Since as long as I can remember, it has always been a dream of mine to travel and explore Japan and, earlier this year, I found out that that dream of mine was soon to become a reality.
When I found out that I got accepted to study abroad in Japan for a semester, I was ecstatic. I could not contain my overflowing emotions of pure excitement and happiness. I had so many hopes and expectations for my study abroad experience in Japan, and I spent countless nights dreaming of the endless memories and adventures I would have in Japan. I thought that everything would be smooth sailing once I made my flight and landed in Japan. “The beginning of a new journey,” is what I thought when I stepped off that plane. And while it certainly is the start of a new journey in my life … it didn’t start off on the right foot.
My first few days in Japan were anything but the magical fairytale dream I had always envisioned. From the get-go, I faced many unexpected obstacles that I was clearly not prepared for.
Obstacle 1: The Language Barrier
In the first few days, I faced the painful realization that there was an enormous language barrier. I knew before coming to Japan that I would have a bit of a hard time adjusting to life in Japan, in part because of the language barrier. My decision to study abroad in Japan for a semester was a little last-minute, so I only took one class of Japanese before traveling to Japan. I knew there would be challenges but nothing I couldn’t deal with.
Well, it turns out I was in a little too much over my head. Within the first couple days, I was hit with a reality slap to the face that overcoming the language barrier would be harder than I previously thought. Very few people in Tokyo speak English –as opposed to popular belief — and of those who do speak some English, only a slim percentage are conversational or better. So ordering food and asking for help with directions at the train stations have proven to be very difficult and stressful for me.
Obstacle 2: Transportation
Public transportation in Japan, especially in Tokyo rush hour commute, was/is really terrifying and confusing for a variety of reasons.
One of the reasons why transportation was so stressful for me was because of rush-hour commuting. I always heard the horror stories about the trains in Japan, especially during rush-hour commute. I saw photos of the waves of people that would come gushing in and out of the tiny train car. I watched videos of people helping push other people into the train so that they would all fit. I witnessed it. I lived it.
Let me tell you something, I am not someone who really enjoys close contact with strangers. I like my personal space bubble. There is no such concept as personal space in these trains, especially during rush hour. I felt like a fish gasping for air on dry land — never in my life have I felt like such a sardine. People will legit force themselves into a 1-mm sliver of space believing, knowing, that somehow, they are going to make it on that train.
The other reason why public transportation was so stressful for me in the first week is because I had to transfer trains at Shinjuku station, which is arguably one of the busiest stations in the world. I can’t even count how many times I got lost and turned around in that station alone. There are so many platforms and exits, so it’s really easy to get all confused in the station. Plus, there are always waves of people coming in and out, so I had to weave my way in and out of the crowd. SO stressful. Most times when I got lost I would try and use Google maps and the info centers in the station to try and see if that would help me in finding where I needed to go.
Obstacle 3: Meetings/Orientations
So, another part of what made my first few days in Japan so stressful was that I missed a meeting and a pretty important orientation for my major. I missed the first meeting because I got lost in the train station and took the local train, which is twice as long as the rapid express train so I miscalculated the time and missed the meeting. The second one I missed was an orientation for the exchange students in my major, which I did not know existed and, therefore, I missed it. Both of the meetings were fairly important, so missing these two things right off the bat really stressed me out, and I began to panic.
Obstacle 4: Tech Problems
Day Three of my days in Japan started with me missing an orientation, as mentioned above, and then coming back to my dorm to find out my laptop had broken down. I opened my computer to find a bright pink display and nonfunctional keys and power button. After an hourlong chat session with Apple support, I was told I would need to make an appointment with an Apple store in Shinjuku (the closest one to me) to get the problem sorted out. Luckily, they told me they could fix the problem. However, I had to drop $520 to fix it as a flat rate repair. Yikes.
Obstacle 5: Homesickness
I noticed in the beginning days of this journey that I was definitely a lot more homesick than I initially thought I would be, and I really struggled with this in the first three days for all of the above obstacles. With everything that was going on in my surroundings, I became increasingly more homesick with each passing day.
This was really hard for me to admit and deal with this. Luckily, talking with my friends and family really helped me accept that this was part of the adjustment period and to not be too hard on myself as it was only Week One.
Now, I don’t want to scare you off from traveling abroad, even if you don’t speak the language. These were just my personal experiences during my first week here in Japan. Sure, my first week didn’t really go in the perfect way I wanted it to, but nothing really does in life. I may be struggling now, but things are starting to get better as I continually adjust to life here, and I am so excited for everything that is to come during my semester abroad.
I may have started off on the wrong foot, but there are still so many steps to take.
Teri Handa is a second-year speech, language and hearing sciences major who is studying in Tokyo for the spring semester. She has never traveled out of the country before and is excited to share her journey.
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