It was my first time in Japan, a country I’d long dreamt of visiting. I didn’t speak the language, and I only had a week of history and culture education to prepare me for my 11-day stay in the Land of the Rising Sun. This is how I thrived — and how you can too, when you begin your journey.


I’ve long believed that the unhealthiest way to live is to live thinking that your brand of life is practiced across the globe. The cure? Travel! Or at least get some exposure to something different. The world can be as dense and as hot as an Indian metropolis, as sparse and as cold as Greenland, or anything in between.

Traveling teaches you about somewhere else (and about yourself), but if it’s your first time abroad, then I’d recommend you follow a basic set of rules and guidelines. Here are the five rules I set for my first trip to Japan:

  • 1. It’s OK to make mistakes — just learn from them.

    Japanese society is built around order and harmony. Naturally, this is achieved by implementing a series of rules and behaviors that tend to overwhelm newcomers. No matter where you travel, you’re probably going to make some head-turning mistakes. It’s OK to make a mistake, but it’s not OK to not try next time. In many countries (especially in Japan), people are fine with foreigners not knowing every rule in society, but nobody likes an arrogant tourist who thinks they’re above the rules altogether. Apologize if you've made a mistake, and if you don't know, ask someone who might!

  • 2. If you can’t learn the language in time, learn to say “thank you,” “excuse me,” “I'm sorry” and “please."

    Learning a language is like building a muscle — it takes time and patience. If you don’t have the time to learn the basics of a language, learn to be polite, be courteous, and ask for permission. These four phrases are, in my opinion, the backbone of courteous conversation in any country. For a more in-depth list, check out this list of 21 essential travel phrases to learn, regardless of your destination!

  • 3. Don’t ask what you’re eating. Just eat it.

    Another culture’s food might seem daunting at first — I know that I was unsure about some Japanese food when it was offered to me, but there comes a time when you need to just take a deep breath and eat. Even if I couldn’t tell you what it was specifically that I ate in Japan, I could tell you that I enjoyed every single bite. To quote Andrew Zimmern, “If it looks good, eat it!

  • 4. You are a guest in someone’s country. Act like it.

    Unfortunately, this has to be said. If you are abroad, please keep in mind that the citizens of that country are opening their home to you. Having fun is all right, but don’t make a fool of yourself, and don’t make it onto the news.

  • 5. Arrive with no expectations.

    Easier said than done. If you’re like me, then you’ll spend most of your 12-hour direct flight to your destination spinning through a mental movie of everything that could go wrong. Naturally, none of that happened, but I did try to put all my expectations aside, both positive and negative. I wasn’t jumping out of my chair because I was going to have a life-altering time in Japan, and I wasn’t trying to book the quickest flight back to Denver. I was simply on a trip, and it might be good, or it might be bad, and that’s all there was to it.

    Jason standing in front of a Kitsune statue at a shrine.(That's me at at the Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan!)

You're home, so now what?

Travel is an important part of human growth because it lets you see the complexity of life and how different the world can be. It might be intimidating to plan even a small trip abroad, but that’s the most important part: Nothing worth doing is ever easy. Good luck, have fun, and “Sayonara!"

Related: Taking a 48-hour college roadtrip


JASON KELLER

is a senior at UNC and is planning to graduate in December 2018. He is studying journalism and writing, with an emphasis in news and multimedia. He has a passion for marketing, technology and writing, and hopes to work in marketing or research after he graduates. When he's not at work, he likes to listen to music, hike, read, study, ride his bike, write and spend time with friends.