Louis - Kyoto University

B Science & Dip Languages
Semester 1, 2019
Japan is the only place where it’s okay to get naked with a bunch of old men, but not to walk in the street while you’re eating. It’s one of the most unique cultures in the world, and I love it.

Academic experience

Kyodai (Kyoto University) has a broad range of subjects taught in English with no prerequisite study. This makes it a great university if you have many open electives available in your degree, allowing you to choose the subjects that interest you. However they have a much more limited number of later year subjects and subjects with direct equivalence. My semester encompassed a variety of subjects including subjects about Japan: Japanese Philosophy of Nature, Japanese History, and Culture and Traditions in Japan; as well as more science-oriented courses such as: Chemistry in Solar Energy Conversion, Physics of Waves and Oscillation, Basic Informatics, and the Fundamentals of Artificial Intelligence. I was even able to study Fundamentals of Physics as a direct credit for PHYS1001.
Their curriculum is split between regular lectures and ILAS seminars. These are basically the same thing. The difference is that ILAS seminars have limited enrolment and require you to receive a signature from the lecturer in the first session.
One limitation to their curriculum is in language courses. Originally, I had intended to study mostly Japanese language courses to fulfill my Diploma of Language. Unfortunately, very shortly before I submitted my study plan, I discovered that language courses were not counted in the six courses students are required to take each semester at Kyodai. So it was vital that I had the flexibility to change my study plan to include elective courses instead.
Aside from that restriction, though, the subject selection was very flexible. The online subject selections submitted with the application were merely a guideline for the university, which I was allowed to change once I arrived. The official subject registrations at Kyodai occur after week 1, with only a select few courses having limited enrolment. Furthermore, while I was required to take 6 courses, I was allowed to take more as I desired. Usually I would not risk overloading, but there were course drop periods a few weeks into the semester as well as during week 8 if I needed.
One thing I did find academically challenging, though, was gauging how much work was required for each subject. As the full-time equivalent was 6 subjects, not 4 (and many Japanese students will take upwards of 10 subjects), the size of each assessment is much smaller. Despite this, I found myself putting in the same amount of effort into an assessment as I would at UQ, which was often unnecessary. Furthermore, I found it more difficult to manage a greater number of small assessments and commitments compared to a small number of commitments with high importance. The grading itself was very lenient, likely due to the smaller weighting on each course. I passed all of my courses. I was concerned about passing one of my courses, but I received 60% - the minimum passing grade.

Personal experience

Japan, like most countries, has many personal experiences to offer. Any tour book will tell you about the temples, shrines, castles, and incredible food. And they’re all 100% spot on. But by visiting as an exchange student, there are opportunities that normally wouldn’t be available to tourists.
In my first two weeks in Japan, before the semester started, I had the regular tourist experience. I flew to Sapporo up north, then travelled down to Kyoto, knowing that it would be easier to explore the south of Japan from Kyoto. I visited Sapporo, Akita, Nikko, Tokyo, and Takayama. And each destination had something unique - usually a delicious local food. Every step along the way, I could feel the way the local history had shaped their culture up until now. And every step along the way I felt welcome. Despite Japan’s tight borders through history, locals are friendly and are eager to give a good impression. Visiting Japan, there is no shortage of new experiences to try. From stripping down and talking to old locals at the onsen (if you have tattoos, make sure to check it’s okay), to trying all sorts of meat you’ve never considered putting in your mouth, pushing your boundaries in Japan will almost always result in a positive experience. This is all compounded when you’re travelling on overnight buses like I did. There’s something raw about experiencing a new culture when you’re unshowered, and in a state of survival from lack of sleep. Yet the nights in between - in traditional Japanese style accommodation such as ryokan - will more than make up for the money you save on overnight buses.
During the semester, my experience was completely different. Through the university’s “tutor” system (more like a buddy system), I had a network of people from my faculty who were available to help. Better yet, from the first day I met my personally assigned tutor, I had a group of friends. My tutor and I had a common interest in board games, and he ran a “circle” (a Japanese term for a semi-formally organised group of friends with a common interest) that he invited me to join. I continued to attend their session every week, which allowed me to meet a diverse group of people - some Japanese, some foreigners, and some in-between. Through the networks set up by and around the university, it’s incredibly easy to find people with common interests and find things to do that you never knew were available. My teacher from Japanese Culture and Traditions even shared that she has previously set up a week-long opportunity for a student to live as a zen monk, though I am yet to ask if she can organise the same for me.
And of course Kyoto is located in an optimal location to visit a vast variety of places. From places that will change the way you view humanity (the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum), to places that will inspire you (the top of Mount Fuji), there is no shortage of weekend activities. And on Golden Week you even have a chance for longer trips. I visited Okinawa, where I went snorkelling, learnt about the Ryukyu kingdom, and ate okonomiyaki at a children’s day festival.
For me, the personal opportunity of this exchange is still ongoing. While my semester has already ended, I intend to stay in Japan for two more months - until the end of my visa’s validity. This is so that I can make the most of this rare opportunity to be allowed to visit a country for an extended period, especially with funding from the government. I intend to spend the rest of my time WWOOFing on a farm in Hokkaido, where it can get quite cold, because I simply loved my experience up there at the beginning of my trip. I hope that this will help me build my discipline and be a good opportunity to fill my lungs with fresh air.


My accommodation was a somewhat unique situation, because I went on exchange with my partner. Despite the extensive, heavily subsidised accommodation opportunities (look into Yoshida-ryo or Kumano-ryo if you want to go for a surreal, communal, extremely cheap Japanese student experience), none of the student accommodation opportunities that the university offered us would allow us to live together, or even guarantee that we would end up in the same town. So for the sake of living with my partner, I lived in a private apartment. We found a number of options on realestate.co.jp, and were lucky enough to find an apartment owned by a Brisbanite (Koala Apartments). Located less than 10 minutes’ walk from classes (door-to-door), the apartment was very large by Japanese standards, and had a traditional tatami-floored bedroom/living room. This was one of the more expensive accommodation options, though, at 90,000 JPY (about 1,300 AUD now) per month. A more standard apartment when we were looking was closer to half of that, though availability varies throughout the year.


As mentioned above, rent cost me 90,000 JPY per month but can much more commonly be found for under 50,000 JPY per month.
As a result of the apartment that I found, I didn’t need to catch public transport to the university, but catching the bus around Kyoto is not entirely cheap. Kyoto City buses run at a flat rate of 230 JPY (about $3) per trip, and you pay separately for each bus you catch, but you can buy a bus day-pass for 600 JPY (about $9).
The public transport in Kyoto is somewhat disconnected, so you may find yourself changing between the bus, the Keihan train, and the Kyoto Metro train. For this reason, it is very common for people in Kyoto to have bikes. You can pick one up second-hand for about $100-150 quite easily, or if you know someone living in a large dormitory you may even be able to find an abandoned bike as a result of their cheap price.
Traveling outside of Kyoto is significantly more expensive. A round trip to Osaka will cost about $15-20, or $30 if you want to catch the shinkansen (this will cut down the trip to 12 minutes from Kyoto to shin-Osaka). For longer trips, local trains become inconvenient and unfeasible very quickly, meaning your choices are either shinkansen or expressway bus. Shinkansen will cost about $170 to Tokyo or Hiroshima, and will scale similarly for longer trips. Alternatively, buses between cities will generally cost between $60 and $120. Willer Express offer bus passes that can be very cost-effective, allowing you to purchase 3-7 days of travel on their buses in the space of two months for the cost of about 2-4 individual trips (though you’re unlikely to take more than one trip in a day).
When outside of Kyoto, accommodation can be somewhat affordable. A night in a hostel or pod hotel (sometimes they’re the same thing) will cost upwards of $40, while private rooms are closer to $100 per night. Traditional Japanese-style ryokan will cost $150-300 per night, but they include a traditional dinner and breakfast (so make sure to arrive before dinner is served), wonderful hospitality, and often onsen or a shared bath. Sometimes in smaller towns they may even offer a taxi service at no extra charge.
Financing food in Japan holds a very different balance compared to Australia, as cooking your own food will not save you much money. A nice, prepared dinner from a convenience store will cost around 400-500 JPY (about $5-7). The drawback is in their lack of vegetables. Adding vegetables and fruit into your diet separately from the supermarket will add about 600-1000 JPY per day. Kyodai has fantastic cafeterias, however, which will serve a very nutritious meal (with vegetables) for about 400-600 JPY, and they’re open for both lunch and dinner. In total, my daily food budget was about 1500-2000 JPY. Going out for dinner will generally cost about 800-1200 JPY for a nice meal.


My greatest difficulty was balancing study and exploration. Though the workload is somewhat lighter, due to my interest in the courses, I found myself taking 8, and I found myself putting in the same amount of effort into each assessment as I would in Australia. This did not leave as much time for exploration as I would have liked. Yet, I still managed to largely make my weekends available and with the help of friends I had fantastic experiences.

Professional Development

Looking forward, I want to specialise in an area that combines multiple fields. My exchange allowed me to get more of a taste for the fields I have yet to study at university, and to have a different perspective into them than UQ provides. Also, during my time here, I learned about myself. As a result, I have changed my career goals. While this will not affect the courses I take during my degree, it will influence my decisions from the moment I return home.


I did a range of great things, but two stand out that I’ll never forget.
- Standing atop Mt. Fuji watching the sunrise. We climbed halfway up the day before, slept at 6, then finished the climb at 2am. The challenge of the climb alone (including altitude sickness), and waking so early in the morning gave me such a clear head. I felt so peaceful standing there, experiencing the same magical moment with hundreds of other people. And the way the light played across the sky was simple magnificent, I felt like I was standing inside a gem. Getting down was a little rough, though. I’d recommend actual hiking boots (the rocks are sharp and crumbly) and Australian fabric band-aids.
- Sitting in a hot, cloudy onsen in the snow on a mountain with a bunch of old men, a few women, and my partner.

Top tips

- Buy a bike. If you buy one from Eirin, they will likely buy it back off you when you’re done.
- Explore the side-streets.
- If you don’t like tourists, come to terms with it quickly. Kyoto is full of them, and most of the interesting places will have plenty.
- Visit a festival and a market.
- Join a circle! Ask your tutor if they can recommend one. It’s a great way to make a friend base.
- Don’t worry too much about money. The NCP should be able to cover your accommodation with a few thousand left over. If you received OS-HELP, you’ll have plenty and more.
- Visit onsen, but visit a sento as well. Especially on the hot days in summer, a sento is refreshing.
- If you visit Fushimi Inari, go all the way to the top. It’s not just about the gates. Appreciate the shrines and the forest, too.