May 2008 issue

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The joys of Japan

Many people visit Japan to experience its unique culture and way of life. Language travellers will find many opportunities to have new experiences and gain new skills, as Bethan Norris reports.

With its history of long periods of isolation from the rest of the world, Japan is an exotic and exciting destination for language travellers to visit due to its distinctive traditions that are unique to the country.

According to Shinichiro Tokoku from Kai Japanese Language School in Tokyo, who has worked at the school for 10 years, introducing students to these traditions as well as learning about other people’s, is part of the appeal in working in a language school. “I can say that Japan is a rather geographically, linguistically and culturally isolated country,” he says. “I feel it is meaningful for us to provide opportunities for foreign students to encounter unfamiliar experiences in Japan. Working in such an international environment gives me the chance to know people who have different backgrounds, different cultures as well as very different customs. This job makes my life much richer.”

Tokyo, Japan’s capital, is one of the world’s biggest cities with the conurbation of Tokyo-Yokohama containing over 35 million people. Masanori Nakayama from Lakeland College Japan campus, which is located in the city, says that Tokyo offers a range of experiences that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. “This is an incredibly unique country and culture – within this internationally diverse and modernised society, there are places, events and aspects within that have been preserved so well for the sake of sharing them with the world,” he says, adding that he advises students to do things that only Japan offers during their stay. “Our students are able to enjoy some of the world’s most beautiful hot springs, traditional festivals, cherry blossom viewing, tea ceremonies, firework displays and much more. It is at these times that students are able to escape the similarities of other major cities in the world and find something truly unique, something truly Japan.”

There are also opportunities to learn Japanese at language schools outside Tokyo and Mikuki Shiratori from Sendai Language School (SLS) points out some of the benefits of studying in this city. “Sendai is the biggest city in the northern east region of Japan with about a population of a million people,” she says. “Everywhere in the city you can enjoy a lot of green and throughout the city there runs a beautiful river.” The city is within an hour of a number of attractions such as ski resorts, hot springs and old temples although Shiratori says that students can find magical places to visit within the city itself that retain their charm all year round. “My favourite place in town is Jozenji Street that is lined with zelkova trees,” she says. “Throughout the year you can enjoy beautiful scenery in each season: the fresh green in early summer, the golden leaves in autumn and the romantic illumination at night in winter.”

Shiratori also finds working in the language travel industry to be a particularly rewarding experience. “I have worked for SLS for over nine years and I really enjoy working here,” she says. “Teaching international students sometimes gives me an opportunity to know more about Japan, because everyday I can find new aspects of students that are totally different from my sense or ideas.”

Getting to the heart of a different country is part of the appeal of learning a language overseas and Japan’s unique culture is something that most students particularly enjoy experiencing. Yasuko Aizawa, Centre Manager at Eurocentres in Kanazawa, says that guided activities are very much part of the tuition plan for language students. “We want students to learn about the life, behaviour, mentality and way of thinking of [the local] people,” she says. “[We also want them to experience] a variety of food, interesting products and gadgets in everyday life.”

Students at Eurocentres can take part in activities such as Japanese cooking, the tea ceremony, kimono dressing, gold leaf chopstick making, martial arts and rice planting and harvesting that are arranged by the school, while also taking trips to the Geisha quarter and a sake brewery. In Tokyo, students at Kai Japanese Language School can learn to make soba noodles as well as undertake traditional handcrafts such as making Japanese windbells – known as furin and hung by local people from the eaves of houses in the summer – and ceramic art, according to Tokoku. “More social activities include organised trips to an izakia [traditional Japanese pub], bowling nights and trips to theme parks.”

The capital city’s extensive public transport system also offers the chance for students to explore some of its distinctive regions depending on their own interests, as Tokoku explains. “Shibuya is an area famous for being a centre for youth culture,” he says. “Many new Japanese fashions and trends can be spotted on the streets among the young in this area. Akihabara contains the largest concentration of electronics and computer stores in the world. It therefore has become the worldwide centre for a whole Japanese sub-culture based upon Manga – Japanese comics – and Otaku – roughly translated as computer geek/nerd.”

But one of Japan’s greatest attractions for visitors is surely its extensive festivals – matsuri – which have their origins in ancient Shinto rituals and beliefs and take place all year round. Local shrines have their own festivals and are often a magnificent spectacle. Shiratori advises students to take part in the local Aoba festival in Sendai, which is held on the mountain of Koya-san and lasts for two weeks. “People make a group and perform the suzume [sparrow] dance that originally started in 1600AD,” she says. “The Tanabata [star] festival is the best and most famous festival held in the summer in Sendai. In this festival, you can enjoy beautiful decorations in the arcade streets.”

In Tokyo there are three festivals held by the big shrines between May and June each year: the Sanno festival, the Kanda festival and the Sanja festival. During the festivals, hundreds of portable shrines, or omikoshi, are carried through the streets to bring prosperity while offerings of rice sake and fruit are made to the gods. Tokoku says that the Sumida River firework festival in July is a particular highlight. “20,000 non-stop firework explosions can be seen in a few hours along the Sumida River,” he adds.

Language schools in Japan report that demand for Japanese language programmes is mostly from Asian markets although they hope that this might change in the future. Nakayama says, “Our recruiting agents at the moment are mainly located in Asia, concentrated mostly in Korea and China, but we are really looking for the opportunity to extend this invitation to more students in Europe and other Western countries as well.”

Foreigners visiting Japan for tourism purposes or to learn the language are guaranteed a friendly welcome, as Aizawa relates. “Most of our students are very happy with the school and homestay, learn a lot about Japan, make lots of discoveries, are treated kindly by the community, come back many times and continue contact with their host families.”

Agent viewpoint

“Travelling around is one of the most popular weekend activities for our students. Visiting old towns like Kamakura, Kyoto or Osaka is quite popular. Tokyo is the favourite destination for our students. One of the big advantages is the standard of Japanese that is spoken in this area; it is easier for foreigners to communicate with locals. Although Tokyo is the most expensive city in Japan, it is one of the easiest areas for foreigners to find a part-time job, if they have a proper visa.”
Mayumi Morimoto, Language School Worldwide, Spain

“Japan is quickly becoming more and more popular with our clients. There is a lot more interest from high school age students to attend language immersion programmes in Japan, as well. Some of the extra-curricular activities offered by our school in Kanazawa include tea ceremonies, Japanese cooking, kimono dressing and manners and origami paper craft. The two most popular cities are Kanazawa and Kyoto. Students like the cultural experience they get in these two cities, and the opportunity to live with Japanese host families.”
Anne Wittig, NRCSA, USA

“Japanese is much more popular than a few years ago. Some people want to be prepared for this future market and some are just fascinated by the exotic culture and language. Some students want to be in a smaller city or by the sea. Others want to experience Japanese life in Tokyo. These would usually be the ones that already have some travelling experience or are a bit more mature.”
Andrea Gerber, Pro Linguis, Switzerland

Contact any advertiser in the this issue now

The following language schools, associations and accommodation providers advertised in the latest edition of Language Travel Magazine. If you would like more information on any of these advertisers, tick the relevant boxes, fill out your details and send.





Britannia Student
Sara's New York
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International House
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Languages Canada  
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Bell International
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      World Organisation  
Kaplan Aspect 
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      Zealand, South
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LAL Language and
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Malvern House
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Queen Ethelburga's
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St Giles Colleges 
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Study Group 
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Home Language
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Carl Duisberg
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International House
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ISI Language
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Idiomas Sí!  
International House
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Malaca Instituto -
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EF Language
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ALCC - American
ELS Educational
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Global Immersions
Kaplan Aspect 
      (Australia, Canada,
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Zoni Language
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