Spring Lake Park HS student spends culturally charged summer in Japan

She toured ancient temples, immersed herself in hot springs baths and watched soy sauce fermenting in large, wooden stave vats when she visited what is billed as the world’s largest soy sauce factory.

Jessica Borgert celebrating a summer festival in Japan. Photo submitted
Jessica Borgert celebrating a summer festival in Japan. Photo submitted

Jessica Borgert, 16, a junior at Spring Lake Park High School, spent a culturally charged summer in Japan, where she studied, sampled sushi and got her first taste of miso and ramen noodle soup.

“I still can’t get over that I went to Japan,” Borgert said in a recent interview at the high school. “I loved it. It was an amazing experience. It was unreal.”

Borgert was one of 14 students earlier this year selected nationwide to visit Japan for six weeks as part of a Youth For Understanding (YFU) exchange program.

She attended a three-day training session in California starting June 9 and then headed to Japan.

The cultural exchange trip was sponsored by the Kikkoman Corp. in partnership with the national FCCLA (Family, Career and Community Leaders of America).

This is Borgert’s third year as an FCCLA member.

Life changing trip

While in Koto-Ku, Tokyo, Borgert stayed with a host family of four with two girls, a 12-year-old and a 16-year-old. The father is an actor, the mother manages a clothing and shipping company.

During the day, Borgert attended a year-round girls’ school when she wasn’t exploring the area, logging five-mile walks daily.

She estimates she visited about 15 temples during her stay.  As part of her trip, she also visited Tokyo DisneySea and the Japanese version of Disneyland.

She toured the Kikkoman Corporation factory (“kikko,” Japanese for the tortoise who lives 10,000 years and “man” for good fortune) and saw how the world-distributed soy sauce was made.

Known in Japan as shoyu, Kikkoman makes soy sauce for the Japanese Imperial family. The sauce, made in large vats, takes about a year and a half to complete the fermenting process.

Twice, Borgert bathed in hot springs water, once in a mountain region eight hours from Tokyo.

She sampled Japanese food, her favorite being red beans, particularly, a sweet red bean soup and a red bean dessert. And, for the first time, she tasted ramen noodles, an ingredient in Japanese soup. “It was so amazing,” she said.

During her stay, she became more adept at eating sticky rice with chop sticks.

To communicate, she used a lot of hand signals and broken English. She picked up a bit of the Japanese language as well. (Borgert is signed up this school year to take her fourth year of Spanish.)

Borgert will share her Japan experiences in speeches to her FCCLA fellow students and, most likely, at its conventions.

FCCLA alerted her to the program 

Borgert first learned about the exchange program when she was a freshman and heard a speaker tell of her Japan study experiences at an FCCLA national convention in Anaheim, Calif.

She kept the idea in the back of her mind and decided to apply for the program last year.

The process called for answers to a series of essay questions. Among the questions was why she wanted to be a part of the program.

She wrote about her grandfather, her mentor who, as a veterinarian and sought-after speaker, was asked to talk in Japan.

“I always wanted to travel around the world like they did,” Borgert said of some of her family members earlier this year.

The trip to Japan was life changing for Borgert, who before the trip had traveled as far as Jamaica.

“I always knew I wanted to travel, but now it’s what I want to do. I want to go back now,” she said.

Borgert looks forward to hooking up with her Japanese host sister (the 16-year-old) who is slated to travel to America this fall to attend school in Madrid, Iowa, as part of an exchange program.

Before the trip, Borgert had thought about a career in forensic science. Now, she entertains the idea of, perhaps, becoming an ambassador someday.

Elyse Kaner is at [email protected]