Tokyo, a place that is on many people’s bucket lists…
I visited Tokyo (and other parts of Japan) two years ago and loved it. Tokyo is intense, modern, fast paced and unique.
Being a tourist in Tokyo and getting a glimpse of life in this busy capital is a completely different experience though to living in Tokyo. And therefore I am very excited to be able to share Jessica’s story about what it is like to live in this incredible city as an expat.
In the Ask an Expat series I interview people living all over the world but outside of their home country. I try to help paint an honest picture of the ups and downs of life abroad, share tips for anyone thinking about moving abroad and information about what to see and do in the city, town or country the expat now calls home.
Expat life in Tokyo, Japan
Location: Tokyo, Japan
Name: Jessica Korteman
Home town: Melbourne, Australia
“Before our wedding, my husband and I decided that we wanted to have the experience of living abroad. We’d already visited quite a number of countries together on an extended round-the-world trip, Japan included, and were excited to travel more and also gain insight into living in another country, as opposed to being a temporary visitor.
Once we made the decision to move to Japan, we joined a year-long Japanese night course after work, and worked hard to save money for the wedding and our travels. Our plan was to move as soon as we had enough of a monetary buffer, after wedding expenses, to be able to stay in Japan for a while without an income.
We ended up on a flight to Tokyo six months after our wedding on a working holiday visa; no jobs lined up, or a permanent place to stay. That was more than 8 years ago now and we couldn’t really imagine living anywhere else!”
“We chose Japan as we feel it’s a really comfortable place to live, but at the same time a really great challenge for expats. We’d have to learn a new language and understand a culture completely different to our own. That challenge did, and still, excites us. We chose Tokyo specifically as a base because of its convenience, and the diverse range of things to see and do.”
What do you like about Tokyo?
“Its eclecticness! Tokyo has developed in a haphazard kind of way. I love that I can be on a big, open street at one moment and then be in a tiny alleyway lined with lanterns and smoky bars the next. Tokyo has this multilayered identity of traditional and modern, big and small, chaotic and quiet, and concrete and greenery. I don’t think it could ever be described as boring.”
What do you dislike about Tokyo?
“The sheer amount of people in some areas, especially during rush hour. During peak times, the trains and stations are a test of human patience. It’s hot and uncomfortable, and takes ages to walk anywhere. Those staff wearing white gloves you may have heard about who push people onto trains, they really exist. It’s not uncommon for people’s faces to be pushed up against the glass; it’s that packed!
I’m so lucky that as a freelancer I can usually avoid these times, but when I do need to use public transportation during rush hour, I’m reminded of just how insanely populated this city actually is!”
What is your favorite thing to do in Tokyo?
“Walking around a new neighbourhood! There are so many interesting local neighbourhoods in Tokyo and I am still not even close to having visited them all. Nothing beats a nice day with my camera in hand, taking photos and visiting quaint local cafes along the way.”
What is your favorite place to hang out (restaurant, bar, etc) in Tokyo?
“I love to hang out in quiet pockets of the city like green spaces and rooftops. There are lots of big, open rooftop spaces these days, especially on the top of department stores. One of my current favourites is the large rooftop space and garden on top of Seibu Department Store in Ikebukuro, attached to the station.”
What is the expat community like in Tokyo?
“It’s quite large and diverse, nowadays. There are a lot of groups and events, and we actually started our own events (photo walks) where anyone is welcome to attend. We are the official Instameet Division Managers for InstagramersJapan and host photo walk events on their behalf on a monthly basis. Our events are not expat specific, but because we run the events in both English and Japanese, the attendees are usually 50% expat/temporary visitors to Japan and 50% Japanese, so it’s a great chance to interact with lots of different people. If you’re ever in Tokyo, you’re more than welcome to join us too!”
Any tips for moving to / living in Tokyo?
“Understand that you are entering a completely different world to the one you are used to. Japanese culture and society is unlike anywhere else on Earth. Be prepared that you are likely to find some of these aspects difficult at times, and some may even go against your own beliefs. You’ll have to be prepared about how to reconcile that.
Also, learn as much Japanese as possible. While it’s possible to get jobs that don’t require Japanese (mostly English teaching) and get away with the bare minimum of language skills in big cities like Tokyo, if you want to make the most of your stay, be independent, and become friends with a wide range of Japanese people, the more you can communicate, the better.”
Any resources you found useful during the process of moving to and/or building a new life in Tokyo?
“For setting up an apartment, we recommend the Facebook group Mottainai Japan. It’s a group for giving away/picking up second-hand items. Everything listed is for free and it’s a fantastic way to furnish your apartment on the cheap and without creating unnecessary waste. In Japan, you have to pay if you want to discard of home/furniture items and it’s hard to get people to pay for large items on top of expensive removalist/courier fees, so many are eager for you to take these items off their hands.
Is there something you just have to see or do when you are in Tokyo?
“You have to try sushi, made by hand in front of you at a small sushi-ten (sushi shop). The quality really is different to the cheaper conveyor belt sushi restaurants, as much as we recommend you try those as well. For a really authentic and personal experience, head to one with just a handful of seats along the counter and order whatever the chef recommends. We’ve never been disappointed yet!”
Jessica Korteman is a travel writer based in Tokyo, Japan. Never without a pen and paper, you’ll most often find her delving into the world of festivals and culture, and on the search for what makes a destination truly unique. Find her latest adventures on her blog, notesofnomads.com
About Tokyo & Japan
Japan is an island nation in the Pacific Ocean with densely populated cities, imperial palaces, mountainous national parks and thousands of shrines and temples.
Tokyo, Japan’s busy capital, mixes the ultramodern and the traditional, from futuristic skyscrapers to centuries-old temples. The city offers a seemingly unlimited choice of shopping, entertainment, culture and dining options.
Once a fishing village, Tokyo has evolved into an economic and cultural powerhouse. Tokyo Metropolis, home to more than 13 million people, is the world’s largest metropolis. Exploring this immense place can feel daunting to first time visitors. The trick is to explore one district at a time. For instance, start in Shibuya or Ginza for shopping, then head to Shinjuku or Roppongi for nightlife. The city’s history can be appreciated in districts such as Asakusa, and in many excellent museums (ranging from classical art in the Tokyo National Museum to a reconstructed kabuki theater in the Edo-Tokyo Museum), and at historic temples and gardens.
And if you get lost, just ask for help. Tokyo residents are some of the politest city-dwellers in the world!
Tip: Are you interested in exploring Japan? Intrepid Travel offers several great options to see a wide range of places in Japan.
Also read my other articles about Japan:
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