It was approximately 11am when I started wondering if I was going to die. I was halfway up Mount Oyama, a popular hiking mountain looming over the dense woodlands of Kanagawa Prefecture, about two hours west of Tokyo. Before coming to Japan, I wasn’t one for physical exercise – my idea of “lifting” was raising pints of beer from the table to my mouth at the Austral. But I figured that I should try out new hobbies while on my year’s exchange at Waseda University, so one brisk October morning I hauled myself onto a train bound for Kanagawa.
Now I was halfway up and wishing I’d stuck to beers. Around me, sprightly old Japanese couples and families with children cheerfully picked their way up the jagged stone steps towards the mountain’s summit. I still had nearly an hour’s climb left, and my knees were seizing up while my bag felt as if it was filled with bricks. But I stoically (despite having just written 150 words complaining) pressed on, determined to make it to the top.
In many ways, exchange study is a similar process. I’ll be blunt: exchange can be hard. Glossy brochures of sun-kissed Chilean beaches and snowy European mountains aside, you’re placing yourself well outside your comfort zone, in a foreign country with different customs, rules, beliefs and languages, where previously mundane tasks (such as paying bills or sending mail) can suddenly become complex operations. This can be tiring, confusing, and sometimes quite alienating.
But all this is nothing in comparison to the incredible experiences I’ve already had through my exchange study in Japan. In only a few months, I’ve studied the intricacies of disaster-risk management under former United Nations experts and talked post-conflict reconstruction (yes, I’m a B. International Studies student) with the Ambassador of South Sudan. I’ve met, drank, argued and laughed with people from all over the world in my international-student dormitory, and had wondrous experiences with Japan’s people, whether that’s bumming rides with student filmmakers down perilous mountain roads or contemplating the meaning of death with Zen Buddhist monks. I’ve travelled more than I’ve ever travelled in my life, which is an irresistible urge when in a brand-new country: stood on lonely island beaches where the sea and sun and sky merged into one, watched super-volcanoes belch smoke and ash, blundered down treacherous rainforest tracks in the howling rain, and undertaken a surreal 36-hour, 30-train cross-country train trip just for the hell of it.
Eventually, sweating and heaving, I did reach the summit of Mount Oyama. Alongside hundreds of other Japanese hikers, I saw the world’s largest city sprawled out before me in all its vast glory. At that point the tiredness, muscle-ache (and even the craving for a beer) all fell away.
So if you’re considering exchange study, what’s my advice? Do it – take the plunge. You will see and do the most amazing things, meet people so strikingly different, and learn more about the world and yourself than you ever thought possible. You won’t return the same person, but as someone with a truly global mindset and a swag of incredible memories.
Climb your mountain – the view is worth it.