After living in Tokyo, Japan for over 18 months I learned some things that might be useful for future exchange students and are often glanced over in similar lists. While this list is still a work-in-progress, I hope it can at least offer some concrete, directly applicable tips.

Shopping

Get an Amazon.co.jp Prime account.

Students are legible to a year-long trial of Amazon Prime Student. The prime reason to do so is free expedited shipping, but some other benefits include streaming through Prime Video and free selection of Kindle novels. While I lived close to a supermarket, I found amazon.co.jp useful for everything ranging from purchasing large, bulky daily goods to difficult to find research material.

Use the Mercari applications

Mercari (メルカリ) is a widely used e-commerce application popular for second-hand sales and small time mom-and-pop independent stores. I used it for buying my TV and some rare-to-find records. It’s common to haggle on the price and you pay through convenience stores.

Use customer cards

A lot of stores use customer cards, usually free and immediately applicable. A card at my OK Supermarket cost 100 yen and saved me 3% on all my groceries. Places like Big Camera, must-visit dirt-cheap second hand store Book-Off, Tully’s Coffee, etc have free customer cards. Some stores moved on to smart-phone applications, like the shoes-market chain ABC Market.

Services

(Manga) cafes

While I loved my apartment, and spent a lot of time in my own research lab at university, I was generally the most productive studying or reading in bakeries or coffee-shops like Tully’s and Renoir. While missing a similar romantic feeling, another cheap option is studying at McDonalds chains equipped with electric outlets and ordering cheap coffee.

Personally, I grew fond of manga-cafes and particularly of the Kaikei Club chain. Students get steep discounts, private booths are comfortable and equipped with both blankets and pillows for a quick nap, as well as a computer and additional screen I could attach to my laptop, and sufficient electrical outlets. Soft-ice, hot drinks and soft drinks are included in the price, and food-service is relatively decent. I confess to have spent the night there more as once, and with student discounts its actually a cheaper and more comfortable option over spending several hours at coffee-shops.

Convenience stores

24/7 convenience stores offer decent food, fresh coffee, ATMs, printers, public restrooms and a place to sit. One can purchase tickets for concerts, events, attraction parks like Disney Land, etc at the ticket machines there. Bills like your health insurance can be paid there, as well as most purchases on-line.

Karaoke

I highly recommend the manekineko (まねきねこ) chain. Really good price/quality balance (コスパ最高) including all-you-eat soft-ice, and with student discount (like I mentioned earlier, download the app) actually the cheapest ones I’ve been to within central Tokyo.

Food

It would be a waste to not enjoy the wide range of different food available in Japan. Even if with a vegetarian lifestyle or on a budget it is definitely possible to explore various kitchens; not just within the domain of 和食 but all over the world. Obviously it’s impossible to make an extensive list, and I definitely recommend just randomly popping into places, but here are still some musts in my opinion. By the way, just a tip but aside from being dragged to places by friends, I’ve often relied on the tabelog (食べログ) application or even just googling things like “best bakery ikebukuro”.

Izakayas

Just try out a bunch of different izayakaya, even if it means randomly taking the elevator to the 7th floor. While not particularly known for being high cuisine, Torikizoku is by far the most famous izakaya chain in Japan, and a good, quick choice for having a beer and some snacks on a budget.

Chinese

While it’s definitely worth visiting the historic Chinatown in Yokahama, the most authentic and affordable experience for Chinese cuisine in Tokyo is in Ikebukuro, a region by some considered as modern Chinatown. Has many highly affordable 食堂 around, with popular selections like Szechuan dishes (Mapo Tofu is a must), Hainan Chicken, xiaolongbao (小笼包 or ショーロンポー, shanghai style buns), etc.

A household name amongst mainland Chinese is haidilao (海底捞), a famous Chinese chain of hotpot restaurants. There’s one in Shinjuku (kabukicho) and in Ikebukuro. Go there during lunch or after 10PM for a 30% discount.

Korean

While Korean restaurants are widely available, those in the Korean neighborhood (新大久保 Shin-Okubo) are most frequented by Korean natives. I highly recommend Shinchan (辛ちゃん) for its Korean-style fried chicken, Shijan Dakgalbi (市場ダッカルビ) for its Cheese Dak galbi (an instagram hit amongst high-school students), and Saemaeul Sikdang (セマウル食堂) for Kimchi Jigae. Other dishes to look out for are Samgyeopsal (삼겹살), Bulgogi (불고기) and Bibimbap (비빔밥). Don’t forget to try the Korean sparkling rice wine makkoli (막걸리)!

Desserts

I like pancakes. A Happy Pancake (幸せのパンケーキ) has the most fuwafuwa pancakes one can imagine and are definitely worth the trip to Ikebukuro or Kichijoji.

Sushi

Eating at the counter of an old-school Sushi-bar and talking to the chef (itamae, 板前) is a fun tradition sadly losing popularity amongst young people students. I’ve had many interesting conversations with both itamae and other patrons, and more than once received something on the house (サービス). Worth trying at least once.

School

Zemi-style classes

If you have some freedom picking your own courses, it’s definitely worth picking up several ゼミ(ナール). Valuable from a didactic standpoint, but due the interactive elements also a great opportunity to get to know your professors and classmates. If you’re in luck you’ll be able to participate in 合宿 and 飲み会 as well.

Circle activities

If you speak Japanese to a certain extent, I honestly think you’d be missing out skipping on the chance of joining at least one circle as exchange student. Traditionally circles actively recruit at the start of the first semester, so definitely walk around the campus and walk past different stands. You can join Line groups of different groups and participate in newcomer events to get a feel of the group and its activities before making a decision.

Exchange students are often stuck in an exchange-student circle: being surrounded by mostly other exchange students, as well as the occasional Japanese student interested in internationalization. Circles and zemi are effective ways of expanding your friend circle.

Finally: daily life

Keep a diary and/or blog

Doesn’t have to be particularly long, just the essence of what you did each day. Maybe go more in-depth when you’ve experienced something memorable.

Don’t be afraid to try out new things but don’t forget to stick to your favorites

Sounds contradictory but I both recommend trying out as many activities and places around, such as restaurants, coffee-shops, preferred clothing stores, etc; and building a network of places you frequent. It’s a fun way to build human connections with the staff.

Baito

After arrival in the airport it’s worth directly applying for a work-permit as well. It’s quite easy to find student jobs in Japan and aside from the extra money a great way to increase your network and learn about cultural habits. Teaching English is a classic one, but definitely look around your university as well.

Consume media

I assume most studying Japanese or going on exchange to Japan appreciate Japanese media such as video games, movies, series, manga, anime or the music scene. Its worth getting more in-depth in a certain field and having a general feel on most mainstream fields as well. I’ve often been inquired on my favorite Japanese 芸人 (Naomi Watanabe, Buruzon Chiemi, Matsuko), 女優 (Sakura Ando, Fumi Nikaido, Ai Hashimoto) and 俳優 (Abe Hiroshi), and even been asked opinions on male-idol label Johnny’s (ジャニーズ) and how I feel about 嵐. Having some knowledge on these topics helps daily conversation. You’ll have more luck discussing morning drama’s (asadora, 朝ドラ) and variety shows (good ways to improve listening skills by the way, I recommend 月曜の夜更かし, but itte-Q and 水曜日のダウンタウン are fun as well) than you’ll have discussing Game of Thrones.

  1. Social media

The most popular form of social media remains Twitter, although Instagram is rapidly catching up. These are crucial for keeping up with artists or people of note. As for communication tools, Line is the most popular messaging tool amongst Japanese, but if you have some Chinese friends it’s definitely useful to install Wechat as well. Another option, more popular amongst South Koreans, is Kakaotalk.

[More to come]


  1. Photograph of Chuo University, Tama Campus at night.