By Alexia Kemerling ’20
Before traveling to Japan, my knowledge of Japanese culture was limited to the books I’d read and the things I’d learned from Japanese foreign exchange students at Hiram College. I have fond members of talking about Hayao Miyazaki movies with Shogo Naki and eating matcha cake (made from scratch!) with Yui Fukamatsu. Yui was a student at Hiram in the fall of 2017 and since she left we’d stayed in contact via social media. Currently she lives in Kyoto and works at Nakamura Tokichi Hoten, a green tea shop in Uji—the area known for selling the best tea! As our group was scheduled to spend a few days in Kyoto, I decided to send Yui a message to see if she would want to meet up.
On our second day in Kyoto, a few of us met Yui at Kyoto Station. Kyoto Station is huge! There are multiple floors with convenience stores, currency exchange booths, and shops selling everything from Japanese sweets to clothing and eclectic souvenirs. It almost feels more like a mall than a train station! Somehow we managed to find Yui’s smiling face among the bustling crowds. After exchanging hugs and exclamations of pure disbelief (we’d last seen each other in rural Ohio and now we were hanging out in one of Japan’s most popular cities!), Yui took us to a tea shop in the station. She showed us all the different varieties of matcha and insisted on buying us matcha brownies, similar to the ones she used to make at Hiram.
Next we asked her to take us to her favorite spot to eat, which turned out to be an Italian restaurant! While the pasta was familiar, the Japanese breads were fun and different. Bread and pastries are not typically the first foods that come to mind when you think of Japanese cuisine, but they are super popular and delicious. A lot of the breads are sweet and they’re always so soft and flaky. Over dinner, Yui quizzed us on our impressions of Japan and we reminisced about Ohio.
“I miss the people of America!” she said, adding that her favorite aspect of Americans is how passionate and talkative they all are. This made me laugh as our American chattiness is one of the things that has made our group stand out. Japanese people are typically much quieter, especially in public. Though we tried to tone it down, our chatty group of twenty Hiram students still stood out in subway cars and on the streets. So I was happy to hear at least one person found this quality of ours charming!
Yui also shared with us that Kyoto is her favorite city in Japan. When I asked her why she answered, “It is a modern city, but still has elements of traditional Japanese culture.” This was so funny to me because the topic of our 3-week class was “Japan: Tradition and Modernity.” We were studying the very phenomenon she described. I jokingly wondered: had our professors coached her? Her answer showed just how important tradition is to Japanese culture, even to the younger generations. It is something I really grew to admire about the culture.
Being able to talk to a familiar person in an unfamiliar place was really nice and helped us to understand some of the cultural norms and appreciate even more aspects of the country. Yui also taught us to say few more phrases in Japanese like tomodachi which means friend, itadakimasu which is what you say before eating, sort of like saying grace, and suki which means to like something a lot.
After dinner, the night wasn’t over! We still had a little bit of time before we needed to catch the train to go back to our hotel. So what do three college students do on a night out in Kyoto? Karaoke, of course! To my relief, karaoke in Japan is much different than karaoke in the U.S. Rather than get on a stage in front of a bunch of strangers, you rent out a room with your friends. Each room is equipped with a TV, a comfy booth, two microphones, and a huge selection of Japanese and American songs! We had a great time singing songs together in English, like Taylor Swift, one of Yui’s favorites. And she also blew us away by singing “Let it Go” from the Frozen soundtrack in Japanese! The night was the perfect way to share and celebrate both of our cultures!