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8 Things I Learned While Studying Abroad Alone In Japan

Three months of fun, fear, and adventure!

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In the summer of 2015, my Japanese professor offered me the opportunity to travel to Tokyo, Japan and stay with a mutual friend's family as an English language tutor. After studying Japanese all four years of college, this was the trip of a lifetime, but I had never traveled alone before. So here are some things I learned!

1. Appreciate Eating With Others

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Before I went to Japan, I had probably never eaten in a restaurant by myself. Going to eat was always an event to enjoy with someone else. I was no stranger to eating alone at my apartment in college, or being home on a deserted night with nothing but an entire pizza waiting to slide down my gullet. There was something eerily isolating about walking alone into an uncrowded ramen shop or sitting in my host family’s kitchen with nothing but the sound of my noodles slurping to keep me company. After a few weeks, I learned to appreciate the experience of having a meal with someone. One night Hana, one of the daughters, and I were the only ones at dinner as everyone else had prior engagements. We hardly spoke a lick of each other’s language, but I noticed our similar “mmms” and satisfied auras after we finished, and in that moment we found a common connection.

2. Figure Out What You Want And Go For It

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One of the best things about traveling alone is never having to compromise. You can do whatever you want, however you want. I always associated traveling with itineraries, plans, and working with other people to have a great time. Although I did stuff on the weekends with my host family, I had entire weekdays to figure out what I wanted specifically. The task of filling three months of days doing exactly what I wanted was both a daunting and exciting task. I could spend a whole day in the park reading a book, I could go visit a bunch of shrines, or I could shop until I dropped. The greatest thing about this freedom is you can veer from your path whenever you want and feel no consequences. If you’re tired, go home and rest. If you find that at the end of the day you still want to do more, keep on going!

3. Get What You Want When You Want It

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If any of you are frugal budgeters like me, money was difficult to spend in the beginning of my travels. I was very anxious in those first few weeks to splurge on myself, but then something happened. I was watching Parks and Recreation one night before bed, when I realized I was not treating myself. This once in a lifetime trip was supposed to be a whole three months of treatin’ myself to whatever fine clothes, merchandise, activities, and foods that I liked. From then on, I made sure to get myself the finer pack of cup noodles at the convenience store, expensive treats in the department store patisseries, and cute cosmetics that I knew I’d hardly use! Simply getting there is half the battle, giving in to your temptations now and then will make the trip way more memorable.

4. Get Lost (With Google Maps As A Backup)

whatisemily / Via imgur.com

In my first week, I was terrified of getting lost in Tokyo. My host parents had given me their phone numbers and nearly any way to contact them if I was in trouble and needed help, but that still didn’t calm my nervous heart. So one day I decided to put on my exercise shoes and just walk with no purpose in mind. If you’re staying somewhere for an extended period of time, I highly recommend doing this. In that first walk, I covered nearly seven miles, crossing bridges with confidence and strutting down the sidewalk to understand the lay of the land on my own. A physical understanding of your surroundings frees you from the fear of getting lost and allows you to navigate to new places.

5. Always Attempt New Things

If you find friends or are just exploring, always be open to trying new things! As a girl from the Midwest who had never ridden the subway, swiping my Passmo card past the turnstiles on my own was one of the most anxiety producing things I had done in Japan. But little by little, my sphere of “comfortable navigation” started increasing, and by the end I was transferring train lines and even traveling beyond Tokyo city lines all by myself. Whether it’s a new dish to eat or going beyond your comfort zone, it pays off to venture into the great unknown.

6. Meet New People

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Traveling by yourself can be very lonely. I knew there were days where I was on the brink of going crazy because I hadn’t had a conversation with a native English speaker in almost a week. As a child, nearly everyone’s parents drilled into them to not converse with strangers, and that social anxiety (at least for me) leaked into my adulthood, making it semi-difficult to talk to people I don’t know. Mix that with a language/cultural barrier and I was on the fast track to not speaking to anyone outside of my host family for the whole three months. Then something awesome started happening. People started striking up conversations with me! They were mostly old people wanting to brush up on their English, but it was a chance to branch out and learn something new. Or just chat with people on Tinder, it can get pretty entertaining.

7. Journaling Is Very Theraputic

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I have always loved writing. Before Japan, I never considered myself much of a journaler. There was never much outside of whining about my amount of schoolwork and lack of a dude situation to write about. With the influx of activities and interesting things happening in my life, I decided it was a good way to download everything that happened to me during the day. It also helped to share my experiences with something whether they were good or bad, and relaxed me beyond belief. If you’re traveling to a country where they don’t speak your native language, keep a simple journal in that language too! Just a few sentences about my day, kept me on top of my Japanese and forced me to learn extra vocabulary. My host mom and I even started swapping language journals so we could help each other with spelling and grammar which totally brought us closer together!

8. Don't Be Afraid To Go Alone!

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As much as I prided myself as an individual who could stand on her own, I was beyond freaked and terrified to go somewhere as far as Japan solo. Traveling alone, you learn a lot about who you are. It’s almost like dating yourself, where you get learn new things, buy yourself cool stuff, see how you react to new places, and eat a lot of delicious food. If you have any doubts about traveling to a foreign place on your own, take the leap and go for it! An entire world is out there waiting for you to explore every highest high and lowest depth. All you gotta do is keep your mind, heart, and soul open to all the things that will come to you on the great adventures ahead!

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