On December 6, 2023, I got accepted to continue my studies as a master’s student at Tokyo Tech’s Department of Transdisciplinary Science and Engineering. Thinking about it, it subtly amazes me how fast time flies, as it feels just like yesterday when I officially entered Tokyo Tech, starting my four years as a bachelor’s student, and a three-year journey in this wonderful land of Japan. Four years went by in the blink of an eye. There were things I accomplished, and those I have yet to achieve. There were moments when happiness turned into tears, and those challenging times when uncertainty engulfed the sky. Now, there are dreams I am struggling to meet, and dreams yet to be dreamed. Standing at the crossroads, I could not help but contemplate every moment, every story that has led me up to this point.
Thus, “Contemplating as time goes by…” is a series of blogs depicting my experience in Japan, from the time I got accepted into Tokyo Tech, until now as I am sitting here writing these words. Through these stories of mine, I hope you get a better grasp of how the life of an international student is in Japan. This also does me the favor of keeping these memories much longer here on this blog site, the memories that, although of many shades, I still dearly embrace.
1. A rough beginning
Looking back, things were not that easy when we got started. My first academic year began amidst the initial chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the world realized the severity of the virus and country after country started shutting down borders one by one. Earlier, on a beautiful winter’s day in Vietnam, around 10 a.m. on November 23, 2019, my journey began with a burst of joy as I screamed frantically while holding the MEXT Scholarship announcement letter, in which they kinda said “we will look after you for the next four years, so buckle up and fly to Japan, bro!” After dealing with the competition so far, which was a miracle, I was literally too eager to wait for the day I set foot on that beautiful land I had been longing for. Traveling with my family — check. Saying goodbye to relatives— check. Learning my very first Japanese phrases like “こんにちは” and “私の日本語は下手です、すみません” so I might not be misunderstood and get into trouble on the street — check. Getting a visa — check. Everything was fine…
(SPOILER ALERT! IF YOU WANT TO EXPERIENCE ALL OF THESE MOMENTS BY YOURSELF, JUST SKIP THIS PART AND THIS IMAGE)
Photo 1: I was holding my breath when reading the first document on the left, the letter of acceptance. Only after spotting the word “MEXT” on the second document on the right did I yell my lungs out. This was how my journey started.
Yeah, everything was fine, or was supposed to be, except the visa part. On the day I finally got my visa from the Japanese embassy in Vietnam, Tokyo Tech and Global Scientists and Engineers Program (GSEP) representatives announced that our arrival in Japan as new students would be postponed due to the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic, due to which country after country shut their borders, including Japan. We were told to expect our arrival to be somewhere around July, three months after the entrance ceremony. Missing our entrance ceremony was somewhat not a good idea, but acceptable considering the dire pandemic situation back then. We were kinda okay with that. No one expected how long it would last, and how it would become one of the most unpleasant yet uniquely memorable experiences we ever had.
2. Copium day by day, ’cause it was the only thing we could do
At first, the whole new experience of studying online was both novel to teachers and us students alike, when everyone sat in front of the screen watching and speaking to each other. The classroom could be anywhere you want, and you were the sole student of that class physically. The staff and members of GSEP and Tokyo Tech were extremely diligent in guiding us through these times, from the unprecedented entrance ceremony to internal procedures and tasks, helping us get on board quickly despite physical distances and difficulties. After one or two months, we quickly got familiar with the pace of online classes and what was going on around us, while making friends among the groups and classes we were in. In my first year, we studied fundamental courses such as calculus/linear algebra, physics, chemistry, biology, etc. as well as some liberal arts. The sheer amount of homework we had to complete felt quite insurmountable. While this meant our eyes were stuck to a screen, it indeed created an opportunity where we collaborated with each other on the tasks, bringing us closer despite being thousands of kilometers away. We formed chat groups, then study meetings, Facebook groups, and even gaming groups for some FPS grinding. Life was quite easy back then, every day you woke up on the same bed, opened the laptop, logged into classroom after classroom, while waiting for the day we officially got accepted to enter that faraway land of the rising sun.
April, May, then July came. The July entrance never arrived, as everyone had no idea when Japan’s immigration bureau would open the border for international students to continue their academic journey. The pandemic situation only got worse, and the most optimistic movements from the bureau back then were not for us, but for those who were nationals or permanent residents. The visa I acquired back then expired after three months. I got it in March, and not coming to Japan afterwards, the visa was invalidated in June. Everybody was confused, taking the course while gazing at the COVID-19 news in Japan, worrying when our tickets would be available. As we prepared to come to Japan, almost all of us had dealt with our studies, typically withdrawing our academic status at the original university in preparation for entering Tokyo Tech. With this dire situation of being stuck in our home countries, unable to enter our university, we could do nothing but keep up the sheer heavy pace of homework and assignments, while desperately looking at the news, praying that tomorrow would be the day. It was a little bit traumatizing being uncertain whether we could enter Japan or not, while enduring curiosity from people around us:
“How could you still be here? You should be in Japan now already.”
“Awww, the pandemic heh? Must be tough for ya.”
“Don’t worry, you will be there soon.”
It was truly a time of doubts when our perseverance was brought to near the limit, nothing but anxiety and uncertainty.
But at last, we did it.
3. Light at the end of the tunnel
After seven months of desperately waiting, on the last Monday of October, the Japanese government and its agencies emailed me all of a sudden, notifying that they had arranged a flight for me in eight days, urging me to finish all procedures beforehand. Although I did jump out of happiness since my dream had been fulfilled after months of waiting, the next eight days were quite challenging since I had to prepare everything again, from the visa acquisition, health check, packing luggage, to saying goodbye to everyone again. Eight days of hassle quickly went by, not much to tell except me being up to my ears with all the work. Not until my plane cruised through layers of cloud over the South China Sea did I realize that all I had waited for was finally rewarded. Truly the light at the end of the tunnel.
4. Hajimete no Japan
The very first impression upon arrival was to realize I was two hours ahead of my hometown (Vietnam GMT+7) since Japan is GMT+9. Although it was merely a difference unnoticed by my biological clock, the strange feeling of bathing in the very first sunlight of Japan knowing that my parents were still deep asleep, and knowing I had to wait for them to wake up just to happily announce my safe arrival, was truly a subtle yet memorable experience. Japan greeted us with a 10-degree-Celsius chill despite the sunny and clear blue sky. We arrived at Narita Airport, where an agent would greet and lead us to the designated quarantine hotel, as per the policy those days which required a full two-week quarantine.
I always remember the moment we stepped outside of the airport. The inside was kept constantly at a cozy room temperature. Thus, when the door opened, a strong, cold, and dry wind washed all over my face, activating all of my senses as I quickly came to realize I was no longer in a tropical area. “This is Japan, and now I am here!”
The next two weeks were well spent at a cozy hotel called Hotel MyStays Narita, approximately 10 minutes by bus from Narita Airport. Looking back, I could not say how much my jaw dropped at the time, seeing how clean Japan was, how beautiful and well-crafted everything was, and how exotic the food tasted. I still remember the very first meal I bought from the combini (convenience store in Japan) — a little udon bowl with tofu on the top. The delicious yet strange flavor, when it gradually found its way into my stomach, was another “I’m in Japan now” realization, but it also offered a little relief as I could and would eat a lot of stuff in Japan during my four years here.
Photo 5: My very first meal in Japan, a typical udon bowl with tofu on the top. The simple yet elegant flavor is just something I cannot forget.
The scenery outside the hotel was breathtaking and I’m not even trying to exaggerate. The view from the 11th floor of the hotel, where you could see a vast area of forest taking a lazy snooze under a blanket of white, milky fog, was just another phenomenal experience I had there. All of these beautiful moments as I first entered Japan will forever be engraved into my memory, and I dearly thank Japan for this.
Photo 6: The vast forest took a lazy snooze under a blanket of white, milky fog in the early morning.
After the quarantine period, we moved out and headed towards Umegaoka Dormitory in Fujigaoka, Yokohama, a quiet and somewhat suburban area whose peaceful vibe I wholeheartedly enjoyed. Upon arrival at the dorm, I quickly set up all the equipment, appliances, and utensils for my little room, where I would spend the next year and five months. It did not take long for me to finish my little working desk, decorated with some wall posters in a clean and efficient way. Finishing this felt like a huge accomplishment. The life of an ordinary international student began, and my academic journey was off to a great start.
As I write this, submerged in nostalgia, I would like to thank my family who earnestly supported me throughout those days full of doubts and desperation, along with the other friends who cheered me up whenever I was about to give up the dream I had painstakingly tried my best to achieve. Without you, I would never be able to endure those long nights with insurmountable anxiety and setbacks. Without you, I would never be able to set foot on this gorgeous island and pursue my dreams. Without you, I would never be able to sit here and type these words from the bottom of my heart. Although my journey here to Japan involved ups and downs, with many stories to be told, it was undisputedly one of the best journeys I have had so far in my life. At least now I can proudly look back and see how far I’ve come, it all starting from the time I decided not to give up, and I am always, always grateful for that.
Regardless of who we are and what we did, I hope we can all meet each other one day in Japan, sooner or later, under the mesmerizing blooms of sakura trees, under the sparkling firework shows on summer nights, and within endless stories, untold or waiting to be told, across this marvelous land of Japan.
Until then, let me dedicate my stories to you.