Student Story: Alysse’s Journey to Japan and the Importance of Cultural Learning

Feb 22, 2023
Student Story, Alysse's journey to Japan

In early 2022, Alysse was a senior at George Mason University entering her very last semester of undergrad. She was accepted to and attended Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan, and took CulturaGo’s Introduction to Japanese Culture before she left the United States in order to prepare. Now that she’s returned home to the US, her reflections on her experiences are positive, and she credits that positivity to the deeper understanding of Japanese culture that she was able to obtain.


In the beginning

When committing to study abroad through George Mason University, I chose to go to Japan. It was a place I had a fascination for, but also somewhere I had never been that was going to be very different from my native Western world. I had an awareness of Japanese culture, but what we see in media like anime, video games, and music can only give a small portion of information on what it would be like to really live there. But despite my anxieties, going to Japan had been a long-standing dream of mine, and I wanted to see it come into reality.

Growing up a dual citizen of Great Britain and the United States, as well as mixed-race with family up and down the length of both countries, I was already very culturally-conscious. The importance of varying social differences was never lost on me. It always interested me, in fact, and so I knew that with Japan it would be the same. Especially in a culture so different from all those I was used to, understanding the cultural background of my new environment was going to be paramount, but it was daunting to even know where to begin.

George Mason University partnered with CulturaGo, and provided me and the other students heading abroad to places like Japan, South Korea, Spain, Italy and the UK, a full course in cultural education, to help us better understand the cultures of our destinations. My Introduction to Japanese Culture course was comprehensive and easy to understand. Once I started, it was incredible to see just how much I didn’t know—differing cultural values, travel suggestions and advice, on regional variants in the culture that I may encounter, and smaller aspects of daily living that would become ubiquitous aspects of my time in Japan. At that point in my journey, knowledge gave me confidence; it made me less anxious as I became aware of what to expect.

Omotenashi (Hospitality culture)

And so my journey began in late March, 2022, and marked cultural differences began to show the moment my sister and I got on the plane. Hospitality culture, or omotenashi, is a distinctly Japanese practice of wholehearted goodwill towards guests. We’d read about it in our Introduction to Japanese Culture course but had yet to encounter it until then. Aside from talking with and encouraging us, the stewardesses of our Japan Airlines flight into the country prepared a wrapped gift bag filled with snacks and a handwritten note of well-wishes to send myself and my sister on our way. 

Omotenashi continued to be ever-present: we met arcade workers ready and willing to give us tips on how to win games, shop owners gifted us with free items, and a woman at a beautiful temple outside of Tokyo gifted us with knowledge, homemade tea, and some of her gorgeous photography.

Alysse getting ready to play Pong with her sister at their favorite arcade in Takadanobaba.

If that weren’t extraordinary enough, hosts of our various Airbnb stays even cooked us homemade meals, gave us personal rides to train stations, and offered helpful advice on where to explore nearby. Omotenashi is easily the aspect of Japanese culture that I appreciate the most.

Alysse walking down the street on the way to her first Airbnb in Enoshima.

Alysse's stuffed travel companion, Momo the dog, sitting at the table in a traditional style Airbnb in Hakone.

Embracing cultural differences

The differences only continued from there, big and small alike. It was exciting to recognize the things we had learned in our culture course alive and in practice around us—the way my sister and I observed and employed daily, educational, and restaurant etiquette among others was heavily lifted from CulturaGo. We also acknowledged the differences in the more put-together and businesslike everyday fashion, the ease and punctuality of public transit, and the overwhelming walkability of the country as a whole. Most common of all, we bowed (a lot)!

Alysse walking down a colorful Osaka street as she heads towards the train station to go back to Tokyo.

My sister, Holly, in particular, was eager to make use of Japan’s overarching and easily-accessible public transport as we learned about it through our course. I credit her with setting up our best adventures, ones that took us easily from Tokyo down the length of Japan’s main island of Honshū. We visited multiple traditional homes, the cat island of Enoshima, Kyoto’s famous bamboo forest, Fuji-Q amusement park, Universal Osaka, the hot springs in Hakone, too many karaoke and arcade places to count, and then some.

Holly taking pictures in the bamboo forest of Kyoto.

Getting ahead in classes

Amidst all this, of course, we were studying, and required to do at least seven hours of Japanese classes a week. The CulturaGo course ended up even coming in handy here, as it introduced me to some vocabulary that was not only useful in daily life, but my classes too. Learning a lot in a relatively short amount of time, it was easy to get overwhelmed. There were a lot of longer words that I couldn’t seem to memorize, but there was one that I don’t think I’ll ever forget now. “Jidouhanbaiki” (自動販売機), a word meaning “vending machine” that I learned during my CulturaGo lessons, popped up in one of my quizzes at Waseda University. Having a head start caused this word to stick in a way I never expected it to, but I’m very proud and happy that it has.

A worthwhile and full experience

As my time in Japan began to draw to a close at the end of the summer, that uncomfortable but reminiscent feeling of “where did the time go” began to gnaw at me. Even now, safely back home in Virginia, I still feel it. To the fullest extent, I had wanted to get to know Japanese culture as close as possible to the same way I knew my own, and with the help of CulturaGo, I truly feel like I did. The connections I made overseas and the wonderful people whose acts and words of kindness have touched my life are a testament to that, and I know that these things will stay with me forever.



We hope Alysse's story is only the first of many to come and look forward to soon hearing more from our course learners about their experiences abroad.

If you would like to enroll in your own culture course, click here to browse our courses page and find the right destination for you.

If you would like to talk more about integrating CulturaGo courses into your abroad programs, contact us or click here to learn more about partnering with CulturaGo.


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