biscotti and is topped with a rich chestnut mousse.