Students Travel with History Professor Kailai Huang to Japan


This spring, 18 MCLA students traveled with History Professor Kailai Huang to Japan, where they experienced Japanese culture, history and society in a real-life context as they visited the capital of Kyoto, as well as Hiroshima, Tokyo, and Ise National Park - the holiest Shinto shrine for Sun Goddess Amaterasu, the progenitor of Japanese imperial family.

The trip was a mix of the old and the new.

Highlights included tours of Japanese palaces, temples, shrines, gardens and castles. In addition to spending time in the world's most famous Zen rock garden, students traveled on the Shinkansen "bullet" train - the fastest in Asia.

Perhaps one of the most memorable experiences was the opportunity the students had to observe the differences between ancient Japan and the modernity the country's people enjoy today, Huang said.

"For example, the day after visiting the Ise shrine we had a guided tour of Toyota's plant, which manufactures the Prius and Camry car models," he explained. "The still-fresh memory of Ise shrine's palpable spirituality juxtaposed the all-robot operating welding line. Students had a vivid picture of how Japan had earned the reputation in preserving her cultural identity meanwhile excelling in modern technology."

The students also stayed in a traditional Japanese inn and took a communal hot-spring bath. In contrast, they learned of Japan's achievements in modern technology at the Toyota factory and went shopping in Tokyo's enormous department stories to experience the Japanese people's courteous service.

Another notable aspect of the trip was the opportunity to experience Japanese cuisine as it has been enjoyed for centuries.

According to Daniel Thaler '12 of Glenrock, NJ, "My favorite part of the trip was the food, as I am a huge fan of food in general. I ate my way across Honshu."

Prior to the trip, students met with Huang to discuss issues relating to Japanese history, culture and society. On the trip, they recorded their experiences in journals to help them with their final project on their Japan experience.

Such first-hand learning experiences are invaluable, Huang said.

After visiting Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park, "The students not only reflected on the horrible nature of the nuclear weapon, but also commented how they were inspired by the observation that this park was not made a memory of bitterness and hatred, but rather a dedication to world peace," he said.

According to Huang, travel courses like this one allow students a new dimension of learning not available in the classroom.

"It gives them a new perspective on the diverse world through a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience for themselves the culture and society of a different country," he said. "Participants returned to campus with a deeper appreciation for their own culture and society, and an increased enthusiasm for learning."