During this series we share Nippoli members exchange experiences and tips. This Aalto University Business student has requested to remain anonymous.
Fall semester 2022: MSc in Information Networks and CEMS Global Management.
1. Preparing for the exchange semester
I started preparing for the fall term exchange almost immediately after receiving the results of the exchange applications in the spring since the paperwork for getting the student visa required a bit of work. The process starts by applying for the certificate of eligibility (CoE), and with that document, you can apply for a visa in Helsinki. There were quite many applications to fill in for the CoE and other documents, but don’t worry – the Keio CEMS office was very active in terms of sending you the correct forms and replying promptly to any questions. However, during the spring and summer, keep an eye on your mailbox as well as the junk mail, because the deadlines for sending certain forms might be tight.
When you have the CoE in hand, applying for the visa took less than a week for me. Some people had delays in receiving the CoE because it’s a physical paper delivered to you. The process was a bit slow, but at least in my case, the Keio CEMS office gave quite a good estimation for when to receive the certificate. I received the CoE in early August, got the visa after a week or so, and my flight was at the end of August. Some people had issues with booking flights so early that they didn’t have the visa yet, so it was quite expensive for them to start rebooking the flights. Therefore, don’t book the flights too early, since the process might not be easily predictable!
CEMS is a relatively new program in Keio, and therefore it doesn’t have so strong traditions yet. This means that some information might be more difficult to find, but the CEMS Keio office was happy to help in these cases.
The dormitories are the most popular choice for exchange students as well as Japanese students living in Tokyo. The dormitory application period was during the summer, and the CEMS office informed us very well about that one. You could choose three dorms for the application, where I applied for Takanawa, Ota and Tsunashima, with the preference to be as close to the city as possible. However, since many people from our CEMS cohort took an early check-in option because some courses start earlier than the normal dormitory check-in option, I think they just put everyone in the Tsunashima dorm. I was very disappointed with this since Tsunashima was so far away from the city – located not at all in Tokyo but in Yokohama.
The Tsunashima dormitory building itself was very nice and rather new, and it was nice to start the semester by living in the same place with almost everyone in our cohort. There was a big grocery store and a mall right in front of the building, a 20-minute walk to the Hiyoshi campus and train station, and a nice river for jogging nearby. Despite all this, it was almost one hour away from Tokyo, which was a big minus for me, so I decided to resign the dorm contract right away. The dorm had some rules, that are very basic stuff in Japan & other Asian countries but different to what you might see in Finland: e.g. own floors for men & women, you are not allowed to enter the floor of another gender nor someone else’s room, and you had to inform the dorm manager beforehand if you are going to spend the night out of the dorm. Visitors had to be registered with the manager, and they were only allowed in a shared kitchen.
After leaving the dorm, I moved to a share house in Harajuku, which was the best decision I could imagine. The dorm was nice but since the location was so bad – in the end, I paid almost the same rent in my share house in the heart of the city. My room in Harajuku was just what I was dreaming of: an old, traditional Japanese house with a tatami mat floor in my room. For someone enjoying suburb life, I would recommend the dorm, but if you’re looking for city life like myself, take a look into the private share houses. Harajuku / Omote-sando was an amazing place to live since it had direct connections to the campus, walking distance to Shibuya, Shinjuku and many other areas, and the big Yoyogi park & Meiji Jingu for jogging in the area – it was also super quiet and safe in the evenings. Living in the city was cheaper in the sense that I didn’t have to pay high prices to commute from Yokohama. Overall, I could not be happier with the choices I made, since I got to experience the best of both worlds literally: being able to see and experience dorm life but still living most of the time in the city.
3. Flight and arrival
Arriving in Tokyo was very convenient since Finnair and other companies fly direct flights from Helsinki every day. From the two airports located in Tokyo, Haneda and Narita, I recommend choosing Haneda, if you have the option. Haneda is very close to the city, whereas Narita is a bit farther away. However, I arrived in Narita (on my birthday!), and stayed in a hotel in Ginza during the first days. It might be a good idea to arrive in the city a few days before checking into your accommodation, which was also recommended by the dorm managers.
When it was time to move from the hotel to the dorm, it was quite a rough journey since I was by myself having three pieces of luggage, and decided to use the metro, since taxis are quite expensive in Japan. Anyway, the metro system in Tokyo (and in Japan in general) is excellent and you can definitely fit in with big luggage as well – unless you are travelling during the worst rush hours. In the dorm, there was a person from the CEMS office to welcome us. The Hiyoshi campus was 15-20 minutes walking distance away, where the block seminar was held. From the dorm to the Mita campus, it was roughly 45 minutes to one hour by metro. When you arrive, you will also have to register your address in the city hall. These were some of the mandatory bureaucracy steps, which can take some time and patience – especially without Japanese language skills.
4. Experience with host school
We got to see the course portfolio during the summer, when we also made initial choices about the courses we would like to take. There was quite a lot of courses offered, but many of the continued until January / February, when the fall term ends in Japan. Since I had to be back in Finland in January, the options were somewhat limited. Sadly, I was not able to take the Japanese language course, because it was ending late January. Therefore, I was aiming for courses that both start and end as early as possible.
All the courses were quite light compared to the amount of credits and what you would be doing in Finland for the same amount. Anyway, Keio is a top university, and you will certainly hear reactions like “ooh, wow”, when local people hear that. This felt sometimes quite funny, knowing that the courses I was doing felt quite light. Anyway, I really enjoyed, since it was a nice contrast to my hectic life in Finland.
I chose the following courses:
Business logistics, 8 ECTS
The course was fully online, from September to October. Almost every week, you had to facilitate a class about a set of articles, which was a total of 4 presentations, and in the end, there was a term paper to write. The presentations and term paper required some work, but since the course was so short, it wasn’t too much. I enjoyed the themes that included articles from the Japanese market, which was very interesting, and something I wouldn’t learn in Europe: e.g. convenience store business model in Japan, history & business of tea ceremony, and other Japan-specific themes.
Management control in Japan, 8 ECTS
The course was fully online, from September to November. The course contained a few light exercises and a group presentation at the end, but a lot of focus was on class discussions which made the course quite light in terms of workload. I also enjoyed the focus on Japanese companies and the local business environment, which was interesting, and we got to learn about important companies in Japanese society, that I wouldn’t have been familiar with otherwise. Apart from that, if you look for academic challenges, this course might not be for you
Global business strategy & responsible leadership, 8 ECTS
This was a mandatory course for everyone, and it was held fully online, from October to early December. This was the only course where the lecturer was Japanese, which was really amazing. The professor was a very pleasant old man with lots of business experience, and the classes were mainly based on discussions and the professor sharing experiences and knowledge. It required very active participation since the professor always asked you to make comments on someone else’s comments – which I think was very refreshing. I really enjoyed the classes, but many people were complaining a lot since the classes were quite slow and discussions were often a bit off-topic. However, I think the course offered a perspective on life and different learnings than what you could get by learning a classical strategy book, and I enjoyed it a lot. The tasks were only very short 5-10min group presentations here and there, so the workload was very light.
The block seminar was held at the Hiyoshi campus in September. We had to pay around 100€ fee for participating. The theme was inclusive and commercial business models in Japan, and we had a few lectures around the theme, after which we mostly worked on our presentations. Therefore, the 100€ fee felt a bit too much for doing mostly independent work.
As the CEMS community in Tokyo was rather small, there were only two skill seminars of 0,5 ECTS offered. The first seminar was held in a big hotel in Tokyo. Unfortunately, many people were not very happy with the content: we were mostly talking about luxury hotels and the hospitality sector, which felt a bit off-topic. The other seminar at the Mita campus was better, focusing on cultural psychology.
In addition to the courses offered, the CEMS club didn’t organize too many company visits. I participated in one excursion, which was not a CEMS-related event. Therefore, corporate relationships are not so strong yet. I also heard that in Japan, it’s very much bureaucratical and controlled how the CEMS club can contact different companies, which is certainly one reason for somewhat weak corporate relationships. This and other experiences I had left me with a feeling that in Japan, there is still a lot of work to do with achieving sustainable work-life balance, gender equality and lower hierarchy in the corporate world.
5. Online experiences
In the end, all the courses (except block & skill seminars) I took were online. Many other courses were held on the campus or hybrid, but for my preferences, having the opportunity to do online courses was something I enjoyed – still having the opportunity to study at campus with the seminars. Three-hour classes online were quite exhausting at times, but for me, it was the perfect way to have more time for cultural exploring and other universityrelated tasks like the hobby club. If you are hoping for more campus experiences, don’t worry – there were plenty of options fully on campus as well.
6. Life in the host country
Living costs in Japan were less than in Finland. The rent at the dorm was around 600€, and when I moved to central Tokyo, I paid roughly 650-700€ depending on the yen course. This is a bit more than I pay in central Helsinki, but in the heart of a megacity, I think this was very affordable. Food in Japan is generally quite cheap, especially compared to Finland.
During my exchange, I also travelled a lot. This is something that might be quite expensive in Japan: the bullet train system is amazing but tickets are quite expensive. In my cohort, almost all the CEMS cohort got the JASSO scholarship from the Japanese government, which helped a lot to cover travelling expenses. I knew I wanted to travel a lot, so I saved a big amount of money for that, but in the end, I didn’t have to use almost any of my savings, which was a positive surprise. Since online courses allowed flexible travel, I visited e.g. Hokkaido, Okinawa, Kyushu island (including Aso, Beppu, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Oita,…), Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Kamakura, Hiroshima & Shimanami kaido, Niigata for skiing, climbed Mount Fuji, Izu – the list is so long that these are just a few. I also went to Vietnam, but most of the time I wanted to enjoy just Japan. I also drive a lot of car during my trips – without a car, I wouldn’t have seen so many of the unique places, so it was quite essential in many areas. In the end, I was the only brave one from our cohort driving in the left-sided traffic.
Japanese people might be a little shy at times, especially with their English language skills. They are so kind and polite, but I understand that it might feel difficult to get to know them at first. Anyway, I wanted to get to know locals as much as I could, and I got one very close friend from the dorm. I was also part of the Japanese dancing society at Keio University, where I met most of my local friends. In addition, having a bi-weekly dancing class with all the kimonos and fans was a unique experience. Now I also have my own yukata dress!
Overall, I was highly interested in Japanese culture and had visited Tokyo once before, so I didn’t have too many cultural shocks and knew I will love living in Tokyo – which I certainly did. Being the world’s largest city and urban area, it would probably take a lifetime to really see the city. The metro system in Tokyo is excellent, which made commuting smooth. Very Japanese experiences such as onsens, new year celebration at the temples, history, cute & polite habits of Japanese people and of course all the food like ramen, udon, matcha, and sushi make the country unique and fascinating. The weather was great, September was a typhoon season so it was raining sometimes, but it was nice and warm until early November.
After that, the winter season was amazing, since it was sunny and dry. Of course, there are downsides in every country. In Japan, the bureaucracy was very heavy for example registering your address in the city hall, and opening a bank account (which was mandatory for getting the JASSO scholarship). Also moving your address inside Japan was another battle, but I’m glad I did it. Moreover, in my CEMS cohort, not everyone had the same goals as me in terms of cultural experiences and travelling. I was a little disappointed that not many people were interested in travelling or cultural activities, so I had to do most of the big trips by myself. I also felt that some other CEMSies were not so much interested in Japan specifically, and some suffered quite a lot of the cultural shock, which was of course very unfortunate. CEMS Club Tokyo was not very active, but they organized a few small gatherings. This was in line with my expectations, so I was mentally prepared in being active in other social communities outside the CEMS club. Anyway, I got many good friends also from our CEMS cohort, which was lovely. Because I was not present at the campus or dorms too much, I had to be proactive, which is something to keep in mind.
7. Final comments
Overall, I enjoyed my exchange term so much that it was a real challenge for me to return to Finland. I also spent both Christmas and new year in Japan, since I wanted to stay in the country as long as I could. Thinking back on my exchange, I would most likely do many things similar to what I did now. Also, a final tip, at Aalto University, make sure to check the Japanese Nippoli-club. Through Nippoli, I met other people from Aalto who were doing their exchange in Japan at the same time, so it was the best place to get fellow support for the paperwork. We also met before takeoff in Helsinki, and later in Tokyo!
I would highly recommend Japan and Keio University for someone genuinely interested in Japan, or aspiring for a career in Japan – in this case, Keio is one of the best academic merits you can have in your resume. However, if you are looking for academic challenges and an active CEMS community, I would recommend looking for something else. Japan is a spectacular adventure, if you are ready to step a bit out of your comfort zone, the country will offer you many opportunities – enjoy the journey!