Daniel Chiu - Stanford in Kyoto
Major: Mechanical Engineering
Minor: East Asian Studies
College year while abroad: Senior
About the photo: My friends and I (2nd from the right) took this photo when we reached the peak of Mt. Kurama while hiking to find Kurama village in the mountains north of Kyoto. We went to the village to see their annual fire festival where the locals carry large torches of fire and chant into the night to celebrate their local god. Whatever adventure you go on while abroad, always bring friends to share it with!
Questions and Answers with Daniel
Why did you choose to study abroad in Kyoto?
The earliest memories of my childhood that I can remember was a trip I took to Japan with my family in the fall of 2000. To this day, memories of holding maple leaves and counting the stones in the walls of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo are still vivid in my head. I grew up enjoying Japanese culture from the food to its media, so much so that I turned it into an East Asian Studies minor. However, I actually did not come to Stanford planning to study abroad. It was not until my sophomore year when I took a spring break trip to Japan when I realized that there was so much more to the country that I wanted to experience beyond what I could see as just a tourist. I wanted to look past the image of Japan that we receive through its popular culture and understand what it is like to live in their society. So, when I found an opportunity in my schedule to go abroad to Kyoto, I took it!
What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Kyoto?
Having visited Kyoto before and having a sister who used to live in Japan, I had a rough idea of what to expect while living there (how to take the trains, how to order food, which side of the escalator to stand on – there’s one side for standing and one for walking up). Yet, I still expected to feel out of place once I arrived at least for the first few weeks. But surprisingly, after the first few nervous days spent at the hotel, I felt at ease once I met my host family. I was shocked that I could strike up a conversation in Japanese with my host mother on the first train ride home, and by sunset of that day I was running around town with my host brother to catch bugs.
What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Kyoto?
Kyoto is known as “Japan’s Culture Capital” and for good reason. You would be hard-pressed to find a better place to study traditional Japanese art, artisanry, religion, and history (and how these subjects interact with a modern/changing Japanese society) than Kyoto. The program does an amazing job offering courses that engage you in these areas by getting you out of the classroom and into the city to learn first-hand alongside experts who are truly passionate of their work and study. I will always be in awe of Professor Catherine Ludvik’s mastery of Buddhist visual arts and ability to answer every question about any detail in the Buddhist temples we visited. I can only hope that I have the same mastery of my profession when I am older.
What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?
I learned that I enjoyed being more adventurous. If I wanted to take a trip to another part of the country, I found a way to do it. Through traveling around Japan, I realized that I just wanted to get up and get out there and to fill my time with new experiences and good memories. It helped me enjoy living ‘in the moment’ and recognize how big and wonderful the world we live in is.
What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?
Being comfortable with speaking Japanese with the locals and not trying to default to English if I could not find the right words in Japanese. I lived in a more rural city about an hour south of Kyoto which meant that there were very little English speakers or text translated to English. Trying to ask train station officers why my train pass was not working or buy museum tickets from a kiosk that had no English language setting were definitely a bit stressful, but it gave me so much more confidence in my own Japanese skills.
What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?
Not being able to use or change the temperature of the air conditioning unit in my homestay. I remember I got scolded a little bit by my host mother for lowering my AC temperature during a hot night since it costs a lot of money to use. So, as the weather got colder in the fall I had to go to bed in increasingly more layers rather than raise the temperature of the AC.
What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Kyoto?
The commute! Since I did not live within Kyoto, I would take a train into and out of the city every day. My route passed flowing rivers and mountains just as the sun rose over their peaks in the morning, and I would watch the lush green of farmlands transition slowly to the buildings of the city. By the time I was on the train home it would usually be sunset; so, I would look out the windows as the sky turned into shades of orange.
What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Kyoto?
It feels a bit unfair just to pick one experience – everything was memorable. Yet, I would have to choose hiking in the mountains north of Kyoto to look for a place called Kurama village and celebrate its fire festival (see provided photo). I went with a group of friends to first stay in a hostel in the northeast of Kyoto since the trip was going to last overnight and we had school the next day. Then we went into the mountains to find Kurama village which holds an amazing festival where the locals march around the village with giant torches of fire while chanting from sunset until well into the night. This festival is held only once a year on October 22nd since the year 970 to celebrate the local god, and the entire village turns up to celebrate. Every local family has torches outside their homes, and they display their heirlooms like samurai armor and swords for all to see. To be part of such an event steeped in Japanese culture and history was breathtaking.
What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?
Stunning, Energetic, Meaningful, Unforgettable, Joyful
What was your favorite food you had in Kyoto?
Abura soba! Hands down, it was probably the most iconic dish of my time abroad. My friends and I would go to this tiny shop with a single counter and ten seats hidden in an alleyway to grab a big bowl of abura soba and a cold beer.
What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?
Realistically, it must be my phone. I upgraded my phone before the trip just to get a better camera to take pictures with, but my phone was also my portable English-Japanese dictionary and my guide. Google Maps is so useful when you need to figure out which train to catch and when they arrive because they are always on schedule.
What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Kyoto?
Tatsuro Yamashita and the city pop genre (thank you Varun). I also got into K-pop while abroad when one of my friends had me listen to Red Velvet one day on the train to school.