What Is It Like to Study Abroad in Japan?

On the evening of August 31, I arrived at the Tokyo Narita Airport. I used the extremely convenient takkyubin service to ship my two suitcases to my Kyoto hotel, then I checked into the capsule hotel in the basement of the airport. It was just as cool and futuristic as I expected a capsule hotel to be, although I did not expect the ocean sounds coming from the speakers inside my capsule. Soothing ocean sounds on my first night in Tokyo? What a time to be alive! It was also convenient not having to leave the airport since I had an early flight to Osaka the next morning.


Ground floor of Kyoto Station. There are 15 floors total!

After arriving at Kansai International Airport (KIX) in Osaka, I still had to find my way to my hotel in Kyoto. I decided to take an airport shuttle bus so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the confusing trains and subways, but now I use those same trains and subways all the time and never only sometimes get confused. Progress!


Japanese-style breakfast at the hotel I stayed at during KCJS orientation

At my hotel, I met the other students from my study abroad program, Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies. KCJS is located on the Imadegawa campus of Doshisha University. Part of orientation involved going to campus and being given a tour by some Doshisha students. Naturally, I promptly forgot where everything was and had trouble finding the KCJS building on the first day of school.


I share some takoyaki with a new friend during orientation. Takoyaki (a fried snack containing octopus, tempura scraps, pickled ginger, and green onion) is a Kansai classic that originated in Osaka.

After three days of orientation, students moved into their program housing. Students have the option of living in a private apartment, a guest house with other KCJS students, or a homestay. I opted for a homestay. I have a host mom and dad, a 13-year-old host brother, and a cat. I interact mostly with my host mom because my host dad is often at work and my host brother is often at school, tutoring, or tennis. I really like my host family. I was planning on living in an apartment second semester just to switch things up, but I decided to stay with my host family for both semesters soon after I met them.


I’m in awe that this beautiful shrine exists right across the street from my house. Zeze Castle was built in 1601, and most of it is in ruins now. This shrine is one of the few parts of the castle that remains.

I live in Shiga, which is the prefecture just east of Kyoto prefecture. It takes me 45 minutes to get to school. I take two trains and a subway. My host mom kindly took me all the way to campus the day before school, so I could get some practice. She also drew little maps explaining how to walk through the station and what side of the platform I needed to stand on depending on where I was going. I looked at those maps a lot the first few days of school. Thank you, host mom!


Trip to Arashiyama with DESA, a cultural exchange circle for students at Doshisha

Japanese language class is every morning from 9:00 to 11:00. The teachers speak only in Japanese, and the students must do the same. The first hour of class usually consists of a kanji quiz and reading practice. The readings teach us various aspects of Japanese culture as well as the relevant vocabulary. The second hour of class is usually grammar class.

Two hours might sound like a lot of class time, and it is when compared to the 50 minutes at WashU. Lving in Japan, however, I want all the language instruction I can get because being able to speak Japanese makes my life easier.


At Arashiyama

In addition to the language class, we also take two classes about Japanese culture. These classes are taught in English, and many of the professors either emigrated from the U.S. or are visiting from the U.S.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays I had Modern Japan through Cinema from 1:10-2:40 pm. There were also weekly film screenings outside of class time. We watched movies from the ’30s, the ’00s, and everything in between. Some of my favorites were I Was Born, But… (1932), Tokyo Story (1953), and Tampopo (1985).

One of our homework assignments was to see a Japanese movie in a theater. Japanese audio, no subtitles. I saw a movie called 図書館戦争 (Library Wars). In the movie, it’s 2019, and book censorship is rampant. Soldier-librarians risk their lives daily to protect the books. I think got a little teary at the concept. Books are so important.

Going to a movie theater was a fun experience. It was pretty similar to theaters I was used to in the U.S., but there were a few differences. For example, everyone stayed seated until the credits were over and then got up to leave at the same time.

With the DESA crew at Arashiyama

With the DESA crew at Arashiyama

On Wednesdays I had Families and Work in Postwar Japan from 2:55-6:10 pm. This was the hidden gem of KCJS, in my opinion. The class only had six students, including myself. For contrast, the biggest class, Kyoto Artisans and Their Worlds, had 24 students–everyone in the program sans me and two other people from the Families class.

The topics we covered in Families were very thought-provoking, and the small class size made for great discussion. We learned about salarymen, blue-collar families, corporate structures, gender roles and gender inequality, work-life balance, and more. This sociology course helped me develop a more realistic view of what life in Japan is like. I highly recommend it to anyone who is attending KCJS in the future.

Fushimi Inari

At Fushimi Inari Shrine

Every student is required to participate in a Community Involvement Project (CIP). The CIP counts for 10% of the Japanese language grade. Students can join a club, take a class, or volunteer. The goal is to get involved with the Japanese community while utilizing Japanese language skills. For my CIP, I volunteered at a daycare. My only duty was to play with the kids and help them clean up, so it was pretty fun! Learning how to play in another language was its own challenge. You can read about my experience on the KCJS CIP blog.


A field of cosmos in Okayama, where we went for our KCJS fall trip

I speak only Japanese at home and in Japanese class. I know my Japanese proficiency would improve much faster if I were to speak only Japanese with my friends as well, but I find that difficult to do. It’s hard for me to express myself in Japanese when I don’t know the correct vocabulary or grammar. Nevertheless, I am going to make more of an effort next semester to speak only in Japanese. My goal is to reach N2-level language proficiency before I leave.

Sometimes I get frustrated because it feels like I only have the speaking abilities of a small child. In reality, my Japanese is probably better than I give myself credit for. I can ask for directions (and understand the directions that are given in response), speak with store clerks,  and talk about daily life. I can make phone calls, which is something that I used to dread. I have even been able to have heart-to-heart conversations with my host mom, completely in Japanese.


Each student was assigned a host family for the two days we spent in Okayama. One of my favorite parts of the trip was when my host family took me to the sea.


My Okayama host dad is a karate instructor, and he took me to one of his classes.

My other favorite part was when my Okayama host dad, who is a karate instructor, took me to one of his classes. I got to try my hand (no pun intended) at karate for the first time!

My Japanese language abilities were really put into perspective when some friends and I went to Seoul for fall break. South Korea is the first country I have visited where I was not able to speak the main language. It was so hard to communicate! I learned how to read Hangul (the Korean alphabet) the first day I was there, a skill that came in handy a few times. I also learned some phrases for ordering food. Other than that, I had no idea what was being said around me. None of my friends knew Korean. We couldn’t ask for help. We couldn’t strike up conversations with the locals. Not being able to speak Korean created a language barrier that we had never experienced in Japan. Although we had an amazing time in Seoul, we felt so relieved when we returned to Japan and realized we could actually communicate with people again.


Sign at Kansai’s Rainbow Pride Parade: STOP! 男性特権 (male privilege) 帝国主義(imperialism) 植民主義 (colonialism) I can’t see the rest of the other two words to translate them properly, but they say 異性愛中心主[…] and 日本人中心主[…], which should mean heteronormativity and something about a Japan-centric worldview, respectively

When I first arrived in Japan, it seemed like every experience elicited a reaction of “Oh! That’s different.” The taxis were different. I wasn’t supposed to touch the taxi doors because they open and close automatically. The vending machines were different. They sold cold and hot drinks, and some of them even carried hot corn soup. The 7-Eleven’s were different. For one thing, they were on every corner, not just near gas stations. Secondly, I noticed that the food was…actually good. Do I dare say tasty? Yeah, I do. (I later learned that Japan does 7-Eleven so well that a Japanese company now owns 7-Eleven.)

A variety of meals at a 7-Eleven. The cashier can warm up your meal for you in the microwave if you want.

A variety of meals at a 7-Eleven. The cashier can warm up your meal for you in the microwave.

Almost four months have passed since I first arrived in Japan. I have gotten used to living here, and the surprises are less frequent. It’s interesting when I notice the ways in which I’ve adapted to my surroundings. Sometimes I think of a Japanese word for something before I can think of the English word for it. Sometimes I can’t think of an English word at all. One time I was listening to a woman on TV speaking Spanish, and it took me a moment to realize she wasn’t speaking Japanese. Because I understand both Spanish and Japanese, I was somehow able to understand what the woman was saying without processing what language I was hearing. The brain is so fascinating like that!


The famous Nishiki Market

During my first semester abroad, I got better at Japanese, made new friends, explored new places, and learned a lot about Japanese culture. I’m looking forward to my second semester here. I think it will be even better than the first because I have already passed the hurdle that is the negotiation phase (in other words, the “Everything is irritating, and I want to go home!” phase) of culture shock and feel fairly adjusted now.

I am so glad I had the opportunity to study at KCJS. I almost didn’t apply because I didn’t think I would be allowed to do a year abroad as a senior. (You need four semesters of Japanese to be eligible for KCJS. I started taking Japanese my sophomore year, thus I would not meet the requirement until I finished junior year.) My plan had been to graduate a year early and then travel to Japan on my own. After one of my Japanese professors heard this plan, she strongly suggested that I apply to KCJS. She said that I could always go to Japan after I graduate, but going abroad as a student was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I went to talk with my advisors and the office of Overseas Programs. It turned out that because I was on track to graduate in three years (which meant I didn’t need to worry about whether I could get credit from my KCJS classes) and the study abroad program ended before graduation, I would still be able to graduate on time. I’m really grateful that my Japanese professor convinced me to do KCJS because the experiences I’ve had during this program are experiences I never would have been able to have if I had come to Japan on my own.

Thanksgiving dinner at a place called Cafe Frosch. I am grateful for the opportunity to study in Kyoto.

Thanksgiving dinner at an international party. Can’t say it enough–I am grateful for the opportunity to study in Kyoto!