5 Things I Learned as an Exchange Student in Tokyo

I first came to Tokyo five years ago as an exchange student. Prior to that, I had never lived on my own, much less in a foreign country. Before flying, I had heard of things to expect from teachers and senpai that have gone before me. Most of them being: “Japan is expensive,” or “No one speaks English so you’re gonna have to work on your Japanese.” Though somewhat true, just hearing about things is really different from actually experiencing them on your own.

Below are five things I learned from my experience as an exchange student in Tokyo. I’m sure everyone has their own opinions, but these were what I think stuck with me the most:

1. Not everything is expensive if you know the right places

This surprised me the most. I expected to pay ¥2,000 for a meal or ¥500 for a bottle of water, but it wasn’t that bad! If anything, everything was more or less the same as what I was used to in Manila. I didn’t really think anything was overpriced in Tokyo. Well, maybe except certain things that are a premium, like artisan coffee, or fancy restaurants. But that’s a given.

Much like how it was all about finding the right budget or hole-in-the-wall places where I came from, food can come surprisingly affordable in Tokyo — if you knew where to look! I was very much a regular at Matsuya (beef bowl chain restaurant), Doutor (coffee shop chain), and convenience stores as a student. (Though one can argue convenience stores are actually very expensive…)

2. Getting better at Japanese = Output

This was something I pondered on a lot. Despite doing my best at school and studying till late every night, I never felt like my Japanese was good enough. It took me sometime to figure out why, but one day I realized that though input does certainly matter, you have to make sure your output is of the same volume and quality as well.

We all have different styles of learning but personally, I found that actively speaking out, writing, and expressing opinions, thoughts, and feelings was what helped me advance my language skills.  At the end of the day, you have to use what you’ve learned. Otherwise, how can you even say you learned anything at all?

3. Don’t panic, calm down and clear your mind. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Embrace them.

What made it hard for me to actually make use of what I learned was the fear of failure. I didn’t like speaking unless I was ready for it, and even then I would usually panic, freak out, and mess up my speech because of it. I felt that people would treat me differently because of that change in behavior as well. That was something I carried into adulthood.

Since I started working, I realized that people don’t really care. I don’t mean that in a good or bad way particularly, but people are usually just focused on their own thing. No one is really out there to criticize or single out every single mistake you make. They just want to hear what you have to say, and get their work done.

It’s very important to communicate clearly. Even if you have to pause a bit to compose yourself or make mistakes, you can always correct yourself after anyway. There is no point worrying about anything if you haven’t taken the first step at all. It’s always better to try, than to have never tried at all.

4. Holidays should be spent back home

This was something I didn’t really think of before flying over. I wasn’t able to fly home for December as an exchange student, so I spent the holidays in Tokyo instead.

I found Christmas in Japan to be very somber and lonely. I’m not sure about other countries, but the Philippines has a very rich, family-oriented culture associated with Christmas and the New Year. While I was so used to seeing bright, colorful lights everywhere, the Christmas illuminations they had in Tokyo just weren’t the same. I missed the local food I’d was fond of and my family and friends more than anything. And I think a lot of my friends thought the same as well.

If you’re someone who doesn’t mind spending the holidays alone, then I think the end-of-the-year season in Tokyo might be your cup of tea. Usually everything is quiet and slow as everyone’s preparing to go on break. But if you’re close to your family like me, going home will always, always be worth more than saving and going through the holidays alone.

5. I prefer near and expensive to far and cheap

Another thing I realized as an exchange student was my preference to live in convenient areas. 

The dorm I used to stay at was a ways off in Setagaya, 20 minutes from the closest train station. I initially thought I would be okay with that, but I quickly realized that I would rather spend more time sleeping in bed than waking earlier than most to make sure I’d get to school on time.

I ultimately didn’t end up moving. But I did dream of living on the Keio New Line or Inokashira Line. It’s really convenient for people who usually go to Shinjuku or Shibuya, as both have easy access to it! You can check out some of the listings we have right now through the links below.

Apartments for Rent on the Keio New Line

The Keio New Line connects Sasazuka Station in Shibuya to Shinjuku Station with through service on to the Shinjuku Line.

Apartments for Rent on the Keio Inokashira Line

The Keio Inokashira Line runs east-west through the western suburbs of Tokyo, connecting Shibuya Station to Kichijoji Station in Musashino.

I hope my article helped aspiring students or workers to have a more concrete image of what to expect! If you’re someone who’s already studying in Tokyo, what’s something you were surprised about after living here? Please leave a comment below!


Cindy works for the GaijinPot Housing Service, helping foreigners find their home in Japan. She relocated to Japan after graduating from De La Salle University in the Philippines. Read Cindy’s self-intro to find out what brought her here!


Lead photo: iStock