Image of Mount Fuji from above, plus an image of EF's Carly when she was young, before living in Tokyo as an American

EF staff

A love of Japan, made in America

Living in Tokyo as an American, Carly became used to the tradition of visiting sento bathhouses

Finding friendship, confidence, and common ground both abroad and at home.

It was 2014, and 29-year-old Carly Buxton was lounging in a Japanese sentō bathhouse, completely naked. The Virginia native and Ph.D. candidate was living in Tokyo as an American on a Fulbright Scholarship and was, quite literally, soaking up the local culture. At these communal spas, which have separate sections for males and females, the dress code happens to be au naturel. But this activity wasn’t always in Carly’s comfort zone. When she dipped into the revered tradition of sentō during her first visit to Japan more than ten years earlier, she was so nervous that she thought she would melt. But eventually, the practice became part of her regular routine.

So how did this shy American end up feeling so at home in a country nearly 7,000 miles away?


Carly, a former member of EF’s Market Development team, spent a year in Tokyo on a Fulbright Scholarship, having lived in Japan for another year-and-a-half before that. She has her Ph.D. in East Asian Studies from the University of Chicago.

A whole new world

Carly’s passion for Asia began as a child, when she received a package from her grandmother who was traveling in China. A silk nightgown, notes in Mandarin, dirt from foreign lands, a paper fan—each item that she pulled from the box stirred a sense of wonder within her. Carly idolized her grandmother for her unapologetic sense of adventure and disregard for the expectation that, as a woman, she should stay close to home.

From that day on, Carly wanted to escape to Asia herself. She imagined that she would find a different world, different rules, and a different Carly beyond the borders of her hometown.

But can you really escape where you’re from? Carly struggled to answer that question her whole young adult life. That is, until she met Satomi, a Japanese exchange student.

Living in Tokyo as an American became more of a reality for Carly after her family hosted Satomi, a Japanese exchange student

Top: Carly and Satomi with some friends at a baseball game. Below: A snapshot of Satomi from Carly's personal collection.

A little more than a decade after receiving the souvenirs from her grandmother, Carly noticed a poster in her high school that advertised a Princeton University program for American and Japanese high school students to learn about each other’s lives and cultures. This program, she knew, was meant for her.

Her family hosted Satomi, a Japanese teenager who, as Carly describes, could not have been more like her. She was bubbly, curious, and came from a traditional town where she felt like a misfit. Carly instantly felt a strong friendship between her and Satomi.

As her family introduced Satomi to their hometown of Richmond, Virginia, Carly was able to see her community with a fresh perspective. One of their favorite memories together, a familiar activity to Carly but a foreign one to Satomi, was a cookout that Carly’s older brother organized, followed by a ride in the back of a pickup truck down country roads to get Slurpees.

Thanks to Satomi, Carly realized that culture and identity can be cause for celebration or frustration regardless of geography. She would make it to Japan one day, she was sure of it, but it would no longer be an escape.

There’s a sign in the Tokyo airport that says in English, ‘Welcome to Japan.’ But in Japanese it says, ‘Okaerinasai,’ or ‘Welcome home.’ And Japan really does feel like a second home to me.

Living in Tokyo as an American, Carly visited Satomi and her daughter

Want to know how to write “I love Japan” in Japanese? Take a look above for a demonstration from Carly. Also above: Carly explores Japan with Satomi and her daughter.

Carly visited Satomi in Japan the following summer in 2003, right after she graduated high school. The visits haven’t stopped since—Carly studied abroad in Japan during college, was living in Tokyo as an American doing her Ph.D. research, and, after returning to work in the U.S., regularly traveled to the country for her job on the Market Development team at EF. She found that the simpler pleasures were the travel experiences she cherished most, just as Satomi had during her time in America. In 2005, when Satomi and her mother took Carly to sentō in the mountains near their hometown of Sendai, she finally understood the social and familial importance that sentō holds in Japan. “It’s not a practice in America to get completely naked and just hang out with your buddies, but once you get used to it, it’s relaxing and fun.” The more Carly embraced the customs of Japan, the more confident she became.

Now, the girl who once felt like an outsider feels a sense of belonging on two continents. “There’s a sign in the Tokyo airport that says in English, ‘Welcome to Japan.’ But in Japanese it says, ‘Okaerinasai,’ or ‘Welcome home.’ And Japan really does feel like a second home to me.”

Through her exploration of another culture, Carly gained an appreciation for the hometown she had once taken for granted. But leaving her comfort zone also helped her truly discover her identity, and led to lifelong connections. Carly and Satomi both have young daughters of their own now, and they can’t wait until their future curious travelers are old enough to spend summers in each other’s native countries and develop fresh perspectives of their own.


Additional reporting by Ekow Edzie

Hear more of Carly’s story

In this episode of EF’s Outbound podcast, Carly seeks to understand the essence of sentō culture in Japan.

EF tours can help students understand what it's like living in Tokyo as an American

Our tours are curated by experts (like Carly!)

Wouldn’t you love to tag along on one of Carly’s trips to Japan? You can—sort of. Our Market Development team curates all the little details and immersive experiences that make up our tours to Tokyo, Kyoto, and everywhere in between. Here are a few examples:


Explore the science behind magnetism and how it’s utilized by Japan’s high-speed bullet trains.

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Visit the Cup of Noodles Museum for a delicious and educational experience. Top it off by customizing your own cup of noodles in the factory.

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See ancient temples and art in Nara, a city that dates back to the 9th century. See the Daibutsu, the world’s largest bronze Buddha.

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Visit Hiroshima Peace Park and Memorial Museum for a solemn reflection on the events that ultimately ended World War II.

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Hannah Sheinberg

Hannah is a copywriter at EF Education First. She's written about kava culture in Fiji, Jurassic fossils in Dorset, and mountain towns in Mallorca. Her favorite vacation spot is Kauai, where she likes to surf and eat her weight in shave ice.

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