Akseli’s Student Story: University Life in Japan as a Foreigner

Bird's eye view of Kyoto tower and the surrounding cityscape.

University life in Japan is perhaps best known as the “springtime of youth”. Namely, the best years of one’s life, which takes place after the infamous university exams, and before becoming part of the Japanese workforce.

I was able to feel the springiness and the youthness in the atmosphere when I studied at Kyoto University. People were having a blast with extracurricular activities, parties, shooting hanabi (花火, fireworks), and lining up at Kamogawa River with a beer in hand. But it was not all fun and games. Studying at Kyoto University during the exam period was one of the busiest periods of my life.

Read on to learn more about university life in Japan!

view of the Kamogawa river in Kyoto at dusk.

My background before university life in Japan

Before I move on, I should probably bore you with briefly mentioning how I ended up becoming a Kyoto University student.

Before entering Kyoto University, I traveled to Japan, studying at Yokohama Design College (listed on schools in Japan) and Intercultural Institute of Japan for a total period of three years. After returning to my home country, Sweden, I picked up Japan studies at Stockholm University where I studied the language, culture, history, as well as linguistics and translation. In my fourth and final year, I was granted a scholarship from the Heiwa Nakajima Foundation (平和中島財団) which covered all expenses for an exchange year in Kyoto, thus starting my university life in Japan.

While I did indeed travel to Japan in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, it should be known that it had little effect on my studies, since the majority of them were still held in person.

I should also mention that I was able to somewhat comfortably write essays in Japanese, and read university school literature without too much trouble. If this isn’t the case for you, you might want to focus on taking English-taught classes if offered.

Entering University

There are multiple ways of entering a university in Japan, either via some kind of screening process or as an exchange student. I was the latter, so I don’t have any tips for studying for the entrance exams (sorry). 

In my case, most of the paperwork was sent to me by e-mail, and I had to supply my school coordinator and Kyoto University with documents, go to the embassy to pick up my visa, book a flight, and go to Japan. It wasn’t hard at all, it was just some formalities.

The university offered me one of the student dorms, which I happily accepted when I saw that the rent was 13000 yen/month (excluding utility fees).

After arriving at my dormitory in shūgakuin (修学院), about 3 km away from campus, there were quite a few things I immediately took care of.

To begin, I went to the ward office and:
– Registered my address.
– Applied for national health insurance.
– Applied for a social security number (マイナンバー, mai nanbaa).
– Got exemption from pension saving.

After that, I made sure to:
– Get a Japanese phone number (you can set it up with a foreign bank).
– Get my personal seal (印鑑, inkan).
– Get a Japanese bank account (You need to do all of the above steps first).
– Get a bicycle (they are cheap in Kyoto and very useful!)
– Buy cooking utensils.
– Get a TV (I wanted to be able to play games and watch Japanese shows).

Finally, I had to choose which courses I wanted to take in the coming semester. I had the option to choose a minimum of 7 courses but was free to choose as many as I wanted. 7 courses roughly equal a full-time occupation, but I thought to myself, what the heck, YOLO, and chose 11 courses instead. I would regret this choice when the exam period would start. 

Two students studying on a desk and participating in university life in Japan.

A typical school day

As the anti-morning person I am, I would often wake up 30 minutes before classes start, simply brush my teeth (no time for breakfast), hop on my bike, and head to university. I would buy a can of BOSS coffee and join my class. In the morning I usually had linguistics, sociology, group psychology, or a Japanese language class. Then, I would either have lunch, or a 10-minute break before my second class started.

For lunch, I often went to the university school cafeteria, where I met my fellow exchange student friends and had a chat. The food was insanely cheap (300 yen or so), but not that special to be honest. About what you’d expect for the price you’re paying.

Side note: Since I went to Japan in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, all other exchange students (there were six of them) were half-Japanese. Seriously, I was the only blond undergraduate to enter Kyoto University for that entire term! And that was only due to the insanely hard work my university and scholarship grantor put in to give me the opportunity (For that, I’m eternally grateful).

Afterward, I would have a coffee at Starbucks and head on to my next classes.

After school, I would typically do one of the following things:
– Study at a cafeteria (Gusto for the free drink refills).
– Hang out with my friends and go sightseeing.
– Call my girlfriend back in Sweden.
– Attend some club activities.

University life in Japan after school activities

In all honesty, university life in Japan was not tough when it came to homework. Despite taking extra classes, my workload on a regular day was less than at my home university. However, when the exam period began, the crunch was real and I probably had to spend about 10 hours a day studying for two weeks.

In the evening, I would either go out with my friends, or return to my dormitory, make food (or order food if I was feeling lazy), and watch anime or play games.

One unique thing was that due to corona, all karaoke bars and izakayas closed at 8 o’clock. This forced me and my friends to have our evening get-togethers, or “nomikai” (飲み会) outside. We would often go to a park or Kamogawa River, order from Uber Eats, buy alcoholic beverages, and have a late-night picnic in the grass. This was honestly a blessing in disguise and one of my fondest memories of the exchange.

Another pastime activity I enjoyed was becoming a member of KUISC (Kyoto University International Student Commitee). We had a student room where we once a week arranged events for the students. We also hung out a lot, and it was a great place to make new Japanese and International friends.

Person with a bicycle stopped at a crosswalk in Japan.

Some dos and don’ts as a foreign university student

Next, I would like to introduce some dos and don’ts in bullet-point style. This is what, according to my own experience, you should and shouldn’t do during your university life in Japan.

Dos 

  • Join extracurricular activities (clubs), they are a great place to make new friends and practice speaking Japanese!
  • Get a bicycle and don’t travel by train. You will see more of Japan this way.
  • Request the final assignments early and get started immediately. During the exam period, all courses you’re studying will mercilessly throw their hardest assignment at you – simultaneously. Do what you can to get a head start or buy some extra time.
  • Find some cheap places to eat good food.
  • Take many pictures! Maybe you’re not a social media person, but it’s astounding how much pictures help you remember the fun experiences you had when you go through them a couple of years later. Without pictures, I would’ve forgotten half of the things I did in Japan, seriously!

Don’ts

  • Don’t get stuck in the same everyday routines. You only have a limited time to enjoy your visit, challenge yourself, and try out new things! Those are the things that will stick to memory in the long run.
  • Don’t be too ambitious and sign up for more courses than you can handle. If you have free time, use it to enjoy Japan.
  • Don’t only hang out with international friends. International students tend to form groups, and it can be hard to find Japanese friends in such an environment.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Whether it be about paperwork, assignments, or something else. University life in Japan brings along a lot of questions.

Some final advice

If you have the opportunity to go to Japan and study at a University – do it! Not only is it good for your career, but it’s also a life-changing experience that you will remember for the rest of your life. Either see if your university has some exchange program with Japan, find a scholarship sponsor, or reach out to us to find the perfect university for you!

For more information about school life in Japan and learning Japanese, follow our blog!

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