On Monday of this week, Tokyo experienced the heaviest snowfall seen in four years and I had the fortune (not necessarily good or bad, but just fortune) of being in the middle of it.
As the weekend was sunny, mid-fifties, I had a hard time believing in the predictions of my weather app and the tittering of classmates (both local and visiting like me) that snow was on the horizon. Coming from the northeast, I consider myself something of a savant when it comes to snow: I can think of countless times where I’ve called a school delay, beat the grocery store rush, and pulled my sled out of the cellar hours before the first flakes even fell. Though snow is a non-issue down south, I was confident my instincts hadn’t been dulled by my two storm-free years.
So, Sunday night, I went to bed with my window cracked as always and a cotton dress hanging up for the next day…only to wake up to pinpricks of icy rain plunging in through the crack in my window. Switching the dress for a thick sweater, I was still unconvinced that full-blown snow would be touching down on the already hectic streets of Tokyo. Not unconvinced enough that I left my umbrella in the dorm, which I was grateful for later on.
The first true snowflakes started around 1 p.m., and although everyone was composed for the most part, the atmosphere in class had definitely shifted. Eyes darted between the windows on one side of the room and the clock on the other. I’m sure some were already dreading their commute, but the palpable excitement outranked any murmurs of unease. The stairways were especially packed (expect to see that phrase or a similar one a few more times, tight spaces and crowds are as inherent to a snowstorm in Tokyo as the white stuff itself) as students rushed outside to take pictures. Again, being a northerner, this wasn’t particularly noteworthy, so I took this diversion as an opportunity to beat the line at 7-11. No regrets.
Snow was the furthest thing from my mind for the rest of the day, anguish over the lack of pastries in stock at 7-11 demanding my full attention. Oh, and I guess my studies were holding my focus, too. Regardless, when I walked out of Azabu Hall after my last lecture, it was time to admit defeat: yes, it had indeed, truly, beautifully, tangibly, snowed. As I stomped my way to the metro station, I was awed by the magnificence surrounding me. White coated rooftops and awnings, an ebbing sea of opened umbrellas, all of the bright lights reflected in the slick streets: walking through snow-covered Tokyo can really make a person feel small.
Right outside of Musashi-Kosugi Station.
A usually busy side street, cleared by snow. Also, as a side note, why are umbrellas only used for rain back in the states? C’mon, people, let’s make this a trend.
But don’t worry, being crammed into a train you had to fight to even board, with countless shoulders and elbows pressing into you, and the realization that your closest neighbors can likely smell lunch on your breath just as well as you can, will make you feel big again in no time. And finally getting off of said train is an experience unto itself; marriage, childbirth, sky-diving, all pale in comparison to the elation of exiting an overcrowded train. The trek home, through greying slush and still-falling snow, felt like a victory lap after that train ride.
Back in my dorm, cotton dress hanging with a smugness you would not think fabric could exude, I took just enough time to warm up before venturing out to take pictures for posterity.
A fellow northerner casually regards snow.
Ankle-deep snow and more coming down directly outside the dorm.
Though almost all of the snow was melted by noon Tuesday, my observations will stick with me. It’s easy to focus on differences when living abroad, in a country like Japan, but finding reassurance in similarity is a much better decision in the long run. I don’t think I’ve felt as comfortable since arriving in Tokyo as I did watching Japanese people at the station super market stock up on eggs and other staples the way people do with bread and milk back home.
In my Special Topics Japanese literature course on Natsume Soseki, my professor never failed to remind my classmates and me that we are members of the elite, privileged in our pursuit of a higher education. As I awaited my early morning departure to Narita International Airport, her words finally began to sink in. Most of us graduate without realizing how lucky we are to have been able to attend college and better ourselves through communicating with brilliant minds – not all of them close to home. I enrolled in TUJ’s study abroad program with the goal of understanding what it means to be Japanese by living in Tokyo.
This was not the first time I’ve packed the contents of my life into luggage and relocated to a new city. At 23, I’ve traveled and lived in more places than most of my friends, but I was still just as nervous about flying as I was at 19 when I stepped onto my first plane to Montreal. It was a gutsy move: not only had I never left home, but I had never been outside of the country. Looking back, I’m grateful that the challenges of living in Montreal prepared me for life in Tokyo, the city I have always dreamed of visiting.
Picturing myself trying authentic ramen, visiting the Rikugien Gardens from “Norwegian Wood”, seeing Tokyo Tower, and visiting other famed cultural attractions helped me through the 15 hour journey. I reminded myself to keep my expectations realistic, too. Having once studied abroad, I expected my first week in Tokyo might be difficult – how could it not? From the moment I passed through Customs, I knew that I would have to step up my Japanese. GPS and Google Translate have been my closest companion this first week! A major plus: I’ve already discovered that the best part about living in Japan as a gaijin (foreigner) is how eager many Japanese are to help you practice your language skills.
Living in the Takadanobaba dorm is the best of both worlds: lovely residential buildings and the Kanda river are just ten minutes away from dozens of restaurants, boutiques, and bars. The area is known for its population of students who attend Waseda University, and the neighborhood’s lively nightlife and colorful storefronts reflect its youthful population. (Note: the absence of sidewalks definitely takes some getting used to.)
Taking a morning train for the first time on the Tozai line was an interesting albeit slightly claustrophobic experience. Our cheerful student guide, Yuri, led us TUJ’s main campus, a sleek office building ten minutes from Azabu-Juban Station. TUJ’s campus may be on the small side, but it has an incredibly diverse student body. I’m grateful that going to school in a tiny corner of Minato gives me an even greater opportunity to exchange ideas about life, literature, and social issues with Japanese students. Without a doubt, there’s a strong sense of community on campus. Many of us are at least 6,000 miles away from home, and seeing familiar faces in our classrooms and hallways is an added layer of comfort.
For those of you who are curious about studying in a non-English speaking country, but too afraid to make the leap: don’t hold yourself back! I’ve experienced plenty of ups and downs my first week in Tokyo, but the challenges have been a worthwhile learning experience. Traveling and studying in a foreign country is a unique way to reevaulate our paradigms and understand ourselves on a deeper level. I already foresee that my experiences exploring Tokyo and studying at TUJ will open my eyes to cultural and social issues that will shape me as both a writer and a humanitarian.
Contrary to my previous post, it was not ‘sayonara, America’ on the 8th and ‘konnichiwa, Japan’ on the 9th. My departure was unfortunately delayed by a full twenty-four hours due to failures on the part of the U.S. Postal Service, and my perennially procrastinating self, which kept my passport/visa from arriving until late on the 8th. After all of that stress, spending half a day cramped in an airplane was no issue. My flight went smoothly, I caught up on all the movies I’d missed in my last two years in the wilderness, and managed not to sleep more than twenty minutes, which apparently helps with avoiding jetlag.
Luckily, there was another TUJ student on my flight and in my same dorm so we were able to take the same shinkansen (super fast train) together and then split from our station to the dorm. Arriving so late meant missing some parts of the orientation but we were caught up in no time by dorm staff on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, starting with a student worker escort to main campus who gave a full run-down of the train rules and routes.
My morning commute at its calmest.
Thursday afternoon brought placement tests for those of us with language experience and visits to the ward office to establish residency for those without. I was in the former group, smaller in size and collectively shaking with stress. We established camaraderie while waiting for the test to begin, joking around and offering cheesy pneumonic devices for remembering vocabulary. I was by far the worst offender on this front: kusuri, the word for pharmacy, is easy because it sounds like cough syrup, while zo, elephant, live in zoos, and sara, plate, can be saran-wrapped, etc, etc. Then it was into the test, heads held high, and out of the test with eyes glued to the floor. Heading back to the dorm, things were definitely fraught but a stop at Mr. Donut and then to buy pillows at a nearby department store offered a reprieve from the gloom. Dinner that night also provided a pick me up, although my picture does it no justice.
Fellow TUJ students with their new pillows (and doughnuts).
Thursday’s dinner, panda coin purse not included.
Friday meant a ward office visit for my group, followed by a few hours of free time that I spent exploring our neighborhood in search of cheap coffee, and then hopping on the train to find Tokyo Tower with a friend from the day before. We decided to eschew GPS and simply follow it in the sky with our eyes, keeping track mentally of each turn we took as well as every hole-in-the-wall coffee shop for future excursions, mutual caffeine addiction binding us together. Once we arrived, it was a bit of a struggle to find the ticket booth for the observation deck and we ended up going to the third floor only to come back down. Tickets were only 900 yen, a much better deal than most U.S. lookouts offer, and especially affordable knowing we had a free dinner coming at the welcome party that night. Mt. Fuji was not visible as we had been told it would be, but it was still an impressive view.
View from Tokyo Tower.
After we had snapped a few dozen pictures from every angle, it was time to head back to campus for academic advisory meetings. Since I have no more language requirements for graduation from my home institution, I ended up dropping my pre-scheduled language classes for an art history class titled ‘East Meets West,’ with a field trip component, and ‘Introduction to East Asia: China,’ which should be interesting as I know very little about China. All in all, the past few days have been a great introduction to this city and I can’t wait to get into the swing of things when classes start.
Throughout every moment of my TUJ application process, and then acceptance, one thought recurred significantly more than others in my mind: finally, I’m out of the woods. You see, for the first two and a half years of my undergraduate education I’ve been enrolled at a small college located atop a mountain in an extremely rural part of Tennessee. How rural is “extremely rural,” you ask? I think a few phrases summarize it well: Unlocked doors! Non-existent cellular service! No Starbucks for 30 miles! Flannel worn un-ironically! Hiking! All of these things and many more were nowhere near my consciousness during my childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Sure, Scranton isn’t a thriving metropolis by any stretch of the imagination but it’s definitely urban, more smog than grazing sheep, and with just over two hours separating me from Philadelphia I never thirsted for any extra concrete contact. While I’ve loved my small college experience, I’m definitely excited to be in a city again and that the city happens to be Tokyo is even better.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve definitely got my fair share of qualms and queries about spending almost half of a year in another country when I’ve yet to leave the U.S. ever before. Every form completed, every Japan-centric blog post or Wikipedia article read, every major hit my bank account takes between my passport and plane tickets, I find myself screaming internally with equal parts anticipation and anxiety. Anticipation for all the new food I’ll be eating, the shrines, landmarks and architecture I’ll be seeing, the trains I’ll be taking to those places, the opportunity to use my two years of language experience, and the countless other experiences and events I would not be able to have anywhere other than Japan. But then, of course, each of those excitements comes with an accompanying anxiety, anxiety about figuring out the yen, about being the only American in many of those places, about navigating the train there so that I have the opportunity to be the odd one out, about the fact that I’ve only got two years of language experience at my disposal, and of course about the fact that I’ll be completely out of my element for who knows how long. I believe the good will ultimately outweigh the bad, but if you ask me after that fourteen-hour plane ride, I’m sure I’ll feel differently.
My Japanese professor and I created a mantra for the times when I start to doubt myself and my decisions: the grammatically tenuous ‘more waa than warui,’ which translates much less alliteratively as ‘more wow than bad,’ but the sentiment is still there. Right now I’m on the cusp of being overwhelmed by forms and coursework and life in general, but I’ve had the same countdown in my head since I received my acceptance back in October. It’ll be ‘sayonara, America’ on January 8th and ‘konnichiwa Japan’ on the 9th. Stay tuned for more!