Sophia University (known in Japanese as 上智大学 "Jōchi Daigaku") is a university in the Chiyoda ward of Tōkyō, Japan. I studied here in the Spring and Summer of 2018 as part of a study-abroad program with North Carolina State University, returning eventually that Fall to continue my engineering studies at my home university.

Although my purpose overseas was ostensibly to study, the courses I took while abroad gave zero credit towards the completion of my electrical engineering or computer engineering degrees. After convincing my advisors that this was actually my plan and not some mistake or oversight, I signed up to take these classes at Sophia University:

Course Name Course Number
Intermediate Japanese 2 JPN112
Human Resource Management in Japan IBE445
Survey of Japanese Literature 1 LIT231
Introduction to Art History ART250

Though it looked great on paper, in reality this course load was only settled when I finally arrived at the school and had a small orientation with other exchange students. There is not perfect communication between universities on the other side of the world so exactly what was in the course catalog was not known until we actually landed.

This Japanese course was the first time I ever took a formal langauge class; before this I only studied on my own. The self-study curriculum I followed began my first year of college, and at that time I had already decided to study abroad in Japan to continue my language study and improve my speaking, reading, and writing skills in an immersive and enriching context. This, of course, was a smart move, because despite delaying my graduation by a semester I am extremely glad I made this decision: it gave me the experience I would never trade for anything else.

I knew almost no-one from my university who would be abroad at Sophia with me Eventually I met three others from N.C. State also studying alongside me there, two who were there only for the semester like myself and one more who had been there for a year. We all lived in different wards and in vastly different living arrangements, some living with a host family and some just in student dorms. I rented an apartment for internationals (mostly students) in Taitō ward, but when I initially landed I stayed at a very large hotel in Chiyoda for a few nights.

Though I was scheduled to begin school in mid-April, I smartly set aside two weeks for settling in and exploring the city. When I touched down in late-March the sakura trees were in full bloom. The sky was a canvas of pink and light blue for almost all hours of the day. These two weeks where I soaked in the beauty and strangeness afforded by my almost-whimsical decision to live and study in such a far-away place are some of the most special days of my life so far, and I have trouble putting in to words how moved I was by simply existing in that space and time. I interacted with very few people, as I knew absolutely no-one who decided to fly out early and my Japanese was not great, so those days were very quiet, peaceful, relaxing and extremely meditative days which chased the previous weeks which had bustled and rumbled and brimmed with anxienty but had now passed and were now so far removed.

A month or so before leaving the US, I worked in a small office in the fittingly small town of Asheboro, North Carolina doing power substation contracting work as an electrical engineer; to be suddenly spirited away into this strange and comforting bliss was more than I could handle some days, and many times I cried watching the flow of the Sumida-gawa river on a lazy afternoon or staring at the flowers of a cherry blossom viewing or simply drinking hot Coffee from a scalding steel can

I bought the same coffee from the vending machine in Akihabara for a week until it ran out, then I went to the one across the street. BOSS, the boss of them all.

After these days I relocated in early-April to the apartment where I would spend the rest of the semester. I lived with a smattering of internationals, mostly graduate students studying at Tōkyō University or other nearby schools. The apartment-mates I saw and talked with were so nice and all left Japan around the same time I came back to the states. They were helpful in navigating the paperwork surrounding national healthcare and residency, though I still went to the office alone and handled it with my budding Japanese.

When compared to the irregularity of every day I spent sorting through residency forms and navigating the Tōkyō subway system, the rigidity afforded by a consistent class schedule was a light relief. When my classes settled down and I'd settled into my routine of homework, home-cooking and sight-seeing I really felt like I was an irremovable and definite piece of the city.

Practicing Japanese

Each morning at 11AM I had a Japanese lesson. The course-content each day was structured upon the key-points noted the day before, and the homework passed forward each morning also reinforced these points and prepared us for the grammar and vocabulary we'd cover that day. I studied very hard each night and did very well in this class, completing many of the optional exercises in the textbooks we used.

Often I would use the new grammar structures we learned in the classroom while chatting up shop-owners in the little touristy shops near my apartment or with the friends I made at the university. When I went out by myself it was always a principle to never speak English unless someone spoke it to me first, so many times I surprised the people around me who were used to an American making demands in very, very slow English (as if slowing down helps someone understand better). Living in a tourist area (near Sensō-ji) I often heard many different languages being spoken around me. In particular it was extremely jarring to hear English spoken on the street, often coming from a group walking the other direction, past me, resulting in some weird Anglo-doppler effect especially after long periods of primarily Japanese input. Even more jarring when the language came at my ears with such a familiar accent.

It's Raining Again

One thing to note is that in the early Summer it rains nearly every day. It's absolutely miserable and getting anywhere via public transit is a pain. Sometimes even the trains stop moving along certain lines because there is so much rain falling onto the tracks. On days like this we were still expected to make our way to class before the bell so often I needed to budget extra minutes just to accomodate the late trains. And every morning that it rained, late-train or not, it was downright miserable to be packed very tightly together with people who are soaking wet.

Many times, if it looked to be raining all day and in to the evening, I would laze around on campus until my very late HRM course, whip out my laptop and write a little in my diary. I wrote quite a bit those days because there was naturally a ton to write about. I would watch people come and go from their 3rd and 4th period classes, maybe grab something to keep me awake from the 7-11 downstairs, and lay quietly on the large steps and click-clack my thoughts into my diary. Some days the sun slanted through the gap between this floor and the next (giving a fantastic view over all the campus) and I would retreat inside to some bench or corner. The library was also a pleasant place to work, write and study, though I mostly worked outside on benches or at tables.

[... more to come here ]