First Impressions (and the past 5 months)
Hello readers! My name’s Omar and I am currently studying abroad with the Associated Kyoto Program (AKP) at Doshisha University in Japan. I decided that I would be coming to Japan by the Fall of my first year, but I wasn’t completely sure of when, for how long, or which part of the country I wanted to come to. My interest in Japan began because of its language. I self-studied it a bit before coming to Amherst, and it was actually one of the factors that helped me in choosing the college. We have an awesome Japanese garden at Amherst, and Doshisha has a house named after us, both commemorating the relationship between us. I have learned about Japanese culture as my language studies progress, but I can’t say that I knew all that much about it until I got here. My only experience abroad before this had been 8 years ago in the Dominican Republic, my mom’s home country. As I boarded the 13 hour Air China flight from JFK to Beijing, before another 3 hour flight to Kansai International, it finally set in that I was heading off to the other side of the world.
After sleeping no more than 3 hours during the trip, I rode an express train from the airport in Osaka towards Kyoto where our program had us stay at a hotel for orientation. I think the first thing that sort of reminded me of where I was had to be my first encounter with Japanese taxi services. I hailed a taxi at Kyoto Station and the rear door automatically propped open as it smoothly rolled up towards me. The taxi driver, all suited up donning classy white gloves, carried my luggage into the trunk and we rode off. I thought to myself, “Wow, now this is service!”, before noticing just how quickly the fare was increasing. This is generally the type of service you’ll find in Japan as this profession is relatively more reputable here. I was so excited by the time I got to my hotel room that I did not sleep for that night. The jetlag didn’t really kick in for another day or two.
Orientation was a blur of logistical information but it was also a much needed opportunity to practice Japanese after a long summer break. Doshisha student volunteers showed us around campus and guided us through the transportation system on a test run commute to our homestays. In total there were 19 AKP students from liberal arts colleges all over the states. Some of us were international students studying in America, some had already visited Japan before, and some even had Japanese parents. It was a pretty diverse group but it’s easy to make conversation when you’re going through similar experiences.
During my first few days, I started noticing the things that I would need to accustom to. Kyoto is surrounded almost entirely by mountains which can come in handy when trying to orient yourself on a street, but they also trap in the humidity during the summer months. We were told that this summer in particular was one of the better ones, but that was hard to believe as we sat in the classrooms braving the heat. After searching endlessly for a water fountain, there were none to be found. None at the parks, none at the museums, none anywhere on campus. There were also no garbage cans in sight. After asking about this, we were told that these things became all the rarer after the Tokyo subway sarin attacks in 1995.
We were matched with our homestay families at a ceremony at the end of the week. Although we had already introduced ourselves over e-mail, we were all anxious about first impressions. After greeting my host family, I realized that despite all the Japanese I had studied, there was still going to be a language barrier between us. In the states, we are taught the standard language that is spoken in Tokyo and other parts of the Kanto region. However the Kansai area uses kansai-ben: a dialect with its own words and even different verb conjugations. To complicate matters more, Japanese uses different forms of speech varying in levels of respect depending on who you are talking to. For example if you’re speaking with a friend or family member you would use one form, another form for professors or those you don’t know, and then there’s an overwhelmingly respectful form that you often hear on the train or at stores. The final form, sometimes referred to as manual Keigo, can make what you’re saying so convoluted that you completely forget what you were trying to say. Kansai-ben even has its own form of Keigo. I have gotten used to understanding several of the intricacies behind the dialect and forms but one of the biggest challenges is in switching between uses based on scenarios.
I have been here since last September, living with my homestay family in Moriyama, Shiga Prefecture which is about an hour away from the school. Six of us live together: My host mom, dad, sister, my sister’s two daughters, and me. My host parents met each other while teaching at Moriyama elementary school, my host dad as a P.E. teacher and my host mom as a literacy teacher. Since then they have both retired but keep themselves busy by tutoring, volunteering as ski instructors, and hosting exchange students such as myself. Although they do not live with us, I also have a host brother who teaches at Kyushu University and another host sister who is in training for the Japanese Self-Defense force. We had a 14 year old Collie as well, but unfortunately he passed away last month.
Originally, I actually had only planned to be here for the fall, but it quickly turned into October and I realized that I needed to stay here longer. At Amherst, I am majoring in both Asian Languages & Civilizations and Mathematics, so staying here for another semester meant prolonging my math break even more. This slightly complicates things for senior year, but staying here and being able to discover new interests has made it all worthwhile. The fall semester just flew by and most of those AKP friends have left, but a new batch just arrived last month.
Since our program is made up of a consortium of liberal arts colleges, the academic system has been really similar to those of our home institutions. Doshisha students follows their own schedule which gets out of sync with ours in the spring, but they were able to take classes with us last fall. We take 16 credits a semester, half of which are language based, along with two elective courses worth 4 credits each. Last semester, my two elective courses were “Kyoto Past & Present: Community, Conflict, Resolution” and “Kyoto: A Photographic Profile”. This semester, my elective courses are “International Relations of Japan” and “Marginality, Gender and Ethnicity in Contemporary Japan”. Overall, I have been able to learn so much about Japan both inside and out of the classroom with a well-rounded coursework and the help of my homestay family.
I had to get used to several things including a new diet that forced me to improve my chopstick skills tremendously. I admit that one of my biggest challenges was in bringing myself to wake up at around 6:00am in order to get ready, eat breakfast, and be in class by 9am. Recycling here varies from city to city but it is generally much stricter than anything I have encountered in the states. It is very efficient and representative of a country that makes do with very few natural resources. Trains are also as reliable as they say and I’ve only ever encountered late trains twice in all my time here. They can sometimes be pretty packed though, and during rush hour one can just stand in line and be carried in by the crowds of people. Some of the trains also have carts designated for women only. I had to learn about these the hard way after mistakenly boarding one since it was so empty.
I had thought that the toilet stories were a myth. You will sometimes encounter the traditional squat-style toilets, but more often than not they will be completely modern with more functions than you can imagine. They have these motion detectors that sense when you approach and gently lift their lids for you. There is even a button that you can push in order to play a chime that will distract others from listening in on your business. We were warned about this before getting here, but I also realized that I had packed way too many clothes with me. Families do laundry pretty much daily and in small batches. Winters here are also a lot colder than I expected, especially considering that central heating is rare in Japanese homes. I had to learn the art of layering at all times but there is also a lot of gaman-ing, or enduring, involved.
I have spent a lot of time in Kyoto but I have also been able to see many sides of Japan by traveling to Nara, Osaka, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kobe, and Fukuoka. Last weekend, I braved the cold in Sapporo to collect research notes on Ainu and also see the snow festival. Traveling has become one of my new hobbies here, so I used some breaks to take advantage of my proximity to other Asian countries and visit China and Thailand as well. Even after spending months here, I wouldn’t say that I am completely used to everything yet, nor do I know if that would ever be possible. However, I do feel as if Japan has finally become an ibasho for me, or a sort of place of belonging.