There’s No Place Like Kansai For the Holidays

Tori gate covered in snow
(Photo Credit: Shiga Photo Library)

You did it. Your first semester abroad is almost over. You might be preparing for you flight back home, or for your next semester abroad. Either way, you have a unique opportunity before you leave: exploring another country during the holidays!

Japan offers a lot when it comes to the winter, whether it be festivals, lighting ceremonies, or just the gorgeous scenery in the snowfall. Here are some of the top things to do in Kansai during the holiday season.

Chion-in Temple in Kyoto

Priest ringing bell

Visiting a temple on New Year’s Eve is a staple of Japanese culture. You get to eat good food and ring in the New Year with an unforgettable experience. While there are temples closer to JCMU, you just can’t beat Kyoto’s temples.

Otsu’s Rose Fantasy Garden of Lights

Lights display on Lake Biwa
(Photo Credit: Shiga Photo Library)

Starting on December 1st, Otsu hosts a spectacular light display along the shore of Lake Biwa. It features over 100,000 holiday lights! So bundle up, grab some hot chocolate and a friend and take a night time stroll through this luminary garden.

Winter Festival’s in Tohoku

Ryokan covered in snow by river
(Osawa Onsen, Hanamaki, Iwate)

Maybe you want to go all out and see more of Japan. JCMU Program Director Kate Simon recommends going to the Tohoku Region! The winter festivals are incredible and you get to see a very different side of the country. If you have the travel bug, there is no better place to go for the winter. Most of the festivals do take place in February though, so you might have to be patient.

Honke Tsuruki Soba

Who needs fancy lights and pretty sights – after all, the only thing you really need is some good food. Our follower Ian Shepard recommended Honke Tsuruki Soba, a 300 year old soba shop located in Otsu. So if you have the itch for some traditional Japanese food this winter, this is the spot.

Ryokan Beniyau

It’s been a hard semester. Adjusting to a new culture and the daily grind of learning Japanese have taken their toll. You need somewhere to relax. Look no further than Ryokan Beniya, located just north of Hikone in Nagahama. This Ryokan has amazing baths! From the outdoor bath you can see Lake Biwa and watch the snow fall. So treat yourself and enjoy some classic Japanese bath houses!

Jazz-Bar Coltrane in Kusatsu

What better way to wring in the roaring 20’s part two then some Jazz! Recommended by JCMU’s very own Harada-san no less. This bar sports a classy feel and some smooth jazz. In short, all you need for a relaxing and fun evening. So now that you know your onions go and have some fun!

Michigan host families needed ASAP!

Length: 2 weeks

1 – Ming-Ku (Taiwan), male, 37
2 – Jhih-Hao (Taiwan), male, 38

Guest 1 – Sept 30 through Oct 13
Guest 2 – Oct 13 through Oct 28

Overview: Would your family be interested in hosting one of these IFYE program delegates for two weeks? They are here to experience Michigan 4-H, agriculture, environmental conservation, and experiential learning. They are also interested in learning about your family, culture, and Michigan during their homestay.

Requirements: Since they are adults, they do need their own bedroom and hosts to provide three meals a day

Interested? Please contact MSU Extension Educator D’Ann Rohrer, by phone (231-845-3361) or e-mail ( as soon as you are able.

Description of the IFYE program:  The IFYE Association conducts international exchange programs and cross-cultural education while promoting global awareness. Exchanges have continued for more than 70 years. Approximately 4,000 Americans have lived in 116 countries and a like number of people from those nations have come to the United States. Upon returning home, IFYE participants share their once-in-a-lifetime experiences with thousands of people in their communities, state, and nation. Today, IFYE exchanges are conducted in collaboration with State IFYE Associations and State Coordinators.  Programs are facilitated and supported by the IFYE Association of the USA, Inc. with a National IFYE Program Director.

Festival Food Wars: Michigan vs Shiga

Takoyaki, funnel cake, and everything in between: fair food in Michigan and festival food in Shiga differ in quite a number of ways. But we want to definitively answer the entirely subjective question: which of these foods is the best?

To scientifically deduce the 100% completely accurate answer, we determined there was only one way to get this figured out: tournament!

[challonge url="" theme="2" show_final_results="1" width="100%" height="300px"]

For the bracket, we seeded 8 Michigan fair foods against each other on one side and 8 Shiga fair foods on the other side. The winner of each group will face off against each other in the championship battle to crown the undeniable caloric winner.

The tournament bracket [link to Challonge], along with match-up previews, will be updated as time goes on. Voting will take place both on this page and on our Facebook and Twitter pages. May the best food win!

Winner: Yakisoba

Festival Food Wars: Michigan vs Shiga
Winner: Yakisoba

Yakisoba has bested elephant ear to reign as the ultimate festival food! Thanks for helping us reach this scientifically definitive solution, and may celebratory yakisoba be in all of our futures~

(Winners in bold)

Grand Festival Food Finals

(2) Elephant ear vs (4) Yakisoba

Round 3

Michigan group

(1) Corn dog vs (2) Elephant ear

Shiga Group

(4) Yakisoba vs (6) Okonomiyaki

Round 2

Michigan group

(1) Corn dog vs (4) Cotton candy
(2) Elephant ear vs (6) Soft pretzel

Shiga Group

(1) Karaage vs (4) Yakisoba
(2) Taiyaki vs (6) Okonomiyaki

Round 1

Michigan group

(1) Corn dog vs (8) Hot dog
(2) Elephant ear vs (7) Funnel cake
(3) Kettle corn vs (6) Soft pretzel
(4) Cotton candy vs (5) Candy apple

Shiga Group

(1) Karaage vs (8) Yaki toumorokoshi
(2) Taiyaki vs (7) Yakitori
(3) Takoyaki vs (6) Okonomiyaki
(4) Yakisoba vs (5) Kakigoori

You’re invited: 2019 JCMU Summer Picnic

DATE: July 19, 5:30pm-8pm
LOCATION: Potter Park Zoo (Eagle’s Landing Pavilion)
ADDRESS: 1301 S. Pennsylvania Ave, Lansing, MI 48912
EVENT COST: Free (zoo admission separate+optional)
PARKING: Free after 5pm

Calling all members of the JCMU community: you are invited to a special summer picnic BBQ!

All members of the JCMU community are encouraged to come. You are welcome to bring family and friends as well.

This will be a pot luck picnic. We will be grilling food for everybody and providing basic drinks, but we encourage you to bring a dish and/or drinks to pass along. Please pass this info along to other JCMU friends and encourage them to come! 🙂

We reserved the Eagle’s Landing Pavillion just outside of the Potter Park Zoo. If you want to go to the zoo before the picnic, we encourage you to do so. Just be aware that you will have to pay for both zoo admission and parking before 5pm.

Will you be there? Awesome! While not required, we would appreciate it if you could go to our Facebook event page for the picnic and click that you’ll be going. We look forward to seeing you and many other JCMU faces then~

Connecting with Japan through Coffee

In America, one of my favorite pastimes is drinking coffee with my dad. As my primary caretaker, my dad did his best to make sure we spent quality time together when he was free on the weekends. Starting in middle school we would go to Dunkin’ Donuts together after church on Sundays to drink coffee. It became a way for me to spend time with my mother, too; although we didn’t have much in common when I was younger, in high school I began to drink coffee with her and with other members of my family after meals. Coffee became central to my latinidad. Regardless of whose house I was staying at, regardless of the time, there was always a can of Cafe Bustelo within reach. Sharing a cup of coffee with my family meant spending time together to talk. The comforts of coffee reached me even within the confines of Kalamazoo College, as I work as a barista at an on-campus cafe. Through that job I was able to connect with students and their parents as well as teachers and other faculty members that I never would have been able to meet otherwise. Every cup of coffee I served reminded me of my time with my family, and I tried to serve everyone I met with the same care I would have received at home.

As soon as I came to Japan, I found myself faced with the problem of how to connect with my latinidad when no one else here identified with the same culture that I did. Central to this problem was where I would get my daily dose of caffeine. Of course the vending machines were available and I found myself using them more often than not because of the convenience of being able to exchange a single coin for a can of my vice of choice. However convenient, they could not compare to the handmade beverages I had become used to making and drinking myself at home. Before long I was venturing into Hikone and Japan at large to find better coffee. I began to frequent Micro Lady, the cafe that I found to be most similar to American-style cafes. It seems more often than not that ‘cafes’ in Japan are not places to get coffee, but to sit and enjoy cute and tasty meals. At many of these cafes, the coffee is mediocre, an afterthought alongside the presentation of the food. These cafes were referred to as きっさてん (kissaten) in my experience, while the truer coffee shops were called コーヒー屋 (koohiiya).

Visiting these various cafes and coffee roasteries made me think about what it was like to work in a cafe in Japan. Although the handbook advises people not to choose internships or activities they would have access to in America, I found that I wanted to work in a cafe more than I wanted to do anything else. Regardless of what the handbook says, I did not want to engage with Japanese culture in a way I viewed as intrusive. I thought that working in a cafe would be good because I could compare my experience working at a cafe in America to my experience working at cafes in Japan. I wanted to see if people connected over coffee in Japan like they did in America and how popular coffee really is in Japan.

In addition to being curious about the workings of a cafe abroad, a part of me has always hoped to run my own cafe one day. In America, I do not have the opportunity to talk and work with owners of independent cafes. My job on campus is run by a larger corporation, and cafe owners in the Kalamazoo and Chicago areas are just a little too intimidating for me to talk to. This is not to say that cafe owners in Japan are any less intimidating, but through the Kalamazoo College Integrative Cultural Project (ICRP) I saw a chance to work with independent cafe owners that I would not have in America.

I anticipated a few challenges going into my internships: most notably the language barrier. Although I have been studying Japanese since the start of high school, I often stop myself from speaking unless I know what I’m going to say sounds perfect. I often found myself refraining from conversation even in the classroom. I was also worried about my gender. I understand that not everyone will recognize my identity as a nonbinary person. Though there isn’t often a need for pronouns in Japanese, I was still worried that every time I was referred to I would be thought of as a girl/woman. It is a tiring experience to constantly be on edge about my identity and wondering what these people would think of me if they knew who I really am. All of these worries color the experiences that I will now describe in this ICRP.

In the beginning of January I began working at a roastery in Hikone named Shiga Coffee Corporation (SCC) and a cafe in Nagahama named ‘Takachiho’. SCC focuses primarily on selling coffee beans and offers a much larger variety of blends and beans to pick from than Takachiho. SCC provides around 33 different blends to choose from, while Takachiho has about 12. Both SCC and Takachiho purchased raw beans from an intermediate business in Japan, but I did not learn the name of the business.

I was only able to visit SCC three times and all three times were on Saturdays (their busiest day according to the owner). SCC is a small establishment located on Bell Road in Hikone. All of their equipment and product is located in the same narrow room, with their roasted beans kept separate from raw beans. Their roaster was located at the back of the room behind the cash register and checkout counter. Their grinder, scale, and vacuum sealer were all on the same small counter space. The first time I visited, they boasted proudly that everyone who worked there is a woman. They hoped that this would make me more comfortable working there – and it did, because in such a narrow space we often had to squeeze past each other to get what we needed.

SCC did not have a steady stream of customers but people came in frequently. Customers ranged from people in their twenties, to families, to elderly people. I served complimentary cups of coffee to customers as they looked over the blends available to choose from. If the customers came in with children, we would ask if it was ok to give them candy and act accordingly. I also helped the staff mix blends, bag blends, grind beans, and seal coffee for customers. I watched the roasting process but I did not have the opportunity to roast beans myself.

Most customers were confused by my presence in the cafe. They would ask my supervisors why I was there instead of them, often because they were unsure of whether or not I could speak Japanese. My reasons for wanting to observe how a cafe worked firsthand in Japan seemed to perplex a lot of people; many said they were unsure of why I was interested in opening my own cafe, or at least why I chose to observe one in Japan. Unfortunately my limited understanding of Japanese prevented me from having a full conversation with them where we could come to an understanding of each other’s perspectives. Regardless, they were all very encouraging.

Customers always seemed willing to have a little bit of conversation with the person behind the register before they ordered. They would sip their coffee and have small talk before saying which blend they wanted, how much they wanted in grams, and whether they wanted it as a whole bean or already ground. Then it was up to the other staff to bag and seal the blend. I was surprised at how infrequently the staff at SCC washed their hands. My first day there, they asked me to mix up a blend, and I was instructed to do it just with my bare hand and forearm. I washed and dried my hand and forearm prior to sticking it into the bin, but I was still a little uneasy at the idea of using my bare skin to mix it together. This was one of the hygienic standards that would have been taken much more seriously in America.

In addition to this, SCC was connected directly to the owner’s home by an open doorway. The cafe lead into a small office space, which then lead to the rest of the home. On occasion the owner’s dog would peak her head through the office’s doorway. Although the dog never appeared when customers were around, I was still surprised she was even allowed to come near where the beans were roasted and mixed. In America the presence of a house dog in an establishment that handles food would have been off putting to most customers.

In between customers, we would all drink coffee together. We kept our cups of coffee behind a small refrigerator in the corner of the room. I’m not sure if it was because I was a temporary person in their lives, but the staff at both SCC and Takachiho were very kind when it came to how I drank my coffee. Drinking coffee with my family in America, I feel like I can do anything to it and not be judged. But at work and among coffee connoisseurs in America, I often felt as though I was being judged for putting cream or sugar in my coffee. In my opinion, part of the pleasure of drinking coffee is being able to have it as sweet or creamy as I want on any particular day. They also asked me how I make coffee in America. I explained that at work, I mostly made lattes using an espresso machine and that I didn’t get to see the coffee roasting process firsthand. We all agreed that my job is a lot different from working at an independent coffee shop and is more like working at a chain like Starbucks. They asked if I knew how to make latte art and if I could send them pictures later.

Takachiho is a larger cafe than SCC with a separate room for their roaster. They have a serving space that is filled with tables for groups of two or more and a counter for individual customers. However, since Takachiho is so sparsely visited, they often let people sit wherever they want. Most of the shop’s regular customers are elderly individuals.

Takachiho focuses jointly on serving a few coffee-based beverages, some deserts, and roasting beans for their blends. The most popular dessert on Takachiho’s menu is their cheesecake. Yukako-san makes it from scratch in their home’s kitchen. Once again I was surprised at the relaxed nature of hygienic standards in Japan. When we made the cheesecake we made sure to wash our hands and used clean equipment, but it still surprises me that businesses can basically be run out of the home. I guess it is not so weird when you consider the amount of baked goods that are produced out of homes in any given country, but I still found it a little unsettling. Regardless, their cheesecake was delicious every time I had the chance to eat it.

Takachiho attracts mostly tourists or elderly people from the area who come for a cup of coffee, a slice of cheesecake, and some conversation. While I was taking Japanese language classes before having chosen my ICRP project, my teacher lead me to believe that I would need to use keigo (formal Japanese) the whole time I was at work. However, at Takachiho, I was teased more often than not for only understanding formal Japanese. It seemed the elderly people who came for conversation simply wanted to talk at a casual level, and didn’t enjoy being spoken to in keigo aside from the phrases いらしゃいませ (irasshaimase, “welcome”)、少々お待ちください (shoushou omachi kudasai, “please wait a moment”), and お待た制しました (omatase shimashita, “thank you for waiting”).

I learned a lot more of the normal everyday functions of owning a cafe at Takachiho. My first day, Akira-san and Yukako-san showed me all the beans they purchased to roast and all the blends they made from those beans. I had never thought about the things they asked me to observe: comparing the size and smell of the beans pre and post roast, and then after a few days listening to the sound of the beans in the roaster to know when they were ready. Before working in Japan I had never taken the time to consider the way the beans features changed pre- and post-roast. My love for coffee was connected to my family and less to the practice of how it was made.

Before working at Takachiho I was aware of the basic idea that freshly ground coffee beans make better coffee. At Takachiho the beans for every cup of coffee served were ground when the customer ordered. Every time I worked there, I shared a cup of coffee with Yukako-san; since I was so anxious all the time, it was her way of helping me relax. Where it felt pretentious to drink this kind of coffee in America, in Japan it felt more like sharing an intimate moment with someone; it felt like being with family again.

Whenever Yukako-san and I drank coffee, she asked me to make it. I thought I was familiar with how to make coffee by hand, but it seems that Takachiho had a very specific way of hand pouring coffee. The process is a bit a long, but the most notable difference is the way we pour the water into the grounds. Where I poured in large circles, making sure to wet all the grounds every time, Yukako-san and Akira-san asked that I pour in small circular motions in the center of the filter. Although I felt this would create a watered down flavor, I chose to trust them since I had been using pre-ground and pre-packaged coffees before working at Takachiho. I think using freshly roasted and ground beans made the flavor stronger, and pouring in a smaller area probably did little to dilute the flavor of the coffee.

I think because of our different pouring styles, they didn’t have me make coffee for customers as frequently as they wanted to. I think my air of confusion and anxiety about Japanese language also lead them to believe that I did not want to make coffee for customers, when that was what I wanted to do most. Most of the time when customers came in I served them water and took their order, rather than making their coffee. Although this was more nerve-racking, it allowed me better use of the language than just pouring coffee would have.

Like SCC, Takachiho was directly adjacent to Yukako-san and Akira-san’s home. Yukako-san’s mother also operated and lived behind a clothing store that was the building next door to Takachiho. I did not have the language skills to ask, but I wondered if they owned the buildings. I also wondered how they kept their business open with so few customers. Even if I did know how to ask, I do not think I would have. It seems like too invasive a question. Most of the time I talked to them about their customers to avoid getting into stuff that was too personal.

The customers at Takachiho also seemed very curious about me being there. Towards the end of my time at Takachiho, a disabled woman and her living assistant came in a couple times. Both times, the living assistant asked me to serve the woman her drinks. Both times, the living assistant took a picture of me helping them out. It felt a little awkward, but I was glad that they both seemed happy with the experience.

In between awkward customer interactions and roasting coffee beans there was a lot of free time. To make the days less monotonous, Yukako-san often took me outside of the cafe to help with Takachiho’s errands. We took trips to the bank and the post office where Yukako-san would ask me to handle the transaction (and where I would refuse, because I was not going to be responsible for a small business losing something important). There were occasions we went out just to have fun. I’m unsure what the event was for, but on one day we went to a local shrine where people threw mochi into an eager crowd from a raised platform. The group was made of lots of elderly people and I was afraid that I might be too rough if I really tried to catch the mochi. However I soon found myself pushed to the back of the crowd by their eagerness to catch the mochi for themselves. I did not catch any with myself, but while we were returning New Year’s decorations to the shrine another local business owner approached Yukako-san. After explaining that I was unable to catch any mochi, he kindly gave us two pieces that he had been able to grab. A few weeks later, the same man came in for a cup of coffee. I was happy to serve him; I felt like I had become part of the community in a noninvasive way.

This marked the beginning of a series of gifts from customers that I was surprised to receive. Another old man gave me several booklets of his art; they were not the originals, but even so, I felt that I did not deserve the free copies of his art. He asked me to take them to my school in Michigan to share them. He did drawings in pen of landmarks in Shiga, including a picture of Lake Biwa and JCMU beside it. Another old man gave me a bag of food and Pocari Sweat powder because we had a conversation wherein I told him that I had only strawberries and juice for dinner.

I found working at both coffee shops to be fulfilling and fun. My time at SCC and Takachiho allowed me to learn the perspective of a small business owner in Japan. Similar to American small businesses, the success of a small business in Japan relies on having a good reputation and a supportive community. Without a reliable community frequenting the establishments, SCC and Takachiho wouldn’t be successful. Realistically it’s hard to find such a supportive community in the U.S. – or at least in Chicago, where I see myself living in the future. Takachiho’s and SCC’s reliable customer base seemed too small to be able to support either of the businesses, which leads me to believe that it’s easier to keep small business going in Japan.

I hoped that the coffee shops I worked at would be central pillars of the communities they were situated in. Although they may not be missed by the whole community if they were gone, SCC and Takachiho provided spaces for the people in their communities to come and chat about their lives in a relaxed environment. At Takachiho, locals have the chance to stop by and check in with the couple at work there. At SCC, families grow while enjoying the quality product that SCC has to offer.

Takachiho and SCC helped me create the connections I was missing. I became a part of their communities in a way that I thought was both unobtrusive and helpful to the community. I intend to keep in contact with both shops and I hope that I can return one day better able to communicate with them. I have a better understanding of what it would take to open and run a cafe on my own, and it doesn’t seem like so vast a task anymore. Even if it’s hard, I know that the staff at SCC and Takachiho will be supporting me from afar.

Hiraku Explores MSU

Hi everyone! Ever wondered what I get up to in my spare time, when I’m not hard at work helping students and learning how to fly? Well, I love to explore! And Japan’s not the only place worth seeing.

As you may know, I spend a lot of time in East Lansing at Michigan State University. That’s where JCMU’s U.S. office is located, after all. It’s also a pretty cool place to hang out. The other day, I got together with an old friend of mine, Travis (2017-18 JCMU alum), and went on a mini-tour of campus. The weather was great and he wanted to show me all the sights.

We started out by getting some coffee at the Wells Hall Starbucks. Travis had Japanese class in a little bit and we both needed some energy! There’s always a line, but I can wait… Kinda…

In class, we practiced conversation and reading. I also got to catch up with some former JCMU students, and we studied together just like old times! Plus, the sensei said my pronunciation was pretty good for someone with a beak.

Next, we began the tour at the Red Cedar River to catch some sun and look for ducks. But it turned out I was the only bird around! And the only borb, too. The bank was full of students studying, hanging out, and enjoying themselves. They’d better appreciate all this free time. Eventually they’ll be working professionals like me!

After that, we walked along the river to the library, stopping in front of the stadium to grab a picture. I’ve never been to a game though ‘cuz I’m a little worried about being mistaken as the ball…

At the library, I poked around on the fourth floor where they keep the Japanese books. Boy, were there some interesting ones! I took a peek in the book drop, too, to see if could double as a borb drop.

There’s a really neat garden right outside the library. We didn’t find any cherry blossoms, but there were dogwood trees and daffodils and a pretty cool pond. All that beauty inspired me to try some modeling.

Then we went across the street to the MSU Museum. There are so many fascinating exhibits there. We walked through a whole hallway of artifacts from different cultures. They didn’t have Japan, but I was there to represent so it was okay. At the end I got to put up a sticker on the wall to show I’d been there with my age written on it.

At that point we were close to Beaumont Tower and decided to stop for pictures. There were lots of people in graduation robes taking photos too! Did you know that one of the corners of the tower is taller than the others? It means that the work is never over and that we can always grow and change. So I’m never going to give up learning how to fly!

It was time to call our tour quits, however. Back in the International Center, where all the study abroad programs are, we swung by the Spartan Bookstore to get a souvenir. But all the clothes were too big for me!

At the end of the day, I felt like I’d gotten to know this home of mine a little bit better. There are so many cool places to visit and learn, and lots of cool people to share it with. No matter where you live, you can get the most out of it by exploring things you never noticed before. Thanks, Travis, for showing me around!

Do you want to go on an adventure with me? When you’re at JCMU, go to the front desk of the Academic Building and ask for me. I love taking pictures with students and I’m always up to travel someplace new!

Hiraku photos, rated by Hiraku

Hi there my non-mascot friends. It’s me, Hiraku, and I have been busy! When you are a busy a-borb-able (get it? It’s adorable, but with “borb” in the middle, ’cause I’m a borb…?) mascot like me, you don’t always get a chance to reflect on everything you’ve done. So today, I just want to relax, unwind, and look over some of my adventures.

Let’s get started.

Here is me, looking classy next to some ikebana that some students made. I look pretty cute, but the flowers threaten to take the spotlight. Overall 7/10 Hirakus

I love this one! It’s me, in the center of the picture, and then two (2) students! My face is slightly smooshed to add to max cuteness, and it really makes me stand out from the smiling faces of my friends in the picture. Over all, great photo. 10/10 Hirakus

Well, I really went for max roundness in this photo, and I gotta say, it had a… mixed effect. Roundness is one of my most important features, but at some point, something gets lost. I tried. 5/10 Hirakus

I tried too hard. 2/10 Hirakus

Look! I dressed up for Halloween. Very cute, if I say so myself (and I do!). 6/10 Hirakus

I would like to report an accident? I don’t remember this happening… 1/10 Hirakus

Awww it looks fun! If only I was actually at the beach… 9/10 Hirakus

Who did this? -1/10 Hirakus

Majestic. Look at me, looking at Biwako. The sunset on the horizon, the waves hitting the shore. Contemplative. Scenic. Beautiful. 11/10 Hirakus

Sticking Out, Together

To celebrate the diversity of our JCMU community, we are featuring stories from students and alumni that self-identify as a person of color. If you have your own story you would like to tell for this campaign, then contact us at

Hello, my name is Val Norman. I participated in the JCMU program in spring of 2012. I took the accelerated course for Business Communications in Japan so I stayed in the dorms in Hikone for less than three weeks, but that was plenty of time for a crash course in living and conducting business within the social guidelines and norms of the Japanese culture.

Trip to Hikone Castle

My concerns prior to my study abroad were not related to color. Japan was the first country I had visited other than Canada. The language barrier and self-government made me anxious, but meeting with my future classmates ahead of time in Michigan built the foundation for friendships I still have and cherish today. I also learned that some of my classmates spoke fluent Japanese while others were in the same boat as me. This greatly eased my worries.

The program was phenomenal! We visited other cities like Kyoto and Osaka. We visited temples and gardens. We met with actual Japanese companies like Brother and Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. In our down time, we bonded by venturing out to karaoke and the izakaya.

Totoro, Totoro~

I never felt my color was a factor. If anything, my citizenship as an American was the only thing that made me feel like an outsider. Knowing zero Japanese, I quickly picked up on several words and “foreigner” was at the top of list. Japanese people saw me as American, not black. White, black, Asian; we all were foreigners who stuck out like sore thumbs.

The experience made us a tight knit group and humbled me immensely. I have so much more compassion for the struggle of “foreigners” in the States now and I almost view it as an ugly label. With all of that being said, there were also many people who showed me great kindness and patience as I struggled to speak bad Japanese. Most locals were friendly and welcoming. Every experience I had in and outside the classroom was educational.

I met so many amazing people on the program

To people of color considering a study abroad, I say “DO IT!!” You will not regret all of the incredible things you gain getting out of your comfort zone.

Escaping My Comfort Zone

To celebrate the diversity of our JCMU community, we are featuring stories from students and alumni that self-identify as a person of color. If you have your own story you would like to tell for this campaign, then contact us at

Hello, my name is DaJanea McBryde. I went to JCMU in 2007 as a May short program and a Summer Intensive Language student (where I completed level 3). My time in Hikone was very positive. I always tell everyone that the 3 months I spent in Japan changed me as a person for the better. 

Visiting the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) in Kyoto

I first heard about JCMU from my high school Japanese teacher. She studied there when she was in college in the 90s. Then when I went to Eastern Michigan University, and everyone in all of my Japanese classes were either talking about going or had already went. At the time, I was an International Business major and one of the requirements of the major was to do a study aboard, so it just made sense to go to Japan.

There were other black students at the school the same time I was there and I never felt unwelcome or out of place. I made a lot of life long friends who I talk to to this day.

When traveling around the country, I was definitely stared at by the Japanese people. But I never felt unsafe or threatened. I just figured it was because I was probably the first black person any of them had ever seen in person. Also, on the train, older people would move seats if I sat next to them but younger people would sit next to me and sometime talk to me (usually in English because they wanted to practice). However, my white friends also experienced this as well. Honestly, Japan is probably the only place I’ve traveled to where I felt completely safe to go out on my own.

My most interesting experience being a black person in Japan was when we did the elementary school visit. The kids were so amazing and so excited to meet us. During the free time when we got to play with the children, one of the children asked my friend who is also black, if his skin color rubbed off! Children (these were 1st and 2nd graders) at that age are so innocent and honest we weren’t offended by the question. It actually made us laugh.

DaJanea (JCMU 2007) - Tanabata (2)
Tanabata festival activities

To other minority students: one of the greatest things you can do for yourself is to step outside your comfort zone. You may be the only one of your “kind” in Japan but in my experience, you learn so much about yourself by living in another country. I was very insecure and shy before I went to Japan but I knew that if I really wanted to get the most out of my time there, I had to be more open and put myself out there. When I look back on my time in Hikone, I always look at myself as who I was before I went and who I am today and I am a much more confident woman now thanks to JCMU.

Hiraku’s Guide to Living at JCMU

Hi there, Hiraku here! I’ve been keeping busy lately working on my New Year’s resolution, learning how to fly, but I have other obligations, too!

Lately I’ve been helping the new Spring Semester students get comfortable at JCMU. I helped with move-in, showed them how to unlock their bikes, and hung out at the first snack party of the year!

So many sweets!!

They’ve pretty much settled in, but I’ve noticed some things that a lot of students have in common. They all like Sushiro, they all study really hard on Thursdays, and they all care a lot about their dorm rooms! They love decorating, cooking meals there together with friends, and unwinding after a long day of studying. But before they arrive, a lot of students don’t know what to expect for where they’ll be living! So I wanted to make a quick guide.

Here’re the most important things you need to know about living in the JCMU dorms:

1. You’ll get your very own bedroom!

No more bunk beds! Students who are used to on-campus housing meaning sharing a tiny room with one or two other people are in for a treat. You get your own space with a super cool sliding glass door that almost looks like a paper one. Inside there’re all the necessities for sleeping and studying, plus a space heater and a fan! Though I keep comfortable enough with the built-in AC. There’s also a big window in each bedroom, and since Hikone is one of the prettiest places in Japan, you’re guaranteed to have a nice view!

2. The microwave has super powers!

Just like most Japanese kitchens, there’re no ovens in the dorms. Instead, there’s a big fancy microwave! It’s larger than most American microwaves, and has all sorts of settings for time, wattage, and function. Although it’s not quite the same, you can use it to make a lot of baked goods you’re used to from home, like cakes and breads and stuff. Just get creative! And believe me, you don’t want to try and bake cookies in the fish fryer.

It may not look like much… But it’s got powers!

3. Cooking can be fun!

Although there’s a CoCo’s Restaurant just next door, there’s no actual cafeteria at JCMU. And even with a student discount, eating out can be pricey! So don’t be afraid to bust out the pots and pans and whip up a meal for yourself. Students always enjoy going grocery shopping, and cooking with Japanese food is a great way to experience the culture. Plus it’s delicious! So whether you’re a trained chef or only make cup noodles, try something new in your very own kitchen! Here’re a couple of student-approved recipes that are perfect for Fall, or any other time of year!

Tiny kitchen, big potential!

4. Your new friends are just down the hall!

When I visit JCMU, I love how easy it is to get to know my neighbors! Someone’s always ready to go to the convenience store with you, to cook a meal, or play a board game. If you need a study buddy, your whole class is in the same building! If you don’t wanna kill that cockroach yourself, you might have a brave bug warrior living right next door! It can be a really tight-knit community if you let it.

My friends are (literally) always beside me at the dorms

Remember, home is where the heart is! And the microwave, and the space heater, and the homemade noodles… If you want to learn more about the furnishings and rules in the residence halls, check out the Student handbook. The more you use your space and make it your own, the more you’ll feel like a member of the JCMU community and part of Hikone itself. So make yourself at home!