My experiences studying abroad in Japan as an exchange student at Aoyama Gakuin University were intriguing and interesting. I’ve learnt a lot of different things about Japanese culture, geography and life in general. I found it interesting that most Japanese people have two to three different religions all inter-meshing in some form, the most common being Shintoism and Buddhism. The further out from Tokyo you go the less people there are who will know English. The majority of Japan’s landscape can be described as mountainous, and as earthquakes are quite common you become used to it quickly.
There were many positive experiences including: the hospitality of the Japanese and other exchange students I met, the convenience and affordability of food and other goods, Japanese culture, the hanami, or cherry blossom (sakura), viewing, the scenic temples and shrines, interesting arcade games and karaoke places, the strange calm of the onsen, and the easily accessible transportation to other places within Japan. Places that were easy to get to included Kyoto, Nara, Kamakura, Yamanashi and different parts of Tokyo to name a few.
Some of the slightly negative experiences of the exchange were the culture shock, the tight spaces on the train during rush hour, the large amount of people in Tokyo and every now and then getting a little lost. These slightly negative experiences didn’t affect my experience greatly as they were all easily adjusted to.
The recommendations I would give to students considering an exchange to Japan and our Sister University Aoyama Gakuin are to be flexible with unit options available (as these can change), and be open-minded in general and travel when possible (not just within Tokyo but explore a little bit if you can-- it’s worth it). Have at least a beginner’s understanding of Japanese (not just for everyday life but to enable you to understand the Japanese classes in which the teachers only speak Japanese. Even if a question is asked in English they will answer in Japanese).
As for travelling I recommend Yamanashi, Kyoto and Nara. Nara has a lot of temples, the world’s largest wooden building, a giant Buddha and a lot of deer. You are allowed to feed the deer in Nara, (they are considered to be messengers of the gods and are allowed to come and go from the temples as they please). You cannot however feed the deer that reside on Miyajima (Inland Island near Hiroshima) as they are considered wild deer. Kyoto contains the Kinkaku-ji (golden pavilion), a golden Buddhist temple, Nijo castle, and other temples and castles. Yamanashi is a beautiful farming area close to Mount Fuji. It’s two hours from Tokyo and very relaxing after being in a bustling city for long periods of time, and although not many people speak English in Yamanashi they are all really friendly.
The staff at Aoyama Gakuin University are very helpful, particularly those in the IEC (International Exchange Office). They will send emails of upcoming social events you can participate in regularly. I recommend going to see the staff in the IEC if you have any problems. They also have at least two staff members who speak fluent English so it’s easier to communicate and talk about complicated topics.
This is a once in a lifetime experience and it may be a bit out of your comfort zone, but it is worth it to see such beautiful places and meet such amazing people!