Looking for advice on planning two trips to Japan to study Japanese
November 18, 2018 6:45 AM   Subscribe

Lots of snowflake details within, but the long and short is that in 2020 (!) I'd like to go to Japan twice, 1-2 months in the winter, 2-4 months in the summer, with the main goal of improving my spoken Japanese. I'm looking for advice for various aspects of this.

First off...I know, I know. 2020! That seems crazy. But I once asked on ask mefi about doing something similar and, well, I went through with it. So I have a track record ;)

Regardless, there are a number of aspects of this trip that I'm starting to look into...obviously I have a lot of time, but having a general sense of how things will work will help me with budgeting as well as just general planning that needs to happen over the next year to make this happen.

There are a couple of areas where I'm not sure...though before I lay all of this out, I want to say: this is all extremely flexible. If you have Strong Feels about ANYTHING, please share. I think I can get to a solid N2-N3 level before this trip, at least conversationally, though probably lacking a lot of the sort of...daily life stuff that's really hard to get without just living in a place. My overarching goal, which trumps basically everything else here: get as conversationally fluent as possible. So if you have thoughts on that, I'm all ears, even if it doesn't speak to the stuff below.

First: how to study/language schools? This is probably actually my most snowflakey...I'm actually fine at self-studying language, so I don't _need_ a school. The benefit of a school would basically be to have more in person instruction (right now it's all online), and to just sort of have a place to go every day. I'm a bit introverted, especially in new environments, so having a place to go where I'm forced to use the language will help a lot in adjusting (more on that in a bit). That said: I do not just want to do a JLPT program with 20 other students and one teacher. I think I've been a bit spoiled in china, where there are a number of language schools where you get affordable 1:1 instruction tailored to your particular desires...you want to take a test? They got that. You want to improve just your speaking? A little unorthodox, but they'll at least work with you. I've looked a bit into schools and haven't found one that is more flexible in this regard. I'd love basically to find what I have in China: 4 hours a day, 1:1 instruction, focused on the things I want to study, ideally not hideously expensive. I'm pretty flexible on where, really...if there were multiple good schools and one was in a less hip place but was a lot cheaper, I'd choose that. But I really have no idea what options are out there, and googling has just brought up JLPT etc training programs.

I could just move to Japan and continue self studying and see it as a chance to explore a new country and interact with native speakers...but if I do that, well, I get into that...now, I suppose.

Second: what to do while there? how to meet people? This is related to a key detail in the first...in a new environment, I can find it a bit easy to just stay indoors and study, since going outside is very uncertain and would require using this language I'm studying and making mistakes etc. Language schools are useful for helping transition, but as per the first point, I might not be able to find just what I want...and even if I do, I'd like there to be some more unstructured time in Japan. But the question is: what to do with that time?? Like I said, my natural inclination is just...stay indoors and study. I could definitely make that...find cafes and study there, but I want some suggestions on really concrete, actionable ways to ensure that I'm interacting with Japanese people in interesting ways. I do not really want to do language exchanges if I can avoid it, because in my experience it is infinitely more rewarding to interact with people whose goal is to just...do a fun thing, vs trying to use you to learn a language (while you use them to learn a language).

I'm going to list a number of my interests, as that might help people get some ideas...

Books (from literature to manga, which I am a big fan of). I really do love to read, and this is probably my biggest and most enduring passion (well, except language study)
Language study. My native language is English and I can speak fluent Spanish and Mandarin (incidentally I'd love to figure out how to connect with the Chinese community in Tokyo, but like, that's probably not a great way to ensure I use Japanese...)
Movies/tv (everything, from documentaries and artsy stuff, to anime, which I haven't watched in ages but do enjoy and would eventually like to be able to watch in Japanese)
Art. I'm not a super intelligent conossieur, but I love museums (not just art museums), and I enjoy like...seeing art, talking about, it, that sort of thing.
Electronic music. I like music in general, and will certainly try to make my way into weird j-pop shows, but I'm actually the electronic music listener who doesn't go to clubs. I rarely go to shows and in general just listen at home, but I mean, I do love it.
Board games. This one could be quite promising, I think. At the moment I don't play much because I am focusing on other things and the city I live doesn't really have much of a board gaming scene, but I really do enjoy board gaming a lot...I think board gaming is a thing in Japan, so that could be a good activity.
Coffee/Tea/Coffee shops. I enjoy making coffee, I enjoy hanging out all day in coffee shops reading (and ideally befriending regulars though the stars really really have to align for that to happen)
Current events/politics. Despite my sanity I do follow politics closely, and as my Japanese improves, I will definitely try hard to dig into what is going on in the country. And as a member of the LGBT community (bisexual male, though currently in a relationship with a woman), it'd be cool to make some inroads in that community as well. I'm a not-quite-socialist-but-almost lefty and think it'd be cool to meet people of that bent as well.
I love to eat and have thought about taking some cooking classes or something there...I am a terrible cook but I do really love Japanese food.
Mahjong. I think this is popular in Japan? I'm familiar with various Chinese rule sets and think I could learn the Japanese ruleset without any issue. I plan on playing there regardless, though no clue if it's really a social environment etc.

I'll also list some things I'm not super into...
I'm not super physical/outdoorsy, but like...I could make an exception. My waist line would certainly appreciate that. But in general I'm just not very outdoorsy.
I'm not a prolific drinker, though I mean, I can much more easily make exceptions there ocassionally for the sake of socializing or something. I enjoy hanging out at a nice bar and having a good cocktail or two (and Tokyo is amazing for that), but I'm not as into like...constant, intense binge drinking.

Uhh, ok, gonna leave it there. I tried to overshare a bit in case it sparks something. Language school in China was nice when I first got here because it ensured that while I was getting my bearings straight I talked to a native speaker for 4 hours every day, every week at least 3 different people. If I can't find that in Japan, and even if I can to be honest, I'd like to figure out good ways to...get out there! This is something I haven't been great about in China, but ah well.

Third: where? Obviously, the where is dependent on the answers to the above to some degree...but honestly, I'm less concerned about the where. The "ideal" for me would probably be Tokyo for a couple of months, somewhere else for a couple months, maybe a last place for a month (so 1-2-2). If there's a particularly warm-during-the-winter part of Japan with an ideal language school where I could hang out that'd be great...but I'm not holding my breath :P So I'd like to be in Tokyo for a spell, and somewhere else. I was eying Hokkaido, but other than that? I don't know. Ideally somewhere without a particularly strong local dialect. I suppose an ideal itinerary: winter trip: 1 month in tokyo, 1 month somewhere warm. Summer trip: 1-2 months in tokyo, 1-2 months in hokkaido.

Fourth: housing? Again, this all depends on the above, as many language schools offer housing options...I'd love to do a homestay, but have no clue if that's possible without a language school hooking it up. Assuming no language school and no homestay (though of course if you have leads on either please let me know!), I'm not really sure what the best option is to spend a month somewhere. A hostel? Airbnb? Ideally would like to avoid spending a billion dollars on my living situation.

If you read all of the above: thank you so much. If you have some advice to give: thank you even more! People had a lot of great ideas when I asked about China (and here I am! typing this from China! where I am now fluent in Chinese!), and so I'm hoping people can at least help get me a bit more informed about the situation in Japan...

As an afterthought: I'm an American and I was just planning on doing visa free entry, which I think should work, since I believe it is up to 90 days per entry, 180 days max per year. That fits nicely with the 1-2 month and 2-3 month stays I'd like to do! I think I could theoretically apply for a student visa with a language school, but I think those are generally for 6 months, and I don't think the sort of language study I want to do is the sort that generally sponsors those sorts of visa...but I could be wrong on all counts!
posted by wooh to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm planning my third trip to Japan next year so I can't talk to all of your points but here's some input:

For the Where, I would probably avoid Tokyo in summer 2020 as that's when the Olympics are going to be, and it's going to be VERY crowded in Tokyo and full of tourists. Unless you somehow get olympics tickets I would stay far away. So given that fact and that you've never been to Japan before, I think spending time in Tokyo for your first trip and then somewhere else like hokkaido for the summer would make sense.

Most of the modern culture stuff you're interested in is focused in Tokyo and Osaka, and there's a ton of different things to do in those cities. Akihabara, Shinjuku, and Shibuya are the classic places to visit in Tokyo for modern culture and I had a lot of fun there on my last few trips. I'm planning on focusing on Osaka more this year. Your japanese now is more than good enough to get around the big cities so don't worry about that, you would want to learn more before heading out to the country.

For a month or more you're probably going to need to look into the homestay, especially outside of tokyo. I'm only going for a week and a half so I'm going to just do hotels and airbnb, but airbnb recently got much harder because the government passed a bunch of regulations requiring hosts to officially register. So I think you're probably going to have to go through a fairly official means of getting housing such as via the language schools if you want to stay for a whole month without spending a ton. When I looked last week, airbnb in Osaka for next spring had plenty of options, but in tokyo it was already filling up, so you'll need to plan housing well in advance.

Last tip I'll have is to sign up for flight services like scottscheapflights or something similar. This trip came about because they were offering $600 round trip flights to Tokyo from my small east coast city, when it usually costs $1500
posted by JZig at 10:50 AM on November 18, 2018

I would also ask this question in the Wanikani forums - everyone there is interested in studying Japanese, many have traveled to or lived in Japan.
posted by mogget at 11:22 AM on November 18, 2018

Recently I have somehow gotten sucked into watching English speaking youtube vloggers living in Japan and I think they might prove useful to you. You might want to check them out for answers to some of your questions and to get a feel for daily life in Japan as a Westerner adjusting to the culture, making friends, dating and going to cool spots. My favorite is Abroad in Japan, an Englishman who has lived in Japan for about 5 years who is currently on a cycling trip from the North to the South of Japan, and Tokyo Creative Play.
posted by maggiemaggie at 6:30 PM on November 18, 2018

Yeah, if I were you I’d keep a very close eye on when/where the Tokyo Olympics are happening and avoiding the whole thing.
My school of thought is, if you want to learn the language you make it something you have to use every day. This means for me getting away from big cities with signs in English and lots of tempting people who can speak other languages. Rural areas are also cheaper. Many people are capable of speaking in standard Japanese. I don’t think you need to worry about sticking to Tokyo for standard Japanese, as long as you avoid areas with a reputation for being unintelligible to native speakers. Formal classes could be useful for part of the time, but not the whole time. Spending time with other language learners = more danger of speaking in languages that aren’t Japanese.
I’ve never done WWOOFing but it could be useful for giving you something you have to do in Japanese (pick a host with minimal English). Homestays would also be nice (pick a host with minimal English).
posted by sacchan at 7:41 PM on November 18, 2018

As far as meeting people, Meetup has become fairly popular among Japanese speakers, especially in Tokyo and a few other big cities - you can look on their site to see for yourself. The gay and LGBT social scene is very active and easily accessible in Tokyo, quite a bit smaller in Osaka, and very limited elsewhere.

I'm not sure how accessible mahjong would be for you - I played quite a bit with a group of three friends (I think I was a replacement for someone who moved out of town), but I never could figure out how the scoring worked. I had to stop when I quit smoking - it tends to be a very tobacco-heavy pastime in Japan.

As for studying, in my own personal experience I learned more during my first week of full-time language school than I learned over several months of studying on my own with a private tutor. Everyone's learning style is different, but for me the keys were the repeated forced grammar drills that I would never have done on my own, and the set pace of advancing through the textbooks day by day. So I'd suggest giving language school a try early on, to see if it works for you.

And as others have advised, I'd strongly urge avoiding Tokyo during the 17 days of the Olympics, mainly because places to stay will be hard to find and quite expensive. For accommodations, you might look into "weekly mansions" - medium-term furnished lodgings that are cheaper than hotels. There's also a growing number of co-living spaces with shared kitchens and lounge areas.
posted by Umami Dearest at 11:34 PM on November 18, 2018

As an alternative to Tokyo, how about Fukuoka? It will be warm in the winter, and it's a really livable city without an excessive amount of tourists. It's got a great food and drinks culture (Kyushu is shochu country) and good transportation links - a ferry to Busan Korea (handy for visa runs) and the airport is 5 minutes from downtown on a direct subway line.

Also, for mahjong the recent entries in the Yakuza series of video games have a surprisingly robust implementation. If you have a PS4 you can pick up Yakuza 6 or its sequel/series prequel Yakuza 0 for about $20.
posted by Gortuk at 8:28 AM on November 19, 2018

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