Ladies and gentlemen, we have just landed in Narita Airport… The time is now 8PM.
Coming off a 9-hour flight, sleep was the last thing on my mind as I touched down in Tokyo. I couldn’t even care about the language barriers and cultural challenges that awaited me. I was here, crossing the airstrip ablaze in the circus of lights that was Tokyo’s vast nightscape. Leaving the airport, I had no idea how much my life would change in that one year.
After years of dreaming, chasing and preparing, I was accepted to study at Osaka University as an exchange student. Initially bound for six months, I ended up staying for over a year.
Naturally, the road got pretty bumpy at times. Humiliation was served generously in my desperation to communicate. I regularly got lost among the towering skyscrapers of endless city. And having missed the last train home, I spent a few too many nights in dim, seedy net cafés.
Japan pushed me well out of my comfort zone and into the uncharted waters of life for a fresh-faced 19 year old. And it was in these moments that I got the most out of life.
I learnt many important lessons the hard way. I learnt far more outside the classroom than in it. The desk life, which had been my life up to now, would have to change. To study or to learn, what is more important? Be warned, they are not the same thing.
Life in Japan
Japan’s unique lifestyle is confronting for many. For a start, everything runs like clockwork. Trains, events, people. Everyone uses buses, trains and bicycles to get themselves around. A 24-hour convenient store and train station is almost always nearby. Public transport, like many aspects of life here, was fast and efficient.
There is a lot done differently. Simple medical ailments often require a hospital visit, and without cash you’ll quickly find yourself unable to get around. Many services and appliances are not 100% English-friendly either.
The Japanese work extraneously long hours – you can see this on the faces of the ‘salarymen’ riding the trains in peak hours. Yet, at every turn, people were unbelievably kind and generous as we took an interest in their way of life. The value in every place we went was affirmed by local, personal hospitality.
Living in Osaka, I couldn’t have been happier. Despite being Japan’s third biggest city, there is a warm and modest undertone to Osaka and its people. You will miss this in Tokyo, where the city ranks as one of the busiest in the world. Cultural hubs thrive across the city, like the bustling Dotonbori stretch and Ame-mura (‘America Village’).
The Osakan locals are also quite distinct; symbolised by a distinctively gruff, stubborn regional dialect, Osakans are well aware and proud of their sub-cultural status.
If you did want to venture beyond the city, Osaka is a stone’s throw from major Kansai spots: old Kyoto, the harbour of Kobe and Himeji Castle. Travel generally was super easy. Overnight buses, my personal pick, made Japan accessible. For me, 8 hours of rough sleeping in a cramped seat is worth the trip between Tokyo and Kyoto. But low-cost carrier airlines like Peach Airlines also allowed me to make short side trips to Seoul and snowy Hokkaido (Japan’s northern island, overrun by Australians).
Hands down, the best part is that between trains, buses and planes, there are multiple ways to go if you plan your trip well enough.
Studying in Osaka
Pretty soon, I was well settled into my new life studying in Osaka. Osaka University, or ‘Handai’, is considered to be Japan’s third best university behind University of Tokyo and Kyoto University. Most classes were taken with other internationals, but we had many opportunities to engage in local cultural activities. Many all-nighters in karaoke, high school visits and takoyaki parties caught up with me eventually!
I studied a range of subjects, ranging from Japanese and international law to anthropology and Japanese literature. I also took Japanese lessons three times a week. Every class (mostly in English) encouraged class discussion and cultural exchange between students. Food was cheap and varied, and I even joined a soccer club. The Faculty of Law was particularly supportive, as professors were regularly involved in social meetings and exchange coordinators were only too willing to help.
Osaka University is an active, supportive and welcoming environment for everyone. I felt right at home here, and I recommend it to all.
The best thing I can tell you is to hold no expectations. Your experience will likely be quite different to mine. But if anything, prepare to feel like an outsider. Japan is made for Japanese people. It successfully defends its rich culture and way of life against total Westernisation, and it makes for some incredible cultural encounters.
Japan opened up my mind and my world. In the end, not only did I break down many cultural barriers and make close Japanese friends, but I built lifelong connections with people from all over the world. I have grown upwards and out of my younger self.
If there’s one thing you take away from my ramblings: go out and immerse yourself in a world you know nothing about. Take a leap of faith. And don’t limit yourself to Japan; spend a week in a country nearby and prepare to be overcome by Asia’s sheer scale of diversity.
I will always remember Japan as the place which fundamentally built me to be who I am today.
Find out more about studying in Japan including the Monbukagakusho Scholarship and other Japan Options.
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- Seb Thomas on studying in Osaka - March 2, 2016