What's It Like to Study Abroad in Tokyo?

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Updated March 12, 2021 Updated March 12

Sponsored by Waseda University

Studying abroad can feel like going back in time to your childhood again. As an international student arriving in Tokyo, you’ll soon realize how much you need to relearn. Forget everything you think you know, as even things like reading food labels or taking the train will be a new challenge, at least in the beginning.

However, it’s these small, unexpected differences that make adjusting to a new way of life so rewarding - not to mention, the great stories you’ll be able to tell your friends back home afterwards.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of studying in Tokyo, Japan, here are some culture shocks and exciting differences you can expect to discover.

Buying food will be a process of trial-and-error to start with

You may think you’re a well-seasoned traveler of the world, but trying to read a food label in a Japanese supermarket aisle will quickly dispel that delusion for you. Deciphering kanji (Japanese characters) is challenging but not impossible with some practice. If you’re allergic to something, definitely carry a piece of paper in your wallet with the name of the allergen in kanji and its phonetic pronunciation.

Reading Japanese will get easier with time, but you may want to print out this vocabulary chart to help you in the first few months when you travel around Japan.

Fortunately, Tokyo is a very international destination, so it’s very common to see signboards written in English, and while not all store clerks speak English, they are generally very helpful and will try their best to attend your needs.

You’ll love the old and new Tokyo

Hagoita-Ichi fair at Sensō-ji Temple

Sensō-ji Temple

Tokyo is often thought of as a really slick and modern place, but it’s also a city of contrasts. Asakusa, for instance, is the capital’s oldest geisha district and has a very traditional atmosphere. It’s home to many old theater houses and ryokans, traditional Japanese inns with sliding rice paper screens and tatami mats.

It’s also home to Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist Temple which dates from the seventh century. It’s the world’s most frequently visited spiritual site in the world with over 30 million visitors a year.


The complete opposite of Asakusa is Tokyo’s uber-cool Harajuku district, which is known around the world for being the center of Japanese subculture. Here, you’ll find plenty of indie shops and young people making very courageous sartorial choices.

Harajuku Station

Your meals will be extremely Insta-worthy

The city with the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, Tokyo is a foodie’s paradise, with delightful dishes ranging from Japanese haute cuisine to inventive street food. Living in Tokyo, you’ll be spoiled for choice but if you ever feel homesick and crave a meal from your home country, just get on the train to Shinjuku, Shibuya or Ikebukuro, where you’ll find several student-friendly eateries.

You’ll fall in love with Tokyo’s geek district


Akihabara, Tokyo’s geek district, is heaven on earth for otaku, often young people who are fanatical about certain niche aspects of pop culture. Think gamers, pop idol-fans and manga and anime lovers.

Akihabara is also home to a number of manga shops and game arcades, and it’s not uncommon to see people cosplaying in the street. Don’t be shocked if you see people with blue, green or pink hair when you explore Akihabara.

You’ll spend afternoons in Tokyo’s parks

Meiji Shrine

When people think of Tokyo, they often picture a concrete jungle with crowds and high-rise buildings, but it’s actually surprisingly green, with many parks and gardens in the very heart of the city.

Among them, the Meiji Shrine is a 70-hectare spiritual site and forest right in the middle of Tokyo by Harajuku Station. It’s been visited by politicians from around the world, including George Bush, Hillary Clinton and Guido Westerwelle. It’s a particularly great hangout spot for students in the hot and humid Japanese summer.

Ueno Park

Ueno Park is also particularly beautiful in spring when lanterns are hung during Hanami, an outdoor party to mark the start of cherry blossom season.

You’ll be totally impressed by Tokyo’s amazing subway

Tokyo has one of the world’s most efficient public transportation systems. Compared to subway or underground systems in other capital cities around the world, the trains in Tokyo are always clean, running on time and quiet. Like Londoners, Tokyoites don’t tolerate eating, loud conversations and people who cut in line - so if you end up commuting or need to get to other parts of the city you can guarantee you’ll travel in peace and quiet. Trains can get just as crowded as their western counterparts though, so don’t always expect a seat.

Tokyo also has amazing transport links if you’re looking to travel overseas or within Japan. It’s got two major international airports, Haneda Airport and Narita Airport, which are both accessible from Tokyo via express trains. These bullet trains connect the major cities of Japan and are a fantastic, fast way to see the country.

Japanese summers are quite something

In Japan, summers are very hot and humid and begin in early June until August, with temperatures dipping in and out of the 30s. At this time of year, it’s not uncommon to see locals carrying small towels around to wipe their faces with.

In Tokyo, rainy season, also known as tsuyu, or plum rain, to mark the season of plums ripening, starts in early June, when cold currents from the north converge with warm air from the south, wrapping up in late July. Make sure you don’t leave the house without an umbrella!

Picking a university in Tokyo

One of the most popular student cities in the world, Tokyo is home to a number of prestigious universities. Among them, Waseda University offers over 50 programs fully taught in English. It prides itself in having the highest number of international students than any other university in Japan.

Waseda University is situated in Tokyo’s city center, and students of the university will often walk to Takadanobaba, a neighborhood packed with ramen spots, karaoke bars and shops.

This article was originally published in March 2018 . It was last updated in January 2020