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JOURNEY TO JAPAN

A year ago, Anna Zajac dreamt of studying in Japan. But she thought she could never pull it off. She was wrong.

Story by SUNY Oneonta January 18th, 2016

Meet AnnA

Anna Zajac is spending her junior year studying abroad in Fukuoka, Japan.

For years, Anna Zajac imagined studying abroad. It sounded exciting but difficult. She pictured herself in Poland — her family is from there, she speaks Polish, so that seemed easier than other destinations. Last year, she started working as an adviser for international students at SUNY Oneonta. She befriended several Japanese exchange students. They encouraged her interest in Japan.
“Every week I thought about Japan more and more and more,” Anna says. She joined the Japanese Society For All student club. She took Japanese. Suddenly, going to Japan seemed possible.
Fast forward a year: a sunny afternoon in October. Anna looks around the room in her new home, the International House in Fukuoka, Japan, and shakes her head. “I still can’t believe I’m here, and I’ve been here for two months,” she says. “I always thought of it as a dream.”

welcome to seinan

Japan has four major islands. Seinan Gakuin University is on the southernmost island — Seinan means southwest — in the large city of Fukuoka, population 2.5 million. The campus is in an ideal spot, says Anna — a 10-minute walk from the beach and a 15-minute subway ride from Fukuoka’s hopping downtown.

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SEINAN GAKUIN UNIVERSITY

Seinan itself is a relatively large university by Japanese standards — 8,200 students, squeezed into four urban blocks. Still, the campus is big enough for a scenic central quad and lots of bike parking. Lots and lots and lots of bike parking.

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studying abroad

Anna’s day starts with a banana:

“My typical day: wake up, eat a banana… And then go to class. Classes usually take an hour and a half here, unlike SUNY Oneonta. And I usually have Japanese class and then some other classes. I come back, see what other people are doing, and it can go anywhere from there. After homework, we can go do karaoke, go to a new restaurant we’ve never been to before. We went to an Indian restaurant recently, and I’ve never had Indian food before.”

Anna has Japanese language class four days a week.

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From campus, it only takes an hour by train to get out into the Japanese countryside with rolling farmland and craggy mountains. On an afternoon in September, Anna’s entire class visited a farm where they learned how to harvest rice.

“Usually the weekends are the most fun,” Anna says. One Saturday, she and her new friends rode a ferry across Fukuoka harbor to an island park. They hiked to the top of a small peak with panoramic ocean views, and some locals invited Anna to try out their jet ski.

5 things anna found in japan

• Great friends
• The difficulty of Japanese grammar
• Romance
• Amazing noodles
• An Oneonta alum

a strange coincidence?

When Anna arrived in Fukuoka, she was surprised to learn that her Communications professor, Sensei Akira Miyahara, went to Oneonta as an exchange student in the ’70s. Maybe it’s not so strange: any program that has been around for 45 years has a lot of alumni. The partnership between Oneonta and Seinan started in 1971.

Halfway around the world, two Oneonta students meet.

Professor Miyahara says the year in Oneonta changed his life. In fact, he didn’t want to leave, and ended up finding a job in New York. What does he remember best, four decades after studying at Oneonta? Definitely the cow path, he remembers making that steep climb, and friends in Golding Hall, and a favorite professor who helped him settle in.
“I vividly remember that on my first test in Introduction to Communication (which I teach now), I got a D! But then I met a wonderful professor… He was kind enough to invite me to his office once a week during my second semester, and taught me many great things,” Miyahara says. “Nothing supersedes first-hand experience.”
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During class, following a discussion about how to translate slang, Miyahara describes some Japanese tourists he saw in New York: They travel in groups, with a guide, he says. They go to America and speak Japanese and go to eat sushi. “Don’t travel like that!” he admonishes his students. “I try not to do that,” Anna says.
“Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes you really want to eat your own food… But the reason why we came here is to live a different way and to broaden our horizons. So I think we need to break that bubble and just — go see the world as they see it here.

“It’s already changed me… I like to know how other people live, how they think, how they perceive their world, and this is such a different place that it just makes me see through a different lens.”

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international house

At Seinan, 60 exchange students (from 15 countries) and six Japanese RAs live in “I-House” at the edge of campus. In the lobby this afternoon, a student from England plays Scrabble with two Japanese friends. In the sunny courtyard, seven international students sit around a long table, sharing stories of bad breakups. Niles Uy, Anna’s boyfriend from Queens, embarrasses her by telling the story of how they met, their first week in Fukuoka. Soon, Anna goes upstairs with her Danish friend Luna Poulsen to pull clothes off a drying rack on the balcony. As evening falls, a large group of foreigners and Japanese students head out through the narrow streets behind campus to their favorite local noodle shop.

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Anna’s dorm room features a round window and a photo of SUNY Oneonta’s red dragon.

Road Trip

One Saturday, Anna and three friends — Niles, Luna and Hanae — head out to the countryside in a rental car. They visit an apple orchard and rice paddies in Asakura, a farming town, then head into the hills to see the ruins of Azikuzi Castle and Nanzoin temple, which claims to have the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue. The day ends back on the beach near campus.

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5 things anna misses

• American breakfasts
• Her parents
• Pizza
• The view from Table Rock
• And can you guess the last? Of course! The Yellow Deli

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a final word

learn more

• How do I study abroad?• Tell me more about Seinan Gakuin

• Read about Anna’s year in Reflections magazine.

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This story was made possible with financial support of the National Press Photographers Association and the United States-Japan Foundation, and facilitated by the International Center for Journalists.

Footnote: Photos and text by Michael Forster Rothbart. Videos by Michael Forster Rothbart and Jared Stanley.
Fukuoka, Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan