Journey to the Land of the Rising Sun

FEATURES: Staff Writer Nick Virnich recounts his travels to Japan. 

It’s a sunny dry afternoon at Denver International Airport (DIA), as I board my first-ever international flight bound for Narita, Japan. It is a 12-hour flight from Denver to Narita Airport, just one hour east of the Tokyo metropolis. I sit for 12 hours straight, pondering the wonders that await me on my first trip abroad. I land early in a humid evening, and stay in  complete awe for the rest of the night, as I gaze at the rice fields and neon Japanese signs while in a new, unfamiliar land.

In November of 2016, during my eighth grade year, I decided to follow my brother’s footsteps. I joined a group called Youth in Action based in Denver. I spent the following 21 months taking weekly Japanese language and culture classes, and working on fundraisers with my cohort, as I eagerly awaited this astonishing experience.

I spent the following 21 months taking weekly Japanese language and culture classes.

Through weekly classes, I was able to get a small glimpse of what Japanese culture is like, as well as basics of the language. This included individual cultural presentations, playing Japanese games, folding a thousand cranes, and learning Hiragana and Katakana (the two basic alphabets), as well as basic words and phrases. Upon my arrival in Japan, I was excited to be fully immersed in the fascinating culture.

Finally, on June 4 of this year, we departed for our five-week trip to Japan. My life and perspective has drastically changed from what I encountered overseas. Since returning home, I continue to seek out new opportunities to learn as much as I can about the Japanese language and culture.

The first 10 days of my trip would be set in the small town of Tsuruoka in the northern prefecture known as Yamagata, which is the sister prefecture of the state of Colorado. There I would stay with a host family, attend different schools and teach English, visit shrines, and hike the desolate misty mountains within the region. This was by far one of my favorite places in Japan, since it was set in a beautiful location with the mountains sitting right beside the Sea of Japan.

Making gyoza with my host mother, visiting the spiritual Yudono San Shrine deep in the mountains, doing karaoke with my host father.

However, the main highlight of my time spent in Tsuruoka was the time I spent with my host family. Living with my Japanese host family for 10 days was one of the greatest experiences of my entire life. My fond memories include making gyoza with my host mother, visiting the spiritual Yudono San Shrine deep in the mountains, doing karaoke with my host father, watching Japan in the World Cup, and having extensive conversations.

Although there were some difficulties with communication in English and Japanese, I still feel as if I was able to develop a close relationship with them. I can’t thank Mikiko and Taku enough for this wonderful experience!

After my time in Yamagata, I departed on a four-hour bullet train further down south to the famous city of Kyoto, where I would remain for just two days. Kyoto – known for being the old capital of Japan – is a booming city filled with tourists all across the world, seeking the ancient wonders the city has to offer, with roughly 1600 temples.

During my time there, I visited the famous Sanjūsangen-dō Temple, known for its 1000 Buddha statues, the lively Iwatayama Park filled with Japanese snow monkeys, and the beautifully picturesque Arashiyama bamboo grove. There are endless things to do within Kyoto, and I hope to come back soon.

The next destination was the city of Kumamoto in Kumamoto prefecture, the third largest city of Japan’s southernmost island Kyushu. There I would stay with another host family for six days and commute on my own from my host family’s house, to the downtown area on a daily basis. I met the vice governor of Kumamoto prefecture, the mayor of Kumamoto city. I visited the Kumamoto castle (along with the damage it received from the earthquake back in 2016) taught English at the language school downtown, and spent time with my new host family.

I had another excellent experience with my host family, except this one was drastically different, as this family was much larger, with a set of parents, an older sister, a brother my age and a younger brother. These fond memories include visiting Japan’s largest active volcano Mt. Aso, going bowling with family friends, going shopping at the local mall, watching Jackie Chan movies with my little brother, setting off fireworks with my brother, and having long conversations and exchanges of music with my host father.

For the remainder of my trip, I would visit the two touristy cities of Hiroshima, followed by Tokyo. These last five days consisted of hanging up 1000 cranes at the peace memorial in Hiroshima, spending the day on Miyajima island filled with free roaming deer, walking through the busy streets of Tokyo’s main shopping district Harajuku, and walking through the Meiji Jingu park dedicated to Emperor Meiji.

I started at Narita Airport for the journey back home to Denver on a nine-hour flight.

On the last day, I headed back to where I started at Narita Airport for the journey back home to Denver on a nine-hour flight. At the airport, I tried to take in everything I had experienced, and realized, I was at the end of my trip. However, I had realized that this was just the beginning…

 After I returned home, I continued to study Japanese in my own individual time; for my sophomore year of high school I made a somewhat risky choice to switch languages from Spanish to Japanese. I was actually placed into Level Two Japanese because of the amount of studying I have been doing for my own interest and pleasure since returning from my trip.

This passion for studying the language on my own is reflective of how dedicated I am to learn as much as possible about Japan. I also plan to study abroad there for my junior year, and hope to go on that trip with as much knowledge as possible. From my thoughtful host families, the spiritual essence of the historic landmarks, the beautiful culture, the delicious food and the friendly people, I had an astonishing experience.