The OIP Advice I Didn’t Take

April 29, 2010

Sophia University, located in one of the nicest areas of downtown Tokyo, has no on-campus housing (most Japanese students live with their parents), making the task of selecting housing for the study-abroad period not a simple one.  Sophia University does provide a limited number of housing arrangements for visiting students, all of which are located quite far from campus.

Advice about where to live in Tokyo was plentiful….

“Everyone in Tokyo commutes to school or work- an hour or more commute is not unusual”

“If you can get into housing located within an hour’s train ride from Sophia University, consider yourself lucky”

“It is impossible to live in downtown Tokyo”

“Living in the University-arranged housing is the best option for students who know little Japanese”

“The best social life is in the housing offered by the University, where other students will also be staying”

The above words were those I ignored when deciding where to live in Tokyo for my study abroad semester at Sophia University.

Why?  For four simple reasons–

  • I could not imagine having to get up each day at 6AM and to spend over 160 hours of my study abroad time on completely packed subway cars during rush hour
  • Having to depend upon the subway to get home presents a major impediment to nightlife (which just gets started around the time that the trains stop running)
  • I wanted the option of returning to my room between my morning and afternoon classes, or between classes and going to study in the library
  • I couldn’t believe that there were no reasonable places to live in downtown Tokyo

As a back-up plan, I put in a request for housing through Sophia University at the time of submitting my application for the study abroad program– I selected the option with the shortest commuting time (just under one hour each way).  I then began to search for housing options in Tokyo online, and quickly discovered two key pieces of information:

  • It is nearly impossible for an international visitor to rent a regular apartment in Tokyo for less than a full year because of the complex fee and security system.
  • There are an enormous selection of “guest houses” ( Gaijin or Gaien Houses) conveniently located throughout the downtown area that are specifically geared to international students and interns who plan to stay for a few weeks or months.

Armed with this information, I began my quest to find the perfect guest house for my stay.  My imaginary ideal place would be located within walking distance to campus, clean and secure, priced under $1000/month (including utilities), and have other people my age living there. To my delight, I located 4 guest houses within a 20 min walk from campus which had private rooms in my price range.  I proceeded to place myself on their email lists for notification about room availability around the time of my anticipated arrival; this information would become available 1-2 months before I would move in (I would be arriving at the beginning of April, which is when the Japanese school year begins).  Because almost all of the guest houses have online photos (often videos) of the individual rooms, as well as details about the size and location of each room, it is easy to get an idea of the various options.

In January, 3 months before my planned arrival in Japan, I received the notification from Sophia University that I was accepted into the program and assigned to the housing location I had requested in my application.  At this point, I had to make a firm decision whether to accept the assigned housing or find housing on my own.  I had less than a week to make this decision, so it was quite fortunate that I had done so much research on the housing options ahead of time.  Realizing that there were well over a hundred rooms available in the downtown guest houses and seeing that at least a third of the rooms turned over each month, I felt confident that I would have plenty of choice.   I then declined the Sophia University-arranged housing option.  Upon communicating my choice to OIP, I received a message expressing the following concern:

“I want to make sure that you understand that once you say no to Azalea House you will not be able to ask for Sophia’s assistance with housing.  My only concern is that with little Japanese you will not have the support that you would have in one of the dorms.

I must admit that I found this message rather intimidating, and I wondered whether I was risking a disaster by finding housing on my own. After all, an overcrowded foreign city where I am at a complete loss for words is not the best place to test out what it is like to be homeless.  I then more carefully examined the actual logistics of commuting to campus from Azalea House.   When I realized that to get to the nearest train station, it would require a longer walk than I would have from a downtown guest house to campus, that I would need to take two different trains, that it would cost over $300 for the commuting pass, and that each day I would end up like this–
— I quickly reiterated my determination to find housing on my own near the University.

As March approached, I received more than 30 offers of rooms in guest houses near the campus. At this point, my anxiety about finding a room turned into an anxiety about how to make the best choice. My choice ended up being based mostly on location– I picked a guest house that was a block from a station on a major subway line and only seven blocks from campus.  Located in Yotsuya– one of the nicest residential neighborhoods in the center of Tokyo, the guest house was actually called “Sophia House,” but had no connection with the University.  My room was perfect– it was a large sunny corner room with two large windows and a small balcony, on the top floor of a 4 story building. The rent (my room was $850/mo) included all utilities, and the building had a free place to park a bicycle (bicycle parking is at a premium in Tokyo).  Moreover, since the guest house is for both international visitors as well as Japanese, the managers all speak English and were extremely helpful.

Another Georgetown student who did accept the Sophia University-assigned housing told me later that he didn’t understand why the place he lived (DK Warabi House) was recommended by Georgetown.  He found the location to be less than pleasant and the commute so onerous that he regretted his decision.  As it turns out, the housing options offered by Sophia University are not actually owned nor managed by the University– they are just private guest houses from which Sophia contracts a subset of rooms like a broker.

As my trip to Japan approached, I wondered about who my roommates would be. After all, I would be sharing a common kitchen, lounge, bathrooms, and showers with them. I had no idea about where they would be from, or what languages they would speak.  As it turned out, the guest house was filled with a diverse and fun group of people: one from France, one from Quebec, one from Charlottesville (UVA), two from Sweden, one from China, two from Japan, and one from Korea.  Including myself, half were male and half were female.  All were in their 20s.  We became close friends and wonderful companions– I had found a new family halfway across the world.

As I walked though the library on campus, I would find rooms of students sprawled across two or three chairs, deep asleep between classes.   When I would pass a McDonald’s on my way home from a bar at 3 or 4AM, I would see rows of people sleeping at the tables as they waited for the metro to open at 5AM.  As I listened to their snoring, I realized that I would have been one of them had I taken the housing advice from OIP.

Helpful links:
En Flat Tokyo (Yotsuya House/Sophia House):
Sakura House (Yotsuya House):
Mayflower House (Yostsuya):

Sakura House (Shibuya/Sendagaya House–this is not walking distance but it is centrally located):

Note: For all of these guest houses, it is possible to sign up for the waiting list for specific rooms and for notification about room availability. The prices of the rooms are within the same range as the rooms arranged by Sophia University; the specific room rents vary according to their size and amenities (between $650 and 950 per month, including utilities).

About Justine Underhill

A native of DC, Justine attended Sophia University in Tokyo, where the spring semester starts in April and ends in August. As an Economics and Theater & Performing Arts major she took econ classes by day and went to shows by night. Playing with origami, sushi making, kabuki, puppetry, calligraphy, comics and robots all indulge her own uncommonly divergent passions for theater, design, economics and mathematics. Justine’s prior experience as an exchange student in HS took her to Bavois, Switzerland, where cows outnumbered people and there was no internet access in the home. In Tokyo, she faced life at the other extreme, in a dense urban center bustling with technology.
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4 Responses to The OIP Advice I Didn’t Take

  1. Hello! Just want to say thank you for this interesting article! =) Peace, Joy.

  2. Maureen Savoie says:

    Thanks for the information. As a Mom of a student planning to spend a year in Japan, your housing article was very helpful.

  3. Justine Underhill says:

    Thanks Maureen! If you have any questions about living in Japan/ Tokyo feel free to contact me (jju at– Justine

  4. Kaci says:

    Thanks for this article, Justine. I see it’s already about 3 years old now but I’ll also be going to Sophia this Fall (through CIEE) and wanted to live off-campus (in Sakura House, really.)
    Do you think I could email you with a question or two?

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