Katie Conard

Katie Conard

Katie Conard

I would like to begin by thanking the Heart of America Japan-America Society and the city of Kurashiki for their overwhelming generosity.  Without the guidance and financial assistance of these organizations, none of this summer’s life-changing experiences would have been possible.

Our day trips outside of Kurashiki were exciting, inspirational, and extremely enjoyable. Travelling by bullet train to our destinations, the landscapes of Japan flew by as we chatted and reconnected after several days apart.  With the help of James Benson and Mari Kondo, the four of us were able to travel to catch a glimpse of a Geisha in Kyoto, visit the atomic bomb museum in Hiroshima, and be accosted by overly friendly deer in Miyajima.

On July 18th, I was able to achieve my life-long goal of visiting Hiroshima. Few events in human history are as tragic and significant as mankind’s first use of an atomic weapon in war. As someone deeply interested in history and modern geopolitics, I had always yearned to see the iconic dome and peace park.

Visiting the museum in Hiroshima proved to be an incredibly moving experience. My generation is lucky to be so far removed from the horrors of war, but it is crucial that all of us are reminded of what has happened and what is possible. The museum presented the events of August 6th, 1945 in a graphic, honest, and truly poignant way. By the time we reached the museum’s exit, my fellow student ambassadors and I were in tears.

After visiting the museum and peace park we quickly sampled some of Hiroshima’s famous okonomiyaki before boarding a boat for the picturesque island of Miyajima. The island was packed with tourists, and with good reason: visiting Miyajima was a magical experience.  The adorable deer that inhabit it greeted us when we arrived, and one attempted to eat my map. Miyajima’s iconic torii gate certainly lived up to its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

Before leaving Japan, we took another short trip to an equally iconic location: Kyoto. In Kyoto we visited many of the most famous temples and shrines and marveled at their age and architectural beauty. The most memorable place for me was Sanjuusangen-do, a temple with 1000 statues of Buddhist figures.   After seeing some of Japan’s most unique and treasured sites, the four of us decided to try out two more commonplace and modern Japanese pastimes: karaoke and purikura.

When we began our karaoke adventure in Kyoto we only intended to reserve the room for half an hour. By the time our 30 minutes were up, however, we quickly and unanimously decided to extend our fun for another hour. As an extremely tone-deaf and musically-challenged individual, singing in front of other people pushed me farther out of my comfort zone than any unfamiliar food or linguistic challenge ever could have. Despite my reservations, I was able poorly and passionately to sing a few Beatles and Disney songs alongside my fellow student ambassadors. In the end, the only true disappointment of the night was not anyone’s inability to sing or choice of songs, but Mr. James Benson’s reluctance to join us in a rousing rendition of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s PonPonPon.

The next morning we woke up early for some last minute shopping and purikura before catching our flight back to the United States. 

My experiences with both of my host families were overwhelmingly positive. Although both the Matsushitas and the Hamadas live in Kurashiki, I was fortunate to have two different but equally fantastic experiences. I was able to experience the topographical diversity of Japan first hand by transitioning from a house a few minutes away from the sea to a place in the countryside surrounded by rice paddies on all sides.

My first host family, the Matsushitas, lived within view of the Great Seto Bridge, the longest bridge of its kind on earth.  As a lifelong Midwesterner, it was odd to reside in such close proximity to the ocean. Although the physical setting was different from my home as possible, the Matsushitas made me feel like a part of the family as soon as I walked through the door. The Matsushitas introduced me to many aspects of traditional and modern Japanese life, from karaoke to Okoto.

My time with the Matushitas was also special because I got to spend time with Jensyn and her host family. As much fun as it was to approach Japan as an aspiring anthropologist, it was also a blast to experience Japan as a teenage girl. The highlight of our time together in Kojima was, without a doubt, our trip to the mall.  Although the cleanliness of my country’s shopping malls pales in comparison to Aeon Shopping Center, the thrill of a good deal on a cute dress truly transcends language and culture.

My second host family, the Hamadas, also recognized my love of a good deal by taking me to a wide array of 100 Yen stores. It was also with the Hamadas that I discovered the one Japanese food that I had hoped to try above all else: uniquely flavored Kit Kat bars. The bulk of my time with the Hamadas was not spent in stores, but rather in the quiet and beautiful town of Mabi, where they have a home surrounded by rice paddies on three sides.  I quickly grew close to Ichika and Kazuki, my adorable younger host siblings who are the world’s biggest fans of Spot the Dog. I also greatly enjoyed getting to know Olivia, my host mother’s friend from college in America. Olivia only stayed with us for four days, but I spent several lovely evenings conversing with her and my host mother while drinking delicious green tea.

My experiences in Japan were truly eye-opening and life changing. While at times I did experience culture shock, I never encountered any food that I disliked or anyone who was anything but kind and welcoming. I would like to sincerely thank all those involved in making this trip possible. While my extensive collection of Kit Kat bars will surely disappear with time, I hope the memories and friendships that I formed this summer will remain with me for the rest of my life.