Welcome to the land of rice and sake – Niigata, Japan. To give you some background, Niigata is the capital and most populous city of the larger Niigata prefecture. The city faces the sea of Japan and is known for the production of high-quality rice and sake, in addition to famous seafood cuisine. So why would someone ever travel to Niigata for an internship at a technology company? To be honest, I had never heard of Niigata before landing my internship. While unlikely circumstances led me to this city, my internship has also given me the opportunity of a lifetime to experience Japan in it’s purest form. On that note, let’s get started by addressing some of my first impressions in this new and exciting environment.
One of my biggest difficulties thus far has been getting over jet lag. My body has been simply exhausted this entire week, even with plenty of rest. In fact, I was passed out by 8 p.m. on some nights! My symptoms also included dizziness and nausea*. I did some research and jet lag can be a big burden when traveling east or across multiple time zones. The science behind what makes your internal clock “tick” is actually very interesting! I really didn’t expect to have so much trouble, but I’m determined not to let it keep me from enjoying my time here. I’m actually feeling much better after taking it a bit slow.
*(Rest assured, I had a full medical exam before leaving for Japan. My test results came back completely normal, so I know that jet lag was the culprit for my discomfort. Make sure to check out the article link above and learn from my mistakes if you are traveling abroad any time soon!)
Aside from jet lag, language has definitely been a serious hurdle to overcome. I actually visited Japan in May 2012 but focused on cities that are considered popular tourist destinations, such as Tokyo and Kyoto. I knew that language would be an issue in Niigata, but I don’t think that did a very good job of mentally preparing myself for this challenge. Since I was unable to take any formal classes back home, my exposure to Japanese has been solely self-taught. Using a silly (but incredibly helpful) online program featuring colorful aliens, I was able to learn two Japanese writings systems before leaving the US – hiragana and katakana. Characters from these systems are often combined with kanji, a much more difficult system based on Chinese characters, to make words that you might read everyday, whether it be a sign in the train station or food packaging at the supermarket. While others might view this communication barrier as a discouragement, I’m really trying to take it in stride. I’ve wanted to master the Japanese language as part of my own personal and professional development for quite some time. This summer will provide even more motivation and opportunity to do so!
Despite these aforementioned obstacles, I am so lucky to be in this beautiful city. From a physical standpoint, Niigata looks like a storybook Japanese town. The residential architecture reflects the traditional style of the country that I’ve really come to appreciate as a foreigner. I also happen to be staying in a sharehouse that perfectly epitomizes this image. I really don’t mind sleeping on the floor, but all of the sliding doors can sometimes become inconvenient! At the same time, the center of Niigata appears to be a much more urbanized area with large buildings and bright lights. The hustle and bustle of daily life gives off a great energy between students hanging with friends or workers hurrying to make a late train. It’s a juxtaposition that makes Niigata incredibly unique. In addition, I’m surrounded by water and mountains at all times. The geography is breathtaking, and I find myself stopping quite frequently to take it all in.
I am also incredibly lucky that so many people have reached out to help during this adventure. My landlord speaks English fairly well and loves interacting with foreigners. He seems very passionate about being from Niigata and making sure others enjoy everything it has offer. He took a lot of the guesswork out of the equation by showing me how to get to the train station and my work office. Since other interns from this company have stayed at the sharehouse, he has grown accustomed to sort of “showing them the ropes.” I was even treated with a visit to his mother’s house. She happens to be a fantastic cook and made sure I was well fed before leaving. Two of my sharemates and an English-speaking coworker have also reached out that they are willing to provide help whenever the opportunity might arise. Overall, it has been a fantastic support system that I never expected but couldn’t be more grateful to have.
This kindness has not stopped with just the people I see on a daily basis. I happened to experience the most amazing instance of generosity from two complete strangers. On my third night in Niigata, I took the wrong train home and found myself hopelessly lost without an ability to make proper change for fare back to Niigata Station. Despite the language barrier, two high schoolers became my guardian angels and went to extreme measures to get me home. People tend to be more shy in this city, especially toward foreigners. However, this situation really opened my eyes to the idea that nationality does not matter when helping a person in need. You can visit my personal blog for the full story on that front! The incident also served as greater incentive to increase my Japanese skills, so I can interact with what seems to be an amazing community of people more competently in the future.
Aside from stocking up at the local grocery store and studying the language, my main task for the timebeing will be succeeding at my internship. As previously mentioned, it might sound weird that Niigata would be home to a tech startup, but my company has managed to succeed in an unlikely place. Tsugi (meaning “next” in Japanese) is a software developer that specializes in smart tools and technologies for a variety of creative clients from big name studios (Sony, Microsoft, Skywalker) to the independent artist. I’m so thankful to be a part of the team, because our founder is dedicated to making life easier for creatives around the world. I can already tell that it’s going to be a challenging role, but I’m excited to make the most of it.
Stay tuned for more details on my adventures in Niigata!