★ Why Tsuru University?
Tokyo’s tall gray buildings melt away into grassy green hills, peppered with the occasional cluster of small houses. We are on this bus from Tokyo to Tsuru, on a two-lane freeway for two hours before the green Tsuru sign finally swims out from the sea of forested hills.
The freeway narrows down even further into a two-lane street that would be considered a one-way street back in America. The short houses and shops all become one white and brown blur. It finally hits me, two days after getting off my airplane: I am in Japan. I am in a whole other country. And we are in the middle of nowhere.
“What university are you studying at?” Someone from Tokyo would ask.
“Tsuru University,” I reply, and the response I receive is a confused look.
“Where is that?” He asks, an inevitable question.
“Yamanashi Prefecture.” This prompts an exclamation of surprise, because the train ride from Tsuru to Tokyo is nearly three hours long.
Tsuru University does not incite the awed gasps of prestigious universities like Tokyo or Keio University. It is a tiny campus of only four buildings, tucked away into a town surrounded by hills. If one is lucky, one can see Mt. Fuji on a clear day. So why did I choose Tsuru University, and what does its exchange program offer than no other program does?
Intensive Language Study (Inside and Outside of Class)
My main goal for studying abroad was to improve my language skills, especially because I study Japanese language and literature as a Japanese and Comparative Literature double major.
I had several Japanese universities to choose from, including Doshisha, with its large campus in Kyoto — the complete opposite of Tsuru. However, I chose Tsuru because of its six weeklong intensive language program and its small campus in a rural setting.
Being in such a small, rural town offers continuous practice of the language outside of class. Tsuru does not have signs both in Japanese and English, unlike Tokyo, which draws many international visitors. I found myself talking and reading Japanese 24/7. To be truly immersed in the language like this is exactly what I was looking for in a study abroad program. Just within a week, I had a newfound confidence in my Japanese skills.
Language and culture are taught in class and experienced outside of class. We had private calligraphy lessons, a city tour, donned kimonos for Hinamatsuri (Girls’ Day), ate traditional meals like gathering around a table for nabe (hotpot), and went to elementary schools to assist a teacher teaching her kids Japanese. The program is truly a language and culture experience, both inside and outside the classroom.
Tsuru University and the UC system have a partner program where Tsuru University takes up to 10 UC students every semester for a Language and Culture program. The first six weeks are intensive language, followed by spring break, and then regular classes are taken with all Tsuru students.
During the intensive language program, there are four teachers: Inoue, Shima, Takami, and Miyata. Classes are every day, 9 to 12 p.m., though it honestly feels less like taking a class, and more like a private lesson. Especially because the Tsuru program only accepts a small number of UC students (in our case, there were only 3 of us), you are individual who is paid attention to, and not just one person in a large class of students with different levels of Japanese.
The teachers work at the pace that best works for each student. On the first day of class, we were given a placement test to figure out our level of grammar, kanji, and speaking. From there, the first week of class is still a trial run, as the teachers narrow in on each student’s level of Japanese. They try out different textbooks to figure out which one best fit the student – if it is too advanced or easy for, which chapter to start at.
They also tailor the program’s pacing to each student’s learning abilities. I was repeatedly told that if the pacing is too slow or too fast, to tell them. There is a certain section of grammar to cover every day, but it is not set in stone. There is no problem in pausing the lesson to ask questions, to clarify, or to review past concepts again.
The class reflects the syllabus we were given, which states: there is no objective in the class; you have to find it yourself.
A network of help
You are never alone. There is always someone to ask for help, whether it be how to sort your garbage (more complicated than one would think), to medical concerns.
Fumi-san is the infamous host mother at Tsuru, and she will truly be your mother while in Japan. She extends invitations to her house for dinner, helps students with alien registration ID cards and health insurance, buying a cell phone, or providing a ride to the bank. Any question, worry, or request, contact Fumi-san.
After the 9.0 earthquake struck Japan on March 11, power went out everywhere. By the evening, power was still out, and the other exchange students and I only had a few flashlights, candles, and some snacks for dinner. Fumi-san sent her son out to pick us up and we stayed the night at her house. She gave us dinner, reassurance, and breakfast the following day.
The following morning, the e-mails and phone calls from last night that could not get through poured in one after the other. When I was finally able to contact my frantic parents, they were relieved to know that Fumi-san had been looking out for us. While at Tsuru, Fumi-san truly is everyone’s mother, and her family becomes your family.
Besides the amazing Fumi-san, there is also Mineko Takeguchi, who facilitates the Language and Culture program. If Fumi-san is not there, she is the one to go to, especially for university or program related things. Students are also assigned their own host family. Students also exchange mail addresses with the teachers, so they are another resource. And let’s not forget, personal tutors!
Probably one of the best parts of this program is a small group of Tsuru students who become your tutors. And it goes beyond homework. On our first day at Tsuru, they took us grocery shopping (with insider tips on which grocery store has better deals on produce, or to buy eggs when they are on sale for 100 yen a pack). They helped us open bank accounts, taught us how to take the trains, and how to set up our cell phones. They invited us to club meetings or their apartments for dinner, introducing us to Japanese university life. They become not just tutors, but your closest friends while in Japan, and remain with you when you leave. Thank goodness for skype!
One of the perks at Tsuru University is how easy it is to meet other students, both on and campus, and off. Just walking down the street, there is a high chance of bumping into someone you know.
Sure, Tsuru is not Tokyo. There is no nightlife, but what is substituted for a night out on the town, is that people get together. A lot. Tutors, your neighbor, or other new friends may invite you to an okonomiyaki-making party, or to go out for lunch.
Everything is walking distance: Several grocery stores, Seria (the equivalent to the American dollar store), post office, a cute little bakery, a medicinal store, the train station, restaurants, and convenience stores. There is likely someone you have become friends with working part-time at any of these places. The university itself is a 10 to 15 minute walk away.
The address is Maison de Crystal. It is no French house, but the living space given to UC students is amazing, and only 500,000 yen a month (about $500) with utilities, water, and Internet included! The apartment is subsidized by the UC/Tsuru partnership, allowing it to be such a good deal for a fully furnished apartment — especially in Japan, known for its high cost of living. Each student has his or her own apartment in this three story building, rented out exclusively to UC students or Tsuru students who are going to study abroad at one of the UCs.
Each apartment comes with a shower/ofuro (bath), bathroom, kitchen, a large studio-like apartment space, and a sleeping area with a futon. The kitchen already comes fully stocked with dishes, utensils, a rice cooker, fridge, and other appliances, as well as anything left behind by the previous tenant. One lucky person may get the room with the kotatsu (Japanese low table).
Tsuru University offers a highly personalized program in a studious and friendly environment. It is a homely place, where everything and everyone is walking distance. Japanese is practiced from the moment one wakes up, to when one falls asleep.
My stay in Japan was cut short due to the March 11 earthquake, but we were able to finish the intensive language program. It was only six weeks, but my Japanese had improved greatly, especially in terms of speaking. I could carry conversations with much more ease and confidence. Though my time there was short, it was an experience I would not trade for anything else. I have met so many people, and now have friends and people I can call, “My family in Japan.” If anything, they have given me an even greater reason to return to Japan someday.
 Please note that due to the earthquake/tsunami/Fukushima situation, this review is limited to the six-weeklong intensive language program. We were supposed to take regular classes at the university afterwards, but our program got cancelled before that.