Before going to Japan, I never would have imagined how life changing it would be. But after returning from a whole year abroad in the Land of Rising Sun, I can safely say that my experience has transcended life changing.
To start off, I was a bit worried about communication and getting my way around the city as I had had only a year's experience with the Japanese language. And of course, the first week started off a bit tough. I mean, I went to a country with a completely different culture and language. However, it was that difference that pushed me to try my hardest to acclimate. So, I started my first year at Chuo University after only a week of adjustment. Now let me tell you, Japanese universities are much different compared to American universities. Let's say you're taking economics for example; you only have one ninety minute class of it a week. This goes for all other classes... except for my Japanese language class. But, it is for the best, since learning a language takes repetition. Each week, I had to take eight 90 minute language classes. On top of that, there were three more general education courses to take, although luckily, they were all in English. Anyway, after the first semester, I felt much more confident in my speaking and listening abilities, so I thought I could handle a general education class in Japanese and art history sounded easy enough. What a huge mistake. I came out having no idea what I had just listened to in those previous ninety minutes. My friend told me that this class was hard to understand, and he was Japanese! I never took that class again, but it was definitely an experience.
Aside from the wonderful thrill of school work, I had joined two university clubs. Unlike the clubs in American universities which just meet every so often, Japanese clubs become another extension of your life. They meet every day and it's where everyone makes their friends after coming to university. I thought that it would be the perfect way for me to improve my Japanese, so I went and joined two clubs, the English Conversation Group and the English Speaking Society. Now with those names, you'd think the members would be fluent in English. Not at all. They were clubs for people with interests in English, though not necessarily to learn it. And this ended up being the best thing that could happen to me in Japan. My biggest improvement in Japanese was definitely due to the friends I made in these clubs.
Almost every day we would have some kind of crazy event. Sometimes we would have a barbeque standing in the middle of shallow river, camp up in the mountains of Japan, bowl for the whole night, explore the city, and even have sports competitions with other universities! My favorite part was definitely the camping though. The ECG and I took a two hour road trip up to what seemed to be the middle of nowhere north of Tokyo. After driving up several winding mountain roads, we arrived at a small campsite run by an old Japanese man. The biggest surprise was that we had the entire campsite to ourselves. This included several cabins, a large bonfire pit, and the best part, a large river. We could be as crazy as we wanted to. So, our days involved swimming in the river, catching fish with our bare hands, and hiking, while our evening involved shooting off fireworks, ghost stories around huge bonfires, and roasting our daily catches. By the end of the trip, everyone was exhausted. The trip back was dead silent, as everyone slept the whole ride back.
Asides from the wilderness, I also had many chances to go downtown with my friends. Downtown Tokyo was amazing, with so much to do. If we were able to wake up early enough, we would all go to Tsukiji, the famous fish market off Tokyo Bay. All the shops there would sell you pieces of a fish that was caught just a couple hours earlier. Since then, any other sushi just isn't the same. If we couldn't be bothered to wake up early, we would often go to Odaiba, an artificial island filled with several malls and other attractions. Upon arriving in Odaiba, a huge, multistory Ferris wheel confronts you. And surrounding that Ferris wheel are several malls, each containing strange attractions. For example, one mall contained a huge indoor theme park, with rollercoasters and all. Another mall, would have you enter through a large cave that would exit onto the streets of Italy which would lead to pre-war Japan, only to have you exit the mall confronting a smaller scale replica of the Statue of Liberty. I was worried I'd lose track of which country I was in.
The clubs were not what I had expected! I had expected them to be much more serious, but they are for people with common interests to hang out every day. So, all of this constant immersion with my Japanese friends was, of course a fun part of the experience, but also the most important catalyst for helping me learn Japanese.
Though I wasn't able to do anything science related during my stay, I will never forget about my experiences in Japan. In fact, it just gives me more drive to shoot for graduate school in Japan. At least, I know that if I could conquer something like that, I should have no problem in the sciences, right?