Top Five Ways to Get the Most Out of your Semester Abroad in Tokyo, Japan

by Joseph Anderson

A city steeped in history and on the cutting edge of the future, it is no wonder that Tokyo is a popular destination among study abroad students worldwide. Japan’s capital is not a city that can be defined by a single feature; the fact that it hosts the world’s largest metropolitan population is a testament to this. By combining Japanese and foreign influences, Tokyo has become an amalgam that engages all five senses by way of its architecture, cuisine, and night life, to name a few.

Sanja Masturi in Tokyo
Sanja Masturi. Photo by Joseph Anderson

This makes for a city bursting with cultural experiences you cannot have elsewhere. However, the city’s dynamism can be overwhelming and make it difficult for foreign students to plan how to make the most out of their time abroad. Study abroad veterans will often tell you that a semester is not enough to experience all a city, let alone a country, has to offer. With that in mind, here are five tested and true ways to get the most out of your time in Tokyo.

1. Live with a Japanese family

A homestay should be the mainstay of your study abroad experience no matter where you go, especially in Tokyo. At first glance, living with a foreign family may seem like an anxiety-inducing situation, but the advantages strongly outweigh the disadvantages. To start, the lifestyle in Tokyo can be very hectic and off-putting for people not accustomed to living in an urban environment; thus, living with a host family can help provide a steady dose of stability. Secondly, homestays allow you to experience the parts of Japan you rarely see in the news and popular culture. Take advantage of this and ask your host family questions about everything Japan-related that you may not wish to ask a complete stranger; also keep in mind that host families are usually just as curious about your way of life as you are of theirs. Another benefit is that homestays offer unparalleled practice for honing your language skills. Whether you are new to the language or an advanced speaker, here is your opportunity to connect with Japanese people and their culture by learning the nuances that make the language so very unique and fascinating. Furthermore, if you are lucky, you may have a family that takes you on excursions around Tokyo and maybe beyond.  Many foreign students choose to stay in dormitories and guest houses, but living with a Japanese family as a student is a one of kind opportunity, so try the homestay experience before you rule it out.

2. Attend a Festival…or Two

Tokyo hosts a large number of festivals each year. The majority of them take place during the spring and summer; however, there are some great festivals to enjoy during the fall and winter months as well.  The cause of celebration varies from festival to festival, but many of them take place at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples and are grounded in local traditions that date from as far back as the 17th century to as recent as the 20th century. Tokyo’s festivals are great for study abroad students because they offer several chances to experience Japanese culture in various ways. For instance, they present a great time to learn about the religions that have influenced local customs. Tokyo’s festivals are also aesthetically pleasing. During Sanja Masturi, you can witness thousands of residents carrying ornately decorated mikoshi, or portable shrines, while chanting and parading down the streets of Asakusa. It should also be noted that these festivals are some of the best ways to try out authentic Japanese cuisine like Tokyo’s version of the dish, okonomiyaki, or popular sweets like dango and mochi. If anything, Tokyo festivals are great because they offer a contrast to everyday life as you can don traditional attire like the yukata or kimono and eat, drink, and be merry with the locals.

3. Visit Odaiba

Odaiba is a man-made island in Tokyo Bay that speaks to the playful, yet creative ingenuity that is behind Tokyo’s engineering. A day trip to Odaiba is strongly recommended as it is home to many of Tokyo’s most popular entertainment and shopping areas. There are several ways to relax and enjoy your time here. You can start by going for a stroll along the beach. Afterwards, you can venture over to Diver City Tokyo Plaza and lose yourself to hours of shopping and dining, but not before taking a picture in front of the life-sized Gundam standing outside. For those interested in getting first glimpses of cutting edge technology, you should make your way towards Palette Town and visit the showrooms at the Panasonic Center and Toyota Mega Web. In addition, you should also check out Tokyo Big Site, one of the country’s largest convention centers. Lastly, getting to Odaiba can be just as exciting as visiting it: you can try taking a leisurely trip on the Tokyo Boat Bus from Asakusa, or even ride on the automated train, the Yurikakome, which departs from Shimbashi and Toyosu.

4. Take a Stroll through Golden Gai

After spending time exploring the streets of Tokyo, it may seem like this city rarely takes a moment to unwind from its constant bustle. Golden Gai in Shinjuku, however, is the best place to take a break from the norm and have a few drinks in an intimate setting. This small, hole-in-the-wall bar district is located a short distance from Shinjuku’s East Exit and is comprised of about six narrow alleys lined with a couple hundred bars, lounges, and eateries. The bars in this area are uniquely themed and exemplify the definition of tiny: usually only a handful of patrons can fit, but this has not stopped it from being a favorite locale for well known celebrities. The bars in this small district are by no means cheap and are very exclusive; it is not uncommon for foreign patrons to be turned down entry to several of these establishments. If you are granted entry, it is still worth it to order a drink and enjoy a conversation with the bar owners and their patrons. If drinking alcoholic beverages is not for you, then it is still suggested to take a stroll through these small streets (preferably at night) and take in the sights. Tokyo’s nightlife makes it an international hub for clubbing and bar hopping, but Golden Gai is a gem off the beaten path that offers you a very special glimpse into Tokyo’s social life after hours. 

5. Leave Tokyo

You have read correctly; the fifth best way to make the most out of your time abroad in Tokyo is to get out of the city’s limits. Much like living in any country, a major city is not representative of an entire nation, (e.g. New York, Beijing, London), which is all the more reason why you should go out and get as full of an experience as you can. If you are able to plan your time efficiently, then make the trip to Osaka and taste its famous takoyaki; visit the floating torii located off of the island of Miyajima; or, if you are feeling adventurous, make the trip to either Shizuoka or Yamanashi Prefectures and climb Mount Fuji.  If you are limited in time and funds, then not to worry; there are still several ways to experience Japanese life outside of Tokyo within reason. For example, you can take a day to trip to see the large ”Great Buddha” in Kamakura, or even visit Chinatown in nearby Yokohama. Above all else, keep an open mind seek to make the most of your time abroad.