Jan-Plan 2004 in Aomori, Japan
by Jia Chen, Jun-Wei Hew, and Michael Howard

With the financial and organizational support of the Freeman Foundation, Colby's Department of East Asian Studies, and the Maine-Aomori Sister State Committee, nine students in Colby's Fall 2003 Intermediate Japanese course were able to spend the 2004 January term living and studying in the far northeastern prefecture of Aomori. We lived with Japanese homestay families and carried out our own individual research projects, both within and outside of the local public school system.

Among the nine students in our group, Jia Chen and Michael Howard completed projects related to the study of traditional Japanese martial arts. Jia lived with several different homestay families during the course of her visit. She spent much of her time studying kendo, "the way of the sword" under the teachers Mr. Watanabe and Mr. Handa. She says that during her stay, she was most impressed by how her Japanese homestay mothers always had time for a smile or a helping hand, despite how busy they always seemed to be. Michael Howard studied karate under the tutelage of a former karate world champion. He lived with the Harada family in the town of Tohoku-machi. He says that his host brother, Jun, was a good friend and an excellent source of information, and that Jun always made him feel welcome among his family and friends.

John Jones and Tu-Quyen Nguyen carried out research projects related to everyday life in Japan. John investigated the latest trends in video and computer games in Japanese youth culture, while Tu-Quyen studied the place of religion in contemporary Japanese society. Living with a homestay family in the countryside, John was moved by the richness of the local culture. When asked about her trip, Tu-Quyen said,

"Witnessing Japan at such close proximity allowed me to begin to understand their [Japanese people's] lifestyle. Even though I wasn't doing a study on something that was specifically related to the traditional Japanese way of life, I was still able to gain a deep appreciation for their culture."

Jessica Chan and Ryan Holben tried their hands at teaching in the local school system. Jessica stayed with Tu Quyen in the Takada household (which was connected to a Buddhist temple), and when she was not busy immersing herself in the ways and customs of traditional Japanese life there, she spent her time researching the English curriculum at Kosei High School. She was accompanied by Ryan Holben, who worked in the Mathematics Department. Ryan says that he was impressed by the friendly atmosphere of the school, and he notes that the students were "very eager to teach us about their country, just as they were eager to learn about ours."

Jun-Wei Hew and Sara Hamada both took on internships. Jun-Wei spent his January working for a professional studio photographer, while Sara studied ikebana, flower arrangement, and shiatsu, Japanese massage. Sara says that practicing ikebana and shiatsu was "a very nice way to experience Japanese culture, rather than just read about it. It was an amazing experience, and I hope to return [to Aomori] someday." Both Jun-Wei and Sara were lucky enough to be able to attend a Japanese wedding - Jun-Wei as a working photographer, and Sara as an invited guest!

Finally, Alex Kozen, one of the budding guitarists of our class, spent the four weeks of Jan-Plan learning to play the shamisen, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument. For Alex, the shamisen was something new, yet not entirely unfamiliar. While Alex explains that he was able to draw upon certain similarities between the shamisen and the guitar, he also says that the shamisen turned out to be "a very challenging instrument." (Click on instrument for sample)

All in all, we had a memorable month in Japan. Our experiences were wonderfully enriching, giving us all a new appreciation for Japan. We were sad to leave our homestay families and come home, but we hope to go back to Aomori again someday soon.