My First Time in Japan
February 26, 2017
With try!Swift Tokyo coming up, my Twitter feed has been filling up with developers from around the world, excited for their first trips to Japan. When I lived in Japan I absolutely loved hanging out with foreigners on their first time to Tokyo. I could live vicariously through them and remember my first time in country. The first week of that experience set the tone for the whole year.
The Big Decision
It was my third year at university, and I was finishing up the last Japanese course available to students at the time. I was really only taking it because it was fun and the teacher was great, but at the end of the third year (and after being introduced to some Japanese students at a party) I realized that despite my decent grades, I really knew very little Japanese. I started to wonder if the last three years worth of credit hours was a waste of time. The study abroad programs in Japan were the next logical step, but the small town boy in me, who’d never even flown on a plane before, was a bit trepidatious about jumping on a flight to the biggest metropolis in the world for a whole year.
One afternoon, I was having lunch with my friend and classmate, Bill, and we were talking about my being on the fence. He’d been to Japan on another program the year before and was trying to find a way to move back after graduation. He told me, “You’re never going to know until you do it, so just fucking do it.” He was right. So, I went down to the Office of International Studies and threw my name in the hat. After a few brief interviews and an essay submission, I was chosen to be one of three guys from my university to join the exchange program with Josai International University, in Chiba, Japan. This program was particularly interesting, because it was one of the few that offered a home stay option (which I’d heard was the best way to immerse yourself and really learn the language and culture). I was scared as hell, but really excited at the same time.
The First Few Days
The school year in Japan starts at the beginning of April, but our school year at the university back home didn’t end until April 26th. So, there was a bit of lag between finishing here in the States and starting school in Japan. As a result, our flight to Japan wound up being just before the end of April, which happens to coincide with the Japanese holiday period called Golden Week. Golden Week is basically a number of national holidays, back-to-back where most of the time you end up with a full week off from work and school. When we arrived in Japan, the university put us up in temporary housing near the university so as not to disturb the home stay families’ Golden Week holiday. The three of us, Otto, Ryan, and myself, were lodged into one small room of a small house where university professors with long commutes could borrow rooms to stay for short periods of time. To keep us from getting bored, a different professor would volunteer each day to take us out and show us around. However, the small town where we were staying didn’t really have that much to offer. There was one shopping center in the middle of town (Sunpia), and that’s pretty much where we ended up going for a few days straight. Finally, by about the third or fourth day, when the next volunteer came around to take us out, we decided to let him know how we felt.
We told the nice teacher that, we were grateful to him for volunteering his free time to take us out and show us around, but if it was going to be another trip to the Sunpia, then he might as well not bother, because we’ve seen enough of that place to last a lifetime.
“Well,” he said. “Where is it that you want to go?”
“We’ve come all this way to be stuck in this little house in the middle of a rice paddy…we want to see the main attraction. We’d like to go to Tokyo!” we said.
Now, we didn’t really understand what it was we were asking. Time and distance, I found out, is all relative to the space in which you live…kind of like how a goldfish grows to the size of its bowl. To us, a 2 hour drive from Kalamazoo to Chicago felt relatively close. A nice little day trip we’d all made many times before. In Japan, on the other hand, that’s kind of a major undertaking. And that’s what we were looking at for a jaunt out to Tokyo. Not only was it about a 2-hour train ride to the closest part of Tokyo *— mind you, Tokyo is BIG…where in Tokyo you want to go is a huge factor in planning the day, and we just had no clue —* the train schedule for the lines nearest the university ran at extremely inconvenient intervals — like maybe one per hour in each direction — so getting the timing right on the return trip was also important in making sure you could get home at a decent hour.
So, the professor says, “Ok. That’s fine. I can take you to Tokyo, but you see…I live in Tokyo, and I’m not going to take a two-hour train ride there and back and home again so you guys can visit. If you feel confident that you can take the train back home by yourselves without a problem, then sure. I’ll take you to Tokyo.”
Ryan and Otto both looked at me and before I could say anything they were like, “Sure. We can do that.”
Now, what you don’t know is, at this point, Ryan only has one semester of Japanese under his belt, and Otto had something like three or four. I’d completed all six semesters and spent the last six months practicing by chatting up the Japanese exchange student friends I’d made on campus, but I had absolutely zero confidence in being able to get us home in one piece. That didn’t matter though, because as far as they were concerned, they felt like “Hey, no problem. If we get stuck, Jason can just talk to someone and get us back on track.” Thanks for the vote of confidence guys, but trial by fire isn’t what I had in mind my first week in country.
Still, I was curious and I remembered what Bill had said during our lunch. Just fucking do it.
So, the professor brought us into Ginza where he treated us to a nice lunch at a French restaurant. After that, we did a bit of window-shopping around Ginza Crossing. At this point, it was late in the afternoon and the professor recommended we start heading back. He was kind enough to bring us right to the train we needed to board at Tokyo station and told us to ride it straight to the end of the line. This would bring us to the town of Soga in Chiba-prefecture. From there, we’d have to switch trains to the Sotobo-line to get to Oami, and then switch once more to the Togane-line to get back to the university lodge at Gumyo. So, we thanked him, bid a farewell, and started on the first leg of our return trip.
We made it to Soga without incident and even found the down-bound train for the Sotobo-line. The problem was, none of the marquees at the platform or on the trains mentioned Oami. We were looking for an Oami-bound train, but of course, they were all labeled with stops much further down the line than Oami. So, we sat there, dumbfounded for what seemed like forever. After some pressure from the other guys, I finally worked up the courage to ask someone. Now, mind you, this is the country-side. The odds of finding someone who speaks or even understands English are near zero. So, I sat down to collect my thoughts and work up what I wanted to say in my head. I knew the name of the station in front of the university was Gumyo, but couldn’t remember any of the other stops along the way. But, that was going to have to do. I walked up to a sweet, elderly woman sitting nearby and said, 「すみません。求名に行きたいですけど。」 Which means, Excuse me. I’d like to go to Gumyo.
What I didn’t think of at the time was, Gumyo isn’t exactly a famous stop. It was an un-manned, ghost station in the middle of a rice paddy. It was only by sheer luck that she happened to live only two stops away and knew exactly what we were after. She replied, 「次の列車は成東行きですよ。この電車に乗れば、一本で求名までたどり着きますよ。大網で乗り換えしなくてもいいです。」And I listened, and I started to understand. My brain was doubtful, but my gut insisted that she’d said that we were in luck because the next train was actually bound for Naruto, which meant that we could ride this one train without changing at Oami and make it home in one shot.
So, we all got on the train, and it progressed from one stop to the next until we got to Oami. At this point, the other two are starting to freak out because this is where the professor told us we absolutely have to change to get the Togane-line back to Gumyo. I glanced over at the nice woman who’d told me to board the train and she raised her hand as if to tell me just sit tight, smiling reassuringly that we were on the right track. And so, we took a leap of faith that this was the right train. We pulled out of the station and we were on our way again. After a few stops, the kind elderly woman tapped my shoulder to say, 「この次は東金、そして、そのあとは求名ですよ。」I didn’t know what she meant at the time because the panic in my brain still hadn’t completely subsided, but she was getting off at her stop and wanted me to know that it was only a couple more stops to Gumyo.
As the train continued on for what seemed like hours (in reality only about 20 minutes), I was still full of self-doubt. And then we saw it. As we pulled into Togane station, right out in front of us plain as day, the Sunpia shopping center. To this day, I’ve never been more happy to see that damned Sunpia logo, because we knew it was only one more stop from there to get home. After we got back to the lodge, I felt exhilarated. I was able to use my feeble language ability to communicate with a native when it really mattered. I understood what she’d told me, and more importantly, she understood me. Communication at its purest. I couldn’t wait for the next encounter and that instance changed my whole view on life. Never again, would I let my fear of failure stop me from trying something new.
After the year had ended, I was looking forward to school to start back up so I could let Bill know that he was right. Just fucking do it was the best advice I’d gotten. Unfortunately, he passed away in a car accident that summer and I never got the chance. I went to his visitation and told his parents and brother about the impact his words had on me. The decision to go to Japan for that study abroad program ended up affecting every major event in my life from that point forward. From my first job out of college to getting married and having children. My life would be completely different right now had I not had lunch with Bill that afternoon.