When I day-dream about or plan (the more constructive form of day-dreaming) a move to a new country, the most difficult aspect to imagine is what my day-to-day life will be like. It’s easy to envision the drastic changes in food, culture, language I can expect, but the mundane parts of living somewhere new, like where I’ll buy my groceries or who my neighbours will be, are impossible to anticipate. The last 4 months in Japan have been no exception: Life here is nothing like I imagined it would be. So what is it like to live in Japan, you ask?
It’s Not As Expensive As People Say (Most of The Time)
There’s a general perception that Japan is a prohibitively expensive country to live and/or travel in. While it’s true that Japan is pricey compared to the rest of Asia (sometimes we spend in a week here what we used to spend in a month when we lived in Thailand), it doesn’t hit the wallet any harder than living/traveling in Europe or Canada/US. We can buy a 6-pack of Kirin Beer for about $6, dine out for under $10/per person, as well as stay at a decent budget guesthouse for under $25/person.
That said, there are a few things that are more expensive than I expected. For example, our rent is a reasonable $550/month for a 2-bedroom house, but the addition of our utility bills rounds our monthly payment to more than double that. These high electricity charges are the main reason why most Japanese homes don’t have laundry dryers, central heating or air-conditioning. Transportation is also a wild card, ranging from being reasonable to occasionally outrageous. For example, for us, a flight across the country is cheaper than a bus ride to Tokyo. Bus and train travel usually sets us back the most, while subway and taxi fares are comparable to Europe. Also, as you would probably expect, buying local food at the grocery store is pretty budget-friendly, while foreign foods like cheese and tortillas chips are a splurge.
Our House is Amazing (Most of the Time)
Our house is overflowing with delightful Japanese treasures. Our toilet seat is heated and performs all kinds of functions, both welcome and unwelcome. Our rooms are separated by traditional sliding shoji doors, and our bedroom floors are covered with tatami mats. We have a bathtub so deep that I can stand in it up to my knees, and a machine designed entirely for making takoyaki (octopus dumpling balls).
The downside of our home (and most Japanese homes) is that it’s designed for summer: It’s airy, open and poorly-insulated. Right now, we can happily throw open our windows and doors, and let the gentle summer breeze swirl through our rooms. When we arrived here in chilly April, however, the interior of our house always felt about the same temperature as the air outside. In the winter, the heat will leak out of the rooms just about as quickly as our hard-working space heaters can heat them up. Combine that with the expensive utility bills I mentioned above, and it sucks big time.
Japanese People Really Are Wonderful
I’m not usually a fan of generalizing a whole population, but Japanese people are truly some of the kindest, most helpful people I’ve ever met. If I ask a stranger in the street for directions, it’s not uncommon for them to literally start walking with me until I’ve found my way again. I get caught in endless bow-offs with people, with both of us bobbing up and down, bowing repeatedly, and showing our gratitude and respect for one another. Our neighbours bring us fresh vegetables from their garden, and every other time we go out to a bar, a stranger will buy us a round of drinks. Nearly every day someone exclaims “jozu desu ne!” (you’re skilled, aren’t you?) when I try to speak Japanese (no matter how bad I am), and our cultural missteps are almost always forgiven. Some long-term (and perhaps cynical) expats in Japan will tell you that this kindness isn’t genuine; it’s a mask that covers up deep racism and prejudice. Maybe I haven’t been here long enough to see the truth, or maybe I’m just choosing not to, but I have yet to see a dark side to the universal sweetness of Japanese people.
I Rarely Know What I’m Doing…
Like in the other non-English-speaking countries I’ve called home, I’m pretty much used to stumbling around Japan and not really knowing what I’m doing most of the time. A few weeks ago, a neighbor stopped by with a neatly wrapped box of laundry detergent and couldn’t figure out why. City-wide announcements are regularly broadcast that I don’t understand. I can’t really read any signs, so I have to wander into a store to figure out what it sells. I’ve accepted that if I go to the post office, the bank, or a restaurant, I’ll have to muddle my way through a half Japanese/half English/half gestured-based conversation.
Most of the time, this is all part of the adventure, and serves as a pretty invaluable opportunity to practice Japanese; but sometimes when I’m tired, and in a rush, and I just want to get something simple done, it can be kind of frustrating to not speak the same language as everyone else. That said, everything always works out eventually (sometimes with the help of a Japanese co-worker), and everyone I’ve met so far has been incredibly helpful in working through the language barriers with me. More often than not, I just have to laugh at myself, and the ridiculousness of how I make my way around every day with only a faint clue about what’s going on.
…Especially When I Go to the Grocery Store
There are entire aisles at the grocery store stocked with items that I can’t identify. Sometimes we buy something believing it to be one thing, and then bring it home to realize it’s not what we wanted at all. The meat fridge talks to me while I try to figure out which package contains chicken. I’m truly grateful for easily identifiable foods like fruits and veggies, as well as for the occasional items with English packaging.
There’s Poetry Everywhere
I saw my fair share of “Engrish” when we were in SE Asia, but while the mistranslations there were usually hilarious, Japan’s usually come across as magical. Everything written in English here reads like a happy little haiku poem. I’m still delighted every time I pick up a cookie box that promises “sweet magic to make your happiness”.
Life in Japan: I can’t say I’m ambushed by full-on, crazy, culture shock every day, but it’s definitely never boring either.
How has expat life been different than you expected? What do you like/dislike about living and traveling abroad?