Kathryn - University of Kitakyushu

B. Arts
Semester 1, 2015

Academic experience

I started my exchange going into my third year of a Bachelor of Arts with an Extended Major in Japanese. 
The year I spent on exchange at this university was probably one of the most challenging and yet most rewarding years of my life, and I don’t regret a minute of it. The challenge came in the form of the Japanese Education System and its emphasis on memorization over understanding. As classes will be one of the things you remember the most when you come home simply because they make up a significant portion of your exchange experience, I have focused on trying to explain them in as much detail as possible.

During my year at the University of Kitakyushu, I studied classes from the short-term exchange program. As previously mentioned, the classes are divided into various skills (Grammar, Reading, Kanji, Writing and Speaking) and each class is 90 minutes long. Classes are still divided into small groups based on Japanese level determined by a placement test at the start of the semester, and class size ranges from 2-10 people per class. The people placed in the same level as you will probably become like a second family simply because of the amount of time you have to spend together. 
Depending on your results in the placement test, you will also be given the opportunity to (be required to) take a supplementary class that focuses on reading comprehension and facilities cultural exchange through group discussion. The majority of classes mostly involve reading directly from the textbook and limited discussion, so it will be up to you to find and make friends that you can speak Japanese with if you want to have any hope of improving your speaking ability. Fortunately, the compulsory Friday afternoon "Japanese Culture" class sees all exchange students from all different levels gathered in the one location, so you might just find yourself in a situation where the only shared common language between you and some of your classmates is Japanese.

If you are willing to ask and you are up for a bit of a challenge, there are also classes outside of the short-term exchange program that you are able to enrol in. I personally took two classes that are offered to long-term exchange students that focused on critical thinking and group discussion. I found them to be an invaluable opportunity to practice not only speaking but the expression of my own opinions and ideas in Japanese - a welcome change from the way that some of the other classes are taught.

Overall, the classwork isn't particularly challenging, but the sheer number of things you are expected to remember can become overwhelming. The classes really seem to be focused on trying to give you the knowledge required to enable you to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test when you reach the end of the semester. In order to achieve this goal, you will go through hundreds of new kanji and phrases every week which are complemented by weekly short tests and homework. This system didn’t seem so much as to facilitate students’ understanding of the Japanese language as it put their short-term memory to the test. In saying this, the majority of the teachers are willing to talk to students outside of class time and some may even attempt to explain what was covered in their classes. And if you are really stuck, you can always try asking your classmates for help or turn to the internet – there is a wealth of resources that cover the content on the JLPT with explanations in both Japanese and English online. 

My advice is to come prepared with a solid study plan at the beginning of the semester and make sure you put in the time to revise or you won't be able to get the most out of your classes. Due to the nature of the education system, you will most likely find yourself forgetting the vast majority of what you learned in the previous week as you will be focusing on the next set of short tests. If levelling up your language ability is your main goal, however, don't be discouraged. There are so many opportunities to immerse yourself in the Japanese language outside of the classroom, perhaps the most obvious being talking with all of the new Japanese friends you will make.

Personal experience

Out of all the things I gained on exchange, I think the relationships built were definitely the most important and rewarding. 
I made the majority of my friends and spent the majority of my time at The Centre for International Education & Exchange (handily located underneath all of the classrooms) It’s where Japanese students who are interested in being friends with foreign students hang out, and there is always someone to talk to there. One of my favourite things about the centre was meeting Japanese students who had previously gone on exchange in Australia and indeed at UQ because it always felt like I was catching up with an old friend when we exchanged stories.


The staff who work at the centre will go out of their way to help you with requests or questions and are always willing to help. They really will do everything in their power to try and make your time in Japan as comfortable as possible, so don’t hesitate to talk to them if you have a problem or just want to chat. From organizing you a tutor to making sure you have a Japanese friend to show you around when you first arrive, I personally think that the support that the centre staff gives exchange students is one of the best aspects of the exchange program as it really takes a lot of the stress out of living in a new country with an unfamiliar language. The staff are even willing to drive you to the doctors and translate during the appointment for you should the need arise, they are just that nice. 

Accommodation

I lived in a single-bedroom apartment complex that was about a twenty-minute walk away from the university. However, chances are you will be placed in one of the two apartment complexes that are about 5-10 minutes away. Regardless of where you end up, the university is still providing students with a futon, rice cooker, small table, desk light and television, and your apartment will come with internet that is included in your rent. Unfortunately, it seems that the bicycles that were offered to students in the past are no longer available. 
All of the apartments are located within walking distance of supermarkets, monorail stations and the all-important convenience stores. The best thing about my accommodation was that every last thing was organized by the staff at the centre, including being driven from the airport to my new apartment on the day that I arrived. It was a big relief to not have to worry about sorting out accommodation by myself. 

Budget

I paid around $500 a month for rent, however, the majority of exchange students live in one of two apartments that cost around $300 a month. Gas and electricity bills come monthly and water bills come every three months. I spent around $80 a month on utilities, although be prepared to pay a little more in summer and winter depending on how much you rely on your air-conditioner. All of the utility bills can be paid at convenience stores, which there is no shortage of. 
The mobile data plan that I had cost around $25 a month for 4GB of data but the prices and availability really do vary. If you want to be able to use your phone while over here, it will require a little bit of prior research and probably the assistance of a Japanese-speaking friend but it is definitely doable. You can try looking for SIM cards online or go to electronics stores in Japan like BIC Camera or Yamada Denki and see what is available there – just remember your phone must be unlocked if you want to use a Japanese SIM card. Having data was a real lifesaver, and Google Maps came in handy every other day.
I didn’t regularly use public transport apart from the monorail to Kokura, which is where most things are. If I had to guess, you will probably use around $10 a week on public transport. If you want to go to Fukuoka, you can save a few hundred yen by asking for 4 tickets at the news agency underneath the main building of the university. For travel further afield, buses and trains have round-trip discounts and aeroplane tickets can be dirt cheap if you book them in a bit in advance. 

Professional development and employability

Going on exchange allows students to become more confident and self-reliant as it gives them the opportunity to be isolated from the familiar and presents them with an entirely new set of challenges, including language and cultural differences. The ability to overcome these differences and find common ground on which to build relationships is something that I imagine is an attractive quality in an employee.

Highlight

The highlight of my experience is without a doubt the friends I made along the way. 
Over the summer holidays, I was lucky enough to be invited to stay over at some of my Japanese friends’ houses in their hometowns and got to experience living with Japanese families. I was able to experience life in three different households and was shown around Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Oita by locals, which was a truly unique experience. I was blown away by the willingness of these families to open their homes up to a foreigner whom they had never met, and I will always remember the kindness and hospitality they showed me. 
Later in the summer, I travelled to Taiwan to visit three of my classmates whose exchange had finished. It was sort of surreal to be in a country outside of Japan speaking only in Japanese to my friends, and it was a real eye-opener about the progression of my speaking ability since starting my exchange that made me feel more confident. 
The people of Kitakyushu are overwhelming kind, friendly, and welcoming, and are what makes Kitakyushu an amazing place to go on exchange. 

Top tips

  • There are a few restaurants and bars within walking distance of the university if you don’t feel up to riding the monorail, including the student favourite Tsuba Kitchen
  • Queen’s Echo, a karaoke place near Kitagata Station is open pretty much 24/7 and there is a flat rate of 1000 yen for up to 6 hours of singing after 11 PM. 
  • If you are craving Indian food, check out Nanak (ナーナック) just past MOS Burger off of Heiwadori 
  • COSMOS is the cheapest supermarket but you are going to have to go to Mori or Red Cabbage if you want to buy meat, fruit and vegetables. If you are want something a little fancier, try Sun Live which is past the university – they do great bento and are next to a cute bakery. If you are looking to save money, try A Price where you can buy in bulk 
  • There is a sushi train in Cha Cha Town that has plates of sushi starting at 90 yen
  • If you come to Kitakyushu, you might find yourself delivering a speech in Japanese in front of a room of CEOS, teaching an English class for babies or making mochi at a temple over New Years. So, my number one piece of advice for those going on exchange is to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way, because you never know what is going to happen but it is sure to be interesting. 
Kathryn - University of Kitakyushu