Golden Bears in Japan

The days of winter break before I left for Japan felt immeasurably long. The previous semester, I had applied to a winter travel study program in Japan, a partnership between the Haas School of Business and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affair’s Kakehashi program. The program was a week long, and I would earn my final two elective business units before graduating in May 2017. Best of all, the trip would be completely free! I had already devoured the Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet reviews for every landmark I could extract from our Japanese-heavy itinerary. I prepared a mental list of all the Japanese cuisine I hoped to sample: spicy tuna sushi rolls, gooey mochi ice cream, heaping bowls of yakisoba. I grew up in a rural mountain community of about 1,000 people where only one restaurant attempted Japanese food, Pangea. Their menu was a hodgepodge of different cultures, vegan choices and local foods. Beyond that, however, I did not know how to prepare for the trip. Before that week, I had never been to a country where I didn’t speak the local language. I resolved to say “yes” as much as possible, and keep diligent records in my journal.

To my surprise, I didn’t know any of my fellow classmates going into the trip. The undergraduate Business Administration program has about 600 students, and only 20 were coming along with me to Japan. We all appeared, bleary-eyed at 8AM, weighed down by our suitcases at San Francisco International airport. In Japan, we explored Tokyo, Kobe, Nara and Osaka. In each, we heard lectures from local businesses on how they aimed to market themselves to foreign consumers, partner with American companies, and reduce their global ecological footprint. After a year and a half of business administration courses at Haas, it felt as though the different puzzle pieces of my coursework came together.
Furthermore, getting to know my fellow Haas students throughout the week turned out to be a highlight of my trip. On our second to last night in Japan, we spent the night at a traditional Japanese inn or ryokan, Waka Kako Bettei in Nara. There, the floors were made of tatami mats, a communal onsen bath was available, and we enjoyed a traditional kaiseki dinner. Following dinner, all twenty students piled into one room, and we reflected on our week abroad. One student pulled out the New York Times’ list: “To Fall In Love with Anyone, Do This.” And it worked! I had only met these students five days prior, but I loved hearing the stories behind what brought us each to UC Berkeley, and Japan, at the same time. One of us was an international student from Cambodia, who would be returning there the following year to work for their family’s business. Another carefully followed the Japanese Harajuku fashion, and was eager to move to New York to pursue her own career in fashion. I’m back at Berkeley now for my final semester of senior year, and love spotting my Kakehashi classmates in the hallway.