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10/18/2015

Hanabi!

Everyone loves a good fireworks show - They're bright, colorful, absolutely beautiful, and if you're a hopeless romantic like me, then you can even call them "Magical".

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This past weekend, my friends and I - The usual band of international and local misfits - jumped on the train and rode a good 2-3 hours out to Tsuchiura, outside of Tokyo, to witness one of the last fireworks display of the year.

Note: "Tsuchiura is a city located in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan. It is situated along the western shores of Lake Kasumigaura, the second largest lake in Japan." (WIKIPEDIA REFERENCE)

It's quite common to see fireworks in Japan up until the end of summer. But because this was happening in the beginning of October, it registered in my mind as a "Once in a Lifetime" opportunity.

The trip itself was inexpensive - only about 3000 yen, approx 30.00 USD, for the round trip. Admission itself was free. The event wasn't a festival though, rather a competition in a 3 hour long show of fireworks and music. But with the amount of people that attended, and all of the shops and vendors that were set up, you would have thought that everyone was swarming the town in celebration of something.

Once we exited the train station, we took a bus out to the location. So many people flooded the main street that led into the fields. Along either sides of the streets were food and toy vendors. There was so much good, traditional foods that we all indulged in! Dango. Taiyaki. Takoyaki. Okinomoyaki. It took me all day to learn how to properly say "Okinomiyaki".

Now, let me give you an idea about the group we went with. Imagine 14 very different individuals all together in a single group. There are about 6 international students, 4 post-undergrads, two of them being former international students, two of them Japanese locals, and four others who range in age from mid 20s to mid 40s. You are only familiar with the younger of the 6, but the others you have seen and talked with many times before so they're not strangers. But still, you're wondering how this day is going to go because you are so used to going on such adventures with your close friends back home. I'll tell you right now that it was incredible!

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The greatest part about the Hanabi competition wasn't the fireworks as one would assume. Instead, it was the fact that I was able to go out so far from Tokyo with an amazing and diverse group of people. Together, we laughed, practiced our Japanese, talked with locals, navigated the area that was new to most of us, (the eldest of the group were well equipped for the adventure), shared our delicious meals, got to know one another; we bonded! I can't remember the last time I ever experienced something like that. Maybe it was the atmosphere of the day, maybe it was the great weather, but something sparked with that amazing group of 14.

So, by the time 5pm hits, we are all settled in our spot in the fields. By the way, these are no ordinary fields - they're muddy and bumpy and definitely not what I was expecting. But, as mentioned earlier, the eldest of the group were well equipped for the venture. They had tarps ready for everyone to sit on. Additionally, they brought plastic bags to put our stuff in so nothing would get dirty and so we would have a place to put our trash. How great are these guys? We even wound up nicknaming the eldest and second eldest "Otou-san" (meaning father) and "Oji-san" (meaning uncle).

Now for the show itself: The sun is setting and the sky starts to darken to a deep indigo, then bam! Bright golden flares shoot up and crash into the sky, only to twinkle down and rain over everyone like a shower of fallen stars. Over and over again we were left in awe at the incredulous display of prismatic luminosity. The shapes they took, the synchronism with the music - you don't see anything like this during the fourth of July.

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Definitely the best part of my trip so far.

A Caution to anyone who reads this and decides to go see Hanabi in Japan - be prepared for the ridiculous amount of people all pushing and shoving their way into train stations immediately after the show has ended! As amazing as that night was, the trip back was unbelievable. Because of the crowds that all swarmed back to the train station all at once, the station officers had to seal off every exit and let groups in one entrance at a time! It was the perfect display of chaotic efficiency if I ever did see it.

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We reached home safely three hours later. Still the best experience yet. 

Silver Week in Shinjuku

Silver Week (シルバーウィーク Shirubā Wīku) - a string of consecutive holidays in September; more specifically, the string of three Japanese public holidays that followed the weekend.

All of Japan rose up in celebration, especially Tokyo - how lucky could we get?

As fresh new foreign faces to the country, Silver Week was not something any of us were well aware of. I remember a friend, a Japanese local, telling me a bit about it earlier. But it hadn't quite dawned on me, or my friends, until we got off the train in Shinjuku station just how big of a celebration it was.

Just to note, the combining holidays that followed the weekend were "Respect for the Aged Day" (occurs the third Monday of September and, in this case, fell on 9/21), "Autumnal Equinox Day" (9/23), and "Kokumin No Kyujitsu"( Citizens' Holiday - By Japanese law, if there is only one non-holiday in between two public holidays, that day should become an additional holiday, known as a Kokumin no kyūjitsu.) WIKIPEDIA REFERENCE

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Anywho, it was Sunday, September 20th and Shinjuku was packed with locals and tourists, literally flooding the streets! There were a lot of food stalls set up that range from soba-noodles to chicken skewers - I even found an Indian stall where they had Samosas! There were a few other streets blocked off for shopping and food, and I don't think it was limited to Shinjuku either. But because Shinjuku is a pretty busy district, it's great for drawing customers in.

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In order: Nikita, Julie, and Jasmine (Me!)

This was a fabulous opportunity for us to really start practicing our Japanese with the locals. Because we couldn't read the menu, we had to ask them what it was that they were selling. So, we continuously said, "tori niku ga arimasuka" (do you have chicken?), "kore wa nan desuka" (what is this?) and "ikura desuka" (how much does it cost?) and so forth. Language barriers are usually intimidating, but the merchants really appreciated the fact that we tried to speak Japanese - it made the interaction a lot more fun and relaxed.

 Now, I went on this little adventure with other CIEE students with the sole intention of just finding lunch in the middle of a street fair. Boy did we get more than what we bargained for.

After our lunch, we wound up getting a front-row seat to the parade that came through immediately after. So, not only did we come on a good day, we came at the perfect time! Dozens of locals crossed through the streets of Shinjuku, dressed in parade-clothing called はっぴ, pronounced "happi"  while piloting floats and chanting through the streets. I'm sorry to say that I could not quite figure out why the parade was going on except for the fact that it was in celebration of the holiday season. Nevertheless, it was still really fun to watch! ''

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After that, we wound up finding a stage with live music going on.

OK - I'm am one of those peoples who believe 100% that music is something that you can love and appreciate even without understanding the lyrics. This experience was no different.

I was overwhelmed with childish joy as the lead musician sang with an energy that absolutely captivated everyone. You should have seen him, jumping up and down while singing the chorus, blowing into his harmonica and strumming on his guitar  - a real "GENKI" moment.

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(Genki meaning energetic in this case). We also got to a see a second act, a female singer who was performing a tribute to a rather old, yet well-known-to-the-locals, song. Don't ask me what it was because I really can't remember any of the lyrics, but again, it was just so wonderful to be part of it. On some level, it felt like I was back home - I didn't feel like I had to worry about being a foreigner in the middle of a local practice. I felt welcomed and was able to enjoy the festivities because I really appreciate the culture. In the end, that's what it should be about, don't you agree?

Looming Culture Shock

Looming Culture Shock

The past three weeks have demonstrated to me that even the most put-together person can be completely disarmed and left vulnerable by what is known as "Culture Shock" - This is something that happens when you are realize that your culture, your way of doing things, is suddenly no longer the normal way due to the new environment you now find yourself in. As a result, it's necessary to adjust.

Like almost every other person in the CIEE program, I originally thought I was ready to handle whatever was going to be thrown at me the minute I stepped foot onto Japanese soil. I had my goals in mind, I was eager to start school, ready to explore, and so very willing to just immerse myself in the culture and learn as much as possible about this wondrous country. Culture Shock never even registered in my mind as a something that I would struggle with so much.  In this case, all of my planning and preparation should have been categorized as "Easier said than done".

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Shibuya Crossing Chaos

 

I wound up dumb-struck and left in awe at Tokyo's fast-paced society. Even now, sometimes it feels like if I'm not walking like a New Yorker - quick and with gut-determination rooted in every step - then I will be bumped, shoved, and trampled. It's such a commuter-city! Trying to  keep up with the crowds in the train station proved to  be very difficult at first. The crowds all seem to move in waves, especially around the major cities, and trains can get so packed during rush hours that the station officers may even resort to cramming them in all at once - though I haven't had that happen to me, yet - the train schedule is actually very efficient. Oh, and there are even designated female-only cars during those peak hours! How's that for safety?

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The next thing on the Culture Shock menu was adjusting to the difference in food and diet. Cooking dinner for myself was intended to be an easy task, except for the fact that I had no idea what to buy and where to buy it. I had to use the power of Google in order to research some of the brands that I ought to buy. It took me several days to become a decent food shopper, but in that time this is what I learned: Because so much is locally grown here in Japan, it's really inexpensive to buy fruits and vegetables at smaller, local markets, as opposed to the larger grocery stores we are all probably used to back home! And it's only 10 minutes walking distance - everything is meant to be convenient here because of the way the society works. Even convenient stores here carry much more than sodas and snacks. You could literally do all of your grocery shopping at a 7/11 here. This is Culture Shock at its finest - rendering me incapable of providing for myself because I can't properly read the labels on the packages. It takes some getting used to, and a lot of Kanji memorization.

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My first meal: Pork Ramen with Dumplings

 

The first night, I remember trying desperately to order dinner, only to fail miserably because I couldn't read the menu. A couple of the dorm students paired up with the locals who also live in the building and wound up going out for ramen. I don't eat beef, so I had to keep asking "Toriniku? Toriniku?" Meaning "Chicken? Chicken?" If it weren't for the locals, we would have had so much more of an issue trying to order noodles than a Japan-born two-year-old!

Nonetheless, I was not shy about going out for dinner. If you know where to go, you can actually get a whole meal for under 500 yen, (approx. 4.50 USD). And if you want a taste of something traditional and inexpensive, an Izakaya is your best option. It's a small eating establishments that specialize in serving meat and drinks . While the prices can skyrocket, depending on what you order and whether or not there's a seating charge, there are inexpensive izakayas that tend to serve a lot of traditional snacks and skewers that make up a great meal among friends. Every single time, the atmosphere was fun and relaxed, the food great, and the bonding moments absolutely precious. It's funny to think that we don't have anything like that in the states - chain restaurants, sure. But inexpensive sit-downs that border between a pub and restaurant, no.  

Another thing about Tokyo,  Japan, that I find quite different from America are the amount of game centers here! I was talking with a new friend of mind, a Japanese local who had been showing me around town at the time. She called the centers "Pachinkos" and I had no idea what that was, until she started explaining about the games and slot machines. Originally, I thought about an arcade, but it's actually something else entirely.

I wound up learning that Pachinkos are slot machine parlors. Here, the idea of the game is to put little silver balls into the machine and try to win more silver balls by getting them to fall in certain places in the machine, which can then be exchanged for prizes.

However, there are several dozen arcades here in Tokyo that seem to be a popular past time for the locals. Back in the states, it's very rare to try and find game centers now-a-days because Americans make no time for it anymore. Therefore, they wound up shutting down. Similarly, to go to a place in America with slot machines would mean that you would be going to a casino to gamble, and there aren't nearly as many in one state as there are in all of Tokyo, (in my personal opinion, that is.)

Pachinkos and Arcades here though are always crammed pack with people, from teens to elder parents, I've seen them all! Perhaps it's their version of de-stressing from the day, or their own way to bring their inner child to the forefront for a good hour or so, but whatever the case may be, it was all too amazing just to see that video-game culture thriving in the most vintage of all tech-oriented establishments.

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My friends and I were about to go hard-core on Mario-Kart

Honestly, I can go on and on about the differences between my hometown and Japan, but that's not the point of this post. Instead, the point is for me to convey to you how taken aback I was by both the amazing and the frustratingly difficult. It has been no walk in the park, even now 3-weeks in.  I guess when it comes to culture shock, you never know what's going to be the next big difference that you are going to have to adapt to, but adaptability is the key! If not, then you will suffer and loathe your time abroad. It's one thing to know that you are going to have to make some changes in your daily routine, it's another to actually follow through. Nevertheless, bit by bit, I am adjusting and learning as I go - I look forward to what the rest of the semester has in store.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Text Box: My first meal: Pork Ramen with Dumplings

01/19/2015

Studying Abroad in Japan with Anxiety

Before I talk about my experience dealing with anxiety while studying abroad, I should add this disclaimer: I am not a licensed therapist or medical professional of any kind. I am just a college student who has been diagnosed with anxiety. I am writing about my own experiences and how I cope with my triggers. Also, people with mental health conditions react to different situations differently and have different ways of coping. While I hope that this entry will be helpful to someone, anyone with a physical, mental, or emotional condition should consult with a licensed medical practitioner before making the decision to study abroad. .

 

I would think that anyone living with anxiety, of any kind, knows just how hard it is to do things that should be “normal everyday activities.” For me, being in crowded places, going to new places, or talking to new people can be difficult. Now just imagine being in a foreign country and that feeling being amplified by one hundred. It's a pretty daunting thought, I know, just thinking about it used to give me anxiety. However, I am very glad that I did not let my anxiety hold me back from coming to Japan.

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Coming here is a huge change, something that sounded incredibly scary for me, but Tokyo is one of the most amazing places in the entire world, in my opinion. There were challenges everyday for me, but having anxiety just seemed to make those challenges even harder. My biggest fear in coming here was the massive train system. I was terrified of just how crazy the maps seemed to look, and how getting on a wrong train could take you somewhere you have never been. It was a terrifying thought. But, once I got here and started to understand the train system, it is actually pretty easy to use in my opinion. The stations were a little confusing at first, but I have never seen such a complex system set up in such an easy manner. I have gotten lost quite a few times, of course. But the more I rode the trains, the easier it got to navigate the city. Within just a couple weeks I had almost all of my lines and platform numbers memorized.

 

Another main anxiety of mine in coming here was getting lost and not being able to get to where I needed. Before coming here I had 4 years of Japanese, so asking for directions and getting help wasn't too big of a fear. But just the anxiety of getting lost in a place as massive as Tokyo was daunting. Thankfully, whenever I do get lost, when I ask for help people are more than glad to help me. I don’t even have to use difficult Japanese; simple phrases like “where is this train going?” and “where is this?” have worked fine. The Japanese people I spoke to always pointed me in the right direction, or even reminded me which stop was mine when we were on the same train.

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I know I said that I have anxiety about talking to people, so yes, asking for help from random strangers is scary, but at the same time I feel much more relieved when I’m able to find out where I’m going.

 

For me, the best way to deal with anxiety is to find ways to ground myself when I encounter “triggers.” For example, trains still make me anxious, but what helps me is listening to music and tuning out the world around me while I am on them. However, I have to be careful to know when my stop is! Another way I deal with my anxiety is traveling with people on the trains to different places. Going with friends is much more fun than going alone! With the anxiety of getting lost, the easiest way I have found to battle this, is to always carry a map with the train lines that I need to take. That might seem like a hassle, but they are always in my backpack just in case I can’t communicate what I need.

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The ways in which I deal with my anxieties will be different than yours, so the methods that I use might not work for you at all, but for me, listening to music and having the train maps with me makes me feel calmer. While that might not be your thing, the important thing to do is to find what helps you battle your anxieties and try to make sure you can have those things/do those things when you start feeling anxious.

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01/18/2015

THE END OF A JOURNEY: REFLECTIONS ON MY DECISION TO STUDY ABROAD IN JAPAN

There’s no doubt about it: studying abroad was the right thing for me to do. The nostalgic pangs that have been weighing down my heart recently could only mean one thing: I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that my semester in Japan is drawing to a close, and with that, I find myself falling into a state of deep retrospection. It has definitely been a crazy, fun-filled journey, but the point I’d like to bring to your attention and elaborate upon the most is this: I had absolutely no idea it was going to be as amazing an experience as it turned out to be. Prior to signing up, I had some serious reservations about putting my life in Los Angeles on hold. Jumping into Japan was a stunt I pulled with my eyes closed, and I’m happy to report that I’m extremely glad that I did. Thanks to CIEE, I fulfilled my personal life goal to visit Japan, gained a ton of valuable life experience, and most importantly, made friends whom I’ll keep in my heart probably for the rest of my life. And thus, in this final blog post, I’d like to tell you the story of how I came to the decision to study abroad in Japan with CIEE, and why I’ll never regret that I did.

 

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One’s collegiate years are a time for self-discovery. It’s a time when we make that awkward transition from high school brat to working adult, and are given the time to experiment with different ambitions. For me, as someone whose interests have always involved stuff like Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z – amongst other popular anime and manga series – going to Japan has been something my heart has yearned for since childhood. I’d decided that I was definitely going to study abroad in Japan at some point in my college career. At the same time though, I’ve also always had a strong interest in the performing arts, and about 6 months after I moved to Los Angeles following my acceptance to the University of Southern California, I fell in love with the theater, and decided to pursue an acting career.

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Fast forward to the end of my sophomore year in college. I’d just gotten my foot through the door of the acting business, and was in a spot where, if I were to put things on hold for a semester to go study abroad, getting things back in motion when I got back might not be so easy. At the same time however, I still really longed to see Japan for myself. I still applied, deciding that I’d withdraw if I really couldn’t bear to leave Los Angeles in the end. I came really close to submitting that withdrawal form the day before my flight.

I’m so glad I didn’t.

I’m so glad I decided to follow my heart.

Opportunities to study abroad in a country of your choosing don’t come very often. I decided that it was going to be easier for me to jump back into the acting game upon my return, than to spend the rest of my life wondering what it might’ve been like if I’d decided to embark upon the journey I’d always wanted to go on after all.

It’s also important that I include this: Sure, anime and manga got me interested in Japan, but it’s the life and the people I found here that made me want to stay. Being able to learn about the culture, places, and people portrayed in my favorite stories through the excursions to major Japanese cities and heritage sites organized by CIEE has been an invaluable experience, and being able to share this journey with like-minded contemporaries resulted in some very strong friendships. Throughout my time in Japan, I’ve borne witness to vastly different lifestyles, seen incredible sights, met many great people with fascinating stories to tell, fallen in love, made sushi, and forged powerful bonds with people I won’t soon forget.

Most importantly, I believe the life experiences I’ve gained have made me a better actor – this is the point I’d really like to drive home. No matter what your ambitions may be, it’s more than likely an experience abroad will help you gain some very valuable – and applicable – experience (time management skills, communication skills, etc.). Thus, I’d like to end my final blog post by imploring each and every single one of you to follow your heart. Don’t be afraid of the future, and don’t dwell on the past, but treasure the present; don’t wonder what “could’ve been.” Fight for what you love, and never settle.

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Sometimes, I get a real giggle when I think about how worried I was prior to leaving for Japan. There is no doubt in my mind that broadening my horizons was the right choice, and I am ready to take back my life in Los Angeles with a fulfilled heart. This journey in Japan with CIEE will forever remain a treasure trove of sweet memories in my mind.

12/14/2014

Transitioning to Tokyo from a Rural Area and My Trip to Miyajima

Living in Tokyo has been amazing. I love living in a big city with tons of people and things to do. Every day you can go explore something different or have a unique cultural experience! Going out and exploring at night with all of the lights around you is personally one of my favorite things to do. The entire city seems to change once the sun goes down and turns into a twinkling walkway of lights.

But, being from rural Colorado, one of the hardest transitions in coming to Japan for me has been not being able to see the stars or be around the mountains or open spaces. Something that was always relaxing for me after a hard day would be to go out and look at the stars, or just go sit somewhere quiet in the mountains to think. In Tokyo, however, it is a rare occurrence to see the stars when you are in the heart of the city. Having grown up near the mountains my entire life I feel slightly disconnected from a part of myself that I wasn't even aware I really had.

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On the bright side, however, CIEE has some sponsored events where we get to travel outside of Tokyo and into some more rural areas. Our trip to Hiroshima City and Miyajima has been one of my favorite excursions so far. While Hiroshima City was an amazingly beautiful experience, it deserves its own post because of its solemn nature. For this post I wanted to focus on Miyajima, and show that the mountains and stars are still here in Japan. They may be hidden and harder to reach, but being able to explore different places to find them again is truly amazing.

On the island of Miyajima I was beyond excited. The whole island was practically the mountain and full of different trails you could take. Just being near the mountains again made me feel more at home and grounded. I felt reconnected with a part of me that had been longing to see the mountains and to be surrounded by nature. Even just having dirt trails dusted with leaves underneath me and animals (deer) closer to me made me feel more at peace. While we didn't have time to hike up the mountain, we did get to take a cable car and overlook the other side of the island and ocean as we went up. It was truly breathtaking seeing all of the leaves changing to gold and orange. Just being in the mountains again was so relaxing.

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Being on top of the mountain was even greater. You could see the entire island and ocean below it. There are no words to describe the beautiful scenery. For those of you who come from more rural areas, this is definitely the place for you. You feel right at home up on the rocks of the mountain overlooking the gorgeous scenery with the cool mountain air against your face. The trees and nature sounds are soothing and remind you of home, so much so that I didn't want to go back down the mountain and back into the city life. It was just too relaxing and peaceful, I felt like I was back in Colorado for a little bit.

As much as I love Tokyo, not having the mountains and stars at my fingertips has been a very hard transition for me, but I just have to remember that over 70% of Japan is mountainous so I just need to travel outside of Tokyo to find them. I haven’t had time to do so yet, but I definitely want to go out and explore more now that I got a taste of home again.

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On the rare occurrence that I can see the stars from my dorm, I am lucky enough to have an open roof to go out on and star gaze. While this doesn't happen very often, it is a nice treat to see them peeking through the clouds every once in a blue moon. And seeing them just reminds me of home again, which is a comforting feeling knowing that I’m not that far away from the things that were once so close.

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Everyone experiences some kind of homesickness at different parts of their time abroad, which is completely natural. I would recommend finding something that can remind you of home while you are here so that it doesn't seem so far away. It doesn't have to be a big thing, just something small that reconnects you to your home. For me, this has been being able to go to the mountains and seeing the stars. Now that I have been to one mountainous place I am determined to go out and find more so that I can give myself some much needed relaxation.

 

 

 

 

Making Japanese Friends While Studying Abroad in Tokyo

One of my main goals during my time here in Japan was to make Japanese friends at school and in my dorm, allowing me to be more immersed into the Japanese culture.

However, making Japanese friends was more challenging than I expected. The language barrier and cultural differences can be intimidating for both parties. It can be scary going up and speaking only Japanese. It can also be intimidating for the Japanese person because they may feel pressured to talk in English. 

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Talking in the other person’s language can be scary, so it’s almost easier to not communicate at all. But it’s important to push through that fear in order to break the boundaries of your comfort zone so that you can get everything you can out of your time here in Japan.

 Personally, accepting these challenges has been a wonderful experience. While I still get frustrated at times working on getting past the language barrier, I have been able to make amazing Japanese friends whom I can practice my Japanese with. While this has been a very difficult process, it is well worth the challenge. The Japanese friends I have made are absolutely fantastic and I love them to death. There is a mutual helping of understanding because they speak English to me and I respond in Japanese, which allows us both to further our language skills.

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 Not only do you get more language practice with friends, but also you get to go out and explore new places with them. This is one of my favorite things to do, going to new places that I otherwise wouldn't have known about and getting to spend time with friends. It’s an even greater way to further immerse yourself into Japanese culture.  Some of my new favorite hangout spots have been places that my Japanese friends have shown me. And coming into the kitchen space in the dorm is even more welcoming now that I have more people to talk to and interact with. Being asked to join activities, get food, go to onsen and other trips is an amazing treat. But getting to know and understand people from a culture different than your own is an even greater experience.

One of my favorite experiences so far with the friends I have made at my dorm is just being invited to different food parties. Not only do you get to try delicious new food, but it is also great language practice in a relaxed setting. You get to find out more about your friends and your language abilities.

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One of the best ways I have found to overcome language and cultural barriers, and make friends, is to join clubs or circles. While I am not officially part of a circle yet, I plan on joining one next semester. My friends in circles have participated in a lot of activities and made a lot of friends, and it seems to be another amazing experience. Many circles may accept you with open arms and add you to their family. Because of this family setting it is easy to make new friends and connect with lots of different people. All of this might sound really intimidating if you are shy. If you are as shy as I am, you probably are hesitant about putting yourself out there. But, this is probably the best way for you to make new friends and further enhance your experience here. I have no regrets being pushed out of my comfort zone, because without that happening I wouldn't have made the friends that I have, or experienced the things that I have. It was really scary at first, but now, it just feels like my friend group expanded into an even larger family.