I was pretty surprised with how English friendly Japan was. Almost all the signs have English under them and most people at least recognize some English. I’ve talked about not knowing Japanese when coming to Japan and how it is still manageable. However, not knowing any Japanese does cause me some anxiety. When I’m on my own, I find myself avoiding restaurants that have too much kanji written on them because I do not know what I am ordering. I did not want to waste my money on buying something I would not eat. I feel guilty every time I talk to one of the Japanese girls on our hall, in English. They struggle to use the English they remember from high school, while I take the fact that English is a global language for granted. When I volunteer with the kids at a Japanese elementary school, I feel stupid when they say something and I have no clue what they say. Reading the hiragana or katakana frustrates me because it takes so long and even when I know the sounds, I still don’t know what the label’s saying. I cannot ask for clarification because I don’t know the wording. For the first time in my life, I understood what my parents feel like, especially when they first came to America. I don’t know how they did it. At least for me, English is globally used, but their language is not commonly used in America. Not knowing the language everyone is speaking is lonely.
I recommend to anyone who is thinking about coming to Japan (or going to a foreign country), to study the language. I don’t think perfect fluency is necessary before coming to another country but basic phrases are a must. Knowing some basic verbs would also be helpful. There is only so much of a conversation you can have with pointing and nodding. Learning how to read in the language would also be useful. Not everything will have an English translation.
When it comes to going out without any Japanese fluent people, research where you are going beforehand. This way you know what you are getting into and you can take the time to look up unknown words. Going in armed with information is less scary than going in blind. If you want to wander around a place, feel free to, but I still recommend looking up restaurants beforehand, if you get anxious about unknown food items like I do. If you don’t care, more power to you.
This may be mercenary, but I do think making a friend who is decently fluent in Japanese would be useful. Sometimes a translation app is not enough and having an actual person who can explain things to you in English works best. Of course, as thanks, I recommend getting your friend treats. The custard cakes in Japan almost always a crowd pleaser.
If making a Japanese friend is difficult for you, you can always turn to a professor for help. When it comes to forms, just bring it in to a professor. I’ve seen a girl do that before and I’m sure professors will not mind. They want to help you. Just don’t do it for every little thing. They are not paid to be your personal translator.
Not knowing Japanese can be stressful in Japan, but the moments I can understand a conversation with no help are often pleasing enough to wash away the stress, temporarily.
I live about 30 minutes away from Chicago. I love to go to the city but I hate the city traffic. Most of the time, I take the train. By now, I’m fairly familiar with the CTA and Metra. Trains in Japan are a whole different beast. Rules are completely different.
No one really talks on the train. Those who do talk, talk pretty quietly to their friend who’s next to them. Most people will be on their phones. This fact is not just restricted to the younger generation. I’ve seen many middle-aged people playing what looks like Candy Crush on their phones. The single-minded focus that people can have on their phones in the trains can be kind of astonishing. You quickly learn that the commute to school is the prefect time to get that reading done.
Try not to eat on the train. I have seen Japanese people break this rule, but I would try not to in general. I mean, if you’re going to faint from hunger, by all means. Food can be messy and trains in Japan, unlike most of the ones in America, are kept clean. Personally, I feel horrible when I make a mess in a practically spotless room. Also, it’s an enclosed space. Food can stink up a room, so be considerate of your fellow passengers. The same rule applies to drinks. I mean, trains move, so the chance of you spilling your drink is high. Be kind to your fellow passengers and wait until the station before you decide to eat or drink anything.
Keep your things out of the way. This way, people have space to sit or stand. When you have a seat, keep your bag on your lap or in the compartment above the seats. While standing, keep your bag tucked between your feet or slide it in a compartment, if they’re empty. Some people like to swing their backs to their front, in order to not accidentally swing their bag into someone’s face. Trains get crowded pretty often. Keeping your bag out of the way helps fit in even more people.
Moving onto the famous rush hour of Japan. We’ve all heard of the famed packed in, like sardines, train cars, as the salary men come out of work. There’s some truth there. Rush hour is usually around seven to eight in the morning and seven to eight at night. There are station men who will pop in during this time to push passengers into the train. For those of you who have anxiety or claustrophobia or something similar, try and avoid this time. For others, get prepared for an uncomfortable ride. The best way to get through is to close your eyes. Just remember everyone else is pretty much about as comfortable as you are. A good trick is to get a standing space between two people sitting if you can. It’ll give you a little bit of breathing room. I have not experienced the brunt of rush hour yet, but this is some advice gathered from fellow friends who have.
The train experience can seem a bit stricter than in America, but all in all the trains in Japan are way more convenient and comfortable. I think the trade offs are worth it.
My Japanese Study Abroad class took a class field trip to Kamakura, which is about an hour south of Tokyo. Here are some highlights from the trip!
For this post, I want to take a step back from Japan and think about the people back home. Coming to a new country does not mean I’ve forgotten about the people from before. I faced this issue when I went away for college the first time: how to balance the people you left behind with the new people you meet.
Traveling to Japan, I’ve found that communication back home has become much harder because the time zone difference is much greater. If you’re like me and have multiple friends who are all over the place, then that means multiple time zone differences to keep track of. Honestly, the situation is enough to give any sane person a headache! I will share some tips to keep the communication process on track, as well as my reflection on talking about studying abroad to those back home.
Before I left for Japan, I made a list in my head of all the people I had to call while I was abroad, and how often I should call. For example, my list included my mom and dad (once a week), my best friends (once a week), my roommate (once a week), my college friends (every other week or once a month). Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry. As I realized once I got to Japan, just because I knew how often I wanted to call people did not mean everyone else wanted that amount or could fit the time into their schedule. Despite the complications, I do think it is a good idea to have an idea of who you want to call before you study abroad. Calling takes up a good chunk of time and when you’re abroad every second counts.
Keep a spreadsheet. If that feels a little too over the top, there’s no need to make an actual Excel spreadsheet. However, you should write down what days and times work best for people or keep a rough idea in mind. The time differences can sneak past you. Especially when there’s four different time zone differences you have to keep track of. With big time zone gaps, like 14 hours, you start to realize that calls like that are best done on the weekends. However, weekends are the best time to go out and explore. All this scheduling can get confusing and people can start slipping through the cracks. Which is why you should probably write do, like I didn’t do and am still regretting.
One thing I’ve realized when talking to friends about being in Japan is that nothing I say can really do it justice. I cannot express the experience in words. There is nothing more frustrating. Thinking about it, I think it makes sense though. Being abroad is an immersive experience. Every little bit shapes what I feel and remember. If I were to sit down and explain every little thing that happened to me that would make up my experience, I could possibly be there for a month. Some things cannot be expressed in words because there is too much going on at once to explain to someone who does not get it. Thankfully, many of my friends have or are studying abroad. They get it. Everyone who doesn’t has been kind enough to let me blather on without giving me an uninterested gaze (those people in my lives are the real MVPs). I hope for all of you who are hoping to study abroad have or will find people like that.
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.