Schreyer Honors College (SHC)at Penn State

Tokyo "Washoku-Yashoku" Study Tour - Food and Culture in Japan

May 10

Leave for Japan

May 26

Return to United States

  • Time

    Two-credit spring course with one-credit Maymester travel, 2019

  • Location

    Tokyo, Japan

  • Eligibility

    Scholars in all majors

  • Credits

    Three honors credits

  • Application Deadline

    To be announced later this fall

Program Summary

The destination is Japan, and specifically the Kantō region and Tokyo, the largest ‘megacity’ in the world. The theme is the traditional Japanese diet, “wa” shoku – its origins, history, ways of expressing Japanese life and culture, seasonality, and festivity. Shoku is one of the most easily identifiable Japanese characters, 食—to eat; meal, food—and it combines with “wa,” referring to Japan and all things Japanese, to describe the traditional ways of food in Japan. But, now, the Japanese diet is undergoing rapid change, through assimilation, becoming more “yō” (westernized) shoku. Although yōshoku originated with the opening of Japan in the Meiji era, it has by new reached a new level through globalization. This change is not necessarily “bad,” but it does represent a fundamental change and an ongoing adaptation to modern life. Studying washoku and yōshoku will provide a window into cultural change.

Tokyo has been the center of Japanese life since the Edo era. All roads lead to Tokyo. The “0 mile marker” for the nation resides in downtown Tokyo. Edo was and Tokyo is the seat of government and culture, has the greatest population density, and is the transportation hub for the nation. During Maymester, our two weeks in Tokyo will offer students abundant opportunities to understand how, in the >70 years of peace following World War II, the Japanese have built an infrastructure that is the rival of the world, and have used it for increased productivity, enjoyment of the outdoors, respect for nature, promotion of tourism, and an unrivaled food system. Tokyo is also a city of trees and parks, shrines and temples and churches, rivers and canals, and museums and stores to delight many tastes. There are even rice paddies in Tokyo. Food is not consumed in isolation, but in the context of the seasons of the year, specific locations, and celebrations. This Maymester course will focus on food, but the experience will be that of Japan at its center, Tokyo. The experience will include trips to the nearby mountains and bay, historical museums, architectural museums and walking tours, visits to graphical/ sculptural/calligraphy/origami museums, botanical gardens, and river walks/bike rides to understand the importance of nature, rivers, and the sea to the life and food culture of Japan. Our fundamental purpose will be to understand Japanese foods, and why Japanese washoku is consider “special” enough to have been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. Let’s understand washoku!

The TST is modeled significantly on the London Study Tour (LST) plan. It is designed to take 2.5 weeks (Maymester), from Monday, May 6 through Friday, May 24. There will be pre-departure meetings late in the spring semester, to lay out main course themes and to get acquainted. The credits will be structured as NUTR 497H in the spring (2 credits) and NUTR 499 in the summer (1 credit), for a total of 3 honors credits (499 is for an abroad program and received an honors credit waiver).

We will plan our excursions together and we will travel together as a group to the various locations, as this is necessary in a large city like Tokyo, but, once at our destinations, students will have leeway to look and explore independently, then regroup on schedule so we can move on together. For example, in Ueno Park there are several different museums to choose from, while at Jindaiji there are temples, craft shops, outdoor botanical gardens, and a large collection of diverse tropical plants in the conservatory. Students can decide which they prefer and apportion their time accordingly. We will arrange most of our discussions before our visits and in the evening afterwards.


The program will be led by Professor Catharine Ross, Professor of Nutritional Sciences and Physiology, and Head of the Department of Nutritional Sciences. She is an expert in vitamin A and lipid metabolism, and she has trained several fellows from Japan in her laboratories over the past 30 years. In 2017-18, she spent 5 months in Japan as a Fulbright fellow, hosted by the Kagawa Nutrition University. She lived in central Tokyo, taught at Kagawa Nutrition University, and studied washoku. She will build on her Fulbright experience and her connections and friendships in Japan to enrich the experience of the Schreyer Honors College students who travel with her in this Maymester program. She will be assisted by one other faculty member, either from nutritional sciences or another department.

Pre-Departure Seminars

Students will be required to attend several preparatory meetings on campus during the second half of spring semester. Information on these meetings will be provided as part of the application process. If you can also take a spring course that provides context about food or about Japan during the spring semester, please do! (For instance, ANTH 45, ASIA 100 or 172, FDSC 105, GEOG 3N, HORT 150N)

During the pre-departure course each student will select a topic and write a précis of a concept they wish to test through their experience in Japan. The students collectively will also identify 3 topics that they will work on in groups. They will be encouraged to keep these topics simple and addressable within the time and location of their travels.


To assure that the trip includes context and that the students develop an appreciation for changes that have taken place over time, the class will collectively read and have discussions during the trip on two or three classical monographs on Japanese life. One of these is Ruth Benedict’s “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” about the characteristics of the Japanese people that informed the U.S. efforts during the post-war occupation and reconstruction of Japan. Other useful texts are: “The People and Culture of Japan,” Conversations between Donald Keene and Shiba Ryotaro, and “Washoku Seasoning,” by Michiko Matsuda. By reading from common texts and participating in group discussions on these various topics, the students will integrate what they observe in present-day Japan with how Japan was, and was viewed by westerners previously. While on their study tour, the students will gauge and reevaluate their thesis assumptions through journal entries and short reflection papers, and they will submit a final summary paper on return to the U.S. that evaluates the (presumably transformative) thinking regarding their concept, as a result of their study tour to Tokyo. We will have a variety of shared experiences, and we will discuss them as we go. Students will have assignments and writings to turn in, and a final summary focused on one pre-identified question due after they return. Student journals/writing will be read in two stages: the first half will be read by Professor Ross while in Tokyo, and the second half will be turned in soon after the students return to the United States. Students will be given a participation grade, which evaluates their level of inquisitiveness and positive contributions to discussions and other group activities.

Before our departure to Japan, the students will also be introduced to cultural expectations and standards of etiquette practiced in Japan, so that they will be prepared to “blend in” and be perceived as good visitors. These briefings will begin during the spring semester and be reinforced in the on-campus session immediately before the trip.

Because “food is life,” many other aspects of daily life and culture (art, religion, architecture, nature) will be experienced and discussed as we enjoy learning about washoku. The course will not require Japanese language skills and the venues selected for visits will be those that have satisfactory English-language signage and explanations for visitors. We will be met at several locations by Japanese professors, practitioners (e.g., of architecture), and will arrange for a tour in English of specific cultural landmarks (e.g., Meiji Shrine). Even in these visits, students will see the relationship of food to culture; for example, each year, new kegs of sake are placed at Meiji Shrine in a ceremony of respect and celebration. There will be specific short lecture-discussions on foods and nutrition –washoku-yōshoku– to be held during the trip; these will be understandable to students across a variety of majors. The students will have plenty of opportunities to reflect on Japanese life. A “fun experience” will be learning about the train and subway systems in and around Tokyo. The students will gain a sense of the city and a level of comfort in how to navigate in it. We will visit Tokyo Station (through which more than a million people pass daily); use the buses, trains, subways, cog-rails, and trams, and do a great deal of walking during our adventure to Tokyo and environs.

As examples of some areas for student group research are:

Policies in Japan with respect to food safety; school lunch; food labeling and health claims.
Seasonality in Japanese cuisine. Practical aspects (marketing, distribution); cultural symbolism; the use of seasonal flowers in food arrangement.
Food production in Japan. Regional specialties. Rice as a staple; meat and dairy; soy and its products; wheat and buckwheat; foods from the sea.


The course will focus on foods and food culture in a way that will be suitable for students in a variety of disciplines: Nutritional Sciences and any of the other majors in Health and Human Development, Nursing, Architectural and Landscape Design, Agriculture, and Social Sciences. Students from these disciplines should all benefit, as should any student with a passion for becoming acquainted with modern Japan. As designed, it does not require a very specific prerequisite.

Estimated Costs (Subject to Change)

  • Round-trip ticket from the United States to Tokyo, approximately $1000-1500
  • Required one credit of summer tuition and fees; for Schreyer Scholars, the SHC will provide a grant to cover tuition differential for out-of-state students
  • $1800 additional program fee; Schreyer Scholars will receive a $500 refund via scholarship for this fee (Note: This fee is subject to change through Fall 2018)

Application Deadline & Process

Please complete the application form and return by e-mail attachment to both Professor Catherine Ross and Dr. Richard Stoller by 5:00 PM on Friday, November 30, 2018. After decisions are made in early December, accepted students will have through the end of drop/add for the spring 2019 semester to finalize their participation.

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