What’s the Ja-Plan: a story of a student’s travels

Before being presented with the opportunity to go to Japan, I had never really considered going to the country. Sure I’d thought about traveling, but I’d always imagined myself going someplace where people speak English, probably the British Isles. At that point, even going to Australia seemed like it would be too much of a culture shock, so I’m not really sure why I decided that I would go to Japan, but I did, and I don’t regret it for a second. It was weird and fun and something that I would never have done otherwise.

Summary of the entire trip / Image credit: man in Japan

Getting on the plane bound to Japan I was beyond excited, but getting off the ten-and-a-half-hour flight dulled that excitement just a tad. By the time I was on solid ground again I was less excited about being in Japan and more excited about the idea of getting a coffee. Not to mention that the last I saw of Seattle was a rain-covered airport runway, and the first thing I saw in Tokyo was a rain-covered airport runway. But as the group moved from the airport located on the outskirts of Tokyo to the heart of the city my excitement exponentially grew. I was unaware, however, of the first major cultural shock I was about to face. Only a few thousand people live on Orcas, a tiny population by most peoples’ standards. In contrast, over 36 million people live in or around Tokyo, making it the biggest city in the world. So there I was, a confused girl from a tiny island, in this giant swarm of fast moving people speaking a language I don’t understand in the busiest train station in Japan during rush hour. Needless to say it was slightly overwhelming. However, I’m glad to say that by the end of the trip I was able to navigate crowds of people without tripping while only bumping into about half the people within a three-foot radius, and only stepping on a few feet. So I managed to make progress.

The United States is a country that is known for being a melting pot for basically every possible nationality in the world, and as a result it’s not uncommon to see people of every imaginable size and color of the rainbow just going to the mall. Japan, on the other hand, spent hundreds of years as an isolated population, and as a result is somewhat lacking in diversity. Because of this, ridiculously pale skin, while considered beautiful, is not very common, and red hair is almost unheard of. If I were to list my most prominent physical characteristics it would be my ridiculously pale skin and red hair. This is all a roundabout way of saying I stuck out like a sore thumb the whole trip and was basically guaranteed to have multiple people staring at me at any given moment. It didn’t help that I spent a large portion of the trip with two people who towered over everyone at well over six feet tall. So there were two giants and an extremely uncoordinated ghost ginger wandering the streets of Japan, which sounds like a bad movie that I would definitely watch.

So Japan is crowded, and we already stuck out, but interesting fact, in Japan most people speak Japanese. What a concept. Before I was in Japan my biggest worry was the language barrier, which didn’t turn out to be that big of a deal. Communicating, while difficult at times, was for the most part pretty straightforward. Trying to find my way around was another matter. I have a difficult enough time getting around in a country where I speak the language (train maps are my Kryptonite), so trying to navigate in a country where not every sign is in English and those that are don’t always make sense was a bit of a struggle. I often found myself giving up on trying to navigate on my own and resorting to taking a taxi. It’s a lot easier to tell a taxi driver where you’re trying to get to as opposed to finding a train.

Getting back home I’ve had many people ask me about my trip, what my favorite things to do were, where I went, any amusing stories I have to share, those sort of things. I never really know where to begin, because I don’t know how to convey exactly what Japan is like to other people. I always end up breaking it into little parts like I just did, but it still doesn’t come close to describing a country so different from my own. But I don’t have to share these experiences with anyone else, because they’re my own and have helped shape how I see the world, which was probably the point of setting up a study program to Japan in the first place.