Mark Tran (he/him) - Stanford in Kyoto
Major: Computer Science
College year while abroad: Junior
About the photo: Huge catch at the Kingyo (Goldfish) Museum in Nara!
Why did you choose to study in Kyoto?
As embarrassing as some might make it out to be, I would be lying if my one-word response wasn’t “anime.” That said, anime was certainly the catalyst that sparked my interest in Japanese culture, led me to discover Japanese city pop, and prompted me to self-study the language during the pandemic. After learning hiragana, katakana, and some basic phrases via the Genki textbook, I felt compelled to take my first Japanese language class in Fall 2021, and later, send in that study abroad application!
What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Kyoto?
This was my first time seriously traveling abroad, so I painted a very idealistic and perfect picture of my experience in my head, especially since it was Japan – my dream destination. I was expecting to be the happiest I’ve been in my entire life, which might have been my biggest mistake since my expectations compounded my angst in times when I wasn’t so happy. Over time, I took off my rose-colored classes and learned to appreciate Japan by viewing it through a more realistic lens.
What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Kyoto?
Aside from certain graduation requirements, I had not taken many other humanities classes before my time in Japan, so it was really neat being able to learn about Japanese cultural concepts that I got to observe in “real-time.” Although I enjoyed every class I took, I want to highlight Dr. Mike Hugh’s “News Shaping Japan” seminar. It helped me gain a more holistic perspective of life in Japan while reading about a variety of current events, and it was really fascinating seeing the parallels and differences between Japanese and American media.
What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?
I didn’t realize how Type A I was until I studied abroad! Again, since this was my first time traveling internationally, I wanted to do and see as much as I could, which meant starting my day at 6 AM and maintaining an exhausting, but manageable (through sheer willpower) 100-mph pace the entire day. I found myself researching everything in advance and making detailed schedules to follow each day.
What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?
Finding a balance between what you want to do and what others in your cohort want to do can be difficult, especially if you are unfamiliar with most of your cohort to begin. Not everybody enjoys travel (or waking up at 6 AM) in the same way, and that’s okay! Allow yourself to be selfish – this is your study abroad experience, and you should enjoy it in the way that best suits you – if that includes making schedules like me, then more power to you!
What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?
Actually waiting for crosswalk signs to turn green before crossing. In the States, it seems like most people tend to ignore crosswalk signs if no cars are around or if the crosswalks themselves are short. In Japan, on the other hand, I was quite surprised to see most people stop at crosswalks even if they were super narrow (six feet?) and even if there were no cars around!
What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Kyoto?
It sounds mundane, but I just thoroughly enjoyed walking everywhere. Japan’s public transport is bounds better than anything I’ve experienced in the States, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not taking your time and getting those steps in. I loved discovering new things in random streets and alleys at different times of the day from the break of dawn until the fall of night, and even later if you’re feeling adventurous. For example, during one of my midnight runs, I stumbled across a tiny, unmanned frozen gyoza shop and gave a friendly wave to the camera recording me.
What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Kyoto?
Since I lived around Gojo station, I often walked home quite late at night coming from Shijo or elsewhere. At first, I was dismayed by public transport not being available during the more unholy hours of the night, but it turned out to be quite a blessing. In particular, I remember enjoying my konbini Nata de Coco bar as I was walking down an empty Karasuma-dori, admiring the lights of Kyoto Tower and thinking to myself how surreal it was that this moment in time was mine and mine alone.
What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?
Adventurous, transformative, inspiring, blissful, precious.
What was your favorite food you had in Kyoto?
I don’t even know where to begin. My favorite Japanese dish before coming to Japan was takoyaki, but I actually barely had any while abroad! I made weekly stops at Momokara Kotaro for karaage, downed copious amounts of ramen at the shop across the street from Doshisha, and interestingly, enjoyed plenty of Indian food in random pockets around Kyoto. All that said, the winner goes to this AYCE shabu shabu spot hidden away at the top of some building around Shijo. Name? I wish I knew enough kanji to remember…
What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?
Without a doubt, get yourself a cross-body bag. Fanny pack. Anything. Best accessory for carrying your wallet, coin pouch (you’ll need one, and it’ll get heavy!), tickets – you name it. Plus, you’ll get +10 points for style.
What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Kyoto?
Our cohort joined some of the Doshisha University students for karaoke one evening, and one of the first songs our Japanese buddies sang was “We Are!”, which you might recognize is One Piece’s first opening theme. My friend from home had been convincing me to start watching, but like many others, I kept telling him that there was no way I would start an ongoing, 1000-episode anime. Hearing that banger in the karaoke room is one of the reasons why I binged over 500 episodes in four months.