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!
Saturday, I came back home. It’s been a strange experience being back home after being in Japan for so long. The jet lag meant I was up until six in the morning the first night I got back (my mom was not happy). I cried for a good hour in my room the next night because home felt strange rather than familiar because so much had changed in four months. Hearing all the English around me when I went into a store, I thought it was weird. Nothing felt familiar anymore and that confused me. I was expecting these feelings to a certain extent. Home becoming unfamiliar is a feeling I deal with every time I come back home from college, since I go to a school out of state. When I leave, I keep expecting everyone at home to stay the same but of course people change. However, the feelings are a bit different from what I am used to. I had gotten used to a whole new culture. To be pushed back into my old culture all of a sudden, of course I miss certain aspects of Japan and find myself doing things that are normal in Japan but not so much in America (e.g. bowing).
I have no answer on how to adjust. I do have some suggestions that helped me begin the process of recovery. Embrace the fact that you will take time to recover. It took me awhile to adjust to Japan. I guess people expect that since I know American culture, I don’t have to adjust to America. People are wrong. I’ve become used to Japanese culture. Meaning, I’ve become used to people not being overly loud, neat queues that people respect, and bowing. Now that I’m in America, I pretty much have to unlearn all that I’ve learned. Another hard part to accept is that everything I’ve learned has no more outlet. All these Japanese customs and habits I picked up, but I have to use for them anymore. Hopefully, I can find a new place to use these customs or work to return to Japan.
The one thing that really helped me get over my dissatisfaction of being home was sharing stories of being abroad. It’s not enough. I feel that no one at home understands. But it helps. They may not completely understand but they get to grasp a glimpse of my experience. I get the added benefit of reliving my study abroad moments. Refreshing my memory makes the experience seem more real than an elaborate dream that I made up. Talking about it reminds me and my family that I changed. By sharing stories, I hope that my family and me can catch each other up to the people we are now, rather than stuck knowing the people we were. I think it would be helpful to talk with your study abroad friends. They are all going through the same thing you are. If anyone gets it, it would be them.
Coming home has been tough but I know I’ll feel better eventually. My time in Japan forced me to grow up in leaps and bounds. I’ve changed but not into an unfamiliar person. Rather, I’ve turned into a person that I’ve always wanted to be. I just never knew I did. Coming to terms with this change will take time but once the people around me and I have, my time in Japan will always leave a tangible mark on me.
My second to last post and I’ve decided it should be about traveling outside Japan. Now as a very much broke college student I decided that I would splurge on only one big trip. I was originally going to go to Kyoto but then I decided let me just be really out there and do a solo trip outside of Japan! I ended up booking a ticket to South Korea. The timing worked out so that my trip would occur during finals week which is why I’m doing the post on trips now. Some tips to help you out:
Booking a flight.
Comparing prices takes a while. Prepare to give yourself a week to shop around. Also, try to purchase a ticket at least a month in advance. I recommend using Kayak or Expedia. These websites filters are a blessing. Otherwise I would have ended up booking a flight during one of my finals.
Booking a place to stay.
Since it was only a few days I ended up booking a bed at a hostel, which is a cheap way to go. The most important thing is that you feel comfortable. If a hotel would make you comfortable, go for it. If you shop around I’m sure you would be able to find an affordable room to stay in for a couple of nights. Airbnb is another option you can use. Just as a side note for the women out there. If you feel uncomfortable sharing a room with a guy, just be sure to pay attention to what kind of room you’re booking at a hostel. Some rooms are co-ed and some are female only.
Foreign currency exchange.
Look up beforehand what the best method for currency exchange is at the country you are visiting. Every country is a bit different. For the first day, you might as well exchange some money at the airport since everything is unfamiliar and all you want to do is get to your room. The easiest way, especially if you’re only staying for a few days, might be just to withdraw straight from an ATM as soon as you’ve gotten settled. Just remember to find a global ATM.
Call your bank!
This is so important if you plan on withdrawing money while abroad. I almost forgot but thankfully I read a post online that reminded me. I would also look into your phone plan. I was lucky enough to have an international plan that included South Korea.
Planning on what to do.
I did some research before I went to Korea. I did not want to waste too much time looking up place to go. Using Trip Advisor and my friend’s recommendations, I compiled a list of places I wanted to visit. I ordered the list from “must-goes” to “would like to go if I can.” Then, I planned about two to three activities everyday that I absolutely had to do and added one of the “would like to go if I can” at the end. Remember not to make your list too long. There’s no way you can go everywhere and that’s fine. Go to a few places and really absorb the country. An additional note: look up if your preferred navigation app works in the country you’re visiting. I used Google Maps in Japan and it works just fine. However, not so much in South Korea. The transit directions work just fine, but the walking directions were non-existent. Apple Maps worked about 50-50. I would recommend getting used to reading actual street maps. Nothing like going analog.
The language barrier.
Since you’re visiting the country for only a short time and probably only visiting the more tourist-y places, there’s no reason to go in with a semester’s worth of language knowledge. You should at least know how to say, “hello,” “thank you,” “sorry,” “excuse me,” and at least numbers 1-10 (chances are, you won’t need to use the last one but you never know).
Prepare for plans to fall through, for your timing to get messed up, to get lost. Nothing will go exactly as you expect and that is what makes traveling so fun. Don’t pressure yourself into completing everything on your list because you probably will not.
After reading through the whole, maybe traveling on your own seems scary. And it was. I went to a foreign country all by myself, with no help and barely knowing any Korean. Is it for everyone? I don’t think so. I think everyone, while in Japan, should leave the Tokyo area at least once. Don’t feel pressured by friends and family to travel to another country if you don’t feel up to it. Recognize that just going abroad is a huge accomplishment and will change you in ways that you will carry with you forever.
Thank you so much for following my journey in Tokyo! ありがとう ございます (arigatō gozaimasu/thank you) and さようなら (sayounara/goodbye) Japan!
I’ve been steadily going through a list of well-known places in the Tokyo area while here. Each trip has yielded amazing sights, good food, and surprising cultural events (not all the time, but every once in a while). However, one thing I recommend that everyone should check out if they have time is a university cultural festival. I don’t know about the spring, but I know a bunch of cultural festivals occur in November. My friend and I managed to attend two: Waseda University’s and Keio University’s. Two reasons why you should go: it’s cheap and a great way to experience some Japanese culture.
The two cultural festivals I attended were both free of charge. The trick is finding it. Waseda University’s cultural festival my friend had told me about (and she had found out from a friend). Turns out the festival we had attended for that school was not its main festival but rather a smaller section done by its science department located at the science campus (go figure). It was still great fun though and probably better for us because it meant a much smaller crowd. Keio University I heard about from the Japanese girls on our hall (a good number attend Keio). We arrived there fine because we just followed all the college-aged kids who left the train station at the same time.
Outside you’ll see lines of stalls, probably selling food. All of them are decorated with construction paper and are probably manned by one particular university club. Be prepared to be bombarded by college students, holding posters, and advertising for their stalls. These stalls are a great place to try some Japanese food for cheap. I had hashimaki (okonomiyaki on chopsticks) for the first time at Keio.
If you follow along these stalls, you’ll eventually hit a stage. My friend and I got to see many awesome performances there. Waseda University had a bunch of dances that looked like classical Japanese dance with a modern twist (maybe). At Keio my friend and I saw a couple of juggling performances, Michael Jackson dances done by the Michael Jackson club, and a bunch of awesome dances done by another dance group. Everyone was very talented and blew our socks away.
Don’t spend the entire time outside. I recommend going inside the university’s buildings because there are events inside. Waseda had a bingo sheet with the room numbers as the spaces (we did not know where we would have gone if we had gotten bingo). Each room had a different kind of activity, probably relating to the club that was hosting. Keio had a floor dedicated to each music club and each held a performance. The third floor had a bunch of lecture halls with more performances. I’m sure there was more but I had no idea how to go about finding them.
A fair warning to all who decide to attend a cultural festival: they are not super English friendly. These events are not catered to tourists so that means while some things may be written in English, not everything is. Also, the level of English each college student knows is different so you may end up getting someone who’s struggling with English or someone who knows a decent amount (chances are that you’ll meet the former rather than the latter). That should not deter you from going but just be prepared. Probably go in with a basic understanding of hiragana and katakana. It’s definitely worth seeing to see what Japanese college students get involved in.
Tori no Ichi is a famous outdoor market held on the Chinese day of the Rooster (Tori), where people buy decorated rakes to wish for happiness and good business in the upcoming year.
Roughly three weeks left and I still have not begun souvenir shopping. When traveling, souvenirs are a given. Everyone who hears you’re going to a foreign country wants something back, which may not be stressful for some, but when you’re on a budget and as indecisive as I am, souvenir shopping is horrible. Not only do I have to find something for everyone that will make them happy, but I also have to manage to bring it all back with me. The whole process is way too stressful. Here’s some steps I’ve used to simplify the whole debacle a bit.
Designate a suitcase for souvenirs.
Before you even begin traveling, you should designate a suitcase for all your souvenirs. Usually, this is the suitcase filled with things that you will end up using in Japan and can throw away (e.g. lotion, soap, old shoes, etc.). By knowing how much space you have, you can know how small you should keep your souvenirs.
Write up a list.
Write down all the people you’re going to buy for. This act will make the process seem much simpler. You will have a clear idea of how much you have to buy. If there are people you have to buy souvenirs for, but you’re not really close to them, you should buy bulk gifts for them (stuff that comes in sets, so you can give each person one thing from each set).
Make things easier for yourself and ask people what they want. I’m a super indecisive shopper. I will spend hours walking down aisles, second-guessing what people want, until I finally put everything back and decide to try another store. The worst is when people say, “just get me whatever.” Just remember that these are people who love and care about you and that you can’t go too wrong in what you choose. Worst comes to worst, they’ll remember you’re a poor college student on a budget and that there was only so much you could buy.
Set up a budget.
Tell yourself how much money you are willing to spend. If you are on a tight budget like me, you will want to spend as little as possible. Overestimate how much you will spend (this way, when you go under budget, you’ll feel better about yourself).
Go to 100-yen shops.
This step is not a must in this list, but it’s helpful. Japan has 100-yen shops (you can look them up online) where you can buy souvenirs for cheap. They’re like the American dollar store. Meaning, not everything is actually 100 yen, but still cheap. In the end, most people want things that can only be found in Japan. Instead of spending money on ridiculously overpriced souvenirs at tourist destinations, you can buy something from a 100-yen shop that screams Japan but hurts your wallet less. I recommend small beauty products (less than 100 ml so that they can go in your carry on) or face masks. Cool mugs are my personal favorites (wrap them in plastic bags and carry them on your carry on, so that they don’t break). Tea and snacks if you really want to scream, “I was in Japan.” Cute charms and school supplies are a good go-to as well.
Don’t go overboard.
Pace yourself. After all, if you have trips outside of Tokyo, you’ll probably want to buy things for yourself. However, it’s not like you have unlimited space. Make sure you don’t buy too much and leave room for the souvenirs for other people.
Don’t let souvenir shopping get to you too much. Have fun checking out all the cute and useful things Japan has to offer.