To show what is it like to be a student on the JCMU Spring Semester Language & Culture program, we reached out to Elise Burchart, a recent alumna from the 2016 program.
What was your motivation for studying abroad in Japan? Why the spring program?
My motivation to study abroad in Japan stemmed from my love of Japanese that began in middle school. Being in college now, I wanted a chance to really focus on my Japanese studies, so decided that studying abroad in Japan would be the best way to do just that. I specifically chose the spring semester because I wanted to see the sakura (cherry blossom) trees in bloom.
I did not take the recommended flight over. I came to Japan early, about a week and a half before the start of the program. The flight was very smooth for a 13-hour flight across the ocean, and much more bearable than I thought it would be!
What are your thoughts on the city of Hikone? Have they evolved since you first arrived?
At first, being in Hikone was strange because I was in Tokyo the week and half prior to the program, but the small city grew on me quite quickly. Being right next to Lake Biwa meant I got a beautiful view, and the city being smaller meant I didn’t have to ride my bike terribly far to get to the places I wanted to go to. There was a great karaoke place right in town, too! There were also many restaurants in town that really displayed its charm.
Did you often travel and explore the area? If so, what were some of your favorite places? Did you travel to other cities?
I often rode my bike with friends around Hikone, but didn’t do too much in-depth exploring of Hikone. We did discover that it is not too far a bike ride to Minami Hikone though, which saved us a few dollars on the days that we wanted to visit Minami Hikone (if the weather was nice!). Some of my favorite places were Aeon Town, Yamada, Sushiro, the book store next to Hikone station, and of course, Hikone Castle. Besides Hikone, I went on a lot of trips to places like Osaka, Kyoto, and Nagahama – in each of which I had amazing experiences and ate delicious food!
What were the classes like at JCMU, and how did they differ from American classes?
The Japanese language classes were exactly as described: very intensive. Before the program started I was worried, but I soon realized that the intensity was something I liked immensely about the program. It’s enough to get you serious about your studies, but still gives you time to explore Japan on the weekends and during breaks. The teachers encouraged you to speak Japanese as often as possible, not only among friends but also when you were exploring the area. The classes themselves were extremely interactive and required you to be attentive at all times. You go over every detail in each chapter you learn, so you grasp the nuances of the Japanese language and not just a blanket understanding. This way, you are taught fluency and accuracy, not just some set phrases to get by.
What elective class did you take? Where was it located? What was the class like, and how did it differ from an American class?
I took a psychology course at Shiga Daigaku (Shiga University). The topic was interesting and gave me a slightly better understanding of Japanese culture on a psychological level. For example, we discussed blood typing and what it means to Japanese people. It wasn’t very different at all from an American course.
Did you participate in any of the cultural workshops and activities offered at JCMU? If so, which ones? Which was your favorite, and why?
I participated in a few of the cultural workshops and activities. Calligraphy and taiko (Japanese drumming) were my two favorite workshops. I love music, so being able to play the drums was extremely fun and taught me more about Japanese music history. Calligraphy showed me just how beautiful the Japanese language can be, and that they pride themselves in just how beautifully the characters of the language can be written.
What was living in the dorms like? What were some of the pros and cons of the dorms?
This experience was my first time “living alone” away from home, so it was a lot like living in an apartment in a way. I had higher expectations of the rooms when I arrived, so I had to do a lot of cleaning in my room and also all of the dishes and utensils. Only having two burners on the stove was also troublesome as it would be much easier to cook certain dishes with more, but I understand that there is only so much space in rooms such as these, so I was able to make do. I enjoyed the overall setup of the rooms a lot, actually. Even with a smaller space, it was quaint and quite cozy. The sliding doors were also very neat. Something else I enjoyed were the very large windows, which brought in a lot of sunlight. Overall, I really enjoyed the rooms and how they’re set up.
How was the food in Japan? Did you cook your own food? Did you often eat at Coco’s or other restaurants?
The food in Japan was nothing short of amazing! There was very little that I dislike there. I also cooked dinner almost every evening, so the products I bought from Beisia (a local grocery store) to cook with were also very good. I frequented Coco’s as well and found some specific dishes that I really enjoyed.
Overall, how was your time with JCMU?
I’m extremely glad that I chose JCMU for my study abroad experience. While I had heard about other university options, JCMU sounded like the best fit for me – and it was absolutely the right choice. At first, the whole idea of an ‘intensive’ course scared me, but there is no better way to learn a language than to throw yourself into it with everything you’ve got. The classes were well-organized, extremely involved, always having you stretch your knowledge further, and actually fun! Big projects and tests can be daunting, but with the other students around you and a staff that wants nothing more than to help you, they become invigorating, which helps push you beyond where you are in Japanese. Even with all the class involvement, I always had plenty of time to travel around Japan. My friends and I would go to an amazing bar in Osaka every other weekend. So don’t be afraid that you will have no free time! JCMU encourages both intense learning and making sure you get the chance to go out and explore.
These are just some of the reasons why I selected JCMU in the first place. I loved Japanese, but didn’t feel like I was going as far as I needed. At JCMU, I got the one-on-one practice and immersion that I needed. Another huge plus is that you’re located in a smaller town, which might be a turn-off to some, but really allows you to use and practice your Japanese on a daily basis. Hikone is not a huge tourist spot like Tokyo or Kyoto, but for that reason, English is something you can’t always fall back on. This gives you greater opportunities to enhance your conversation skills. Overall, my time at JCMU is one I won’t ever forget. I made some great friends, had wonderful teachers, and now have a greater Japanese foundation than I thought I would ever have.
What advice would you give to future JCMU students?
If you choose JCMU as your study abroad spot, you’re making a great decision! Some more serious advice: before heading over to Japan, brush up on the Japanese basics. This will not only help you for the courses at JCMU, but will allow you to better ease into life in Hikone. Second piece of advice: don’t pack too heavy. Remember that you can always buy some necessary clothes and toiletries in Japan, and you’ll want to have plenty of room for the other souvenirs you buy. This will help you save money in case you run out of room and have to send a package home. Third: be prepared to be challenged. Even if you feel like your Japanese is quite advanced, you will most definitely learn something you never have before at JCMU.
Some more fun advice: try to plan to go early before the program, or stay in Japan after the program. Doing so ensures that you hit those farther away spots that maybe you can’t get to during the program, like Hokkaido or Okinawa. Also, if you have the chance to get a Japanese roommate during your stay at JCMU, say yes! At first I was a little frightened, but it was so much fun to practice Japanese with my roommate and help her with her English. You will certainly make an amazing Japanese friend. The last piece of advice that I have is to be relaxed: don’t be afraid to speak in Japanese, and prepare yourself for an incredible experience.
We would like to thank Elise for sharing her experiences with us, and we hope this inspires future students to consider studying abroad in Hikone! For more information Elise’s program, please visit the Semester Language & Culture program page.