Finally in Japan! ...Now What?

Isabella Madruga headshot
Isabella Madruga
October 3, 2023
A bridge over the Kiso River in Inuyama with a sunset behind it.

So...I'm here! Finally, after months of feeling like I was lying to everybody around me about going to Japan, I'm finally here—no delays, no hiccups, barely any turbulence. Everything went extremely smoothly as if something was constantly reminding me that I worked to be here and should have a fun, stress-free time. And the first week was just that: fun and stress-free.


A view from Inuyama castle on a rainy day with a mountain in the back overlooking a river.


IES Abroad bused us out to Inuyama, one of Japan's oldest towns, which is currently residential, sleepy, and traditional. The calm environment was interrupted by a group of 20-something gaijin for a week, taking advantage of the local cuisine (which was fantastic, by the way), marveling at the architecture and narrow roads, and learning about long-held Japanese traditions. We learned about parade floats as tall as a two-story building used in festivals, tea-serving dolls, and an ancient form of fishing. Inuyama was absolutely incredible and a great way to learn Japanese customs and get oriented to a completely new country instead of being immediately thrown into the confusing and huge city that is Nagoya. Inuyama really cemented in my mind that, yes, I am in Japan. 


A picture of Inuyama Castle on a rainy day.


My only worry, making friends, was quickly squashed about a day in. I bonded and formed a sizeable friend group of fellow IES Abroad students (who knew fifteen people could get along with each other so well?), which threw the main thing I was stressed about. With this group of friends, we walked the Inuyama streets alongside kimono-clad women with parasols and people calling out Irasshaimase from their shops. We went to an izakaya just big enough to fit ten of us and got to see another side of Japan that is usually hidden away in the daylight. 

We had Japanese review every day for a couple of hours and activities planned for us every day. We were allowed to explore during lunch, but we were still under IES Abroad's guidance. I didn't think I would take that for granted until I got to Nanzan University. 


The main entrance to Nanzan saying Nanzan University in Japanese.


Our arrival at Nanzan and at our respective dorms/host families' houses marked the end of our guidance with IES Abroad. We had our orientations, we listened to the warnings, and now we were finally at school. Sure, we still had a schedule: we had classes, and we had future field trips with IES Abroad penciled into our calendars, but all the small things, such as breakfast and dinner, everyday activities, what clubs we entered, what friends we made--all of that was up to us and our judgment. That is the beauty of study abroad, all the insecurities, but they're just that: insecurities, something that makes us insecure about what we feel and think. Do I have enough time for this? Do these people like me? Am I being a bad foreigner? Do I get ramen or sushi for dinner? Even the smallest decision feels as if this is my last day in Japan, and this decision will be the last decision I make. 

So, I've been taking things slow. Checking in, making sure I understand that I will be here for the rest of the year, that every interaction I have with somebody won't be the last, that I can always make another trip to Daiso, and that if I am paralyzed by my choices, soon enough they will vanish. If I have time for something, I do it. Is there a sports game? Great, I'll be there. My friend wants to go to the aquarium? Why not. Even the smallest things, such as doing homework together with a friend, feels like a grand event. 


A picture of Isabella on the beach at sunrise.


I've also learned to make sacrifices. An hour of sleep, a bit of comfort, the tiniest bit of homework (not enough to fall behind, of course) in favor of an unforgettable moment. Walking thirty minutes to an amazing restaurant, going to a beach on our IES trip to Kanazawa at 5 am to watch the sun rise, letting homework sit on my desk until Sunday instead of doing it on Friday to watch a movie with my host family--all of these are experiences I'd never give back, and at the cost of something so little. I won't remember the discomfort of my jean shorts I wore into the ocean, or the extra thirty minutes I had to stay up to study, but I will certainly remember the smiles on my friends' faces as the sun showed itself over the horizon or the sound of clinks echoing throughout the izakaya as we brought our mugs together and yelled Kanpai! 

Study abroad is certainly a take and give situation, paired alongside a myriad of insecurities. You give one point of discomfort and gain back three points of experiences. And all those insecurities are taken away when you call your family and friends who constantly ask you about your experience and express their jealousy. Study abroad isn't easy--it isn't meant to be. Soreness after a workout means you have challenged your muscles and built them to be stronger; feeling insecurity in a new country means you are only building yourself up to be a better and stronger person in the future. 

Say yes to every opportunity, establish a balanced give and take, and know that some of the best experiences come when you don't plan it down to the minute. 

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Isabella Madruga headshot

Isabella Madruga

I am a senior at Johns Hopkins University studying Writing Seminars (a fancy way of saying creative writing) and Sociology. My main goal in life is to be an author, so when I'm not scrolling on TikTok, I'm writing stories, reading, and daydreaming.

2023 Fall
Home University:
Johns Hopkins University
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