Using Keio’s template of “Useful Information and/or advice from the Former Exchange Students” (keio.ac.jp, accessed 07.11.2019) i also want to give my 2 cents to the troubles i encountered.
Things to bring from home:
I found it really convinient to bring a socket distributor for my electronic devices since Japan has another socket interface. Else you would have needed an adapter for each of your devices (laptop, phone) or charge it separately.
Also you should pack some basic toiletries to survive for the first couple of days and basic medications since english literacy in Japan is not so common.
However don’t bring too much weight with you since you will most likely want to take a lot of souvenirs back home.
It is easy to lose the overview of your expenses. I always noted down how much money per month i actually spend to stay in a certain limit since you likely want to do a lot of things while you are abroad. Not saying you should be too cheap but always going to eat out sushi can be optimized in favour of other exciting activities. My rent was around 550 € per month which seems to be the norm and my overall spendings per month was around 1100 € including going out and a trip per month.
Living in Tokyo
If you are an exchange student in Tokyo attending the KEIO university you will most likely attend the Mita Campus which is located in the Minato Ward. However the dormitories are located around 1h worth of commuting time away from Tokyo. This is also the reason for me having chosen a sharehouse nearUeno. I can sincerely recommand that area since it is centrally located but still not too busy. Of course there are a lot more liveable neighborhoods in Tokyo and there are actually some guides on the Internet which describe characteristica of neighborhoods. A very rough statement is, that the area in the east around Taito is a little bit more quite and more cultural while the newer areas in the west around Shinjuku are more colorful, busy and westernish influenced.
The main transportation method in Tokyo you will use are probably the train systems and the subway systems which are owned by seperate companies. There is however no one for all ticket. If you switch from one system to another you will need to get another ticket. The tickets are in general quite cheap and start at around 160 Yen and increase depending on how many stations you are going. Each of those company’s infrastructure however does cover Tokyo quiete nicely, so that you can save some money by riding a little bit more cleverly with one system and walk the last bit of meters (This actually took me 2 months to understand).
There is also a commuters pass where you pay an amount of money depending on your defined travelroute but you are allowed to ride the train on this route as much as you like – kind of a flat rate. I found out that the price is calculated so that it will be cost efficient if you ride the same route at least 5 times per week back and fourth (e.g. going to work) but having the pass you could still use it on the weekend. Hyperdia does help you with route searches and calculating the price of the commuters pass. There is a discount for students on that passs of around 25%/50% depending on the company .
In common restaurant chains you will most probably encounter 2 systems of ordering. The first one is where you select and pay for your desired item on a machine which then gives you a ticket. You will need to give this ticket to a waiter. The other one is where the menus are located on the table. You can go ahead and sit down on any table and take your time selecting your item. If you are done you need to ring a bell (press a button) to let the waiter know you are ready to order.
A common thing in Japanese gastronomy are also that you will definitely get served water without asking and also can ask for more if needed.
Convinience stores are indeed very convinient but if you take a closer look you will also realize that they are more expensive (the same foes for vending machines).
The bento they are serving are of high quality however they mostly lack vegetables. You can also buy precooked rice and sauces in a convinience store which you then can heat up in a microwave for a change of taste.
A lot of convinience store also have toilets which you can use if you are in need and ask nicely for the toilet key. I did not try that myself, but i saw a friend using it so i am not sure how high the ratio for convinience stores having a useable toilet is.
Things to do after the semester
My semester only lasted from End of March until 05 August however my Visa was valid for a full 6 month period until 23 September. Unlike the student dormitory my sharehouse did not made me leave the place but i still canceled my contract for convenience purposes. A cheap Hostel in Tokyo does cost 2000 Yen on average making it around 60000 Yen of rent expenses per month. The biggest downside is that you don’t have any private space however most Hostels provide cooking utilities as well so that you don’t need to rely entirely on food outside. Besides that it is really easy to make new friends. I would recommend Hostels on the eastern side such as Taito or Chuo since i always had bad experience with similiar prized hostels on the west side such as in Shibuya or Shinjuku. In Kyoto you can even find cheaper places. My best pick was a place at Higashiyama for around 1200 Yen including breakfast and even fruits. There is a lot to do in Japan and if you have enough money i would recommend doing one day trips around Tokyo. After the semester is finished you could then do some more extensive travelings.
In Tokyo i already had major problems speaking with people in english since their proficiency is not that high. This is probably also why most of the foreign workers are either english teachers or people working in IT. On my Tokaido journey i had to rely entirely on peoples patience and my basic Japanese to get around. However i felt like people in Kyoto could speak and understand more english than in Tokyo. This might also just the case because i was almost only at touristic places.
Train and Shinkansen
The train prices are, if you only consider the travel distance, comparable cheap and easily accessable. Although Tokyo consist of multiple cities ( called wards) and is quite big, you can get around fairly easy, fast and cheap. The trains which run along the tokaido trail were also quite cheap. A distance from Dresden to Leipzig would cost 21 € while the same distance would only cost 6 €. The Shinkansen on the other hand is a little bit more pricy but lightning fast. A Shinkansen ticket from Toyko to Kyoto costs around 120 € while a plane ticket would cost around 80 €. However people would still prefer the Shinkansen since it is more convinient to just hop on the train at major stations instead of going to the remote located airports with additional time consuming checkin procedure.
On my journey i noticed a lot of solar panels. As it seems, Japan in general does pay attention to recycling and green energy (because nuclear is not really save and they don’t want to depend on import of fossil fuels). Depending on where you live seperation of waste is quite strict and can be as many as 13 categories.
A lot of abondoned buildings
I noticed a lot of abondoned Hotels. I also heard thathat is a rather common thing and they would just leave every inventory inside the abondoned building instead of wrecking and cleaning it up.
I did not notice until i actually did notice. I almost never encoutnered crying children. Somehow although it is said Japanese people are always working overtime i still observed a lot of families playing in parks and almost no crying or arguing children. This might be either just a cultural thing or because they spend enough quality time together as a family that such things don’t occur.
Earthquakes and catastrophes
Earthquakes do happen a lot – at least in Tokyo. (I did asked a friend who lived in Kyoto and he never actually experienced an earthquake throughout his exchange semester). Unlike how i expected it though, they were mostly smaller one and i got used to it very fast. Several times i did notice my bed shaking while i was asleep but i didn’t mind it or was panicking. It also seems that the Japanese people are trained on how to handle such situations and wouldn’t even panick if bigger once appear. I noticed a lot of meeting points to gather in case of an emergency, there are a lot of indicaters of the current position relative to the water level and also there were filled water bottles in front of some houses which i guess is in case water supply is limited. Fun fact: vending machines do have an additional purpose in emergency situations – they can be opened up and serve as water supply.
Politeness / level of service
A funny thing occured while i took my module “company factory visit” where employees would introduce their companies. Whenever the FAQ round starts us students would ask questions right away. Even though we were reminded almost every time that we should say thank you first before asking questions. And it just starts from there. I could observe coworkers who went out for a get together drinking, when they take their leave they always bow to each other. Also in (more expensive) retail stores or at hotels, when you leave they would stay behind and wave you goodbye until you left their sight. In restaurants wet towels and also credit cards and money are handed to you with both hands indicating an appreciation of that good. Though i am not sure whether this should be called politeness anymore.
Souvenirs / Omiyage
I had serious problems to find any souvenirs regarding postcards and magnets which i am very used to find at any touristic corner in europe. It is not that Japanese don’t have a souvenir giving tradition in fact it is the other way around. There is the Omiyage tradition in Japan which stemmed from around 1600. People would do a pilgrimage to shrines and temples to pray. However since this is a very dangerous and also expensive excursion people of a village or town would send a representative on that journey. They would support him by collectively giving him some financial aid. As a proof that he reached the location the representative would then bring back a Talisman (Omamori) to the townspeople. Since then transportation improved a lot and the financial aid is not really necessary anymore however the Souvenir bringing remained. In fact whenever you go to vacation you would bring some kind of Omiyage back to your Co-Workers and family and friends to let them be apart of your experience and also to apologize for leaving work to your other co-workers. Such Omiyage are mostly consumable products (also because of the limited space) which are specific to that region. That is why you don’t see a lot of postcards around because their equivalent of postcards are small consumable products such as chocolates. And on every train station and souvenir spot you can actually see Omiyage ready products in different quantities depending on the customer’s need.
As already shortly mentioned food here in Tokyo (Japan?) is quite expensive in comparison to good old Dresden. Bentos are a cool invention but i do eat a lot and they just won’t do it for me. Furthermore they are mostly the same, don’t include much vegetables and are pricey on the long run.
So homemade food it is. I reduced my meat consumption and only buy locally available / accessible vegetables. A list of prices can be seen here.
What i normally cook and use is the following:
Japanese supermarket offer thin sliced stripes of meat. I often go with pork which is the least expansive one. Because the expiry date is very short i buy it in bulk and precook it beforehand and store it in the fridge afterwards.
Sausages are also a good alternative to meat in general and go very well with fried rice. Occasionally i buy 1kg of chicken wings. For around 460 yen this is actually a sweet deal, however i have to precook them, which is quite time consuming, because here you don’t want to leave an unfinished open back of chicken wings. Sometimes fish and chicken heart is reduced which makes for a good change. I also tried 1kg of lungs once, but unless you really like it i wouldn’t recommend it. A very good alternative is also Tofu, which can be fried and put into the freezer for a long period. Again this is a little bit time consuming but very cost efficient. I calculate around 100 yen of meat per meal.
I mostly use pak choi, Japanese spinach, cabbage, leek, Daikon, carrots, mushrooms and onions as vegetables base. Frozen vegetables are also viable such as beans and broccoli. Potentially zucchini are also one of the more cheaper products. For vegetables as well it is around 100 yen per meal.
I just don’t buy any.
I mainly use 3 sauce types:
- A peanut butter base sauce, with coconut milk and normal milk (can be made in bulk and stored for longer)
- Japanese style sauce similar to teriyaki which is used in dishes like Gyuudon. It is based on soy sauce and Mirin
- Curry style: using coconut milk and curry paste
Including the costs of rice (which is around 50 yen per meal) i can reduce the cost of a homemade meal to around 300 yen, whereas a similar big Bento would cost around 400-550 yen. If you calculate it per day and times two it makes some difference. Additionally it is just fun to use the “resources the environment provides us”.
Japanese are super determined
I do attend some sports circles. It seems that in Japan spots circles are not too competition focused and organized by students themselves. Still i met people who train 5 times a week besides studying and having a part-time job. Not all but the graduate students i met are really into their stuff having highly set goals and already are active in research. Although i have been assured that not everyone is as determined and most students just enjoy their student life it is at least what i witnessed.
You can’t really see cigarette buds anywhere around. However they don’t really (or they really do ?) seperate their waste. At least where i am at they distinguish between combustable (plastic and biomass) and non combustable ( glass, carton,…). I have just recently learned though, that the food industry is bound by law to recycle at least some percentage of their waste, which is why recycling becomes a really important topic here in Japan.
Not really efficient
Looking at people working in the service industry they are not really efficient. Once i was at the office to extend my commuter pass, there were at least 10 people – 5 of them just standing around. There are apparently also many pseudo jobs for elderly people like overseeing (semi-)busy streets or entrances where vehicles enter. As i heard from a local it is still the case, that you get wierd looks when you leave your job early/before your boss. That’s how many office jobs are not working efficiently because they aim to overstay instead of getting work done.
In rush hour times the trains are getting full as it can. At first i was hesitant but you really have to dig your way into the train. Everyone is literally touching each other. In the morning hours woman get separate wagons but its mostly not enough for them. I read that a high percentage of woman indeed get groped in trains.
Toilets and accessibility
So again the availability of toilets are astonishing. Additionally to that they are all mostly clean. Accessibility in Japan and especially toilets is quite high. There is always at least one sink and urinal which has some kind of supporting mechanism. There are always never doors and ramps are provided for people in wheelchairs.
My room in comparison
My room is around 6 sqm and now that i got the chance to ask around many people in Tokyo don’t really have much more room. Although having an apartment seems to be cheaper than a sharehouse in the long run, this kind of accommodation was in retrospective a very good choice because it is near an important train station (Ueno station) and has the Chiyoda line connecting it to many important districts.
What did i learn and experienced in this one month:
Rules in Japan:
Japanese people seem to like detailed ruling. Everywhere, but most evidently seen at stations, are marks on how to queue. Additionally rules seem to be very strict. Dormitories have separate male and female floors. Without permission from the dorm-manager no other person shall be allowed to enter or stay in a room except for the owner of this room. Though all this seem to be more like guidelines and depend on the responsible manager.
Another interesting example is the following case: Occassionally i have to commute to a much further located Campus however my Commuter Pass (like a discounted ticket for a selected route within a month) only allows me to commute to my main Campus. If I would like to expand my Commuting path i would need a certificate of my university stating that i really attend courses at the further located University – or so it is written in the rules. After some 30 minutes half japanese half english conversation with even a third party translater the responsible authority just allowed me to have that extended route even without a certificate .
Toilets and Tapwater in Japan:
Speaking of Toilets the first thing which comes to mind is the warm seating and the splashing water. However this time i want to talk about public toilets which are widely established and always clean. Those public tiolets (e.g. in Stations) and toilets located in Shopping centers are, as far as i know, all free to enter (and to leave). And while we are at water and free. Every time you go to a restaurant you get free tap water without even asking. Water can be used directly out of the tap although you do taste a higher quantity of Chlorine.
In Tokyo meat, vegetables and especially fruits are quite expansive in comparison to Dresden. Notable strawberries are very popular. A cup of strawberries (around 500g) can be seen at up to 750 Yen (around 6 Euros) and seem to still be sold out.
Although i live in the city i can barely find any supermarket with a wide variety of products. However Convenient Stores (Family Mart, Seven Eleven) are literally on every corner and are mostly opened 24/7. This may change in the future though .
In a clothing store i made the observation, that customer service were always shouting “Irasshaimase!” (いらっしゃいませ！- Welcome) or “Arigatou gozaimasu” (ありがとうございます – Thank you) . Seems nice however during the 5 minutes i tried to decide on a Jacket to buy, the same guy shout around 20 times exactly those phrases. And not even to me or any customer but just like a broken cassette doing its job. without facing anyone -weird stuff.
There are many things to discover in Tokyo. Especially for a foreigner some places seem to be overloaded by information. Everything is blinking, shining, colourful and loud. Furthermore i don’t know too many Kanji symbols which probably adds to the effect of information overload. There are many small details i observed but for this month it shall be enough.