The ex­change stu­dent’s sur­vival kit: Tokyo edi­tion

Thinking about a semester abroad? Then don’t be like me: do your research! Here I have collected a number of essential lessons I learned the hard way, so you won’t have to. From SIM cards to ATMs, from public transport to the weather forecast - I’ve got you covered!

Streets of Tokyo.
Welcome to Tokyo, where the streets are big and can often only be crossed via bridges and underpasses. Photo: private

Let me get one thing out of the way: I am not exactly a model exchange student. When I arrived in Japan, all I had was a visa and accommodation – basically, I had just made sure I wouldn’t end up in the streets at night. Since then, I have put together a sort of survival kit, which I have already given to some of my friends who are planning to visit. Now I am offering it to you. If you prefer to thrive, not just survive, go on and take it!

Choose the right university for you

Okay, I have lied a little: I did do some research before applying for my semester in Japan. I am at the Hitotsubashi University of Tokyo and they have a dedicated team to assist international students. They have been responsive and patient with all my questions and concerns and guided me through procedures such as finding my way from the airport to the university, signing up at the town hall, registering for health insurance and many more. On top of that, the university automatically assigns every exchange student a dorm room on campus, so I did not need to do any additional paperwork or flat hunting. I would highly recommend this university because it makes you feel taken care of – and by staying in the dorm, you meet people from all over the world and are sure to find your group.

Anika´s room with a window and a desk.
Sneak peek into my dorm room at Hitotsubashi University. Photo: private

Welcome to the land of cash

If you thought Berlin was bad, try making a card payment in Japan! This country is practically solely based on cash. Need to pay your rent or utility fees? Better have those bills at the ready! Want to buy groceries or a train ticket? … You guessed it. While it isn’t entirely impossible to get around with an international card, things can and will get stressful and messy that way. You will spend your time searching for ATMs, figuring out how they work, wondering if they are processing your card correctly, and so on. I have friends whose card was not properly activated, and I remember them lugging their large suitcases around, trying to find an ATM. Pro tip: you find them at the kombinis, small stores such as Lawson, 7 Eleven or even Family Mart.

First things first: Get that SIM card

When I arrived at the airport, I didn’t realise that the first thing you should get is a SIM card. As a result, I ended up not being able to look up where I was or needed to go. Imagine a city with highways around you as well as on bridges over your head and with an underground running below. It almost looks like a « Mario Kart » circuit sometimes! Without a SIM card you cannot make emergency calls, get into museums like the Ghibhli Museum (dedicated to the Ghibhli movie studios) or download a translation app. Don’t expect everyone to speak English – it’s not a given, even in touristy areas. So, if you are going to stay here for a while, definitely get that SIM card – and make it a proper one, not just an eSIM!

View over the city from a skyscraper
Greater Tokyo has nearly 40 million inhabitants and stretches endlessly, as far as you can see. Photo: private

Public transport 101

Another thing you will need right away is a transportation card. You can get it straight at the airport from a machine which provides English translations. In Tokyo, there are the “Passmo” and the “Suica” cards. These two cards only differ in name, as they come from two separate transportation companies. In Japan and even just Tokyo there are a multiple transportation providers which all charge their own fares. As a result, changing between train lines can take longer (you have to check in and out with each provider) and you may end up paying more than expected. Luckily, the cards work everywhere in Japan, whichever one you get! Once you are settled and regularly take the same path, such as from the dorm to the campus, you can get a commuter pass. Such a pass can be as much as 200 euros for three months, so it’s still not cheap. It sure helps to have a designated inner-city transportation budget!

Learn a bit before going

Knowing a few words always helps to get around as a foreigner. Japanese culture is extremely polite, and people say thank you three times just to leave a store - so don’t be the rude foreign tourist! The locals appreciate the effort. I would also recommend to learn more about the food culture to not miss out on anything (because there is a lot to try!). Also, check the weather forecast. Trust me. I had no clue that summer in Japan was going to be 40 degrees Celsius or that there is a typhoon season. Pack your clothes well, because finding clothes in Japan is not easy: here, everything is designed for the Japanese body type, which is a smaller frame than the European.

My favourite ramen dish so far, shrimp ramen! Photo: private

There are probably many more useful tips, but here are at least the ones that you really need to not get lost! See you next time :)

(Published: 2 October 2023)