UTokyo IARU GSP 2012: Report

by Wenyu Zhang

Wenyu Zhang at the summit of Mount Fuji

I still remember the first of July, the day when I arrived at Japan’s Narita International Airport. Despite having done a ton of research beforehand on how to get to the hotel from the airport, I still felt that little anxiousness of being in a foreign place and of tackling the spider web of railway systems that Japan is famous for. Fortunately, my preparation paid off. As I sat on the train bound for Central Tokyo and idly watched the bucolic scenery flashing by the window in a green blur, I felt a great sense of accomplishment. Strictly speaking, this should be the first time that I went abroad on my own, without my family and friends accompanying me. Even when I was studying in the States for the past two years, I almost always traveled with friends. That quiet moment alone on the train was remarkable. I thought about the unknown adventure that would await me at UTokyo, and about the new friends that I would make during the summer program. The prospect was exciting.
I had always wanted to learn Japanese, but had never seemed to find enough time or determination to carry on with the plan. When I went to the Kansai region for vacation the previous year, I lamented for not taking some Japanese lessons beforehand. Despite my heightened interest in the language after that trip, I still did not manage to squeeze a Japanese course or two into my academic schedule the following year. Therefore, I really found it a pleasant surprise that the Introduction to Japanese Language course was amongst the list of courses offered at the UTokyo GSP. Although the course lasted only a short two weeks and the senseis had only sufficient time to teach us the more basic elements of the language, I still benefited tremendously from it. I liked the small class size and the course’s focus on conversational Japanese. During class, I had ample opportunity to practice and to hone my skills at giving a self-introduction, asking for some products at a store, ordering food at a restaurant etc. It had also been helpful that I could then ask for directions to better navigate the Tokyo streets, even though the responses that followed often consisted of a string of indiscernible words and eventually left me to communicate with hand gestures. Yet, what better place to learn a language than in the country itself? It is always hard to take the first step to attempt something new. The course, though short, gave me the push I needed to continue studying the language. Hopefully, by the next time I visit Japan, language will no longer be an intimidating barrier.

Group photo at RTRI for Nanoscience study trip

The other course that I attended was Nanoscience. Since young, I have been interested in science and in exploring how things work. The Nanoscience course at UTokyo was one of the few science-related modules offered in the IARU GSP this year. Although my university majors in applied mathematics and statistics do not overlap significantly with nanoscience, I am very much keen to attempt topics outside of my field of study. After all, mathematics is applicable in many fields of science, and I hoped to use the summer program as an opportunity to widen my perspectives and possibly seek a potential research direction for my graduate studies later on. Moreover, I had some experience working with semiconductors in a research project in high school, and so nanoscience was not a completely unfamiliar subject to me. The Nanoscience course was conducted in the style of two lectures plus a lab tour every day. Lecture content was divided into three main categories of biomedicine and nanobiotechnology, bionanotechnology, and nanotechnology. While I had some knowledge on nanotechnology due to the research project and my background in physics in high school, the other two categories appeared more abstruse to me. Admittedly, although the lecture materials were interesting and intriguing, I encountered difficulty understanding some of the presentations past their introductory segments. Yet, it is this understanding of the limitations of my knowledge that will spur me on to continue learning and to find out more about the world. Moreover, the lab tours and the study visit at the end of the course were truly eye-opening. As my university classes are largely focused on mathematics, there are not a lot occasions for me to enter facilities like the bioscience labs and the industrial research centers that I visited as part of the course. The advanced technologies never failed to amaze, and the sight of the UTokyo students working diligently on their research projects was always inspirational.
Reflecting upon the four weeks in Japan, I am really grateful for the opportunity to participate in the UTokyo GSP. Being in a foreign country for vacation and for studying is a very different concept. As a participant of the summer program, I had the invaluable opportunity to interact with the staff, teachers and students of UTokyo. By conversing with the local students who led us to tour the university campus and the city attractions, I managed to get some insights on the local culture and way of life. These may not be achievable just by reading an article about the country, or even by taking a fleeting tour typically focused on packing the most number of sightseeing spots into the shortest time possible.

Group photo at Kamakura Daibutsu for GSP study trip

As a tourist, my experience is packed with pleasantness as well. Having witnessed the sunrise at the summit of Mount Fuji, visited the temples of Kamakura, satiated myself with a buffet at Yokohama Chinatown, toured the Ghibli Museum, enriched my knowledge at various history and science museums, shopped at Harajuku, cruised the Sumida River, experienced the traditions of the Tanabata Matsuri and Mitama Matsuri, viewed the night landscape from the Tokyo Tower, marveled at everything matcha, tasted the freshest sushi breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market, and got lost repeatedly amongst the plethora of shopping malls in Shinjuku and Shibuya, I am pleased to say that I have amassed some of the best memories during the trip. And I could not have achieved some of these without the kind assistance of the people in Japan! Despite the fast pace of life, many people readily stopped in their tracks and went out of their way to help us when we approached them with a map and a look of utter confusion. One lady even helped us ask for directions and led us right to the doorstep of an “elusive” shop, one that we had been trying to locate for quite a while but to no avail. Her friendly gesture and act of hospitality left a lasting impression on me. The people, as well as the amazing sightseeing attractions, made it hard for me to say goodbye to Japan at the end of my trip. I am sure that if the chance arises, I will definitely come back again!
The fond memories that the UTokyo GSP has left with me have inspired me towards more study abroad experiences in the future. Whether for a short course or a long complete study program, I will be on the lookout for such opportunities for me to explore a new country and to expand my academic horizons. Especially, after my undergraduate studies, I will be seeking a suitable graduate program to further my academic pursuit, and very possibly at a foreign university as well. I look forward to that future!