With only a few weeks left to go till the summer session wraps up, it seems like a good time to take a look at some of the quirks and adjustments that come with living abroad for a summer. While it’s hard (and likely impossible) to come up with all of the differences and difficulties, I tried to come up with some of the more interesting and prominent ones. Let’s start with the basics: getting around, and getting food.
This one’s fairly obvious. The network of trains in Japan is nothing short of phenomenal. Dozens of lines, carrying what seems like millions of people, at all hours of the day. It’s also incredibly intimidating. My first experience was taking the train from the airport to my dorm, and even that was overwhelming. Fortunately, the public transit system seems built for people who don’t know exactly where they’re going, which helps when navigating the labyrinths of platforms and stations. It’s probably even more startling coming from Philadelphia, where the train system in the city is more or less limited to two major lines. If you’re even in Japan, I highly recommend the app “JapanTravel.” It comes with a map of the rail lines, and lets you input a starting station and destination, and it tells you which trains to take, what transfers, and even how much it will cost.
Of course, the trains are also often packed, in particular express trains and rush hour. From about seven to nine in the morning and any time after six at night, the question isn’t if you’ll get a seat, it’s if you will fit in the car. It’s not uncommon for commuters to exit the car when the train stops, then cram themselves back in before the train departs again just for a bit of space. Fortunately (and amazingly), the trains are very quiet, orderly, and ALWAYS on time.
This was something I wasn’t expecting. When planning to go out to eat, I’ve learned to start looking before you actually want to eat, because it often takes some time to find a place, particularly if you’re looking for somewhere foreigner-friendly. Many restaurants do have English menus, and if not, the universal language of “pointing at the thing you want and saying please” works just fine; but sometimes the menus are complicated, and you can often end up with food you hadn’t planned on ordering (like accidentally biting into some raw tentacles from something – yuck!).
It’s also a little surprising that their isn’t a huge amount of variety. Side streets may be crammed with restaurants, but they’re often all very similar. I can’t count the number of ramen shops, curry shops, and soba shops I’ve been to. Though many restaurants are fairly samey, I still have yet to eat a meal I didn’t thoroughly enjoy. Even for those with more Western tastes, there are still options (even barring the bizarre popularity of KFC and Denny’s). One highlight that I found was a burrito place in Harajuku, which was described by my friends as “Japanese Chipotle.”
The food can also vary in price wildly. I regularly pay no more than 600¥ for lunch, or about $5, but this is for lunches from convenience stores (which are, amazingly, full meals rather than the junk food you find in American stores). At some restaurants, though, I’ve paid upwards of $30 for a meal! Fortunately, though, it seems to average out at about 1000¥, or about $8. And, as expected, the more you pay the higher quality you get!