My name is Steven Schepanski, and with the help of the Bybee Travel Award, I was able to embark on a life changing journey to Japan this summer. I first arrived in Tokyo where I spent six weeks studying Japanese through Rice in Japan, an intensive language immersion program. During my stay, I had the privilege of living with a host family who helped me gain a better understanding of both the Japanese language and culture.
Each day, I fully experienced life in Japan from riding packed trains in the middle of rush hour to eating home cooked traditional cuisine. Through daily interactions with native speakers alongside lectures in Japanese, I noticed my level of fluency and comfort with the language improving almost daily. When I was not in the classroom or putting my studies to work by talking with my host family, I spent my time exploring Tokyo with students from Sophia University.
One of my favorite memories with my Japanese friends was catching the earliest train one Saturday morning in order to see a sumo tournament at a famous sumo stadium called Ryogoku. The seats had been sold out for months, but we managed to get some of the last available ‘day of seating’ as number 306 in line!
After experiencing the raw power and speed of the sumo wrestlers at Ryogoku, I decided to seek out some more calm and peaceful traditions. During a long weekend, I reserved tickets to watch a performance at the Kabuki-Za Theater (Kabuki is a traditional dance-drama with all male actors). The performance consisted of three separate acts with dramas and comedies ranging from extremely intricate and traditional to fast paced, witty, and modern.
As a board game fanatic, I also took a course that same weekend to learn Shogi, a game with similar traits to chess. A professional player from the Shogi Association went around the classroom instructing the beginners while simultaneously playing a game against every student! Needless to say, I was extremely impressed and learned a lot about the rules and strategies of the game; I even purchased a copy to take back to Rice! By the end of my time in Tokyo, my host parents said, “You’ve done more ‘Japanese’ things than most Japanese people have!”
After the long weekend, my class had the opportunity to participate in community engagement with a local elementary school. Rice students prepared a brief English lesson while the elementary school students prepared a lesson of their own for us to experience life at their school. After reviewing colors with the students, we played a game before we were taught to make paper windmills and how to set up for lunch. At this school, there was no cafeteria; instead, students set up a serving line in the classroom with food prepared by kitchen staff. Each day serving as well as dish cleaning duties are assigned in an effort to teach the value of community and instill responsibility in students.
After the program, the exploration continued. Several classmates and I visited the city of Marugame where we participated in a traditional tea ceremony and tasting as well as a lesson about zen meditation taught by a monk at a local temple. In fact, we ended up in the newspaper and on TV as well!
I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to visit Japan, let alone the ability to make friends and form meaningful relationships without using any English after just one short year of studying. This summer in Japan was an unforgettable experience that has resulted in memories that will last a lifetime.
Steven Schepanski, student of Electrical Engineering, Rice University Class of 2019