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Embracing the Vibrant Culture and Academic Excellence: My Journey as an Exchange Student in Japan

19 Jun 2023
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Chamaka Karunanayake from Srilanka, a recent Master’s graduate of Water Engineering and Management program from the School of Engineering and Technology (SET), talks about his life-changing experience in an exchange program at Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan. Here is his story:

On September 27, I arrived at Narita Airport in Japan, immediately noticing the striking cultural and daily life differences between my home country and Japan. Despite anticipating the challenges, I eagerly embraced the opportunity to immerse myself in this vibrant culture and learn as much as possible from this incredible country. Overcoming initial difficulties, I developed a deep affection for Japan’s unique blend of tradition and modernity. Engaging in this new culture broadened my perspective and fostered unexpected personal growth.

Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) is one of the prestigious national universities in Japan renowned for its excellence in science and engineering. It comprises three campuses: Ookayama, Suzukakedai, and Tamachi. I had the privilege of joining Prof. Tsuyoshi Kinouchi’s lab group, located on the Suzukakedai campus. Fortunately, I secured accommodation at Umegaoka dormitory in Yokohama, which was only a 35 min train ride from the Suzukakedai campus. 

The orientation program for Young Science and Engineering Researchers Program (YSEP) students took place on September 29 at the Ookayama campus. During the orientation, the curriculum of YSEP was explained, guiding how to conduct research activities. Various monthly activities were planned for YSEP students, including a campus architecture tour, a Meguro area local walk, gardening activities, music talk, world time with children, an art walk at Ginza, media talk, and science journalism. 

I had regular discussions with my advisor at Tokyo Tech, Prof. Kinouchi, to determine my research topic, “Assessment of Climate Change Impact on Sea Level Rise in Coastal Provinces of Thailand,” and to discuss the research methodology. 

Being an exchange student at Tokyo Tech presented a valuable opportunity for me to expand my knowledge in the field of Water Engineering and Management. I enrolled in the course titled “Coastal Disaster Mitigation for Engineers and Planners” taught by Prof. Hiroshi Takagi during the 3rd quarter at the Ookayama campus. This course was particularly beneficial as coastal engineering was directly related to my thesis at AIT, and I completed it with an A grade. 

The laboratory space was shared among students ranging from bachelor’s to doctoral programs, allowing me to seek their assistance. Their ideas and input helped me solve research problems more efficiently. I presented my research progress at the Kinouchi lab’s research seminar during the 4th quarter and successfully achieved my research objectives within the duration of the exchange program. The final research presentations for YSEP students were held on February 2, 2022, at the Ookayama campus. I delivered my research work successfully within the allotted time and engaged in an interactive question-and-answer session with the audience.

The students of the Kinouchi laboratory, along with those from the Nakamura laboratory, organized a year-end party in a traditional Japanese restaurant in Mizonokuchi. It was a new and exciting experience as I had never been to a traditional Japanese restaurant.

One of the monthly events I participated in was the campus architecture tour, which proved incredibly valuable. During this event, I gained firsthand knowledge and observed how Japanese structures are built to withstand earthquakes. Additionally, I took part in a local walk-in Meguro area, where we visited a traditional Japanese festival called “Meguro Fudoson” near the Meguro station. The festival offered a fantastic opportunity to immerse myself in Japanese culture and enjoy various classic matsuri food and games. 

The most memorable experience among the monthly events was my visit to Chisetsu Elementary School as a part of the Elementary School Visit Program. The warmth and hospitality shown by the elementary students were unparalleled. They performed several dramas, sports acts, and games, and I even had an interactive question-and-answer session with them. I was impressed by the School’s well-maintained premises and noticed that the students took responsibility for cleaning their classrooms and common areas. This experience highlighted the Japanese education system’s strong emphasis on instilling good values, social skills, and a sense of community in students from a young age.

I joined the Tokyo Tech International Students Association (TISA) after starting my exchange program at Tokyo Tech. This membership allowed me to participate in events organized by TISA, providing an excellent opportunity to meet students from diverse countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, China, Germany, Norway, Turkey, Malaysia, India, and many more.

I had prior knowledge of the Japanese language from High School, which was advantageous during my stay in Japan. I could recall and apply my understanding of the language, improving my speaking and reading skills. Additionally, as a member of TISA, I had the privilege of making new Japanese friends who helped me enhance my Japanese proficiency.

My dormitory, located in Yokohama, while the main campus was situated in Tokyo, provided me with the perfect opportunity to explore Japan’s capital city and the most populated city Tokyo. During my time there, I had the chance to visit various attractions, including Tokyo Skytree, which stands as the tallest tower and the third tallest structure in the world. Stepping into the elevator was a mesmerizing experience as it traveled at 600 m per minute, making it one of the fastest elevators in the world. I also visited several attractions in Tokyo like the Tokyo Tower, Shinjuku station (recognized as the world’s busiest train station with 53 platforms), Shibuya scramble crossing (world’s busiest pedestrian crossing with over 3000 people crossing simultaneously), and the Hachiko statue in Shibuya.

From late September to November, I visited Mount Takao, Rikugien Gardens, and Meiji Jingu Gaien Park during the autumn season. Witnessing the vibrant fall colors in Japan was a truly remarkable and unforgettable experience. One of the many highlights of my stay was visiting the Asakusa district in Tokyo. Asakusa is renowned for its traditional ambiance and historical landmarks, and I had a chance to visit the Sensoji temple, the oldest and the most famous temple in Tokyo.

Another unique experience in Japan was riding the Shinkansen (bullet train), which operates up to 320 km/h. I was lucky to witness the rare snowfall in Tokyo, marking my first snow experience. As the city transformed into a winter wonderland, the moment’s beauty left a lasting impression on me. 

One of the significant challenges an international exchange student faces in Japan is the language barrier. Communicating and navigating daily life in the country can be difficult as most Japanese people speak little to no English. Fortunately, I had some prior knowledge of the Japanese language, which helped me smoothly adapt to my stay in Japan. 

Japan’s unique culture differs significantly from what I was accustomed to in Sri Lanka and Thailand. Notable examples include the exemplary behavior of Japanese people inside public transport and their dedication towards waste separation. Learning about Japanese customs, manners, and etiquette was crucial to show respect to the locals and integrating better into society. One of the most valuable life skills I acquired during my stay in Japan was respecting others, which is a fundamental part of Japanese culture. Punctuality was another essential aspect that I refined. Punctuality is highly valued in Japanese culture, and it is considered impolite to be late. I observed that Japanese society highly values hard work, dedication, and commitment. This experience taught me the significance of self-discipline and hard work toward our goals.

Studying abroad in Japan as an exchange student was an enriching experience. It exposed me to a different culture and helped me develop adaptability and valuable life skills. I am sincerely grateful to AIT and Tokyo Tech for providing me with this exciting exchange opportunity and unforgettable experience.

I want to express my sincere gratitude to my academic advisor Prof. Sangam Shrestha for motivating me to apply for the YSEP student exchange at Tokyo Tech. Additionally, I sincerely thank Dr. Subin Pinkayan for their generosity and financial support toward my education. 

I am grateful to the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO) for providing funds to support my living expenses in Japan. I would like to express my heartfelt appreciation to the Office of International and Public Affairs, Office of Advancement, and Alumni Affairs for guiding me throughout the application process.

About Water Engineering and Management (WEM) Program:

The Water Engineering and Management (WEM) field imparts education and training toward an understanding of the complexity of water use and water resources management problems. It offers a balanced curriculum, which covers both the engineering and management aspects of water resource development. Students are trained to acquire knowledge and hands-on practice in tools and techniques to come up with viable and sustainable solutions within the framework of integrated water resources management at the river basin scale.

Click here to learn more about WEM program.