Guest Post: How to Live the Japanese Language While Learning It

For people who strive to learn a second language, it isn’t enough to simply be adept at speaking it. A lot of the time, the decision to learn something as complex as another language isn’t entirely academic in nature (though it may partly be the case). Fortunately this desire to immerse oneself into the culture of the foreign language they’re working hard to master goes hand in hand with the spoken language itself. Japan is the perfect example of a country whose language most people want to learn because they wish to feel closer to its impressive and often fascinating culture.

Of course, such an endeavor is certainly easier said than done. However, there’s a reason why traveling to Japan in order to live the language while learning it is so rewarding. Those looking for a bit of a crash course in everything Japan has to offer with a long-term goal of mastering the language will no doubt learn all its little intricacies all the faster, but that doesn’t make it any less challenging. Here are just a few tips to living the language while simultaneously learning it.

Go for Japanese cuisine (it’s how the country speaks to your stomach)

The first suggestion is also probably the most fun to do – learning to live the language by experiencing Japan’s rich tapestry of cuisine. After all, a very large part of a country’s history is directly tied to their diets. It might seem like a rather far-fetched idea, but you’ll soon understand things about the country you might never have thought possible when you’ve had your fill of their authentic recipes. While being in Japan to enjoy true authentic cuisine would be the most obvious course of action, this is something that can be enjoyed in all parts of the world because of how much other countries and cultures are fascinated by what Japan has to offer.

Try and picture yourself enjoying succulent yakitori from a stand in Japan, while speaking to one of the natives. You ask questions as you observe their body language, from the way they speak to the way the natives enjoy their own stick of yakitori. Even something as simple as enjoying street food in Japan can be an invaluable experience when it comes to not just learning the language, but living it as well.

Attend the multitude of Japanese festivals

Living the Japanese language means to live its culture, and there are few events that match the cultural significance of the Japanese festival. The amount of history they have on display – whether you are attending a festival in Fukuoka or perhaps in Kyoto, is always a sight to see. After all, where else would you be able to get yourself acquainted with all the sights and sounds Japan has to offer all in the span of a single incredible event? It can’t be understated how much you can learn by simply attending one of the country’s many festivals.

Even the natives of Japan understand just how important attending a festival can be. Normally you would see a divide between the younger and older generations of the Japanese people due to events that have shaped the country. However, no matter what the age group is, there are very few people who do not enjoy attending these festivals. This only means that not only do you get to taste and experience the culture of Japan all in one place, but you also get to communicate and interact with natives from all walks of life.

Break the ice by enjoying Japan’s hot springs

While it’s indeed important to have a serious passion when it comes to learning and living the Japanese life, it doesn’t have to be devoid of any rest and relaxation. As a matter of fact one of the best ways to immerse yourself in Japanese culture while being able to soak the stresses away would be by enjoying Japan’s world-famous hot springs, or onsen as they would call it. Located in Hokkaido, these natural hot springs are littered with natives and tourists alike, giving you a wide variety of people to interact and bounce ideas with while you take a rest. Why not? It’s a wonderful way to learn all about Japan, while still treating it like a carefree vacation.

Visit Japan’s historical castles and ancient temples

Japan is a country with a deep and vibrant history. One might think that researching the history of the Japanese people and learning the language are completely different – but they are different sides of the same coin. It only exists when both work in tandem; otherwise neither will survive because they helped shape each other through the decades and centuries. While it’s indeed possible to learn all about the history of the Japanese people through different websites and written works, actually stepping into an ancient temple or historical castle in Japan allows for a completely different perspective – you can even get the help of Japanese translation services if you have troubles during your study.

The castles in particular were a part of the intense and more violent periods of Japan’s history, and the ruins are something that can give you a peak at what Japan was like at that time. By learning all about its rich culture and speaking to the Japanese about how they might feel about their country’s history, you’ll get a great deal of insight – which is one of the most essential things in mastering the language.

There are many who will most likely tell you that learning a language is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. While they’re completely right, there’s no reason that it can’t be fun – and living the language while learning it is most certainly that. If you’re serious about diving into everything that makes this wonderful country great, don’t hesitate! Pack your bags and get ready for the learning experience of a lifetime that you will not regret at all.

Sean Hopwood, MBA is founder and President of Day Translations, Inc., an online translation and over the phone interpreter provider, dedicated to the improvement of global communications. By helping both corporations and the individual, Day Translations provides a necessary service at the same time as developing opportunities for greater sympathy and understanding worldwide.

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Guest Post: 84 Days in Japan

All throughout high school, I studied the Japanese language.  Each year my class got smaller but I really enjoyed it, and by the time I was in my senior year, I was the only person left in the class.  I stuck at it for five years, but when I began university, I just stopped.  What a waste!


Then one day, while sitting in the library in between lectures, an old friend from high school bumped into me. He asked if I would be interested in a job at a ski resort hotel in Japan over the New Zealand summer, as his cousin was one of the managers there.  I’m super into snowboarding and thought this would be a great opportunity to continue my study of Japanese.  About three months later, I was on a flight direct from Christchurch International to Narita Airport where I would spend 4 nights in Tokyo before moving to Hakuba in Nagano for the next two and half months.


My First Impressions

Japan is clean.  Flying into Tokyo – a city of 13 million people – I expected a lot of litter and graffiti, but there was none.  Between giant high rise buildings, a massive subway system and countless poorly lit alleyways, I didn’t see any graffiti the whole time. For a country with such a complicated litter system (rubbish must be separated into burnables and non-burnables, and non-burnables need to be organised into glass, cans, and plastic bottles with the labels and caps removed, plus only certain types of cardboard are accepted for recycling) there was no litter.  When trains stopped in at stations, workers would even jump in with a backpack vacuum cleaner and give the carriages a once over.


Japanese people are so nice.  They are so trusting and honest. People will be sitting in a packed café in a train station and they’ll just stand up and leave their laptop/bag/wallet unattended at a table as they walk up to order.  They are so patient, they’ll wait as you stumble through a sentence in Japanese and let you practice, even if they speak English.


For example, during my time in Tokyo, I was trying to go to an aquarium but got off at the wrong station and had to ask for directions.  I found a man sitting out on the riverbed I was walking around having his lunch break, and asked “魚の動物園は どこですか”, which translates to “Where is the fish zoo?”  He didn’t know, but he googled it for me and showed me how to get there on his phone, then taught me the word for aquarium.


Japan is efficient.  The subway system and bus system run to the minute.  If the timetable says a bus will leave Shinjuku at 8:15am and arrives in Hakuba at 1:16pm, it will hit those times perfectly.  Once I wrapped my head around the rail system, it was so easy.  Originally I was trying to work out where I was going, how much it costs, and buying a paper ticket every time I wanted to train somewhere (which was multiple times a day), but once I bought a suica card, everything was so much easier. I would just top it up, scan as I entered a station, and scan as I exited the next station where it would deduct the fair automatically.


Where I Stayed in Tokyo

In Tokyo, I stayed in an art gallery/youth hostel called ArtnShelter.  It was super cheap and a really cool atmosphere.  I slept in a box about 130cm tall and wide and 220cm deep. It was right beside a train station which made life super easy, and downstairs they had a bar, which was completely angled towards getting people talking to strangers and meeting new people.  One of the ways they did this was by making shots 50% off if you bought one for a stranger.

What I Did in Tokyo

I was painfully aware of how little time I had in Tokyo so I had to get straight into my touristy sightseeing.

I arrived on the 29th of November at about 4:45pm, but because I had to get a residency card to be able to work here, I didn’t get through customs and out of the airport until around 6pm.  I went straight to my hotel in Narita (about 1.5 hours by train north of Tokyo central) to drop my bags and then went out for dinner. After 15 hours of travelling, I wasn’t up to much else!


On the 30th, I made my way from Narita down to Shinagawa, where I would be staying for the rest of my time.  Instead of going direct, I caught my first train underneath the airport to Ueno, where I was able to walk around the famous Ueno Park and visit Ueno Zoo.


On the 1st, I caught a train up to Jimbocho, a full district in Tokyo purely dedicated to ski and snowboard shops.  Literally hundreds of snow sport shops all right next to each other, including department stores of up to 8 stories tall selling goggles, clothes, boards, skis, bindings, boots and everything else you could possibly need.


On the 2nd was my trip to the Shinagawa Aquarium, where I discovered that Japan goes crazy for Christmas. All of the fish tanks were fully decorated, inside and out, where scuba divers conducting shows and feeding the fish were dressed up as Santa Claus.


On the 3rd I did my final site seeing, visiting Zojo-ji (a massive Buddhist temple built at its site in Tokyo in 1598) and taking the elevator up Tokyo tower where I could see out over the whole city and more, as far as Mount Fuji.  Later, I went to Shinjuku to catch the 6:15pm bus to Hakuba, where I would live for the next two months.


I arrived in Hakuba expecting layers of snow, but it was just cold with no snow in site.  On the 4th, I walked around the town and settled in to my new home.  I share a room with 3 other guys; it is split into an upstairs bit and a downstairs bit, with two beds in each.  There was very little space and no storage at all. The only heater in the room was downstairs, and the window in the upstairs bit had no curtains, so me and my roomie set out to make some renovations; covering the window in bubble wrap and making a spider web of wire between the walls and roof to hang stuff from.


The Work

We started work on the 5th of December, and for the first 10 days I wasn’t enjoying life. The hotel I work at closes for 6 months over summer and is just locked and left on the last day of the ski season, so it requires a lot of TLC when it needs to open up again.  I spent 10 days shovelling snow, chopping firewood, changing lights bulbs, moving furniture, dusting, vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms, removing bee hives, and other fun stuff like that.


But then I got to start my proper job as a concierge.  A standard work day for me is waking up at 6am to negative double digit temperatures, walking downstairs to sit in front of a heater and eat breakfast before layering up and walking 10 minutes to work at 7am.  The first hour I spend shovelling snow out of the driveway and clearing it off the vans, filling up the kerosene heater in the hotel drying room, filling up the firewood in the hotel restaurant and sweeping the entrance way.  From 8am to around 10:30am I load skis and people in and out of the vans and drive them to the various resorts in the valley.  From 10:30ish to 1pm, I take the hotel and staff accommodation rubbish to the dump, shovel the carpark, driveway, pathways and roof, shop at the supermarket for the kitchen and answer phone calls in the office.  I get a break from 1-3pm which if I’m quick is enough time to run up to the nearest chairlift and get some runs in.  Then from 3-5pm I’m picking guests up from the ski resorts. 5-6pm is spent filling the vans, shovelling more snow and closing up the shuttle service for the night.

My Days Off

I get two days off per week (usually) which I normally spend up at Hakuba Goryu ski field where I have a season pass.  I wish I could get out to other resorts in the valley too, but because pay is monthly, I have to be pretty strict with my budgeting.


If I’m not out snowboarding on my day off, I’m trying to explore various places. One week I switched my days off around to get 3 in a row, and was able to visit a mate in Tokyo. We spent a few days site-seeing, including a full day hiking around various temples in Kamakura. This week, another friend of mine came to Hakuba for two days and we trekked out to see the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Hot Springs. We went up for his first day snowboarding the next.  Some nights, I am able to head up the mountain after work for night skiing, but as only one slope is open, I usually head home to shower, eat and sleep after my 11 hour work day.

The Best Parts

This working holiday has been great for my Japanese language skills. With constant exposure to Japanese writing, I’ve become a much faster reader and have learnt so many more kanji characters.  Hearing the language daily has made me a much better listener, but working at an English speaking hotel where all the other staff are Australian has meant I haven’t had as much conversation practice as I would like. However, my trips to the supermarket and interacting with locals has given me a lot of opportunities to speak anyway.  I am now much more enthusiastic and motivated to continue my Japanese study when I return home.


The Worst Parts

Working 7am to 6pm, 5 days a week has been really tough. This was especially the case during big dumps of snow, as all of the shovelling can make me completely exhausted and super moody.  The amount of time I have to commit to work means I don’t get as many opportunities to snowboard and explore Japan as I would like, and it means I have to prioritise what I want to do with my time off.


My Final Thoughts

Overall, I have really enjoyed this experience.  For someone who has no summer job and really wants to study the culture and language, I think it is an amazing opportunity!


However, would I do it again?  No.  I will definitely come back to Japan, but I think my plan for next time will be to work in New Zealand, then travel here for 4 weeks on a budget backpacking holiday. While I won’t have the constant exposure to the language that I have had for the last 2 months, I will be able to do much more travelling, and hopefully backpack from the southern tip all the way up to the north.

About the Author

Tom Maslin is a second-year Mechatronics Engineering and German Language student, at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

He is an avid snowboarder, track and field athlete, and works as a private tutor for NCEA high school students in Mathematics and Science.

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