Eliot Cowley | Tokyo, Japan | Post 1

Eliot Cowley | Tokyo, Japan | Post 1

From September 2013 to August 2014, I’ve studied and will study at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. I’m a junior, double-majoring in Computer Science and Japanese. The program in which I’m enrolled is Japan Study, through Earlham College in Indiana. There are about twenty other students in the program, one of whom is also from Vassar. I’m living with a host family in Shibuya, which is a very wealthy and popular district of Tokyo. My host dad is the president of his company, so the family is also pretty wealthy. My family includes the dad, Akio-san; the mom, Nami-san; the six-year-old son, Ryo; and the grandpa, Tatsuo-san.

Since I’ve already been in Tokyo for about four months, a lot has happened! I’ll try to summarize the important stuff in this post. If you’d like to read in detail about all that’s happened to me, check out my personal blog.

I’d never traveled outside of the country for more than two weeks, so naturally I was pretty scared to be living in a completely foreign country for a whole year. That, however, was why I had decided to study abroad for an entire year—I’ve always been pretty dependent on others, never the adventurous type, and I wanted an experience that would make help me become more independent. I’d been to Tokyo once before, two years ago, with my (sort-of) stepmom, Motoko, and her daughter Molly, who’s my age. I’ve also studied Japanese for two years at Vassar, and have always been interested in Japan, so I wasn’t completely blind to the culture before living in it for a year. But nothing could really have prepared me for what was in store.

The first mini-adventure in my study-abroad experience was actually getting to Tokyo. Saying goodbye to my family was harder than I thought it would be. It was touching to see how much they really cared about me, especially my dad—he accompanied me to the airport, and for one of the first times in my life I saw him near tears. The plane was delayed several hours because of a typhoon that had hit Tokyo that same day, and then the plane had some mechanical issues that needed to be sorted out, so it was a long time before I actually got on the plane. Once I did, and noticed everyone around me was speaking Japanese, the nervousness started to kick in. This is actually happening. This isn’t just some far-off dream anymore.

I’ll spare you the rest of the details, but  it was a pretty stressful time trying to figure out where to go and what to do once I landed in Japan. But I eventually made it to the hotel in which our program was hosting orientation, the Sakura Hotel in Ikebukuro. I got my own little room and fell asleep immediately.

A week after orientation, we students in the program moved into our host families’ homes.

One of the most important things to know about Japan is that there is a huge drinking culture; most aspects of social life revolve around alcohol. You think American college students drink a lot? You don’t even know. Even though Japanese peoples’ tolerances are generally lower than those of Americans, they still drink as much as, if not more than, me and my foreign friends. Japanese colleges have their own version of clubs, which they call saakuru (“circle”). These circles are outwardly about a certain hobby or interest, but in reality, most of them are just fronts for drinking—and romance. I’m in an international circle called Niji no Kai (“meeting of the rainbow”) but its nickname is Nomi no Kai, since pretty much all we do is drink (nomu means “to drink,” and nomikai means “meeting to drink”). Almost every weekend we go to a nomikai, coming up with some excuse to drink.

The way drinking works in colleges in Tokyo is very different from in America—or at least at Vassar. Most Japanese college students live with their parents, since their homes are usually located about an hour away from their college. Instead of paying for a dorm, they commute every day from home. This means that when students party with friends, they go out to a bar or club, usually doing what is called nomihoudai. With nomihoudai, you pay a flat fee (usually around 2,000-2,500 yen, or roughly $20-25) and can drink as much as you want for a specified amount of time (usually two hours). Because the drinking age is 20, it’s not as much of a problem to go out to drink as it is in America, and people are much more relaxed about checking ID. An example of this is when you go to combini (convenience stores) and buy alcohol, a message flashes on a touch screen asking “Are you 20?” You tap yes, and then you’re all set. Does anyone actually ever press no?

My host family loves drinking, especially my host dad, so every night I come home and they offer me a beer. Their house is stocked with beer, and they get shipments delivered every week. Having that much alcohol so readily available is pretty dangerous, in my opinion.

Here’s what my average week in Tokyo includes: I have classes six days a week. This may sound like a lot, but I have at most three class periods in one day, each period being an hour-and-a-half, so it’s really not that bad. I’m taking the following classes: Comprehensive Japanese, (definitely my hardest class), Let’s Enjoy Talking (we learn conversational Japanese) Generational Change in Modern Japanese Literature, Sociology of Japanese Culture and Society, and Linear Algebra. The last one is for my computer science major—other than that, it’s all for my Japanese major. The only classes that are taught in Japanese are my comprehensive class and my conversational class—the rest, thank goodness, are in English.

When I go to school, I stay there the whole day, since the commute is forty minutes. In my free time, I study or hang out with friends. On weekends, there’s usually some Niji no Kai event going on (more often than not, it’s a nomikai) so I usually go to those, or go out with friends to do karaoke or clubbing or go to a bar.

More about my study abroad adventures in my next post!

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