Welcome back to this mini-series on the do’s and don’ts of studying abroad in Japan, or
just visiting Japan for an extended period of time. Hopefully, you have already read part one and are currently thinking to yourself, “Yes, yes, I’m an open-minded, adventurous person who is dedicated to improving my Japanese and has already looked into the great many scholarships available to me. Now, tell me what I really need to know—the stuff the average Google search or YouTube video won’t teach me.” Well, I’m sure someone somewhere on the internet has said what I’m about to tell you, but why look at five different articles when you can just read this one! Just to recap, I studied abroad last spring in Japan’s historic capital, Kyoto, so some of what I say is especially relevant to those who are interested in exploring the more traditional and historic side of Japan, as opposed to the vibrant city life of Tokyo. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of making your experience in Japan extra awesome.
DO: Plan trips and activities in advance.
Time moves faster when you’re studying abroad, and far-away breaks can sneak up on you
quickly, leaving you scrambling to find last-minute Airbnbs and over-priced plane tickets. Amy
Zou ’19, who also studied abroad in Kyoto last spring, highly recommends planning your
excursions far in advance. Figure out what places in Japan you want to see, know your long
weekends and breaks and plan lodging and travel routes strategically and thoroughly. Japan is a relatively small country, so many places are easily accessible by the train system or a short flight. Don’t miss out on your chance to ride Japan’s famous shinkansen, or bullet train. Also, no matter what city you choose, it’s worth your while to invest in Japan’s equivalent of the CharlieCard, called ICOCA (Kansai region) or PASMO (Kanto region).
DON’T: Obsess over academics and neglect the rest, or vice versa.
Balance is key. Understand that although you must uphold your responsibilities as a
student, you are not at Brandeis anymore. Part of the purpose of studying abroad is connecting with a new culture and living in a different part of the world, so hone those time-management skills and live! I chose one of the most academically rigorous programs in one of Japan’s most culturally active and historically significant cities, so finding a balance was difficult and took a lot of work and focus. Nevertheless, in addition to maintaining grades, I made it a mission to spend quality time with my host family, attend many festivals and events in Kyoto and even travel outside the city to places like Tokyo, Shizuoka, Osaka, Nagano, Okinawa and Hokkaido.
DO: Learn a little history before you go or while you’re there.
Much of Japan’s appeal is tied to a complex, tumultuous and lengthy history where
politics and daily life are deeply intertwined with Buddhism and Shintoism as well as the linguistic and cultural influences of ancient China. Without at least a basic foundation in this rich interplay between religion and government, it will be difficult to truly the appreciate or
understand the significance of the places you’ll see. Palaces, temples, shrines and castles are all popular tourist locations—and rightfully so as they offer stunning visuals alone, but you’ll gain so much more from your visit to these places when you know a little of the history behind it all.
What are the two fierce-looking figures that stand on either side of every temple’s main gate? Why do you wash your hands and mouth with water before entering a shrine? If the emperor lives in the palace, who lived in the castles? If you have nine minutes to spare, I recommend watching Bill Wurtz’s “History of Japan” on Youtube—he gives a pretty good glance over of Japan’s entire timeline of existence.
DON’T: Buy your SIM card at the airport like an idiot (as I did).
Be sure to scope out phone plans before going to Japan or in your first weeks there. Regrettably, I did not do this and was lured into the false security of having a Japanese phone
number by renting a SIM card from the airport. At the end of my semester, I paid about $300 for a semester without any cell phone data (forcing me to mooch off of Japan’s generous provision of free city wifi, but also leaving me stranded while I travelled) and for a phone number I used maybe twice. Please don’t make the same mistake. Instead, I recommend looking into a deal for foreign students offered by the Japanese cell service provider, SoftBank. For about $50 dollars a month, you get a Japanese SIM card and several gigabytes of data per month.
DO: Participate in omiyage culture.
Walk into any department store in any city in Japan and you’ll find they all have one
outstanding feature in common—omiyage, or souvenirs. You’ll be overwhelmed by the vast
collection of sweets, all neatly wrapped in beautifully designed packaging, handed to you in an equally gorgeous bag, and even supplied with an additional bag to repackage the gift when it’s eventually delivered to its intended recipient! It may seem excessive, but Japan takes tremendous pride in its omiyage culture. Perhaps you’ve already heard of Tokyo’s most iconic delicacy, reminiscent of a cute Twinkie, called Tokyo Banana? Or Kyoto’s famous confectionary, yatsuhashi? Or even the renowned white chocolate of Hokkaido? As a foreigner, it’s important you absorb these three fundamental expectations regarding omiyage: (1) if you opt for homestay, bring a gift specific from your home country to your host family, (2) omiyage are modest in price, generally under ten dollars, and (3) whenever you go somewhere, buy the local omiyage for friends, family and even classmates if you’re feeling especially generous. As a foreigner, a gaijin, you’ll often be let off the hook for many things, but what is special about giving omiyage in Japan is that it symbolizes the generosity, selflessness and kindness you’ll experience from the Japanese people while living abroad. Don’t give yourself the image of a callous, inconsiderate foreigner; embrace omiyage culture.
It pains me to try to shove all you should know about Japan into just ten brief points, and
truthfully there is much more you will discover once you go there and experience Japan for
yourself. Furthermore, everyone’s experience is different; perhaps you’ll find that some of these tips are more or less relevant for you than they were for me, or maybe you’ll realize that there’s a tip that deserved a place in the top ten that I left out. Regardless of where in Japan you go, or how long you plan to stay, I’m confident that if you keep these ten do’s and don’ts in your mind, you’ll have a solid game plan and mentality to take on Japan and make your time abroad one of the best experiences of your life. 皆さん、頑張ってください。