Finding a Home with Japanese Culture and Food

Having some fun with chopsticks, eating okonomiyaki (a special Osaka dish), with a friend from Finland shortly after arriving!

Having some fun with chopsticks, eating okonomiyaki (a special Osaka dish), with a friend from Finland shortly after arriving!

Sporting some traditional Japanese dress while rocking out to some music!

Sporting some traditional Japanese dress while rocking out to some music!

Name: Sayla Williams

Study Abroad: Osaka, Japan (Fall 2014 & Winter 2015)

Having studied martial arts and the Japanese language, Sayla Williams knew that Japan was a place she had always wanted to go to. As UFV has a partnership with Osaka Gakuin University, Sayla saw an opportunity to travel and continue her studies in Engineering and Japanese.

“After travelling for 33 hours, I finally got to my apartment. I lived in a school apartment by myself in Osaka,” she explains, “but I made great friends with my neighbours and the other students.”

The very first night, Sayla went out with a lot of the international and local students. It was a great way to meet people and to learn about different cultures after just stepping off the plane. Osaka is a lively city, with lots of great parties and fun. “Every Saturday was karaoke night,” Sayla tells me, “but not the kind like here. You don’t have to sing in front of a room full of strangers – it’s for just you and your friends! And the parties were so creative. There was always something that you and your friends could do.”

Smiling in front of the Shuri Castle in Okinawa!

Smiling in front of the Shuri Castle in Okinawa!

In Osaka, Sayla found it hard to fit in: “being tall and blonde, people would come up to me and want to touch my hair. In this city, I was a visible minority and it was strange to experience. But I was lucky to make good friends.” When the international students arrived to the university, they were paired up with a buddy from Japan. Sayla was lucky to be paired with Kaho, who helped with everything and made the transition much easier. They became really good friends and have even stayed in touch.

The architecture and views in Japan were amazing! The Kinkaku-ji Temple (Golden Palace) in Kyoto.

The architecture and views in Japan were amazing! The Kinkaku-ji Temple (Golden Palace) in Kyoto.

Studying abroad allows you to make new friends from around the world, and great memories with them. “On either side lived friends from Alaska, but Natsuki and Marlaina were two girls who lived on either side of my apartment that I became great friends with – they called me the Alaska sandwich! My neighbours and I hung out on the patio – it was always great fun! I think one of my favourite memories would be from the beginning of the semester. I didn’t have an alarm clock, so my friends Natsuki and Marlaina would knock on the wall in the mornings to wake me up. It became a sort of joke with us, and it was a lot of fun!”

Being in a country she had always wanted to see, Sayla took every opportunity to travel to the amazing places Japan had to offer. The beach wasn’t far away, and other places offered unique experiences. Kyoto represents old and famous Japan, a perfect way to experience the culture. “In every city, in so many parts of Japan, there are Ferris wheels everywhere. It became a thing with my friends and me to go on every one we saw and to take a picture with it. It created great memories!”

Overcome by the beauty and size of the Todaiji Temple in Nara! This is the one with the biggest buddah.

Overcome by the beauty and size of the Todaiji Temple in Nara! This is the one with the biggest buddah.

And spontaneity was something Sayla and her friends tried to add into their travels and experiences. With one friend, instead of just going where they knew, they would flip a coin for going left or right. What a great idea to truly explore a city and not be a complete tourist – “this way, we could see the city by walking the local streets instead of skipping straight to the tourist sites.”

Nara was a place that was particularly interesting, as it shows what really old Japan was like. There is a temple there that has a hole the size of Buddha’s nose, and if you can fit through, you would have luck. Within the temple is the biggest Buddha statue in Japan, a spectacle to see. All around the area are deer that come up to people, an amazing sight when knowing that deer are considered messengers to the gods in Japanese culture. It’s such a unique place and experience.

The deer in Nara will come right up to you! It's amazing.

The deer in Nara will come right up to you! It’s amazing.

Another place that was great to explore was Donton-buri, a massive shopping district with hundreds of people, huge billboards, and massive neon lights. “Fashion is big in Osaka, and even though the shopping is expensive, the atmosphere is really cool.” And throughout Japan, there are different cafes for animals, including cats, owls, and hawks. Japan really has everything to see.

“One of my favourite things was the food,” mentions Sayla. “The octopus and eel. At first, I didn’t know what to think, but the food was great! There were these sushi bars, of revolving sushi, where something would come by and you could just pick it up to eat. Or your order would come on a moving belt to your table. The ramen was amazing – my favourite flavour was corn butter. You had to make sure to slurp it, because that told the people who made it that it tasted really good. Plus curry and Indian food are big over there, too. The most surprising though was melon soda! It’s what they drink instead of lemonade, and it’s delicious.”

Standing in front of neon billboards with a friend in Donton-buri.

Standing in front of neon billboards with a friend in Donton-buri.

At the university, the teachers were interested in the students doing things outside of school as well as their studies. “The professors were really cool! For us international students, we did projects on our home countries. I feel like I actually learned more about Canada from these projects than schooling at home.” Sayla also taught English to people while over there. “I would meet up with people in coffee shops, and we would just have a conversation in English. It was great to know that I was helping them practice when really, we were just having a conversation!”

Smiling in a traditional kimono, Sayla and her Japanese language teacher, sensei, went to a museum.

Smiling in a traditional kimono, Sayla and her Japanese language teacher, sensei, went to a museum.

The classes were taught in English, but almost everything else was in Japanese. As Sayla speaks Japanese, she found it slightly annoying sometimes when English was forced upon her: “I would go to restaurants and they would just hand me an English menu. At first, it was nice. But after a while, as I practiced my Japanese more and more, it was frustrating. I would try to speak to people in Japanese and they would reply in English, trying to practice their English.” Sayla had a lot of international friends, as mentioned before, but for her one friend from Thailand, Japanese was a big help. He couldn’t speak English very well, and she couldn’t speak Thai, so Japanese was their common language of communication. And it worked great!

Posing in a tunnel of arcs at the Fishimi-inari (fox shrine) in Kyoto - a beautiful spot!

Posing in a tunnel of arcs at the Fishimi-inari (fox shrine) in Kyoto – a beautiful spot!

Sayla really tried to fully immerse herself in the culture in every way possible, learning what she could. “I found out a lot about the culture while being over there. Tattoos are taboo and can limit your experience – this is because they are associated with the Yakuza, something you don’t want to be connected to… And originality it sort of ‘frowned on.’ There is a sense of unity to the Japanese people, and they want to protect their identity. Being a foreigner, particularly a tall blonde one, means that I was seen as sort of an outsider. In Japan, image is everything. It seems like what you look like, drives who you’re going to be, especially for women. It’s usually kept pretty private, but there are always signs.”

The steepest roller coaster, Takabisha, even has a Guinness World Record! It was a crazy ride.

The steepest roller coaster, Takabisha, even has a Guinness World Record! It was a crazy ride.

In February, Sayla’s sister came to Japan and they spent some time travelling around. After two semesters, a friend came, and the two set out to see a bit more of Japan. They decided to see Tokyo and Mt. Fuji. The first day was a night bus from Osaka to Tokyo – and when you’re not feeling well, it is an interesting sight to see a Thomas the Train themed bus! “It was for an amusement park, Thomas Land. We ended up going there and riding the fastest roller coaster, the steepest, and the one with the most spins! Plus the scariest haunted house. It was a lot of fun! We also went to Universal Studios to the Harry Potter world. If you’re a big fan, it’s awesome.” Unfortunately, when they tried to see Mt. Fuji, it was clouded over. Tokyo offered some great sights, with the Harajuku shopping district and the Sky Tree, an observation tower to see the entirety of Tokyo.

The picturesque spots all around Japan were amazing! This is at the Sumiyoshi Shrine just outside Osaka.

The picturesque spots all around Japan were amazing! This is at the Sumiyoshi Shrine just outside Osaka.

“I was really lucky,” says Sayla. “I got to have amazing experiences in a place that I had always wanted to see. The food, the culture, and the school were all great, and allowed my study abroad experience to be truly unique! And I was able to meet people from all over the world, with some of my best friends being from Sweden, Ireland, Australia, Thailand, and Alaska. I’m so thankful for the friends and experiences.”

Thankfully, there was no culture shock going to Japan – but there was a little coming home, as Sayla felt she had truly found a new home in Japan with the hospitality, people, and culture.

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