It’s December 2021, I was visiting my dad at Ras Al Khaimah, the UAE. Tokyo Tech announced the list of MEXT scholarship recipients in the Global Scientists and Engineers Program, and opening the email felt so nail-biting. I was in…with a scholarship! My journey into Tokyo Tech started from there, with months of submitting documents back and forth.

Why Japan?

My obsession with moving abroad was something from way back in middle school. Living in Saudi Arabia got me wishing to study at a university somewhere else, like Europe, East Asia, or in a city-state like Singapore (Civ6 reference). I got offers at a few places, but Tokyo Tech was the best choice for me in multiple ways; it was closer to home, well connected, scholarship opportunities were available, and there’s just a more unique culture to experience here. I had inquired about different places with friends and acquaintances as well. It was my first time abroad by myself, and I wanted to take the best choice after all.

An Array of Applications

It all started in late August 2021. I was done with all my school-leaving exams and various national tests. I applied to two universities at the same time. One was Anna University, The College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), in Chennai, southern India, and the other was Tokyo Tech, The Global Scientists and Engineers Program (GSEP), an English-taught program as opposed to the regular undergraduate program taught in Japanese. A month later, I got into my first university, CEG. On the other hand, I had made it through stage 1 of the process at Tokyo Tech. I had a few more weeks of nothing to do, so I took some other tests such as NEET (a medical entrance test) and played football, as usual. The pandemic was still on, so I had to take precautions and got tested for COVID occasionally.
My classes at CEG started on Nov 1, 2021, in person. The classes went on for 2 weeks before they had to make it online again in mid-November. By this time, I was already done with the 2nd stage of the application, the interview, and the entrance test, and all that was left was the results. My dad was in the UAE and thought we should drop by, since I had online classes and my sister was on holidays, so we did.

Photo 1: Messing around in the UAE

The MEXT Results

A few days after going there, I got the results. 18 of us got in, but the scholarship results weren’t in yet. Me and my family were really excited, and we spent the next few weeks going around Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah — Global Village, Dubai Expo, Burj Khalifa, and more. Around December 10, I got selected for the MEXT scholarship as well. Around this time, I was called back for classes again, so I headed back to Chennai, India by myself. The next three months, I had to go around a lot by myself, trying to send documents by post and visiting the consulate a couple of times to inquire about when Japan would allow students in.

The Documents

By late February 2022, I was done sending in my documents and was focussing on my semester exams. I planned on using credits from here after I’d joined Tokyo Tech. It was April 11 when I got my visa, the same day online classes for Tokyo Tech 1Q started. The next few weeks was a bit of a balancing act. I had to get my documents sorted out and get the final touches done, such as all the necessary health checkups and vaccinations.

Photo 2: My old university, before I jumped ship

May 3, if my memory serves me correctly, was Eid. My dad was home, all of my extended family was home, all of my documents were sorted, I was out of CEG, and I could spend time in peace. It was Golden Week in Japan as well, my lucky week indeed. I visited my most important relatives and informed them I was moving to Tokyo. I got praise in a few cases and drew their ire too, but I was done with my obligations now. This was my first time being abroad by myself, so my parents were anxious. We went shopping for foodstuffs that I could take with me and other things like clothes and stationery too. Basically, I needed to be prepared for any culture shock and adjust for the starting month.

Arrival in Japan

I got to Japan on May 18 and had to quarantine at a hotel near Narita Airport for a week, since I legally couldn’t get my third shot in India. The quarantine was a unique experience in itself. I had to go to the reception every day for a week and report my temperature. I got a taste of Japanese “Konbini” as well. The food there was interesting and I got a lot of my essentials, such as an adaptor for my chargers. Come the 24th and I finally get to go to the dormitory, all the way in Aoba ward, Yokohama City. After arriving, I was given a briefing by the dorm manager and dorm tutor regarding the basic rules and the documentation I had to complete. The next day, I went to the ward office with my dorm tutor to complete address registration and to apply for health insurance.

Friday, May 27 was my first day on campus. It felt so strange, the weather felt so odd to me. A cold rainy day at the end of May was something new. The campus looked so high-tech yet so old. It appeared really big, but once I entered, it was fairly normal, maybe even small by certain standards. But it appeared perfect to me. I mean, I don’t want to walk around ages just to get to different classes. I went around the shotengai (shopping street) but didn’t get anything for lunch, since I had no idea of what was halal and what wasn’t. In retrospect, that was my simplest day in Japan. Every day since has been fun, sad, crazy, or at the very least a learning experience.

Photo 3: My first day was a rainy one

The next day was my first proper day out. Me and my friend headed out to Shibuya, just roamed around the Hachiko statue, got a couple of manga, looked around the iconic Tsutaya, and ended with dinner. We were kind of struggling to figure out what was halal and close enough, so we just stuck with Sushiro, a famous sushi chain, which was new to the both of us. We probably got like a dozen plates each, just trying out all the different stuff that was available. I tried a bit of the wasabi and thought it wasn’t hot so dumped a lot more on my sushi…big mistake that was! Well at least that was a lesson learnt.

Photo 4: My first ever plate of sushi!

A week passed by, and I got my bank account sorted out. As for my SIM card, that took much longer than I thought. Honestly, it was such a pain to get them both. To open a bank account you need a mobile number, and to get a number…you guessed it. Each time I applied, my mobile phone application got rejected due to an issue with my name’s spelling, which they would not even try to rectify. Thankfully my tutor Eba-san helped me out with that. Since that was sorted, I got to shopping. My first major purchase was a rice cooker from Don Quijote (“Donqui”). I also got other utensils and household items from there and Daiso (a 100-yen shop). It’s time to get cooking. “Let him cook!”

During June, I went to a fair few places with different friend groups. Shinjuku Gyoen with my best friend, then Futako Tamagawa (Nicotama, colloquially) with my tutor, and Teamlabs with a bunch of classmates. The other times I just went around Aobadai and Ookayama, exploring the areas and taking the sights in. Almost forgot — the best place was Minatomirai, Yokohama. It feels so relaxing and there’s plenty of things to do if bored. I went into a few shops here and there, but I would struggle to ask about things since I was still using a translator app. Thankfully, I somehow seemed to be able to wing Japanese conversations now even in rural areas by myself. Getting back to it, this is also when my proper addiction to bakeries started. I have always had bread back at home, but the sheer variety here just had me going bonkers. My favourite one until now is Levain (I will try to make a list of bakeries soon, if anyone is interested).

Photo 5: Minatomirai, Yokohama!

University Life

As for university life itself, I was struggling with certain subjects and acing others, which made my study sessions messy, not that I spent much time studying. The labs, the facilities, and the fact that there is a literal supercomputer here makes it seem so advanced, even though many of the buildings are really old and appear like heritage sites at times. The way tests are scheduled and how attendance is done is quite different from how it is back home; test dates here are up to the professor and don’t have to adhere to some pattern as far as I know, and attendance matters only in certain classes, not all, unlike in India where a certain attendance quota is necessary even to be eligible to take the final tests.

Coming to language classes, we had to do a simple test on the JCOS website and were assigned to B1 level classes, the lowest possible Japanese lesson. The lessons have been gradual, and I feel like I have applied a lot of what I learnt, along with the slang and colloquialisms I picked up from my friends. We also have quite a lot of English classes, some of which provide valuable knowledge in aspects of academia. The first-year courses are the same for everyone irrespective of department, so there wasn’t much difference in what each of us learnt besides the differences in methodologies between the professors, which was quite a lot depending on the medium of instruction. We obviously still get to choose to drop or take the electives, which felt great. I was really worried that I would have a full day of classes most of the time, but thankfully, even with the electives, most of the time it was 2 or 3 classes.

Photo 6: Some of our work in the beginner Japanese classes

The next few months went in a similar manner. I was starting to memorise the train system and transfers due to my frequent use of it. I got the hang of what foodstuffs can be expected to be halal from all the scanning on the translator app and bothering the staff at every restaurant I went to. The simplest choice would be to go to a Saizeriya. It doesn’t taste the best, but it’s cheap and sort of filling, and it’s easy to find the halal stuff using their allergy list. Also, they are everywhere, even in Aomori! The only other reliable and easy option was getting bread. To be precise, bakeries are anywhere and everywhere. For groceries, after trial and error, it was My Basket for quick shopping, Create Drug Store (it’s more than a pharmacy) if I’m getting groceries for the entire week, and Tokyu Store if it’s going to be something exotic or special.

It has been a year and a half since I arrived here. I know I have done so many things, gone around quite a lot, and tried a variety of food as well. But everything feels like a breeze, felt it but gone the next instant. So many new hobbies, so many new friends…it is such a cliché line, but “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Photo 7: Bonus! An apple pie from Itokito