I spent 12 months studying abroad at International Christian University in Tokyo (from June 2012 – June 2013).
I think the school is wonderful; classes aren’t too difficult and if you play your cards right, you get a lot of freedom. I wrote a post about the wonderful aspect of ICU (to help you figure out if ICU is the school for you).
That being said, ICU is completely different than I expected.
I remember when I was first applying to study abroad; I emailed some of the past students and asked a bunch of questions about ICU. Most were answered in long, complicated messages… and I felt bad about that.
But then, about a month ago, I started getting emails from prospective students asking some of the exact same questions.
So I decided to simplify the process.
[Edit: I was an OYR at ICU from 2012 – 2013]
20 things I wish I had known about ICU before I arrived:
1. ICU isn’t in Tokyo.
I mean it technically is, but when I heard “In Tokyo,” I imagined being able to take a 10 minute train ride into the city to hit up the night life.
It’s not like that. At all. ICU is in a small town. Granted, it’s only a 10 minute bus ride to the station, but it also takes another 25 minute train to get to “a” heavily populated station. In general, if you want to go “out,” it takes at least an hour each way.
And costs AT LEAST $10- round trip.
Which really puts a damper on going out to clubs (or anywhere else at night, especially when it gets cold). The longer I spent in Tokyo, the more I realized this wasn’t necessarily a fault of ICU (it is actually in a really great location) – but more of a fault of my previous ideas of what “in a major city” should look like.
2. ICU Does not take care of their students (especially if you life off campus).
And I’m not saying this because I’m bitter. I actually really love it. I was raised with a considerable amount of freedom, and really cannot thrive under a restrictive environment.
However, when I say that ICU doesn’t take care of their students, I’m not joking. Here is a list of things ICU will not help you with:
- 1a. Foreigner Registration Card: In the first 30 days in country, you MUST sign up for your foreigner registration card. ICU doesn’t really inform you about this. At all. Other universities in Japan will do this for you. But, not ICU. (edit, as of August 2012, you get your gaijin card at the airport, so you don’t have to go to Tachikawa Immigration Office anymore) – EDIT apparently now you can get your card at the airport. New laws and such. So that’s a relief!
- 1b. Japanese Bank Account. Most foreign banks charge extraordinary fees to withdraw or use money in Japan. That being said, the ATMS at 7-11 will accept nearly every type of foreign card. ICU will not help you get a bank account, and this gets tricky because some banks don’t let foreigners open an account until they’ve lived in country for at least 6 months. I went to three banks trying to open an account and none of them let me (grrrrr).
I have to pay my rent by a monthly bank transfer to my landlord, so I end up paying my boyfriend in cash each month while he makes the transfer with his account. It works, because we co-signed the apartment. I have other friends who have to pay monthly fees of $10 – $50 each month to make the transfer with a foreign bank account.
- 1c. National Health Insurance. When you bring your foreigner registration card to your district’s Municipal Hall, you are required to sign up for National Health Insurance; something that ends up costing 700 – 1,000 yen a month ($9 – $12). On the bright side, this health insurance automatically covers 70% of your medical fees if you are hospitalized or visit a clinic. For someone who is in and out of hospital as much as I am, I have already gotten my money’s worth from the insurance (after a nasty bike accident).
Your bills will come in the mail each month. Pay them at 7-11 or another convenience store, as mentioned in this post.
- 1d. An apartment. In the last five years, ICU has built three new dorms to accommodate students. Even so, there is still not enough room for all the exchange students. So what happens if you apply to the dorms (during your ICU application)… and get rejected?
Well, you’re on your own.
If you ask nicely, ICU will set you up at a “student dorm,” a sort of hostel an hour train ride away. If you’re lucky. If you’re a graduate student, you might not find out you were not accepted into the dorm until it was too late (and you are in-country), and so you might have to spend the first couple weeks of class living out of a hotel room (which happened to a friend of mine).
I have met one term, one year, graduate, and regular four-year Japanese students rejected for the dorms. Each one was less than thrilled about whatever living arrangements they eventually acquired.
3. Class registration is a nightmare.
I wanted to include this in the “ICU does not take care of the student” section, but it’s really awkward enough to deserve its own section.
You can look at the course catalog online whenever you want; it has all the classes for the next year already assigned. Therefore, before the first semester had even ended, I had already picked all the classes I would take for the next two semesters. Don’t judge me.
Registration day is the day before classes start. It has 5 parts. It is horrifically inefficient, time consuming, easy to mess up, and offers to guidance.
But, the best part of registration is the fact that you will automatically get into your classes (except for GE classes, but I still don’t know what those are, and International Students usually aren’t supposed to take them). The evening of registration, classrooms are assigned based on enrollment. Just check your schedule in the morning to see what classroom each class has assigned.
I had one class where the professor expected around ten students, only to be straddled with a class size of around 65. He wasn’t too thrilled about it. But at least you don’t have to deal with pesky “wait lists” like American universities.
If you want to drop classes, you can only do it in the add/drop period (two days that take place about a week after classes start). Make sure you do this step correctly, because you are never given a confirmation email (or any sort of confirmation, really). So several students are in for a nasty shock when they get their final report card back, only to find an F (that transfers back to their home university, killing their GPA) in that class they thought they had dropped.
The teachers don’t care if you show up to class and your advisor has anywhere between 50 – 100 other students. No one is going to look out for you. Take care of yourself. If you think you dropped a class (and it turns out you didn’t) – your professor will never email you asking about your class attendance, missing assignment sheets, or the fact that you just missed your final. They really just don’t care.
Also, if you miss registration day, you can register later… On limited days. For a fee of 5,000 yen (about $65). Don’t miss registration day, please. I’ve had several friends miss the registration day before (because of travel) and had a horrific time trying to register late.
4. Classes are laughably easy (except for JLP – Japanese Language Program).
But then again, none of my grades transfer, as long as I make above a C.
A good majority of the class’s grades are based on a single, final report. Class participation and attendance count for 20% (at most). Four of my classes had a presentation (35%) and a paper – based on the presentation (45%).
JLP (Japanese Language Program) has a final exam worth 45%, a mid-term worth 25%, quizzes worth 20%, and class participation/projects worth 10%.
They don’t give you a lot of incentive to show up for class (I mean, you know, aside for the knowledge).
5. It is surprisingly easy to come close to missing a third of your JLP classes.
JLP has the rule that as long as you go to two thirds of your class, you will pass. If you miss more than that, you automatically fail.
But see, the problem is that all of my other classes only meet once a week for a stretch of around 3-4 hours. I didn’t have class on Thursday and Friday. So it was difficult to get motivation to go to Thursday and Friday classes, especially because I wanted to travel around Japan. I would leave on Wednesday night and come back Monday morning.
I missed a lot of class. Which is probably the reason I did so poorly at it.
But I wasn’t the only one.
6. They (probaby) won’t fail you for missing more than a third of your JLP classes
Or at least none of my professors did – and I had friends in each of those classes who missed WELL over 1/3 of the classes). If you’re worried, ask the professor.
And they grade JLP pretty harshly. Most of my friends are barely scraping by with a C or B. Don’t expect to make above a B unless you’re are practicing for several hours every night or just happen to be good at languages.
I am very happy with the consistent C’s that I’ve been making. I know several people failing (and will have to re-take the class).
7. Intensive JLP is not worth it.
Unless you are a language geek. I’m not. I did intensive classes in the summer, which meant I sat in a room and studied Japanese for 6 hours a day.
That’s just too much. I hated it. I was miserable. I wanted to get out and see Japan – not slave away in the classroom. But I’m me – and you might have different motivations.
After I got out of class, I had no motivation to study for another 3 hours in order to prepare for the next day’s class.
I had no time, no social life, to time to travel, and no time to meet friends, job hunt, or write.
If you are a language geek, take the intensive (though it has limited availability, mostly only for the lower levels). If you are “normal” take the regular class (which, to be honest, is still 2.5 hours of Japanese language a day. It’s not exactly a walk in the park).
I spent more time on my JLP class than I did on my four other classes, combined.
8. The ICU summer course is very helpful for study abroad students.
The summer course is fantastic. This year it ran from July 4th to August 15th. About half the students who took the summer course where continuing on for another term (or full year) of study abroad.
Not only did you get to fully concentrate on learning Japanese during the summer (it was the intensive class, so it was 6 hours a day…), but you also gradually got used to living at ICU. That way, when all the new September students and study abroad students arrived in the fall, you weren’t floundering along with the rest of the study abroad students.
The summer term also hosted several (free) cultural events.
And, since a lot of the summer course students stayed on for another term, I got to start out the year with a nice group of friends.
I can’t imagine what ICU would be like if I hadn’t taken the summer course first.
I definitely would not have gotten as much out of it.
The only downside to the summer course was living in Oak House, essentially a dorm modeled off a technology-rich prison.
9. The Dormitories are incredibly strict.
Remember how I said that ICU gives their students freedom? Yeah. That doesn’t apply to the dorms. The newer dorms (Dialogue house, Oak house, and Zelkova) are the worst.
Dialogue house is where all the one-term students stay. It is located on the floors above the dining hall and the floors below the faculty meeting rooms. You have a key-card that makes the elevator work (without it, you can’t go anywhere). You are not allowed to have any visitors from outside Dialogue house (but people do) or any visitors of the opposite sex in your room (but once again, people do).
If they catch you, they claim that they can kick you out. I’ve never actually seen that happen, though
Oak and Zelkova house give off the impression of a fancy prison cell. You have a key card to swipe in at the front door, at the stairwell to your floor, and to you room. You have to leave your keycard by a sensor near the door in order to turn on the lights, use the outlets, or use the AC/heater.
If you are travelling in group, each person has to swipe into the front door. If you forget to swipe in, the door registers you as still outside. Therefore, you can’t swipe into your floor. And you can’t swipe out of the dorm (because it still thinks you are outside).
I’ve heard stories of people getting trapped in the door (or their floor) and missing/being late to class.
I lived in Oak house during the summer program. It was terrifying. I am a forgetful person. I always forgot to bring my card, put it into the sensor so I could use the electricity, and swipe out. I’m sure I drove my roommate crazy.
And, you know, they have curfews. Most (possibly all) dorms have curfew. After 10:30PM, you couldn’t swipe out of Oak house. So, let’s say you wanted to meet a friend at 11PM. You had to leave the dorm well before 10:30PM, because after 10:30PM, you couldn’t get out. The curfew only worked for “leaving” the dorm, you could return at any time. I would come back around 2AM on weekends, with no problem.
And, if you were able to slip out of the doors after curfew (let’s say while someone else was swiping in), you wouldn’t be able to get back inside, because your key card still registered you as being inside.
It’s all rather complicated.
We even had someone try to crawl out the window; they had a flight out early in the morning and were going to spend the night at the airport. Unfortunately, they tried to leave at 11PM. The doors were locked.
He had to beg the dorm parents to let him out. It was all pretty funny.
The newest dorms are the most strict; the older dorms give you more freedom. Kind of. Older, women’s dorms are not allowed to have male visitors (and vice versa). Keep in mind most people break these rules. Just be careful… because Japan, as whole, is not nice to rule-breakers.
The best dorm to live in is Global House. Most of the international students live here, and it’s the most expensive dorm. It’s the only dorm (I think) where you get to live in a single room, sharing a suite with three other people. You cannot have overnight visitors (at all) and you must sign in any visitors you DO happen to have.
It wasn’t a difficult decision to get my own apartment.
But as bad as the dorms are, it can be worse.
10. Dorms provide a safe community to easily meet people.
Especially since a lot of these dorms do not allow outside visitors. Living in the dorms is a great way to meet people.
Sometimes I’m sad. I miss being able to walk across the hall and hang out with neighbors. If you have trouble meeting people or are not obnoxiously outgoing, try to get into the dorms.
I have a fun community of people who live in near-by apartments to bother, so I’m never lonely. It really just depends on the person.
11. If you don’t get into the dormitories, prepare for a headache.
ICU cannot house all the international students. But they accept them anyways. It’s the same case for Graduate students. If you’re “lucky” you get into the strict dorms. If you’re not, you have two choices.
- 11a. Let ICU find a place for you. Keep in mind, ICU doesn’t particularly care about your comfort level. I mean this in the nicest way possible. Why should they care? If you let ICU find you a place, you will not have control over how long your commute is, how expensive the apartment is, or how many roommates you have. I have several friends living one of a couple “student hostel dorms,” an hour commute away. Train tickets are expensive.
- 11b. Find your own place. I picked this option. When I applied for ICU, I didn’t select any of the housing options, and enclosed a little note that basically said “Thanks but no thanks, I’m going to find my own place.” People who apply don’t necessarily get any confirmation if they get into the dorm, only if they are rejected.
I actually never got a notice from ICU approving me to live off campus. They also never asked for my address… or any sort of other personal information. If you’re not on campus, you’re not their problem.
For me, the decision was easy, because I like freedom. And I like personal space.
My boyfriend (I met him during his study abroad at my college and then just kind of followed him back to Japan) lives in Tokyo and goes to school up in Akita. [Edit, we’re married now and live in Tokyo. Wow, this article is kind of old…]
So he found a place for me.
And I LOVE my apartment. It’s a beautiful, two-room (with an additional bathroom) right next to campus with a fairly cheap rent (about the same as Global House).
The only thing to watch out for when getting your own place is the initial payment. My rent was listed at 46,000 yen a month, which is fantastic.
But it’s misleading.
When you first sign for an apartment, you have to pay two month’s rent up-front as a down payment. It is supposed to cover the fees for changing the locks, cleaning and repairing the apartment, the realtor fee, and a deposit for damages you might do. You don’t get any of that money back when you move out. It is horribly depressing. And expensive. Some apartments do not charge key money. Some do. You just have to look carefully.
Without them, I don’t think I would have been able to find (or rent) such a fantastic, cheap apartment. The whole ‘not speaking Japanese fluently’ thing really puts a damper on apartment-hunting.
There is a nice dorm literally RIGHT NEXT to the “High school” entrance of ICU (did I mention that ICU also has a High School in its campus?). Rent isn’t horrible, and they don’t charge key money. It is a great place for students.
12. Only around 20% of students live on campus.
And I am being kind here, because two professors have told me the percentage that lives OFF-campus hovers more around 85%. I don’t know how many students apply to live on campus or how many get rejected. I just know that most of my Japanese friends commute somewhere around 1-2 hours a day by bus, train, or bike.
13. Clubs are really the only way to meet people (especially if you live off-campus).
Most of the students only come into ICU for classes. The cafeteria (and most other buildings) close a 9PM. There is no general hang-out place to meet new students (that doesn’t close early in the evening). And, since most people commute, it’s not like they hang around campus for a long time after class. They have to go home.
So meeting people really boils down to where you live and what clubs you join. If you live off-campus, clubs might be your only option.
Joining a club is incredibly important. But it’s also stressful.
I loved the boxing club (this is us)
14. Choose your club(s) carefully. One term students seem to have the most fun in Smooth Steppers and the Wadaiko club – both incredibly intense club activities, but a great place to meet people. I didn’t join either; I only had enough time to join a low-intensity club.
I’m in the Boxing club. I absolutely LOVE it. I also have an internship in the city, so between those, I end up busy most nights and afternoons.
Most clubs are friendly. Some appear friendly, but really don’t accept foreigners. I was in one of those (not going to mention names, because the people in the club were very nice). Three months later, my friends and I still weren’t on the mailing list, weren’t invited out to eat/hang out with the other members of the club before/after practice, and were asked not to participate in the ICU festival presentation, since “it doesn’t look good unless we all look the same.”
As depressing as it was to quit, all of us had other clubs to fall back on, so it wasn’t too lonely.
Clubs will put forth the most effort recruiting in the first two weeks. If you aren’t put on a mailing list, given the club email to ask for questions, added on facebook, included in future events, or invited out (aside from the party after the first practice), find a new club. Quickly.
That being said, foreigners are known for quitting clubs… so clubs might not put forth any effort into keeping their foreign members if they think they will quit.
Then, the foreigners – feeling left out and ignored – quit.
It’s a catch-22.
It’s really, actually very sad.
That being said, there are plenty of wonderful clubs that love one-term and exchange students.
15. There is no meal plan; you have to pay for each meal one at a time.
Meals at Gakki, the cafeteria, run from about 300 yen – 500 yen ($3.60 – $6.20) per dish. This is still much cheaper than eating out… but it adds up fast. Watch out. Some of the dorms (specifically Dialogue house) don’t even have a kitchenette/rice machine/oven/refrigerator on the floor so you can cook your own food.
Be prepared to spend a lot of money on food.
One of the first things I bought was a rice cooker and an electric skillet. Both have already paid for themselves a hundred times over.
16. It is impossible to survive on less than 1,200 yen ($15) a day.
This is excluding rent, utility bills, clothes shopping, and transportation to the city. Don’t think that you are special. You cannot survive on less than that.
Assuming you eat all your meals in the Gakki, that’s already at LEAST 900 yen a day (assuming you only eat curry). That’s not including snacks in between classes, a more wholesome meal, fruit, or going out to eat with friends.
I go into the city about twice a week, eat out at a “real” restaurant with friends about once a week, go shopping about twice a month, and go through about 1,700 yen a day (calculated weekly). It’s expensive…
And then there is shopping, karaoke, bar hopping, clubbing, trains, busses, onsen, club fees, textbooks, and a million other things that will drain you dry.
17. Important terms for ICU students:
OYR: One Year Regular. It means that you are either a one-term or a one-year student.
Gakki: The cute nickname for the cafeteria. It comes from the words Gakusei (student) + ____
JLP: Japanese Language Program
ELP: English Language Program
Nomihodai: All you can drink. This is a group event; it is sad and lonely to do Tabehodai or Nomihodai alone.
Tabehodai: All you can eat. It is usually paired with Nomihodai, for a price of anywhere between 2,000 – 3,500 yen ($25 – $40). This is a group event; it is sad and lonely to do Tabehodai or Nomihodai alone.
Izakaya: A Japanese bar. It’s a cute bar, you pay anywhere from 200 – 500 yen ($2.50 – $6) per dish or alcoholic beverage. It is a fun thing to do with friends. You usually get a small booth. Beware: prices can easily reach $30 a person, even if you’re trying to eat cheaply
Last train: Don’t miss this. It is like the name suggests: the last train from the city. The last train out from the station Shinjuku to Musashisakai (the stop for ICU) is at 12:50. Trains run every 2 minutes, and starting about 30 minutes before the trains stop, each train is packed so hard you can’t breathe. For tips about riding the “last train”, check out this previous blog-post.
One-coin bike parking lot: Located to the left of Musashisakai station. It was re-vamped last year, so that you have to pay 100 yen ($1.20) a day to store your bike. If you don’t put it here, and try to park next to the station or in another store’s parking lot, they will tow your bike. Don’t test them. For more information: click here.
Onsen: Public bath. You shower off first and then soak in a large bath with your friends. It’s incredibly fun (and not awkward or sexual at all). I try to go at least once a month.
September Students: Students who enter their freshmen year at ICU in September. To American students, this isn’t weird. To Japanese students it might be a little odd, since a majority of new freshmen enter start in April. But ICU is unique in the fact that it also accepts students for the September term. That way, the new Septem students start the exact same time as study abroad students. It’s nice having a large group of people who don’t know what’s going on. The support group is fun.
18. Allocate some time at the end of the semester to go travelling with friends. Don’t fly out right after finals, you will regret it. Most of the dorms do not kick you out until a couple weeks after the semester officially ends; worst case scenario you can probably crash in a friend’s apartment or cheap hostel until your flight.
I made the mistake of choosing a flight right after finals end; I was invited on and am missing out on some fun trips to Hokkaido, Okinawa, Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Osaka. But then again, I’m broke, so I’m not too sad about it.
19. Be careful bringing medication into the country
. Japan is surprisingly restrictive. You are not allowed to bring in more than two months of any prescription medicine, including Birth Control Pills. They tell you that you can fill out an import form to bring in essential medicine once you’re in Japan. You really can’t. I’ve known several who tried, including someone who had a difficult time adjusting to classes because he was denied his ADHD pills.
Furthermore, ICU will generally not accept anyone who has a history of mental illness or is on any severe medicine.
The reasons are two-fold:
One, you probably will not be able to get your medicine through customs (or they are illegal in Japan). When you cannot get your medicine through customs and stop taking it, you might have severe problems.
Two, even if you are taking your medicine, you might have problems. Remember when I told you how ICU doesn’t care about or take care of their students? They want easy-to-ignore students.
20. There are cats everywhere.
I’m not joking. Everywhere. And they have no fear. I’ve nearly hit several of them on my bike (especially when it’s late at night).
At night they can be scary, because they just sit in the middle of the road, on top of benches, and on random ledges, their eyes all sparkly and creepy.
21. (Added by a previous student) Just because it’s called International CHRISTIAN University doesn’t mean you have to be Christian. It is only as Christian as you want it to be, including not at all. (
So that’s what I’ve learned at ICU this first semester. Keep in mind, I am a foreigner (living off campus) so some of this might be heavily biased.
If you have any questions/comments/corrections, please either leave a comment below. For more information about ICU, check some of the other posts I’ve written:
12 Things I love about ICU
Add me on Google Plus: +Grace Buchele