My home university’s student circle asked me for some tips for new exchange students coming to Japan and after living in Tokyo, Japan for over 18 months I learned some things that might be useful for future exchange students, often glanced over in similar lists. Although this list is a perpetual work-in-progress, I hope it can at least offer some concrete, directly applicable tips.

Shopping

Get an Amazon.co.jp Prime account

I’m reluctant for promoting a company with an employment situation as terrible as Amazon. Nevertheless, students are legible for a year-long trial of Amazon Prime Student which might be quite useful for exchange students on a budget. The prime reason to do so would be free expedited shipping, but some other benefits include streaming through Prime Video and free selection of Kindle novels. Personally, I found amazon.co.jp useful for difficult to find research material and access to some other second-hand sellers.

Speaking of which…

Use Mercari

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.

Get used to customer cards

A lot of stores have customer cards, usually freely obtainable and immediately applicable. A card at my OK Supermarket cost 100 yen and saved me 3% on all my groceries. Places like Big Camera, the 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

Although I loved my apartment and spent a lot of time at my university lab, I generally felt the most productive studying or reading in bakeries or the omnipresent coffee-shops like Tully’s and Renoir. Perhaps not as romantic, but another cheap option might be studying at McDonalds chains equipped with electric outlets and ordering a cheap coffee.

Personally, I grew fond of manga cafes and particularly of the Kaikatsu Club (快活クラブ) 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. All you can drink soft-ice, hot drinks and soft drinks are included, and food-service is relatively decent for the price. I confess to having spent the night there more than once after missing my last train, and with their student discounts its generally 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 usually even 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

Karaoke is a common staple of the foreign exchange student experience in Japan. For those staying in Tokyo, I personally recommend the manekineko (まねきねこ) chain. Great price/quality balance (コスパ最高) including all-you-eat soft-ice, and with student discount its actually the cheapest one 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 options; not just within the domain of more traditional Japanese cuisine (washoku 和食) but all over the world. I definitely recommend popping into random places, but I still have my go-to places. 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

Seriously, just try out a bunch of different izayakayas, even if it means taking the elevator to a random 7th floor. Get out of your comfort zone. When on a steep budget, however, Torikizoku is by far the most famous izakaya chain in Japan, and a good, cheap choice for having a beer and some snacks with friends.

Chinese

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

A household name amongst mainland Chinese people 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 personally really like 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 hype amongst high-school students back in 2017), and Saemaeul Sikdang (セマウル食堂) for their Kimchi Jigae. Other dishes to look out for are Samgyeopsal (삼겹살), Bulgogi (불고기) and Bibimbap (비빔밥). If you like alcohol, 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 incredibly fuwafuwa pancakes 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 losing popularity amongst young 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 in picking your own courses, it’s definitely worth picking up several zemi 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 gashuku 合宿 and nomikai 飲み会 as well.

Circle activities

If you’re able to converse in Japanese to a certain extent, I honestly think you’d be missing out skipping on the opportunity of joining at least one circle as exchange student. Traditionally, circles actively recruit at the start of the first semester, so definitely walk by the different stands around your campus and don’t be afraid of approaching the stand holders. You’ll probably be invited to join their Line 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 bubble of other exchange-students: being surrounded by mostly other exchange students, as well as the occasional Japanese student interested in internationalization and/or practicing foreign languages. Circles and zemi are an effective way of expanding your friend circle at your university.

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. You’ll be grateful to have something substantive to look back upon after finishing your exchange.

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 a human connection with the local staff.

Baito

After arrival in the airport it’s worth immediately applying for a work-permit as well. It’s quite easy to find student jobs in Japan and aside from some extra dispensable income, its 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 geinin 芸人 (Naomi Watanabe, Buruzon Chiemi, Matsuko), joyu 女優 (Sakura Ando, Fumi Nikaido, Ai Hashimoto) and haiyu 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 Arashi 嵐. Having some knowledge on these topics helps daily conversation, or you might end up stuck discussing cultural differences between Japan and your country for the majority of your stay, which would get boring pretty fast. 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.

Social media

The most popular form of social media remains Twitter, although Instagram is rapidly catching up and TikTok is the hot newcomer for the youth. 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, maybe]


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