It was the year 2003 when I made my first trip overseas to spend time in another country. I was attending university, and so decided to spend a year overseas as part of the international exchange program that my school, the University of Northern British Columbia, had with various other post-secondary schools across the world. Our sister university in Japan was in Utsunomiya, named after the city, and was located in Tochigi Prefecture, about a two hour train ride north of Tokyo.
Utsunomiya is one of the smaller cities in Japan, smaller cities being a term which may or may not be an oxymoron when one takes into account the amount of livable land situated on the series of islands that make up that country. It’s all in one’s perspective, as they say. The city has roughly 500,000 people, and is situated nicely about the middle between the Northern and Southern sections of Japan. This leads me to my first tip about spending any amount of time in Japan, be it as an ESL teacher, student, or tourist.
Tip # 1: Know Where You Want To Go.
Whatever reason you have for visiting Japan, make sure you’ve researched where it is you want to spend your time. I was quite fortunate in that during my third year of university I studied Japanese alongside numerous exchange students from Utsunomiya. They helped provide me with a great amount of information about the area. Studying with the exchange students helped to give me solid facts instead of the various myths that seem to abound about living in cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka. Unfortunately, living in the large cities is rather expensive from what I heard from the exchange students as well as talking with other international students who had spent some time before in Japan. For those of you on a limited budget, I highly recommend living in the smaller cities of Japan, as everything from rent to food is less expensive. Even though the difference in pricing is not always by very much, every little bit can count when traveling abroad. You could even use the extra money for a day trip to visit the larger cities, if you do strongly wish to experience them.
Tip # 2: Study the Language.
Japanese is, without a doubt, one of the more difficult languages to learn, something I can personally attest to after five years of study and a year of living in the country that it came from. It’s not just the speaking that can be difficult, but the reading as well, as Japanese has not only kanji, which was adopted from Chinese characters, but hiragana and katakana. Learning these will be no easy task, but overall rewarding in the end.
There are a number of advantages to learning Japanese. The first is that people will appreciate it, even if it is a minimal effort. One should always do more than the minimum, of course, but it’s been my experience that the people will appreciate any effort to get along in their tongue. It’s a sign of respect for the culture that has accepted you as a visitor, and is generally a good rule of etiquette when visiting any culture. It also allows you to get out and do simple things like paying the bills, eating out at a restaurant, or going to a movie without the help of a Japanese friend or someone more fluent in the language than you, although such companions are a great help as well when doing more complicated chores, such as opening a bank account or renting out an apartment. Finally, learning Japanese will help you with my next tip.
Tip # 3: Build A Network Of Friends
I cannot stress how important this one is, and I consider it one of two tips that should be practiced no matter what country you’re in. Living in another country for any length of time past a short vacation can be quite stressful, especially if you are alone. Having friends means not only company, but a resource of information that may not have been included in whatever tourist’s guide you can pick up at a store. While such books should not be disregarded, I find that they just do not compare to having a friend from Japan show you around. They could know a nice little place to grab a good, inexpensive meal, a store to buy furniture at a minimum cost, or just someone to spend with and practice your Japanese with. Most people I’ve talked with were more than happy to do a language exchange of practicing Japanese for practicing English, although sometimes I had to leave the university to practice my Japanese, as most of the students there saw me as a chance to improve their English. I didn’t mind helping, but wow, sometimes I had to leave the university just to seek out the cultural experience I’d come to Japan to have in the first place.
Another advantage of building a network of friends is that it could lead to part time jobs. For those who travel to Japan on a student visa, you are allowed to work a certain number of hours per week, which can easily be fixed into the schedule of studying and attending classes. While the most obvious job would be to teach English, I also recommend other jobs such as bar-tending or even working at the university you are attending. While I didn’t do that, I did teach English privately and was able, due to help received from an Australian avionic engineer who was studying Japanese at the time, to receive work from an ESL company and earn extra cash on the side. Because of the friends I made, I was able to get work and valuable experience teaching, which would have been much harder had I been alone.
Also, there’s just the plain, good old feeling of hanging out with friends you can talk with. Humans are, in the end, social creatures, and only a select few of us can go any significant length of time without any one-on-one interaction. Having friends can help people to avoid loneliness, as well as homesickness. For those who take an ESL job, know that such jobs have a standard length of one year. That means no spending birthdays or any of the holidays we in the West celebrate with our friends and family. This can be downright depressing if thought about too much, and you will think about it, but it can be mediated by having friends to be with. As a personal example, during spring vacation I went on a road trip with a Japanese fellow named Hiromasa, who took me down to see his home near the base of Mt. Fuji. Not only was I able to buy a good amount of souvenirs, but I saw Tokyo Tower, met Hiromasa’s family, took tons of pictures and, on the way up, talked with a pair of lovely older ladies whose daughters were studying English in Vancouver, BC. Compare that with staying home in the International Dormitory where I was staying, and the choice was quite clear to me.
Tip #4: GO OUT!
Going out can almost be inseparable from the third tip, but it is still important because when you first arrive in Japan, unless you came with someone or are meeting someone there, you are going to be alone. This is where homesickness can start, which can sour your stay. Speaking from personal experience, going out is about the best thing one can do to offset any symptoms of homesickness.
An important tip given to me during TESOL certification was to go out, no matter what time of the day you arrived in Japan or how tired you felt. It’s important to put down some roots, to get to know the area, even to make yourself known to some extent to the neighborhood. Heck, I lived in an International dormitory in Utsunomiya and while many of the parties I attended were in that same building, being there meant meeting new friends and just having a good time overall. From those parties I learned how to get the key to the gym so I could exercise early in the morning, which helped me to relax and relieve the stress of living in another country.
Another reason why I mention how important going out is is because when most people think of Japan, we think of the pop culture exports such as anime, video games, and Godzilla. Some people I met through the anime club in university spoke about going right to the source to attain pure anime and manga that either hadn’t been released or edited for Western consumption.
If you have reasons similar to this, don’t go, especially if it’s for a year or more.
There is more to Japan than their pop culture, and you are doing yourself and them a disservice by going there to consume nothing else but pop culture. They have a long, rich history as one of the few countries on Earth to resist Western colonialism and maintain their culture and religion. Like any country, some of it is good, and some of it is bad, but you’ll be a richer person for having explored Japan and seen it for more than just the video games and anime it produces.
Finally, the last tip I have to offer to any who goes to Japan: Relax, and have fun. You’re going to be building memories that will stay with you for the remainder of your life, and while there are undoubtedly going to be times that will be troublesome and frustrating, why not do your best to make them good?
A Few Tips To Keep You From Going Insane
Written By: Jamie Jeans