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What Is It Like to Live in Japan?

Posted By in Expat Life, Japan | 40 comments

What Is It Like to Live in Japan?

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)

is japan expensive?

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)

what is it like to live in japan

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

japanese people 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…

what is it like to live in japan?

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

grocery store in Japan

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

Engrish poetry in Japan

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?

 

40 Comments

  1. Vanessa August 21, 2013

    Wow, that's some excellent EngRish! I feel that when I first came to Korea I didn't see the shocking differences in culture that I was expecting to see. But then I realized that most of the differences are about motivation, priorities, and expectations. Korea has really challenged me to see that not only do people eat/wear/etc things differently than everything I'm used to, but their reasons and dreams and ideas are almost impossible for me to comprehend. I think I'm going to write a post about this because I feel like there's a lot more to say! haha

    So glad you're liking Japan! 😀 How is teaching cute lil' children going?
    My recent post ESL Games and Activities That My Students Love

    • waysofwanderers August 21, 2013

      We were actually talking to a Japanese couple the other night, and they asked us a lot about our experience with culture shock in Japan, and we found ourselves saying that it hasn't been that big of an adjustment. It's actually the same thing you described – many of the differences are more subtle than I expected, and I'm noticing them slowly the longer we're here. I'd definitely be interested to read your perspectives on Korea when it comes to that!

      A few days ago, one of my 4-year-old students gave me a "thank you" card decorated with hearts and backwards letters – yeah, teaching adorable children isn't all that bad. Their unconditional love is definitely a perk. Teaching has turned me into more of a kid person than I ever thought I could be. How's Korea? You guys are almost finished right?

  2. @natsura August 21, 2013

    enjoyed reading your post and it helped me to understand more of japan than what we have usually heard. But how do you go about finding houses that allow you to rent for long/short term, as foreigners on visas.

    • waysofwanderers August 21, 2013

      Our employer set us up with our house – for better or for worse, we actually didn't have a choice about where we lived. AirBnB would be a good option for short to medium-term rentals, though.

  3. Frank August 21, 2013

    Ha! I love that article and the "Engrish"! Very well written and informative, I've always been curious about Japan. Nice to hear the people are friendly.
    Frank (bbqboy)
    My recent post Guide to visiting Tadoussac, Quebec

  4. Naomi August 21, 2013

    What lovely insight into life in Japan Jessica! I think a lot of the time as an expat no matter where you are, you have the feeling of running around like a headless chicken (or at least I do too!) Sounds like Japanese people are quite similar to Colombians in the fact that they are so helpful and kind. Only just yesterday I was escorted to the post office (which was around the corner) and I was alerted my bag was open.
    My recent post Go Shorty it's my Birthday: 23 things to do before 23

    • waysofwanderers August 22, 2013

      It makes all the difference, doesn't it? I really think I would be completely lost sometimes without the lovely strangers who go the extra mile.

  5. @futuresgreen August 21, 2013

    I really enjoyed reading that. I worked for Uniqlo, (A Japanese fashion retailer) here in the UK .
    I found the people very detailed and thorough with a logical approach to everything.
    They work extremely hard. How do you cope in the cold ? Is it just lots of layers of clothes to wear ?

    Its one Country id love to visit, especially the Mountains and its polar opposite – the electronics district of Tokyo.

    Let us know how you are doing in another update soon !

    • waysofwanderers August 22, 2013

      Cool! I shop at Uniqlo a bit too often – I didn't know there were stores anywhere outside Japan.

      We only arrived here in March, so we haven't had to deal with a proper winter yet. Everyone always says we'll be fine because we're Canadian. The winters in Canada may be just as cold as Japan's, but our apartments there always had central heating! I think layers are going to become very important in a few months.

  6. babysgotbackpack August 22, 2013

    What a wonderful post! We will be leaving on our own two week adventure in Japan at the end of September and the more I read up on it, the more magical the country seems. It truly sounded like you had a lot of fun living there. You post has calmed some of my nerves regarding the language barrier too. It sounds extrmeley initmidating but from the sound of your post, it just best to go with the flow and enjoy yourself. Thanks!
    My recent post Five Tips for Travelling Newbies

    • waysofwanderers August 22, 2013

      A lot of people (myself included) are surprised by the lack of English spoken in Japan. It's true that very few people speak English, but that doesn't seem to stop them from being amazingly helpful when I need it.

      Before we came to Japan, everyone I talked to had only glowing things to say about it, and now that I'm here, I can definitely confirm that all of it is true! Let me know if you want any tips on places to check out when you're here.

  7. Jennifer August 23, 2013

    Most days I love living in Italy, but others suffer through many of the same dislikes you have. The utility bills are high, it rains ALL the damn time, in summer when it’s not raining, I still can’t go outside unless I want to be eaten alive by vicious Asian Tiger Mosquitoes, and I could chisel a stone tablet faster than the Internet works. But it has it’s charms! We’re thinking about living in Japan next after Italy.

    • waysofwanderers August 23, 2013

      It just shows how different it is living in a country vs. traveling in it. We traveled in Italy for a few weeks about a year ago, and we always talk about how we'd love to live there for a while – but I definitely don't imagine the downsides that you mentioned. Maybe we can swap for a bit, haha?

  8. ferretingoutthefun August 24, 2013

    Your posts always make me want to return to Japan, but this one especially made me want to see our Japanese family (who hosted my husband when he studied abroad.) They are the kindest, most generous people imaginable and have basically adopted us into their family.

    I was expecting to feel a huge culture shock when we moved to Shanghai but it never materialized. Shanghai is just so modern, especially in my little expat bubble. Sure there are annoyances, like a spotty internet connection and difficulty locating certain Western grocery staples, but there will be challenges in every place we live. For me, it's more about relishing in the differences, like the store clerks who shout good morning even at 8pm and the tricycle carts selling everything from sun hats to mops.
    My recent post 5 Must See Attractions in Budapest

    • waysofwanderers August 25, 2013

      So true – I think that's at the heart of the appeal of living abroad: those little differences from home that make everyday feel exciting and new.

  9. Julika August 24, 2013

    This was such a wonderful depiction of you expat life Jess! I love that you write so positively about your experience — not matter how chaotic and overwhelming life in Japan might be at times! And your house looks gorgeous!

    • waysofwanderers August 25, 2013

      Thanks! We definitely lucked out with the house! We couldn't believe that we were going to get to live in it for a year when we first arrived!

  10. Suzy August 26, 2013

    That grocery store aisle pictured does look confusing! These are all interesting little nuisances into what its actually like to live the day to day schedule in Japan. It's definitely quite different living in a place than just visiting.
    My recent post Suzy Stumbles Over Travel: Week of August 19, 2013

    • waysofwanderers August 26, 2013

      Yep, although at least in the candy aisle all the confusion gets fun. It's full of strange, but amazingly tasty stuff!

  11. @TammyOnTheMove August 27, 2013

    I love your house! So pretty! I have been an expat in England and Cambodia so far and both times it has been different to what I expected. In Cambodia for example I didn't think I would be able to buy Western groceries, such as nutella, cornflakes or cheese. They are expensive, but at least I can buy them.
    My recent post Flashback Friday: The day we found a mule at Quilotoa

    • waysofwanderers August 27, 2013

      I thought the same about Thailand and Japan. We definitely don't buy Western food all the time because it's more expensive, but it's nice to have access to it when a craving strikes.

  12. Beth August 27, 2013

    Winter in Japan absolutely killed me! I hate the cold, and every night I would pile on as many blankets as possible, because we weren't allowed to sleep with the heater on.

    Apart from that, I loved everything about Japan and really want to return soon– although, I could never live there more than a few years because a lot (not all) of their kindness sadly is a mask for prejudice.
    My recent post Tokyo Disney Resort: An Overview

    • waysofwanderers August 28, 2013

      Ugh. I'm so not looking forward to winter. I feel like that experience is going to inspire a whole new post: "What It's Like to Live in Japan: The Winter Version". It feels like Game of Thrones; as the summer peters off, there's this general feeling of ominous "winter is coming".

    • waysofwanderers August 28, 2013

      No! I wish I knew. I just smile awkwardly when I see him now.

  13. francaangloitalian August 28, 2013

    The only experience I had of leaving abroad was when I moved to the UK to learn English just for few months and ended up staying there for almost 7 years. Being Italian, it wasn't like moving to a completely different continent and dealing with the culture shock, but it was pretty hard to start with.
    Living in Japan must have been so wonderfully challenging! 🙂
    My recent post Nine Unmissable Street Art Pieces in George Town, Penang

    • waysofwanderers September 5, 2013

      Cultural differences can be so subtle. I definitely found a lot of differences between Europe and Canada – including in the UK, which I wasn't really expecting because language is often the biggest change.

  14. Digital Nomads August 30, 2013

    I couldn't stop myself from smiling while reading your Japan experience, have a great time 🙂

  15. @renns20 September 4, 2013

    I never really thought about Japan, though it has always been on my wish-list like any other country…I appreciate what you have shared…it's helpful if and when I plan my trip there!

    • waysofwanderers September 5, 2013

      You should move it to the top of your wish-list! It's an amazing country :).

  16. Paula McInerney September 19, 2013

    I totally agree. I recently did a post on Tokyo being not nearly as expensive as people think, in response to comments (nice ones) to a post i did for theplanetd on free volunteer guides in Tokyo. I am pleased to find another persin that likes Japan as much as i do.
    Regards, Paula McInerney
    My recent post The Sarubobo or faceless dolls of Japan

    • waysofwanderers September 20, 2013

      Yeah – the expense seems to be a common misconception about Japan. It's certainly more expensive than the rest of Asia, but it's still possible to travel in Japan on a budget.

  17. rashaadjorden October 22, 2013

    I definitely agree that Japan isn't as expensive as people make it out to be. Probably because I was a resident of the country, I found a lot of ways to save money.
    My recent post HoneyTrekking into Leeds

    • waysofwanderers October 23, 2013

      True, but I think Japan can be cheap for travelers too. You can eat at convenience stores and fast food restaurants, Couchsurf, and invest in a JR Pass.

  18. rebecca July 22, 2014

    loved reading this! I am moving to Japan in 4 months, planning to be there for 6-18 months and really grasp the culture. You have no idea how many times I smiled reading this article! I can't wait to go to the grocery store or meet my neighbors. The idea of living in one of those beautiful houses excites me so much! Don't even get me started on how much I love the poetry idea, thats one of the reasons why I chose Japan
    My recent post Little Becky smokes her first Joint In Amsterdam

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