For many, visiting a city for a short period of time just isn’t enough. Studying abroad gives you an entire year to immerse yourself in the local lifestyle and being an international student gives you the flexibility of a tourist but the more authentic experience of a resident. For those of you considering whether Tokyo is the right setting for your new life as an international student, here is what you should know before you go.

Is Tokyo Good for International Students?

If you are someone who likes the idea of living in a big city, one which is vibrant and full of life, then Tokyo may be the perfect place for you. Life as an international student in Tokyo is both exciting and eye-opening, with lots of different museums, shops, parks, and cultural sites to visit. Since there is a large community of international students and expat families, there are many opportunities to make friends from all around the world. Moreover, Japan has a low crime rate so you’ll feel safe on a daily basis, even at night (see our guide to staying safe in Japan for more.)

An average day in the life of an international student consists of attending lectures, studying, socialising with other students, and exploring the campus area. The learning environment is fairly laid back, with the majority of your studies taking place independently. If you want to get the most out of your university experience, you should consider participating in extracurricular activities and join a university circle or club. With plenty of athletic and cultural circles and clubs to choose from, there are endless opportunities to socialise and meet other students with similar interests.

One important factor to take into consideration is language. Most students who decide to study abroad in Japan do so in order to improve their Japanese and also to immerse themselves in a different culture. Although you can stumble through daily life using simple words and sign language, it’s best to learn some basic Japanese as the English speaking ability amongst the general population is rather low. This will make the settling in process and daily scenarios like grocery shopping, feel slightly less daunting.

How to become an international student in Japan

There are a few ways to become an international student in Japan, with the easiest way being through a college study abroad programme. Many colleges have connections to different Tokyo universities and to secure a place at one, you normally have to achieve a certain grade point average. Additionally, there is the option to enrol in different short-term programmes and scholarships yourself.

If you are well resourced in terms of time and finances, you could also take a private Japanese language course in Tokyo or even re-train as a software developer.

How much does it cost to live?

The cost of living depends on a variety of factors such as the area you live in, where you choose to eat, alongside day trips both in and out of Tokyo. Like many other cosmopolitan cities, Tokyo can be an expensive place to live. However, that’s not to say you can’t live on a budget and there are a few notable ways you can save money.

Foodwise, Tokyo is filled with what feels like a never-ending amount of budget-friendly chain restaurants, where you can get a filling meal for ¥500 to ¥1,000. Two of the best are Jonathan’s and Saizeriya, family-style restaurants which offer a wide selection of western and Japanese-style dishes. Matsuya and Yoshinoya are two other staple spots which locals love, where you can enjoy gyūdon (rice topped with beef). These go-to spots tend to be close to train stations, making it an easy choice for when you are in a rush or on a budget.

The impressive entry to Keio University Mita Campus | Photo by Gregory Lane

Although it’s hard to resist the temptation of always eating out or buying food from the konbini, you can save money by shopping at the supermarket instead. Some produce like fresh fruit and poultry can be more expensive in Japan than in Western countries but you will learn quickly that timing matters when food shopping in Japan; by going nearer the end of the day, you are extremely likely to grab a bargain with certain produce and ready-to-go meals that were prepared earlier in the day and didn’t sell. Make sure to look out for the 半額 sticker or the 引 character to know if something is discounted. If done right, your food shop will last a few days and the variety of food is endless!

Transportation costs can add up quickly as well. That said, Tokyo does have one of the world’s most efficient and convenient transportation networks in the world. Purchasing a Suica or PASMO, prepaid smart cards which you can use on the train and bus, works out cheaper than constantly buying physical tickets and will make your commute easier.

Aoyama Gakuin University
The leafy grounds of Aoyama Gakuin University | Photo by Gregory Lane

Other activities like going out for drinks, karaoke, or visiting tourist attractions can get pricey, but if you budget and prioritize then there is a good chance you can do and see everything you want to. Some places offer discounts when pre-booked and you will often find student discounts being advertized as well. Being an international student is a once in a lifetime experience, so don’t be afraid to splash out. If you are worried about the cost of living, getting a part time job is a viable option. The most common job for international students and native English speakers is tutoring; this is because there is so much demand for it, work hours are flexible, and it is relatively stress-free.

Do international students get accommodation?

Most universities in Tokyo have dorms specifically for international students. The price of such dorms is not only dependent on the location and facilities but on your choice of a shared or individual room. In contrast to an individual room, shared rooms are less expensive, but they offer minimal space and privacy. On average, a student dorm located in central Tokyo can cost anywhere from ¥50,000 to ¥90,000 per month. Since they are affiliated with the university, the dorms tend to be in areas where you can easily commute to campus, meaning you can save on transport.

There are many benefits to living in a university dorm; it provides a sociable environment where you can make new friends who live in close proximity, as well as extra support in the case of emergencies.Generally, dorms will have a Japanese ‘dorm rep’ whose job it is to help international students settle in and assist with any administration that needs to be done. This sort of support and guidance is not always available if you live elsewhere. However, it is worth mentioning most dorms have a curfew and a strict ‘no guest’ policy. Potentially, these policies are even stricter now given the effects of COVID-19.

Suggested Activity
Shinjuku, Golden Gai And Kabukicho Evening Walking Tour
Explore the neon-lit alleys of Shinjuku and Kabukicho after dark on this guided adventure. Sample local cuisine at the best hole-in-the-wall eateries, experience quirky bars in the Golden Gai area and take a stroll (that's all) through the infamous red-light district too!

If you don’t fancy the sound of student dorm life, share houses are the next best option.Some of the most notable share house companies include Sakura House, Oak House, and Borderless House. Like the university dorms, you have your own private room, but the living space, kitchen, and bathroom are communal. Share houses have a mix of students and people with other occupations, with the latter being more common. Therefore, you may not get the same experience as you would in a dorm where everyone is a similar age and studying at the same university.In terms of rent, sharehouses tend to be cheaper than dorms with rent ranging anywhere from ¥30,000 to ¥60,000 per month. Although there are a selection of sharehouses in central Tokyo near universities, the majority are located a bit further out.

Okuma Auditorium at Waseda University | Photo by Gregory Lane

There are pros and cons to both international dorms and sharehouses. To figure out which one would be better suited to you, think about what type of person you are and the experience you would like to have. Would you prefer to live with other students and people around the same age? Would you prefer to live more central or further out? Whichever one you choose, you will still find many occasionsto meet new people through university events, lectures, and other chance encounters.

Where to study and get good coffee?

As much as being an international student is about constantly having fun, it is also about studying at a Tokyo institution. Studying doesn’t have to feel tedious, so why not opt to study at a picturesque café – maybe one that overlooks Shibuya Crossing? Despite the fact Tokyo is overflowing with different cafes and coffee shops, some are better designed for long study days and remote working. Notably, some cafes don’t offer free Wi-Fi or much space inside, so it is essential to go somewhere where you feel comfortable and can be productive. Here are just some recommendations:

  • Anjin: Located in Tsutaya Daikanyama, the largest bookstore chain in Japan, this working space is not only aesthetically beautiful but filled with a staggering collection of ancient Eastern and Western books. Ideal for long study days, this working space has power outlets, free Wi-Fi, as well as a small selection of food and beverages.
  • Streamer Coffee Company: Specialising in coffee art, this café has several branches across Tokyo. The inside space has all the essentials for studying including fresh coffee, large tables, power outlets, and Wi-Fi.
  • Paul Bassett: Spacious and home to world class coffee, Paul Bassett is a coffee shop in Shinjuku perfect for studying. Moreover, it offers an extensive and reasonable brunch, lunch, and café menu!
  • Shiru café: Located near Waseda university, this café is a hidden gem. By signing up to the café’s student business network, you can get a free tea or coffee as well as a cake for ¥300! Not only is it a calm working space but by visiting, you can get access to different career opportunities in Tokyo.
  • Starbucks, Blue Bottle, Komeda Coffee and Tully’s Coffee: Chain coffee shops are reliable study spots since they are reasonably priced and located all across Tokyo. Most of them have free Wi-Fi and a good amount of space but the ones in central are likely to be much more crowded and busier.

Where to spend your free time?

As previously mentioned, Tokyo has so much to offer in terms of tourist attractions, nights out, and scenery. Here’s a rundown of the best areas for students to spend their time whilst abroad:

  • Shibuya/Harajuku: Located next to each other, Shibuya and Harajuku are home to some of the best shops and cafés in Tokyo. During the day, you can shop the latest fashion trends at both Takeshita Street and Shibuya 109. See the Tokyo sunset from heights by visiting Shibuya Sky and then dance the night away in one of the many clubs, bars, or karaoke places located there.
  • Shinjuku: Shinjuku is a great place to go if you are looking for good izakayas, a type of Japanese bar, and restaurants. It also has a few malls, department stores, cinemas, and arcades. On a sunny day, visit Shinjuku National Garden, a park located in the middle of the city.
  • Shimokitazawa: One of the most trendy and popular areas with young people, Shimokitazawa is filled with vintage shops, lowkey cafés, and live bars. Just a few stops away from Shibuya station, you can easily spend the day here.
  • Takadanobaba:Popular among students, Takadanobaba is a neighbourhood located near Waseda University filled with a variety of reasonably priced karaoke bars, izakayas, and places to eat.

It is also worth making the most out of Tokyo’s amazing transport links. A short ride on the JR line or metrobrings a change of scenery and atmosphere. You can easily plan a day trip to the places below:

  • Yokohama: Home to the largest Chinatown in Japan as well asan iconic amusement park which illuminates at night, Yokohama is a port city located south of Tokyo. There are also many places to go shopping as well as the Cup Noodle Museum!
  • Kamakura: If you want to spend a day exploring different aspects of Japan’s traditional culture, Kamakura is the place to go. Renowned for its gorgeous shrines and temples in addition to the Great Buddha,Kamakura feels quintessentially Japanese.
  • Enoshima: West of Kamakura, Enoshima is a small island known for its famous shrine and beautiful beaches. The best time to go is during summer as you can spend a day exploring the island and then in the evening sit on the beach and let off small fireworks.
  • Kawagoe: Known as little Edo, Kawagoe is famous for its Edo-style and historic buildings as well as traditional Japanese shops. Like Kamakura, there are a few temples and shrines to explore.

Though Tokyo offers a diverse experience of Japanese life, you should venture out beyond the capital and visit other parts of the country. With the luxury of the Shinkansen (bullet train), it is easy to travel cross-country to popular destinations such as Kyoto and Osaka. However, it is also worth checking out more underrated places like Kanazawa, Okayama, and Nagano.Although the Shinkansen is super convenient, it is expensive; an alternative is to travel by an overnight bus, which does take longer but is better value for money. There are also opportunities to go on a cheap skiing or sightseeing trip if you join a club or circle.

Overall, life as an international student in Japan is one of the most rewarding and life-changing experiences. You’ll get the chance to go to exciting places, meet welcoming people, and learn more about a country, which is both rich in history and culture.

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