Top 5 Places to Study Abroad in Japan

by Kate Cimini

You've learned some basic Japanese phrases (Nihongo o hanishimasu?) and are eagerly perusing the billions of flyers hanging on your Study Abroad Department's bulletin board. You're ready to jump into a program, but...you have no idea what the difference is between the cities, or even islands. All your East Asian History classes never covered the reality of living in modern Japan, and now, you're stuck. What to do? And where to study in Japan? 

The streets of Osaka, Japan.
The streets of Osaka, Japan. Photo by Ashley Houston

Easy. Here is a list of the most popular places to study abroad in Japan, as well as a couple more out-of-the-way cities. Check out the descriptions and see which city appeals to you!

1.) Tokyo

The capital of Japan, Tokyo is a bustling metropolitan area. It's home to Harajuku, the famous shopping center and the even more famous Harajuku Bridge, where teens and young adults gather to show off their zany fashion-forward outfits. Said outfits have been featured in music videos, books and magazines.

In addition to the neon lights of  downtown, Tokyo also houses the Tokyo Palace, which can be toured when the royal family is not at home. The palace is surrounded by wide-open spaces, a surprising contrast to the tiny side streets and gigantic, car-jammed boulevards, as well as a lake wide enough to give any would-be fence-climbers pause. 

One of the best-hidden gardens in Tokyo is the Hama Rikyu Garden. Squeezed between the bay and the city, Hama Rikyu is a little oasis where you least expect to find one. It is cooler than the surrounding streets, thanks to the breeze off the water and the cool of the trees, and thanks to the pathways is a great place for a jog or to sit and enjoy your lunch during study abroad in Japan.

Of special note is the Edo-Tokyo Museum, where you can wander around a recreation of old Tokyo. You can walk across a replica of the Nihonbashi Bridge, often seen in period paintings of Edo (renamed Tokyo in the Meiji Era). The Nihonbashi Bridge was the central market in Edo, and the sheer size of it is absolutely amazing.

While studying in Tokyo you can also shop enough to make your wallet weep, see any number of museums (such as the Tokyo National Museum and the Ghibli Museum), take classes in the proper way to mix, serve and drink tea, and learn how to put on a kimono correctly. There's almost nothing you can't enjoy while studying abroad in Tokyo.

2.) Kyoto

While you might go to Tokyo for a more modern feel (think New York), Kyoto is the historical heart of Japan (think Boston). The old capital of the country, Kyoto's metro system is nothing like Tokyo's and its downtown doesn't even compare. What Kyoto offers its residents are quality museum after quality museum, amazing gardens, and historical buildings galore, and study abroad students are not excluded. Kyoto is especially great for summer study abroad programs, which provide a great time of year for exploring and exposure to summer festivals.

Kyoto is also home to one of the largest universities in Japan, Kyoto University, which boasts frequent study abroad students eager to learn about the culture. While at the university, just a short bus ride (or slightly longer walk) way are the Zen gardens and temple, Ryoan-ji. The rock gardens themselves are carefully maintained, and are exactly the same as they were originally laid out in the 14th century. Around the gardens stretch walking paths, if sitting in meditation in the temple or at the garden site is not for you.

Nijo-Jo Castle is another historical attraction, famous for its Nightingale floors that warn of approaching feet and its painted screens. Kyoto is rich with temples, shrines and the like, such as the Byodoin Temple, the Kibune Shrine or the Heian Jingu Shrine, all three of which are excellent examples of their eras.

Kyoto also has a number of diverse art museums that cover ancient to modern art. The city even has a manga art museum, the Kyoto International Manga Museum, a great place to visit during any study abroad program in Kyoto.

3.) Osaka

Osaka is not quite as historically relevant as Kyoto, not quite as modern as Tokyo, and as such, is often ignored by visitors and study abroad participants. What many don't realize is that they are missing out on a tremendous city with a vibrant life and culture all of its own.

One of the main attractions in Osaka (aside from the food, and we'll get to that later) is the Osaka Aquarium, known as Kaiyukan. It is one of the largest aquariums in the world, and takes a completely different approach to marine life than most of the aquariums around the world. The central tank is at least twenty feet high — if you stacked four of you on top of each other, you still might not reach the top of the tank. It houses a whale shark and a manta, as well as a number of other fish species, and if your Japanese isn't quite up to snuff yet, the aquarium has excellent explanations in English.

Other attractions in Osaka include the giant Ferris wheel on the edge of the bay, just outside Kaiyukan. Tempozan is over 350 feet tall and gives you a view of the city of Osaka to one side, the bay to another, and just how far you have to fall below. It's absolutely worth a ticket.

Finally the food. While the food in Japan is generally phenomenal, there's something special about the sandwiches in Osaka that capture visitors' hearts. You'll just have to go find out for yourself.

4.) Hiroshima

While study abroad may not be your first association with Hiroshima, your trip to Japan will not be complete without seeing this town and its surrounding areas. The skeletons of buildings left from the United States' hydrogen bombing of the town are still standing along the river. The most striking building is Hiroshima's old World Trade Center, taken down almost only to studs. The buildings are best viewed as a reminder of what we lost before going to Hiroshima's Peace Museum, a look back and a hopeful step forward.

After touring the charming downtown, head out for a day trip to one of Japan's most magical places, Miyajima. Miyajima is a small island off the coast of Hiroshima and is accessible only at high tide, as the low tide makes the water too shallow for any boats to cross. On the island is a beautiful floating Buddhist shrine, some very hungry deer who will pester you for food, and a number of Torii, or gates between the human world and the spirit world stand just offshore of the island.

The Torii are one of the most striking features on Miyajima, and when the tide is high, appear to be floating on the water. Torii are bright orange color is best photographed against the background of the setting sun, when the water and sky are both golden in color. On the island itself are a number of hiking paths and waterfalls, surrounded by lush greenery and stone. It is consistently listed as one of the top three attractions in Japan, and by the time you've left you'll understand why.

5.) Sapporo

Located off the main island of Kyushu, on the island of Hokkaido, Sapporo is home to one of the most beautiful parks in any city: Odori Park. It cuts through the center of Sapporo, bringing some much-needed green to crowded streets, and is the site of the Sapporo Snow Festival. The festival itself is reason enough to visit Sapporo during your study abroad program in Japan. It is held during a seven-day period annually, and brings tourists from around the globe to marvel at the artists' creations.

A number of teams of snow sculptors enter the contest every year, and create enormous works of art in snow for the public to enjoy, and, of course, for the privilege of winning the Snow Festival. Sculptures range from nationalistic (last year's team from China sculpted a Qilin to symbolize peace and prosperity for all of Hong Kong) to ridiculous (a Portland-based team sculpture was titled "Rats are Eating My Lunch!" which was a pretty literal title for a pretty literal piece). All in all, you'll have a wonderful time.

Though there is much more to learn before studying in Japan, from the mundane to the glorious, you have now been given a glimpse into the character of each city.