I’ve now been in Japan for about two and a half weeks. There’s been a lot of good experiences, a little bit of bad, and a lot of randomness.
The first full week here included orientation after orientation, as well as a very large amount of paperwork. To everyone who complains about government bureaucracy in America, I have to say to try living as a foreigner in Japan. I lost track of how many forms I had to fill out in total, but as an example, some of the forms I had to fill out (and I’m still not done):
- Foreigner registration card
- Foreign resident registration
- Health care
- Commuter train pass
- Bank account
- Dormitory subsidy
- About 8 more for the school specifically
Oh, and all of these forms are in Japanese.
After the massive amount of orientations/forms/testing, I was able to register for my classes. Some of them are required to be taken in Japanese, while others are available in English. What I decided on taking were:
- International Economics
- Intercultural Communication
- International Communication
- Globalization and Emerging Countries
- Theory and Practice of Debate
- Global Business
- Japanese Culture and Society
- Japanese Studies
- Japanese Language A, B, C, and D.
This put me at a total of 6 classes in Japanese, and 6 classes in English. My schedule is subject to change as the first week of classes is a trial period which you can add or drop classes afterward. The class that I’m enjoying the most is actually Global Business. The class is on Saturdays and the teacher’s main job is actually as the Chief Economist for the European Union in Japan. His classes have been extremely interesting and it’s nice to be able to hear from an Irish guy for a nice change of pace in this country.
The other exchange students at my dorm have been great and we all became friends very fast. The girls and guys have completely different dorms in different parts of the city so the girls have all become friends with each other and us guys have become friends with each other as well. We have five guys from America (Portland, Salem, Florida, and 2 from Seattle), one from Australia, one from Mexico, and one from Germany. There are other exchange students that don’t live in the dorms as well.
One of the more interesting details of Japanese school life is the intense competition of clubs and circles as they try to get students to join. Clubs take more of a time commitment and tend to be along the lines of sports or music, whereas circles are more casual and tend to fit into categories like cultural exchange or camping. I’ve joined one circle so far, and we will be having an all you can eat and all you can drink meetup this coming Friday
(A tiny fraction of the club recruitment on campus)
A few things that have surprised me about this country even after all my research:
You really do need to know Japanese to have a good time here, or at least have a friend who speaks Japanese and doesn’t mind hanging out with you almost every day. I had been told that in Tokyo nearly everyone speaks English to some degree. This may or may not be true, but it certainly doesn’t mean that they are going to use their knowledge. They may be too insecure to actually try using it, or they may simply not want to use it on their home turf. Whatever the reason, I have witnessed very very few Japanese people using English even when dealing with English speaking foreigners. In addition, menus for eating out use a lot of kanji, so even someone who can read Japanese at a very basic level (me!) frequently can’t read many of the menu items. There’s a lot of pointing at the pictures and saying “this, please”. All of the other exchange students have at least 2 more years of Japanese experience than me, and some have 5+ more years of experience, so sometimes while sitting in class I find myself thinking “wow, I am an idiot!” I will definitely have to study harder than everyone else for my Japanese classes.
Tokyo is EXPENSIVE. I know, I know, I should have expected this, with everyone telling me that Tokyo is the most expensive city in the world. The magnitude of how expensive everything is definitely surprised me though. For starters, the portion sizing for nearly everything is super small. You might be paying the same price here for a coke as you would back in the US, but you’re only getting 1/3rd of the amount. Going out for beers is definitely expensive, with the exception of the wonderful place we found that had 40 yen beers (1 yen is about equal to 1 penny right now). However, even that place required a seating fee and a food order to be allowed to stay. Every activity you might want to do costs money. Appliances cost a LOT of money. Taking the train everywhere costs money. Fruit tends to be very expensive. I’ve resorted to cooking eggs a lot in the dorm, but butter is also expensive and I haven’t been able to find non-stick spray as of yet. Luckily breakfast and dinner are free for exchange students at the dorm, so I’m not completely broke already.
(buying a monkey… also very expensive)
To help broker the expenses of lunch, I got a (very) part time job on campus. I am a chat leader at the Aoyama Gakuin chat room. The chat room is a place where Japanese students can come to practice their English in small groups (there are also different chat sessions for Chinese, Korean, and Japanese practicing). For the first two weeks I have 5 chat sessions that I will be leading, four of which are for college/junior college students, and one of which is with elementary school kids. The session I had so far was immediately after orientation and I had a blast, so I’m looking forward to each of these sessions.
I’ve done some exploring around Tokyo as well. I’ll talk more about that next week, but here’s a picture to whet your appetites.
Leaving from home was harder than I expected. I really wished I had a few more days to get everything done and talk with my family and friends. I had one of my really good friends take me to the airport, and it was excruciatingly hard to say goodbye. After our goodbye my heart physically ached through the entirety of the security line and most of the way to San Francisco, and then it did so again every time I thought about it for the entirety of my final two flights. As a side note, San Francisco needs to plan their airport a little better; there should be no reason to force someone to go through security again on a connecting flight, particularly when their layover is less than 40 minutes. I had to really hustle and it wasn’t fun.
The flight into Narita was long, tiring, and boring. I hadn’t slept the night before my flights, and was hoping to sleep for quite a bit of the flight. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. The only time I slept was after taking my sleep-aid when I already felt like I was ready to sleep, when the flight had about 9 hours left. I woke up thinking “we must be over halfway there”. However, the joke was on me, I had only slept for somewhere around 1-2 hours and were another hour or two away from being halfway there. I didn’t sleep again until about 10 that night, leaving me with very little sleep in a two day stretch.
Upon arriving at the airport the process was pretty straight forward. We had filled out the customs declaration form and the disembarkation card while on the plane, so I just followed the line to the entry point and then went up to the counter, got my residence card, and went down to claim my baggage. After claiming my baggage I wandered out through the duty free line into the lobby and saw a lot of people waiting for their family and friends to arrive. As I walked out past the entrance, I was met by my friend Yumi who had been a foreign exchange student who homestayed with my grandma many years ago. She gave me a great big hug and then we got out of the way of everyone else. She then bought me coffee and got us both bus tickets to take us into Tokyo. On the bus I didn’t even do much looking around out the windows, I was too busy chatting with Yumi!
We arrived near Shinagawa station at a hotel parking lot. We then walked over to Shinagawa station (which I quickly memorized the kanji name for), and holy crap it was busy. Even during a less busy time there was a huge crowd of people crossing the street. It felt like something out of Braveheart, with two huge battle lines rushing toward each other in the middle of the street. Yumi then went over to the ticket machine and bought us tickets to get to Kitashinagawa station and showed me how to use the ticket to enter the station and then exit at our stop. From there we walked to the Shinagawa Guest House where I would be staying the first night.
(this was actually from the second place I stayed, the Shizumasa Ryokan)
After stowing my bags we ventured out to find something to eat. I was very tired but was still excited and wanted to spend more time with Yumi while learning more things. After much debate, Yumi settled on eating at an izakaya on the 3rd floor of a building near Shinagawa station. The dining experience was quite interesting and Yumi spent way too much money on food for me. I tried to protest and pay for my own every time she paid for something, but it’s hard to do, she was very insistent. Maybe I’ll learn how to say: “I’m definitely paying and that’s that” in Japanese and solve that problem! Her help was amazing and I was really happy to see her. It doesn’t hurt that she’s stunningly beautiful too.
Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me or take pictures for most of the day I arrived, so the pictures in this post are from the following day.
Oh boy… T-minus 2 days before I leave for Japan.
I’m definitely nervous about finally leaving to start this 5 month long experience. Most of my nervousness revolves around my lack of knowledge about the language. I have taken two terms of Japanese in college as well as a limited amount of self-study. This all puts me at the level of *maybe* a five year old Japanese kid, cue the nervousness. Luckily my school in Japan, Aoyama Gakuin University (青山学院大学), is kind enough to include English instructions along with all Japanese instructions and will be providing me with a tutor who will be able to help me learn Japanese as well as register for classes and adjust to life in Japan. We’ll see how much that all helps, especially because my first two days include a stay at a hostel that apparently doesn’t have any English speakers at all… straight into the frying pan. The rest of my nervousness stems from just the basic concerns like making friends, not getting hopelessly lost in the largest urban/metro area in the world, money issues, etc.
seriously, Tokyo is freaking gigantic
Part of the reason that I chose Japan was because the culture is very different from the United States. I’m definitely nowhere near an expert on Japanese culture, although I have done a large amount of research. Japan is much more of a homogenous society than the United States, with about 98.5% of the population being ethnically Japanese. I think that, partially due to this factor, the Japanese tend to be much more community driven and place less importance on individuality and “freedom”. For example, in the US, no one bats an eye when someone is having a fairly loud conversation on their phone while riding a bus. In Japan, having a phone conversation while on public transportation is considered rude and you’d be likely to get some stares. Asian cultures in general have been interesting to me for a long time, and getting to experience one for myself was an opportunity I couldn’t allow myself to pass up. There is so much history, and so many differences, in the region compared to what we have in the United States.
I’ve always been something of a chameleon and have been used to being able to at least somewhat fit in no matter what I’m doing. This experience is probably about to turn that whole thing on its head. Being in such a homogenous society as part of the “out group” is going to automatically mean that I’ll be treated differently and will be acting differently than I usually do. The life of a gaijin (foreigner) will be a very new experience that I’m simultaneously excited and scared shitless about, to be brutally blunt and honest.