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My Experience being in Japan for 3 Months

From March 28th to June 20th, I spent my time in Japan for the first time ever. This was all because of my university’s study abroad program for Kyoto, and I chose to go as early as my freshmen year. For those who do not know, I have had the goal of working in Japan and living my life there. But of course, I had never actually been to Japan before, and I wanted to confirm that I do indeed want to chase that goal.

The first surprise regarding the program, was that we do not go to Japan as a group. You buy your own ticket and plan out how to get there all by yourself. That was a challenge even for my level. The university provided some guides, but they were not quite useful without maps or images.

For me, I was in a lucky situation. There was this one woman (30-something years old) that I have met on Skype for language exchanges. When I told her that I was going to study abroad, she said that if I drop by Tokyo, I can stay at her apartment with her husband and kid. Not only do I not have to pay for hotels or food, but I can be with a Japanese family and talk to them. As such, I bought a plane ticket to Tokyo a few days before the start of the program in Kyoto. I also made a reservation for an overnight bus from Tokyo to Kyoto from a company called Willer Express. They were the cheapest (¥4000) that I have found, not to mention that their site is available in English.

My Day’s Journey to Japan – This details my trip, including my flight until arrival in Japan.
Day 1 in Japan (Harajuku – Tokyo Tower)
– A visit to Harajuku for Evangelion store to buy a gift, then off to see the Tokyo Tower.
Day 2 in Japan (秋葉原 Akihabara) – Walking randomly around Akihabara, without buying a single thing.
Day 3 in Japan (京都 Kyoto) – The issues that I had once I arrived in Kyoto searching for the university.

While I was studying abroad in Kyoto, I visited many places. A few of which were actually in Kyoto, while much of the rest were outside of Kyoto. So far, I have only posted a few of those trips, such as the Kyoto Botanical Gardens, Teramachi Shopping Arcade, and Ichijouji. The rest of them will be posted eventually. I have over 15 GBs worth of photos to sort through first. As a continuation of “Life in Month”, I posted about my time in Japan as “Life in Japan”.

Life in Japan 1 – April 2012
Life in Japan 2 – May 2012

Life in Japan 3 – June 2012

Regarding the actual study abroad program itself, it was nice but not perfect. As I have mentioned, it was a hassle getting to the university. As for the classes themselves, they were considered “intensive learning”. 3 quarters worth of material were taught in about 2 months. To be honest, it felt like a normal pace to me. Regular classes back in California on the other hand, felt too slow. 5 days a week, for 3 hours each day, which did felt long sometimes, but there are breaks in between each hour. The 3 different teachers that I had were also great teachers. Each had their own atmosphere and it was a pleasure to be their student.

For 3 times a week after lunch (which was right after the classes), I had to attend conversation sessions where you are given a hour and a half to just freely talk to Japanese students at the university. Each of the 3 days has a different group of Japanese students. There was also a running gag that the Wednesday session keeps getting canceled for other program-related activities. I was and still am (and perhaps forever will be) bad at making friends. It really wasn’t until about 2 weeks to the end of the program that I made a friend. As such, my conversation sessions were not very conversational.

Besides, the actual class and conversation session, there was also a culture class on Thursdays for an hour and a half. Rather than a culture class though, it was really more of an information and notification session, since we do most of our learning in out-of-class activities.

The photos above are of around the Kyoto Seika University campus. At lunch, students gather near the cafeteria and occasionally, clubs will perform near on the stage next to the pond. A railway runs pass the front of the university entrance.

Where the program had issues with was probably the overall organization. Sometimes, we were notified of certain trips too late, or the cancellation of certain events too often. I do not think that they were a big deal, but I did not think that I learned as much as I wanted to learn, which was my biggest disappointment. I wanted to practice my speaking and to immerse myself into a Japanese lifestyle. The program provided me opportunities to speak to Japanese students, and I did not take advantage of it. However, by living in a dorm with other study abroad students, that took away the chance at a Japanese lifestyle. I was unable to completely isolate myself away from people speaking in English.

At the end of the program, I half celebrated my birthday and wondered just what did I gained from this 10 week study abroad program. Even now, I still do not know exactly what I gained. Sure my Japanese improved, but it felt minimal. My minimal improvement, my minimal contact with the Japanese, my minimal Japanese lifestyle, my minimal knowledge regarding Japan, it was as if I was there but not there.

After the program ended, I headed back to Tokyo to be with the Japanese family. For this one week and a half, I was able to live a Japanese lifestyle as I had wished. I did not explore around Tokyo, except for one day out in Akihabara again. Going around somewhere by myself just didn’t seem fun, plus I valued the time with the family more, even though I do feel like I skipped out on the rare chances to be in Tokyo. As my remaining time with the family indicated, my Japanese is somewhat advanced for a learner, but damn poor compared to a native speaker. The right words don’t come up in my mind, yet I understand them when I see it. My journey to fluency is still a long one.

I soon realized though, that even living together with the Japanese family wasn’t enough. I don’t actually live here in Japan, I don’t belong here. Everything that I buy here, I have to take back to the States. Everything that I don’t buy here, I will have to import later in the States. I was confused, lost, didn’t know anything when I was wondering around in Akihabara. I had no friends to talk to, I was alone in Japan. That was what I thought. It was as if I was there but not there.

Here is a letter to myself that I wrote at the airport while I was waiting for my flight.

June 20th, 2012. 9:42 PM. Haneda Airport.

Today, I woke up at around 9:30 AM, set aside futons, pillows and clothes to be put inside vacuum bags. Then I went out to the living room and ate breakfast, which consisted of rice, saba miso, and tamago yaki. While eating, I checked my mail and listened to a NND broadcast. After taking a while to eat, we vacuum sealed the bags and fit everything into the suitcases. I am still surprised and glad that the family had vacuum sealable bags. Otherwise, I probably would have had a lot of trouble taking everything with me.

After packing everything, it was time for lunch. I ate some instant ramen with some eggs. I just ate breakfast not too long ago, so I was really full by the time I finished the ramen. Then it was time to get going. I am particularly thankful that we went by car. My luggage were loaded onto the back and onward we drove. We arrived at the Haneda airport, where I first checked in my 2 suitcases and then we took a break. We sat down, and simply talked for a little bit. Then we walked around the shops at the airport, talked for a bit more and then we said good bye. I passed through security, which was fine and not scary at all, compared to the security check at SFO. Now I am waiting at the gate for ~7 hours before it time for boarding. There is a large flat screen TV here, and I am sitting right in front of it.

Japanese TV really is a lot more interesting. I watched for a couple hours and looking outside, the sky have became dark. The lights of Tokyo reflecting through on the glass, and looking at it, I thought “Yeah, outside is Tokyo. Soon I will leave and cannot come back for a while”.

I have been in Japan for 2.5 months. A little over 2 months in Kyoto, and a little over a week in Tokyo. In Kyoto, there were a lot of places to see and visit. I might as well try to visit as many places as I can while I am there, right? But really, I wasn’t interested. I made some efforts and got lucky on some trips, ended up going to Kinkakuji, Arashiyama, Fushimi Inari and…that’s about it. I am not into history and no matter how hard I look at historical objects, I cannot feel anything. There were trips outside of Kyoto and those were really fun. I went to Wakayama, Shiga and Osaka.

In Kyoto, my Japanese did improve. But only in kanji and some vocabulary. Those are things that you can learn anywhere. I did not improve much listening and speaking, which is the main purpose of being all the way here in Japan. In Tokyo, I was able to talk to the family on a daily basis. I don’t know if doing that for a week and a half have any effect. At least none for now. I didn’t really go anywhere except once to Akihabara. I chose to spent time with the family instead.

Despite being in Japan, I really didn’t go here and there and see everything that I wanted to see. I wanted to explore Osaka a little more, go to all those temples and shrines in Kyoto, go check out Shibuya, go explore every corner of Akihabara, and perhaps go to Shizuoka for Fuji-san and bandai gunpla-related places. I also wanted to meet people here, people online and new people, but couldn’t in the end. My Japanese didn’t seem to have improved by much either.

I wouldn’t say that my time here was pointless or wasted. However, I feel the 2.5 months here in Japan simply wasn’t enough. Or rather, 1.5 weeks in Tokyo wasn’t enough. Talking to the family on a daily basis is a valuable beyond words. I spoke more Japanese than I did in those 2 months in Kyoto.

Looking outside, I can’t believe that I am leaving already. I had barely started to learn Japanese here.

Upon returning back home in the States, I returned to my lazy lifestyle. No new posts, too much photos to sort, and a whole bunch of tiny issues. I also grew a little more intolerant of how dirty my house is. The standard sanitary level was much higher in Japan, and of course I liked things clean. After getting used to having just about nothing while I was in Japan, now my room feels too cluttered with all of my figure boxes around. I will need to seriously reorganize my room, which will not be easy since I realized that my room doesn’t even have a single drawer nor a closet.

Before going to Japan, I had the goal of living and working in Japan. One part of studying abroad there was to confirm whether or not I really want to pursue that goal. After everything that I have went through in the past 3 month, my goal has changed. Or rather, that goal is now nothing but a dream. My new goal is to go to Japan, live there, work there, be a part of the population there, together with my friends. When I went to Akihabara, people asked me, “Was it fun? Or course it was, right?”. When I returned from Japan, people asked me, “Was it fun? Or course it was, right?”. No, it was not all that fun, not without friends. Considering my previous luck with making friends for the past 10 years, I won’t able to make a single true friend in Japan (unless I get really really lucky). Therefore, to realize that dream, I will have to bring a friend here in the States to live with me in Japan. That just isn’t very possible. My friends have their own futures to chase. Unless they have the same goal of living in Japan, my goal will forever remain just a dream. Should I go to Japan alone and become miserable? Or should I remain here in the States, wishing that I lived in Japan?

Even though the answer seems to be apparent, I cannot be content with it.

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