The Start of Asia: Japan and China

While at Sea, I had extremely limited internet access, meaning that now I get to collect my notes, pictures, and assignments together and reflect on them. It’s crazy to think that my journey with Semester at Sea has come to an end – the fast paced lifestyle of the semester definitely caught up to me! After a long two weeks at sea, we finally reached land again. Our first port outside of America was Japan, marking the start of independent travels! We docked in Kobe, Japan and had five days to see as much of the country as possible. In the five days time, I traveled from Kobe to Osaka to Tokyo to Nara to Kyoto and BACK to Kobe. The sleep was minimal, the days were long, and the food was prioritized. Japan and China both were the hardest language barriers to face throughout my travels, heavily relying on nonverbal communication and Google Translate to make it through the day. Before each port, my Global Studies course prepares us by teaching us history, context and culture, and basic language skills to be able to say hello, thank you, ask useful questions, and even order from “Makudonarudo,” which gave us a little piece of home in the form of McDonald’s Chicken Nuggets.

In Japan, I visited many historical sights like the Meiji Shrine, Tokyo Tower, and the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Japan impressed me in every way – their safety was impeccable with a police station on literally every corner, cleanliness like I’d never seen it (no litter, no trash on the curb, no grafitti, etc.), and it was quiet almost everywhere, completely silent on public transportation and on the streets. While there, Japan experienced it’s biggest snow storm in years, making our bullet train rides across the country breathtaking. One of my favorite memories from Japan was the Fire Festival that took place in Nara. Each year, the community hosts a massive festival called, the Wakakusa Yamayaki, which is an annual festival during which the grass on the hillside of Nara’s Mount Wakakusayama is set on fire. Although the origin is unknown, the festival has been celebrated for years. We watched the fire and cheered with the locals and celebrated with a stop at every food stand on the streets, trying everything from fresh mochi, chicken skewers, dumplings, red bean cookies, okonomiyaki, udon, octopus fritters and so so much more. By far, my favorite food while in Japan was the sushi! It’s a tradition amongst SAS students to wake up and go the fish markets for the freshest sushi available in all of Tokyo. On one of my favorite mornings, I found myself sitting at a small counter, watching the fishermen bring in these HUGE fish which they cleaned right in front of us and served up the best sushi I’ve ever had; salmon that melted in your mouth like butter – a breakfast of champions at 5:30 AM.

After a quick two days at sea, we arrived in Mainland China for our next port – Shanghai. After a day of exploring the city of Shanghai, eating my weight in dumplings and spending hours at the Shanghai Art Museum, I packed my bags to head to Beijing for the famous sites of the Great Wall of China, Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square. If we’re being totally honest, I should have done WAY more cardio to hike the Wall, it is HUGE and so long and truly a wonder. I took a lift up and ran for hours through the many steps and forts and hideaways, taking in the mountain views, but my favorite part of the visit was getting to tobogan down.  I climbed into a sled and raced down the side of the mountain – for sure the coolest roller coaster (kinda) I’ve ever been on! A few days in Beijing, a day trip to Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors, and finally meeting the boat in Hong Kong made for a fun few days in China. Although China posed difficult language barriers, I was lucky to travel with a good friend who spoke fluent Mandarin and helped my group of friends travel like a local. Best food I ate: the famous peking duck – I think I finally mastered the art of chopsticks (again, kinda).

Overall, Japan and China set the bar high for our next ports! I was able to truly distinguish the many differences and wonders of both the Japanese and Chinese cultures and better appreciate the diversity that Asia had to offer. The food was incredible, the people treated us like celebrities and were eager to hear about America, and I was continuously impressed by the advances these societies have made in technology, policy, and foreign affairs. Both were very urban so I knew the next ports would be more of a culture shock – off to Vietnam!

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