So far, the most difficult part of my JYA experience has been just trying to get to Tokyo. Flying from New York to Chicago went without a hitch, but the two planes provided for my connecting flight—the second one after an hours-long delay—were both unusable due to mechanical issues. Luckily, I was able to find and band together with three other students, participating in the same CIEE program as me, who were booted off of the same flight to be placed in the same hotel and on the same rescheduled flights to Tokyo.
Upon arriving from our Chicago-Dallas-Tokyo journey, CIEE staff members assured our traveling group that we hadn’t missed much by being absent for the first day of orientation. I joined the rest of the students in a hotel until we were placed into our housing choices. I had opted for a homestay rather than a dorm, and while both were valid options for trying to have the Real Japanese College Experience, I wanted to be sure that I would be forced into speaking and thinking in Japanese.
I have spent time in Tokyo before, as a high schooler just becoming interested in Japanese language and culture. That summer, I had also done a homestay in Japan, and had taken courses at a local language school. As we were lead from the hotel to the university, I was slowly overcome with a sense of recognition of the streets we walked and suddenly I realized—I already knew this neighborhood! I received this with mixed feelings. On one hand, I had wanted to have a completely new experience (having chosen CIEE for its type of program rather than location) and would probably feel as though I was already comfortably familiar, but on the other hand, I would be able to do much more in Japan now than as a high schooler who barely knew any Japanese, including travel to other places.
We took a campus tour of the school that I will soon attend, Sophia University. The Japanese school year starts in the spring, just around the time when the cherry blossoms have bloomed on the trees. Sakura petals floated down around me, just as flakes of snow had in New York a few days ago. Here, the the petals symbolize the cycle of life. It wasn’t the full traditional cherry blossom viewing experience, which includes sitting down under them for a picnic and drinks, but since the blossoms had bloomed earlier than usual this year, I was glad that I had arrived in time simply to be able to see them.
I spent my second night in Japan exploring the streets of the Ikebukuro neighborhood with a few other students in my study-abroad program. We spoke English to each other but decided to change that within a few days after classes had begun and the rust on our Japanese from three months of disuse had finally been scrubbed away. Nestled between two tall modern buildings, we managed to find a small ramen shop at which to have dinner. The meal we were served didn’t taste anything like the instant ramen with which you might be familiar. The ramen dish I chose had succulent slices of pork, bamboo shoots, a soft-boiled egg sliced in half, as well as a filling, meaty broth. The shop owner was merciful and spoke Japanese slowly to us, providing us with complimentary cups of coffee at the end of our meal. I didn’t remember to take a photo of the shop itself (nor do I even recall the name, as I wasn’t yet able to read all of the characters), but here’s a quick cell phone shot of the noodle soup before I devoured it!
While the program’s students who were to live in dorms had already checked out of the hotel, it was the homestay students’ turn on the third day to do so. We met at Sophia to receive our cell phones, and then set out to meet our host families. I was apprehensive. According to the information that I received upon arriving in Tokyo, my host brothers were very young and cute, and my host parents seemed welcoming, but had a beginner-level proficiency with English. I had prepared some topics to talk about ahead of time, but was unsure about how well the unfamiliar—and hurriedly studied—Japanese vocabulary would remain in my memory.
My worries toward meeting my homestay family turned out to be unnecessary. I was warmly welcomed first by my host father and five-year-old host brother, and later by my host mother and two-year-old host brother. While I was already cognizant from my previous time in Tokyo of the many cultural differences I would encounter when living in a Japanese household, I did have to work hard at trying to understand my young host brothers.
I’ve only been in Tokyo for a couple of days so far and haven’t yet gone out looking for things crazy and new. Rest assured, I won’t just sit around for the remaining week of orientation activities! I greatly look forward to ending orientation by really getting into the swing of things of my life in Tokyo.