Thursday, 10 April 2008

What am I doing here?

It's been a while since that first entry, and so now I actually am in Japan. And thereby lies the tale of part of the delay. And the continuation in delay that means you'll get several posts in rapid succession, starting with this one. But I will get around to saying more about that later.

First to rewind. Back to before I came here. Back to before I'd decided “here” was where I would be coming. I said before that I might say something about “Why Sapporo”, so here it is.

Once I'd decided I wanted to do a trip to study Japanese in Japan, I had 3 main decisions to make: when, where, and for how long.

How long was the easiest. I was in the position where I could get up to 6 months off work, so it had to be less than 6 months. But if I kept my trip to less than 90 days total, then as a UK citizen, I wouldn't need a visa and wouldn't need to register as a foreigner, which makes things considerably easier. The rules vary for other countries, so check with your own embassy if you're not a UK citizen. In fact, UK citizens can study over here up to 6 months without a visa, but you only get 90 days on entry, so you'd have to renew (actually, that's not too tricky: I did that as a tourist in 1999). But it suited me not to be away longer than that, anyway. And as I decided I'd like a bit of a holiday at the end of the course, I decided to go for a 10 week course.

The next decision would be when. In some ways, it would make sense to wait until the summer, as then my language school back home (SOAS) would be on long holiday, so I wouldn't miss any of their classes. But summer is probably the worst season in Japan. Early summer in most of Japan is the rainy season, and the whole summer in most of Japan gets very hot and sticky. I decided to go after a term at SOAS had finished, so I'd only miss the one term. And that led to wanting to come late March/early April, returning late June. That also fitted in with when I needed to tell my work I wanted the break, and meant I'd be back at work before the main summer holiday season, so suited them as well. And there is a significant personal date which it fits in with nicely, too.

Now to the biggest decision: where. First of all, I did some web searches, just bunging terms like “Japanese language study in Japan” into Google, and pulled an initial list together. But it's difficult to know just from a website whether a school is really any good. So I started asking around for recommendations. In fact, the two most promising recommendations both came from people I met at the Japan Society's Japanese Conversation Group. These were Yamasa, in Okazaki, near Nagoya, and the JLI in Sapporo. On top of these, I also wrote initial enquiries to two language schools in Tokyo and one in Kobe which I'd found in my web trawls and which had courses which fitted (or nearly fitted, in the case of the Kobe one) my date and course length requirements. Once I'd had the replies, I started narrowing my choices further. The Kobe one really didn't fit my requirements: the dates didn't quite fit, and there wasn't a 10 week option, just a 3 month one (if I'm honest, I'd only included it because I quite liked the idea of spending some time around Kobe). One of the Tokyo ones wouldn't arrange accommodation, and sorting that out myself wasn't something I wanted to bother with. So that left three serious options: Yamasa in Okazaki, Kudan in Tokyo, and the JLI in Sapporo.

So, why did I settle on Sapporo? Well, a couple of factors came into it. I felt I'd probably be better off avoiding Tokyo, even though I have friends near there, if I really wanted to get the most immersive experience. Also, the personal recommendations for Yamasa and the JLI counted in their favour. And both Yamasa and the JLI were very helpful and responsive to queries (also, Yamasa's website has a lot of information in the FAQs sections, so there wasn't as much to ask in the first place!). But Yamasa seemed to work out considerably more expensive than the JLI. Also, the location is a bit remote: I understand the school isn't that close to Okazaki, which isn't that close to Nagoya. OK, so that would be immersive. But mostly only with other foreign students of Japanese. But one other thing counted quite strongly in Sapporo's favour.

Remember what I mentioned earlier about why I didn't want to come in summer? The rainy season, and the heat and stickiness? Well, Hokkaido is a long way north, and doesn't get so hot and sticky as a rule, and certainly by the end of June, while the rest of Japan is rainy and/or sweltering, Hokkaido is likely to be pleasantly warm, barely out of spring. Well, that's the theory: I may let you know later if that turns out to be the case (I was first here in a very hot August, so I know it can get hot here, too). So although compared to the rest of Japan it's maybe a bit cool here still*, and spring doesn't get started properly for a couple more weeks, while the rest of Japan is seeing cherry blossoms now, winter has mostly passed, the snow has all been cleared away (it can still be seen on the sides on some roads and on the hills), and actually the weather has been quite pleasant so far. We'll get our blossoms in May.

*(Since writing this, other parts of Japan, including the Tokyo area, have been hit with heavy rain – which it looks like we're escaping for now).

Obviously, there are other reasons for choosing schools, and if anyone has other personal recommendations, feel free to write about them here, in the comments section. After all, at the time of writing, I haven't even started my course yet, so I'll have more to say about the JLI later. But so far my experience with them has been excellent. From the start they were helpful with enquiries and responsive to e-mails. They sorted out dormitory accommodation for me at a nearby dorm, having sent me information to make choices, and have also arranged homestay for me for later on. I also took up their airport pick-up service option, which worked out just fine: I'm sure I could have found my own way here with no problem, but having someone meet me off the plane after a long journey, and not having to lug my bags about on public transport or wander the streets of Sapporo was a luxury worth paying for. Besides, I'd never been one of those people who had someone holding up a card with their name on at the airport before!

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