When you’ve just spent 15 hours hurling through the air in a metal tube, it’s probably good to: one, not leave your camera on the plane, and two, not chug nearly a liter of water before passing through airport security.

When I arrived in Japan last July, I promptly did both of those (and yes, in case you’re wondering, I did get my camera back, and I did vomit up the water shortly after). These were among the first lessons I learned in the land of the rising sun.                                                                                                                                               

This incident was only the beginning of an important journey for me, a voyage that took place across three weeks in central-southern Japan.

Early on in my first homestay, I faced a challenging foe: nattō, fermented soybeans, was served to me for breakfast. Such a repulsive taste belonged to one of a plethora of foods I would never have thought of trying back home.

I admit it, I barely ate the nattō. It was too gross (that would have been the better time to puke). Other foods, however, I found to be quite delicious, such as pork ramen, swordfish, and “wieneryaki,” a modified version of takoyaki, a ball-shaped food containing tako, or octopus, to have have a pork wiener cooked inside it instead.

As someone who grew up in a kosher household, I never would have expected myself to ever eat these foods. However, sampling new foods gave me the opportunity to experience different flavor combinations and truly discover the meaning of umami.

But further challenges were still to come.

At the welcome banquet for my tour group, all the exchange students were invited up to learn and then dance the traditional Awa Dance of Tokushima Prefecture, with a free history and culture lesson thrown in as an added bonus.

Anyone who knows me knows I am very uncomfortable with dancing, especially in front of others.

But I tried. I failed. And it was embarrassing (everybody gave me a pass).

To my dismay, during my second homestay my tour group went to a museum featuring the Yosakoi Naruko Dance in Kōchi Prefecture.

What happened next will shock you.

I danced, and I had fun. And all the while, I was able to learn about a second dance that is featured in an annual festival.

I cannot forget to mention that I also had the opportunity to see major cultural landmarks, such as castles, and I got to bathe in hot springs. But those are long, in-depth stories that either require too much or too little detail to be told properly in the medium of a newspaper.

I consider the opportunity to learn about and experience the traditions and culture of Japan invaluable. It isn’t always easy to experience and learn about another culture, especially when you don’t have a good understanding of the language.

Japanese is an interesting language, when you take a look at it. There are four character sets, and you must have mastery of all four to fully grasp the Japanese language.

I spent the week leading up to my trip trying to learn basic Japanese. Nevertheless, I arrived in Japan and quickly realized that I knew significantly less Japanese than I thought.

As a determined individual, I couldn’t let this slide, and so I set to work trying to further my understanding of Japanese.

This is the point where I casually mention that I’m an otaku (disclaimer: I gained the title in Japan. I am not a self-proclaimed otaku). I love watching anime and reading manga. So when I found my way into a bookstore at a Japanese mall, I went and purchased some manga.

My logic was this: by reading manga, I will be able to read Japanese better.

But as most people know, just being able to read a language does not make you in any way fluent.

During my homestay in Ehime Prefecture, I went to visit the school of one of my host sisters, where I got to sit in on a cooking class. The catch: to eat lunch, I had to help cook and clean, and all the directions were in Japanese.

Through my so-so knowledge of Japanese, I was able to understand enough of the directions to prepare lunch and successfully keep myself fed.

Throughout my trip, I made every effort to pick up new words in Japanese and also speak Japanese. I even spent the last week of my trip staying up until 1 a.m. each night to watch new anime episodes air.       

The impact of the immersion was quite large: during my Eagle Court of Honor, I spoke to my family’s Japanese homestay guests in Japanese, and I decided to further my knowledge of the language by taking Japanese language courses here in college.

The three weeks I spent in Japan were more than just fun. They were life-changing. I was able to get exposure to new foods, a new culture, and a new language, and all the while I felt welcome. I would gladly take the opportunity to have an experience like this in the future, and if you have such an opportunity open up to you, I encourage you to take it.

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