This week’s guest post comes from Rebecca Manuel who studied abroad at Akita International University for the year of 2012 – 2013. She wanted to write a “survival guide” for potential study abroad students. She writes:
I studied abroad for a full semester year – meaning, in Japan, from the end of August to the beginning of August – during my junior year at university (2012 to 2013) at Akita International University (AIU).
Going to Japan had been on my bucket list even before I went to college, so it was only natural (given my Japanese minor) that when the time came I decided to study abroad.
Out of the three programs my school offered (in Tokyo, Sendai, and Akita), I chose Akita International University because I heard the Japanese language courses weren’t terribly intensive and that I could cancel my study abroad after only a semester, if I hated it. AIU seemed like the safest choice.
But I didn’t hate it. I LOVED it.
By the end of the fall semester, I was so glad I had signed up for the full year. And now, in retrospect (albeit not that much retrospect, given that I’m writing this only about a year after I left AIU), I regard it as the happiest year of my life so far.
And I hope that those of you who decide to go there end up loving it as much as I did.
So, for the rest of this post, I will give you some tips and tricks, insider secrets, and just general info about my own little slice of rice-paddy-filled heaven.
Insider tips for studying abroad at Akita International University (AIU / 国際教養学)
1. The not-so-insider secret: AIU is in the middle of NOWHERE.
I knew this about the university before I went there, so I was fairly well prepared for this. But nothing can totally prepare you for the pure lack of human civilization around Akita International University.
The school is surrounded by trees and rice paddies. In fact, if you look up AIU on Google Maps, you can see just how much blank space there is surrounding the school. The green area to the left is a country club. The green area below is a park/athletics stadium grounds (although I have never seen any real athletics going on there). And then there’s the airport and little else.
The closest train station is a bus ride away in a tiny little town that’s mostly houses.
The closest mall is also a bus ride away.
And Akita City, from which AIU claims part of its address, is a bus ride and a train ride away. Of course, none of this would be at all a problem if you had a car. But since the longest you’re probably going to be there is a year, it’s doubtful that you will have one.
Map of the area, significantly zoomed out to fit things in…
2. The slightly-more-insider secret: “lack of human civilization” is not as bad as you might be imagining (/as I have been describing)
While all of this might sound inconvenient at the least, it’s actually really not that bad. The lack of civilization aspect applies only to the area directly around the school.
The bus (to go to the station or to the closest mall) stops right outside the school – like, literally right outside the front door of the school – and then right outside the mall entrance. The same is true for the bus to the station. And each bus ride is only about 15 minutes.
The train station (which is tiny, by the way), is actually perfect because this makes it easier to figure out which track to get on. One track takes you into Akita City, one track takes you in the opposite direction. Easy peasy.
Plus, the mall (Aeon Mall) is pretty much great for anything you want to buy. Aeon is one of the biggest mall franchises in Japan, and it exists elsewhere in Asia as well, such as China and Cambodia.
You want food? There’s a grocery store on the lower level. You want home goods? Upper level. You want clothes? Well, you can go to the upper level, or you can check out any of the other specialty stores in the mall. You want music? You can grab Japanese music, American music, K-pop, whatever you want at the music store. Looking for a little something food-wise from back home? Check out the import store.
Basically, you can get whatever you need right here. And if you can’t find something, or you can’t find it at a price that suits you, check out the shops across the street. It’s very convenient.
Plus there’s plenty shop-wise in the surrounding streets because it’s closer to the city. If you go a couple blocks over, you’ll hit a main highway with more mainstream, need-based shops and restaurants (cell phone stores, home stores, etc.).
TIP: For people going there, make sure you go to Stamina Taro (すたみな太郎) for lunch. It’s all you can eat for I think 2000-2500 ($20-$25) for two hours (or an hour and a half; I forget) at lunchtime, which is a steal considering the amount and variety of food available! They have yakiniku (Korean BBQ), sushi, all types of noodles, salad, rice, ice cream, sodas, desserts…
Oh my gosh, I want to go again right now… It’s on the main highway that I mentioned above. Ask pretty much anyone and I’m sure they can give you directions. (Or ask me in the comments. I can also give tips for other places to go.)
A big group of us decided to cross-dress and go to Stamina Taro. Don’t ask me why. The idea started as a joke and then somehow turned into reality. XD
3. Never fear, the classes are in ENGLISH!
The primary aim of Akita International University is to have all of the students in the school graduate fluent in English, so all of the classes are taught in English (except the foreign language classes of course). Basically, any class you might want to take is almost certainly offered in English.
I had no problem blowing through my entire East Asian Studies major courses during my year there, including Japanese language courses (AIU uses the Genki textbook, for anyone who wants to know). The Japanese language courses were right at my level, and I enjoyed taking them.
One of the teachers liked to play the electric guitar, so he brought it in once and played for us. He also has Pooh-san (a Winnie-the-Pooh hand puppet) that he uses occasionally. He’s so great. I wish I had a picture.
I also loved the fact the school brings in international teachers. I hear that some of the staff has changed a bit since I was there, but when I was there, we had a German teaching the Nihonjinron (study of the Japanese mindset and social systems) class, a Brit teaching the Manga Mania and other Japanese pop culture classes, and a Russian teaching the Japanese Literature class, among others. It was wonderful.
TIP: While I’m sure he’s a nice guy, and I’m pretty sure he’s a master in his subject, the Russian professor for the Japanese Literature class has the most monotone voice I have ever heard and can put even the most lively of people asleep (like Professor Binns from Harry Potter). And the classes are entirely lecture.
The rumor on campus was that he used to be in the Russian military and learned to speak in a monotone. Whatever the reason, I had to drink a can of Mountain Dew, eat a pack of High Chew (for those who don’t know, this is basically all sugar), and take an exorbitant amount of notes in order to stay awake in his class.
For those who can handle it, the historical information conveyed in his classes is great and I learned a lot. But for those who don’t think they can, I would suggest just avoiding the class entirely.
Oh, and he also reads your essay grades aloud in class… Just so you’re prepared…
4. Take the Winter Semester (if you’re not going home or planning to travel for three months)
At Akita International University, winter break is three full months. I didn’t have the finances to travel for that long. And I also didn’t want to go home (I hate flying and wasn’t eager for two more 14 hour plane rides). Plus, I was finally becoming accustomed and really enjoying my life in Japan.
So, I decided to travel for three weeks (the official holiday break) and returned for the winter semester.
I went to visit my really good friend in Tochigi prefecture over New Year’s, and I got to do the traditional New Year’s custom where you line up right before midnight to get into a temple for New Year’s blessings and sake.
They also offer the “Exploring Tohoku Culture” class only during the winter semester. This class is comprised almost entirely of field trips and reports on those field trips. Besides show up for the one class per week where the professor tells you about the place you will be going over the weekend, all you have to do is write a short report about the trip. That’s it.
During the winter I took the class, we went to Hiraizumi (a UNESCO World Heritage site) for the fire festival, Oga for the Namahage Festival, Dewa Sanzan, Sakata, Kosaka, and other various sites. It was incredible. I had the best time. The only catch is that you have to pay between 2000 and 3000yen per trip, since they provide you with transportation, entrance to the sites, and a meal. If you want to pack your lunch and save money, they allow you to opt out of paying for meals.
Taking this class really was one of the best decisions I made all year.
5. Winter in Akita is a b*tch…
Winters in Akita are tough. Akita is located just south of Aomori – the city/prefecture famous for having the greatest amount of snowfall in the world. And Akita is located right next to it.
Akita gets a lot of snow. So during winter, when you’re up to your eyeballs in snow, there’s not much to do.
Most of my friends survived by having a ton of drinking parties, but I don’t drink… So most of that time I spent having lazy-time in my room, watching dramas and movies and YouTube on my laptop. If it hadn’t been for the Exploring Tohoku Culture class, I probably wouldn’t have even gone outside (I don’t like the cold much… Which, of course, is ironic because now I’m living in Aomori at a JET teacher).
6. The layout of the school is fantastic. You will LOVE it.
Fun fact, all of the academic buildings, the cafeteria, the recreational building, the in-school convenience store, and the freshman dormitory are directly connected. They also have overpasses sheltered from the elements.
So if it’s raining, you live in the freshman dorm (which many international students do), and you can’t find your umbrella, never fear because you don’t have to go outside to get to class. You can walk through connecting buildings.
I loved this because it meant that my cat-like tendency to avoid getting wet was never tested on those random Saturday afternoons when I wanted to pop over to the convenience store for a snack. It also meant I didn’t have to tromp through the snow to get to class.
7. More on the dorms (skip this part if you’re not actually planning on going because it’s info-heavy)
There are four options for living on campus:
1. Komachi Hall: This is the freshman dorm. While living in a freshman dorm again might sound a little undesirable, I lived here for the whole year and really enjoyed it. There are two large upsides to living here (apart from the fact that it’s connected to the other buildings).
A: It is the cheapest housing option. You pay only rent, essentially, whereas with the other options you have to pay for utilities on top of the rent. This was a huge plus for me because I’m the kind of person that can’t stand the heat (I get super grumpy and can’t sleep at night if I’m too hot), so I run the air conditioner basically 24/7 in the summer.
If I were to have had to pay utilities, I would have been paying a fortune. But living in Komachi meant I could run the aircon as much as I wanted without paying any extra.
B: You have the opportunity to live with one or two people (the Japanese school year starts in the spring, so if you go in the fall, you live with someone who’s been there from the spring who then moves out and is replaced with an incoming freshman the next spring) who are just as or about as new to AIU as you are.
And that’s not including your suitemate, since Komachi’s dorms are two rooms connected by a bathroom in-between.
Komachi Hall does have its downsides.
A. Mostly, the rooms are small. I think one two-person room is about the size of a freshman single at my American university. However, you do have a private bathroom between the two rooms of the suite.
B: The rooms also don’t automatically come with wireless internet. I knew this, so I bought an Apple Airport Express (about $100 on the Apple website) before I went to Japan. All you have to do is get a router and plug it into the Ethernet in the wall and you’ve got wireless. No big deal.
C: There are no kitchens in the rooms (although, for me, I was used to that, anyways). There is one communal kitchen off the main lobby with four cooktop/counter stations and a few extra burners, microwaves, and tables. You have to go to the security guard to ask permission to use a station and to get utensils.
D: No drinking is allowed in the dorm.
E: You’re not allowed to have people of the opposite gender in your room after 10pm, and a security guard patrols the corridors occasionally. Of course, this didn’t stop people. You just have to be discreet and you’ll be fine.
Same with the drinking. Just don’t call attention to yourself.
However, do know that most of the Japanese students follow this rule, unlike the gender rule, so you will probably be alone in breaking this rule. Furthermore, the penalty is worse if you get caught, and I think they recently revamped the system to make the penalties harsher.
2. Global Village: This is one of the three upperclassmen dorms. It’s located right behind Komachi Hall. This dorm is a bit unusual for what you would think of as a dorm. It’s not a big building with halls and rooms. It’s a bunch of little two-story buildings that are more like small apartments where each dorm’s door leads to the outside corridor.
The rent at Global Village is the same as Komachi’s, but you have to pay utilities.
The biggest difference between Global Village and Komachi is the facilities offered and the privacy. Each “dorm room” at Global Village has a small kitchen area. Also, each room has its own bathroom instead of sharing it with a suitemate, and the bedroom is a bit bigger, which allows for more room for friends to hang out. There are single rooms, but you will probably be placed in a double.
The biggest upside to living in Global Village for most people is that you are allowed to drink, and this is where many of the drinking parties take place.
Personally, I actually preferred Komachi. I don’t drink, so it didn’t bother me that I couldn’t drink in the freshman dorm, and besides, I’d rather mess up someone else’s room if there’s going to be a drinking party.
Komachi was also cheaper, and I was used to living in close quarters with a roommate, since it’s the same at my university. And Global Village is constructed out of this kind of dark, smelly, old-seeming wood whereas I felt that Komachi – with its white walls and almost sterile appearance – just felt better to me. I covered the white walls in K-Pop posters and made it into home.
3. Sakura Village: This third dorm didn’t actually exist until my second semester at AIU. Everyone was really excited when they finally finished building it, and one of my friends there – he was a graduate student – actually picked the name. This dorm is similar to Global Village in that the corridors are outside.
Each room has a central kitchen/dining area with doors off of it to the bathroom and the bedrooms, which are singles. This being slightly more typical suite-style living, I think each dorm has three or four bedrooms, one for each resident.
The first downside to living here is that, although it is very nice, it is also expensive. The rent is higher than either of the other two dorms and you have to pay utilities on top of the rent. The second downside is that it is kind of far away from the center of campus. Because the rest of campus was built years before this dorm, it was stuck in the only available space, which is off on a random edge of campus.
To be fair, campus is pretty tiny anyways. The fact that all the buildings are connected proves that they are all really close together. I’m pretty sure I could walk to Sakura from Komachi in like five minutes.
I dunno. I never timed it. The point is that I’m lazy, so the extra walking is a downside for me. :D
4. University Village: They don’t really allow international students to live here unless there is some sort of overflow issue, so I won’t really talk about it. I was also never inside a room there, or at least not that I remember, although one of my Japanese friends lived there, so I can’t really tell you about it anyways.
TIP: Laundry on campus is not free, like it was at my home university (which is apparently pretty unusual anyways). Each housing option has its own specified laundry rooms with both washers and dryers. If you live in Komachi, you will find out really fast just what pieces of crap the dryers there are. They eat up your money and your time as you run them again and again in the attempt to get your clothes dry.
So what I did (and what many others do) was use the washers in Komachi, hang up any more delicate clothing around my room, and then lug the rest out to the Global Village laundry room. The big dryers there are awesome.
TIP 2: If you don’t like where you’re living (and are staying at AIU for more than one semester) you can move for the next semester. A few of my friends who lived in Komachi moved to Global Village for their second semester.
For more information about the rooms directly from the school, here’s the website: http://www.aiu.ac.jp/international/en/in/pre-departure-information/housing/
8. Get off the meal plan as soon as possible!
In my American university, the main cafeteria was buffet style. Once you swipe your card to get in, you can stay as long as you like and eat as much as you want. The AIU meal plan, on the other hand, is like going back to elementary school where you wait in a line and then choose one of three or four options that may or may not be rather unappetizing (but are unappetizing more often than not).
You will automatically be enrolled in the meal plan for the first two weeks, so you’ll have plenty of time to try it out and figure out if it’s for you. And then you can decide whether you want to drop it or not.
If you drop it, you will get fully reimbursed the money that you already paid for it, which you can put towards better tasting meals or groceries.
For me, the decision was obvious because I don’t get up early enough to eat a proper breakfast. Normally I just grab a banana or something and force it down before class/work (because my stomach isn’t really awake when I first get up). If I had stayed on the meal plan, I would have been paying for breakfasts that I don’t eat.
They spell things wrong in the cafeteria occasionally.
Instead, I used that money to buy meals from the “restaurant,” as they call it, which is basically just a counter where you can order from a board listing a variety of meals (udon, soba, cha-han, curry, etc.). You order, pay, take a number, and then go grab your food when they call your number.
And pretty much all the food offered there is better than the traditional meal plan. Even when they have steak or sushi night, don’t be fooled into feeling regretful for dropping the meal plan. It’s usually pretty bad.
TIP (for using the restaurant): get a prepaid card, that way you can get food even if you forget your money or don’t want to bring your whole wallet with you. It never expires.
If you don’t want to use the restaurant or traditional meal service, or you miss the cafeteria’s open hours, there is also a café located in a different building that serves a couple designated dishes per day as well as burgers, fries, hot dogs, sodas, coffee, tea, and alcoholic cocktails (after a certain hour).
Or, you can always pop over to the school’s convenience store for instant ramen, yakisoba, udon, soup, etc. (closes at 11pm, I think) or to the little local convenience store right across the street. I highly suggest getting the local convenience store’s soft cream ice cream at least once. It’s SO GOOD!! If none of those options are to your taste, you can always buy groceries and cook for yourself.
9. The social spaces are perfect for college students
I really love the AIU campus. The school’s convenience store and café both have great recreational spaces. That space is also where many of the school events or parties take place. Upstairs is a room with mirrors covering one wall that you can rent out for anything from a dance practice to a dance party!
Since drinking is allowed as long as you inform the office when you rent the space, it’s a great, fun, safe space to hold pretty much any event. We held a ton of really fun events here, including birthday parties.
It’s also a good place to just hang out, especially since it’s so close to food/snacks.
Another good place to hang out is the Komachi Lobby. It has a TV and lots of space. The chairs/sofas aren’t super comfortable and are always breaking, but it became a home for the international students and the more outgoing Japanese students where we could meet up and hang out, sometimes being really rowdy and playing games and whatnot and sometimes just all sitting quietly together on our various computer devices. I really miss it.
10. If you are there for the spring, introduce yourself to all the new Japanese students
Lots of them come to the school all ambitious and starry eyed, wanting to improve their English and study really hard and meet lots of foreigners. When they all troop in in the spring, go to meet them!
It’s a little awkward and embarrassing at first, but just making the effort to say hi and introduce yourself really goes a long way. Playing Jenga also helps.
[Editor’s note: Grace from “Texan in Tokyo” here. I run this blog. My husband, Ryosuke, went to Akita International University. So yeah, you really can meet interesting people on campus. Do it]
11. Join the IAC (Intercultural Affairs Committee)
The IAC promotes interaction between the international students and the Japanese students by planning and hosting events like dance parties, food parties, games/activities, and so on. I loved being a part of this organization. It’s not super demanding if you want to join a more low-key group, and if you want to get really involved in the school, you can take on more responsibility. I became the international vice-president during my second semester and had a really great time.
It’s also a really great organization to join purely if you want to make friends with Japanese students because the Japanese students who join the group are those who want to make international friends. The majority of my Japanese friends were part of the IAC, whether because I met them there or because I convinced them to join.
We organized a zombie-themed game of manhunt. It was a nightmare to plan (everything seemed to go wrong…), but it was super fun once we actually played the game!
12. Or join a different club/organization
I highly suggest getting involved in SOMETHING. Being part of a group is what being Japanese is all about, and so joining a group helps you to really become part of the community at the school. Apart from the IAC, I joined the dance club and the Japanese traditional dance club. Both were really fun.
13. The AIU Community
Going off of my last two points, this was what I loved most about AIU.
Because it’s so secluded and you can get everything you need on campus, it really becomes a close-knit community. During my time there, I became close friends with most of the international students, my two roommates, and a large group of Japanese students, most notably the freshman that came in the spring.
I wish I could have spent more time there getting to know everybody, going to more events, having more fun. It was the best year of my life, and it’s why I’m back in Japan now as an ALT (assistant language teacher) for the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program. You will return to your home country a changed person. I certainly did.
EXTRA TIPS: (a reward for those who got this far)
- If you’re going to be there for the spring semester anyway, stay a little extra to see the Kantō Akita’s Kantō Festival is one of the three great Tohoku region summer festivals (called cumulatively the Tohoku San-dai Matsuri, or 東北三大祭) along with Aomori’s Nebuta Festival and Sendai’s Tanabata Festival.
It’s held from the 3rd to the 6th of August every year, so it’s only a few extra days past the end of the spring semester (spring semester goes until something like July 30th). You’re allowed to stay on campus for that time, so you might as well take advantage of being there and stay for the festival!
- You can rent a bike for pretty cheap (either by the hour/for the day) at the Chinese restaurant/buffet near campus. Do it. There is tons to do only a bike ride away from campus!
- A few nice places to go in the area –
Kakunodate (to see the bukeyashiki/samurai houses and to walk along the river)
Omagari (to the huge fireworks festival in late August, usually around the 24th or 25th, on the weekend; they do daylight fireworks, which are basically pops of colored smoke)
Have fun exploring!