Studying abroad in Tokyo comes with fine print

Columnist Lee Miller prepares Japan-bound students with Tokyo tips. TOKYO – For those studying abroad for the first time – or just thinking about it – it can be hard to know what to expect.

Columnist Lee Miller prepares Japan-bound students with Tokyo tips.

TOKYO – For those studying abroad for the first time – or just thinking about it – it can be hard to know what to expect. Studying abroad at Temple’s Japan Campus can be different than any other college experiences – even for students returning to Tokyo, such as myself.

One of the biggest concerns for any student going to a new city for school will be housing, and unfamiliar housing practices in Japan may be cause for concern. Lee Miller/Scene and Heard in Tokyo

In Japan, many landlords require what is referred to as “key money,” which is essentially a set bribe that unlocks access to the rental property. Also, unlike in the United States, equal housing rights in Japan aren’t strictly enforced. It’s not a big surprise to hear a non-Japanese student was rejected for an apartment.

Andrew Landry, a junior communications major, said he’s aware the problem exists but never had to deal with housing discrimination because he goes through a company that deals exclusively with foreigners.

“I think that there’s a minority of realtors that discriminate,” said Landry, citing a friend’s experience.

Students can avoid key money and discriminatory housing by staying in Temple-provided units. The residence building is not near the campus, and incoming students should expect a morning commute, but it’s possible to get a private room. Student can also expect to pay a significant amount more than in Philadelphia – housing costs for Fall 2010 totaled $4,200 for the roughly three-and-a-half-month semester, plus the cost of commuting. TUJ also offers a home-stay program, in which students live with a family.

Some students said they’ve come to enjoy the commute.

“Commuting to school at first sucked. The train station is three-fourths of a mile away, and that’s way more walking than I was used to,” said Alyssa Furukawa, a junior psychology major. “But once I got used to it, it was OK. I actually like it a lot now.”

To save money and for more flexibility, students coming from Main Campus can opt out of the dorms and find independent housing. With the current exchange rate hovering between 80 yen and 85 yen to the dollar, I pay about $850 per month, including utilities, with a 15-minute walk from school. Cheaper housing can be had farther from campus, as TUJ is in an upscale area.

Living outside the dorms does have the side effect of missing out on many social opportunities, however.

“It’s a little better than other commuter schools,” Landry said of the social life, “but definitely not as social as a big-campus school.”

Another likely concern is the availability of certain classes. Incoming students should understand that TUJ is a very small school; the main building is actually half-school, half-office space. So the course list is comparably small, focusing on communications, art, the Japanese language and business.

Consult the online class lists for an idea of what is offered, but note that individual class offerings might not be consistent from semester to semester. Don’t count on being able to schedule classes on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday or a Tuesday-Thursday basis.

“I’m used to Main Campus and a million classes to choose from,” Furukawa said. “Some of the Japan-admit kids were saying it’s hard to get the classes they need to graduate on time, so apparently it’s a common feeling. Of my four classes this semester, three of them were basically jokes.”

Students might also have to make changes to their diets while abroad. While most traditional U.S. foods can be found in Tokyo, many of these things command a premium price or are available in limited variety. For sandwiches, only basic cheeses are available for reasonable prices, and deli meat is primarily limited to sliced ham.

Those willing to adopt a Japanese diet, however, shouldn’t have to spend much more for food than one would back home. One thing to bring is a Costco card, as there is a Costco located near Tokyo, which carries many of the same things as its U.S. stores.

Even if you are only in Japan for one semester, I suggest you get out of Tokyo when you can. Tokyo is a wonderful city with a lot to do, but there is more to visiting Japan than shopping, partying and sightseeing.

Some of the most beautiful countrysides are close enough to Tokyo for a  day trip, thanks to the convenient Japanese rail system. There are mountains to hike, lakes to visit and numerous beaches to relax on. Japan’s second-biggest city of Yokohama isn’t even an hour away and has its own set of offerings, such as a massive Chinatown and the tallest building in the country. A ferry ride from Tokyo can get you to the Izu Islands, where you can relax in hot springs, scuba dive and hike a volcano that erupted in 1986.

Don’t get caught in a rut of just milling around your favorite spots in Tokyo. Make your trip unique. While TUJ may not be perfect, it’s a one-of-a-kind program everyone should consider.

Lee Miller can be reached at

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