ひさしぶり！So Chandler and I finally decided to update our blogs with all the useful information that we forgot to mention initially. For people who are going abroad this fall or are even thinking about Tsuru, feel free to ask me any questions you might have in the comments section.
Why go to Tsuru?
Tsuru seemed like an intimidating choice at first because it was in the middle of nowhere and barely anybody outside of that area knows about the school. When I initially told my Japanese friends I was going there they were surprised because it’s not a typical study abroad destination like ICU in Tokyo and Doshisha in Kyoto. However, I think that was the best part about this place! The 9 of us were the only American exchange students there along with a few from Korea and China. Because there were so few of us, we got taken care of really well by the staff who were always willing to help us whenever anything went wrong. The small school environment made it really easy to make friends and meet people because everyone seemed to know everyone. The classes were also super small because we were broken up into A and B level classes of 4-5 people each depending on ability. We also got to participate in town events and become part of the community that we lived in.
Being in the countryside also made everything much more affordable than it would’ve been if we lived in Tokyo. A bowl of ramen cost around 400 yen and my grocery bill came out to around 2500 ($25) a week. The only thing that was pricey was the train line that we lived on so going to Fuji was about $10 round trip and Tokyo was about $35 roundtrip if you didn’t take the express car. Luckily we made a lot of friends and had host parents who would drive us around to see all the main attractions.
Tsuru was really the best because it not only helped all of us get really good at Japanese, but it helped us make close connections with the teachers, staff, students, and community members as well. There’s also an internship program at a local elementary school if you’re planning on applying for JET as well.
I think we got accepted through UCEAP around mid-late February and started our visa process in March. It wasn’t until June until we got our documents but they always come on time so don’t worry too much about it. I booked my flight in May after school ended through JTB which is a Japanese travel agency. They have a small student discount as well. At the time of booking, Delta offered 2 free bags so I went with them but about a month after I booked they stopped that offer so I would recommend an airline like Korean or Malaysian that allows for 2 free bags. Also I would would recommend booking round trip because I made the mistake of making two separate flights and it came out really expensive.
If you’re confident traveling around by yourself I would suggest booking up to a week earlier than the program starts to enjoy what Japan has to offer in the summer. Don’t book earlier because the papers required for your visa might not come in on time but once you get them, the Japanese consulate is great at keeping everything to schedule. I spent a few days with friends and traveled around Tokyo and Yokohama in the days before the program started.
Even if you’re not confident traveling alone, book at least a week after the program ends. I had reasons that I needed to come home early but I would’ve stayed much longer if I could’ve. The school doesn’t kick you out of housing until around December 24th and you’re allowed to stay there for about $20 a night. Definitely use that time to travel with your friends even if it’s only a day trip to Hokkaido! The office staff is glad to help with any travel logistics and issues you might have.
From the airport take the NEX train and get a suica card. I think you need to reserve seats for the NEX train so make sure you do that. It takes you straight into Tokyo and from there take the Chuo line to get to the hotel.
What to Bring with You
I was sure to choose an airline with 2 free bags so I packed each about 3/4 of the way full with both winter and summer clothes. It’s in the 100′s and humid when you get there and it’ll be almost snowing when you leave so make sure you have every type of clothing (without bringing too much of course). Also don’t for get to bring omiyage or gifts for your host family, tutors, and staff. It’s a big thing in Japan to give gifts and you don’t want to be that one guy who forgot to bring stuff for his host family.
Make sure you come with bags that are half empty (after omiyage) because you will want to bring so much stuff back with you. One of us brought back a 175 lb suitcase and somehow didn’t get charged extra for it. Some people weren’t as lucky and got charged extra.
Another thing I’d suggest bringing is American toothpaste because the Japanese one is pretty weak but all other toiletries and what not are good (and sometimes better) to buy there. Also bring at least a month’s worth of cash with you. Japan is a super safe country so don’t worry about getting robbed. It took us almost a month to make a bank account so we could wire money to it, and many people were strapped for cash within the first few weeks after buying phones and what not. Not all Japanese ATM machines accept American debit cards. Only the one at the post office worked for most people.
What to do in Tsuru
When you first get there on the bus, there’s a feeling of ‘omg there’s nothing here what did I get myself into’. However if you’re willing to explore and walk around a lot, there’s a lot of cool hidden things scattered around the town. My favorite during the summer was going to the river behind the Yamuramachi train station. The water is freezing because it comes from Fuji but it’s the best thing on a super hot summer day. The takoyaki stand nearby is pretty good too and we became friends with the owner. I also liked following the walking maps posted around town and this led to some pretty cool discoveries like hidden waterfalls, temples, and shrines and were scattered along the river. A fun place to explore is the area towards the Higashikatsura station which is totally walkable from the apartments. There are so many neat little shrines in that area.
Foodwise, the ramen shop across the street from the entrance of campus is run by this super sweet couple who always gave us discounts. I still have cravings for their miso ramen and I get really sad that I can’t find anything close to it in Berkeley. Everyone will also tell you about an udon store called Ishii which is in a little shopping center nearby school. It’s super cheap handmade udon and so delicious. You have to write your order down on a slip of paper and give it to the counter. I also crave this often. The school cafeteria is pretty good as well and really cheap. As far as groceries, I preferred Okajima over Ogino for selection but Ogino was definitely more convenient. There’s also a place about 10-15 min south of the apartments called Genki and their food is so cheap it seems somewhat sketchy.
If you want to take the train or convince a friend to drive you, there’s the Fuji Q Highland theme park which is like the Japanese Six Flags. The area around it too has a really nice hotel, shopping areas, and restaurants as well. There’s also Kawaguchiko where there’s a fireworks festival in the summer and has some of the best views of Mt. Fuji. I was lucky enough to have a host family and friends that took me all around that area.
If you’re into hiking you can read my post on Fuji. We also climbed Mitsutoge which is a mountain closer to Tsuru and attempted hiking behind the school but ended up failing and trailblazing up the mountain. Tsuru is just an awesome place to see nature in general. The mountains turn red in the fall and it was the one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
Also Tokyo isn’t too far away so we went there pretty often. I’m sure some other guide can tell you more about what there is to do in Tokyo but I really liked going to places like Odaiba and random cafes I read about on the internet. If you scroll through my posts you’ll see I did a lot of really random things there. I’ve been a few times before so I didn’t have much interest in the big touristy spots.
Make the most out of every day. Five months seems like a long time at first but it’s really not. Enjoy the adventure!