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Ancient arrows on display at the Okazaki Castle.

Matthew Ramos: Student Report from 2019 Alternative Fall Break to Japan

The trip to Okazaki, Japan was something I eagerly anticipated when I signed up for it. As someone with a great appreciation for Japanese culture, I had yet to experience it firsthand.

So many positive things happened on this trip! We stayed in a hotel and two guesthouses, and we got to visit and experience so many locations. In downtown, we stopped by the castle/watchtower and family temple of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and various local shops. We also attended a private tea ceremony and spent the evening by the riverside dressed in summer kimonos called “yukata” and playing with fireworks. Outside of downtown, we visited a tea plantation and a sake brewery, and we engaged in two volunteer projects involving woodcutting and helping to set up a festival. We attended Bon festivals both in and out of downtown. Each meal was a different experience.

The brewmaster at the sake distillery wearing a University of Tennessee hat.
The brewmaster at the sake distillery wearing a University of Tennessee hat.

One thing I had worried about prior to the trip was the language barrier. I attempted to learn one of their three alphabets, hiragana, to give myself a fighting chance, but to no avail. I was pleased to find that many signs in Japan had the syllables written out in English in addition to the native language. I would later find out that many Japanese understand some English but are uncomfortable with using it fluently. Our guides, named Kuni and Naoko, run a café in which they teach English lessons in addition to serving coffee. I was most impressed by a nine-year-old student of theirs who could speak English almost fluently.

Some of my favorite personal experiences were my interactions with the locals. On our third and fourth nights in Okazaki, we stayed at a guesthouse owned by the head of the local cable company. There we got to experience stereotypical Japanese things such as sleeping on futons on a tatami floor and eating Japanese food. The highlight of the guesthouse was having dinner with a group of local high school students. The language barrier was tough, but by speaking clearly and using gestures, they could understand us fairly well. Through conversation, I saw the similarities and differences between high schoolers in Japan and in the United States. We shared Instagram accounts and bonded over video games, food, and music.

Speaking of music, I was caught off-guard by the influence of Western music in Japan. Throughout our stay, I saw many flyers and brochures for multiple upcoming jazz events, but the main highlight for me was more closely related to home. On our first night, we ate a sushi dinner at the Global Studies Café. As we walked in, I couldn’t believe my ears as I heard the Tennessee Waltz playing out of a speaker. I was so surprised by their knowledge of the tune, and I dismissed it as a coincidence. Later throughout the week, through interactions with older locals, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the Tennessee Waltz had been a number one song on the radio in 1974. This just goes to show that music is indeed a universal language.

This trip was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience! I eagerly await the day I can travel back and visit the new friends I have made. My time in Japan is something that will always stay with me.