June 2009 issue

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Total Tokyo

Visiting Tokyo is a total sensory experience, promising the cutting edge of high-tech, a vibrant neon party scene, a trendy manga art community, gentle tea ceremonies and old world customs alongside the peace of cherry trees. Matthew Knott reports.

From ancient temples and gardens to talking robots, from thousand-year old sports to ultra-modern skyscrapers and neon lights, Tokyo thrives on a contrast of the old and the new. These diverse features continue to draw students to study Japanese in the capital. As a multicultural mega-metropolis with world-class facilities and infrastructure, Tokyo is a dynamic city that can cater for every taste and requirement.

A common interest is Japanese manga and animé, the cartoon and comic book culture that started out here. Hyunmi Kwak from World Link Education explains, "For our young students, especially those on our short programmes, manga is a huge attraction. We are in the same Tokyo district as Akihabara so they love going there and seeing all the latest trends."

Akihabara, often referred to as "electric city", is a mixture of electronic goods stores and manga cafés; heaven for enthusiasts of Japan’s hi-tech and comic book cultures. "We arrange suitable exchange partners based on student interests, so this makes it easier for [students] to really experience the area," Kwak adds.

Mandy Huang from Geos Kudan Institute of Japanese Language & Culture agrees that it is Japan’s progressive reputation in certain cultures that attracts students. "We have many European students, particularly from Sweden and Switzerland, and animé was their inspiration to come here," she relates. On Geos Kudan’s holiday programmes, students are offered a chance to visit the Ghibli museum, which is an institution dedicated to the work of master animator Hayao Miyazaki. And the school recently celebrated 20 years of teaching in the Jimbo-cho district, which, Huang notes, is claimed to be the second-hand book capital of the world, affording plenty of bargain hunting opportunities for manga lovers.

Japan’s more traditional customs are also a huge draw, with most schools organising lessons in calligraphy, kimono-wearing, origami and tea-ceremonies. The Asia Bunka Kaikan was established in 1960 by the Asian Students Cultural Association, a government-authorised organisation, and it is well experienced in catering for traditional cultural tastes, according to Head Official, Kenichi Yamada. "We offer lots of introduction courses for things like ikebana (flower arranging) and o-cha (tea ceremony)," he relates. "We find that students really enjoy the local summer festivals, especially the dances which show Japan’s unique culture." These include Obon dances, part of a traditional Buddhist ceremony for commemorating ancestors, and Awa Odori, a colourful dancing carnival with traditional instruments.

"We are very close to a beautiful, traditional Japanese garden called Rikugien and this is a wonderful place for students to relax and enjoy the natural beauty of the four distinct seasons of Japan, especially cherry blossom season," Yamada adds.

Japan’s most famous natural landmark is Mount Fuji, reverentially known as Fuji-san, and Yamada relates that, "in the summer, we take students on a trip to Fuji-san". The 3,776-metre mountain can only be climbed in July and August when the snow has melted, but it makes a spectacular sight from Tokyo in the clear winter months.

Shiano Oyama of Kai Language School also emphasises the cultural trips on offer. "We have lots of year-round social trips and performances on our programmes," he says. The pomp and ceremony of sumo has long held a fascination for Tokyo’s foreign tourists with three annual 15-day tournaments held in the capital. "We arrange trips to see the tournaments. We also go to very traditional performances of Kabuki and Noh theatre," Oyama continues. The school even arranges a "Zazen Experience," a chance to meditate with Japanese Buddhist monks.

The ultra-hip shopping districts of Shibuya and Harajuku provide an altogether different atmosphere, but students will often be found there. The famous Shibuya crossing is a blur of people, giant TV screens, huge department stores and independent shops. Harajuku is a 10-minute walk away with two famous shopping streets catering to opposite ends of the spectrum; Takeshita Street with its funky, second-hand stores and Omotesando studded with designer boutiques. "Our young students especially love to go shopping and hang out around Shibuya," confirms Kwak.

Tokyo is also brimming with dining options of every range and as would be expected from the city with more Michelin stars than any other in the world, food is a major attraction. Oyama highlights the importance of food and drink on their social programmes. "We have activities where students learn how to make mochi (Japanese rice cakes) and soba noodles. Also we take them to visit a Japanese-style izakaya bar, which is quite different from a western pub, and to a sake distillery."

Food is one area where schools enjoy an exchange of cultures. Asia Bunka Kaikan utilises an open space opposite their premises to host an international food festival. "Students will prepare snacks or dishes from their own country and then sell them to each other and local residents. It is always a very popular event, and that kind of exchange is the purpose of our school," says Yamada.

A city as vast as Tokyo can be intimidating so there are plenty of initiatives to help students settle and experience the real Japan. Home-stay options are very popular for short-stay programmes. Huang notes, "Many of our homestay families live outside of Tokyo. The city can still be accessed easily, but students can experience family life and a different area. Lots of students intend to stay for three months, but become so comfortable that they decide to stay longer."

World Link Education’s exchange partner programme is also a great way to make friends. "The partners will be introduced for the first time at the school, and after that they can go to a café, hang out together or go to each other’s home. It is a good way to get useful advice and meet people their own age," explains Kwak.

For those looking to stay long-term there are plenty of part-time work opportunities. Students at Naganuma School can take advantage of sponsored jobs for companies such as the Asahi Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper, says Yoshiro Kawase, while Kwak at Geos notes, "Many of the higher level students can pick up work translating Japanese into their native language and there are lots of jobs in bars and restaurants. It is also very easy for English speakers to get some teaching work at an English conversation school, or find some private students to teach at the weekend".

Agent viewpoint

"Japan is close to Korea and the culture is very similar. These days, students often decide to go there from their high school days. There are lots of reasons to go to Tokyo such as the cutting-edge fashions in Harajuku or to study things like animation and robot engineering technology. Tokyo is a city full of things to watch, learn and feel. There are hundreds of high-quality language institutions and so many part-time jobs for students, so it is easy for me to recommend Tokyo."
Kim Hye-Sook, iAE Edu Net, Korea

"First of all our clients are fascinated with Japan/Tokyo and its culture. It is the curiosity to understand the unique culture and it is the most effective way to learn a difficult language when you immerse oneself in the native environment. Our students need the Japanese skills either for business, or they are interested in music and art, traditional food, fashion, travel, Japanese busy lifestyles, modern architecture and technologies. Tokyo has it all! Not to mention its gentle and helpful lpeople. This is proved by the massive amount of positive feedback that we receive from our former students."
Branca Petrovic, ESL, Switzerland

"There is definitely something about Japan that makes Scandinavians feel very comfortable when they are there. Interest in Tokyo has boomed in the last five years or so and the Japanese manga is a kind of subculture for a lot of young Swedish people. The students that we send to Tokyo tend to be university graduates and they are travelling for the experience rather than for furthering their education. Students tend to enrol on half-year or one-year courses, but I would say that something like 50 per cent of them end up prolonging their stay in Tokyo."
Jose Hellberg, SI Språkresor, Sweden

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