Methods for Studying Japanese


The most effective way I’ve found to improve my conversational skills is by finding native language partners. I think conversation practice is often the hardest for people beginning to learn a language. When you are just starting out, you realize how bad your language skills are; and thus it’s embarrassing to try to use them in actual conversation. There are also many moments of misunderstanding and frustration when you’re unable to understand your partner and express your own insights. Nevertheless, I have found that many Japanese university students have been eager to help me in my language study. If real-time conversation is too daunting, I have also found text conversation to be helpful in learning conversational phrases. In the case that study abroad is impossible, I know many people who have found language partners online and through apps. The resources are there as long as you are willing to look.


In my opinion, vocabulary needs separate practice from conversation. There are many words that, while important and useful, just aren’t used that often in everyday conversation. I usually do practical vocabulary study by reading a book (with furigana provided for kanji) with my phone dictionary on the ready and a memo pad to record words that I consider important. I am rather selective in what words I choose to record. For example, I usually only record words that I think would be useful for me in conversation and essays. If a word seems to be too rare or irrelevant, then I will just look up the meaning without recording it.


Kanji practice is the most difficult for me. I have yet to find a fun or interesting means of studying the characters. Thus far, I have only found a few ways to expedite the process. Many kanji characters contain other, simpler kanji within them. Thus, if you can get a grasp over the basic building blocks, then it becomes much easier to learn new kanji. In the past, I used to try to remember kanji based on individual strokes. This process is very difficult and error-prone. Nowadays, I pay special attention to the building blocks since they sometimes even are helpful for figuring out the meaning of new words.

Differences between America and Japan

Vending Machines

One of the most interesting differences between Japan and America was in the difference in food and drink selection, epitomized in the vending machines. In American vending machines, the selection is usually around 90% soda with the rest being energy drinks, water, lemonade, etc. On the other hand, most Japanese vending machines didn’t include any soda at all, opting instead for green tea, coffee, electrolyte drinks, and water. It was such a stark difference. I believe that this selection is one of the reasons why Japanese are so much healthier than Americans.


Driving in Japan is nowhere near as prevalent as it is in America. For example, most Japanese roads had no parking on the sides; and parking lots could usually only fit a handful of cars. Most Japanese cars were about half the size of American cars and looked cubic. Also, many Japanese roads were narrow with no sidewalks. Finally, drive-through fast food restaurants were non-existent.


A big part of Japanese culture is maintaining proper manners and customs. Japanese society is founded on a lot of unwritten rules. If you break some of these rules, it is hard to tell outside of some disapproving looks. For example, you are not supposed to eat or drink on buses and trains; and there is generally an expectation of quietness on these vehicles. Another unwritten rule is that you give a brief bow if passing in front of someone too closely as a way of excusing your blocking their path.

In America, it’s perfectly acceptable to talk to shopkeepers and other strangers with small talk (“how are you?” is a common example of this). In Japan, this type of conversation is very rare since most Japanese value their privacy and social distinctions. On that note, there is a more strict social hierarchy in Japan as there are special words, phrases, and manners of speech that you must follow when speaking to superiors and vice versa. In America, there are some similar rules, but to a much lesser extent.


Public Transportation in Japan

Public transportation in Japan is leagues ahead of America in all areas. The main methods of transport are buses, subways, JR trains, bullet trains, and ferries. For all of these services, Japan offers prepaid IC (integrated circuit) cards that can be used to pay the fares by simply “tapping on” when entering and “tapping off” when exiting. These IC cards can be “topped off” (refilled) at machines located outside the ticket gates. While each area of Japan has a different corresponding IC card, nowadays you can use any IC card in any area.

If you are a tourist in Japan, you can purchase a special rail pass that provides you with unlimited rides on JR train lines, bullet trains, and a few other special modes of transfer within a certain period of time. The price of the rail pass may seem a little high at first, but when you take into account the price of the bullet trains normally (~$50-$100 one way), it is well worth the cost.


The buses in Japan, while useful, often suffered from the same problems in America. On one hand, the buses were more timely than in America. On the other, the routes were confusing, the times infrequent, and the prices high. I often had to use Google Maps to find the closest and soonest bus, since the schedule/map was too difficult to use on the spot. For daily, routine routes, they are more helpful.


The most useful form of city transport in my opinion. The subways were frequent, fast, and timely, with useful routes to all the main sights of the city. The price for the subway was a bit high, but the convenience was well worth it.

JR Trains

These are similar to Amtrak trains in the US as they connect the big cities of Japan with smaller towns and other big cities. They were useful for getting to places that were out of range of the subway system. The times are pretty frequent for local trains, with rapid express trains being somewhat infrequent. During rush hour, if you don’t have a reserved seat, it can become a little uncomfortable since the unreserved cars have subway-style seating.

Bullet Trains

The most amazing form of transport I have ever used in my life. I (and most Japanese people) loved the shinkansens (bullet trains). They are insanely timely, veeeeery fast, very comfortable to ride on, and very frequent. These trains make sightseeing around Japan so easy since they connect nearly all major cities in Japan. Unlike airplanes, there is a lot of legroom, no need to worry about luggage sizes or security, and great sites from the window. You can reserve seats in advance or simply hop onto a non-reserved car (if you have the rail pass).



In Japan they have a saying, “Ichigoichie,” which means, “once-in-a-lifetime encounter.” I can’t think of a more perfect phrase to sum up my entire experience in Japan. I made so many wonderful friends, had the chance to live as a Japanese person does, improved my Japanese language skills and so forth. The list could go on forever and ever. I know I’ve said this over and over again but I truly believe that the interactions I had with the people were truly the most amazing part of this entire study abroad experience, especially (you guessed it) my host family. So, I want to share a bit of the last conversation we had the night before I returned to America.

My host parents and I were all sitting at the table in silence with the slight chatter of the TV in the background. Finally, I let out a short sigh. “本当にアメリカに帰りたくない,” (English Translation: I really don’t want to go back to America.) I said, my voice already beginning and tears beginning to well up in my eyes. They looked at me with tear filled eyes. “私達もシエラに帰られたくない,” (English Translation: We don’t want you to leave either.) my host mom said.

As I said before in a previous post, I have never felt that feeling for home or family in my entire life. Growing up, when I would hear my friends talk about their families I never really understood why they were always so elated, until now. I can now say that I understand the value of family and why many view family as so dear to them. After having met my family I finally feel like I have people who I can depend on, who will give me endless love and comfort. The love of a family is so much more beautiful than I could have ever imagined and I am so eternally grateful for having met them because it truly changed my life.

We talked on and on for hours on end, reminiscing about memories made. At the end of the night, as I was about to make my way back to bed my host dad said one last thing that truly moved me, “Remember, your happiness will always be our happiness. You will always have a home here with us.”

One Last Family Outing

The time has come. We’re finally in the homestretch of the program. One. Week. Left. Crazy, right? With this in mind my host family decided we should have one more big family outing before I return to the USA, so off to an amusement park we went!

The amusement park was about three hours from Hakodate so we ended up going on a bit of a mini road trip. We bought snacks and then we were off! Honestly, I fell asleep for the first half of the ride so I’m entirely sure what happened then but I do know that when I woke up we were making a pit stop for some ice cream, yum! すごくおいしかったです。It was super delicious.


(My host sister Yuzuki! So adorable!)

After this we were off again and eventually we arrived at the amusement park, Resutsu Resort.

There are no words that can truly describe how much fun this day was so instead I will gift you all with a series of pictures that do all the explaining for me.

As you all know, my host family means the absolute world to me and this trip was no exception to how amazing of a time I have when I spend time with them. We spent the day riding various roller coasters, eating DELICIOUS food and ended the night with a magnificent fireworks display. I truly could not have asked for a more perfect day.

A Serious Talk: Perverts

As we know, all over the world there are issues with perverts. When thinking about Japan the first word that would often come to mind is safe. However, Japan is no exception to the pervert problem which I unfortunately experienced first hand.

It was a typical day after school. My friend and I were waiting at the bus station as we always had. As we sat there waiting we decided to watch a short three-minute video. Within this short time span a strange man dressed in all gray squatted near our bus stop and began recording us. In the beginning we did not realize this was even happening, but midway through the video my friend noticed. She turned more towards me and informed me of what was going on. I turned to look at the man, looking straight at him thinking he would stop when realizing he was caught. However, he didn’t. He didn’t care that we knew he was recording us. We quickly got up and moved away from him. After doing this the man stopped recording and ran off.

There were many things that were disturbing about this experience, but there are two in particular that really disturb me. First off, the fact that he did not care that we knew he was recording us. After this event happened we both made our way home together and informed out host families of what happened. During this time my host mother explained to me a bit more how things like this happen to women often in Japan and even shared her own experience of a pervert taking a picture of her. The fact that this happens so often that it is seen as normal is a problem to me. It did however clear up why the man had no issue continuing to record us despite our apparent awareness of his presence. It’s so normal in Japan that I believe he felt a sense of security. He knew that it didn’t matter if we saw him because more than likely nothing would be done. Furthermore, I believe it shows, in a way, Japan’s views on women at least in regards to perverts. In their eyes I truly believe that they view women as nothing but sexual objects, as all perverts do in the world but there is something about this  confidence in knowing he would not get caught and that the women he was recording were powerless and weak that disturbed me.

Secondly, although this event happened in a big and openly public space no one said anything.

There were many people at the bus station and the man wasn’t trying to hide the fact that he was recording us so I am almost certain that there were others who watched as the pervert recorded us and said absolutely nothing. This is undoubtedly a problem. In the USA, I believe there is a general consensus that if one views something bad happening to someone else then they try their best to do what they can to help them. That was not the case in Japan. I wasn’t expected anything extreme like someone to tackle the man or anything along those lines. However, a simple yell or tap on the shoulder to inform us of what was happening would have sufficed, yet nothing happened. No one did or said anything and that’s an issue. I also discussed this issue with my host mother and she explained to me that in Japan when those kinds of things happen people usually do not say anything because they often feel it isn’t their place to get involved. In addition to this, they also consider their own well being and just think it best not to get involved. Although I can understand to an extent the consideration of one’s well being I still believe that there is always something that can be done, specifically in situations like this. It truly disappointed me that out of a whole station of people no one said a word. Japan is a wonderful and beautiful country but every country has its issues, including Japan. Let this be a warning to those studying abroad in Japan. Japan is overall a wonderful place, but please stay alert and if you see anything like this happening I encourage you to please take action.

We’re Half Way There!

Hello all! We’re on week 5 of the HIF program here in Hakodate, Japan. There are so many things I’ve experienced already. I’ve met so many amazing people, seen so many amazing things and created so many wonderful memories. It’s pretty amazing comparing where I was mentally in the beginning of the program to where I am now. In the beginning, although I was (and still am)so grateful for the opportunity, I felt a bit out of place. Everything was new and foreign to me; even daily simple things such as eating and grocery shopping. It was almost a bit overwhelming and at times made me want to hop back on a plane back to the comfort of the USA. However, as the days go on I can feel myself become more and more attached to this lovely country and all it has to offer. Today though, was a pivotal moment that really showed me just how much I have come to love Japan as I visited the well-known Goryokaku Tower.

In Hakodate this tower is very well known for the beautiful view it offers when inside so my friend, Kathleen Lor, and I were thrilled that we finally had the time to visit. I remember walking in, the first floor swarming with locals and tourist. At first it just came off as a typical tourist spot: overflowing with people and excitement. After we purchased our tickets to enter the tower we headed towards an elevator that would take us all the way to the top to the viewing station. The gentle mumbles of visitors and the voice of the tour guide could be heard but all was drowned out by my excitement. I smiled with anticipation was we waiting to arrive at the final destination.

The doors opened and people flooded out. Kathleen and I quickly made our way to the edge of the room where the view of Goryokaku Park could best be seen.

I looked upon the park and entire view of Hakodate in awe. It was gorgeous. But then, as I was watching, tears began to well up in my eyes. I was quite taken aback. I knew they were tears of sadness, but I didn’t quite understand why I was sad. I stood there and reflected for a moment over the entire program thus far and then it hit me. I’m leaving in two weeks. Time was quickly passing and I realized I didn’t have much time left. There were still so many things I wanted to do and experience. Most of all, I didn’t want to leave my host family.

Of the time I have been in Japan so many amazing this have happened to me. But, of all those things I believe that meeting and connecting with my host family is by far the most amazing thing to have happened at this program. Growing up, it was often just my two siblings and I taking care of ourselves. As much as I love my siblings I never quite felt that complete feeling of family. That has all changed now. My host family not only makes me feel comfortable in being how I am but they make me want to expand my Japanese even more just so I can communicate and connect better with them. I know this is so much when taking into consideration that we have only been here a little over a month. I was surprised myself, but its true. I have come to love Japan and my host family so much more than I ever thought I would. Though it’s sad to think I am leaving soon, I can’t help but also smile and rejoice in the fact of how life changing this program has been for me.

Oh Hakodate!

I’ve been in Japan about two weeks now and I love it. The scenery is gorgeous and the town is full of culture. Although I love Japan, it is so different from what I ever imagined. I always assumed that I would just visit Japan and just feel right at home, no issues. However, that is not the case. From the moment I landed I find myself often comparing the things I see here in Japan to America. Living in a country like the USA, I think we often take for granted just how much diversity is encompassed within our country. It was not until I came to Japan that I realized and began to appreciate this fact. In Japan, the largest population of people is of course Japanese people. In America, although there are varying proportions of races, I still feel that I often encounter people of many races on a daily basis. It seems like something so simple but it really has made me appreciate the diversity within America. It also had another effect though. It made me want to know various Japanese people personally. In a country full of similar faces and same races, I could not wait to see what really makes up their individual personalities. And so, although I tend to be an extremely shy and awkward person, I wanted to push myself to talk more to Japanese people, starting with my host family. So far, so wonderful!

And So The Journey Begins

Ever since I was a little girl, it has always been my dream to visit Japan. With all the daily hassles of going to school and taking care of my siblings on my own, I always found solace in indulging in Japanese pop culture. However, as I’ve grown older that love for Japan has transformed into so much more. I want to learn and experience so many things in Japan. I want to talk to locals and participate in local festivals and events. I want to get to know people and their stories.

And so, the moment has come. The wheels of the plane begin to move, slowly picking up speed. I can hear the gentle shaking of the airplane windows. I close my eyes and imagine all the possibilities in Japan, the people I’ll meet and most importantly, the things I’ll learn. As the plane’s speed edges closer and closer to flight I close my eyes, hold my breath and really take in the moment. I listen to the roar of the turbines and the excited chatter. I wait patiently until I finally hear it: the rush of wind signaling flight. Here is where my journey begins.

Goodbye Japan!

I flew out of Hakodate earlier today and it still feels strange, even though I have yet to actually leave Japan. There is already a very apparent shift, in that I have heard more English today from other people than I have in a long while. It will only get more different when I fly into Canada and Japanese becomes almost nonexistent around me.

These past two months have been incredible, and often also felt incredibly long. Now I feel as if I have barely gotten started. It seems like such a cliché, but where has the time gone?

The other day,  Mitsuko told me that it was not “さよなら “(“sayonara”) that I should say to them when I leave. She told me that I should say “行って来ます,”  which is what I say leaving the house each day. It means I will go and come back eventually. They explained that this would signify that I am going to come back to Japan, and at that time we would see each other again and I would say the greeting I say when I return to the house each day, “ただいま” (“I’m home”).

As I was leaving today, it indeed felt like I was leaving home, and Hakodate and my host family were indeed a second home to me these past two months. I know that when I head back to the US I will surely get homesick for Hakodate and my host family there.

As I left and said my temporary farewells to Mitsuko and Masako, I could not help but feel so lucky and so grateful for being able to come to Japan. While I cannot wait to see my family after a long two months, I really do hope that I will get the chance to say “I’m home” again to Japan. Advancing in Japanese this summer and having all the wonderful memories in Hakodate have only made me more determined to continue my studies in Japanese.

So while this might be goodbye to Japan for now, this is no さよなら. I will go, and I will come back, Japan. Until then.