Surprises, Flexibility and More Adventures

Elizabeth Riegler
Major: Psychology and Japanese
Doshisha University, AY 18-19

The fact of the matter is: no amount of research a prospective traveler does can fully prepare them for a foreign country. For example, I spent hours poring over travel blogs and planning my route from the airport to my dorm. Imagine my shock and dismay when a typhoon flooded my destination airport, cancelling my flight and leaving me stranded in Seoul.

All those hours spent mapping my way to Kyoto went down the drain as I landed in Nagoya, roughly 200 kilometers (or 120 miles) east of Osaka, my original port of arrival. With two stuffed suitcases (that tipped over countless times), I somehow navigated the Nagoya train system, boarded a bullet train to Kyoto, fought through the Kyoto subway (not only did I take the wrong exit and end up all turned around, I somehow missed the half a dozen elevators- jet lag is a mental killer), and wandered my new campus in the dark to finally arrive at my destination roughly 6 or 7 hours after my intended time.

But the most unexpected part? How little that miserable experience hampered my overall enjoyment of my time in Japan. Despite arriving at the meeting place shaking and mentally eviscerated, I don’t see it as an overall loss. I got to see Nagoya, a bustling seaside city, and watched jet ski races and windsurfers from my train window. I met some Doshisha students, who I still keep in touch with. Most importantly, it reminded me to be flexible!

But overall, here are the things that have surprised me the most:

The Weather

Granted, I was warned about the weather. Since it’s boxed in by mountains, Kyoto enjoys particularly hot, humid, and rainy summers as heat has nowhere to escape. A dense population adds to the heat, creating an urban “heat island”. As a Michigander, I assumed the heat wouldn’t faze me at all, but I didn’t count on Japan being in the middle of a severe heat wave, complete with near-constant rain.

In the weeks leading up to my departure, I obsessively scanned the weather app on my phone. I was almost always greeted by temperatures in the triple digits. My family shared articles with me detailing how harmful the heat wave had been.

But it couldn’t be that bad, could it?

It could be that bad.

There’s nothing quite like literally dripping sweat as the experienced city dwellers around you stay calm and collected. Very few people can pull off the “utterly drenched in your own sweat” look. And when the humidity is that high, bath towels stay damp and your drier seems more like a placebo. Sometimes I feel like I’d have better luck drying my clothes by blowing on them.

matcha soft serve.jpg
Image: Matcha Soft Serve Ice Cream

Ice cream helps… a little.

Add in my first typhoon this past Sunday, and it all adds up to massive growing pains as I get used to my host country. But there are positives! I never tire of seeing the mountains, crowned with clouds, everywhere I look. And there’s nothing quite like feeling the air turn refreshingly cool as evening falls.

The Money… and Costs

Again, I thought I knew what to expect – prices for fruits and vegetables are usually exorbitant compared to produce in the States, which seems obvious when you look at the sizes of both countries. But walking into the personal grooming section of a grocery store and seeing nail clippers selling for up to 20 dollars a pop is shocking.

However, there are things that are much cheaper. The hundred-yen shop supplied most of my dorm furnishings (and you’d never guess, the level off quality is shocking!). A rice ball (the sandwich of Japan) and some juice makes a filling, fresh, and healthy lunch for around three dollars. I’ve begun making Japanese food in my dorm’s tiny shared kitchen – a little bit of onion, two eggs, and some homemade sauce over rice, and you have tamago-donburi (egg bowl), a dirt-cheap and ridiculously delicious meal.

I think universally, there are ways to live cheaply and ways to live expensively anywhere. It just takes the insider info that can only be gleaned from experience.

Sure, you can Google “cheap restaurants near me”, and there is a plethora of guides online on how to travel Kyoto on a shoestring budget. But there’s something special about finding your very own inexpensive experiences. It can be walking around a real Zen garden built centuries ago, or watching the sunset from your roof. Whatever you find, having that special experience is a treat. And passing 700-year-old temples every day on my way to class…? Priceless.

shokuji.JPG
Image: Shokoku-ji

I know less than I thought I did

Sure, holding a friendly chat and talking to teachers comes naturally enough, and my conversation partners are usually more than forgiving when I slip up. But when it comes to things like managing banking and bills and other adult things? There’s a whole new set of vocabulary, and one unknown verb or noun radically alters one’s understanding of a sentence. Even something like a cashier asking if you want a shopping bag with your purchase can be totally indecipherable if you don’t recognize the word for shopping bag.

I’m not going to mince words – it’s embarrassing, and it leaves me leaving the store or restaurant feeling like the stereotypical dumb tourist. But I try to use that feeling as a learning experience. Don’t know how to properly respond to “is this meal for here or to go”? I make a note to look it up later. No one likes embarrassment and confusion, but I try not to let it keep me down. If I knew everything, I wouldn’t be here to learn Japanese!

But most importantly,

I know more than I thought I did

Just a few years ago, the idea of opening a bank account, paying bills, starting a phone plan, registering for insurance, and navigating public transit like a professional in a foreign language seemed impossible. Some locations like government offices (especially in foreigner-heavy areas like mine) have some signage in English, but it’s often limited, and that doesn’t guarantee staff will speak anything other than Japanese. Places like banks, cell service providers, and post offices, however, often don’t have anything in English. Even if they have an English speaking staff member (I got lucky when I was signing a plan with a Japanese phone company), the forms and paperwork often utilize complicated legal terms.

Though it seems extremely daunting, these “official” things are deceptively simple if you take them step-by-step. Registering your address in Japan and enrolling in health insurance? Sounds terrifying! But not so terrifying when you break it down into the required materials and steps: finding your local government office, bringing along your residence card (that they give you at the airport, so that’s one step taken care of already), filling out a form that the staff is more than happy to help you with, and waiting a little bit. Enrolling in a phone plan was more difficult, especially because almost every online resource was either an advertisement in disguise or aimed at short-term visitors. Taking the train back and forth to grab the paperwork I needed felt like a frustrating waste of money and time, but once I finished and saw my new Japanese phone number, it all felt worth it!

Doshisha and Western have been extremely helpful at providing support, but it’s just that – support. The one doing all these things has been me, and it seems surreal to think that I’ve done all this.

Most importantly, everyone else I study with is going through the same things. Whenever I need help, I know there are many people I can turn to. And those shared struggles become a bond that I predict will last even after I return.

One month down, eleven months left. I can’t wait to see what the future brings!

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