Semester at Sea: Japan

Editor’s note: Lauren Jones, a third-year student majoring in English and Economics, is blogging about her Semester at Sea experience. If you’ve missed her earlier entries, start at the beginning: Ready to Set Sail on Semester At Sea

Ship in Japan

Jan. 29: pulling in to the Port of Yokohama, with Mt. Fuji in the distance

In a country where public transportation is fast, cheap, and comes with English subtitles, the number of amazing experiences you can rack up in six days in Japan can blow you away. The amount of places I visited and things I did this week even surprised me, and I know I won’t have the room to post pictures and write about everything I did. Still, since this was my first experience abroad, I learned a lot about the country of Japan and how I function as an American within it.

The Japanese people really made the visit. Every time I had a question, I could ask (or mime) to a local Japanese person, and he or she would answer, in their best English, and often would walk me straight to my destination – even if it was out of their way. While the stereotype is of a quiet and reserved people, the Japanese are incredibly hospitable and friendly to foreigners.

My friend Grace and I stayed in Tokyo the first two nights with the Katayamas, a family I met through a visit from their daughter, Namiko. She is a Japanese agriculture teacher who visited Illinois a few years ago, and she met my family during her stay in our hometown. After hearing that I was coming to Japan, her parents invited Grace and me to stay at their home in Tokyo – and they could have not spoiled us more! They had wonderful English and were able to share much with us about their current lives, their histories, and Japanese current events. We talked about U.S. and Japanese education systems, the government, and a number of topics that I couldn’t have imagined I’d be discussing with a Japanese person, and they were very informed about America and the state of its affairs. They also had great senses of humor, and asked that they call us Okahsan and Otousan (Mom and Dad) while we stayed at their home. Okahsan, Namiko’s mother, also took us around Tokyo to places that we wouldn’t have had the first idea on how to find. Grace and I felt so blessed by having the opportunity to meet them, and we both agreed that we would love return to Japan again just to see them again. Tokyo Olympics in 2020, maybe?

Katayama family

From left: Namiko Katayama, Miyoko Katayama (Okahsan), me, Grace, Tsuneo Katayama (Otousan)]

I should note that Semester at Sea also puts together tons of home stays for many of the countries we port at. They are a wonderful way to get to know people, and I hope to do more in the future!

Japan also made me think about how much my perception of a place is shaped by the media. I was excited to see all of the places that I had previously seen on TV, like the Shibuya “Scramble Crossing”:


Shibuya intersection

The famous Shibuya intersection in Tokyo, the largest metropolitan area in the world.

Or the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, where scenes from Memoirs of a Geisha were filmed:



Thousands of orange torii line the path to the various Shinto shrines at Fushimi.

Japan is probably the most Westernized country that our ship will visit, and you could tell from the One Direction billboards and Justin Bieber t-shirts for sale everywhere in the Harajuku district, a hangout for wacky-dressed teenagers. Even at Shibuya, the “Times Square” of Tokyo, the largest store was a Starbucks – which Otousan said was fairly new, as the inundation of coffee shops in Japan is a recent phenomenon taken from the Western world.

Elsewhere in Japan I met up with other SAS students and travelled to Kyoto and Kobe, where we saw a number of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and knowledge from my Religions of the World class came to good use.


Asakusa Shrine

Visitors or Asakusa Shrine wash themselves in smoke to purify themselves and their surroundings before visiting the kami, or ancestors/gods.

But one of my favorite parts of Japan was seeing the way they manage their space. Despite living in one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the Japanese create these small inlets of quiet spaces that are ingenious: you’ll find a silent walkway underneath a major highway, a quiet shrine and garden on a side street of a major shopping area, and even many of the city’s small local restaurants have this peaceful, warm atmosphere about them when you enter through the nearly soundproof doors. The hectic places juxtaposed with the serene parks and quiet escapes reflect Japan well – modern but conservative, and fast-paced while warm and welcoming.

Other highlights of the trip:

– Finding a $1 pack of sushi at a convenience store

– Eating some $35 sushi from Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market

– Watching elementary-age Japanese kids doing bike tricks at a local skate park, with American rap music playing in the background

– Riding the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto (an 8 hour car ride in 2 hours)

– Eating mochi, the most amazing Japanese dessert of all the Japanese desserts

– Visiting Kobe University and talking with students over their delicious $3 cafeteria lunch

– Soaking up in the hot springs outside Kobe

– Finding a gorgeous waterfall along a woodland area five minutes from the ultra-urban Shin Kobe Station

– Impressing Japanese vendors by knowing the proper way to say thank you (arigato gozaimuss!)

Back on the ship, we have 48 hours to debrief from Japan and prepare for our next port in Shanghai, China. To be continued…

5 Comments on “Semester at Sea: Japan

  1. Gee, what are the chances you know someone around the world and get to stay in their home? I’m sure that was a great experience. I am curious about a bullet train, if you ride another can you expand on that a little bit, besides it going real fast? I love reading your blogs and are anxious for the next one.

  2. Hi Lauren,

    You’re in my thoughts and prayers. Your Semester at Sea appears to be quite an experience. I’m so happy for you. Enjoy all you can and stay safe.


  3. It’s interesting that your description of the Japanese people is almost identical to my cousin’s. She lives in Shanghai now and is moving to Tokyo. She can’t wait to get there as she has not been particularly fond of Shanghai. I will be interested in reading your take on that city.

  4. Hey Lauren!

    Just wanted to let you know we at the AFC love your blog! It is the highlight of my shift when I check and find that you’ve added a new post! I especially enjoy all of the great pictures you’ve added, they really brighten my day. Keep up the good work!!

    — AFC Team

  5. It was great reading your blog. I was so glad you got to stay with namiko’s parents. I hope to go see them one day. I was in most of the places you described in Japan, weren’t they amazing.

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