My stay in the land of the rising sun.
Japan is without a doubt my favorite country in the entire world, which I can say confidently because let’s face it: I’ve been places. 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 of going off on an adventure to distant lands. So to start out, I chose the one the farthest away! I had studied Japanese for about two years before my journey to the East, but 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 are able to speak it! 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 my arriving at 1:00 am, with 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!)
Tokyo International University
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 came to further my language skills and broaden my international awareness (i.e. See as much cool stuff as I possibly could)! I arrived at Tokyo International University located in Kawagoe [Saitama], Japan. The were only twenty of us international students, and we stood out prominently amongst the rest of the Japanese student body. For the first couple of weeks the stares we got were a bit intimidating. This was probably the first time my ethnicity had been in the minority, but because Japan’s population is about 99% Japanese with about 1% other it’s not surprising that we would be an unusual site. It took a few weeks to get used to the attention, (children on trains pointing at you and such) but eventually it began to forget about our circumstance. Eventually it got to the point where whenever we would see someone who was not Japanese, we would think “Oh, who is a foreigner here?”
Thus we 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 and martial arts circles. 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 restaurants 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 Harajuku. At night, the most fun thing for us to do was either Karaoke or Nomihodai, with it usually being a mix of the two. Nomihodai means all you can drink, and is offered at various places around town where you pay a cover charge around ¥2000 ($20), and it’s all you can drink for two hours. After it was normal to head to karaoke, and where your party had a private room. A usual night out wrapped up around 12:00 am to make sure we could catch the last train back home, or else you were stuck waiting at a cafe all night waiting for the first train at 5:00 am (from personal experience).
My program was a Japanese Intensive program that focused heavily on acquiring language skills with additional coursework such as Japanese History and International Affairs. But the largest part of my educational experience was the fact that I stayed with a host family for the entire time that I was in Japan. Now introducing the Takahashi family. The family consisted of the mother (Ritsuko – called her okāsan for mother), father (Testuya – 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 would therefore leave the house around 5 am and return around 12 am, so I didn’t see him much on weekdays. The mother was a stay at home mom who sometimes worked part time 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 while teaching me things about her culture and ways of doing things that often conflicted with my western persona. Nonetheless, I slowly learned the ins and outs of society and how to navigate it without (too much) offense. 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.
Probably one of my most prominent memories of culture shock was bath time. Japanese baths (ofuro) are quite different from what most westerners are used to. For one, you shower/wash/rinse before you get in the actual bath to keep the water clean for the next person. Yup, everybody uses the same water, which seems weird but you get used to it. The baths are also heated, and they stay at a constant temp so you can relax without the water getting cold! I thought I had a handle on how to work it out, but my host mother was t taking any chances. So on the first night when it came time for my turn to use the bath, she threw the naked six-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 most definitely prudes! So if bathing with my host brother wasn’t enough, that weekend my host father took us to a sento (public bath). 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 overeager host brothers to the bath area. I 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, tense muscle, and aversion to public bathing withered away in the rejuvenating water. The facility had many different baths we varying degrees of temperature, some even cold or with with jets. With my inhibitions whisked away, I just sat in hot water for about two hours (understanding that the occasional stare was because I was white), 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 because Japanese food is THE BEST! I don’t 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 is stopping at an adorable cafe, a Ramen shop, a dango stand, 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!
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 Harajuku in search of spectacular deals on clothing, or traveling to Electric town in Akihabara for our inner otaku. The best thing about Japan is 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 a 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 four-year-olds 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, Harajuku, Ect.