Last summer I went on an exchange to Japan with the scholarship program Youth for Understanding. I was ecstatic to receive my placement in the historically and culturally rich city of Kyoto. It seemed too good to be true until I saw the coast of rural Japan appear in the airplane window. The aspects of Japanese culture that I had only read about were suddenly all around me. My roommate and I joyfully observed every difference between the two countries, everything from the vending machines to the convenience stores to the overall cleanliness, punctuality and efficiency present everywhere. As I rode the bullet train into Kyoto, I was overcome with awe at the contrast between towering mountains and skyscrapers and expanses of vibrantly green rice paddies.
Thousand-year-old shrines and temples were settled right near lit-up neon convenience stores in a fascinating juxtaposition of ancient and modern life. As a foreigner from a such a young country, the many centuries of history contained in these sites was unfathomable and fascinating to me. I marveled at how it seemed like every street I looked down, emerald mountains could be seen in the distance. I was able to view the city from two different mountains, and the sight of the ancient and thriving city nestled in between lushly forested emerald mountains was unforgettable. I quickly fell in love with the city’s elegant and exquisite culture and history, and I came to think of it as my second home. I attended high school with my host sister, and it was very interesting to compare Japanese school life with my experience. My classmates were excited to have me and asked many questions about my life in my home country. They were very welcoming and kind, and they often helped me understand what was happening during class. Being in Kyoto during the month of July meant I was able to witness the Gion Matsuri festival, and it was exhilarating to see the city’s streets come to life with elaborate floats, light displays, food stalls, and hundreds of people in a centuries-old tradition. Even the most mundane aspects of my family’s life were of great interest to me, such as driving through the city, grocery shopping, or even just putting the car into the rotating garage in the apartment building.
In my last weeks, my host family gave me the freedom to explore the city on my own. As I was completely fascinated by what I had witnessed so far, I tried to see and learn as much as I possibly could in the time that I was given. Even now, looking back, it is impossible to describe the majesty that surrounded me at every temple, shrine, and castle. More than once, I was so entranced by the beauty in front of me that I actually lost my balance. How could I be focused on walking when the beauty of millennia surrounded me?
As my journey drew to a close, I knew that I would, somehow, at some point in my life, have to return to the breathtakingly beautiful land of the rising sun.