Student experience - Chris Michalakas
Chris Michalakas completed an exchange to the University of Tokyo, Japan. While at UTokyo, Chris joined a university car club, which became the highlight of his exchange. Chris is studying a Bachelor of Laws with a Bachelor of Economics.
Before applying for his exchange, Chris was motivated to travel to Japan. He had never been overseas except for as a child, and wanted an opportunity to live independently. The main motivator for Chris to choose Japan as his exchange destination was his keen interest in JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) cars, and the social scene surrounding this.
On what he liked most about living in Tokyo, Chris said:
“Tokyo has a lot more trees that I thought it would, and huge parks that you can hang out in. Tokyo has no city centre, just a big circle, which is the Yamanote train line – it was very different to here. Here, I would drive anywhere, but in Tokyo you have to figure out how to use the trains. I also bought a bicycle, and every day I was riding through places like Shibuya Crossing just to get to university. As a bike rider, going through the crossing with all the cars while 3000 people wait to cross – it’s definitely got an interesting feel to it.”
Chris says the campus culture at the University of Tokyo is very much alive. The students are divided between two campuses – one for graduates, and one for new students. On the new campus, student clubs are one of the most notable features.
“One thing about exchange students is they generally hang around in their own little cliques. I did that for a bit, but after a month I decided to join one of the Japanese student clubs. There was a booklet of all the clubs, and eventually I found one that translated to ‘Car Club’. I didn’t know what to expect because ‘car club’ sounded very general, so I emailed them. They responded in English, which I felt pretty good about! And I went to one of the meetings during the week. It was at night, and pretty dark. I couldn’t find the location, so I had to ask someone. One of my teachers had told me there was a garage behind the library, hidden in one of the back corners of campus. So I headed there, and behind all of these bushes is this hidden garage with about 20 parking spots all filled up with student cars. These cars were all kitted up, it was clear the students had poured their heart and soul into them.”
“I was the only foreign club member they’d ever had. One of my senpai’s (an older male friend) – I was hanging out with him late at night one time. After two months of knowing each other, he said to me ‘Chris, you’re my first foreign friend.’ I was the only person he knew who wasn’t Japanese. And I still speak to him now to help him learn English.”
“When I first met the club members, only one of them spoke English. After that meeting, they invited me out to dinner. We went to a Chinese restaurant where you had to sit on the floor. They were all laughing at me because I couldn’t sit down properly because I’m too tall. I was definitely the elephant in the room. But after dinner, I introduced myself to them with the Japanese I knew, and they said ‘Chris, would you like to come for a drive with us?’
At this stage, I hadn’t been in a car since Australia, so I said ‘Sure thing’ and took the opportunity. We got in the car - I went with one guy in his Honda. We entered the ramp to the highway and just took off, it was so fun. Seeing all the buildings flash by was like a movie.”
While in the car club, Chris also learnt how to drive a manual, and participated in events such as a Gymkhana at Fuji Speedway, which involved driving around a set of traffic cones. At the time of this interview, Chris told us he wanted to buy a JDM car to work on here in Australia.
“If I go overseas again, it would be back to Japan. When I left, not only did I leave all my friends in the car club, but all my exchange friends as well. If I went back, they’d all be gone now. I want to go back but not to study, so I can still see all my friends.”
Before going to Japan, Chris didn’t know much Japanese:
“All my classes were in English, and although I didn’t take an official Japanese class, I learnt it on my own. Being a part of the club also helped my Japanese a lot. Now I can speak it pretty well, and can read a lot of the characters. I could go to a train station and read enough to know where to go.”
“But I probably only saw about 10% of Tokyo. You couldn’t possibly see it all in one trip. I was like a long-term tourist, I still bought souvenirs and kept them in my dorm room. At one point a Japanese guy came into my room and said ‘Wow, this is more traditional than my house!’ which was pretty funny.”
“While in Tokyo, I learnt how to be independent and wash my own clothes, but I also learnt what it was like to be in Japan, to hear the music and see their buildings, navigate their train system, etc. It was so different to here.”
Since returning home, Chris has bought a JDM car of his own, a 1994 Toyota Celica. He still keeps in touch with the club at the University of Tokyo as he works on his car.