I’ve been needing a haircut for awhile now. It’s been nearly seven months since my last cut. Being in Japan, where would I go? The shops that are more accommodating to foreigners tend to be way more expensive, from what I could tell online. Thankfully, one of the girls on the hall just had a haircut and I decided to ask her where she got it done. She was very helpful and even helped me set up an appointment online.
Fast forward to Saturday, day of the appointment. Having never been there and being the nervous goose that I am, I left early. I got to the place a half an hour early. Only for them to tell me that I did not have an appointment. I could feel myself panicking because I knew I had an appointment but I had no effective means of communicating this information. Good thing I had the confirmation email on my phone. Only to have the lady show me that the place I had booked the appointment with was near Kawasaki station, not near Motosumiyoshi Station. I had not even known the place was a chain salon. Well, what else could I do? I was not about to pay the ¥2000 cancellation fee. I booked it to Kawasaki.
In my desperate dash to the station and realizing that I forgot my Passmo (a rechargeable train pass), I learned to not waste time searching through convoluted subway maps, where I barely know the kanji for places. Google maps gave me the train lines and station platform numbers but not the ticket prices (which are based on distance in Japan). Just politely ask someone: (place name) ikura desu ka? They’ll tell you the price (this is where it would be helpful to review numbers before going to Japan), you can buy the ticket and be on your merry way. More like rushed in my case. I still got to the beauty salon 20 minutes late. They still made time to get my hair done. The worst part is that I did not know enough Japanese to explain to them what happened. All I can hope is that they understood that I was truly sorry for what happened and that it was not intentional on my part.
The guy who cut my hair tried so hard to use the little English he knew to converse with me, which I appreciated. It was still a super awkward experience since neither of us truly understood the other. I recommend the best way is to show a picture of what you want the cut to look like and have a translator app ready, just in case. It all worked out fine, although the poor guy was clearly not used to curly Indian hair. He looked very confused at what my hair was doing after he had washed and combed it. I wish I could have told him that my hair always acted in this manner after combing it but that was more Japanese than I knew.
I learned to double check times as well as addresses when it comes making appointments in a foreign country. Also, forget the awkwardness and embarrassment of asking someone for directions, because when you can’t read kanji, wasting time looking it up on Google is just not worth it. I want to end this post with just my eternal gratitude to all the people I encountered on this frantic trek to the beauty salon and the people at the beauty salon for accommodating for this poor, confused gaijin.
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.
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.