I’m not exactly sure why I decided to go to Japan. The fact that I was a huge game nerd probably had more than a little to do with it. I was going to Indiana University of Pennsylvania for a Communications major and no real direction. At the same time I was managing to write full-time for PC Gamer magazine; Communications classes are embarrassingly lax, after all.
Anyhoo, the main reason I went to IUP was its outstanding study-abroad program — they had links to tons of overseas schools, so I was deadset on going to Kansai Gaidai in Osaka, Japan. I took about 4 semesters’ worth of Japanese in advance to prepare, and for the first semester in my senior year, I headed off to Japan.
Preparing for this was pretty easy, though there was a good amount of paperwork involved. I had to get a physical and an AIDS test (!) in advance, write an essay justifying why I wanted to study at Kansai Gaidai, and for the actual student visa, it was a ton of paperwork culminating in having to physically visit the Japanese Embassy in Washington DC. Fortunately I was interning at Bethesda Softworks the summer beforehand in Rockville MD, so it was a quick train trip away. (If you’re living in Wisconsin or something, I’m not entirely sure what your options are.)
With two pieces of luggage and a carry-on, I embarked from Harrisburg International Airport to Detroit, and then began the longest plane trip–14 hours!–of my existence. (I have since mastered the art of trans-Pacific travel, and the Seattle –> Tokyo trip is pretty much effortless now.)
My first week of life in Japan passed by in a drowsy blur–an endless bus ride to the university on a highway that soared far above the single-story houses of Osaka; staying my first night with 3 other students in a tatami dorm room, fighting off an angry digestive system and battling the worst jetlag I’d ever experienced, my discombobulated brain screaming oh god I want to go home right now!. Eventually my body clock caught up with reality and things picked up — I met my wonderful homestay family, and started checking out the local sights (and trawling Osaka/Kyoto for used game and CD stores).
Kansai Gaidai was an awesome school. The faculty was fantastic, most of the students were really interested in being there, and I met some of the best friends I’d ever have. There were also tons of clubs; after a brief stint in Judo I wound up joining the Ballroom Dancing club. (That was a good idea — it’s much better to sweep a partner off their feet with a solid waltz step than a kou ouchi gari.)
I’m not sure how the school is now. They moved the campus and expanded, so the foreign student population has ballooned in size. I’ve heard a lot of complaints that it’s turned into a party school because they’re not as strict on admissions as before, but I guess that’s how things go. If you want to go abroad these days, I guess it’s a toss-up between Kansai Gaidai and Sofia University; I’d still recommend going to Kansai, as Osaka is a lot more laid back, and jumping headfirst into anything related to Tokyo can make your head explode.
I’d also highly recommend getting a host family; mine were wonderful, wonderful people who were always helpful and full of encouragement. And boy oh boy, Mom could cook. We’re talking about a woman who’d make me tacos and make the tortillas from scratch. Yowza!
Next update, I’ll talk about campus life and transitioning to school in Tokyo.