2022 Fall Academics Adjusting Airport Cities Culture Daily Life Malaika Stambler Preparing to go Public Transit religion Temple Japan

13 observations I’ve made while getting my bearings in Tokyo 

It’s 7:20 am in Tokyo and I’m sitting alone eating peanut m&ms in my new bed. My flight from LAX to Haneda airport, and first international flight since the pandemic, was much smoother than I expected. I was filled with nerves the last two weeks. This is going to be the longest I’ve ever been away from my family. I haven’t been practicing Japanese. Every day in the past few months has been so predictable and mundane, and I just entered a 4-month period of newness and unpredictability. Though I grew up totally immersed in the Los Angeles Japanese community and Japanese culture, and I’ve traveled all over Japan, navigating life here as an adult has been a totally new experience. 

This is the beginning of the manifestation of my lifelong goal of studying abroad in Tokyo, Japan. I began learning Japanese at age 5. It was my parents’ decision. Raising me in Los Angeles, where Spanish is widely spoken, they hoped I would be able to attend the Spanish immersion program at one of our local public elementary schools. But at the time of my registration, the Spanish program was full; however there was room in the smaller Japanese department. On a whim, my parents decided that immersion in any language would be better than none at all! So here we are, 16 years later, after learning Taiko drums, traditional Japanese dance, celebrating mochi-tsuki every new year and Children’s Day every May, several family trips all over Japan, and multiple homestays in a small town near Osaka, I have come here to study on my own, in the city of all cities. Here are some things I have observed while settling in.  

At LAX super nervous to fly to Japan!!
  1. A sharehouse is a great way to live as a student in Tokyo. Many other Temple Japan students and I are living in a sharehouse, which essentially is a non-school-affiliated dorm building occupied by students from various universities across 8 floors. The dorm is different but great. I am in a 6-person occupancy room occupied by 3 people. It’s a covid precaution, but feels pretty lucky. We each have two curtained-off nooks, instead of just one, and we share a communal area, and a bathroom.  One of my nooks has a lofted bed frame and no mattress. One has a low-to-the ground mattress. No one ever told me that the hardest thing I’d have to do would be to put a fitted sheet on this mattress. I feel like I can do literally anything after that. Our whole hallway shares a gorgeous kitchen. I cook a lot, and I’ve already spent a lot of time in the kitchen. 
Lofted bed. And example of how tiny my two nooks are.
It was way harder than it looks to make this bed.

2. It feels like the first week of college all over again, but I know a bit better now about group living than I did then. One of my roommates is a Temple student from Pennsylvania, and one is a Depaul student from El Salvador and Minnesota. It has been amazing to live in this dorm and have the safety net of Temple staff as well as two roommates in the exact same boat. We all went and got breakfast together.  

Sushi right near Temple Japan.

3. It seems customary here to use tiny bath towels. It took several stores for me to find a bath towel that is about half the size of a standard bath towel in the U.S. 

4. In the neighborhood our dorm is in, Kamikitazawa, everyone rides bikes. It’s actually hard to walk on the street with more than just one person. It feels like a culture of solitude and independence, with streets so narrow it’s difficult to commute in social groups.  

5. I’m getting used to asking for a bag and having to pay a few cents for them at checkout at the stores, or bringing my own shopping bags everywhere I go. This must be a new environmental initiative. And paying after dinners out at a cashier station at the back of the restaurant, rather than asking a waiter for the check. And I’m remembering now the cloths that waiters hand out before every meal. And the tea they serve for you to wash it all down. 

Pristine street in Shibuya.

6. In Japan, it feels so safe. You don’t have to worry about walking home alone at night. I have to stop myself whenever I notice the fears creeping in that I normally have for good reason while walking around in the U.S. Rules are rules, and crime is rare. The absence of people challenging rules leads to this impression of an absolutely serene society. There are hardly any sirens, or trash on the ground. There’s also not much diversity, even in this extremely populated metropolis of 40 million.  

7. There are no loud noises in train stations. Residential neighborhoods are kept absolutely silent. People don’t talk and laugh while they walk, god forbid take a phone call. Rush hour is when you would expect it to be loudest with all those thousands of people running home, transferring trains to get to or from work, and bustling around crazy crowded train stations and streets. But all you can hear during rush hour is thousands of footsteps. You couldn’t hear a pin drop and you feel like a nuisance if you merely say “Sumimasenn” (excuse me in Japanese). 

8. Coffee shops don’t open until 9:30, but vending machines sell all different types of coffee 24/7. One of my new friends has a coffee grinder, so I’ve been using that.  

9. The taxi business only succeeds because the trains don’t run from midnight to 5am. We learned that this is actually a law made so taxi drivers can keep their jobs despite the flawless public transportation system. 

Coffee grounds I purchased from the coffee shop next to our share house, Tatjana.

10. It seems like a culture of space efficiency, minimalism, and precision. And that’s reflected in so many ways. Every single train is on time to the minute. And Tokyo is different from the rest of Japan. These people are city people. It is so fast paced here. I love it. 

11. There’s a street I went to where every shop is a thrift shop. The district specifically is called Shimokitazawa. It’s a trend here in Tokyo to have certain streets dedicated to certain types of shops. Like the street where there are only ramen shops. Just like on a larger scale in Japan, often each city or town has a specialty too. Like the matcha green tea town in Kyoto called Uji. 

Thrift shop near Shibuya.

12. I am experiencing culture shock for two reasons. One, I’ve been thrown into a new lifestyle in Tokyo and am totally alone (other than my new budding friendships and acquaintances in my dorm). And two, I’ve never been around so many people from greater Philadelphia in my life. They all have a funny accent far less familiar to me than the Japanese accent. I wasn’t expecting that! But I already am learning about Amish country (one of my roommates is from Lancaster).  

Another photo from Shibuya from my explorations week 1- this one of Tower Records.

13. There’s a Jewish deli in Tokyo! On my third night I ran into someone in Shibuya who had a tote bag with a logo of a Jewish deli that we have in my part of LA called Wise Sons. Apparently they had one in Tokyo station. We became friends, bonding over being Jews, musicians, bagel fiends, and Americans living in Tokyo. 

I am starting classes tomorrow, after a week of settling in. I know my way from the dorm to the train station and then the route to campus. I have two classes tomorrow: Photographic Cultures in Japan vs the US, a joint class with Showa Women’s University, and Artist Books, Zines and Independent Publishing. I am so excited for both these classes and am looking forward to incorporating the assignments into my blogging. 

I’m getting my bearings. I have been grocery and household shopping for the past couple days so I look forward to the start of the semester, and to meeting more people and assuming my responsibilities as a student again, but more importantly going on even more adventures around Japan. 


Make sure you visit the Temple education abroad website and check out the many articles to find out how other students are adjusting to abroad or Learn how you can study abroad in the UK)! My new friends Miles and Chason will also be blogging about their Tokyo adventures. Here’s to a great semester! 

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