Riyoko, studying abroad at Hitotsubashi, Tokyo, Japan
After two months of studying in Tokyo, things are beginning to settle down. The first few weeks were a blur of paperwork, signatures, welcome parties and sleep deprivation – disorientation, despite all their attempts to help us orientate. But at last, it’s slowing down, and I’ve learned the following things: it’s okay if you lose your passport, forget to pay your health insurance and crash your bike. It will work out in the end, and if you chill out, everything just slots into place.
There is so much I could write about: the excitement of studying abroad, the strange ways culture shock manifests, the craziness that is Tokyo, the amazing food, the generous people and the quirky customs of the Japanese. I can confirm that Tokyo fits all the clichés – an eclectic, vibrant mix of nature and neon lights, skyscrapers and shrines, cat cafes and cosplay. Japan itself is beautifully diverse, with snow in the north and tropics in the south, and you can travel pretty easily from place to place. It’s also a great place to access the rest of Asia, with flights as cheap as £50 to get to South Korea or Malaysia. To get a taste of living in Japan, there are lots of blogs, vlogs and documentaries which offer great insights into the place – Vice Japan and Texan in Tokyo are both informative and fun (both on YouTube).
Tokyo is renowned for being one of the busiest cities in the world, but within it there are some magical spots free from traffic and noise, and that’s something that makes it so unique and great. Hitotsubashi is on the quieter side of the city: the area is peaceful enough to feel like you’re in a forest-like dreamland, but it is also next to lots of bars, cafes, karaoke places and restaurants. And on top of that, it’s just a half hour train ride from central Tokyo when you do have the urge to get your city-fix. The university itself is on a super long road called Daigaku Dori (University Street) which is lined by cherry blossom trees, and during spring, the whole place turns a hazy snowy pink – search 大学通り桜 on Google images to get an idea of what I’m talking about! The architecture is equally impressive, modelled on old European buildings. The overall result is a dreamy, Ghibli-like setting. As for the accommodation, there are only around 100 exchange students so most of us live on Kodaira campus, a 20-minute cycle from university. It is just as beautiful and forest-like there, and is close to a river spanned by old wooden bridges, which is super picturesque. ALSO it’s great because you can see Mount Fuji from our dorms and it is spectacular, and on a clear day it is like seeing a Photoshopped photo but through your real eyes.
Studying abroad is an incredible experience in so many ways. Sure, you have the excitement and the fun, but it’s not just about how many wild nights you have, how many crazy adventures you have or how much of Asia you manage to travel across. There’s newfound space to calm down after the whirlwind of 1st and 2nd year of university, and it’s possible to take joy in just living everyday in a new place, learning a new language and being surrounded by interesting people. Something that isn’t really touched on is the ‘English-bubble’ that many exchange students find themselves in, drawn together by the language and cultural barrier of Japan. The international nature of the exchange student body means that it’s very easy to get sucked into a group where English is used as the common language, and given the systematic nature of Tokyo, you don’t even need to rely on Japanese to get by. Of course, it’s up to you who you decide to spend time with – there are plenty of opportunities to converse with Japanese students, and join societies (called ‘circles’ here) and language exchange groups.
However, unless you have a good level of Japanese and/or good confidence, taking that step out of your comfort zone isn’t easy, and often, the prospect of exciting adventures can overpower the prospect of learning Japanese. It’s difficult to turn down travel plans to Taiwan, the Philippines and South Korea in place of staying at home and trying to break through the language barrier. But I firmly believe that this effort should be made: be that through watching Japanese dramas, conversing with Japanese strangers, joining a circle at university, or WWOOFing during the holidays – even if it has to be at the sacrifice of the comfort and excitement of your ‘English-bubble’ where you party, make weekend trips away and travel through Asia. That’s possibly the most important advice I could give: make every effort to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, no matter how daunting this may be.
Finally, here are some quick bits of information which I don’t have time to expand on but are important and interesting: Hitotsubashi’s accommodation is one of the cheapest in Japan, at around £100 a month; most exchange students receive the JASSO scholarship which is £400 each month for the whole year (with the exception of those with Japanese or dual nationality); Hitotsubashi and the dorms are all pretty wheelchair accessible, and there are even ramps in most train stations which is great, although some of them are quite steep which is not so great; the psychological services here are quite bad, but remember that you’re still a UCL student so you are still allowed access to UCL’s services; the modules run in English are very different to the UK and are not particularly challenging, but there are some gems if you find them; you do not need a chest x-ray before you come here because you get one in the medical check up on arrival; vegetarianism is made harder here by the fact that vegetables and fruit are expensive; if you have a driver’s licence, get it converted to an international license in the UK because it is a long, convoluted process in Japan and renting a car is a cheap and fun way to travel if you want to make a road trip.
This the first year Hitotsubashi has opened to UCL and even then, it’s just for BASCers, so there isn’t that much information out there so I hope this helps. I think everyone should consider Tokyo because it is so super great and beautiful and I think everyone should study abroad. It’s possibly the best way to spend a year of your life especially because when you’re 50 you’re not going to look back and wish you hadn’t spent a year in Tokyo, because a year is only a year, and I mean maybe some will regret it but the majority won’t. Yes, it’s tough at times but that’s all part of it because it is tough in a way that is new and exciting, and you won’t look back and remember that week where you felt super homesick or that evening where you got massive FOMO, instead you will remember the interesting bits and I think that a year passes in a flash and it is important to take the time and space that studying abroad gives you.
Feel free to get in touch on Facebook or follow my Twitter or Instagram (@riyokoshibe) to get an insight into life here, although I’ve only really tweeted about nutella and bellogate so maybe Instagram is better and you will get jealous of the great food and beautiful scenery.
Until then, bye-bye.