Living in a culture as different as Japan’s can be challenging for many Americans. I lived in Japan for six months during my junior year of college and did everything I could to not be one of those stereotypical gaijin (foreigner) who only hang out with other Westerners and never become a part of the real Japan.
Here are some of the things I figured out that were most important to living life to the fullest in Japan:
1. Talk as much as possible
Well, maybe not as much as possible, but don’t miss out on any opportunities to have a conversation in Japanese. Well, maybe not as much as possible, but don’t miss out on any opportunities to have a conversation in Japanese. Learning how to speak Japanese fluently beforehand is a bonus, but is not necessary.
Many Japanese people are curious about Westerners and what they think about Japan, and will be happy to endure your mediocre Japanese to get to know you. You can also give them an opportunity to practice their English.
I met my closest Japanese friend when we were both waiting in a doctor’s office to have a physical done. He was wearing a goofy pair of shorts and I made a joke about them, and it turned out we had a lot in common and ended up meeting for coffee or drinks several times a week for the rest of my stay. A close Japanese friend will make navigating Japan much easier, as well as giving you great conversation practice.
2. Eat and be merry
Japan has amazing food made with fresh, delicious ingredients. There are many types of meals to try besides your stereotypical ones like sushi and yakisoba. Do yourself a favor and try abura ramen and shabu shabu. The Japanese takes on other cuisines such as Chinese, Indian and Indonesian are also very good, as they blend some local ingredients and cooking styles with dishes from afar. Get together with some eating buddies and try something new!
3. Do something!
Food is great, but too many foreigners living in Japan spend their lives in a monotonous cycle of working, eating, drinking and sleeping. Many are too intimidated by the language barrier to try a group activity or participate in an event, but there’s no way to get around this fear — you have to push through it! You can find a group of people doing almost anything you would enjoy in America, especially if you’re connected to a school or university.
When I was in Japan, I joined an Ultimate Frisbee team, which is how I got most of my exercise as well as how I met many of my Japanese friends. I also joined a reggae band in which I played trombone. Being a part of these groups gave me lots of opportunities to practice my Japanese as well as keep doing the things I love. I had other American friends who joined a Coffee Appreciation Society and a Snowball Fight Club. There’s something for everyone.
Ask around at your school or use the Internet (possibly with the help of a Japanese friend) to find something to do in your area. English language magazines like Metropolis can be a great help too. You can always find things to do on the cheap in Japan.
4. Learn to love the train
Odds are you won’t be driving a car while you’re in Japan, so the sooner you learn to get around by train, the better. This is especially true of Tokyo, where I lived and where there are over 100 different train lines to choose from. But don’t worry, there are lots of helpful websites such as Jorudan where you can put in any two stations and it will show you the fastest route between them.
Anywhere you want to go in Japan can be reached by train and even though it’s a little pricey, you should try riding the shinkansen (bullet train) when you travel between cities.
Some things you should be aware of when riding the train in Japan:
- You have to pay for the distance you travel on the train, which means each stop is more money out of your pocket. Some trips across Tokyo can cost $10 to $15.
- The trains stop running around 1 A.M., so you’ll have to be sure to catch your shuuden (last train). I once misread the station name and got off my last train at the wrong stop, but luckily found some fellow students from my university who let me sleep at their place.
- Trains get really packed during rush hour, sometimes to the point where station employees have to shove people in so the doors will close. Try to take up as little space as possible, breathe deeply and remain calm. It’s stressful at first, but you get used to it.
Now you’re ready to go off and enjoy your time in Japan. Ittekimasu!
Todd Anderson is a freelance writer for the University of Southern California’s Masters in Education online program, which prepares student to earn an MA in TESOL as well as a California credential.