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  • Writer's pictureDanielle G.

Episode 20 │Something to Figure Out (KYOTO/TOKYO)

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

photos courtesy of Jenny Zhang

"Some of the most fun I had was just wandering around in different places, like getting off at a random bus stop and just walking around for however long I wanted." (Jenny, Episode 20)

Jenny Zhang and I have been friends since middle school. She's always been a talented and thoughtful writer, and while in undergrad at the University of Michigan she double-majored in comparative literature and Asian studies. Jenny is Chinese-American and has been speaking and learning Chinese for practically her whole life, so one of her concentrations was Chinese language and literature. Her family's trips to visit relatives in China frequently included brief excursions in Japan as well, and she had started learning Japanese as a hobby while in high school, so she chose Japanese language and literature as another one of her concentrations while at UofM.

As sophomore year was coming to a close and she didn't get an internship that year as she'd planned, Jenny looked into studying abroad instead. Through her own research she was able to find an intensive Japanese language summer program at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan. She spent about six weeks studying to improve her Japanese proficiency and engaging in cultural immersion activities arranged by the program, and she also had ample time to explore Kyoto and take day trips to nearby areas. Compared to her previous visits (she had been to Kyoto before), this longer stay allowed her to feel slightly more rooted, to have a home base and establish regular haunts, to learn how to get around and explore places beyond the usual first stops for tourists. This was during the summer of 2013, the same time that I was studying abroad in a nearby prefecture, so I got to hang out with Jenny for the first time since high school in Kyoto of all places!

photos courtesy of Jenny Zhang

The following summer Jenny took her first solo trip to Japan, spending some time in Tokyo and Hokkaido. And then the summer after that (directly after graduation), she participated in a two-week program at Waseda University in Tokyo, learning about Japanese literature and its influence on modern-day Tokyo. Though she had graduated already, thanks to having taken a certain Asian studies class in junior year, she was able to participate in this program which was fully-funded by UofM's Asian Studies department. This time, all instruction was in English, and besides regular classes she and her classmates enjoyed guest lectures and excursions to museums and other universities in the city.

Though she did tell me that Kyoto would probably be the better option for her as far as longer stays go (it's not as busy as Tokyo and allows more opportunities to wander through quieter, calmer areas), she doesn't have a strong preference between the two cities, and honestly wouldn't say no to any place within Japan. She'd love to go back, it's just a question of when and in what context; plus now she sets aside most of her vacation days to visit her family in China, since all of her family is back there now except for her brother who's still in the States.

"Figure out what the number one thing you want from that program or opportunity is, and figure out how to do that."

Overall Jenny thinks fondly of her study abroad experiences, citing her time in Kyoto especially as one of the most formative, enjoyable, and memorable times in her life. However, she does also acknowledge that studying abroad is expensive. It might not be immediately viable for everyone, or even worthwhile to people for whom studying abroad doesn't play a necessary factor in their life or career aspirations. In her opinion, ascertaining the best sort of travel is different for each person, and ultimately it depends on each person's goals and priorities, "Figure out what the number one thing you want from that program or opportunity is, and figure out how to do that." After graduating from UofM, Jenny got her master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, and now she works in news media and audience engagement in New York City. She can be found on Twitter (@jennygzhang), Instagram (@jennygzhang), or her website (

Be sure to listen to this episode, "Something to Figure Out (KYOTO/TOKYO)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!


Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at The music in this episode is by ProleteR.



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