Before I touched down in Tokyo for the first time in the spring of 2012 on my university’s study abroad program, I thought I knew Japan. For example, I knew that I loved binging on sushi, watching samurai movies, and fell in love with romantic, film-grain photos of old Japan in National Geographic magazines, and through my grandfather’s old albums of when he was a traveling musician.
But, in my ways, I was still woefully ignorant of just how different living and studying abroad in Japan would be from the North American culture I was used to. I was also underprepared for a lot of things I didn’t even know I’d need to be prepared for! Here’s the guide I wish I’d had before I went to study abroad in Japan.
English is Less Common than You Might Think
Here’s the thing -- most Japanese people have studied English at some point if they’re gone through the standard school system, but that doesn’t mean they’re comfortable speaking it. Japanese people are incredibly courteous and if you’re lost in a subway station and don’t speak Japanese, they’ll usually try and help you, but sometimes it might just be a lost cause. Expect for English not to be understood most places you go.
If you’re keen on learning Japanese, well, you’re in for a treat. If you like it, you like it. That’s all I’ll say. Japanese is easy to pronounce, but grammatically very difficult. Throw in the whole non-English alphabet, and you can have a hard time.
If possible, I recommend at least taking some kind of Japanese language course before you arrive. I took an intensive summer course that was 8 weeks long at my university before going on my exchange, and without it, I would have been lost.
Japanese characters are made of three ‘alphabets’ - katakana, hiragana, and kanji. There are thousands and thousands of kanji - the complex, flowery characters that often make for good tattoos on westerners. Katakana and hiragana are the two ‘phonetic’ alphabets, consisting of only 46 characters each.
If you can, learning those two phonetic alphabets before you come will help you a TON. Often times complex kanji will have superscript hiragana beside them, so you can at least sound out a word, and katakana is used for spelling out all ‘foreign’ words (although sometimes you’ll see brands using it just because it’s ‘cool’).
Other than that, download the Google Translate app, download the Japanese dictionary so you can access it offline, and hope for the best.
Get Used to Using Public Transit
The Japanese know what’s up when it comes to subways and bullet trains. The whole country is interconnected in a series of amazingly efficient metro systems. You’ve probably heard of Tokyo’s legendary ‘rush hour’ trope, where people are packed onto the subways like sardines during rush hour, and I’m here to tell you… that’s very much a true thing.
If you don’t like crowds, avoid the subways at rush hour, or Tokyo in general.
Most Japanese students are super-fluent in the maps and ways of the country’s various rail systems. There are both national rail networks, and municipal rail networks. Often they criss-cross at convenient stations, so going between the two is really easy. Google Maps is pretty good at giving transit directions in Japan, but some cities have their own apps. It’s always good to check and see what your classmates are using.
Also: please have a data plan before you arrive in Tokyo or at least a plan to get a data plan. The first time I landed in Japan, I had no international data phone plan, used Google Maps for about 2 minutes, and cost myself $70 -- don’t be like me.
There’s also a good chance you’ll be using bikes a lot in Japan. Once I arrived in the suburb in Yamaguchi where my student house was, I was assigned a cheery yellow bike, and subsequently biked everywhere around town. Especially if you’re staying somewhere more rural with less frequent subway or rail service, expect to get around in this super convenient form of transportation. Everyone bikes here. Some students have even mastered the art of biking and texting, applying mascara, or playing game systems.
Understand How Your Courses Will be Graded
For example, the partnership between my home university and my Japanese university meant that all my classes were graded on a pass/fail basis. This was incredibly useful because although my Japanese was good enough to have basic conversations with my classmates and get around, it was nowhere near the level needed to write university papers.
Because of the pass/fail system, all I really needed to do to succeed was show up, try my best, and have a positive attitude.
That being said, if you will not be graded on the pass/fail system, then you should make sure your written Japanese will either be up to the required level, that you’re taking classes in English, or that you’re in classes that don’t have a big written component. I took a few cultural classes like pottery, and community service. They would have been great for anyone who didn’t write Japanese because most of what you were graded on was essentially participation and presentation.
A lot of Japanese universities also have classes in English though, like literature, or debate club. Enrolling in those classes might also be a great way to get around the Japanese written element (and I’m sure your classmates wouldn’t mind having a native English speaker as a friend, know what I’m sayin’?).
Japan is Very Safe
I feel incredibly safe in Japan, and it’s a very safe country, especially for foreigners. People generally leave you alone. Still, that’s no reason to let all caution fly to the wind. You should still lock your doors, don’t tell strangers where you live, and always use a bike lock.
In Japan, the legal drinking age is 20 years old, and while Japan’s bars and karaoke clubs are generally safe places, there has been a small rise in recent years of incidences of drink spiking in Japan, especially toward women. So, if you are exploring Japan’s Roppongi district, or in any other town, please follow the same safety rules of thumb as you would at home -- always get your own drink, don’t leave your drink unattended, and if it’s ever out of eyesight, dump it out and buy a new one.
It feels like these stories are always surfacing on the internet of tourists forgetting thousands of dollars worth of camera gear on a Japanese subway and then having it returned to them. Just remember: you are still in a foreign country, it’s not Disneyland.
Culture Shock is Common
Be gentle with yourself. There will be times when you get generally rattled by the random things that you’ll find yourself reeling against. Maybe it will be the lack of peanut butter at the grocery store, maybe it will be the patriarchy and ageist society, maybe it will be rice for one too many meals.
It’s totally normal to feel culture shock and homesick. Especially in Japan, which, although it shares a lot of our pop culture, is still a very different place. When this happens, it’s good to breathe. Maybe take a walk, or maybe turn on your Netflix and re-watch a comfort show from home. There can be a kind of weird guilt that comes with homesickness, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m in this amazing country, I’m so privileged, and I’m having a meltdown about not being able to find oatmeal? What’s wrong with me?’
There’s nothing wrong with being homesick, and often it comes from a series of small incidents that then boil over when you hear one too many inquisitive people asking you how many children you plan to have, if they can touch your hair, or something else that would be considered a ‘faux pas’ by North American standards.
There are Many Festivals to Experience
In my opinion, Japanese festivals are the best. When you arrive in your adopted Japanese hometown, one of the first things you need to do is to ask your senpai (older students) or sensi (teacher) about what the upcoming local ‘matsuri’ (festivals) are.
I love a good matsuri, and they’re often the best way to meet the neighborhood. When it’s matsuri time, there’ll often be a row of festival stalls where you can find some of your favorite Japanese street food -- taiyaki, dango, nikuyaki, and many more.
Some of my favorite festivals are: hanami matsuri (flower watching festival), hotaru matsuri (firefly watching festival), and gion matsuri (a big summer festival that originates in Kyoto’s ‘Gion’ district). Festivals are usually seasonal, and some are super regional or hosted by the unique temples and shrines in your area.
It's Possible to Study Abroad in Japan on a Budget
There’s no denying that Japan can be expensive. It may be one of the most expensive places in Asia to study abroad. But it doesn’t have to be. While you might see lots of paid activities marketed towards tourists in English, during my time in Japan, my university had tons of activities and clubs I could take part in.
There was a homestay weekend with a local Japanese family, overnight temple trips, hiking in the mountains, teaching an English class at a local school, and participating with local food-making classes and festivals. Often, for free, or just the cost of transportation and food.
These locally-organized programs make you feel like you're part of the community. You feel less like a tourist and more like a local taking part in life in your city. That’s a feeling no pre-arranged tour can mimic. Plus, because you’ll be doing these activities with local students -- one more point for your language skills! I even did a temple stay through my community service class, and it was amazing, teaching me about Japan’s religious history and giving me the chance to meditate with monks.
While hanging out with locals, you’ll also be able to ask them to take you to their favorite hangouts in town. This is so much better than a guided experience and usually cheaper. They’re not tourists, they’re students, and just like you, they may be on a student budget.
One place a local family took me in Japan was known as ‘the chicken shack.’ It was hidden up a mountain, following a 20-minute driving winding up an unmarked path. They sold chicken roasted on bamboo skewers over a charcoal pit. To this day it’s some of the best chicken I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was also super affordable. That’s not included in any package deal.
Beware of Golden Week
If you're planning to study abroad in Japan in the spring semester, this one's for you. Golden Week happens at the end of April and beginning of May when many of Japan’s workers get time off. It’s the numero uno family holiday in Japan, and as a result -- hotel prices go up, queues wind around every attraction, and large, sweaty crowds form their own microclimates.
In short, only plan a big vacation weekend around Golden Week if you have to. While it's tempting because you’ll often be off school during that time, use it to explore local attractions and do things in nature, instead of heading to the big temples and attractions in the cities where the largest crowds are.
Summer is Hot & Humid
Here's one for those of you who plan to study abroad in Japan in the summer. Especially in the south, but even as far north as Tokyo, be prepared to sweat through your clothes during the months of June through August. A good strategy my classmates taught me was to always wear an undershirt beneath your clothing to soak up the excess sweat (yum) and to carry a spare undershirt with you. Also, drink a LOT of water.
Japanese people also use a lot of umbrellas to block sunlight, and you’ll see lots of people (girls and women, especially), using them to block the sun’s rays. Sunbathing and tanning is also not as much a thing there, and you’ll see people generally trying to avoid exposure, meaning even when it’s hot, they’re often wearing long sleeves.
Also, be prepared to be frozen by the icy cold air cons whenever you enter a store or your school. Pack a sweater along with the extra undershirt.
Sign Up for the JLPT in Advance
The JLPT is the nationally-recognized Japanese certification exam executed by the Japanese government. A lot of students want to take it while they’re there, but you have to sign up months in advance. So, it’s wise the second you decide you're going to Japan, to sign up right away.
Even if you don’t think you’re good enough to take the easiest level of the JLPT, register anyway. It’s only $50, and you might be surprised just how much better and quicker your Japanese gets when you’re immersed in the culture.
Even just doing it for the experience is worth it, in my opinion. And if you pass? That’s a sweet line to put on your resume and proves your level of Japanese fluency. If you ever want to work in Japan in the future, it’s a must-have,
You’ll Probably Make Lots of International Friends
When I was in Japan, my three roommates were Chinese, and over the past year my international student neighborhood (a collection of three houses at the end of a cul de sac) housed students from America, Spain, Finland, Canada, and beyond.
Because you’ll have a lot in common (getting used to Japanese culture, being a new student), you’ll often find yourself going for adventures with these students. Sometimes having these friends will feel like a relief from speaking Japanese all day, and sometimes you might want to try and leave the international student bubble to spend time with your new Japanese friends.
Overall, the international student community is usually open-minded, and willing to lend a helping hand. You’re all going through the same thing, and these people are great to lean on or open up to if you’re having difficulties, whether it’s with a teacher, homesickness, or just how to buy tickets to the Ghibli Museum at Lawson’s.
If you find yourself spending most of your time with international students, and having a hard time meeting Japanese friends, ask some of the more established students who are better at Japanese if they can introduce you to their Japanese friends, or join a Japanese school sports team, or club for a more authentic immersion experience.
Studying abroad in Japan was an amazing opportunity for me that has since opened many doors in my life. Even after multiple visits I still wouldn’t say that I truly understand Japan, but we have a lifelong affair that keeps me coming back.
When you come back home, you might even find you have reverse culture shock—craving ramen, heated toilet seats, vermillion temples, and the ruthless efficiency of the Tokyo Metropolitan transport system.