As the son of two parents whose globetrotting honeymoon took them to countless countries in less than 40 days (a trip about which Jules Verne no doubt wishes he wrote instead), I am no stranger to international travel. From roughly age 10 on, my parents made it a point to expose my brother and I to the world through vacationing all throughout Europe and the Americas. Despite this extensive experience, however, I can confidently say that none of the countries I have ever visited were quite so different from home as Japan is.
Prior to this trip to Japan, everywhere I had ever traveled was, more or less, familiar in a cultural sense. While there may have been some differences in the minutiae of these strangers’ everyday lives, I always got the sense that at the end of the day, I shared some fairly fundamental things with the people of Iceland, France, Mexico, Italy, and other places. Trips like this rarely felt like pushing the envelope for this reason. My family has often joked that traveling in Europe feels remarkably similar to traveling in the US, just with the street signs’ letters scrambled and rearranged like a tough game of Text Twist.
My first indication that things would be rather different on this trip came in the first few days after my arrival in Tokyo. My father and I had decided that we would go about a week early from the rest of the group to explore Tokyo and complete an item on his bucket list: to hike Mount Fuji. Afterwards, I would meet up with my fellow students and my dad would depart for home. As different as Tokyo and the mountain town of Fujinomiya were, both presented interesting dissimilarities to that with which I was familiar. From the six-story arcades and crazy Toyota exhibitions of Tokyo, to the much quainter mountain huts on Fuji’s 8th station, I saw a culture that viewed work, leisure, and life in an entirely different way than we do in East Tennessee (or the West in general, for that matter!).
Joining the group in Okazaki, I saw what seemed like a middle ground between the crowded Tokyo and the tranquil countryside near Fuji. Okazaki was a small town steeped in history, but seemingly, also in the more modern culture which Japan has developed in the past few decades. The strange clash was apparent at the Okazaki Castle, the birthplace of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who would become the first shogun of a unified Japan. Throughout the castle keep were signs and exhibits for modern Japanese television shows and games, a strange dichotomy between old and new – imagine a hypothetical Spongebob Squarepants display at Mount Vernon; this was indicative of some difference in perspective. Soon after touring the city, we began with the trips’ service learning portion in earnest; what amount of work was not cancelled by the typhoon was fulfilling, for certain. We worked with a Japanese woodcutter, and after getting comfortable with the high-powered tools at our disposal, I think we became rather efficient!
During the trip, we were able to spend time at two guest houses and shopping in some local stores; as we prepared to leave, I found myself (a somewhat reluctant traveler at times due to my parents’ enthusiasm) saddened by the trips’ end. However, the amount I was able to learn on this trip in both engineering and social contexts was certainly enough to ponder. The Toyota exhibition in Tokyo provided me an opportunity to learn about state-of-the-art hydrogen powered and electric vehicles, and the experience with the woodcutter reminded me of the practical nature of the profession, while the tourism showed me a culture completely unlike my own, one unabashedly comfortable with their work-life balance and in their way of life. But perhaps most interestingly, it showed me a culture perfectly comfortable with placing a big chicken bounce house on a busy street corner in Tokyo, which I can honestly say, I have never seen anywhere else.