Don't be afraid to venture outside of the basic itinerary of your program or to try something new. The best experience from my whole trip was a hike that was completely unrelated to the weekend trips at the language school (GenkiJACS). A friend of a friend who I met at GenkiJACS said I could come on a hike to a shrine at the top of a mountain, and it was probably the best day of my life. I was hesitant to go at first because it was with a lot of people I didn’t know too well from the school, and I knew my parents probably would’ve said “no” to me going with them. I’m a goody-two-shoes, so at home, I would’ve told them I probably couldn’t come along, however, my gut told me this could be something really amazing, and it was.
Japan was actually getting hit with the edge of a typhoon at the time, so the hike started off with a light drizzle which turned into a downpour as we neared the top and eventually climbed back down. It was the toughest hike of my life but I got to learn a little bit about everyone on the hike, made friends, and shared an experience that all of us will remember forever. The view at the top was incredible and the wind was so strong it made the rain hurt, but we all couldn’t stop smiling.
When we came back down, there was a festival that happened to be going on at a shrine at the base of the mountain and the people there were very kind and offered us some food and explained to us what was going on. We probably looked kind of crazy--9 Western hikers coming out of the mountain completely drenched, but they were friendly anyway.
If I hadn’t gone with my gut and ventured out of my comfort zone, that whole experience never would’ve happened, so trust yourself and take advantage of the opportunities that come!
For the first half of my trip or so, a school day would look something like this:
I would get up anywhere between 7 and 9 in the morning to get ready for class. On days when I had later classes though (the schedule varied between morning, afternoon, and late afternoon classes) I might not do anything until about 10. My host mom made me breakfast literally EVERY morning, which was extremely kind of her, so I would usually eat it and talk to her or if she had to leave in the morning I might eat it by myself. Then I would get ready for school and ride the bus to Hakata Eki. From there, I would walk about 7 minutes to school and go to class.
Class was fun and the teachers were always very nice and patient. Most of the class is taught in Japanese, which I thought I would struggle with, but it was actually very understandable. Depending on my class schedule for the day, I would either eat lunch between classes or afterward. If I had to eat between classes, I would usually go to the nearby FamilyMart (a convenience store) and if I was eating after class, I would go to Hakata Eki (walk) or Tenjin (walk or bus) to try different foods at the food stalls. When I had time, I would pick little sections of the city to explore before going back to my host family’s house for dinner. Sometimes I would buy postcards at Hakata Eki and mail them at a Japan Post or withdraw money from one of the ATM spots that are next to the post offices.
When I got home, I would shower and then eat dinner with my host family. We would talk about our days and I usually had my dictionary app ready so I could look up words I didn’t know. This is where a lot of cultural exchange and vocabulary expansion took place. Then I would do my homework in the family room and talk to my host dad and sister while they watched TV and go to bed.
For the second half of my trip, my schedule was essentially the same except I spent a lot more time out with friends in the evening and would sometimes go to dinner with them. My weekends were pretty varied. Sometimes I would go on trips with the school, sometimes on excursions with friends, and other times my host family would very kindly take me places.
I don’t think I had anyone fear that was particularly intimidating, but I was probably most concerned about my interactions with my host family. I was worried that I would end up spending a month with a host family with whom my relationship would be awkward or negative. However, I ended up with the best host family I could ask for!
I tried asking questions and learning about them despite my broken Japanese, which really helped build a positive relationship with them. Dinners with them also had a huge impact on our closeness and I was actually able to open up to them about more personal issues because we’d all become accustomed to patience when trying to explain things over the language barrier.
Something I was more minorly concerned with was how people in Japan would react to my ethnicity. I’m half Caucasian half African American and have type 4 hair and a tan, so I wasn’t sure how that would go over in such a homogeneous country where fair skin and silky straight hair are considered beautiful. However, I wore my hair out many times anyway and, to my surprise, I got nothing but compliments!
There were multiple Japanese strangers who told me how cool and beautiful my hair was and I actually ended up doing a modeling shoot with a hairstylist! People were also very complimentary of my skin and eyelashes, and my trip ended up being quite the confidence booster!
Lots and lots of research.
My parents are extremely overprotective so I researched practically everything you could worry about and more. I researched at least 10 programs before choosing one and read the fine print of every policy. I made a slide presentation with the program details, cost estimates on the high and low sides, program reviews (from this site actually!), country safety, etc., and even that wasn’t enough at first. My dad made me email the Greenheart staff about whether or not they surveyed their program graduates because he wanted to know if they cared about improving the program and alumni feedback (he’s very business-oriented). The staff were very nice and provided me with all of the information he asked for. Additionally, he made me check the policies on Go Overseas to make sure they didn’t let companies pay them to write fake reviews, research whether or not there were radiation safety issues, and more.
The important thing is to be patient with your parents. There were many times when I thought the amount of detail they wanted was over-the-top, but I kept my composure despite my frustration and got them everything they asked for because I knew they just wanted me to have a great experience.
Stay calm, manage your tone, and don’t be afraid to email people persistently to get the information you need. It’s tedious but well worth the experience you’ll have once you get through the tough part.
Don’t give up!