By Sara Flynn
This summer, 34 Northeastern University students came together for a monthlong whirlwind of adventure and learning in Japan.
Our days began with class discussions around political science, international affairs, and human services within the context of Japan. Professors and government workers presented to our group on a range of topics including the economic implications of the aging population in Japan and the history behind societal attitudes toward the Japanese LGBTQ+ community.
After grabbing a quick bite to eat—often filled with sushi, ramen, curry, or udon—we scurried off to site visits. This could encompass a tour of a new neighborhood in Tokyo, a visit to a museum, or involve a trip to a local nonprofit. Some of my favorite tours include the Senso-ji Temple and the shops located in Asakusa, learning how to make Okonomiyaki, attending a sumo wrestling tournament, joining in on a Tango Therapy class, and embracing our inner-youth at an adventure playground. These activities acted as structured times to explore and learn about the historical and cultural contexts of the locations and landmarks we visited.
The scale of Tokyo became extremely evident to me as I found myself in the observation decks of the Metropolitan Government Building, Mori Tower, Tokyo Tower, and Tokyo Skytree. One would think that a skyline view from one building was enough, but each location provided a new center point and perspective. And, every time, I was baffled at how Tokyo was able to flow beyond where my eyes could see. These views were truly breathtaking, but the most meaningful moments of exploration were spent on the ground. As we learned to navigate the subway in Tokyo, we were able to travel to the world’s busiest crosswalk in Shibuya, hit the arcades in Akihabara, stroll through Ueno park with stops at the Ueno Zoo and Tokyo National Museum, go thrifting in Shinjuku, take a hiking and beach trip, and so much more.
Most of our time was spent in Tokyo, but we also took two vastly different excursions to a retreat house at Lake Yamanaka, which shows a beautiful view of Mount Fuji, and Kyoto, where the old Imperial Palace is located. During our time staying at Lake Yamanaka, we were joined by students from Meiji University. Together, we explored issues evident in both Japan and the United States, and we enjoyed the scenic outdoors. We broke out the sparklers, enjoyed walks along the lake, learned how to write our names in Shodo, which is Japanese calligraphy, and of course, we ate and danced.
The time spent in Kyoto was completely different than that of Lake Yamanaka and Tokyo. While we were still in a city, it felt much calmer than the hustle and bustle we had been experiencing in Tokyo. As we strolled along the river, we came across street performers singing and matching the pleasantly calm mood of those around them, but there were also stark contrasts to this during our stay in Kyoto.
When we visited “Big Buddha” at the Todaiji Temple in Nara, there were tourists from all over the world, as well as deer that would come up to you on the lookout for food, but also willing to stand still as people took pictures and petted them. Other highlights of this trip included the golden Kinkaku-ji Temple, walking through more than 10,000 gates to get to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, going to a bamboo forest, and attending a tea ceremony.
By the end of this incredible month, we developed new friendships with our fellow Northeastern classmates and the students at Meiji University. Through our lectures and exploration, we got to know Japan a little bit better.
Sara Flynn is a third-year student in the Human Services Program with a minor in law and public policy. She has worked as a service-learning teaching assistant and will be joining the S-L Street Team in the fall while on co-op.