"We Explored Japan!"
The three J.LIVE Talk 2022 winners went to Japan this summer, and here are the reports from them.
Joining the 2022 J.Live Speech Contest was something I hadn’t been planning. Prompted by my professor and motivated by the fantasy of visiting a place with which I’d always been enamored, it allowed me to push through and realize my potential. My appreciation for the J.Live team, my home university professor, Nanzan University, as well as my friends and family is beyond description. They’ve helped foster an environment in which I can be unapologetically myself— making mistakes, accumulating novel experiences, and learning to communicate all over again. I am wholly thankful for the pleasure and joy I experienced this summer abroad and hope that future J.Live participants may also embark on journeys that bring them just as much satisfaction.
Although I traveled to the US alone as an international student from Egypt, going to Japan without company was surreal. Although I had some communication ability, I feared coming up short in conversation. The anxiety of being a hassle weighed down on me momentarily, but I quickly found that my nervousness was unwarranted. Nanzan's CJS (Center for Japanese Studies) helped me tread my way from the very start. A representative greeted me at the arrivals hall at Nagoya’s Chubu Centrair International Airport and led me through a maze of stairs and out onto a bus full of half-passed-out international students. From then on, I began what felt like a separate life in Japan, one parallel to the current timeline.
My dorm room wasn't quite a room, but an entire mini-apartment with a small kitchen, a shower room, and a separate stall with the toilet. I arrived a day before the entrance exams, meaning that I had a day to explore my neighborhood. In hindsight, my unique housing situation forced me out of my comfort zone by requiring me to explore the city as the building was a 20-minute walk from Nanzan University. A very hilly walk at that. A closer 10-minute walk North led to a Lawson next to one of the Nagoya subway stations, one that I continued to frequent throughout my stay—I even almost forgot my umbrella there once! On my first day, I had a melon pan for the first time and made an omelet with eggs whose egg yolks gleamed a bright orange-yellow.
The day of the entrance exam was sticky with rain. The pouring shower forced me into the convenience store to purchase an emergency umbrella. Through the rain, I trekked up the steep streets and found myself faced with a glorified grammar quiz that determined which of the 6 levels of Japanese I would be taking for the next 8 weeks. Any jetlag that stubbornly clung to my body was washed away with the rain; I got to work. Following the exam, we were invited to a welcome party where I got to meet some of my newest friends. The rest of the week set everything into place; meeting my professors and classmates, being faced with classes taught only in Japanese, and getting used to navigating both campus and the subway. Every day was filled with an impromptu trip to a mysterious location.
Nagoya is a beautiful city. It has a wide range of aesthetics suited for different moods. There are places filled with gorgeous nature like Tokugawa Park, as well as upscale malls and fashion streets like the ones in Sakae. Strolling through Osu Kannon, named after the Buddhist temple to which it is adjacent made for a wonderful time.
Nanzan University offered 3 trips through the summer program. One to the previously mentioned Tokugawa Park, another to the Iga Ueno Castle in Aichi’s neighboring prefecture Mie, and the last to the July Grand Sumo Tournament that took place at the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium, next to Nagoya Castle. On all these trips, international and Japanese students were assigned seating next to each other and encouraged to mingle. I loved getting to know everyone and sharing these precious experiences. Aside from the field trips, our weekly schedule had Wednesday as a day off from classes, allowing us a chance to embark on personal endeavors. Usually, these Wednesdays were filled with scouting for new restaurants, shopping for a Yukata or cute merch, singing our hearts out at Karaoke, or sometimes just relaxing at Komeda café and finishing homework.
My favorite experiences while in Japan involved unexpected interactions with locals. Although I am still learning how to effectively communicate, I found that many people were willing to go the extra mile to understand my perspective and often weird phrasing. An older lady approached me on my way back to the dorm once, and we ended up walking together and chatting for a while. It brought me joy to feel accepted into the community as someone different but willing to learn and grow. Japanese students invited me to various events, including a volleyball session in the gym. Going to the Atsuta Jingu festival with my friends and watching everyone cheer when the sky lit up with colorful fireworks felt like an out-of-body experience. The streets were packed with people all shoulder-to-shoulder, eyes gleaming and smiles wide. Little kids jumped for joy as they made their way to the Yatai to fetch a sweet snack. People were even peering down from their balconies at the scene. It was hectic, even somewhat overwhelming, but a sense of unity enveloped everyone, and ecstasy easily replaced anxiety. It was exceptionally easy to be happy.
Closer to the end of the trip, my friend and her host mother invited me to a Bon Odori where a similar atmosphere prevailed. At this point, I was better versed in the language and wore my yukata with pride. It took me nearly half an hour to get my Obi secured into a bow, but once at the dance, it all felt worth it. When the Uchiwa fan that I’d tucked into the back of my Obi fell as I danced with the crowd, a Japanese woman was quick to put it back on for me. Such silent understanding followed by sincere expressions made me realize that what connects us as humans cannot be severed by geography, language barriers, a difference of opinions, or whatever other factor might come to mind.
Aside from the Japanese language classes and fun trips off-campus, we were allowed to pick elective classes. As someone who cherishes the arts, I picked Sado (tea ceremony) and Ikebana (flower arrangement). Surprisingly, these classes were also taught in Japanese, even though students of all levels were allowed to participate. I enjoyed the authenticity with which the instructors presented their craft. In Sado, I saw how art can simply be portrayed through the intentionality of action. Simply perfecting movements to show respect and appreciation to those around us was the goal. The silence that modern life may sometimes admonish for a fast-paced environment centered around efficiency made way for an approach that prioritized finding beauty in calmness. The idea of showing care for inanimate objects, nature, and existence itself elicited within me a sense of appreciation for life. Similar logic can be applied to Ikebana. At first, I felt almost bad cutting the stems of the plants but doing so with care and for the purpose of creating art eventually prevailed as a method of honoring the flowers and their green stalks. We were allowed to keep the flowers we worked on that day. My dorm lit up with sunflowers and pink roses after class. The third art class I took was Budo, a martial arts class taught in English. Our coach specialized in Karate but also introduced a lot of the history and philosophy involved in the spectrum of martial arts practiced in Japan and all around the world.
My trip to Japan provided invaluable insight into how I want my day-to-day life to be. I felt physically and spiritually invested in the world around me. This sense of wonder reminded me of the passion I’ve always had for making connections. In life, I aspire to focus on possibilities; I’m concerned with what could be. However, I now realize that that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the present to its fullest. I plan to continue building off my experience and drawing from it. By keeping in touch with everyone I was able to connect with, I hope to maintain the momentum and continue onward learning and growing. I look forward to reflecting on everything in a few years!
Andrew went to The Naganuma School in Tokyo.
Adventure of a Lifetime
I arrived in Japan on June 2nd of 2023 jet-lagged, excited, and with the spirit of adventure pulsing through my veins. With permission from J.Live Talk, I had decided to come to Japan about 1 month before my intensive study program would begin to allow time to focus on traveling, experiencing Japanese culture firsthand, and growing accustomed to what would become my new daily life for the next 2.5 months. While the first few weeks were written with challenges and exhaustion as I recovered from jet-lag, learned to navigate Tokyo’s train systems, studied the people around me to try to avoid cultural mishaps, and became even more aware of how much I still didn’t know about the language I had been studying for 3.5 years, with every challenge came a new adventure, a new opportunity to grow as an individual, and a new chance to explore both who I am as a person and the wonderful country I was seeing for the first time. There was magic to be found even in the simplest parts of my new life. I enjoyed hunting for manga and video games in “Book-Off” stores, discovering how much I love Japanese pancakes and purple sweet potatoes, getting lost in the train stations as I passed even more enticing bread and bakery shops, and stumbling across immaculate parks everywhere from the seaside to the tops of buildings. Each challenge and wrong turn was an opportunity for a new adventure as my confidence gradually increased each step of the way. Japan is an incredible country, and I had only begun to see the surface.
If my first week and a half in Japan were defined by finding the joys of everyday life, the following three weeks were defined by exploring outside of Shibuya and the surrounding parts of Tokyo. Several of my instructors, English students, and colleagues had chipped in and gifted me with a JR-Pass, which allowed me to use many of the public trains, including most of the bullet trains, at no additional charge for 3 weeks of my stay. To make the most of their gift and experience as many places in Japan as I could, I booked an 11-night stay at a clean, but well-maintained and affordable hotel in Kyoto. During my stay I visited famous and historical locations in Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Nagoya including Fushimi Inari Shrine, The Golden Tower, Kiyo Mizu Dera, Tenjuan garden Nara Park, Nagoya TV Tower, Osaka Castle, and Osaka’s Kaiyukan Aquarium. With each new place my appreciation for the level of respect and care shown to preserving each of the historical sites and their surrounding nature grew. The sunset view from the top of Fushimi Inari Shrine as it overlooked the city below, seeing Nagoya TV Tower from atop the illuminated glass ceiling of the Oasis 21 shopping center as the reflections of the tower and its surrounding lights come to life on the glass enclosed pond centerpiece, and the night skyline of Osaka from the top of a 112 meter Ferris wheel on the waterside are all images I will treasure for the rest of my life.
Two other personal highlights from my travels were Universal Studios Japan, located in Osaka, and Tokyo Disneysea in Chiba. As someone who grew up playing games like Mario Party, Mario Kart, Super Mario 64, and Super Mario Sunshine, and whose lifelong dream has been to become an Imagineer and help with designing theme parks, each of these locations resonated with parts of myself even I had forgotten about. Entering Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Japan for the first time nearly brought me to my knees in tears as I stepped into the very world which had defined fundamental memories throughout my life, and was greeted at every turn by employees who were as excited to be there, play, talk and celebrate the land as I was. As a language learner, conversations with the staff in Japanese about “Super Mario Bros. Wonder” in one of the land’s stores, being remembered on my second visit for my Japanese ability, and tips and tricks for getting higher scores on one of the rides were all just as exhilarating as any of the attractions, and have become cherished memories. Tokyo Disneysea was a similarly inspiring experience as my first steps into the Mediterranean Harbor themed entrance to the park immediately demonstrated the park carries a reputation among many as the greatest in the world. Seamlessly weaving together lands themed to variations on the concept of nautical adventure, including the reality rooted beauty of a Mediterranean harbor and rideable venetian gondolas, an idealized turn of the 20th century American waterfront, and a steam-punk and Jules Verne inspired port area, all crafted around the man-made volcano which served as the parks centerpiece, Disneysea is a masterclass in immersion and inviting visitors to discover new details with each subsequent visit. The atmosphere, theming, cast hospitality, and cleanliness of both Super Nintendo World and Disneysea present a walking and exploration experience that matches or surpasses even the quality of wonderful attractions they feature. Both left me inspired, and helped to reinvigorate my passions for many of the things I love most.
Studying at Naganuma School
Before beginning my studies at Naganuma school I was required to conduct both a verbal interview over Zoom, and to take a placement exam so that the staff could determinea class appropriate to my level. Throughout the placement process Naganuma’s staff communicated with me regularly and took into consideration my personal goals, which included challenging myself to develop my language skills as much as I could while in a fully immersed environment with a specific emphasis on communcation. I placed into an advanced Japanese communication class (G1) with 5 other students, most of whom already knew each other and several of Naganuma’s instructors from previous semesters, but were always welcoming and kind as I had the privilege of getting to know and study with them throughout my 5 week study program. While I was shy around them at first, we gradually bonded both in and outside of the classroom over first time experiences in Japan, learning about one another’s’ cultural backgrounds and perspectives, and similar experiences we had as young adults in the same generation, regardless of where we grew up. By the end of my stay in Japan and 5 week study at Naganuma, we had visited Enoshima island, whose picturesque views are reminiscent of the Caribbean, together on a weekend trip and were regularly eating meals and spending time together in the Shibuya Area. I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to make friends whose home countries include India, Taiwan, and Italy, and also a friend from an entirely different part of the United States, and hope to stay in contact with them as we all continue to do our best in working towards Japanese fluency.
60 to 70 percent of the class content was primarily structured around assigned readings with accompanying homework. The homework included worksheets focused on comprehension questions and practicing the use of select grammar patterns from the readings through example sentences, and studying key kanji combinations highlighted by the instructors. Most days, 2 -3 of the 4 class periods would then be spent reading the contents together to practice fluency with an unannotated copy of the reading, discussing the content and key grammar points as a class, and completing dictation quizzes based on the kanji combinations we were currently studying. I grew to like this style of instruction as the readings proved to be a single focal point for us to develop multiple critical language skills simultaneously and gave the classes a constant sense of structure. The remaining class time was spent on a variety of activities which depended on the day, including giving impromptu 2 minutes speeches based on topics suggested by our classes, practicing listening comprehension and discussion with news broadcasts and similar materials, studying aspects of Japanese culture, and weekly vocabulary quizzes based on a provided studying list. Outside of the typical class-structure, each of us also prepared and delivered a 4-minute speech on a topic of our choosing and prepared a 45 minute lesson plan to lead our classmates through. Naganuma was hosting a speech competition in September which would feature 1 representative from each class, and as such the speech assignment targeted both language practice choosing our class’s representative. I spoke about my determination to continue studying Japanese, despite not having any particular need to use it in my life moving forward, though my speech was done primarily for language practice since I was scheduled to return to the US on August 16th. As for the student led classes, I led the class through reading a news article on AI in education and debating whether it is better to fully integrate it into our current learning systems, or completely ban its use. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend class the day of the other student led lesson that was held before I returned to the US, though I heard only positive feedback about the other lesson.
I felt the constant immersion and practice provided during my time at Naganuma gave me an opportunity to rapidly develop my communication and comprehension skills. While the course constent was often challenging, and there were even a few days where I doubted myself enough to wonder if I should have requested to be placed in a lower class, the 3 instructors I had the opportunity to learn from were always supportive, encouraging, and understanding of my desire to both challenge myself as much as I could to learn in a limited time, and enjoy non-academic experiences in Japan. I am grateful to all of them for being allowed to participate in one of the advanced classes, even if some of the contents may have been above my level, for being patient with me when I struggled or fell behind, and for their dedication to providing individually tailored timely feedback on homework assignments while allowing us some flexibility in giving extra focuses to the areas we wanted to develop most within the structure of the course. In each of their classes I came to always feel comfortable making mistakes, consulting when I had questions or needed guidance and clarification, and generally felt like I had a support system available through the school when and if I needed it. If presented the opportunity to study at Naganuma again, I would accept it without hesitation.
It had only been about a month before the final round of J.Live Talk when I had watched hours of preparation and research to study abroad in the Spring 2023 semester all fall apart as I realized I would be unable to. Around that same time I received an email from one of my professors about J.Live Talk encouraging me to aim for gold as the winner may be able to go to Japan for a summer intensive trip. I had planned to compete for the second time in 2022, but I had never expected to win. J.Live Talk revived my dream of studying abroad in Japan. The 2.5 months I had the opportunity to study in Japan became the adventure of a lifetime. Countless times I would pause, both in disbelief at the opportunities I was able to experience every day, and even more so in unwavering gratitude to everyone who had supported me in being able to experience those opportunities: my family, who had always told me I could do anything I set my mind to; my instructors, whose patience and immeasurable dedication to helping me improve as a person and student had guided my growth; my friends, who unwaveringly marched with me through every step of my journey serving as emotional crutches, progress inducing flames, and companions at every struggle; my underclassmen, who cheered me on and viewed me as a role model; and J.Live Talk for providing a competition which made all of my journey possible. My gratitude towards everyone who had supported me fueled me with a sense of optimism every day to maximize my time in Japan, not only to make the most of the opportunity given to me, but also to respect the invaluable efforts of all of those who believed in me. From the bottom of my heart, thank you!
Like everybody else, I participated in the 2022 J.LIVE Talk contest as prompted by my Japanese professor. It was never a part of the plan to receive the opportunity to study in Japan - it had been a great surprise. It turned out to be an educational and meaningful summer experience that is once in a lifetime. I would like to express my gratitude to J.LIVE, all sponsors of the program and the scholarship, everyone who participated in the speech contest, and my university professor for offering me such a unique experience!
It was not my first time traveling to Japan, and it likely would not be the last time. Yet, after craving it for the last eight years, I was excited to experience Japanese school life finally. After a long period of staying at home during the pandemic, embarking on an international trip naturally brought some nervousness. However, the excitement of immersing myself in the Japanese language and culture far outweighed it. After arriving at the ICU campus, I soon immersed myself in the students and met new friends who I still miss today.
Being a student rather than a visitor, I finally got the chance to explore Japanese residents’ ordinary life. It was the first time I ever purchased a commuter ticket - there were many tricks and small details to figure out during the purchase, but I felt like a dream of mine eventually came true. Riding a train with a commuter ticket, collecting coupons for the convenience store, and even sitting in a net cafe. These were all things I had previously read about or seen on screen, and I had the opportunity to experience them during the study abroad program.
Spending four weeks living in Tokyo offered a completely different perspective compared to my previous experiences as a short-term visitor. By digging into Japanese residents’ everyday knowledge, I painted a holistic picture of ordinary Japanese people’s psychology and life experiences. I felt closer connected to the mental visualization of scenery described by Japanese artists and authors as I stepped on the same soil as they did.
On the other hand, J.LIVE realized my long-existing dream of studying in Japan. I could never imagine spending time in a Japanese school without the opportunity provided by J.LIVE. Sharing the same time and space with other international students like me and ICU students expands my knowledge of Japanese school life and creates precious memories that I will never forget.
At ICU, I was placed in Level 2, or the mid-advanced level of the Japanese language course. My Japanese teachers at ICU detailedly instructed us through grammatical and verbal knowledge, digging into small details I hadn’t experienced before. Their hard work and diligence assistance cultivated my Japanese proficiency, helping me catch grammatical mistakes that I had never noticed before. I also got the chance to collaborate with other Japanese-learning students to produce presentations and speeches, which advanced my public speaking skills and fostered our friendship. In my final project presentation, I investigated the theater culture and the theatrical architecture in Tokyo, combining my interests in Japanese culture and theater performance. Other classmates also explored their own interests, including the construction of the train station, the naturalistic culture in Japanese parks, and the history of the ICU’s cafeteria. The Japanese language class encouraged us to incorporate our interests into Japanese learning.
Another half of the program was a Japanese culture course, which allowed us to experience different aspects of Japan through field trips, guest lecturers, and workshops. For instance, the visit to the art facility teamLab Planets was a part of the course. My favorite topics were the Japanese anime industry and classic Japanese literature. In the class on Japanese anime, we talked to an ICU graduate who works in the industry and produced many famous projects. Myself and other classmates enjoyed a long Q&A session with him, discussing all topics from the process of adaptation to the future of the Japanese anime industry. The entire conversation was in Japanese. I enjoyed acting as the translator between the lecturer and my classmate who wished to ask some questions. In the Japanese literature class, I finally got to read the original text of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a classic Japanese folklore. I also wrote my version of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter in a 1500-word Japanese essay. The reading and writing process taught me so much about ancient Japanese linguistics and aesthetics.
At the program's closing ceremony on the final day, I had the honor of delivering a speech as the representative of the Level 2 Japanese class. I would like to end my report with my speech’s ending remark: “As Japanese-learning students, we traveled all the way to Japan and worked hard to study Japanese without succumbing to the summer heat. We spent an unforgettable four weeks together, so let’s enjoy this precious time until the very end!”
J.LIVE Talk has provided me with an opportunity to navigate Japan beyond my imagination. Without this opportunity, I would never have explored Tokyo with a diverse group of ICU and international students with whom I wouldn't have otherwise crossed paths. It has been a pleasure to step out of my ordinary life and immerse myself in the Japanese language and culture for four weeks. Thank you!