The princess is ready to depart, the country peasants are buzzing with excitement, and I am all too conscious of the sweat streaming down my face. But it just can’t be helped (shikata ga nai ne!). All the responsibilities that come with my new appointment as one of the Damiyo’s trusted samurai plague my consciousness.
Will I drop the ceremonial poles and dishonor my comrades? Will the people know that I am actually a gai jin?! (despicable foreigner)
Suddenly, the commencement cries of my Japanese comrades pierce the thick summer air, “Hai Yoya Makka Yoi”! My bowels churn, inundated by a concoction of excitement and anxiety.
Before I know it, our procession of 1000 samurai continue the march to the Shoguns capital at Edo.
“I will not fail,” I repeat in my mind.
Introduction To Japan
Japan is renown for it’s sushi, anime, manga, otaku (nerds) electronics and reliable automobiles. Its advanced industrial economy has led many political scientists to classify it as Western. With hundreds of Fa-king(First Kitchen) fast food chains, countless black suited salary men passing out on trains, and a seemingly endless skyline, Tokyo resembles that of any large Western city. It’s busy, safe, and convenient.
But don’t let this western facade fool you. In truth, the rich traditions of ancient Japan not only thrive but continue to dictate everyday life and societal rules. The result is a unique juxtaposition with “the modern” that can often be both comical and enlightening. For example, only in Japan can you see a white faced Geisha or robed Sumo wrestler squeezed into a crowded train.
5 Reasons To study Abroad In Japan
1. Japan is safe, very safe: The Japanese take rules, like most things in life, very seriously.
2. Japan is technologically advanced: You can see tech 10 years before they debut in Europe or the US.
3. Japanese is one of the easiest Asian languages: It’s pronounced just as it’s spelled and has an equation like grammar setup.
4. Sushi is everywhere: Not only can you buy fresh Sushi just about everywhere but it’s cheap too.
5. Japanese culture: Few other cultures provide insight to such a rich transitional past as Japan.
Study Abroad In The City?
The Pros: The cities of Japan are busy, crowded but extremely clean. With an extensive transport system you can generally get anywhere you need to go and quickly. And from Karaoke to clubs there’s plenty to do.
The Cons: On the other hand cities are expensive. It’s harder to connect with locals and make friends.
In The Countryside?
The Pros: The Japanese countryside is markedly cheaper than the cities. Prices from food to transport tend to be at least 20% less. You get to make friends with the cashiers at Family Mart or Moss Burger. You’re also able to go hiking, have riverside BBQ’s and imagine yourself as a samurai from centuries past. Definitely check out Kamakura, a former ancient capital turned mellow beachside town just about an hour south of Tokyo.
The Cons: While the country side is far from the city, you can always catch a quick train into town. And while sometimes country life can be boring, there’s almost always a local bar or Karaoke joint.
How To Find A Study Abroad Program To Japan
In Highschool: AFS or American Field Service is one of the most reputable high school exchange organizers in the US. They require that you be at least 15 years of age and enrolled in high school. None of their programs require previous language abilities.
In College: Most large colleges in the United States offer study abroad programs to Japan. The SUNY University system offers a few study abroad programs to Japan as well at the UC systems Education Abroad Program. You can generally receive a subsidized federal loan and even a grant if your parents qualify; be sure to ask your guidance counselor.
Independently: If you’re looking to conduct an independent research project, the Full Bright program is you’re best bet. If they like your proposal they’ll even cover the entire cost. Just be sure to apply over a year in advance.
Other: If you want to live, learn and teach in Japan, the JET program is your best option. Every year the Japanese government hires hundreds of international teachers to teach english at elementary schools. The pay is very high at around 40,000 a year, which makes getting in competitive. Although a bachelors degree is required, Japanese language skills are not.
How To Prepare
Learn Japanese: One of the best ways to prepare for any study abroad is by learning the language. Even if your classes are in English, it’s a good idea to learn some essential words and phrases. A little bit of language skills can go a long way, especially in Japan, where politeness is a pillar of society. The best way to learn Japanese is through the Pimsluer course. Pimsleur consists of 30 half hour lessons that will get you speaking at conversational level. No program or class has helped me more.
Japanese Food: Fish rather than meat has been a traditional staple of Japan. Almost every meal contains at least a bit of fish, so if you don’t already enjoy fish it’s not a bad idea to acquire a taste.
Watch Anime: Although anime isn’t the best representation of Japanese culture it does provide insight into humor, customs, and other idiosyncrasies of the culture. My top Anime’s of choice, Cowboy Bebopp, Samurai Champloo, Naruto, Death Note, Highschool Rumble and or course the classic, Pokemon.
Read historical fiction: Shogun by James Clavell follows the plight of the first English sailor to reach the Japans. As Captain Blackthorn learns the customs and language of Japan so do you. It’s incredibly entertaining and educational, and one of the best pieces of historical fiction ever written in my opinion. It’s also one of my favorite books.
Language Courses: If you’re taking a language program, expect courses to be tough and full of homework. Fortunately, teachers are generous when it comes to grading and will give you high marks merely for the fact that you decided to come all the way to Japan.
Academic Courses: You really need a high level of language skills and knowledge of Kanji to take a regular university course. Try and choose courses like Noh Play or Caligraphy for the least writing assignments. Fortunately, like language professors, most professors will have sympathy and award you a high grade at the end of the year.
How To Fit In
Since westerners first landed in Japan, the white, tall, big nosed, lanky foreigner is still looked upon with suspicion and is often received by curious stares. Those who do not know the customs are treated as children. This makes fitting in and making friends a bit of a challenge. However, people are people no matter where you go. As long as you smile often, bow like a peasant, and bear gifts, you’re bound to fit in.
Budget Saving Tips and Tricks
Eating: The cheapest way to eat is by cooking at home. But for a quick snack head to Family Mart for a cheap Ume Boshi Rice Ball or Fami Fried Chicken.
Accommodation: Most study abroad programs will provide accommodation. They generally cost between 400-500$/month. However, if you’re in a city, you may be able to stay at a guest house for much cheaper. Check out the Teachers Lodge in Tokyo.
Fights: HIS is tour company based in the US and often offers cheap one way tickets to Japan.
By Bus: The cheapest way to get around Japan is by bus but it’s also considerably slower than the train.
By Train: If you plan on doing a lot of traveling in Japan be sure to get a Japan Rail Pass.
Studying abroad in Japan in college was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Having always roughed it as a runaway, this was the first time I was truly able to live and thrive in a different culture. I made cool friends who always joked about “Geri,” I became a “great” singer at karaoke, I learned to speak Japanese, and I even gave a rap speech for my final project. (Video coming soon) For more info about backpacking and living in Japan, be sure to check out Runaway Guide To Japan.