Thankful That It’s All Japanese to Me

On Monday, my Hope friends and I got up bright and early and made our way from Ikebukuro at 7:45 a.m. to arrive at Meiji Gakuin University in Shirokane-Takanawa for our first class at 8:55 a.m. The hour commute happened during the crazy chaos of rush hour.  While I spent the ride crammed up-close-and-personal with perfect strangers, I marveled at one man who was reading a book while closed in by people on all sides.

Our Hope group at Meiji Gakuin University on the first day. Front row, left to right: Elizabeth Vizcarra, Makeilee Allan, Kaytlyn Ihara, Will Clinton. Back row, l to r: Alayna Parsons-Valles, Rachael Grochowksi, Brennan Church, Lauren Satkiewicz , Lucy Katter, Ben Stryker, Louie Berwanger

From the outside street-level, Meiji Gakuin University looks like just another part of the city, but the interior campus is actually pleasant. The classrooms are plain, but practical; the cafeteria and convenience store have a plethora of good foods to choose from, and there is a nice park-like area in an outside space between the classrooms and cafeteria.But, the thing that makes Meiji Gakuin stand out most is the quality of its people.The professors, and especially the students, have been very welcoming and kind to me. The three MGU buddies assigned me are wonderful and sweet young ladies, Ayano, Satoka, and Yuka, who each seem to legitimately care about my health, and how I’m acclimating to Japan. Ayano happened to actually be a former Hope student, who knew my Japanese tutor back home.

Meeting my buddies

My two semesters of Japanese at Hope have been paying off tremendously here. It’s made making friendships with my buddies and other students’ buddies so much easier! I’ve been able to strike up conversations with our buddies and learn more about them. For instance, Chika and I bonded over our shared love of snowboarding, and she told me about the best places to go snowboard in Japan. Back in Holland, there wasn’t much opportunity to practice my Japanese conversation because of the limited Japanese presence. But these first few days in Japan have been such a fantastic opportunity to practice and improve my skills.

Our first class at Meiji Gakuin was a lesson in basic Japanese with Shirakawa-Sensei. Although I was familiar with each of the phrases and grammatical concepts he taught us, I appreciated the refresher. Especially going over the difference between when to use kudasai and onegaiishimasu, both words meaning please. There are still many parts of the Japanese language I don’t know, more vocabulary than grammatical rules.

While there’s still so much more of Tokyo to see, each district, based on my prior knowledge and my experiences thus far, seems to have a different personality. Ginza is the wealthy shopping district, Akihabara is the pop-culture district, Shibuya and Shinjuku are always the busiest districts, sort of like a downtown where everybody wants to go, and Toshima City (where Ikebukuro is) is a little more relaxed, more liveable, with a smaller urban feel.

But, the thing that makes Meiji Gakuin stand out most is the quality of its people.

From my experiences so far, the friendliness of the Japanese people, the interesting environment full of places to explore that is Tokyo, and the variety of delicious foods, have really inspired me to continue on my journey to become fluent in this great language.

Chaos and Courtesy on the Tokyo Subway

Hello from Tokyo!

The Ikebukuro subway entrance we use everyday.

Today marks our fourth day in Japan and, just as expected, the sights, the food, the vending machines, and the people are incredible. It feels quite surreal to have seen places like Harajuku (a crazy busy district) and the Meiji Shrine (a calm, solemn place), that I had only ever seen through a computer screen with my own eyes. Having learned a fair amount of facts about Japan from my Hope classes, friends, and the trusty internet, I knew to anticipate a number of things, like how crowded the city would be and that I might be squished on the subway train. Despite that, however, I couldn’t help but be stunned seeing the organized chaos of the subway station in Ikebukuro that very first night and each time after.

What strikes me most though is the intricacy of how the people in the subway interweave and hustle about: even though people are rushing through the station in every which direction, everyone adheres to the common courtesy of standing on the right side of an escalator to let others get by, or waiting to the side of the train doors so everyone can get off before getting in. There’s an innate system of courtesy in place that allows thousands of people to cross and rush through the station every hour of the day.

As a foreigner, it feels a bit daunting and embarrassing to not understand these common courtesies because we tend to inconvenience others by walking on the wrong side of the hallway and blocking an intersection when we stop to find directions or regroup. Navigating the subway has made me realize how important it is to be self-aware and to notice when you’re taking up lots of space or in the way. Although it has only been three days, I feel like I am already beginning to adapt to these systems and have become at least a little more aware of how I’m affecting my surroundings because of it. Although I can’t quite say I look forward to more sardine-packed rides on the subway, I am looking forward to becoming more comfortable with the rushing stations so that I don’t inconvenience others. I want to be more self-aware as we continue on this trip.

And there is no better place to do that than in the crowded Tokyo subways.