While studying abroad in Hikone, Japan, Matt Ketchum '08, an Asian Languages and Cultures major and Philosophy minor, decided to give back – both to reciprocate the hospitality Japan had shown him and to connect further with the country and with other students.
Hikone, as Ketchum describes it, “a small castle town in Shiga prefecture, about 45 minutes northeast of Kyoto by train. It’s a city quite different from the well-known metropolises of Japan.”
Instead of the trendy clubs in Osaka and the “incomprehensible street fashion of Tokyo’s popular districts,” Hikone has “rice fields adjacent to and across from large centers of business, and the beautiful sunsets of Lake Biwa … [It has] retained … something that is distinctly removed from contemporary American culture, and so distinctly foreign … The city is, then, an ideal location for an abroad program.”
Ketchum attended the Japan Center for Michigan Universities, which had lost funding from the state of Michigan but resurged with exceptional language learning classes. “The Japanese language class, the central reason for participating in this abroad program,” Ketchum says, “came out in spades – grueling, challenging, and ultimately rewarding.”
The beautiful rural location—for example from the center to a grocery store is a 30-minute walk or a 15-minute bike ride—stimulated Ketchum to connect with the community and organize volunteers to pick up litter. “We had our work cut out for us.”
Ketchum and approximately 15 students recruited for each outing cleaned up the beachfront, the area around JCMU, storefronts and houses, and the streets and sidewalks. “Not only did we succeed in beautifying the community,” Ketchum says, “but it was also a great bonding experience for those who participated.”
For Ketchum, the opportunities afforded by the semester abroad were incredible. From getting a deeper and more natural command of the language and the chance to travel to Osaka, Nagoya, and Maibara, to attending concerts, a 400-year-old flea market, and an environmental business conference broadcast on national television, it was all unforgettable.
And for all the traveling, by the end of the semester, Ketchum says “I felt and still feel that I had firmly planted myself in the town of Hikone. I could walk down the street and wave to friends, and almost confident enough to carry on a conversation in their language. Hikone has left me a bit older, a bit smarter, and surely wanting to return to the country that now, geography aside, isn’t so far away from home.”