What I learned

Hello everyone,

This study abroad experience taught me much more than just a language. For instance, I learned quite a bit about the language acquisition process as well. At the beginning of the program, I felt as though I was making no progress. Toward the end, however, all of a sudden I made a huge jump. I still do not really understand how it happened. Of course the program was the reason, but the suddenness of the change was shocking. I think it was very interesting.

Further, I learned about the culture of Japan. I did not really have to confront the culture; it confronted me. Just being in Japan, there was no escaping the constant immersion to which I was subjected. Even hanging out with American friends, the Japanese culture was ever-present and permeating. Sitting on the floor for meals, eating, bathing, sleeping. Everything is different.

I did not really experience culture shock like some others that I know. Throughout the program I held the view that my home was superior. Because of this, I missed my hometown a little. But the culture is not as off-putting as simply being away from home.

I believe, additionally, that I achieved the goals that I set for myself. My language skills have kept pace with my peers who have studied similar content in a much longer amount of time.

From this experience, I can definitively say that America is still the greatest nation on Earth. But this certainly does not mean that I had a unpleasant time. I loved everything and everyone. That is why I can say that Japan on its best day cannot beat America on a bad one.

If anything, my worldview has definitely fixed its heading toward exactly where it was heading before I left. Now I have seen firsthand the havoc that cultural socialism has wreaked on the minds of the once-proud Japanese people. No longer do they pay any mind to the important things. They have forgotten their religion and all religions. Despite this, they still have a quaintness that has perished in America. It makes me feel at home among the Japanese.They do not viciously fight the supernatural in Japan; they merely are ambivalent.

My advice to anyone who is going to study abroad on the SLA grant: Make sure you know what you are getting into. My summer program was literally the hardest class that I have ever taken. It destroyed me. But it was good for me. I am better now because of it. Also, be sure not to take things so seriously, and you will be fine.

From here, I plan to continue my language study in college and beyond. I want to continue with Japanese, start German, and re-teach myself Latin. Learning any language helps you learn other languages. I, without a doubt, will not use my Japanese in any official capacity. But that is okay. I got what I wanted to get out of the program. I learned. Pure learning. I was not doing it for a job. I was not doing it for anything. I am so thankful for that. This experience has truly opened my mind to another angle of learning that science, math, philosophy, or any other study could never do. Language is a very specific study. Because it is so specific it has broadened my ability to learn in general. Thank you.

God bless,

Nicholas Gerstbauer

Traveling is so much fun

August 28, 2016

I just spend the last three weeks traveling around Japan. Next week, I will be starting my fall semester at Nanzan University in Nagoya. Here is a layout of my travels:

Hakodate -> Sapporo -> Nagoya -> Kyoto -> Osaka -> Tokyo -> Fujiyashida (near Mt. Fuji) -> Kyoto -> Nagasaki -> Nagoya

There is no way I can talk about everything that I did, so I am going to give a small description of my time in each location.

Hakodate, southern tip of Hokkaido: Here, while living with host families, I participated in my summer language program, the Hokkaido International Foundation, from June until August.

Sapporo, central Hokkaido: Here, I just boarded a flight to return to Honshu, the main island of Japan.

Nagoya, south, central Honshu: Here, I met up with my father and his two friends so that we could travel together. I intended to update my visa while I was there, but it did not work out.

Kyoto, central Honshu: Here, I spent 3 days exploring the temples and shrines of Japan’s old capital. It was amazing. My Japanese abilities shone through with the amount of interaction I was able to have with locals. Because of this, a friend and I were able to go to a specialty bar and carry on a conversation with the bartender.

Osaka, in between Nagoya and Kyoto: Here, I met up with a friend and ate the city’s famous dish, takoyaki (balls of dough and octopus)

Tokyo: Here, I explored the city and soaked up the Japanese city experience from Shibuya to Shinjuku to Akihabara. I parted ways with my father and welcomed my cousin to began traveling with me from that point. Again, I met up with the friend from Kyoto and we went to another bar, where we had an even better conversation with the bartenders. This is the true fruit of my language learning.

Fujiyashida, in the middle of nowhere: Here, my cousin and I visited a beautiful, moss covered forest that is famous for the amount of suicides that occur in it. It was creepy but definitely worth the trip. We stayed in a hostel.

Kyoto: My cousin and I returned to Kyoto so that she could see the sights. We had a great time and stayed at a wonderful hostel.

Nagasaki, a port city on the southern island of Kyushu: Here, my cousin and I visited many of the Catholic sites. Because Nagasaki was the Japanese center of Catholicism, it has many beautiful and historical churches. Unfortunately, most of the Catholics of Nagasaki were killed by the atomic bomb in 1945, but much was preserved and the Catholics there persevere. It was a wonderful town to visit. I loved it.

Nagoya: I then returned to Nagoya to await the start of the fall semester. And then it is now. I am catching up on some work, updating my visa, and relaxing on the only real week of summer vacation that I get. I cannot wait to get back to school! Nanzan University sounds wonderful!

Here are some pictures of Nagasaki:



Thanks for everything! Signing out.

In the end

August 6, 2016

Well there is it. I took my final exam yesterday, and I am leaving tomorrow. I cannot believe how far I have come since starting this program. My ability to communicate with and listen to Japanese has improved faster than I could ever imagine. Thank you to everyone who supported me during this time. It was difficult, but extremely rewarding.

So, anyway, let us talk about the last few weeks. One of the coolest things that I was able to do was explore an abandoned Japanese fort with my host mom. Because she is a Hakodate history expert, officials pretty much let her go wherever she wants. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Also, I presented my independent research project. While I learned lots of things about Japanese Catholics and the history of Japanese Catholicism, the most shocking discovery I made regards the current state of Catholicism in Japan. While it has a rich history and historically had many adherents, because of the persecution it experienced in the past, the atomic bombing of Nagasaki (the center of Catholicism in Japan), and the ravages of modernity and secularism, the Catholic population is dying out, especially in less-populated areas like Hakodate. It is truly a very sad thing. For example, Hakodate has three Catholic parishes but only two priests. Because of this, every Sunday, one of the parishes must go without Mass. I ask that everyone add to your intentions the areas of the world that lack liturgical resources. We often take for granted the rich and plentiful access we have to the Church in America and Europe. Hopefully, as the Church becomes prominent in the China and Africa, more and more place will be blessed with access to the sacraments.

I intend to write my final post while I am traveling over the next few weeks. I have decided that would give me a lot of organic interactions with Japanese people to write about next time. So there you have it. The next time I post, I should be somewhere in the south of Japan. see you all soon.


This blog site won’t let me upload any of my best pictures because the file size limit is too low! How unfortunate!

Drawing to an end

July 23, 2016

I have been at my second host family’s house for two weeks now, and everything is going smoothly. My parents are still wonderful, and my roommate helps me with my homework.

As part of the program, every student is required to do an independent study project. For my project, I am conducting interviews of local Japanese Catholics to see how Japanese culture and language affects the practices of Catholics of a non-Western country. So far, the results have been fascinating. The project should conclude before I write my next post, so I will share my conclusions next time.

Beyond this, I am mostly doing homework and studying. On occasion, I have the opportunity to go out with friends. It is always a blast to be able to wander around a Japanese city with the ability to communicate with the locals. So far, this has been the most fun part of learning Japanese. I cannot wait to improve even more so that I can communicate more effectively and efficiently.

Here is a picture of me in my yukata:


And here is a picture of me making melon pan:



New Host Family

July 9, 2016

Everything is going very well! I recently moved into my new host family’s house. Instead of a standard Japanese suburb like my last family, I am now living right on the ocean in a small fishing village section of Hakodate. The view from the window during meals is remarkable!


My new host mom and dad are in their seventies, but they are very active! My host mom still hikes Mount Hakodate regularly. Also, she is a licensed chef in Hokkaido. All the meals are amazing!

I miss my previous host family, but, luckily, my new family is extremely nice and fun. I am looking forward to spending more time with them as the program proceeds.

The homework is still difficult, but I am now living with a roommate who is in a higher class than me. I hope he can help me with some of the more difficult concepts.



Settling in

June 25, 2016

Despite my energy in my last post, I am having trouble with the difficultly of the program. Last week, I even had to sit down and remind myself of all the hard work that I did to ultimately get that point in time to keep myself from quitting. Pathetic, right? A number of circumstances out of my control had made me convince myself that I was a victim. The textbook we are using is not what I expected, the curriculum is different than what I am used to, I do not have time to make friends here or to enjoy my time abroad because of the difficult work, etc. Ridiculous stuff like that.

To fight these thoughts, I had to put serious effort into self-reflection. What were my goals? Why did I come to Japan? What are my real priorities and why are these (somewhat) self-erected barriers holding me back and distracting me? Even as a student at the University of Notre Dame who is no stranger to difficult work, I had great trouble working out these issues. Eventually I realized that, as a successful student, I often lose myself in whatever my mind is set on at the moment, regardless of its importance to my overall goal. And, thus, I found that perfectionism was restricting my success.

After I put those thoughts of victimhood to rest, I was able to improve my test grades, enjoy spending time with other students, and genuinely improve my Japanese ability. While important, the pursuit of knowledge and the betterment of oneself is hardly the peak of the hierarchy of ordered desire. This is, in fact, one’s unity with the will of God. Through my reflection, I discovered that, in my frantic scramble to do well in the program, I had allowed my prayer life to fall by the wayside. As soon as I realized this, I made an attempt to pray the rosary as often as I could. Who knew the solution was so simple? The second I shifted my priorities, I began to improve my ability and worry less. And the best part is that this time of struggle has taught me an extremely important lesson about prayer and its importance. I pray that I can remember this time in my life if my prayer life ever seems unimportant in the future.

In a few weeks, I will be moving to my next host family’s house. Hopefully it will bring more wonderful people and experiences into my life.

Anyway, here’s a picture of many of my classmates:



A Thing Called Life in Japan- Post-program Reflections


With time for reflection—as well as readjustment to the U.S.—I am now looking back on my SLA experience with all its boons as well as bumps. Ultimately, I feel that I accomplished what I set out to do: to both advance my Japanese ability and develop an understanding of the Japanese people: how they think, feel, view the world. As expected, living with a host-family and taking Japanese classes improved my language, my vocabulary and grammar particularly having grown in scope. However, my speaking and listening have improved, as well. On first arriving in Japan, I had difficulties hearing what Japanese speakers were saying, owing in large part, I think, to native pace and inflection. But by the end of the program, I was having fairly natural conversations with native speakers, and if I ever encountered a hiccup (not knowing how to express a word, or not understanding a phrase) I could clarify or specify in the moment. But I have also come to a greater understanding of Japanese people, owing to language tables with university students, trips to shrines or hot springs or simply corner restaurants, and, of course, the unforgettable opportunity of living with a host-family.


I find that my eight weeks in Japan presented challenges that I had not anticipated, perhaps the greatest of which being self-questioning. For all the inspiring places I visited, all the kind people I met, the skills I was developing, I still felt doubt. “Maybe I am not meant to learn Japanese. Perhaps I will never truly have a place in this country. Will I ever grasp the society and its expectations?” I think much of this doubt stemmed from those days when I encountered a complicated grammar point or I struggled with my conversational skill. As an English major, I am so accustomed to complex expression that having to lower myself to a simpler level of diction, ideas, etc. in Japanese was frustrating. If I have any advice, it is that making connections with natives during the abroad experience is critical. In order to not feel like a stranger and more like a student of international exchange, having a native to relate to and discuss your frustrations with can help close that gap of doubt, of fear, of listlessness. It sounds trite to say “Make friends,” but it is no less important a truth of the abroad experience.


For the Fall semester of 2016, I am returning to Japan to continue my studies at Nanzan University. During this experience, I will be staying with another host family while taking classes both in Japanese language and culture. The SLA experience has not only prepared me linguistically for a longer stay in Japan but it has also helped tune me to Japanese culture and lifestyle so that when next I arrive in Japan it will be with greater intuition. With so much direct exposure to Japan during my undergraduate career, I am setting myself up for a longer pursuit of professional work in or in connection with Japan. In my pre-departure planning for SLA, I reflected on the possibility of joining the J.E.T. (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) Program or a program of similar focus after graduation, and after going abroad, I am still strongly considering this option. Outside of my professional intent, living in Japan and having an opportunity to learn about new sets of traditions, folk tales, and philosophies—particularly through my interest in Shintoism—have inspired me as a writer, and my creative interest in Japan grows the more I can engage with Japanese art directly through language.

Thank you for reading.

Joshua Kuiper


Japanese Kindergartens

More on Japanese schools! I had a day off from school, and I spent it at my host mother’s kindergarten. She is the head teacher at this school, and so let me shadow the entire day, through classes as well as free play time. It was very fun and cute, as well as a fascinating experience!

Japanese kindergartens include ages 3-5, kind of like Montessori school. Interestingly, they have uniforms to wear to and from school, and then another uniform to change into after they get to school (clothes they can more easily run around in).


Kids arrive at around 8:30, and the school remains open until 6pm, although many kids are picked up by 2 or 3. The school day consists of free indoor and outdoor play periods alternating with formal “lesson” type periods, lunch and exercise. It is interesting the emphasis they place on exercise in Japan. There is this routine set of exercises to a particular musical track that many people in Japan seem to do often if not daily, and the kids are taught these exercises at school.

In their lessons, sometimes there will be organized arts and crafts, other times, they will learn songs or play musical instruments, or study the Japanese “alphabets” (hiragana and katakana) and read books. Each day there is a student who is the “teacher’s helper”, and they will stand in front of the class to start the day with announcements and use formal greetings to greet each member of the class. This routine seems to be a way fro them to practice using formal classroom Japanese, because at all other times they use plain forms, even when talking to the teachers! Since kids are always spoken to in plain forms, it makes sense that they would not have learned how to speak in “desu” and “masu” (polite sentence forms), which they will of course need to know for formal classroom settings soon, so it makes sense that kindergarten would be the place for them to learn this. It is funny that I have a much easier time speaking in “desu” and “masu” than plain forms because I learned those first! It didn’t occur to me before how they may be difficult for children.

Trying to speak to the kids in plain forms was good practice. Other than the exercises, polite speech practice, and tiny adorable bento boxes served at lunch, the kindergarten and the kids there seemed to be pretty similar to US preschools/kindergartens. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to spend a day here! The kids were so awesome!IMG_4250

Asahi Elementary School Visit


We had the opportunity to pay a visit to one of Hakodate’s public elementary schools! They taught us Hakodate’s signature dance, the “Ika Odori” (squid dance – Hakodate is very famous for its squid!) and then broke into small groups and played games with us. I was with a 6th grade class, and we had a lot of fun! It was somewhat challenging to try to teach them games in Japanese, but we were able to get laughs playing Pictionary telephone and Duck Duck Goose. Being able to communicate with them was really exciting because I was able to talk around words I didn’t know in a way that I definitely could not have done weeks earlier! It was also interesting to learn a bit about the school system. First through sixth grades are all part of elementary school in Japan, and it did look like 6th graders still had elementary-school style classrooms and lessons. Middle school here is 7th through 9th, and high school is only 10th through 12th. Also, the 6th graders were busy studying fro their middle school entrance exams (!!). Before entering middle school and high school, Japanese students must take an aptitude test, their score on which entirely determines which middle school or high school they will be able to attend and is a significant factor in their future success. That seems rather high-pressure to me for such young kids! Many of them attend cram schools after school each day to help prepare for the test.

This was a pretty neat experience!


Sapporo Trip


During the mid-program break, I had the chance to travel to Sapporo! It was a really neat city, and I got to visit the famous zoo, stroll through the beautiful Odori Park, see the TV tower, and even experience the Japanese “game center”. Japanese game centers, or arcades, are absolutely full of claw machines, except unlike in the US, they’re actually winnable! As a result, claw machines have become a huge part of Japanese culture. I can see why people get addicted – they are winnable but only just barely, in such a way that one always feels as though they will succeed with just one more try, one more try! Eventually, you will win, but only after you’ve spent way more money than the prize is worth. But perhaps it’s worth it to try it out once for the experience and the fun! It took me more tries than I’m willing to admit, but I was able to win myself a huge, adorable hamster. Japanese cute culture continues to amaze me – I don’t know how they can make so many random products so darn cute!


Also in Sapporo we were able to try my host family’s #1 favorite ramen place, where we ordered Sapporo’s specialty – butter corn miso ramen. It was a completely different experience from eating ramen in the US! Even though ramen is originally from China, and even thought of as “Chinese food” to people in Japan, it has been highly “Japanicised”, and these kinds are definitely types of ramen you could only find in this countryIMG_4185!