If you’re a student who’s got serious wanderlust, you’ve probably considered studying abroad. The world is a big place with so much to see, and studying abroad gives you an opportunity to experience a new country in a way only a student can. You get to immerse yourself completely in a new culture while actively studying about and living in it. It’s the perfect college adventure!
There are so many beautiful and interesting countries, and for someone who wants to see them all, it can be hard to choose which one for study abroad. Though, if you have to choose just one, Japan is a great country to settle on. It’s a wonderful place for a student looking to tackle a new language and get to know a beautiful and unique culture firsthand. There are so many things to love about Japan, you won’t regret making the decision to study there.
Historical and Modern Collide
Japan is well known for amazing gadgets, industries, and technological and engineering advances. But however modern they are, they still hold their history and traditions very dear. When you consider Japan was closed off to the rest of the world until just over 150 years ago, it makes a lot of sense that there is still such a close connection to their past.
Wherever you go in Japan you can see a harmonious blend of historic and modern architecture. In Tokyo alone, a 20-minute walk takes you from nearly 1400 year-old temple Sensoji to Tokyo Skytree, the second tallest structure in the world and less than 10 years old. The unification of old and new isn’t just seen in the architecture but in clothing as well. Harajuku fashion is infamous around the world, yet traditional-style clothing is still widely used for ceremonies, festivals, and even just everyday wear for some.
Capital of Convenience
If you enjoy convenience and predictability, then Japan is definitely the place for you. As a culture that works and studies long hours, anything that can make everyday life a bit more convenient is prized by the Japanese people.
Public transportation in Japan is widespread, clean, and incredibly accurate; other than the odd delay here and there due to repairs or emergencies, you can pretty much guarantee that the time on the train or bus schedule is the time it will arrive. Convenience stores in Japan should be the gold standard for the whole world as they completely embody what that word “convenience” means — you can get good food, drinks, snacks, toiletries, office supplies, magazines, etc. as well as pay bills, buy museum tickets or bus passes, and countless other services, all 24 hours a day.
If you’re ever walking down the street and suddenly get thirsty, fret not! Not only there are an abundance of convenience stores to go into, but there is also a drink vending machine on nearly every street — even residential streets! Hot drinks, cold drinks, whatever the season or whatever you’re craving, the drink vending machines will have you covered — along with the many other types of vending machines in Japan.
If the only Japanese foods you’ve experienced are sushi and tempura, you have only experienced a mere fraction of the wonders of Japanese cuisine — and likely very Americanized version of them. Food is serious business in Japan, and the Japanese take flavors to incredible levels. They focus a lot on seasonal foods, regional foods, and craftsmanship. There is also an emphasis on getting big flavor with simple ingredients.
Restaurants in Japan vary greatly. You can find amazing and delicious food in hole-in-the-wall places for cheap, street vendors during festivals, pricier sit-down restaurants for a classier experience, Izakayas for Japanese-style bar food and drinking, and even decent and quick food at convenience stores. You’re not likely to run out of places or food types to try during your study abroad experience.
Tips for Studying in Japan
If this small view into Japan has convinced you to choose to study abroad there, you have a wonderful adventure ahead of you! Now you just need to plan and prepare. There is a great deal of preparation for any study abroad experience, and Japan is no exception; when you are setting on the other side of the world in a completely different culture and language, a little extra readiness will do nothing but help.
Check With Your University
Check to see what study abroad programs your university offers and what qualifications are needed to apply. Study abroad programs are usually through exchange programs, and each university will have different exchange relationships. There may only be one Japanese university that you can apply to, or your school may have several to choose from, allowing you to have a little more control of which city and school you’d like to choose.
Research the school programs as well as the cities they are located in to make the best decision for yourself. If you want to study abroad more for the experience rather than the academics, choosing a school with a more relaxed program located in a big city like Tokyo or Osaka is likely what you’ll want. If you’re hoping for an immersive experience both linguistically and culturally, a school in smaller city with less “tourist appeal” is best for you.
Most study abroad programs will only allow a certain number of students, so you’ll likely have to meet certain qualifications, such as GPA, prerequisite classes, and year in school — often freshmen and seniors aren’t allowed, or are at least strongly discouraged from, studying abroad. Other requirements for applying to study abroad may include writing an essay about why you want to study abroad in Japan, as well as getting recommendations from professors. Each university will have their own requirements and stipulations, so the sooner you find out what they are, the better.
Take Japanese Classes
If your university offers Japanese classes, you will greatly benefit from taking at least a semester, if not more, before heading to Japan. Japanese has a reputation for being one of the hardest languages to learn for English speakers, and for good reason. Grammatically, it’s not really all that more difficult than other foreign languages; it’s the writing system that will get you. Japanese uses three different writing systems that each have their purpose in reading and writing comprehension. Don’t let the complex writing system deter you, though. It can be fun learning a whole new way of writing, and it may even help your brain draw more distinct lines between your native language and Japanese.
In any case, getting familiar with greetings, basic grammar structure, and especially the basic kana (hiragana and katakana) will make all the difference when you arrive in Japan. If your school doesn’t offer Japanese as a course, take some time before arriving to do some self-study with free Japanese resources on the internet.
Study Up on the Culture
While much culture learning can only be truly learned by being in it, you should still do your best to be an informed traveler. Knowing basic dos and don’ts of Japanese etiquette will save you from committing social faux pas, or even outright offending someone.
One well-known etiquette is to always take off your shoes when entering someone’s house, and sometimes even certain businesses. Perhaps lesser known is that you should try to keep quiet, or at least keep your voice down, while in public spaces — especially on trains. There are also several dos and don’ts for visiting historical and religious sites like temples, as well as a host of rules for eating and using chopsticks — sorry, using your chopsticks for walrus impersonations is a strict no, as is pointing with your chopsticks and sticking them in your food while not actively using them.
As a student, you’re likely not rolling in money. There are scholarships and loans that can help you pay for your schooling and living situation while in Japan, but as for fun money, you’ll most likely be providing that on your own. By doing research on what activities and extra traveling you might want to do while in Japan, you can create a rough budget and start saving as soon as possible.
In addition to budgeting, find ways to save extra money where you can. You can download apps that will help you cut costs while traveling around Japan or one of the nearby countries like South Korea (less than a 3-hour plane ride!), research museums and attractions that give student discounts, and find free activities to enjoy! Especially in the bigger cities, there is always something going on that will be worth checking out.
Keep in Touch
Studying abroad is exciting, and it’s easy to get caught up in everything from keeping up with classes to saying “yes” to every new invitation to soak up all possible experiences. But while enjoying your time to the fullest, also make sure to set aside time to get in touch with life back home. If you don’t take the time to connect with family and friends, not only will they likely feel perturbed and forgotten, one random day homesickness will hit you like freight train.
Keeping in touch with loved ones back home requires a bit of strategic planning when in Japan. Luckily, technology has made contact super easy and accessible, with apps like Skype, Google Hangouts, and Facetime. Finding a time that works for everyone is where the challenge lies. Depending on where home is in the U.S., there could be a time difference as great as 16 hours. With just a little planning ahead of time, you can set a time that will work for everyone involved. Of course, just because we have technology doesn’t mean that needs to be the only means of contact; don’t underestimate the special touch of a snail-mail postcard or package.
No one likes to think of the bad that can happen while traveling. With study abroad, you will likely be covered by school insurance as well as be enrolled in the universal healthcare system in Japan. But if you plan to do any traveling outside of Japan at some point during your study abroad semesters, you should consider investing in medical travel insurance. It will save you a lot of stress in the case that you need emergency medical attention while out of the country.
Before leaving for your study abroad, consider getting an international phone plan for your smartphone. It will come in handy in minor emergencies, such as helping you find your way when you’re lost, and will be vitally important in the event of a major emergency where you need to seek immediate help. ?
Studying abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you shouldn’t pass up if you can manage it. Immersing yourself in a new culture and getting to know the world outside of the tiny bit you know will have a profound effect on your life. Whether in Japan or somewhere else, make the most of your exchange by getting prepared beforehand and then enjoying each day of your time abroad.
Mila Sanchez is a writer with a BA in English Linguistics. Her ambitions include traveling the world, studying languages, and taking pictures of her dog, Baymax. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram!