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Where to Study Abroad in Japan: Tokyo or Kyoto?

Studying in Japan

If you love a cup of piping hot green tea, punctual transportation, high tech gadgets, and ancient temples as much as I do, you’ll be happy almost anywhere you go when studying abroad in Japan. But, sometimes the hardest choice beyond selecting the national destination is choosing the city you want to study in.

Specifically, the dichotomy between traditional and modern in Japan can be found in both the ancient capital city of Kyoto and the bustling hub of the current capital city, Tokyo. Coincidentally, these are the two cities most international students grapple between as a Japanese study abroad destination.

Adding to the cultural distinctions between these two unique hot spots is the local dialect spoken in each area. Kanto-ben is the local tongue in Tokyo, while people residing in Kyoto use Kansai-ben. Whether you decide to live and study in one city or the other, it is worth a visit to both as they offer such different experiences of Japanese culture and livelihood.

Read on and discover what makes each of these cities two of the most popular places to study abroad in Asia. You will not be disappointed with whichever choice you make!

Tokyo vs Kyoto 101

Spending a semester in Tokyo is to know the heartbeat of Japan and familiarize yourself with its hustle and bustle. Tokyo gives students a wide range sampling of what Japan has to offer, all compact into a well organized and planned grid. Tokyo is the economic, financial and business center of the nation, so being surrounded by what are called “salary men” on the train will be no surprise. Perched by Tokyo Bay, you will be able to sample some of the freshest sushi in the world, and may even feel a bit of breeze in the stifling hot summer months.

Kyoto, on the other hand, is the cultural mecca of Japan, a perfect backdrop for international students. For students with a deep love of history, religion, tradition, art, and natural beauty, Kyoto is the place to be! Noodle dishes and tea ceremonies abound here.

Another perk of setting up shop in the Kansai region is that you're a quick train ride to other fascinating destinations like: Osaka, Kobe, Nara, and Hiroshima. Tokyo is also just a 5.5 hour trek, so for a long weekend you can also make a voyage to the big city.

Cost of living

Named the world’s most expensive and most livable city are two of Tokyo’s past claims to fame. As such, most things in the big city are going to be quite a bit more expensive than they are in Kyoto. A meal at a restaurant, for instance, might be about 50% more. But, access to the many things to do is quite the draw! And keep in mind that in Tokyo, space comes at a high premium. The same can be said of Kyoto, but it offers quite a few neighboring suburbs with larger living spaces.

Both cities will fill your bellies with scrumptious local fare, entertain you with their karaoke booths, and provide you with endless shrines and temples to explore. You will be able to zip around each via bus or train on a schedule matched to the minute. The great thing about studying, interning, or working abroad in Japan is the sheer amount of possibilities because each city is packed to the brim with people and businesses.

Whether you decide to live and study in one city or the other, it is worth a visit to both as they offer such different experiences of Japanese culture and livelihood.

Things to do

It really comes down to a few things, are you wanting the advanced metropolitan experience (Tokyo), or more of a historical journey that feels a little like you’re going back in time (Kyoto). You’ll have a great time in either of these cities assuming you get out and meet the locals. Don’t stick with other foreigners, and don’t be afraid to get out and explore!

Studying Abroad in Tokyo

harajuku girls in japan

Opportunities in this city of 13 million abound! From visiting Akihabara, the technological district, to Harajuku the fashion forward center, to the early morning Tsukiji fish market you can see it all. Tokyo allows students a chance to study and cultivate an international perspective.

Because of its size, not only are you immersed within Japanese culture, but you can meet a wide range of other internationals as well. The city also contains the most universities in the nation. However, it can be a bit overwhelming and confusing due to it’s sheer size and capacity, so for those looking for a more tranquil experience, Kyoto might be the better choice.

Top Universities to Consider in Tokyo

Studying Abroad in Kyoto

Between geisha, Shinto shrines, gardens, and Buddhist temples you won’t know what hit you. It’s also the home of Nintendo! The city itself is much smaller in comparison to Tokyo, sitting at around 1.5 million. But, being less than an hour train ride from hip Osaka, with 2 million more Japanese, isn’t so bad.

If the bright lights of the big city don’t seem your fancy, the slower pace of the Kansai region and studying in the Kyoto area might be just the ticket—close to the nightlife of Osaka and amidst a rich cultural tapestry. You can sit along the banks of the river and enjoy your bento lunchbox, or head to a local market for some shopping.

While there are advantages to being in a big city, you’ll find slightly less tourists in Kyoto. The Hanami, or Cherry Blossom, season in this area is one of the most beautiful in Japan.

Top Universities to Consider in Kyoto

Now YOU Decide!

Still not sold on one or the other? No sweat, you can eat ramen and sushi just about anywhere, each region and even city will have their specialties. Catching a baseball game, attending a sumo match, practicing calligraphy and origami are things that can be done almost anywhere. From karate to kabuki, Japan is a rich destination for the curious, technology-interested, noodle-loving, study abroader!

If neither Tokyo nor Kyoto sounds appealing to you, you may consider studying abroad in another location like Sapporo, Fukuoka, or Okinawa. Whatever location you choose, immerse yourself in all the culture has to offer, and don’t miss an opportunity to improve your language skills. Oh, and if you get a chance to climb Fuji-san, make sure to say hi for me!

Photo Credits: Ashley Houston and Mark Veraart
Photo of Ashley Houston