During the month of June, I enrolled in a Japanese language class in Tokyo, and stayed with a Japanese family in a homestay program. This is my first time to Japan, and I hoped to improve my Japanese language skills and learn about their culture.
A month is an unusually long time to spend in one place for most tourists. Normally you’d stay for a few days, see all the pretty sights, and move on, but by doing a monthlong homestay, I got a better idea of what life is really like in Japan. Instead of rushing from one tourist attraction to another, I had time to explore at a more relaxed pace, and also code some side projects in the evenings.
My homestay family got me a cake on the first day. “Welcome, Bai-kun”
The language school I enrolled at was called Coto Language Academy. They provide various levels of small group Japanese language classes for foreigners, and they also helped me arrange my homestay. I’m not sure how effective the actual classes were: their style is focused on drilling rigid grammatical rules, which is not the best way to learn a foreign language. Nevertheless, attending classes for a few hours a day adds some structure to my life, and it’s a good way to meet other foreigners who are also learning Japanese.
For the rest of this article, I’ll list some observations about Japan. Some things were more or less what I expected, but a lot of things were quite different.
Things in Japan that went as expected
1. People are very polite. Everybody speaks quietly, there is no angry yelling on the streets. Waiting for the subway, walking up the escalator, crossing the street: everything is very orderly; you never see people cut the line or cut you off on the road. It’s as though everyone is hyper-aware of their surroundings and try not to do anything that might inconvenience others.
2. Trains are always on time, down to the minute. If the train is supposed to depart at 5:27, it will depart at 5:27, not a minute sooner, not a minute later. Any delay more than five minutes is considered late, and apologies are issued over the speakers.
The Japanese punctuality extends to daily life. When my homestay family said we’d go out for dinner at 7pm, they really meant 7pm. In Canada, 7pm usually meant you’d actually leave the house at 7:10pm or 7:15pm. Not in Japan: by 7:02pm, they were already waiting in the car.
Typical rush hour in Japan
Trains can get very, very crowded during rush hour. Although I haven’t seen any pushers like that picture, I had the pleasant experience of touching the bodies of 5 strangers at the same time in a subway car.
3. Vending machines are everywhere, on every other street corner. They all sell the same variety of tea and coffee drinks though, I haven’t seen anything weird.
Vending machines in a Chiba suburb
4. Cat cafes and anime shops. Cat cafes are a Japanese invention where you pet cats for stress relief.
Me at a cat cafe. 100% as cute as you’d expect.
Akihabara is the place to go for any kind of anime-related paraphernalia.
A Pikachu slot machine
Anime culture is much less prevalent in Japan than I expected. Outside of Japan, anime is considered a big part of Japanese culture, but in Japan, it’s fairly niche. The anime stores are all clustered in the Akihabara district, and otherwise you don’t encounter it that much.
Things that surprised me about Japan
1. People work a lot. It’s expected to work many hours of overtime, far beyond the usual 40 hours a week in Canada. The evening rush hour starts at about 5pm and lasts well into the night: even at 11pm, the trains are always packed from salarymen who just got off from work. My homestay family’s dad often did not come home until after midnight, and we usually ate dinner without him.
I don’t know how anyone can still be productive after working so much. Right now, I can’t really comment because I haven’t been inside of a Japanese corporation. It’s enough of a problem in Japan’s society that they have a word “karoshi”, meaning death from working too much.
Aside from the long working hours, I was also surprised that Japanese salarymen typically work for one company for decades, sometimes their entire life. This is very rare in Canada, where software engineers seldom stay more than 5 years at a company. When technology shifts, companies in Japan train their existing employees to do the new tasks they need, rather than lay off workers and hire new ones. The culture is quite different.
2. Streets are much quieter and less crowded than expected. Before coming to Japan, I had spent a month in China and had grown accustomed to bustling streets with horns blaring and everybody jaywalking haphazardly. I expected Tokyo, with a population of 30 million, to be more of the same. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this is not the case.
Shinjuku at night: one of the busiest districts of Tokyo
A few places were very crowded for sure, like Shinjuku and Shibuya. Everywhere else is not a lot different from the suburbs, except the buildings are a bit taller.
3. Tokyo is huge. With a metro-area population equal to that of Canada, its sheer size is massive. It’s hard to get a sense of scale from looking at Google Maps: it takes me about an hour to commute from my homestay in Urayasu to my language school in Chiyoda. Even with a system of super efficient trains going 100km/h, it still takes over two hours to get to attractions on the other side of the city. Two hours of commute time each way is common for the Japanese, if you work downtown and live in one of the outlying suburbs.
4. Japanese food is a lot more than sushi. In Canada, Japanese restaurants mostly focus on sushi, but sushi is not that common in Japan. Only maybe one in ten restaurants here serve sushi. The others serve all kinds of Japanese food I never knew existed.
The sushi restaurants do not disappoint though. Even in cheaper restaurants, with rotating plates costing no more than 100-200 yen each, the sushi is better than anything I’ve had in Canada.
Rotating sushi restaurant
One particular Japanese delicacy is natto: a slimy mixture of fermented beans that they like to mix with rice. Most foreigners don’t like it. I tried it once. Now, when somebody asks me what I’d like to eat, I reply, “fine with anything but natto”.
5. Temples and shrines are everywhere. You will run into a shrine every few blocks in the city, and Nikko is full of them.
UNESCO world heritage site of Nikko, with over 100 temples and shrines
Architecturally they’re quite similar, but temples (tera) are for Buddhism and shrines (jinja) are for the Shinto religion.
Besides feeding me and suffering through my broken Japanese for a month, my homestay family also taught me how to play Shogi.
Learning how to play Shogi
Shogi is the Japanese version of chess. A lot of tactics are similar to chess, but the games are a bit longer, and it never reaches an endgame because captured pieces get dropped back on the board.
Me with homestay family. I will miss you guys!
That’s it for my month in Tokyo. Next stop: Kyoto!