Academic experiences:
Because I decided to go to Japan, but do not speak Japanese, my options for courses were more limited than might otherwise have been the case. If you are in a similar situation, my advice would be to use up some General Electives from your degree program and just choose courses that sound fun and not too hard to pass – after all, grades overseas don’t affect your UQ GPA! At Sophia University, there is an entire faculty lectured in English, (The Faculty of Liberal Arts; their website is very good if you need more information http://www.fla.sophia.ac.jp/) so as long as you have electives to use up you do actually have plenty to choose from; particularly if you are interested in Japanese cultural classes.

Also, at Sophia, it is compulsory for all exchange students to study a Japanese language course. Before semester begins, you all do a placement test and then are placed in the appropriate level class. I was placed in the beginner’s class, and it was fantastic. I learnt heaps, and had a great time. The only downside to this is that you need to be prepared for classes 5 days a week; also, attendance is marked (like being back in high school) and if you skip too many classes you will be failed from the course. The other courses I took were Management in Japan and Strategic Thinking (a 4th-year economics course). The lecturers were good, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. Another note to remember: the grades required to pass are different for each course, so make sure you check with your lecturer at the beginning of semester (e.g. Japanese required 60% to pass).

Personal experiences/What you got out of it:
Tokyo is an amazing city, and makes Brisbane feel very small by comparison. I had an absolutely fantastic time living here and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Japan, or an interest in living the ‘big city life,’ or just looking to experience something so completely different from home. Living somewhere different is a great way to broaden your world view and also get a completely new perspective.

If you do not speak Japanese, do not be discouraged! I knew almost nothing before coming here, but I found Japanese people to be so incredibly kind that my lack of language skills was never really a problem. People will be enthusiastic if you try to use what Japanese you do have, and I personally ended up laughing a lot as I gradually became better at understanding and being understood. It is also unbelievably satisfying when you reach the point, a few weeks in, that you can actually understand what the nice lady at the local grocery store says to you – and even have a simple conversation!

There is also a heap to see and do in and near Tokyo as a tourist (particularly when on a student budget); I went sightseeing almost every weekend for the entire semester I was there. Another bonus of Japan is that there is a great mix of traditional and modern culture to experience and enjoy; I personally highly recommend a trip to Meiji Jingu (a major Shinto Shrine in a beautiful big park) followed by a shopping trip down Takeshita Dori in nearby Harajuku (the place to buy teenager/uni student fashion items). If you are interested in cosplay-type outfits, Takeshita Dori is a must-visit; I also recommend a particular shop called BodyLine that sells such outfits at a discount, you are not allowed to try them on but they will happily use a tape measure to check the sizing for you.

Also, one of the most valuable aspects of spending time overseas is the incredible friendships I made. My number one tip is to get out there and meet people; other exchange students are all just like you – nobody knows anyone and everyone wants to make friends. Japanese students will be really keen to meet someone new and also to practice their English and help you to practice your Japanese. Join a club (the ikebana club was a good one!) and just have fun!

Expenses:
At the time I was in Japan (Semester 2, 2011) the exchange rate was roughly $1AUD=76JPY. At this exchange rate, living expenses were reasonably close to what I would have spent in Australia. My favourite store is called DAISO (ダイソ, http://www.daisojapan.com/) and there are many of them around Tokyo; it is a 100yen store (i.e. almost everything in it costs 100yen~$1.30AUD) and it sells almost everything.

Apart from that, meat is expensive, as is most fruit/vegetables (Japan has no land) and it is almost impossible to get what I would call real cheese. However, alcohol is extremely cheap in comparison to Australia (unfortunately the legal drinking age here is 20 – be aware of that if you plan to go out) and because you do not pay for petrol, only public transport, I personally spent far less money on commuting expenses. There is a student discount for train tickets, but only on the route between your residence and your university campus; you buy this in 1- or 3-monthly quantities – check out which possible routes you can take, then work out which one includes the stations that you are most likely to want to go to for leisure (e.g. Shinjuku), and get your discount on that route. Also, make some Japanese friends, because they will always know how to get discounts for everything. I went to Tokyo Disneyland at about half price due to the timely advice of a Japanese friend!

Accommodation:
I lived in a student dormitory called DK House, organised through Sophia University as part of the application process. This was a dormitory full of international students, as well as some native Japanese students, many of whom attended Sophia University with me. It houses both boys and girls, and (I thought this was a big positive) does not have a curfew. I would absolutely recommend this option if you are keen to make a lot of international friends, always have someone to talk to/go sightseeing with, and have fun. If you are serious about learning the language, however, I would recommend a home-stay – most of the time English was spoken in the dormitory. Also, be prepared for a commute time of 30mins-1 hour; that is normal in Tokyo and Sophia University does not have any on-site accommodation.

5 TOP TIPS:

  • Print a map of the JR Lines and Tokyo Metro (subway/underground trains) in English. This is particularly important if your Kanji isn’t too good; maps of the train lines are everywhere but almost never in English and having one that you can read is invaluable for getting around the city. You can get the JR map here http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/info/map_a4ol.pdf and the Metro map here http://www.tokyometro.jp/en/subwaymap/pdf/routemap_en.pdf. Print them in colour, and make sure it’s legible – A3 if you need to!
  • Bring warm clothes! (I was in Tokyo in winter, so this only applies to that season) Heating in Japan is expensive, so most houses do NOT have central heating. Temperatures in the middle of the winter were about 5°C down to about -1°C, and coming from Brisbane I thought it was freezing. Thermal underwear is a good idea, as is a good-quality coat. Beanie, gloves and scarf however can all be bought here inexpensively (Daiso has some really good ones).
  • Tokyo is a cash economy; with the exception of some large grocery stores and Shinkansen tickets at major train stations, almost nowhere in Japan accepts credit card as a method of payment. I recommend organising either a Travel Money Card (most major Australian banks have that option) or a master or visa debit card and taking cash out from ATMs in lump sums. This is MUCH easier if it is a visa card, because all 7-11 stores have ATMs that accept visa. If (as I did) you have a master card, you will be limited to using the post office ATMs (this still isn’t too bad; there are just fewer of them) One big advantage of the post office ATMs, however, is that they have the lowest fees.
  • Bring good quality walking shoes. Generally, you will only be using public transport; this means a LOT of walking, particularly if you want to be tourist and see as much as possible while staying here. Additionally, it is very normal to spend an entire 1-hour-long train trip standing. To make matters worse, unless you are quite small by Australian standards, buying shoes/clothing in Japan can be very difficult because Japanese people are quite petite. I also recommend investing in some shoe water-proof spray; again, Daiso is great for these things!
  • Mobile phones are confusing in Japan. If it is at all possible, find someone kind who speaks reasonable Japanese if/when you get one. Personally, I bought a phone outright from the second-largest Japanese phone company SoftBank and then used prepaid cards that lasted 60 days each. This is the cheapest option for those staying only one semester; if you are staying for a full year, I recommend checking out the cheapest plans each company has available because that will probably be a better deal.

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