The new Spring semester has started and floods of new exchange students join the flanks in school excited for what awaits in the semester or so ahead. Based on personal experience, here are some ways to make the most of your study in Japan.
1. Join a club/extracurricular activity
Joining a club (or circle) is the fastest and possibly the most intensive way to learn Japanese, make friends and throw yourself head first into experiencing life as a Japanese student. I was part of the Light Music Club in my first year, and no one spoke any English. All communications were in Japanese so I had to learn to greet senpai the correct way, proper dining etiquette at one of the many dinner/celebrations (“konpa”), and learnt that it was a commitment not to be taken lightly.
It’s also an easy way to make friends with many clubs holding parties to recruit new members or events such as onigiri-making, Culture Appreciation Day, movie/documentary screenings or field trips.
Note: Some clubs have admission/membership fees or require payment for training, camps etc. If you can’t commit fully, Circles are an alternative where members attend whenever they’re free.
Homestays are a great insight into everyday Japanese life. From the moment you wake and eat breakfast till your bath before sleeping, it’s as authentic as it gets. Eat what a typical family eats (yes, that means natto too!), attend the school festivals of your host-siblings and go sightseeing with your host-parents. Being welcomed into their homes and introduced to their ways of life, some rules and procedures might be strange at first, but hey, you learn something new everyday.
3. Have fun – uniquely Japan style
By this I mean do everything you wanted to do here that you always dreamed of. Attend the concerts of your favourite artists (and join the fan club too), buy all the adorable 100yen items, karaoke all night long, enjoy a trip to an izakaya every weekend, take part in Japanese festivals, dress up in kimono, soak in an onsen…and of course, eat your way through every prefecture’s specialities.
4. Improve/Learn Japanese
It’s possible to live in Japan without knowing any Japanese but difficult, so why not learn/improve while you’re here? Most universities have a compulsory Japanese language course in the syllabus, and there are many apps online to help you revise. The most daunting part for most is speaking the language, but be it asking for directions or replying to the conbini staff, being surrounded by Japanese and having to live, breathe and use it to get around, it’s one of the best chances to hone your new found Japanese language skills. Another big plus is practicing with the new Japanese friends you’ll make, or your fellow classmates in school.
4. Work part-time
You need an extra permit to work and have a limit of 28 hours/week but be it teaching your native language, waiting tables or standing behind a conbini counter, it’s definitely a way to experience a new facet of life in Japan. You’ll learn baito-keigo and have to practice your Japanese, or even if just teaching English or a language, the conversations with your students can be very insightful. Check out GaijinPot Jobs for a list of part time jobs.
This is a no-brainer but explore! Nightbuses/highway express services are cheap ways to travel between prefectures if you want to save on expensive Shinkansen travel. Better yet – rent a car and take a roadtrip. You’ll see sights and have great experiences that you won’t soon forget!
And even if you can’t afford inter-prefectural travel, there is always exploring to do in your own city. Take a walk or a bike ride in a direction you’ve never been, you might find tiny neighborhood shrines, markets and quaint shops you’d never have thought existed. Just the other day I realised the nondescript hut I was passing by to head to the station was a store selling some of the best ramen I’ve ever had!
All in all, everyone has their own goals when studying abroad and the experience varies per person. I’ve had friends who loved it so much they never wanted to leave, but some had their perception of Japan change 180 degrees. Either way, studying abroad is eye opening and a step toward chalking up enough experience points to become more independent and globally minded.