Tokyo, Japan Report of what it's like to live there - 03/11/18
Personal Experiences from Tokyo, Japan
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Previously lived in Cartagena, Colombia, and Seoul, Korea.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
West coast of the US. 9-10 hour non-stop flight.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We live in a 4th floor apartment in a smallish building (about 20 units) within a mile of the US Embassy. It is 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath, with a generous kitchen and lots of closets. This is not typical, from what I can tell; storage tends to be at a premium in most homes. We are less than a 10 minutes' walk (in 4 different directions) from 4 different subway lines.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can find any kind of ingredient or product here, either by going to a store or via delivery, either from the store itself or through a service like Honestbee. Amazon.jp is also very useful, although you have to be careful not to get charged insanely for imported items. Grocery prices are on par with to 25% higher than the more expensive areas of the US. This is not an inexpensive city!
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
The only thing that can be tough is quality cold medicine/pain relief. A number of things that are OTC in the US are prescription or completely unavailable in Japan. However, you have to be careful in what you bring into the country, as some things are illegal, e.g., Nyquil.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
So, so many choices! Tokyo has a terrific food scene. Lots of tiny restaurants tucked in every possible corner. Good delivery services, too. Honestbee and Maishoku to name two. We've been particularly happy with ramen (of course) and burgers. Excellent Indian/Pakistani/Nepalese food options too.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
You may have roaches, centipedes, mosquitos, geckos, or other critters, mostly depending on how old your housing is. Nothing unmanageable, though. Mold happens easily in the rainy season if you don't use your air conditioners enough.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
The Embassy has a DPO, though local mail also works well.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help runs 1500 yen/hour minimum (currently about US$14). There are services or you can sponsor a 3rd country national, often from the Philippines.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are gyms. I get the impression that costs are similar to the US. You may need to cover tattoos in order to work out.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Credit cards are safe, yes. Widely accepted, not so much. For an advanced culture, it can feel a bit "developing world" here in that regard. Lots of places accept only cash. ATMs are locked up/unavailable outside of normal banking hours in many places around Tokyo and Japan. Most Japanese businesses still regularly use fax machines, if that tells you anything!
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You need very little if you just want to get by. Tokyo is an international city and locals are used to working around language barriers. In fact, walking the streets in the business district you're as likely to hear French or Russian as Japanese. There are a lot of choices for language schools, including free classes offered by the city wards. Also, Tokyo is working hard to improve foreign language accommodation prior to the Olympics in 2020.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
To some extent, yes. It is crowded and the infrastructure is old in parts.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
There is a robust public transportation system. Fortunately, Google Maps works well. Otherwise, the subway and buses would be overly complex and very hard to use. I understand that even those who speak Japanese well have trouble in areas of town they are not familiar with. Affordable, no. However, since road tolls and parking fees for private cars are also very high, I would say public transportation is *relatively* inexpensive.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
A small one, for sure. Roads are narrow and parking is often in a mechanical rack system. We do not have a car and have not needed one at all, with public transportation plus great delivery services.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is good, similar to the US. Our apartment has cable internet included, so I don't know regular costs.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Lots of cell phone options. Best to bring an unlocked phone, or buy a second hand one here, and either get a contract or month-to-month service. It can be tricky to get approved before you have your ID, diplomatic or otherwise. Non-Japanese credit cards are sometimes not accepted. My husband actually got a refillable data-only sim at the airport. He has used it for 2 years and it works perfectly. We use Messenger for voice calls between us, and it costs him less than US$30 per month.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
There is a lengthy and intimidating quarantine process for bringing pets into the country. Start early! Also, consider the city/apartment living situation before you bring your big dog.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
My husband telecommutes with no difficulty. Much of the work for foreigners is either in IT or teaching. Salaries are comparable to a bit lower than similar entry level work in the US.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
The Japanese dress well in general. However, in Tokyo you see pretty much anything. If you err on the conservative side, probably better. There are 4 definite seasons, so you will need a variety of clothing.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Generally it is very, very safe here. Situational awareness is still important, particularly if you like to stay out late or if you are in very touristy locations.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Health care is excellent. One caveat is that Japanese doctors who are not used to Western patients can get offended by our tendency to question processes. The norm here is for people to accept what the doctor says completely and without comment. There are a lot of options for medical professionals available. We don't have to worry about being part of the national insurance program, but if you are here on a non-diplomatic assignment there is a lot involved so do your research.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Air quality is good, mostly because it's a very windy city -- pollution blows out to sea.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Spring has a lot of pollen. People without seasonal allergies elsewhere may find themselves affected here. Learn how to name your food allergies in Japanese (or use Google Translate) and you'll easily be able to avoid problematic things. Shellfish allergies are the toughest to navigate, I suspect.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Four disparate seasons. Winter can be chilly, with occasional snow and 2-3 hard freezes lasting 1-3 days. Spring is phenomenally lovely. Summer is hot and humid (the rainy season). Fall is once again lovely.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Enormous and varied. Generally people are happy here. If they are not as happy as they hoped, it may have been due to arriving with romantic notions of Tokyo and Japan that didn't hold up.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
This giant city has something for everyone. There are a number of English-language Facebook groups that cater to expats. With minimal research you can find most any kind of activity you like.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Any. Schools are varied and excellent. The social scene is diverse and multicultural.
4. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Snow monkeys, hot springs near Hakone, the Osaka aquarium, the approximately 3458.43 gardens in Tokyo that erupt in glorious bloom in the spring, the list goes on...
5. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
To be honest, we haven't finished exploring the things that are readily described in guide books. One lesser known place we've been is Onjuku, which is on the west coast of Japan. It is a tiny coastal village with a Hawaiian and Spanish flavor, with lots of activities in the summer.
6. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
There are lovely paper products, knives, fabrics, and ceramics. Nothing is cheap, but all of it is beautiful!
7. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The food scene is worth mentioning again... :-)
The public transportation, the ease of living in general, all the activities.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
That credit cards are not widely used, how concerned the Japanese are about recycling/trash separation, that you have to carry your trash back home when you're out and about (no public trash cans), how sticky/hot the summer gets, how concerned the Japanese are about not speaking English if their English is not perfect.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Car, dislike of seafood.
4. But don't forget your:
Umbrella, training on using chopsticks, smart phone, and wallet.
5. Do you have any other comments?
Japan is a country rooted firmly in two worlds, the modern and the traditional. You're just as likely to walk down the street and see a robot serving coffee as you are a woman in traditional dress. The joy of the place is the constant surprise of what you might encounter next.