Student Experiences Life Changing Visit to Japan
by Frea Mehta '12
On my first day of school, I sat anxiously by the door, tapping my foot, waiting until it was finally time to leave the house. I had been thinking about this day for months— even fearing it—and as I was handed my lunch and pushed out the door, I became overwhelmed with doubt. What if people don’t like me? What if I stick out or look strange? How am I supposed to survive in a place where I know almost no one? I spent the car ride in a fit of nerves, and my stomach plummeted to the ground as I stepped out of the car and onto the pavement. Head down, I shuffled into the school’s courtyard and heard a strange sound – screaming. My name. I looked up to see a crowd of girls jumping up and down shrieking, “Frea! Frea! Welcome, Frea!” I smiled, held my host sister’s hand, and together we walked into school.
That was my introduction as a student at Kenmei Joshigakuin High School in Himeji, Hyogo, Japan. I had been selected to spend two weeks in Himeji this June as a Youth Ambassador with the Phoenix Sister Cities Youth Ambassador Exchange program, a program that sends 21 sophomores and juniors to Phoenix’s nine sister cities around the world. Besides myself, the delegation to Japan consisted of Eliza Skidmore, a Desert Vista High School junior; Julian Weinstein, a sophomore from Arcadia High School; and Kayla Grote, a Phoenix Christian High School junior. We were each assigned a host brother or sister with whom we stayed in Japan, and who will later visit us in Phoenix.
My biggest concern before leaving the U.S. was that my lack of knowledge of the language would prevent me from communicating with my host family. But it didn’t take long to realize that this would not be the case. Somehow, by the very first night, I was already laughing and joking with them, and the enormous language barrier began to crumble. Surmounting that obstacle proved to me that despite seemingly huge differences, we can always find common ground—a truly inspiring confirmation.
Our days in Japan were filled with amazing things to see and experience. We visited many UNESCO World Heritage sites, such as Himeji Castle and various temples. We went to Nara Park, home of the Great Buddha statue and thousands of deer so docile that we literally had to push our way past them to walk down the street. While visiting a temple on nearby Mount Shosha, we were caught by a camera crew and interviewed for local television. Seeing ourselves dubbed in Japanese on TV was unbelievably surreal! We took a bullet train to the ancient capital city of Kyoto and learned how to make tea in a tea ceremony. We ate delicious food and were surrounded by the region’s beautiful people and landscapes.
We went to school with our host sisters for four days, where we were welcomed warmly. This welcoming spirit was the most striking part of my trip, more than the grand temples or stunning landscapes. I was met with unprecedented hospitality, generosity, and kindness everywhere I went. All of my host sister’s friends and family members were genuinely happy to spend time with me and ensure my comfort; their warmth really touched my heart. My host mother said it best as we tearfully said goodbye on the last day: “You will always have a home in Himeji.” Leaving that new home behind was difficult, but I am determined to master the language and return one day. For now, I look forward to my host sister Natsumi’s October visit to Phoenix, and hope that I can instill in her the same love for America that I now have for Japan.
I encourage everyone to seek out and seize every opportunity for new experiences because there’s a good chance that just maybe, those experiences will be life changing as those two weeks in Japan were life changing for me.
For more information about the Youth Ambassador Exchange Program, visit http://www.phoenixsistercities.org.
Pictured (top to bottom):
- All dressed up for Yukata Matsuri Festival (Frea is second from left)
- Being filmed at Engyo-ji Temple for Japanese TV