Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Advice For Newcomers to Tokyo

I'm sure there are dozens of sites out there with tips for newcomers to Japan (or Tokyo) and I'm not going to duplicate the advice about trying to speak Japanese as much as possible, making friends, or sampling the cuisine. I'm hoping to offer some advice which is a little more specific to smoothing the bumpier aspects of getting along here. If I duplicate the advice of others, well, please forgive me. It's rather hard to avoid replication of ideas when you're living the same sort of life as others and experiencing the same problems.

Short term (~1 year) stay advice:
  • If you want to sample various types of Japanese food, eat out at lunch time rather than at dinner time. The set menus are cheaper, usually include an entree, side dishes and a drink for one reasonable price and are varied from day to day. If you eat out in the evening, you'll usually have to order a la carte which will cost more and you'll also tend to waste a lot of money on overpriced alcohol or beverages.
  • Friends (especially Japanese ones) will probably want to go out for karaoke and drinks after work. If this is your thing, by all means do it, but try very hard not to stay out past the point when the last train heads for your home. Cabs are expensive and drunken foreigners can find they're being literally taken for a ride or they may find they can't get a cab at all late at night. Keep in mind also that some Japanese people often expect the last person on the cab's route to cover the entire tab so you may have to fork over a substantial sum if you "share" a cab.
  • Buy liquid laundry soap rather than laundry powder. Japan is very humid in summer and in the rainy seasons and you'll find that small, expensive box of laundry detergent forming a big cake in no time. You'll have to buy another or chisel yours apart. The main problem with the chiseling is that the caked up bits won't want to dissolve in the cold water your washing machine is going to use to wash your clothes. Also, use fabric softener. It helps mitigate the dried-out, crispy feel of line-dried clothing.
  • Keep your salt shaker and spices in the refrigerator (same reason as above). The only exception is spices which come with silica gel packets to absorb moisture.
  • Vacuum your domicile once a week whether it looks like it needs it or not. A lot of people spend their short-term stay in Japan living like they're in college dorms. A person who has never had any allergies can develop them or other health problems from breathing in layers of dust mite dung from the multitude of microscopic critters living in carpets and (especially) tatami. Even if you're so on the go you only use your place to wash and sleep, you're still stirring up and inhaling allergens enough to feel the effects (literally with every step you take on your apartment floor). It only takes 10 minutes at most for a vacuuming of most places.
  • Don't assume Japan is safe and act in ways you wouldn't back home like leaving your front door unlocked, your bicycle parked unlocked, or leaving your bag unattended for a few minutes because you think things won't be stolen. There's every chance you can be careless once in awhile and nothing will happen, but there's also a good chance you'll lose something if you are careless on multiple occasions. Japan is safer than some places in other developed countries, but it's not free of petty crime (or even serious crime).
  • Buy a Brita pitcher or a snap-on filter for your water tap. Tokyo water is safe, but tastes pretty bad. The water is perfectly fine when filtered and it's a lot less ecologically damaging and greatly less expensive to filter tap water than to buy bottled water all the time. It'll also save you the hassle of having to recycle tons of PET bottles.
  • Be casually friendly with your neighbors. Say "konnichiwa" and "konbonwa" when you see them and smile even if you can't have a conversation with them. If they approach you and assume you're capable of more Japanese than you are, just smile, pretend to be embarrassed and say you only speak a little Japanese. If you're friendly with them, they're less likely to complain to your landlord about things you do which inadvertently irritate them and they're more likely to be helpful rather than critical when you unknowingly make mistakes.
  • Learn how to sort your trash and which days to put out various kinds of trash from whoever arranged for your domicile whether it be your company or a real estate agent. If they don't know, press your company to find out for you. Get a calendar with non-pick-up holidays or at least be attentive when notices about such days are posted at trash pick-up sites (this is mainly around the New Year's holidays). Yes, it's a pain, but be a good citizen both by adhering to your city's rules and by doing what you can to facilitate recycling. Too many foreigners decide they're just going to do what is easy and screw the regulations. It's one of the reasons landlords don't like renting to them (and it's one of the few valid ones).
  • Never step outside your domicile without your gaijin card or passport. There's only the smallest of chances that you'll ever get asked to present your identification to the police, but if they ask (and by law they can ask for no reason) and you don't have it, they have every right to take you to the police station and hold you. It's just going to be a huge, stressful hassle if you are unlucky enough to be asked for it and don't have it so don't even check your mail or take out the trash without it.
  • Try to resist the urge to accumulate a lot of cute little souvenirs from all your sightseeing or excursions. There's a very high likelihood that you'll end up tossing 80% of them in the trash before you leave because you'll find there's no way to pack them and they aren't quite as nifty as you originally thought. Bits of junk are also less representative of your stay and unlikely to offer better memories than photographs. Bring a digital camera and go nuts. Put your pictures on an on-line album or back them up, but don't print them or you'll likely end up tossing the hard copies later (and printing is expensive in Japan). You'll also find that Japanese people will often end up giving you little souvenirs as gifts anyway and they'll soon overwhelm your capacity to keep them.
  • If your Japanese ability is limited and you feel uncomfortable traveling around alone, look into the plethora of package tours (especially by bus and for day trips), and see if you can use one to see places of interest. You may not understand everything, but the ability of the tour guides to herd their flock will keep you safe while you get the opportunity to see places you're too timid to explore on your own.
  • Keep enough cash on hand for a return ticket or come here with a round trip one. If the worst happens, you want to be sure you can afford to get home. Try to keep at least 50,000 yen in the bank at all times to make sure you have enough money on hand for food and basic expenses if things go south.
  • Take some time to walk around and really explore various neighborhoods (starting with your own) rather than focus on only sightseeing spots. You'll find that the real story of life in Japan is not at the shrines, clubs, and department stores, but in the back streets and hidden nooks. You'll also discover a lot of great little shops (which are interesting and can save you money) and restaurants with kind and welcoming people in them.
Long-term stay advice (2+ years):
  • Even if you are tolerant of heat, buy an air conditioner or move into a place with one. You'll need it for humidity removal as much as the coolness. To save energy, learn what the controls do and use them wisely. Most air conditioners have low power settings, temperature maintenance settings, de-humidify and fan settings. A well-placed air conditioner can allow you to sleep more comfortably in hot and muggy weather, and help dry your laundry inside during the rainy seasons.
  • Don't vilify Japanese culture because it has bad points or glorify it because it has good points. Don't do the same to your own culture as a coping mechanism for adapting to the difficulties in Japan. Try to consciously counter-balance effusively positive or darkly negative thoughts with a dose of reality about the flip-side of the situation. If you don't keep balance, you risk becoming one of those tediously pro-Japanese foreigners who looks like he wants nothing more than to turn Japanese or one of those perpetually angry and unpleasant foreigners who oozes hatred and loathing for the people and the country. Either extreme opinion is boring and has nothing of value to contribute to discussions about Japan.
  • Do expect that there's a possibility that you'll spend time as one or the other above. If you don't stay long enough to outgrow either of these states, don't go home thinking your perspective is the "right" one and you really know Japan and spread your skewed perspective around as though it were original wisdom. If you do stay long enough to outgrow the angry gaijin/Japanophile-hakujin phase, be patient and empathetic with those who haven't gotten as far as you yet and forgive yourself for your past behavior.
  • Invest in a bigger than dorm-size refrigerator. It'll encourage you to eat more healthily because you'll have space to store fruit and vegetables. It'll also encourage you to cook for yourself and help you save money. You can sell the refrigerator when you leave and get a little of your investment back.
  • Consider doing a language exchange as an economical and socially appropriate way to practice Japanese. You can practice with Japanese coworkers, but they're unlikely to correct you or assist in expanding your ability as it's really not their responsibility. Listings for such exchanges are all over the place in English language resources but you can reliably find them in the freebie magazine Metropolis. Don't be afraid to shop around for a good exchange partner. A lot of foreigners get the raw end of the deal with such exchanges because so many of them start off as teachers in Japan and are used to correcting and practicing, but the Japanese tend not to be as instructional when they are helping you with your Japanese.
  • Remember that your taxes and national health insurance are always a year behind in payments. When you leave, you will have to settle up for the remaining year. Make sure you have enough money set aside to pay these off. While you can leave while still owing this money, it may complicate your situation should you choose to return some day. Also, if your employer has been handling the payments for you, your company may require you to pay these off before you go and take it out of your final salary or bonus if you refuse to cooperate.
  • If you're staying for more than a year and have a choice about it, seriously consider whether or not national health insurance is going to serve you better than private insurance of some kind. While you are required to be insured in Japan, you don't have to use the national health plan if you can prove you are otherwise covered. Private insurance is accepted at some of the more gaijin-friendly health care providers, but national health insurance is not. These sorts of gaijin-friendly places not only speak English (and that can be important when you're talking about your health) but they also accept appointments and don't make you sit forever in a cattle-call waiting area. Additionally, national health insurance rates can be very high if your company doesn't subsidize your payments and you fall into certain income brackets.
  • If you have special dietary needs (particularly no sugar/diabetic diets) or find yourself getting homesick for food or personal items from home, look into the FBC or Tengu Natural Foods. Some people consider regular consumption of western food while living in Japan a failure to adapt to the culture, but there's a difference between sampling the local cuisine and not finding it to your taste and turning to what you're more comfortable with and never trying Japanese food at all. There's no reason to do without over an imagined principle. You can bet Japanese people living abroad aren't being looked down on for eating Japanese cuisine on a regular basis (and there's no reason why they should be). If you'll be happier during an extended stay here eating Shredded Wheat or Weetabix for breakfast then there's no reason you shouldn't have it.
  • Remember that bad things are happening sometimes because you're a gaijin and people are treating you with prejudice, but there's also a good chance that bad things are happening because things work differently here than they do back home. Before you get angry and cry foul, try to discuss the situation with a Japanese friend and see if what you're up against is a Japanese norm which is rubbing you the wrong way or if you're really being discriminated against. This will help you gain perspective and understanding of the culture as well as help you curb the tendency to see yourself as a victim all the time because you're a foreigner.
  • Make sure you always have enough money in the bank to get by for at least two months should the worst happen job-wise. While this is sound advice for any person in any country, it is more so for living here where you don't have easy access to a support network of family and friends.
  • Learn about the local community sports facilities near where you live. Usually, there are some places which are subsidized by the local government at which you can swim, play tennis, or exercise more cheaply than private fitness clubs. If they are too crowded, keep an eye open for cheap membership deals at private clubs in your area. If you're serious about fitness, go for a morning membership rather than an evening one since you're more likely to use a morning one.
This post has been nearly 4 months in the making but I'm sure that there are many things I'm missing. Anyone who feels they have other advice to offer should feel free to add them in comments.


Harvey said...

Your blog is great, you've got a lot of wisdom to share. Most blogs out there are by people who have only been in Japan a few years, like myself (5 years feels like a long time to me, but it's just a drop in the bucket!), so it's good to get the point of view that you offer! Keep it up!

lina said...

wow! that is some kind of list. very informative and really really useful.

Jon said...

This was a fantastic post - thank you!

Emsk said...

Great tips. I'm thinking of rounding off my stay in Japan by living in Tokyo for awhile so I will hang onto this advice.

I do love finding things in backstreets. I found the most adorable little cafe in a Takatsuki backstreet and quite late in the day of my residence there. It did great breakfast for only Y500 and was an independent. Funnily enough I started to introduce it to the people of Takatsuki themselves!

mjgolli said...

This list is great, and is not only useful for a stay in Japan, but anywhere. Well...if you were staying in say France, you wouldn't want to keep yen on hand... LOL! :)

Regarding the food: I would never ever expect a foreign visitor to the states to have to eat American food all the time. Certainly there are foods that the person loves from their own country or region that they would want to eat. I think it is an unreasonable expectation to assimilate to that extreme, and I am pleased that you share the same opinion. I have known many people that have mentioned this and expected the foreign visitors to eat just as we do. If they come from an area or country that has a better diet than we in America, their first McDonalds burger may just send them to the great beyond...

In fact, if I had a foreign visitor visit me (which would be a great treat, IMHO), I would want to share in their unique foods and customs. My family once had an English nurse that worked at my mother's workplace stay with us, and she once a week would cook us a traditional English meal. That was great fun! (Bangers and mash, anyone?)

On safety: I think many people are jaded about safety and security in a foreign country. Sometimes it is warranted, other times not. I would consider Japan to be very safe, but it is still wise to take precautions...they are still human beings, after all. Just like many foreign people (and many locals!) think the States is full of gun crazed murderers, it really depends where you go. The BBC program "Top Gear" had some Brits over to report on pre-owned cars for an experiment, and they found out that "if you go below 79th street in Miami, you will definitely be murdered." Same as always, the bad gets promoted over the good. (That episode was funny as hell!)

If one comes to Dayton, Ohio...or even Columbus, Cincy, Indianapolis...you are more likely to be hurt by a tornado than being shot. The only way to truly find out is by visiting.

This problem can also affect areas on a local scale. Around Dayton, everyone fears going downtown because they are afraid of being mugged or shot...because the bad elements always hang out around Third and Main. Well, I have worked right on Third and Main for about 10 years now, and I have never once had a problem. (I got shit on by a pigeon once, that's about it.) It is all stereotyping.

I hope this isn't too long...

Mari said...

Great List! Very insightful. I've been in Japan for a long time now, but I still found your advice to be very useful. While I knew a lot of them, I needed some reminders. Thanks!

ThePenguin said...

Excellent post! I spent more time than planned reading through some of your past entries over the weekend. I'm looking at moving to Japan next year for a longer period, not as an eikaiwa recruit but also not with some luxurious expat package, so it's interesting to see the nitty-gritty of life from a long-term point of view.

Point of detail on carrying your gaijin cards: as I understand it the police have to have a reasonable reason to ask to see it and theoretically aren't supposed to demand it just because they feel like it. There's an interesting article by Debito Arudou in the Japan Times on the subject:
Know the law


smoother said...

These are some great tips! I really got nailed with the dust mites and thought I was going to die until I figured out the problem. Something important from what you said is ask as you would in your home country while respecting the culture. It's not some party land to walk around drinking beer and being an ass. Also a place to get some familiar foods would be Costco.

Shari said...

Thanks to everyone for the kind comments and for reading! I really appreciate the time you take for both.

Also, thanks for the added advice/pointers. :-)

Anonymous said...

This is fantastic stuff. I was going to add to the one I already wrote before coming to Japan, but yours is so fantastic!

I would love to somehow add your list (with relevant links and titling) to the one on my project website entitled: 'In Japan - An Introduction'. While mine serves as a basic online, yours is more explanatory combined with your wonderful knowledge and experience of living in Japan.

Please check it out and let me know what you think (your thoughts and ideas are always welcome):


Take care

Eli said...

Great post, very helpful and insightful to daily life.

Shari said...

Hi, Barry, and many thanks for your wonderfully kind comment. If you'd like to use part of my list in your project (with attributions), feel free to do so.

I had a look at your guide and I think it's an excellent primer. I don't think there's much to add to it except that you may want to mention that some public restrooms don't have toilet paper (esp. those in subway or train stations) so it's good to carry those freebie pocket tissues for use in that case. Also, not all baths and toilets are as high tech. as the ones you mention so you may want to add some alternates (plain toilets without washlets and old-style gas crank baths). Great work though and nicely-aid out!

Though you don't need to include this in your guide, the FBC has a "Brit Shop" where you can get those chocolate digestive biscuits. ;-)

Cecilia said...


I found your blogg the other day. It is really interesting to read. I will go to Japan in the spring for vaccation for the first time by myself. The wisdom you share on this post is very interesting!! I was wondering if you have any tips or if there is any chance to get in touch with you to ask any questions? my anonymous e-mail is (e-mail omitted for privacy protection).

Shari said...

Hi, Cecilia, you can reach me by doing what you have just done...post a comment with an e-mail address and I'll e-mail you back.

As for tips, it really depends on a lot of things like where you are going, how long you'll be here, your Japanese language capability, and what sort of things interest you. The tourist experience is very different from the living here one.

I will try to do a full post of what I think are helpful tourist tips (I'll try to reach back to my first month here which was as a vacationer and remember what it was like). However, if you're Tokyo-bound, I'd recommend staying at Kimi Ryokan (http://www.kimi-ryokan.jp/) in Ikebukuro. It's cheap, Japanese-style, easy to access from Narita and there are English language speakers there to help out visitors. You have to book in advance though because they can fill up fast when there are certain events or big travel seasons going on.

I'll be e-mailing you soon.

Many thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

Shari said...

Sorry, Cecilia, I already managed to lose your e-mail address. Could you please re-post it as a comment and I'll get back to you ASAP?

I was a little too fast on the delete button!

heng said...

I guess I'm guilty of often glorifying the japanese way of life to other singaporeans while vilifying the singaporean lifestyle to the japanese, but I left with no intention of ever returning, as like the ever increasing number of singaporeans who do. And I don't think we can be wronged for thinking so.

It makes it easier for yourself to commit and really suck it in when you're desperate to make your new home permanent and you keep getting barraged by friends and family to return.

I've noticed that most japanese are more willing to accept me into their inner circle when they realise the commmitment I've put in. I think that the kind of opportunities I've been given recently would not have been possible if they felt I was only here for the short term, just here to have fun and make a quick buck while corrupting their culture as is often the image of most gaijin.

Helen said...

Just a few comments....I used to put a few grains of rice in my salt shaker so that it wouldn't clog...it worked well. I've also seen people use coffee beans. It's not as humid in Yamagata-ken though, so not sure if it works in Tokyo.

This was a great article Shari. I really wish I'd been able to read this before I came over!

And, I *think* FBC closed the Brit shop, but they do still sell a few British items through the Deli department.

Anonymous said...

That's great Shari! Thank you very much!

Thank you for your kind words also.
When I get a chance to update the Japan guide page over the winter break, I will be sure to go over your suggestions and add some pointers from your list with the relevant acknowledgment and link to your blog space.

Take care and enjoy the weekend ahead. I have a bounenkai to look forward to tomorrow evening - should be fun!

Shari said...

Helen: I put rice in the shaker, too, but often it's not enough to overcome the humidity in Tokyo. Also, my husband removed it once because he thought it got in there by accident and I haven't bothered to put it back in again. ;-)

And, you're right, the Brit shop did close. That's too bad!

Thanks for the comment!

mjgolli said...

I've found that rice in the salt shaker works pretty well for the mild humidity in the US midwest. I first saw this in a Chinese restaurant that we used to frequent...

I thought they were maggots. Eeeewwww! Duh! LOL! :)

And there are lots of people that are allergic to dust mite poo. It took years for my mother and I to determine that it was they who were causing me to swell up all the time at home. No problem at mamaw's house. Lots of cleaning, pillow and mattress covers, and plenty of Rx allergy meds helped. It can affect any place, even the cleanest of houses (like ours was).

- Mike

Nipponster Staff said...

Great list!

About carrying your gaikokujin card: If you ride a bicycle in Japan you are much more likely to be asked by police to display your card. One night I was stopped by three different police officers. I guess someone had stolen a bicycle in the area.

Shari said...

Nipponster staffer: Heh, at any given moment, I think a bicycle has been stolen in every corner of Tokyo. ;-)

Thanks for reading and commenting. I've added you to my links.

chessiakelley said...

What a great and complete list! I am sending it to my friend who is moving to Japan. I don't plan on moving there, but one thing one might want to consider is the possibility of homesickness and talking to those at home. I have been wroking for a free video messaging service called ooVoo that is great for anyone living abroad. It uses low bandwidth so has great quality on pretty much any computer-and you can post videos on your blog or email them to let others know about your experience.

Thanks again for the great list!