So you just got accepted to a study abroad program and your head is swirling with excitement and anticipation. What to bring, where to go, who to meet, what classes to take, what to see, etc. etc…
That’s awesome! First, let me say congratulations for getting accepted. It’s a big deal; a big move; a big decision. You’ve done the numerous paper work, bugged your bosses and teachers for letter of recommendations, and gone through the whole anxiety phase of whether of not you will even get considered because the lack of experience that you think you have.
You’re probably celebrating now. Calling your friends and relatives, and for the remainder of the semester, all your classes seem a little less important. But that’s not all.
You’re also probably (over)thinking about what to do and where to go. After all, this experience is once in a lifetime and you don’t want any second of it going to waste. As much as you want to be in class learning Japanese (or whatever countries’ language you study), you’d probably want to be outside hanging out with local people and exploring the surroundings.
Let’s go over some of the common things that you
may want to should do in Japan (or where ever):
- Travel around famous places like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Hokkaido, Hiroshima. We can break this down better later on (down there)
- See festivals, go to temples and shrines, and visit historical places
- Join a circle or a club in the university or school that you’re in
- Participate in a homestay
- Go to an art market or gallery show
- Get a language partner or tutor. They’re way better because their specific purpose is to practice Japanese, not just conversing in English
- Sign up for school trips and cultural activities. Even if they don’t sound appealing, you should just do it
- Onsen, hanami, hanabi taikai (Fire Works Festival), etc.
- Arrive a little early and leave a little late
Now lets go over some other things you can do that is less obvious and a little more challenging. As a reminder, this is only a small list that contains list of things reasonable enough for an exchange student to do while abroad. Of course there are many other awesome things that you can experience but require a lot more money, time and effort.
- Challenge yourself: Go camping, try to climb Mount Fuji, or take a long hike
- Take longer trips to places that are farther away an are less famous. More on that later on to explain how you can do it with a small budget
- Go to a surrounding country like Korea, China, or Taiwan
- Join a volunteer opportunity
- Take a part-time job teaching English
- Be a “Gaijin” extra for a movie or show
- Go to Okinawa
First, lets not forget. You came to Japan through a school to experience Japan. That entails balancing academic life and personal life. Don’t be too frugal and miss all the good things in Japan, but don’t be reckless and fail classes either.
So starting with the first list, there are numerous places and events that you can go to and see in Japan. The list never ends, and it also varies by region and season. The most common and renowned places are Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nara, and Sapporo. And even within these places, there are numerous districts and neighborhoods containing temples, shrines, streets filled with restaurants, etc. I suggest that you calm down and not try to go to all these places at once. Pace it out, and look up schedules of events ahead of time. For example, it’s better to go to the hot springs and snowboard in the winter. Attend art fairs, gallery nights, and fireworks, and festivals in the Summer, and cherry blossom viewings in the spring.
The rest of the time that you’re not traveling, you can participate in a weekend homestay opportunity and regularly attend a University club or circle on top of drinking and partying day in day out. Plus, your school will probably have some sort of field trips or cultural activities. These can be visiting a castle, a Toyota factory, or just trying out samurai armor on or participating in a traditional tea ceremony.
It’s better to have some free time to study and hang out with friends than to always be in a hurry to travel far away. You won’t have time to socialize and establish the deep connection with your friends, do all your school work, and also simply seeing what’s in your backyard. So I always tell people to arrive a little early, and leave a little late unless you have other emergencies and priorities lined up.
Now let’s go over some other things that you can do if the typical places to visit aren’t your cup of tea. These suggestions were not listed on the main list just because they might require extra money, effort, and planning.
The first on the list is climbing mount Fuji or go camping. The reason why I didn’t include this on the main list is mainly because some students just don’t have the gear necessary to camp or go for a long climb. I camped in a log cabin and went hiking with tennis shoes on. But there definitely could be some better shoes and jackets that I could have been wearing.
The second one is what people like to call taking the path less traveled. It definitely doesn’t have to cost that much money, but sometimes you do need to be able to speak the language well if you are going to places that are out in the boonies. Also, prior planning are recommended. Not every city in Japan have a bunch of capsule hotels, manga cafes, and accommodations right outside of the train station. And not all of the hidden treasures are reachable by train alone.
the third on the list is going to other surrounding countries like Korea, China, and Taiwan. I really recommend doing this just because the airfare would be so much cheaper than if you were to go from your home country (I’m assuming North America or Europe). With that, all that’s left to do is exchange some money, check the visa qualifications, and book a place to stay. China, Korea, and Taiwan are relatively cheap to go to and they offer just as much of Asia as Japan, just maybe not as clean and developed as Japan.
If you’re not into those three surrounding countries, go to Okinawa! Okinawa is great. So great that it deserves it’s own blog post. I’ll cover my Okinawa experience sometime in the near future.
Lastly, other alternative activity that you might want to do is to work part time while studying abroad. I know schools never support this fully because they want you to “focus” on studying, but chances are you don’t focus 100% of your time on studying, and when you’re in class you day dream about the upcoming trip that you can’t really afford. Working part time as a foreign student can give you the extra money you need, while still having a flexible schedule that lets you travel and participate in other activities. These can include tutoring English, working as a “gaijin” extra on a movie set or show, or working simple jobs at a retail store. More on that on this post: Working While Studying Abroad.
I hope this article gave you a broader idea of what you can do while studying abroad in Japan (not that you didn’t know already.) Again, there are many more things that you can do while abroad, but I wanted this to serve as a general
guideline reminder. Why? Because we forget sometimes. We forget what is in front of us when our head is thinking too much about what could be done.
If you guys have any other ideas, please comment. Any additional ideas, tips, and tricks would be appreciated. Criticism is okay too 😉