I made the choice to study abroad long before I entered college. I was fortunate enough to have some international experience growing up; I genuinely felt like I knew what I was getting myself. I was so wrong. Turns’ out, living in another country for 4 months is a lot different than sightseeing around Paris or Machu Picchu. It’s better. As a tourist, you miss everything that isn’t on the front page of the guidebook. Cool, you took a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower and posted it with a different caption on four social media sites. 7 million people visit the Eiffel Tower every year, and nearly all of them take the picture. It isn’t special anymore; it’s a humble brag. I’ve been to the Eiffel Tower; it gave me a few minutes of happiness, which at the time, I believed was because I went on this foreign excursion where I learned so much about France. Or something like that. Anyway, what you miss is people. Tourists don't make friends. How can you? If you only have 7 days and can’t speak a word of the language, meaningful relationships can’t be built. My time in Japan isn’t memorable because I went to Tokyo Tower, Tsukiji fish market, Sky Tree, Kyoto, Osaka or Hiroshima. It’s memorable because of who I spent that time with.
My only reason for choosing Japan rode along the lines of “I’ve never been anywhere in Asia. I’ll go somewhere there!” From that, I applied for IES Tokyo. I knew surprisingly little about Japan before getting there. Many IES Tokyo students are Anime/Manga fans and cited that as the reason they came. Don’t worry, there’s a lot more in Japan than cartoons. IES Tokyo has an E-Pal program where they assign a local student from KUIS to help you in your transition. They are mostly English/International business majors, who speak English if you have no Japanese skills. The E-Pals in Autumn 2016 were wonderful. They aren’t being paid; they are there for the cultural exchange and the opportunity to meet foreign students. Don’t even consider not signing up for it, it’s the single best thing about IES Tokyo. The first two weeks you spend a lot of time as a big group of IES/E-Pal, and during this time, I started so many unforgettable friendships with not only my E-pal, but many others too. You’re going to Japan for cultural exchange; so do it! Take a genuine curiosity in your new friends, and just maybe you will find that they are also interested in who you are.
Japan itself is a fantastic country, you’ll get used to it fast. Use your Japanese skills, and you will find that Japan is accessible, customer-service oriented, and efficient. Almost everything is a tad different than we are used to in western countries, which is a good chance to do some cultural reflecting as to why that is. Broaden your mind! Also, Japan is safe. So safe, that if you lost your wallet, a Japanese person will run down the street to return it to you. Venturing out at night and feeling safe is something we don't have in the United States.
IES Tokyo is actually in Chiba, not Tokyo. Please be aware of this if you think you’re going to be living in Shibuya or something. That said Chiba is great! The dormitories are somewhat central between KUIS and Tokyo station, and many homestays are too. I lived in Ichikawa-Shi with a wonderful host family in a very central location. Most students were in homestays, and all recommended it. IES has a great pool of host families they use, so take advantage of that! Your host family is there to be your family, try to be close to them because they care a lot about you. I spent countless hours chatting with my host mother after dinners, I learned so much just by talking. Many older Japanese people have different worldviews than your peers at KUIS, so take advantage! The staff at IES Tokyo is wonderful. They are kind, helpful and knowledgeable if you need anything. Need a doctor? Ask the staff! Lose your glasses? Ask the staff! Mail a letter, feeling homesick or need to know the best ramen shop in Tokyo? Ask!
Caleb (IES Tokyo director) told me of what he called the “magic” of studying abroad. When IES students and E-Pals come together, it creates an atmosphere so amazing, he could only call it magic. I couldn’t agree more. It’s impossible to recreate, you need to live it yourself. When I first arrived in Japan, I told myself that this would be my only chance to be here, to take advantage and have fun. I’ve never returned to a country before because I like to see new places. Japan blew that out the window. I can’t imagine not going back now. Saying goodbye hurt a lot, which made the last day at the airport even worse. I was not ready to leave.. My story in Japan isn’t over yet. Actually, it’s just getting started. Take a chance on IES Tokyo, and it might change you. See you soon.