To you Fall 2013 guys, this is for you.
I’m gonna take a shot in the dark here and assume you guys are coming in around the same time we did: sometime in the first week of October. In which case, you’ve got less than one week of life in your home country, so go and overdose on the things you’re gonna miss most, because you won’t be seeing them for (up to) nearly a year’s time! For the people you love in your life, things like Skype exist, but being there with your family and friends in person (of course) feels far better than a face on a screen. Definitely binge on the food you like, too — especially if you’re a terrible cook like I am, but even then there are some things that just naturally aren’t available in Japanese grocery stores (for example if you’re a fan of Mexican food you’re definitely not finding tortillas by themselves; though I do remember seeing imported American hardshell taco kits at the market in Kamiooka.)
In any case, here’s a handful of last-minute tips, in no particular order. It’s certainly not comprehensive, either; I might come back to add a couple more things. In any case, bon voyage! If you plan on making a blog on your stay, do link me — I’d love to follow it. 🙂
I might’ve mentioned this before, but pack light, especially if you plan on doing some major shopping over here. Alternatively, you can ship stuff back, but be careful if you go with surface (boat) shipping: one of the people in my group had one of his parcels sink to the bottom of the sea. (He got reimbursed by the post office, but apparently there were things in there that were hard to find, so he was pretty bummed out by that.)
If you have a Nintendo 3DS: bring it with you, of course. Yes, it’s region-locked — so you can’t play exclusive 3DS games you may find in Japan — but if you like StreetPassing people, you’re in for a real treat as your StreetPass queue magically fills up to ten practically every time you ride the train. Also: you can still play any old DS games you happen to find at Book-Off — they are (thankfully) compatible as long as they don’t have any special DSi features, if I’m not mistaken. (Things I’ve tested: a Japanese copy of Ace Attorney 1 on a 3DS, and a copy of the second Japan-only Quiz Magic Academy game on a 2DS.)
While I’m on the subject of electronic devices: bring adapters for them! For those of you hailing from North America — if you’ve got a laptop or other device with a three-pin plug, purchase an adapter to reduce it to two; you should be able to find them for relatively cheap. Everywhere else: if you can’t find adapters easily in your local electronics shops, Yodobashi Camera should have what you need (the Yokohama Station store has plug converters on its second floor, if I’m not mistaken.)
There are two opportunities to experience a homestay (in which you live with a Japanese family for a day or two or three): one in the fall, and one in the spring. Normally, homestay applicants are matched up with families within the Yokohama area, but depending on availability, you may also be able to stay with a family in Fuji (as in Mount Fuji), Shizuoka. My homestay was quite nice, and I recommend it.
If you do plan to do a homestay, here’s a tip from a friend who went before I did: it’s nice if you bring a gift from your home country. Being from ’round the San Francisco area, I’d brought a couple of bags of Ghiradelli chocolates to share — which my homestay family quite enjoyed.
And, also, speaking of Fuji: if you’ve not been, climbing the mountain is a good experience (by my friends’ accounts — I was regrettably unable to go.) Fuji’s climbing season is during the late summer; July and August comprise the official climbing season. Despite the heat at the base of the mountain, it quickly gets cold the more you climb up, so do equip yourself well, do your research on how to equip yourself before you go, and leave plenty of time to climb and plenty of time to recover afterward. And bring an umbrella. It might unexpectedly come in handy.
Speaking of leaving plenty of time for things, as with most university coursework, leave plenty of time to do your homework, especially your long-term essaywork! And while we’re talking about essaywork, for your required Japan in the World essay, here’s a recommendation from me: try the freeware text editor Q10 for your drafts, as not only does it have a built in target word count you can set, but it also has a built-in timer so you can work in bursts if you’re the type that’s more effective while doing so. As a bonus: it’s full screen, and it’s minimal, so all you’ve got are you and your words…unless you alt-tab out, of course.
While we’re on the subject of travelling places: go travel places! Temple-hop in the Kansai area! Ski at Nagano! Eat the legendarily delicious cuisine of Hokkaido! Tan yourself on the islands of Okinawa! Tour the Hiroshima Peace Memorial! Visit an island full of bunnies — and so on!
If you’re a fan of scenery and taking things easy and have the time (or are sorta broke), don’t use the shinkansen, but buy a Seishun 18 Kippu and use that instead! Make sure you’ve got a camera to capture all of that scenery, too — it’s good for showing to friends and family afterward.
If you’ve got the funding to do so, you can also travel to the rest of Asia for perhaps cheaper than it would be from back in your home country — I remember seeing a deal in which flights from Tokyo to Singapore were cheaper than flights from Tokyo to Osaka (?!). Make sure you let the immigration guys know you’re coming back, though.
Price-check things! I remember getting a rather nice durable writing utensil block cup things for 600 yen or somesuch at Muji before seeing pretty much the same thing at Daiso for 105 yen. On the flip side, Muji’s stationery is super-cheap: a pack of 5 notebooks that I wasn’t able to fill up during the classes I used them for is, like, 300 yen — and the paper stock didn’t feel terribly cheap and flimsy, either.
Make sure you’ve got a wallet that can handle Japanese banknotes, which may differ in size from the currency of your home country; and make sure you’ve got either a wallet that can handle large amounts of coin or a coin purse, as you’ll be getting a lot of coin.
If you ever need to make change, don’t hesitate to use 10,000-yen bills to pay for things at stores: they’ll accept them. In a pinch, you can find the nearest video game arcade and break your change there (a 10,000 yen bill will split into nine 1,000-yen bills and ten 100-yen coins; some machines will even let you pick how you want your change split!) Note that the vending machine on the dorm’s ground floor (alongside most other food/drink vending machines) only takes 1,000 yen notes and every form of coin that’s not 1-yen or 5-yen.
Speaking of video game arcades, If there’s one arcade game that screams “only in Japan” (never mind the fact that this is also available in a couple of other Asian countries), it’s the arcade game Senjou no Kizuna (Bonds of the Battlefield), in which you enter a pod and literally pilot a Gundam from the pilot’s point of view. There’s a fantastic years-old primer to the game here — just know a card isn’t required to play anymore. And speaking of cards, if you can read Japanese, Lord of Vermilion is badass.
Each game company that produces arcade games has its own card for saving data — but you can use Namco Bandai’s Banapassport on Sega games and vice versa with Sega’s Aime card. Additionally, your PASMO can double as an e-Amusement Pass for Konami games, so you don’t even need to buy a card to save data for those!
One last thing on arcades: don’t play a game of Gunslinger Stratos online unless you really know what you’re doing, ‘cuz you will get wrecked. But do play it. It’s really cool.
Do you have excessively large feet (like, say, US shoe size 12)? Do yourself a favor and buy a pair of shoes and a backup pair now — it’s pretty hard to find shoes in sizes like that.
If you can get over the culture shock, going to a bathhouse is awesome and is far better than the tight space that is your built-in unit bath/shower. Go to Miura-yu in the winter and soak in the outdoor bath — it’s fantastic.
Do say ittekimasu (I’m heading out) when you’re heading out and tadaima (I’m back) when you’re back and the office is open. Heck, even while the office isn’t open, sometimes the staff’ll still be in the room anyway — and they’ll always return your greetings with a smile. It also helps them commit your face to memory.
The RAs are awesome; get to know them, hang around them, get suggestions for local things from them. If you bump into Kazuya, tell him Mattie says hi. 😉