Study Abroad in Tokyo [東京]

My stay in the land of the rising sun.

   On September 7, 2012, I landed at Narita airport in Tokyo, Japan. As a boy born and raised in small town Alabama, for years I had dreamed about going off on adventure to distant lands. So to start out I chose the one the fathest away! I had studied Japanese for about two years prior to my journey to the East, but in all honesty it had barely prepared me for what was to come! First off, let me say that contrary to some peoples' belief that English is a universal language, very few people in Japan actually are able to speak it! I know! Shocker! So when I first landed, even though I had a good understanding of rudimentary Japanese,  I was still finding myself struggle. My first memory in Japan is a conversation with an airport security guard about who was coming to pick me up (random American looking bewildered in the middle of the airport). He came up to me and asked, "日本語話せますか?" (Do you speak Japanese?), and I answered, "少しです。(A little bit.) And thus my first conversation in Japan started with me struggling to convey to him that my ride wasn't coming until the morning, due to me arriving at 1:00am, and him just looking at me kindly while I tried to find the right words. He then helped direct me to an area for passengers waiting overnight.

(Sadly my camera got corrupted and I lost a lot of photos, but ill make sure to get plenty the next trip!)

  Though it might seem I went to Japan to have fun and travel around, (not that that wasn't a large part of it), I actually came to further my language skills and broaden my international awareness! Yep, basically the same excuse we all use to travel! And so I arrived at Tokyo International University located in Kawagoe [Saitama], Japan. There were around 20 of us international students who had arrived, while the rest of the university students were Japanese. For the first couple of weeks, the stares we got were a bit intimidating. This was probably the first time my own ethnicity had been in the minority, but due to the fact that Japan's population is about 99% Japanese with 1% other it's not really surprising that we would be an unusual site. It took a few weeks to get used to the staring, (children on trains pointing at you and such) but eventually it began to feel as if we were also Japanese, and whenever we would see someone who was not, we would think "Oh, it's a foreigner."
And thus I became asian (°_°)

  I loved that there were only twenty of us Americans that had come to TIU, because it gave us a great opportunity to converse with other Japanese students without overwhelming them! We also had opportunities to explore university clubs, such as the Sadō (tea ceremony) club, martial arts clubs, and others. I made some great Japanese friends there, but two connections that I am positive have changed my life was meeting two of my best friends! The first is a Japanese student Chinami Tata, who is currently studying international affairs in India, and the second is my best friend and fellow American exchange student Jahara James from Arizona, who is currently preparing to return to Japan permanently. Oh, and yes, holding up the peace sign for pictures is a regular occurrence in Japan. Pay no mind. 

   For us students, there were more than a few ways to hang out and have fun. The first is getting lunch at one of the delicious restraunts around town that are used to having students meander in and out. There were three places that we frequented so often the staff immediately recognized us (a Chinese place right next to the school, a bakery that had the most amazing fresh bread, and an Indian curry place that was to die for!). If we had a day off, we would often go exploring Tokyo, or go shopping down in Shinjuku or Harujuku. At night, the most fun thing for us to do was 1) Karaoke, 2) Nomihodai. Nomihodai literally means all you can drink, and is offered at various places around town were you pay a cover charge (around ¥2000 ($20)), and then you can drink all you want for two hours while talking and eating among friends. After it was normal to head to karaoke, and unlike the US your group had a private room with its own sound system. The idea was to wrap everything up around 12:00am and make sure to catch the last train back home, or else you were stuck sitting. A cafe all night waiting for the first train at 5:00 am (from personal experience!). 

Host Family 
    My program was a Japanese Intensive program that focused heavily on the language, and then allowed you to take a few other courses such as Japanese History and International Affairs (both taught in English). But another large part of my study abroad experience was the fat that I stayed with a host family for the entire time that I was in Japan. And thus I met the Takahashi family. The Mother (Ritsuko - called her okāsan for mother), Father (can't remember his name because I just called him otōsan for father!), and two boys Keisuke (10) and Kōsei (6). The father was your average Japanese blue collar worker who usually worked weekdays from 7am-9pm, and thus would leave the house around 5am and return around 12am, so I didn't see him much on weekdays. The mother was a stay at home mom who sometimes worked parttime jobs. I am truly grateful for my experience with this family, because it allowed me to experience the everyday life of Japanese culture firsthand while vastly expanding my Japanese language skills! Ritsuko was very kind and seemed to have a wealth of patience with me while teaching me things about her culture, and ways of doing things while they often conflicted with my western persona. Nonetheless I slowly learned the ins and outs of society and how to navigate it without offence. On weekends, my host parents would try to take me to new places including an autumn drive through the mountains, visiting my host grandparents, and going to my host brothers sports day at his middle school. 

Bath time 
  Probably one of my most prominent memories of culture shock was bath time. Japanese baths (ofuro) are quite different than anywhere else. For one, you shower/wash/rinse before you get in the actual bath in order to keep the water clean for the next person. The baths are also heated so they stay at a constant temp, so you can relax without the water getting cold! I personally thought I had a handle on how to work it out, but my host mother had other ideas. So when it came time for my turn to use the bath, she threw the naked 6 year old in to teach me how to use it! Thinking back, it's quite comical how quickly my American concepts of privacy were shattered. My home country might seem quite sensual with our sexual innuendos in our music and our blatant use of it on the television screen, but in reality when it comes to public nudity, we are quite prudish! So if bathing with my host brother wasn't enough, that weekend my host father took us to a sento (public baths). The whole way there I was freaking out (internally, externally I kept my cool) and suddenly I found myself in the changing room. It took only a few seconds to strip and follow my over eager host brothers to the bath area. I actually have a specific location where my inhibitions were stripped away if you can believe it. The entrance to the outdoor bathing area acted basically as a filter that let me through and my prudish attitude behind. I can honestly say that the outdoor baths were probably one of my favorite experiences! Think swimming pool filled with 40°C water and natural minerals coming from a nearby hot spring! Every worry, every tense muscle, and every aversion to public bathing withered away in the warm water. The facility was really cool to! It had many different baths we varying degrees of temperature, some even cold, some with jets, Ect. With my inhibitions whisked away, I just sat in the hot water for about two hours (understanding that the occasional stare was because I was white, not naked!), after which I went home feeling like a new person. Yep. Baths have forever changed for me!

   Another thing that changed my life were trains. Oh my, how magnificent these vehicles are. In Japan, there is a train for where you want to go almost every five minutes, and they always arrive when they say they will! Due to this convenient and cheap transportation system, I no longer had an excuse to be late. To anything! Maybe that's why Japan values being on time so much. The town I lived in (Fujimino) was about an hour ride away from main Tokyo, but somehow your concept of travel time slowly shifts and you stop thinking about how long it takes. 


  So I realize the general conception of Japanese cuisine is fish galore. I've met several people who think that is all they eat! Well , sorry to burst your bubble, but you most likely won't lose any weight or get super healthy while in Japan! This is due to the fact that Japanese food is THE BEST! I don't really like fish, so I too was a bit uneasy when I arrived, but was pleasantly surprised to find Japan to have a thriving meat culture! There are so many different ways the prepare it: sukiyaki, gyuniku, Korean BBQ, Kobe steak, Ect. Plus, the sweets in Japan are to die for! You will spend your day eating, weather it be stopping at an adorable cafe, a Ramen shop, a dangonstand, Ect. Thankfully, due to my walking everywhere, I was able to avoid gaining a significant amount of weight. But don't be fooled. You will not lose it! 

Convinience Store
Take all of your ideas about convenience stores (American Standard) and toss them in your paper shredder one by one. Japanese "Conbini" are amazing! They are often open 24hrs a day, and have everything you could need! Food, drinks, daily necessities... EVERYTHING! 


  Me and Jahara's favorite thing to do in Tokyo was shopping, which cannot be compared with anything I have experienced in the US. Walking down Cat Street in Harujuku in search of spectacular deals on clothing, or traveling to Electric town in Akihabara for our inner otaku. The best thing about Japan are their "used" stores! You can find almost anything that has been presumed and is a quarter of the price! With hundreds of used clothing shops, it is not uncommon to find high quality brands for cheap! Thus, pack light, because you will not be able to stop buying Japanese fashion around every corner! But honestly it's just the atmosphere of Tokyo that we crave. Think of an anthill, with thousands of individuals walking about with a purpose. You enter the wave of the crowd and get off when it's your stop. You might think that such a large crowd would make you feel uncomfortable, but the energy is just something you can feed off of! 

What to pack? I made the mistake of packing two suitcases. Try getting that to your hotel! My advice is travel as light as possible! You will want to shop everywhere anyway!
Money? They use the ¥, which often fluctuates so make sure you know your conversion rates!
What to take on a day out? Small camera, fashionable clothes, and list of phrases to use if you don't speak Japanese. 
Danger? Um... Don't get hit by trains? Japan is probably the safest country in the world, where 4 yro are running to the local convenience store on an errand for their mothers! Embrace the culture, and be respectful. In return you will meet the nicest people.
When to Go? Year around! 
Must See? Just make the circuit around the JR line. ie. Shibuya, Shinjuku, Akihabara, Harujuku, Ect. 


  1. You had such a nice trip it seems. I am going to choose Japan for my study tour next time.



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