A Bi-Co Journey to Japan

This past March, I was able to travel to Japan with nine other students from the Bi-Co. “Bi-Co” is short of Bi-College Consortium, which is a unique and wonderful relationship between Haverford College and Bryn Mawr College. (Funny enough, as I was writing this, the Blue Bus which takes students for free between the schools roared by.)

The Bi-Co Buds! (Photo courtesy of Lexie Iglesia)

I applied for the opportunity to travel to Japan in the October of 2018, which involved a written essay and a recommendation. Once I received word that I had passed that step, I had to go through the interview process. A day later, I received an email that I had been hand-selected to be a participant in the Kakehashi Project. Here is a description taken from their website:

“The Japan Foundation presents the “KAKEHASHI Project – The Bridge for Tomorrow” as part of the Youth Exchange Program with North America promoted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA).The KAKEHASHI Project aims to heighten potential interest in Japan and increase the number of overseas visitors to the country, as well as enhance international understanding of the “Japan brand,” or the nation’s strengths and attractiveness, such as Japanese-style values and “Cool Japan.” The project is also anticipated to revitalize and boost the Japanese economy.”

Eating dinner with Mammie, Joe, Jess and Aszana in Tokyo!

I was so excited to get that email. I love to travel. I love to learn. To do both at the same time? Bryn Mawr was, for sure, making me the luckiest girl in the world, but here was an issue: I was the only girl I knew who was going. I was the only PERSON I knew who was going!

I walked into the very first meeting and I had no clue who anyone was. I thought I recognized someone from one of my classes, but I was not sure. I sat down at the first seat I could find, and looked down. How was I going to travel to Japan with complete strangers?

On our very last day in Tokyo, it was St. Patrick’s Day. We saw many people wearing funny Irish hats and costumes – this man asked to take a photo with me! (And asked me if my head was okay, thanks to the bandage.)

The next meeting came along. Well, actually, the next trip to the meeting came along. We were going with students from Ursinus College and Villanova University, as well, and our next meeting was at Villanova. While students are allowed to have cars on campus, none of the students on the trip from Bryn Mawr had any. So, we all piled into the back of a car belonging to someone named Joe. Apparently, he went to Haverford. He seemed nice enough, so I sat next to him during the meeting.

As it turns out, Joe is as tall as he is sweet and hilarious. Standing at what I’m guessing is 6’3″, Joe and I bonded over the fact that we knew no Japanese, but were super excited to go.

This is Joe! Joe is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. He really became my rock during the trip. We took this photo in Tokyo when we had five minutes to get some fried chicken.

A couple of us went to a Japanese marketplace in Ardmore called Maido. (The Blue Bus actually takes students to Ardmore every Saturday, so any student can go too!) We ate together and bonded over how excited we were.

Time flew by, and suddenly we were on a 12-hour flight to Japan. We could not contain our excitement! We were ready to learn, love and grow in every which way possible.

Here I am at the Kabushima Shrine with LOTS and LOTS of seagulls!

Kobayashi-sensei from Haverford went along with us, and was my saving grace during the trip. If you look at the banner photo of this blog, Lexie took that photo of me an hour before I fell and hit my head, requiring six stitches. Kobayashi-sensei stayed back with me while others traveled, comforted me, translated for me, and got to know me as a person. She learned that I was a dancer and I sing now, and also learned that I can eat an impressive amount of sushi in one sitting despite saying that I was not hungry. I’m half Italian, what can I say?

This is me and one of our coordinators, George! Kobayashi-sensei took this photo of us.

This is all of the sushi we ate!

The students from the Bi-College Consortium, or the Bi-Co Buds as we soon called ourselves, got close very quickly. We would often stay up until 3:00 AM, talking about serious issues or just funny stories from our past. We also made friends with the people from the other schools as well!

While we started the journey in Tokyo, we traveled up north by the Shinkansen (新幹線), or “bullet train” in the English vernacular, to Nanbu, an agricultural town in the northern most prefecture of Honshū, Aomori.

We were first greeted by the deputy mayor the Nanbu, and learned all about revitalizing efforts that were taking place in order to boost the agriculturally-based economy. An entrepreneur introduced the coffee shop he had founded as a part of these efforts, and we actually got to go see it and buy some of their coffee! The very same day, we were able to see the wholesale market place preparing for the auction that the farmers would be apart of. (We also got to try the most delicious strawberries I have ever tasted.)

Here is me talking about how GOOD the latte I got was! (Not a nice photo, but when you’re truly enjoying something, you’re not really thinking about how you’re posing, are you? ^_^)

This is the Nanbu Town Wholesale Market! (Photo courtesy of Lexie Iglesia)

The Bi-Co was getting closer and closer. One of our own, Miki, was being interviewed for a local TV station and we all were cheering her on.

The local Japanese News interviewing Miki Duvoisin ’21. Photo by Lexie Iglesia ’21.

We were learning more and more as the days went on. We learned about the customs, the history, but we learned most of all is that the Japanese people are incredibly kind and understanding. I wore a giant piece of gauze on my head because of my stitches, and I was asked both by strangers and our leaders how I was feeling.

Here’s the name of the coffee shop that the entrepreneur we saw started. (Photo courtesy of Lexie Iglesia)

One of the most fantastic parts of the trip was the homestay. Despite knowing no Japanese, I was able to communicate through friends who knew the languages and some guesses about the circumstances. For example, when a water jug was held up, I was pretty safe in guessing that our homestay families were asking if we wanted any water. I learned that while I may not know a language, my intuition is my best translator.

Our homestay family made us this amazing fried fish with cheese in the middle for breakfast!

The morning after our homestay, the ladies of the families dressed all the girls in kimonos!

We visited many other places, but one of my favorite moments was visiting Hachinohe Gakuin University. My friend Joe and I are both tour guides at Haverford and Bryn Mawr, respectively, and we were able to put our knowledge and love of the schools to use and explain our schools. I thought explaining what a women’s liberal arts college is would be very tricky, but a famous alumna of Bryn Mawr, Tsuda Ume, started a women’s college in Japan after her time at Bryn Mawr! (Also, as a little fun fact, she will now be on the new Japanese banknotes that will be issued in 2024.)

Here’s Joe and I talking about Haverford and Bryn Mawr – we were featured on local TV!

We also got to interact withe students with calligraphy (which I’m horrible at), origami (even worse), and lunch (pretty stellar at the whole eating thing.) At lunch, we were able to tell stories of our lives. I had watched a few live action Japanese shows, and we were able to giggle about who we thought was the most handsome man in the shows. (We disagreed on who was the most handsome, but still laughed about all of the shows.)

Here’s me and my new friend Miho!

After a few hours with them, it was time to say goodbye. We exchanged social media handles, LINE accounts, and took many photos when we headed to the bus. When we were pulling away, we saw they had lined the street to wave goodbye to us. All of the students were so kind, so funny and so welcoming — indicative of everyone I had met in Japan.

Me *trying* to do some origami with some students from Ursinus and Hachinohe Gakuin University!

The Bi-Co all would stay in the back of the bus together — talking about what we experienced and doing many freestyle rap sessions with my beatboxing “abilities.” We all became so close so quickly — we made sure when our time ended that it would not be goodbye. We all went to support Aszana at her directorial showing of the Black Students League fashion show, which Mammie was also in. I took Isaac to his first “Bryn Din,” a tradition in which Haverford students will come to Bryn Mawr’s dining halls to have a meal (since our ID cards work at each other’s dining halls.)

Our final day was spent presenting our findings to other students of the program. We presented in front of two U.S. government officials, one being Mr. Cody Walsh, a U.S foreign service officer AND Haverford alumni! It was a wonderful surprise. I was able to stand up and ask a question about the foreign service — my dream job.

So, to Koyabashi-sensei, Mammie, Jess, Jordan, Xiangruo, Lexie, Isaac, Joe, Aszana, and Miki: I am so happy to call you all my new friends. Thank you for being the people who comforted me when I got bad news from home, when I got six stitches and lost a chunk of my eyebrow. Thank you for being the people with whom I got to share many meals with, laugh with, and have one of the best experiences of my life with!

Here’s me in Tokyo!

I am not studying abroad in my undergraduate career. Bryn Mawr and Haverford offer plenty of opportunities to study and work abroad, and often will provide funding for you to be able to. Whether it be a 360° program, a summer study abroad program in France or Jordan, or even a traditional study abroad, there is plenty of opportunity to be able to experience the world we live in.

Me at a temple I had learned about in class with the head Buddhist monk of the temple!

This week’s music recommendation is what I listened to on the plane when I wanted to fall asleep. Take a listen to “It’s You” by Henry Lau. I hope this week brings you joy, bliss, and the beginning of a wonderful, new relationship.


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