Studying abroad in Tokyo: Sophia University
Hello, I’m Asa, and I’m studying Product Design & International Studies at UTS. I’m currently 4 weeks into global exchange at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan! Getting here was quite the journey, as I was originally an ICS student set to go on exchange back in 2021 so it’s really exciting to finally be studying abroad.
About my experience here so far:
I arrived a week before orientation and had some time to get settled and explore a bit before uni started (that was great, I’d recommend). We had an orientation day where they ran through a bunch of stuff pretty thoroughly, and they also provided us with resources to figure things out if we needed. There was also a welcome party for international students that I was really looking forward to, to make friends, but it was a bit hectic – too many people and too much going on. Enrolling in my course using Sophia’s Moodle system was also a bit difficult, and Moodle itself is really confusing and hard to use…
Studying at Sophia University
This semester at Sophia University, I’m taking the intensive Japanese course, as well as two elective subjects in the Faculty of Liberal Arts; Anthropology of Japan, and Women in Japanese History. I enrolled into free electives back at home at UTS, so choosing these subjects at Sophia was relatively easy. This semester, I have to take 16 credits (standard full-time load, at least 10 hrs/week at Sophia), however, the workload of the intensive Japanese course is far more than the 8 credits that it’s worth (16 contact hrs/week for Japanese, I have a total of 23 hrs/week).
In Japan, universities have set class periods starting from 9am, so I’m pretty much at uni from 9am-3pm weekdays. This has been an adjustment for me, as I haven’t had to do something like this since high school!
For the Japanese course, I took a 3 hour placement exam (so long?!?) at the start of the semester and was placed into an intermediate level class, after having completed a diploma in Japanese previously at UTS. I’ve forgotten a lot of stuff since I learnt it at UTS, so a lot of the content covered so far hasn’t been too challenging, as I’d learnt it before but gotten a bit rusty.
The classes are small and quite engaging – I feel like we receive lots of feedback and attention from the teachers. However, we were warned of the workload of the intensive course and I can say, it’s quite a lot! The class runs from 9am to 12:30pm from Monday to Friday. I have homework due every night at 10pm, three quizzes every week, and ~2 lesson tests on top of that every fortnight. If you really want to study and improve your Japanese, I would definitely recommend it! For those who don’t want to be buried in Japanese, and want to have more time to explore Tokyo or chill, I’d recommend taking the regular Japanese course, however I’ve felt I’ve still had (some) time to explore and hang out with friends outside of study (or just struggle to keep up with the workload…). I’ve definitely had to adjust and have been quite tired from the amount of studying and class time, whilst balancing social activities.
Something to note about classes is that the attendance policy is incredibly strict, especially for the Japanese course. They WILL fail you if you miss more than 15% of classes, and some real complicated stuff about being late = marked absent (but again, some teachers are a bit more chill, and one of my lectures doesn’t take attendance).
My two elective subjects that I study in English are both lectures running twice a week per class, with about 100-150 students. To be honest, I’m not a fan of such a big class as I feel that the teachers aren’t able to give individual students as much focus. For some of the homework I’ve been completing for my anthropology subject, I’m not sure if the lecturer is looking at my work at all before marking it, and we never receive any feedback. In that sense, I preferred the lecture + tutorial style teaching I experienced at UTS, which helped us better understand the content taught, or lectures with teachers that were more engaged student discussions, however I don’t know if that specific to the degree that I studied at UTS.
Facilities and Campus
Sophia University has a campus similar to UTS as it’s on the smaller side, it doesn’t have that ‘big’ university feel (pro or con, up to you), and has some modern buildings and newer spaces. I prefer the smaller campus as it doesn’t take you forever to walk from one side to the other. Sophia is also located in Yotsuya, central Tokyo area, and not far from some popular places such as Shinjuku and Shibuya.
There are several cafeterias and many other food options in the university, however because everyone has the lunch break at the exact same time, the queues can be extremely long if you don’t get there quickly. Lunch is always pretty cheap, averaging about $5 AUD, and there are vegan/vegetarian options available. Recently I’ve been getting a matcha soft-serve from the cafeteria for only 200 yen! ($2.25 AUD)
One note though, buy something like a handkerchief/small towel to dry your hands with because at Sophia, other universities, and Tokyo in general, paper towels? don’t? exist? and neither do hand-dryers at uni…maybe it’s a Covid thing.
In terms of social life, there are many clubs or circles here at Sophia. Circles are more casual, whereas clubs are a bit more serious, like sports that compete with compulsory training. There was a day a bit like O-Day, and it was really good time to explore groups that I could join. So far, I’ve joined several circles (but also, you have to pay a fee to join and that varies from group to group) and had many opportunities to make friends and practice my Japanese J as well as meeting other exchange students apart from the ones in my classes! でももっと日本語を話さなきゃ〜
I’m currently living in Sendagaya in a share-house run by a housing agency called Sakura House. It’s around 20-minutes walking to Shinjuku, and about a 20-minute walk+commute to Sophia University. I chose to live in a share-house, over a dorm, homestay, or apartment, because I liked the freedom, however I still wanted to be able to see and interact with people.
Each of these living situations has its pro’s and con’s and in the end, I chose this place because of its close location to my university and the popular areas in Tokyo, however it’s a bit on the pricier side but still cheaper than living in Sydney. Sophia University also has many dorm options to live in, and from what I’ve heard they’re quite nice and not too expensive, however most of them are a little bit further from the university, there are no dorms on or near campus. The commute can be deadly (packed like sardines) if you’re coming from further, but for me it’s alright as it’s only 2 stops on the train line.
Living in my share-house has been pretty good, all my flat-mates are foreigners living or studying in Tokyo and are quite friendly, considerate, and have given me some great pointers or tips for living, places to visit, etc. The Sakura House agency has also been quite good, helpful, and they respond to any emails I have fairly quickly.
Tokyo Skytree in Asakusa and the view from Tokyo Skytree at night
Life in Tokyo
When I first arrived in Tokyo, I felt like I was dreaming. I’d been wanting to come for so long! But soon after I arrived, I encountered many difficulties, for example, which one out of all these toilet buttons is the flush?!?! That one’s a bit more light-hearted, but some more stressful things include getting around with no data, getting a sim card (I went with Mobal, but they’re a bit expensive – I’d recommend looking into sim cards BEFORE you arrive in Japan), and generally navigating in Japanese. The train transport cost can also really rack up, especially if you switch train lines – I got a student commuter pass to save some money, but they tried to charge me double the price and I had no idea why! Filling out paperwork, applying for a residence card and the compulsory national health insurance, all in Japanese were definitely challenging.
I was also vegetarian before, but I decided to go pescatarian in the time that I was here, as eating out can be difficult, especially with friends.
However, I’ve made friends here who are vegan and managing, so I guess it’s possible but probably a lot of effort. Half the time I’m not sure what I’m buying at the supermarket, so the Google translate ‘camera’ function can come in really handy!
I haven’t made a bank account here yet as the university provided a help session that failed terribly, so I’ve just been using my bank card from UP bank (Australian) to tap and withdraw money. At 7/11 ATM’s the withdrawal amount is almost exactly the same as the exchange rate, and UP bank doesn’t have any extra fees so it’s really good to use.
In the end, living in Tokyo is still a dream, I’m still taking it all in. There is so much to do and so much to see! Things are unbelievably convenient here, 7/11 and the other convenient stores are amazing, the trains are so frequent, and you can get to so many places. And of course, the food – food in Tokyo is so good and often quite cheap!
I’m really looking forward to the rest of my time here, and I really do think that it’s helped me become more resourceful, take initiative and all that stuff you see online about going on exchange. Once again, I’d 100% recommend studying abroad if you have the opportunity!
Product Design and International Studies
Global Exchange Student at Sophia University, Japan
New Colombo Plan Mobility Grant Recipient
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