The Finale

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At 6am on December 4th, I drove a very close friend of mine to the airport. You might be wondering why I’m mentioning this at all. I’m mentioning it because this was the exact friend that so graciously allowed me to tag along with her halfway across the world for a month when I went to Japan in early December of 2009, four years ago now. It’s amazing how time can fly by. On one hand, it doesn’t seem long ago at all; on the other hand, it seems like forever ago.

While she is a Japanese native and goes on this end-of-the-year trip every year, I was lucky enough to only go once. Simply put, the opportunity has not openly presented itself to me again yet. My education has been first priority, and my work a close second priority–combine these facts with my financial situation, and it’s easier to see why I have not been back.

However, the opportunity will present itself again eventually. I will return to Japan at some point, even if it is for another short time. I have kept in touch with several people in that country and I tell them I will return as soon as it is actually feasible. The friend I have been referring to has openly offered to let me tag along once again. The opportunity is there, I just need it to come when other things line up correctly with it.

And this, my friends, is where we end for now. I have given you many tips, tricks, ideas, and even posts with food-for-thought. If you are a student and can achieve the goal I am still working on–having other areas of your life line up–I have presented helpful ways for you to get yourself to Japan. Even if you are not a student, it is definitely possible; it just might be more expensive.

With my posts in mind, I am setting you forth into the world. If you really have a visit to Japan in your life goals, you can get there. People do it all of the time, and so can you. Take my tips and information and run wild with it!

Perhaps one day in the near future, I will even see you there!

Until then.

Japanese Culture: Group over Individual

Culture involves aspects of our lives which we do not even consciously think of anymore. One of the most important aspects of Japanese culture is that the “group” reigns superior over the “individual”.

If you have ever heard that the Japanese are a polite culture, it is completely true. However, it is not as simple as it is made out to be; it has a darker side to it. Although blatantly oversimplified, why is it that we always hear that Americans are rude and Japanese are polite?

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Images of Japanese school uniforms. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the U.S, we pride ourselves on our outspoken opinions and ideas; we are proud to be “different”, even from each other. It is often said, “I don’t care which opinion you have, as long as you have an opinion“. Because of this, a situation like this is perfectly suitable for daily life in America:

You are out walking in town with a group of friends, perhaps a group of four. Someone realizes they are hungry and asks if anyone else is. Two are hungry, but the two others are not and do not particularly want to go eat at the moment; they’d prefer to finish their sightseeing and go eat in another twenty minutes or so. The two that are not hungry, in the U.S, might vocally say this outloud to the others, even if it is just an alternative suggestion (“Let’s finish this and then eat in about 20 minutes instead?”). In the U.S, perhaps another idea might even creep up — one in which two go eat, and the other two continue sightseeing.

In Japan, individual wants and desires are often pushed aside for the group’s sake. In the above situation, the two that are not actually hungry at the moment would most likely say nothing in regards to their hunger status, and instead happily agree to join the others at whichever restaurant is decided upon (again, by the group collectively). To them, there is no need to go against the grain, because it would cause an awkward social situation, and they do not want to personally be accountable for it.

While this example might seem generalized, oversimplified, or just plain silly to you, it is indeed a real concept that is ingrained deeply into the Japanese culture, involving a plethora of everyday activities, phrases uttered, and ideas thought by Japanese people every single day. At the beginning of this entry I described it as the “darker side” to the politeness of Japanese culture, but I am biased as an American. Many Americans are indeed loud and rude with their individual desires, yet we can also have open discussions with several different suggestions and ideas without necessarily creating any situation that is considered too awkward or uncomfortable to us. Many Japanese are indeed incredibly polite and considerate of others’ desires, yet it is taken to such an extreme as to trump their own individual desires in such a manner that some psychologists might consider unhealthy. What do you think?

Learning Japanese in Atlanta (at GSU and Beyond) [Part 2]

Part II of II.

Personally, I began my Japanese studies at a two-year college called Georgia Perimeter. Perimeter, or GPC, began with extremely small classes of Japanese (a maximum of about 6 or 7 students), although since then they have offered larger 30 student classes like Georgia State offers. I believe the smaller, more intimate class size helped us gain more one-on-one experience. Particularly on days which some students might not have shown, it was almost like having your own personal Japanese tutor! Talk about cool!

However, GPC also started out using the same flawed textbook as discussed in the previous entry. This textbook, while praised by others for its good aspects, simply needed to be refreshed; since the author/publisher were not refreshing it, GPC chose to move on from the book and picked up another one for its courses, “Youkoso!”. This was a more mainstream Japanese textbook, in line with another very common one titled “Genki”. Youkoso! was well-received among myself and my fellow students, after grudging through the previous textbook (which our instructor did not even particularly enjoy herself), and I believe it is the textbook of choice still at GPC. If not, I am sure they have chosen Genki by now.

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Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

There are many other ways to learn Japanese these days besides going to your local universities. The image above is of an electronic dictionary, known as a “denshi jisho” in Japanese. Getting a used one of these (due to price) can prove to be an invaluable asset to your language learning.

There are hundreds of sites to help teach you Japanese online these days, although they work best when used in conjunction of self-learning with a textbook of your choice (Amazon is a great place to find those, with several useful reviews as well). LiveMocha and Lang-8 are two competing sites which allow for the user to post blog entries in their target language and then have them graded for accuracy by native speakers of that target language; the idea is that you then grade other posts in your native language as well.

Additionally, JapanesePod101 and JapanCast are two great examples of podcasts which seek to teach listeners (and viewers of their HD video lessons) the Japanese language, as well as culture.

There are many more online sources to teach you Japanese these days, and they are growing every year. However, the best way to learn the language is still to simply (or not so simply) immerse yourself completely within the target language. For that, I highly recommend All Japanese All The Time (AJATT).

Learning Japanese while living in Atlanta doesn’t have to be as hard as you might think, thanks to these in person and also online resources!

Learning Japanese in Atlanta (at GSU and Beyond) [Part 1]

This is part one of a two-part entry.

Learning Japanese can feel a bit overwhelming when you realize there are around 1,945 kanji (characters/symbols borrowed from China) that you must learn in order to be considered about 90%-95% literate.

Many students interested in the language start out with Hiragana, which has 46 simpler characters to memorize, followed by Katakana, which are those same 46 simpler characters, but in different shapes. When English students already begin freaking out over Hiragana and Katakana, I liken it to learning lowercase and capital letters, which helps them grasp the concept better.

Despite the seemingly endless and arduous task of learning the language, there are many different resources and paths one can take with the same end goal in mind: Learning Japanese.

At Georgia State (for Spring semester 2014), students entering the language courses for the first time will be greeted by an unknown instructor (named “Staff” on the description) as their only choice teaching Elementary Japanese I. The course is only offered for a MWF configuration from 9:00 a.m-9:50 a.m. Once past this first hurdle, students take Elementary Japanese II, which is helpfully offered with more choices: MWF 9:00 a.m-9:50 a.m, MWF 10:00 a.m-10:50 a.m, and lastly MWF 12:00 p.m-12:50 p.m. The instructor for this course is a Masaki Shibata, who has rave reviews on Rate My Professor as being kind, patient, and passionate.

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Image by Wikipedia.

Unfortunately for GSU students, once you pass Elementary I and II, there is oddly no Intermediate I class. I have noticed this on three separate semesters at this university; it shoots straight to Intermediate II. Perhaps they are training their students in preparation to skip from Elementary II to Intermediate II in seamless and successful ways? The Intermediate II class also forces the students out of a comfortable setting with the same instructor they have had for a year now, and into the hands of a Yuki Takatori. Personally, I have had a rather rude experience with her on a couple of occasions, though I am sure there are students who adore her manners and style of instruction.

Regardless of one’s preference for instructors, the textbook used for GSU’s Japanese courses (“Japanese: The Spoken Language”) has been consistently made fun of and attacked in many other university settings and online forums as being extremely outdated, as well as for its use of romaji (Japanese written with English letters, rather than Hiragana or Katakana). Often preached by Japanese teachers and those-in-the-know, using romaji for anything more than a couple of weeks when beginning Japanese simply acts as a giant crutch and winds up teaching students incorrect Japanese when they actually begin learning the writing system. This entire textbook relies upon romaji, using absolutely no actual Japanese in it whatsoever. This is a huge oversight, and, combined with vocabulary words such as “typewriter” and “soviet union” (these are not jokes), creates a bad experience for the modern student.

Part II to follow.

My Personal Battle With Culture Shock:

In a future post I plan on talking about common culture shock experienced in Japan by foreigners. However, before I do that, I would like to introduce readers to my own personal experience with culture shock when I was there. Culture shock, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation”. However, as anyone who has traveled abroad for any substantial time before to a country with a culture far removed from his/her own will tell you, no amount of preparation will free you from this demon known as culture shock. Sometimes it will smack you right dab in the face up, front, and center; other times, it will quietly sneak up on you when you are least expecting it, and take you for a spin in ways you never thought possible before. The interesting thing about culture shock is that it is never 100% the same for everybody — each person experiences their own culture shock moments — there may be commonalities due to basic differences between certain cultures of different countries, but culture delves so much deeper than many of us realize. It is because of this that culture shock can and will vary vastly from person to person, even if two people are from the same culture and visiting the same new culture for the first time.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

It’s the little things:
The little things really got to me the most while in Japan. There are so many times where I look back, now, after I have returned to my home country, and thought, “What the heck was wrong with me?”. For example, I visited Japan with a Japanese friend of mine who also allowed me to stay with their parents at their house — a makeshift “homestay” if you will. As a kid, growing up with my family, I was always taught not to leave food on my plate when I was a guest at someone else’s house, and not leave drinks half-drank, etc. When you are a guest at someone’s place, you follow certain behavior.

Well, when I was a guest at someone’s home in Japan, I instinctively followed that same behavior, without even thinking about it. After all, I was a guest at someone’s home — a guest at a home in a completely different country, even! — surely, I thought, I should be a kind and gracious guest towards these friendly people. Lo’ and behold, though, during meals when I was full and did not wish to eat any more, they would constantly refill my drink for me. In fact, my drink would be refilled so many times after I was already quite finished with my meal, and no longer wishing to consume anything else at all, that I ended up stupidly causing a scene over it with my friend. You see, in my mind, I needed to leave my plate and my drinking glass empty, or at least as empty as possible. How could I do this when my drink was constantly being refilled several times at every single mealtime?

It turns out drinking tea, presumably green tea but others are often enjoyed as well, such as oolong tea, is a constant aspect of Japanese culture which is experienced daily. When they finish their meal, they do not necessarily finish their tea; often times, they will continue drinking that tea well after having cleaned up the kitchen. When someone rings the doorbell and is welcomed into the home, they are immediately offered slippers (more on that in a future post) and served tea. Usually, even if they claim they are only stopping by for a minute and do not require tea, the host still quickly serves them a hot cup of tea to converse over. In vending machines all over Japan (again, more on that later), both cold AND hot tea are vended at anyone’s pleasure. The Japanese, along with some other cultures, drink tea daily, but not only that, several times daily, throughout the entire day and into the night. There are of course exceptions to this, as there are with any culture, but in general, my “guest behavior” I was so accustomed to could no longer work in Japan, and I was not expecting it in the least. It was a minor tweak to make, but it was a minor tweak in addition to several other minor tweaks of behavior while visiting Japan, and it was unexpected, no matter how much I prepared myself mentally for the differences I had read about or heard about before my actual visit.

Looking back, it’s embarrassing that I had caused a scene over something as minuscule and insignificant as not being allowed to “properly” finish my drink during meals. But that’s the thing about culture shock – in most cases of it, you don’t realize things in a clearer light until the situation has passed. You might laugh now, but just wait until you experience your own little bit of culture shock; it will happen to you, no matter how much you try to prepare yourself and how many stories of culture shock you might read from others who have visited the country. It is an inevitable event that we all must take in and experience while we are abroad, while we learn how to properly deal with each unique experience and grow as individuals.

This was by far not the most embarrassing or significant shock of culture I experienced while in Japan, but it was a simpler one to explain for my first personal post on this matter. In a future post, I hope to explore tips to reduce the common culture shocks you might endure while in Japan, and, perhaps if I’m feeling rather open, I’ll dive into further experiences of my own.

P.S: Yes, there are green tea flavored Kit-Kat bars in Japan, and they are quite delicious!

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Bodo.

Scholarships to go to Japan.

Believe it or not, attaining a scholarship is not as difficult as you are probably thinking. In fact, some might claim it even to be rather simple. The difficult part is actually doing the work required of the scholarship; searching for the scholarship is the first step, and depending on the scholarship, an essay might need to be written and evaluated, and/or an interview might take place. What’s great about them is that they are practically free money just handed out to you to do whatever you wish with; in this case, getting your butt to Japan!

Although scholarships are pretty easy to attain, there are some things you can do to tip the table in your favor in regards to traveling to Japan on someone else’s dime:

1. Learn some Japanese: It looks good to the judges if you show you are interested in the country, its culture, or its language. Anything that you can grab onto and really roll with will impress them and make you stand out from the other applicants. Learning some of the language shows you are interested in learning something new, which is key.

2. Learn ONLY SOME Japanese: Do not learn too much Japanese. If you are too proficient in the language, the judges may be impressed but they will most likely send someone less capable in the language over you. This is because, as I mentioned in the previous point, the key is to show that you are interested in learning something new over there. It is a common suggestion from people-in-the-know that if you grew up speaking the language or are simply already fluent in it, it’s best to tell a tiny white lie and develop some sort of American accent when speaking it.

3. Learn the country’s history: If you show you are knowledgeable about Japanese History, you are also showing you are interested in aspects of the country that are not even relevant to this day and age. It shows you care about the country as a whole.

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Photo Credit: Flickr user Okinawa Soba.

Now for the interview process. Most interviews dealing with international travel have judges that are looking for certain things in the applicants.

Some common suggestions for things to DO during the interview are the following:

1. Intercultural sharing: It’s a good idea to explain the fact that you wish to learn about Japanese culture while also sharing your own with them. This is one of the major reasons judges believe you should be going for. Intercultural sharing is beautiful!

2. Show excitement: No one wants to give away a prize to someone who does not even seem like they care about the prize or the experience they are about to have. However, it is important not to be overly excited and crazy, of course.

3. Include a personal story: Including a personal story that somehow connects you with the country, its culture, or its language will help immensely. Explain yourself to the judges and tell them why you are even doing this in the first place.

Now that you have these tips and tricks to aid your applications, essays, and potential interviews, get cracking and grab yourself those scholarships! Free money to help you get to your destination awaits you!

The cheapest time to buy your airfare.

When thinking about when to actually go to Japan, you need to be aware of any cultural holidays or important natural observations. Holidays to watch out for are Obon, which is usually in mid-August or mid-July, depending on which region of Japan you are in; Golden Week, which begins April 29th and ends May 5th; and the Christmas/New Year holidays.

In addition, in late March and early April, the sakura (cherry blossoms) naturally bloom all across Japan, beginning in one region and quickly spreading to others; during this “season”, as it is lovingly referred to by the Japanese, enormous crowds from all over Japan and even other countries flock to certain areas and enjoy group outings and picnics under the trees. Japanese television news even reports the best days to go view them, right with the weather forecast. You read that right — there is a cherry blossom forecast in Japan.

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Photo courtesy of Dick Thomas Johnson (via CC BY 2.0)
Full-sized version can be found here.

The cheapest times to buy airfare and travel to Japan are when these four major events are not occurring. One of the cheapest times to go is right after New Years, between January and early March. However, it is also important to consider what you could potentially be missing out on by saving your money. For example, the cherry blossom season is one of Japan’s most well-known and popular times to visit for a reason; the beauty is overwhelming. Also, during the Winter, if you are anywhere near Tokyo the sun usually sets by 5pm, making sightseeing much more difficult. Like anything else in life, there are trade-offs by trying to visit Japan on the cheap.

If you are based in Atlanta or live a state over, the best deals during this non-peak times are usually found if you travel from a large airport that generally serves as a hub to others, such as our famously known Hartsfield-Jackson International AIrport. Major discounts can be found traveling from this destination to Narita Airport in Japan beginning mid-January until early March.

As mentioned in a previous post, however, visiting Japan on someone else’s dime is an even better prospect, and studying abroad through your local college can often make this possible. Our own Georgia State University has a program for Japan which can be found here. In a future post I will write about scholarships, how to attain them, what to write about in any required essays, and what to talk about (and what not to talk about) in any required interviews, if applicable.

The “JR Pass” Secret

ImagePhoto courtesy of flickr user Yvon Liu.

The JR Pass (Japan Rail Pass) allows you to travel all over Japan for much cheaper than you would have to pay had you not purchased it. There are many different types of trains in Japan, and they’re quite expensive in the long run; especially if you plan on doing some traveling more than once or twice during your stay. 

At first glance, one might look at it as far too expensive when coupled with the airline ticket (the most expensive part of your trip, I guarantee). However, with a quick bit of math, it is soon revealed that the JR Pass can save you BIG money! First, a couple of caveats:

#1: It can only be bought outside of Japan. The pass is intended for foreigners only, to promote and increase tourism, and increase the ease of traveling for us overall. You can buy it online or in person at a designated JR Pass retailer.

#2: What you are actually purchasing is not the pass itself just yet, it is a voucher which you take to Japan with you. When you land, you simply trade the voucher for the actual pass, which can be done at any JR Station or even at the airport once you land.

The JR Pass saved me hundreds of dollars when I went to Japan in 2009; granted, the more you plan on traveling, the more it will save you. However, it will practically pay for itself after just a few train rides, depending on their distances. 

Depending on how long you want your pass to be available for use, the price varies. There are one week passes, two week passes, and three week passes available. I used the two week pass, which cost me an estimated $500. However, without the pass, I would have spent well over $1,000. 

My usage case was probably not the average Joe’s usage, considering I used the pass to travel almost the entire main island of Honshu from North to South during my one month stay. But even for mister Average Joe, a one week pass could potentially pay for itself after just four or five train rides, and in case you are not aware, you’ll be using a train pretty much anywhere you decide to visit, unless it is walking or biking distance. 

You can find more information and even purchase a JR Pass yourself here
Another location to purchase a pass – also available in a physical brick-and-mortar store, if you prefer – is here. They have a physical location on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, next to the Super H-Mart and Brand Mart USA off of I-285.

Japan Fest Atlanta

Japan Fest is an annual event here in Atlanta that is meant to bring an understanding among and build a friendship between Japanese and Americans. It is held at the end of September every year in the Gwinnett Civic Center located in Lawrenceville, Georgia.

Beginning in 2007, I visited Japan Fest for the first time. This was a full two years before I visited Japan itself. It was such a fun event that I would like to document the experience here in hopes that others might choose to attend Japan Fest as well.

This year, the festival is on Saturday, September 21st (10am-6pm), and Sunday, September 22nd (10am-5pm) and is located at 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway | Duluth GA 30097 as usual.

Many different performances/acts are available for enjoyment at Japan Fest, and they change every year. In order to get the most up-to-date information, you must visit their website, linked to above.

In 2007, I attended for the first time with a friend and my little sister.

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I had a great time watching all of the performances, including: concerts inside the convention center, ikebana (the art of flower arranging), witnessing my first tea ceremony and all of its strict rules, and seeing ninjutsu performed in front of my eyes for the first time.

I enjoyed it enough to return in 2008.

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And this time, enjoyed a real rock concert, rather than only the traditional side of things!

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Once again, in 2009, before visiting Japan itself in December, I decided to visit Japan Fest once more in September and enjoyed even more activities, including trying on a kimono for the first time, and witnessing the crazy invention known as the Japanese toilet. (If you have not seen these toilets, I recommend viewing them. They’re some of the most sophisticated toilets in the world!)

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Here is a youtube video demonstrating the Japanese toilet, by Ken Cannon:

If you have a chance to visit Japan Fest, you can even buy your own Japanese-style toilet and have it installed in your home! However, it is still very expensive in America.

Tickets are only $8, and kids six years and under get in free. It’s a great chance to get a taste of Japan before going to the real thing!

GSU Study Abroad – Japan

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GSU Study Abroad - Japan (Image from GSU’s Study Abroad Program for Japan)

Studying abroad in Japan through GSU is a great way to get to Japan if you are already a student at the university! It is a great program that helps set up your housing and transfers credits back to GSU on your completion. In addition, there are scholarships that will pay for practically the entire program!

Study abroad with a minimum GPA of 3.0! Japanese language learners of all levels and majors are welcome! Students complete at least one year of university-level Japanese each term. Also take electives in both English and Japanese.

Please click the photo for more information, or click here.