After completing my 6 week language crash course at International Christian University, they gave us a two week break to relax and have fun before shipping us off to our schools for the year. The university that I was ultimately going to study at was Tsukuba University located in Tsukuba City. Tsukuba (sounds like scuba), is located in Ibaraki prefecture, about 1 hour north of Tokyo, and it didn’t have a train station at the time, only a bus center.
A couple days before moving into the dorms, the staff at ICU organized a preparatory visit to Tsukuba’s campus to give us a tour of the facilities and introduce us to our new helper buddies; Tsukuba University students who volunteered to help us foreign kids get around campus and not do stupid things like miss registration deadlines or get lost. Most international students only got one buddy, but for some reason I got two.
The day of the tour, my buddies came to ICU and together we were scheduled to meet up with the other international students and their buddies at the train station nearest to Tsukuba, where they piled us into a bus and gave us information packets to read on the drive over. When we arrived, they dropped us off at the Hirasuna dorms, and showed us our rooms, gave us our keys, and showed us where all the amenities were.
After the tour, we were taken back to Tokyo, and were given a few days to move into the dorms at our leisure. I wasn’t really ready to move away from Tokyo, so I waited until the last day that my rent was up at the ICU dorms before heading north. It was really bittersweet leaving the comforts of a first class dorm complex and the awesome dorm parents, they took a picture with me so I could remember them. I had to wear a hat, because my hair was purple and the dorm rules don’t allow dyed hair, but the dorm mom let me get away with it so long as I covered up with hats and head wraps (told you she liked me).
Making my way to Tsukuba University, I took the bus from Tokyo station, and the trip was only about 45 minutes. From there I took the local bus to the dorms, and got a look at my dorm room for the first time. It was extremely unpleasant. I stayed in the Hirasuna dorms before any renovations were made, everything was old and in decay. The trash bins were perpendicular to the entrances and housed families of feral cats and cockroaches that often entered the buildings. The dorms had no hot water, and things like toilets and kitchens were communal and unsanitary. Everybody cooked in their rooms so the kitchen was mostly a graveyard of ancient crusty stove tops. The porcelain of the washiki / Japanese squatter toilets were permanently stained brown from neglect. The walls and floors were painted concrete, the doors were metal, and the windows were single pane, making it extremely poorly insulated. The showers were in a separate building entirely, were pay to use, only open from 5pm to 8pm (and not every day), and you showered in one big room with dozens of other girls all standing around awkward and naked. The only redeeming quality of the dorm rooms were the provided beds, small desk, and small sink that ran cold tap water. Most students bartered bricks to stack under their beds to make room for storage, small appliances like mini fridges and microwave ovens, and clothing racks to balance between the narrow walls. I didn’t take a picture of my room, but the main website for Tsukuba University has a relatively accurate picture (and this is one of the good ones):
The only other redeeming factor of the Hirasuna dorms, was the fact that almost all of us international students had to live in them, so we had quite a lot of company in our misery. The campus had more modern dorms available, but were reserved for full time or special needs students. Other options were living off campus in private apartments, but most stayed in the dorms because of the price. The dorm rent at the time was about $150 a month including utilities and shower fees, so we got what we paid for. This girl has a pretty good blog post about what it’s like living in Hirasuna.
Since the living situation was so poor, a lot of students spend as much time outdoors as they can. My buddy gave me a bike as a move-in gift, and it wasn’t long before we all started exploring around town, finding the dollar store, the restaurants, the hobby stores, the shopping centers, grocery stores, computer labs, and open parks where one can comfortable lounge around with friends outside unbothered. Most evenings students spent outside in groups of drunken debauchery along the bike paths. Tsukuba is basically one really long bike path with university buildings built up around either side. Most students commute to school by bike, almost nobody drives unless if they live off campus. Needless to say, after a few weeks I was in the best shape of my life.
It wasn’t until the deep of winter hit that things started getting messy. The lack of insulation, rampant pests, and smoking indoors, led to an awful case of bronchitis that never healed. Eventually I was given permission to switch to the newer dorms to heal. Those four months at Hirasuna were an experience that really gave this girl from a middle class American family some new perspectives on life. Especially after the one time I went to take a pee and a cockroach fell out of the toilet paper roll. Yup.