Ten days in Tokyo and Kyoto

I spent 10 days traveling between Tokyo and Kyoto in the summer of 2014, along with 10 graduate and undergraduate students across all disciplines on campus. I was part of a program trip, sponsored by RISD and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which aimed to promote all that was beautiful of Japan, working to boost the presence of overseas visitors and stimulate the Japanese economy.

The daytime schedule was airtight and choreographed down to the minute — we were whisked away in buses immediately upon arrival that took us to shrines, museums, art colleges, and gift shops. When we weren’t busy with program activities, we planned nightly escapes to Tokyo’s most active shopping district, Shibuya, or Kyoto’s most atmospheric and traditional streets of Ponto-chō.

As a Korean-American, experiencing Japanese culture was especially interesting for me because it triggered memories of my own upbringing. Social norms, favorite childhood snacks, and even the language were easily accessible and familiar.

Yet I was still a part of an American tourist group, given special treatment by the Japanese people working with our program. I wondered how different the experience would have been if we were quiet observers instead of anticipated guests. I would love to visit Japan again in the future, but this time I would hope to experience the beautiful way that the country embraces tradition — a harmony of history and design — more independently.

One of my favorite exhibits was the “Kome: The Art of Rice” in Tokyo. They had small stations for visitors to write their names on a single grain as they looked out at pots of growing rice.

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Pictured here are handmade paper lanterns at a studio space in Kyoto. It was a family business of three generations, where family members specialized in different jobs such as splitting bamboo and painting the signage.

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Since we visited in the summer, rain and humidity were constantly present for the whole duration of the trip. I am hesitant to call it “rain” as it was more of a heavy mist, one that did not even need an umbrella. Most Japanese people seemed to have an umbrella glued to one hand as they shopped the district of Asakusa, Tokyo.


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