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.
Twenty years old and feeling like a teen in a country-mandated “adult’s” body. I’m Anitta, an Indian American English major (weird combo, I agree), and I just have no clue. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Finding out that I got into the Temple University Study Abroad program in Japan was not the end of my process. There were plenty of forms to submit and manuals to read afterwards. Most of them were simple enough. Submitting the housing deposit was not difficult to figure out. Clicking “finished reading” on the various “must read” forms on the application website was satisfying. I felt like I was accomplishing so much with each checkmark. But it’s a deception. Boxes like “Japan’s COE” came with so many forms to fill out and so much information to gather. There were plenty of deadlines to keep track of, like when course requests were due (a date that almost snuck past me). The program emphasizes the need for a person to do this on their own in order to exercise independence. I do not disagree with this thought. As a child of two immigrants from rural South India, I have plenty of experience wrestling with numbers and struggling to wrangle signatures for the FAFSA and CSS profile on my own. But doing the Study Abroad forms on my own allowed the reality that I would be on my own in a foreign country, where I don’t know the language, sink in. And that was scary.
People would ask me about my fall semester and I would tell them about Tokyo. Their faces would light up and the inevitable question: “Are you excited?” I knew what they wanted to hear: “Of course I am!” What they did not know was that deep inside the fear was overtaking the excitement. I know what I will do: study up on Japanese culture; learn as much conversational Japanese as possible over the summer; and make sure I know all the characters related to transportation, airports, directions, and money. The steps I will take to minimize the fear will help but the fear will not completely disappear. I know this because this is what happened before I left for a college that was located 12 hours away by car. I believe it is fine to let the fear be your primary emotion. I am going to a whole other country; why should I not be scared? It doesn’t make me any less excited; I may be scared now but a month into the program and my feelings will probably change. Maybe I won’t find friends instantly, but I’m sure there’s someone in Tokyo; and if not, that’s fine because I have friends back home. Maybe I don’t know the language that well. A month in, I’m sure I’ll be able to make do because I am not the only person who has gone to a foreign country without a good grasp of the language. Others have done fine and so will I. Maybe I’ll get lost. Well, that’s not so different than when I’m back home, so that just means it’s time to whip out the phone like I always do. Change will always be scary for me. Nevertheless, I will never stop taking the next step because where I am right now is not where I want to stop.
My decision to apply for Temple University Japan’s summer semester was an easy one. I’ve had a very personal, very lifelong aspiration to study in Tokyo, but my home university was offering in Japan nothing for anyone outside of the Photography Department. When I heard about Temple University Japan through a friend of a friend, a program that offers an entire range of classes, I jumped at the opportunity and investigated. I was more than eager to jump through the many hoops to get the OK from two separate universities, because it’s led me here: graduating college after finishing one last summer semester abroad with Temple University.
This next stage – preparing for the educational, cultural, and personal experience of a lifetime – has been an even greater pleasure. I currently live and study in New York City, but I would not make the mistake of expecting the same atmosphere from Japan’s capital city. My first time away from Western culture will be a singular experience.
One of the first things that I did upon my program acceptance was contact an author who I’d met previously, at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s Sakura Matsuri (Cherry Blossom Festival) in 2016. Kate T. Williamson’s book, A Year in Japan, details her time studying Japanese visual culture in Kyoto on a fellowship with illustrations and handwritten observations. I remembered how I had expressed my own hopes for visiting Japan, and the simple but thoughtful inscription she made to me when I bought her book:
“To Ariel- So nice to meet you today at the Sakura Matsuri! I know you will have your own adventure in Japan soon! With very best wishes, Kate”
I received an email back almost instantly, with congratulations and a long list of suggested places to visit and observe in Kyoto, Tokyo, Okinawa, and Osaka. On April 29th, I attended Sakura Matsuri again, meeting back up with Kate. It felt particularly rewarding for her inscription to come true, and to receive another in her latest book.Between the five classes I took up this past semester, I’ve began to study basic Japanese. This has included marking up a Basic Japanese Conversation Dictionary, and a Japanese Hiragana & Katakana guide for beginners. I’ve found the language app Memrise to be particularly fun and helpful in a pinch, especially on the NYC subway. As for this summer, I’ve enrolled Practical Japanese for Study Abroad Students. Studying daily in the States has given me a healthy head start, and complements my research on culture as well. One of my major sources of this has been Tofugu, a Japanese language and culture blog. Common and uncommon cultural topics alike, travel guides, reviews, and even videos comprise the content that Tofugu’s produced since 2008. The more that I prepare, the more excited I become to study media, culture and sociology in Japan. My experiences inside and outside of the classroom, including the many TUJ excursions and volunteer work I intend to take up in Tokyo, will leave me well-informed — and well-equipped for keeping this blog.
A couple months ago, a professor of journalism who has traveled around the world gave me the highest reassurance about a lack of concrete postgrad plans – once I explained my upcoming enrollment in TUJ. “There’s almost no use in planning in what comes after,” she said, “Because this will define it for you.” Once going abroad, many students are transformed. My hopes are that, over the course of the program, and hopefully as I blog and inform, I can discover what comes next.
On April 29, I took a plane from Narita International Airport back to my home in the United States. I remember staring out the plane window, watching the green fields, the tile roof houses, and the rice paddies growing smaller and smaller, with an unmistakeable feeling of sadness.
My time in Japan was truly amazing. It was my second experience leaving the country, and my first experience living someplace outside of my home state of California. I had never experienced such a huge adventure; such a dramatic change in my way of life. I was amazed at how quickly I adjusted to the country, referring to my tiny Monthly Resi Stay apartment room as home and becoming familiar with all the shortcut streets that lead to the train station. When the time came to leave, I didn’t feel as though I was leaving a foreign country, I felt as though I was leaving a home.
I remember taking very quickly to life in Japan, going through all the pre-described states of culture shock within a week and setting my sights on cultural integration within the first month. I knew I couldn’t completely integrate, but I still wanted to understand the people and places around me as much as possible. The tiny girl I met who called me onee-chan or older sister and liked screaming out of windows, the man who sold sportswear who laughed when I told him I watched Doraemon to learn Japanese. I wanted to learn more about them; I wanted to learn more about Japan.
Strangely enough, the best memories I have in Japan the mundane ones. Memories of going to the park with my friends, grabbing a tasty beef bowl meal at my local automat, working on art projects at school, having an old lady hold my arm for support on a crowded train, or stumbling upon the odd temple while shopping for necessities. I have memories of sitting in on a happy couple’s wedding plans, cooking in my room with my friends, asking my art teachers to practice Japanese with me, and running through the rain to the karaoke bar on a Friday night. I loved those small, quiet moments of enjoyment in Japan, when I felt as though I was settling into my life abroad. I definitely had fun on touristy outings–going to museums or famous temples, but I was most content when I was able to relax and absorb my environment.
I’m going to miss many things about Japan now that I’m in America. I am surprised at how quickly all the things about Japan that amazed me–the trains that ran on time, the heated toilet seats, the ubiquitous vending machines–all became mundane to me after a month, and then became an easy convenience that I couldn’t believe I had lived without. Back home, I don’t understand why we can’t have a better reaching rail system and why every convenience store does not have a rack or ready-made rice balls. I even miss weird things, like how everyone in Tokyo seemed to like dressing up their dogs in little jackets or padded vests.
Though I miss the many conveniences of Tokyo life, I think I will miss the friends I made most of all. People I met around the city or through mutual friends, my classmates and my teachers, I have a hard time thinking that I will never see them again. Everyone I met taught me so much and I wish I had more time to get to know all of them better. I hope I’ll be able to return again soon.
At the end of March and beginning of April, the cherry blossoms began to bloom, ushering in warmer weather and a festive attitude amongst the Japanese people. I was too preoccupied with school work to make any posts to the Temple Abroad blog–I needed to start several final projects simultaneously. However, I still want to share my experience of cherry blossom season in Japan.
During cherry blossom season, delicate pink and white flowers bloom from the numerous cherry trees in Japan. The season ends when the flowers fall from the trees, to be replaced with budding green leaves. Tourists and native Japanese alike flock to parks and gardens to take pictures of the short-lived blooms, called sakura. Many people also set up picnics or parties to watch the cherry blossoms, called hanami.
I was lucky enough to go on several hanami outings. Some were sponsored by Temple University, while others were personal trips I took with friends. However, cherry blossom trees are so common in Japan, every trip outside felt like a mini hanami session. Hanami trees lined major streets and were planted in every park. There was one directly outside the TUJ dorms and three directly behind main campus in Azabu.
The first flower viewing I went to was a field trip for one of my art classes. We went to Hama Rikyu Gardens, a series of gardens belonging to the Japanese government which initially served as the grounds for a wealthy feudal lord. The garden was crowded with other hopeful flower viewers. One fully blooming cherry tree was quickly surrounded by twenty or so people, all trying to take a picture of its sakura. My friend and I joined in the chaos and took some nice photos, although it was difficult to work around the many other people crowding around.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed Hama Rikyu Gardens, my personal favorite hanami experience happened at night, near the end of the season. I was meeting up with a friend who went to a nearby school. We ate dinner together at a bar and then casually strolled through Ueno Park after evening fell. The cherry blossoms were difficult to see and impossible to take pictures of in the dark, but I could still see their flowering branches stretching overhead, covering our path in a flowery canopy. Strings of lanterns illuminated small patches of white blossoms and the numerous picnics taking place underneath. Business men and groups of friends laughed and cracked open bottles of alcohol. Polite signs asked picnic-goers to throw away their trash, and the atmosphere was fun and lighthearted. My friend and I walked past the rows of picnics and food stands, passing by a large lake. Through the cherry blossom branches we could make out the bright city lights from across the water. I thought the view might have looked better during the daytime but in the nighttime, a serene atmosphere settled over our surroundings.
The sakura season ended after two weeks. I remember going to school during finals week and feeling a twinge of disappointment upon seeing the pink petals replaced by tiny green leaves. The cherry blossoms lasted such a short time, but I still have some excellent memories and photos from the experience.
The cherry blossoms have been blooming all over Tokyo for the past few weeks, and despite the supposed numbing effects of photo saturation one might assume would come with that, they really are quite breathtaking. Locations around my neighborhood that I’ve now been familiar with for months have transformed, quite literally overnight, into stop-and-take-note type views, pictures worthy of sending back home or putting up on instagram.
This season in Japan is called Hanami, and is often filled with feasts and parties held beneath the Sakura trees, celebrating the temporary beauty of the sakura, as they only last for a week or two, as well as the return of the nice weather. In many parts of Japan, the blossoms line up with the beginning of school or work vacation, timing which lends itself well to the festival like atmosphere.
Hanami parties at night are called Yozakura, and some of the larger parks in Tokyo, most famously Ueno Park, put up temporary paper lanterns for this purpose. Last Friday night we decided to head to Ueno and see for ourselves.
The park was insanely crowded, and in a way that was strange to see in Japan: kind of a mess. Not necessarily in a bad way, it just looked like there had been a massive, multi day party going on there, which of course, there had been. All of the spaces under the cherry trees were packed, covered in tarps and groups of friends, families, and coworkers, eating, drinking, listening to music, and celebrating. The trees themselves were gorgeous, and being offset against the grey, 8pm sky gave them a far more dramatic feel than they had during the day. We walked around the park for a bit, watching things unfold in the light of the paper lanterns, before deciding to stop by some of the food trucks and stand that had been set up near the temple for dinner.
We must have walked around looking at the food on sale, debating where to eat for about thirty minutes, at least for long enough to realize that some of the stands were starting to close, so we’d better decide fast. Settling on a massive portion of Takiyaki, or octopus inside of fried dough balls covered in fish flakes and different sauces, we sat down on a bench and people watched for the rest of the evening.