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.

Sophia University during circle + club open-house

Behind Sophia University overlooking the Shuto expressway's Shinjuku Route (4)

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.

Chidorigafuchi Park during a cherry blossom festival

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.

Arcades

While at university I joined a rhythm-game circle. We met ~once per month so only something like 4 times while I was there. Circles are informal compared to clubs so that casual atmosphere is expected. I mostly followed these ryhythm-game otaku around, and being the only foreign student in the club felt a little weird. Despite being an international university these guys + girls spoke very little English; but despite being in Japan I spoke terrible Japanese so it was mutual. The only thing we both were good at was DDR, Dancerush Stardom and IIDX.

The games I played most (in order) were:

  • Wangan Maximum Tune 5DX+
  • Beatmania IIDX 25 Cannon Ballers
  • Dance Dance Revolution A
  • Sound Voltex IV Heavenly Haven
  • Initial D Zero
  • Kidō Senshi Gundam: Senjō no Kizuna

Even outside of the rhythm game circle I'd often visit an arcade to fill out my down-time. Since the tutorials and dialogue were naturally in Japanese I also excused this time as "situational" Japanese practice :smile:

In some arcades the games I wanted to play were on the floors above the Pachinko floors. Smoking was still permitted indoors on these floors so the whole floor smelled rancid. Fighting game cabinets, idolm@ster cabinets, and retro cabinets were also popular places to smoke in addition to next to the pachinko machines.

Some of the arcades I'd go to:

  • Hey! (Akihabara)
  • Tōkyō Leisure Land (Akihabara)
  • Taito Station (anywhere and everywhere)
  • Sega Arcades (Akihabara, RIP)

Being within walking distance of an arcade at any given time spoiled me.

Akihabara

Akihabara was naturally a place I gravitated towards. No matter where I was in Tōkyō I generally knew how to get to Akihabara and from there I knew how to get home so it was a natural touchpoint. And despite being a very roundabout way to get home I'd typically go to Akiba after school (even before school sometimes) just to relax and enjoy the atmosphere.

I clearly remember going to a bookstore in Akiba the morning before my Japanese oral exam to scout for a volume of Yuyushiki I could not find the day before. For the oral exam I just talked about looking for that volume. Language can be so easy if you stop thinking so hard about it.

Hirose Entertainment Yard (HEY!) arcade was a spot I frequented. They had a massive selection of classic cabinets, shoot-em-ups, and even made some room for a few new games like Initial D Zero and Wangan. Often when I'd go someone was playing an obscure game for a NicoNico stream just up the escalator.

In the basement of HEY! there was a MelonBooks storefront where I routinely spent too much money on dōjin-shi, manga, and monthly magazines like Manga Time Kirara.

Harajuku

Harajuku is a cozy place. I went to the PARK in Harajuku and many cute tea shops and clothing stores. The atmosphere contrasts sharply with that of Akihabara but I love wandering down the streets in Harajuku and peering through what clothes are for sale. Whatever I bought I packed into my backpack and hauled back to my apartment in Taitō ward.

Food

I'd wander up + down streets during the day, curious what kind of food I could find. The first place I ate (aside from a convenience store) was a Yoshinoya. Obviously the first thing I ordered was the omori negidaku with egg (I was marked up for the egg).

Quickly I discovered the mass of Rāmen shops the city had to offer. I'm not sure what first urged me to enter the dimly-lit world of rāmen shops but the culture surrounding it quickly became familiar and personal.

Tonkotsu Rāmen from 麺屋 江武里

Tonkatsu also became a staple for me. I'd hunt up and down the street for a sign or menu with the fabled four characters と・ん・か・つ and no matter how ratty the outside looked I would walk in

Tonkatsu from Danki Tonkatsu, a shop in Asakusa in those weird side-streets near Sensō-ji

Virtual Self (Akasaka BLITZ)

I chanced to see Virtual Self when Porter Robinson performed his set at Akasaka BLITZ. This was my first time seeing a Porter set IRL even though I had been a fan for a long time before this.

Virtual Self at Akasaka BLITZ in Tōkyō

It was probably the most English I'd heard around me for months but it was fun regardless. The music and feel of the set made me want to play DDR (especially DE-SIRE - SP-TRIP MACHINE ~Jungle Mix~) so the next day I went to Tōkyō Leisure Land in Akihabara and played every mix of PARANOiA I had unlocked.