Let’s be honest, the food is half the reason one travels abroad. This fact certainly played a part in my decision to study abroad in Tokyo. Eating out all the time is just not a realistic plan of action though. I’m a poor college student, on a strict budget.
One great thing that Japan does have that I sincerely wish the US did have (or at least college campuses), is a convenience store (or conbini) on practically every corner. These are not like the convenience stores in America. For one thing, they’re smaller. For another, they sell almost everything. At least it feels that way to a newcomer. The best part about convenience stores, in my humble opinion, is that you can buy lunch there for really cheap. Just today, I bought a bowl of rice, chicken, and a hard boiled egg for roughly $3.50. What I struggled with at first when buying meals, was talking with the cashier. Having rapid-fire Japanese words thrown at me, makes me anxious since I don’t know any Japanese. Thankfully, most cash registers state the amount you have to pay, so I just have to look at that instead of deciphering the numbers that the cashier had said. As for everything else they say, I just nod and smile (which works 90% of the time).
Food at the convenience store is great but it did not feel super healthy. There was serious lack of vegetables. That meant it was time for me to brave the supermarket. My trip to the supermarket was a great learning experience. Here’s what I learned:
Most signs are in Japanese. Not only that, but almost all the packaging is in Japanese as well. This meant walking through the entire store in order to familiarize myself with where everything was located. I had to figure out what I was picking out through pictures or by typing in the characters into my phone (which did not have a huge success rate on my part).
For everything I recognized, there were maybe three other things that I saw that I did not recognize. I’m in a whole new country and they have items that are not found in the US. I had two choices: avoid everything unrecognizable or try new food. Depending on the week, I ranged from adventurous to downright stuck in the old. Don’t let the unfamiliarity deter you. Accept that what you are getting may end up being really horrible. It’s a risk to take on the off chance that it turns into your new favorite food.
When you can’t find something, ask. If you’re like me and don’t know how, grab your phone, bring up a picture of what you want, and point. It’s really that simple.
You bag your own groceries. You pay an actual cashier but you bag your own groceries. Speaking from the point of view of someone who’s been a cashier, I have to say that’s an ingenious idea (I hated bagging items).
All in all, food shopping is not the worst experience in the world as long as you’re prepared for things to go wrong.
This past weekend, I made the decision to get out of my comfort zone. One could argue that I had done that by leaving for a country where I don’t even know the language. I would say that it’s not enough. The problem was that living at one of the school’s dorms became a crutch. Being at the dorms allowed for me to have a bit of America, even in Japan. I made friends with other American students studying abroad and we could flock together. Safety in numbers and all that jazz. We moved in groups because doing things on our own in a foreign country was scary. This kind of group comfort was fine for the first few days, when I was still trying to gain my footing. Two weeks in though and I decided enough was enough. I didn’t want to continue to be dependent on my friends. I wanted to spread out my wings and fly on my own.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying my friends are weak for staying in groups or anything like that. Nor am I saying that I was tired of my friends. My thoughts were more along the lines that I came to Japan in hopes of gaining more confidence in myself. However, I have not really done anything that forced me to be uncomfortable or lost. In order to fix that I decided that Sunday I was going to go to Asakusa on my own. I planned to take a look at the Drum Museum and the Sensō-ji Temple. Also, I hoped to gain more confidence in navigating the train system.
Rather than going through a timeline of my trip, I’m going to state a few things I did learn:
The best way to learn a train system is to navigate it yourself. I did not by any means become a Japanese trains expert by the end of Sunday but I was now able to read the train maps with more confidence and pinpoint when the express trains were coming versus the locals. Going along a new route forced me to pay more attention to what was happening with the lines and platforms. This in turn forced me to pick up more tips on how to navigate the trains.
Getting lost can be more fun than it sounds. When I got to Asakusa, I had intended to head to the Drum Museum first. I ended up getting lost trying to get there. That was okay because I ended up finding one of the shopping streets instead. I wandered among these streets for a good hour, turning this way and that, never really knowing where I was. Until I somehow ended up at the Sensō-ji Temple. Go figure. I did not end up going to the Drum Temple but that’s fine. Instead I got to see all these cool shops and food stalls, which I had not been my initial intention.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When you don’t know the language, like me, this can be hard. Not because you are afraid to ask per se, but more like you literally cannot because you don’t know the words. This is where gesturing really comes in handy. On two separate occasions, I had to ask for help during my trip. Both times, using hands and nodding managed to get my message across just fine.
All in all, I got back to my dorm alive. I survived the trip and grew as a person as a result. Now I’m not afraid to travel on my own in the future. Whether this translates to more solo trips during my stay here or gives me confidence to travel abroad on my own after graduation, we’ll just have to see.
Being in Japan while barely knowing any Japanese is either very impressive or very stupid. I’ve been lucky to not have too many mishaps. The problem that I felt I faced when it came to talking to others was that I had no confidence. I knew next to no Japanese and this made me feel unqualified to talk to Japanese people. So I just didn’t.
This pattern shifted during the beginning of this week. I was sitting in the common area of my floor. My room sometimes felt way too cramped, so I liked to come to the area and spread out. I also secretly hoped to start a conversation with one of the Japanese girls on the hall. After all, what’s the point of coming all the way to Japan if you don’t bother having a conversation with a Japanese person? No dice so far but Monday was when my luck changed. A girl had come back to the hall with a bunch of Japanese treats. She called my attention and pointed to the box. I got that she was offering one to me. Not one to turn away from free food, I looked and asked, “What, I mean, nan desu ka?” Thus began our first true conversation. She struggled to explain what the treats were in English, but with the help of her phone she was able to explain what each one contained. With my practically non-existent Japanese and simplified English, I managed to ask her about the school she attended. The conversation developed rapidly when she asked me if I liked any Japanese music and I told her of my all time fave: Bump of Chicken. Turns out the band is way more popular in Japan than America and she loved them. Before I knew it, we were trading favorite songs. For anything we didn’t know how to communicate, we Googled and showed it to the other. What this experience taught me was that language is not a barrier to friendship. That and Googling is universal. All joking aside, I had to learn to embrace the awkwardness of not having an easy-flowing conversation with someone. There were moments when neither one of us knew what the other was trying to say and we just had to give up on that point altogether. I was never completely sure if she got what I was actually saying and vice versa. Be reassured in knowing that it’s not one-sided. The girl I was talking to also felt the awkwardness but she kept trying. To be honest, that’s what kept me going, knowing she wanted this conversation as much as I did. Now that I’ve experienced the awkwardness of being in a conversation that is not 100% English, I feel more confident in my ability to talk to the Japanese people surrounding me.
A few days have passed since I’ve landed. I could go on for pages about all that has happened the moment my plane left US soil. That would take more time to read then you’re probably willing to spend. Instead, I will share some thoughts on the Japanese people I’ve met since landing.
Upon landing in Japan, I followed the directions that Temple had provided to get through customs and then to exchange my currency. I wasn’t sure what to think at first. The airport staff for the most part knew basic English but most of what was said to me was in Japanese. Everyone was friendly enough and that put me somewhat at ease. However, not being able to communicate properly is a scary situation. I didn’t know what was being said to me most of the time and I wasn’t sure if I was following directions correctly. When I went to exchange money, I handed over $500 but I didn’t exactly know if what I got back was accurate (it probably was but the problem is I had no ability at the time to make sure). People spoke slower and with more gestures for my sake and I appreciated that courtesy. It also made me feel a little stupid. Here there were people who knew some English and the most Japanese I knew was how to say hello, excuse me, and thank you.
When it came to buying the train ticket, I was a bit lost. I didn’t know if where I was buying the ticket was the correct place. The lady I was talking to seemed to think so. I ended up getting a ticket for a train that was leaving in an hour. Getting this far without any general mishap made me super happy and proud of myself. Right before I was about to walk to the elevator to get downstairs, the lady at the ticket counter came running after me. I was worried that I had messed up but it turns out that she wanted to let me know that she made a mistake and that there was an earlier train. If I wanted to, she could switch the tickets, free of charge. I was very surprised. She did not have to come after me and do this because it’s not like it would have made much of a difference if I had ended up waiting a bit more. She went out of her way for me and that moment was when I truly felt welcome into the country.
Maybe it was an action that was reflective of solely the lady and not Japan as a whole, but it showed me that there are people out there who are willing to go the extra mile to accommodate my ignorance. Not to say that I plan on taking advantage of that. I do plan on learning Japanese and work on improving my communication. However, coming to a new country where almost nothing is familiar, knowing that people are willing to work extra hard to make sure you are comfortable is a huge weight off the shoulders.