The year that I spent living in Japan was, no exaggeration, the best time of my life. Attending J.F. Oberlin University, I was living in the outskirts of the western Tokyo Metropolis, with a view of mountains stretching far off into the distance from my classroom window each day. The place that I went to school and lived in was supposed to be considered ‘suburban’ by Japanese standards, which is very different from here. For the vast majority of my time, I lived in a student dormitory, a small, one-room apartment built right next to the train tracks (I would always know I had stayed up too late when I heard the rumble of the first passing train). The dormitory was a several minute walk from the train station. Right next door there was a small restaurant, run by an old man affectionately referred to as ‘Jimmy’, and his wife, that was frequented by foreign and Japanese students alike; and there was always something delicious cooking in the kitchen. While the sprawl of Tokyo continues for miles, space is still at a premium, with most buildings still being two or three stories and connected by an intricate web of crisscrossing, narrow streets. Living out in the suburbs wasn’t too bad though, as Shinjuku was only 40 minutes away by train, and there were beaches, mountains, and small towns just 40 minutes in the other direction. As a result, it seemed as if there was never a shortage of things to see and explore. The local foods are excellent as well, I would eat almost anything that was advertised as edible, and usually had a great experience (the one exception being natto [fermented beans] but hey, different strokes for different folks, right?).
My student life was, in short, pleasant. The Japanese classes at Oberlin were quite rigorous for my skill level, but if you want to learn a lot of Japanese in a short time span, immersion is definitely the way to go. Many of the local Japanese students came to us to practice their English, and were always willing to give me the opportunity to practice what I had learned in class. Learning the language for actual daily situations and usage made it stick with me much better than just using it for a test. Another unexpected benefit of making friends with local students is that my Facebook feed is now absolutely full of them, allowing me to always get practice in effortlessly in my daily life. A big benefit of immersion is being surrounded by written Japanese and kanji characters at all times. I had a wonderful dictionary app on my iPhone (Midori, worth every penny spent) that enabled me to find meanings and readings for kanji in seconds. Seeing a kanji once is easily forgettable, but seeing many of them multiple times a day really allows me to recall meaning and reading faster than I would have otherwise. If you want to take your study of Japanese to the next level, I cannot recommend this experience enough.