Congratulations! You are making the big move to a foreign country! Many fantasize about moving and living in Japan, but few get the chance to actually do it. While you are reading this, you may be packing your bags (in real life or in your head), checking flights and debating which pair of boots you should take. But what about when you actually move there? How to live in Japan practically is different with the needs of each person, but I have compiled some tips that should help the transition a little easier.
Buy a public transport pass
Each region of Japan has a commuter pass for public transport which allows you to touch-and-go on trains and buses. They can usually be bought at a Japan Rail kiosk for ¥500 and can be topped up at convenience stores and train stations. Paper tickets are fine on the fly and for tourists, but if you are living in Japan buying a transport pass on your first day will save you a lot of time debating which ticket to buy.
Buy a phone and sim, outright
It’s the practical thing to do money-wise. Japanese phone companies may draw you in with their cute mascots and “deals”, but once they get their claws into you, dealing with them can be a nightmare. If you want a phone and data plan without the hassle of worrying about hidden charges, buy a handset outright or unlocked (called sim free) and a sim. Freetel has great data plans month to month and you have the option of buying a handset from them. But if you don’t see yourself living in Japan long-term, you can cancel your plan without excessive charges and have the bonus of keeping an unlocked phone to take back home.
Find your local corner shop and supermarket
Those shelves won’t stock themselves! When you move into your new place, there will likely be food outlets nearby; shop around and see what is right for you. In the Kansai region, LIFE has wide variety, Hankyu Oasis is more upscale and gourmet and Matsumoto is your average family-friendly supermarket. If you want groceries, especially meat, for cheaper, do the grocery run after 6pm. This is when supermarkets try to get rid of their fresh produce, from fish to fruit.
Research foreign food options
After moving to Japan, you will get sick of the taste of sashimi and want something that reminds you of home. Luckily for expats, Japan loves foreign food and most things “exotic”. Research on the internet for foreign food options in your area, and the internet can keep you in touch with vendors like Flying Pig and The Meat Guy. Big cities will have foreign food outlets (Kaldi, Yamaya) and so will some supermarkets, but beware and compare prices.
Join a club
Living in Japan alone can be, well, lonely, and I wish I had done this earlier before I left. Joining a club will not only make you spend less time in your apartment binging on Netflix, but it will give you something to look forward to and help make connections in the community. Hobby websites can help you track down a club, or even a good old Google search can show results in your area. Options are limitless, from watercolour painting, to Cross Fit and even church circles.
Download some apps
“There’s an app for that” is not just a one-liner from television anymore. Moving to Japan will be a shock to the system in itself, and downloading some local apps will be a big help. Free text and call app LINE and dictionary app Imiwa? are both indispensable and will keep the language/communications barriers manageable. There are also apps for fitness, like Yoga Studio and Zombies, Run! which are convenient and fun to use.
Buy warm clothes
Being practical means deciding what you can live and live without. You bring clothes with you when you move to Japan, but heavy items take up unnecessary space. Warm clothes, like padded jackets and boots, are easy to buy for a decent price from stores like UNIQLO and ABC Mart. UNIQLO stocks excellent down jackets and Heat Tech undergarments, while ABC Mart takes care of your shoe needs for a much better price than a department store.
Prepare for summer
The summer in Japan is brutal, and reports of heat strokes are a common occurrence during the warm months. To better prepare yourself, buy Airism items from UNIQLO and invest in some SPF 50+++ from the chemist. The humidity is nasty, but Airism fabric will not stick to the skin and the sunscreen will at least prevent a nasty burn. Nivea is a good brand, but make sure you do not buy the product with whitening solution.
Hit the nightclub scene
At least once! Moving to Japan means living like a local, and people love to party! Big cities will have even bigger clubs, and it can be a great place to meet fellow expats, find love and have new experiences. Nightclubs will have Facebook pages or websites with English listing entry fees, guest artists and even what’s on the cocktail menu.
Find a doctor that can speak your language
A must if you are living in Japan for at least a year. The health care system in Japan is good, but if you can communicate with a health professional, that is even better. Local government or expat websites will have a list of services where foreign languages are spoken, and many doctors have studied overseas (especially of they work in a hospital). Make sure you have your health insurance card ready, and be prepared to fill out paperwork to receive a patient card for future visits.
No furniture? Nitori!
Or a second hand goods store. Even ¥100 stores! These places are your friend when you want to start stocking your apartment. Nitori is the Japanese IKEA and a one-stop-homewares-shop. Couches? Yes. Futons? Double or queen size? Tables? Yes, and the matching chairs (but those come separately). Second hand good stores are actually a good place to find appliances like rice cookers, steamers, air fryers and even microwave ovens, though you should carefully inspect the condition of the items before you buy. ¥100 stores are stocked with everything like crockery, cutlery, dishwashing powder, even ice cream! Living in Japan and making your place a home does not have to be expensive.
Buy a bicycle
Going places by bike is practical, cheap and the basket is a great grocery-carrier. Bike shops are a dollar-a-dozen but if you want to get one on the cheap, there is the option of “bike hell”, where impounded bicycles go before being sent to the junkyard. A basic one with gears a basket and wheel lock can set you back almost ¥20,000, but bike hell can provide models for as little as ¥3000. A word to the wise; pedestrians do NOT have right of way when it comes down to person vs bike. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Map a scenic route home
Sometimes you might not want to take the train. You live in Japan! Get out and see the scenery! It’s amazing how many little shrines, restaurants and shops can be crammed into a single block, and mapping a route home is a great way to explore the area where you live. Google Maps is your best friend if you get lost.
Make an Amazon Japan account
And if you want delivery faster than you can blink, splurge on Prime! Amazon Japan stocks almost everything you need from books to electric toothbrushes and kitchenware, holds sales events and has partnerships with convenience stores for payment and delivery options.
Get familiar with remittance options
Moving to Japan also comes with the possibility of moving back to your home country, and you do not want to lose the income you have earned. Options like GoRemit by Shinsei Bank and Western Union are convenient, and though you have to jump through some hoops and send of some paperwork for GoRemit, the option to remit into your home bank account and same-day delivery of funds is worth the effort.
Christmas is Valentine’s 2.0
Should you have a relationship with a Japanese person, romantic holidays are something to look forward to. Christmas is commercialised and engineered towards couples just as much as families. Hotels have rooms booked out weeks in advance for romantic nights, and gifts are exchanged (the pricier the better). Gentlemen, if you have a Japanese woman on your arm, keep this tip in mind!
Have your health insurance and foreign residence card on you – ALWAYS
Foreign residency cards are needed for bank accounts, phone plan applications and other official matters. Police have the right to ask for it whenever they see a foreign person on the street. It should never leave your wallet, along with your health insurance card. The Japanese health care system covers up to eighty percent of medical fees, but this is not possible if you leave your card at home.