Thomas More group photo

Study Abroad 2024 in Japan – a Trip to Remember

Submitted by Erin Preston ’24, participant | Foreword by Judy Crist, executive director communications

What do a tea set, walking stick, and vintage sweatshirt all have in common? These were all mementos that my Mom had shared with me that she collected during her time living in Tokyo 30 years ago. From learning to drive on the left side of the road, to scuba diving, to climbing Mount Fuji, I was fascinated by her myriad of adventures. Inspired by her stories, I hoped to have the opportunity to visit Japan one day. Lucky for me that opportunity presented itself sooner than I anticipated. When I heard that Dr. Bruce Rosenthal, dean of the Robert W. Plaster College of Business, was taking a group of students on a trip to Japan for spring break 2024, I was eager to sign-up. 

Thanks to a Paris study abroad trip in summer 2023, I met one of my very best friends, Alivia Friend. Since we had such an amazing time together in France, I begged her to sign up for the Japan trip as well. From the moment we landed in Haneda Airport, I knew we were embarking on a life-changing experience. Initially, I was nervous about the language barrier and culture shock, but my uneasiness quickly resolved. I felt so welcome and safe, even though I was half a world away from home. After checking into the hotel and getting a much-needed night of rest, we began our journey through Japan.

Tokyo Disney
Alivia Friend and Erin Preston wear matching sweatshirts in front of Cinderella Castle at Tokyo Disney.

Day 1: As part of the requirement for the course credit, I wrote a daily journal entry. Writing this piece, I wanted to reflect on the trip, including memorable photos and stories from each day. The first day was one of my favorites. A group including me, four other students, and two professors hopped on JR Rail and headed to Tokyo Disneyland. Alivia and I wore matching Tokyo Disney sweatshirts that my Mom had bought when she visited in 1993. I have loved Disney since I was a kid and had already visited the parks in Orlando, Anaheim, and Paris. Getting to see Tokyo Disneyland and adding a fourth park to that list was a dream come true. From the thrilling rides, delicious food, spectacular fireworks, and everything in between, the day was nothing short of magical.

Day 2: Our second day in Tokyo was jam-packed full of excitement. During our stay in Tokyo, we had the most wonderful guide, Yuki. She first led us to Akihabara which is the Anime Center of the city. After stopping in the Tamashii Nations store, we headed to lunch at the At-home Maid Cafe. After lunch, we visited our first Shinto Shrine of the trip: Kanda Myojin. From there, we took the train to the Tokyo Skytree which is the tallest building in the city. As we climbed into the sky on the elevator, I prepared to give my presentation about the building’s history. As part of the class, each student chose two sites to research prior to the trip, then acted as the tour guide for them once we got to Japan. The views from the observation deck and glass floor were absolutely phenomenal. Back at ground level, we explored the shops then left to browse around Nakamise Shopping Street. As we ventured down the avenue, we visited the first Buddhist Temple of the trip: Sensoji Temple. That night we had a group welcome dinner and got to try Okonomiyaki, also called Japanese pancakes. Though it was certainly not my favorite meal I ate, it was a lot of fun getting to share a meal all together and to cook the food on a griddle at our tables.

Imperial Palace
The Thomas More University group takes a photo outside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

Day 3: On the last full day in Tokyo, we made sure to make every second count. Starting off at the Imperial Palace, we learned more about the Japanese government and the imperial family. We hopped on the bus and drove through the misty morning into the forest to stroll around the grounds at Meiji Jingu Shrine. That afternoon we had the chance to go to Harajuku, weaving in and out of the bustling crowds of Takeshita Street. During our free time, I went to an animal cafe for the first time. It was so amusing to actually get to play with meerkats versus seeing them in their habitat at the zoo back home – I never thought I’d have to wash meerkat hair out of my sweatshirt. At this point in the day, the drizzle from the morning had gotten closer to a downpour. We huddled together under umbrellas as we ran across Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest intersections in the world. At the corner of Shibuya Station, we stopped to take photos with the loyal dog Hachiko statue. Wanting a taste of the Japanese nightlife, a few of us took the train to Roppongi to find the Tokyo Hard Rock Cafe. There we enjoyed lively conversations, colorful drinks, and cheeseburgers bigger than our faces. 

Fushimi Inari Shrine
Erin standing under a few of the thousands of torii gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine.

Day 4: All aboard the bullet train. Opening my bento box on the tray table, I reminded myself I was determined to be adventurous on the trip and open to trying new things – within reason of course. I tasted most of the veggies, rice, and fish in the box, but I drew the line at eating the one with eyes looking back at me. After jumping off the train, we found our bus and headed to Sanjusangendo Temple. We slipped off our shoes and stepped into the quiet hall. Dr. Rosenthal stopped us for a moment, encouraging us to soak it all in and then he happily announced, “Welcome to Kyoto.” Here, we learned about the ancient archery contest that dates back to the late 16th century. Archers would stand at one end of the long corridor and with brute strength alone would launch an arrow over 100 meters. In another part of the corridor, we walked past 1,001 uniquely crafted Buddha statues. After snapping a few pictures of the pond and cherry blossoms outside, we headed on to see the Heian and Yasaka Shrines, the Gion District, and the most delightful hidden chocolate shop. After a long day of travel and exploration, my friends and I were dying for a big bowl of steaming hot ramen. With full bellies and tired legs, we headed back to the hotel for the night.

The Golden Temple
Dean Bruce Rosenthal, Alivia, and Erin at the Golden Temple Kinkakuji.
Tea Ceremony
Erin learns to prepare matcha for the traditional tea ceremony at Kodaiji Gesshin-in Temple.

Day 5: I liked to refer to this day as the pinnacle of our Kyoto temple tour. That morning, we started at the Ryoanji Temple, making sure to take a minute to sit and admire the Zen rock garden. Temple two was the spectacular Golden Pavilion Kinkakuji. Adorned with a mighty phoenix and surrounded by a serene pond, this glistening temple was definitely my favorite. After a quick viewing of Daitokuji Temple, we set off for Nishiki Market. I made the most of my lunch allowance, indulging in Wagyu beef skewers, strawberry iced tea, fried chicken on a stick, and the most delicious gyoza I’d ever had. After roaming through the stalls for a few hours, we made it to the last temple of the day. It was at the Kodaiji Gesshin-in Temple that we got to delight in a presentation of a traditional tea ceremony. Drinking the matcha out of the bowls, I thought of the tea set my Mom had given me and looked forward to telling her about the day. In addition to the beautiful tea house, the temple grounds featured a flourishing bamboo forest. Later that night, our group of students visited the Nintendo store and found out that Kyoto is the location for the video game company’s headquarters.

Mipig Cafe in Kyoto
Erin Preston and Luke Iden at the Mipig Cafe in Nishiki Market in Kyoto.

Day 6: When we went over our itinerary at the pre-trip meetings, I remember seeing the pictures of the Fushimi Inari Shrine and thinking how cool it would be to see in person. We walked through the trail of vermilion torii gates, stopping to appreciate the characters inscribed on each one. Later that morning, we traveled south of the city to Nara to visit a museum, a shrine, two temples, and of course, the mostly friendly bowing deer. At Kasuga Taisha, the deer walked right up to us and if you bowed to them many would return the favor. The giant Buddha statue at Todaiji Temple was remarkable and towered over us. Before heading back to Kyoto, some of us bought some wafer crackers from a street cart to feed the deer. When they caught sight of the pack in my hard, they swarmed, furiously biting at my jacket trying to get my attention. I never thought I would be able to say I’ve been attacked by dear but now I can. At Nishiki Market that night, I had better luck with the snuggly squealing pigs at the animal cafe. 

Ginkakuji Temple
Erin and Alivia in the snow at Ginkakuji Temple.

Day 7: For my second and final presentation for the class, I shared my research on Nijo Castle, highlighting the nightingale floors and ornate Karamon Gate. We visited the Golden Pavilion’s cousin Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion. As we walked past the rock garden and up the hill to the overlook, I noticed some flecks of something falling from above. I assumed it was dirt or leaves from the trees, so I was shocked when I realized it was snowflakes. Seeing the snow falling on the temple grounds was mesmerizing. As I moved through the masses of visitors at Kiyomisu Temple, I paused to take it all in, appreciating the architecture painted in vibrant red and dazzling gold, the blooming cherry blossoms, and the magnificent stone dragons. My last wish before our sayonara dinner was to visit one more animal cafe so I could feed and pet the playfully rambunctious sea otters. Our dinner was sukiyaki, which similar to the welcome dinner, we got to cook at our table. We really enjoyed the flavorful mushrooms, beef, and pork as well as lots of laughter.

Universal Studios Osaka
Group of students and professors at Universal Studios in Osaka.

Day 8: After bonding at Disneyland on day one, our group of seven decided to swing by one more amusement park before the long trip home. After we finished breakfast, I was put in charge of getting the group to Universal Studios in Osaka. We rode roller coasters, watched musical performances, wandered around Hogwarts, and ate way too many snacks. After waiting for our reservation, we ended the night in Super Nintendo World and got to experience real-life Mario Kart. It was such a fantastic last night.

Mount Fugi
Mount Fuji from the window of the bullet train on the way from Kyoto to Tokyo.

The grand finale of the trip was our stunning view of Mount Fuji from the window of the bullet train on the way back to Tokyo. I imagined what it must have been like for my Mom climbing with her beat up walking stick to the top peak. What an incredible sight to see. I remember waking up that morning, dreading the train, bus, and plane rides home. As I ran through O’Hare airport in Chicago to catch the connecting flight back home to Cincinnati, I couldn’t help but smile. I thought of the souvenirs packed in my suitcase, I thought of the extraordinary memories and friends I had made along the way, I thought of the hundreds of pictures I couldn’t wait to show my family. I was excited to give each specially selected gift, especially to my Mom. I was beyond exhausted, already feeling the onset of the inevitable jet lag, but it was so worth it. The trip far exceeded any expectations I could have set, and I can’t wait to go back some day.

For more photos from the Japan study abroad, CLICK HERE.