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Things You Should Know Before Moving to Japan (but are never told).

Trains, flip phones, and scrunchies: a few things you should know before moving to Japan.

By 3 min read

If you decide to move to Japan there is a ton of information online on how to do it but there is also a ton of things that nobody tells you.

Here are 5 things that I wasn’t told about life in Tokyo.

Trains Run Your Life

Say hello to your little friend.

You will spend an eff-ton of time on trains. If you’re an ALT or teach at an eikawa, chances are you’ll be zipping from school to school and yeah… all that zipping happens on the train. For HOURS.  When you first start commuting, learn your stops in both kanji and katakana so even if your train doesn’t have English, you won’t miss your stop. Download the hyperdia app to make your life immeasurably easier.

Despite Tokyo being a global hub city, you can’t get everything you want

Where can I buy this?

If you’re new here, you’ll forget about some of the little things you use all the time but figure “Hey it’s Japan they’ll have it.” Stuff like vitamins and almond milk are harder to find (if anyone finds almond milk in Tokyo please message me), so sites like iherb.com and amazon.jp are lifesavers.

You’ll love the high tech and hate the low tech

Paperwork thrives here.

Despite being a global hub city, it can be technologically obtuse. Japan is like a futuristic movie set in the year 2020… but was made in 1983. Fax machines are a normal means of communication. Flip phones are everywhere. The amount of paper it takes to get a simple project done would make an environmentalist weep. That said, there are a multitude of gadgets and appliances that make life easier for living in small spaces, and you can run a small business out of the print center at your corner conbini. You take the good with the WTF.

Ladies. Two words: Scrunchies and pantyhose

This is happening.

Okay you don’t need to know this but it was a shocker to me. When I (used to) think Tokyo, it meant high fashion. And it’s here, in certain areas of Tokyo, and not nearly to the extent I had imagined. Women all over dress up more, but it’s very common to see women wear pantyhose with polyester dresses and plastic open-toe sandals. If you come to teach and wear dresses or skirts, guess what? No bare legs. Not even in the sweltering heat. And the scrunchies. SCRUNCHIES EVERYWHERE. With zero irony. I thought they stopped making them when Punky Brewster got cancelled.

It’s not THAT expensive.

Gotta love bento.

Maybe I’m jaded coming from San Francisco, but rent is pretty reasonable here. Yes places are smaller but you already knew that. I’m shopping for a new crib in North Tokyo right now and even the nicer places at the top of my skinny teacher-writer budget are half of what I paid in SF. Plus taxes are super low, and yeah- the no tipping thing.

The “Japan is so expensive” deal is one of the many stigmas that are vestiges from the Japan economic boom in the 80’s. Fruit and electricity are totally more expensive (think $9.00 watermelons) but seriously. Not bad. You’ll be fine. 🙂

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  • Carmen Pisani says:

    I was planning on moving to Tokyo at some point in the future–if for no other reason than life is short and I love what I know of the culture there. So, you know, if anybody knows of any security openings over there, that’s kind of always been my area of expertise.

  • Michael Lilburn says:

    Hey guys. Planning to move to Japan for a year to work. I am not an English teacher and was wondering what work I could do and my partner is a Esl teacher but has no uni degree. Will she have trouble finding work?

  • Rei says:

    At least down in Fukuoka, I’ve seen the same Nature Made vitamins that I buy in the states almost everywhere. And I have also seen almond milk sold in the same size cartons as soy milk in many regular (not specialty import) supermarkets. You just have to know which places have what.

  • Dillon says:

    how much money do I need to move to japan from Arkansas usa and to get moved in down their and have money to look for a job

    • Anthony Joh says:

      Between ¥5000 ~ ¥$10,000.

      • Maranda Pearse says:

        My jaw just dropped. I’ve been planning for at least the last six months about how I would go about moving from Maryland to Japan. But $10,000 is so inexpensive. I would’ve thought maybe $20,000 to start but that’s good to know. I’m still in my planning stages as I don’t plan to move this year anyway but I do want to visit to see it first at least.

        • EMChamp says:

          I spent around 10k to move here all in all in 1 month before my first paycheck as a single person (rent was like 3k upfront (800 a month), appliances/furniture 3k, buying small things and daily expenses making up the rest). I didn’t control my budget so much but I didn’t spend lavishly so I think 5k-10k is pretty reasonable to move in to an apartment here.

  • Stephanie Buck says:

    This is why Japan is cool, they don’t complain about stuff like this, and they are super respectful and humble, I’ve never seen a Japanese person write things like this about america.
    That’s why Japan has a higher student success rate, they are intelligent enough to know what’s important.
    Bleh, you aren’t a Japan fan if you expect people to dress different and bash their clothing. In Japan that would be extremely disrespectful to say about someone, especially someone older. And the train system is better than the amount of people riding it driving instead. Plus its better environmentally as well as an amazing transportation system compared to most cities. And no crazy people.
    Idk, I have no complaints. Move back home if its not what you wanted

    • Cynthia Popper says:

      It’s an opinion piece. Relax. I like Japan.

    • Guest says:

      First- I’m just pointing out differences. I like Japan. Saying I can’t find almond milk or I hate scrunchies isn’t disrespectful. TO ANYONE AT ALL. Second. Are you saying Japanese people have never compared the differences between Japan and America? Have no issues with American style? Seriously? My students rip on America and Australia constantly. I never take it personally– being critical isn’t necessarily being disrespectful. RELAX.

  • Stephanie Buck says:

    Lol I just wrote the same thing on another article about Japan. There’s lots of different opinions on what people didn’t expect or found to make things difficult but its mainly personal experiences.
    There’s facts and then there’s opinions mixed in. There’s also time periods with different years and seasons and trends, as well as different locations. Not only those differences but also personal lifestyles, ages, and genders.
    There’s nothing we can learn to be true for us as well as the writer unless its long term facts.
    People have different needs and opinions so I guess read it, people, as if it were a friend sharing their first moments in a new world which they weren’t expecting.
    Japan offers a totally different life we can’t guess to be for us unless we go there ourselves. But if we worry about what we wish we would have known, we only give ourselves less room to explore.
    Not everyone is adaptable to such big changes, which is why its better to clean your slate before you get there, expectations make surprises look like flaws.
    Its your choice what you get out of it. Just accept it as a new start and think positively, Its freakin Japan, full of wonders.

  • Brett says:

    There are tons of vitamin in any drug store (which are breeding like rabbits) and supermarkets.

  • Evva Stokes says:

    Omg! Well, the one about the trains I always thought was a given but the low tech is surprising! Maybe I should have my family send my printer when I get there too?

    • Cynthia Popper says:

      Nah- you can buy a cheap printer on Amazon.jp, but the tech here in general is sorely outdated. The banks are from the 70’s and the flip phones and old computer monitors crack me up. You’ll get used to it. 😉

  • Anna says:

    You can get almond milk at Nissin in Azabu Juban or National Azabu in Hiroo.

  • Eleanor Williams says:

    Hello Cynthia, thanks for this article. I agree with everything you mention here and wish I’d known some of these things before I moved to Tokyo 6 months ago. I’m constantly amazed by women’s fashion here, which I don’t find inspiring at all.

    • Stephanie Buck says:

      Maybe people are people just like us and not all people serve a purpose to be your fashion inspiration, eye candy, or entertainment.
      There’s places you can go, events.. that you can go to see people like that. Otherwise people are just walking around to get to work or go buy stuff in whatever is comfortable. Maybe they don’t care because they are just a mom, not a stylist.
      The expectations and snobby remarks make you look worse than they could ever dress.
      Who cares what people wear.

    • Cynthia Popper says:

      Right? It’s upsetting. I’m seriously thinking about starting a Tumblr about it. If i do I’ll invite you to contribute ;).

      • Stephanie Buck says:

        .. obviously Japan has those people because you’ve seen photos. Find the shops and you will find the dressed up people. 6% Doki is one popular one, those girls are cool.

  • vivianlostinseoul says:

    Totally agree about the fashion! Although there is a handful of amazingly-dressed people in Tokyo, the general fashion trends are not exciting at all. Scrunchies, pantyhose, mismatched patterns and textures, and I’m hating the pastel/beige tones and frilly tops and lace-trimmed skirts and socks for young women. I love seeing people who are completely unique, which does happen a lot around certain areas like Harajuku and Omotesando. I know that conservative offices and institutions in Japan most likely prevent people from going too wild, but still doesn’t need to be wild to be stylish. Many of them also think that buying a designer brand will instantly make them fashionable, but it only works if they can pair it in the right way, which they rarely do, and this is sad. Wow. I do have lots of opinions about fashion.

    • Stephanie Buck says:

      The way they dress depends on their destination and body types mixed with self respect. Wherever they’re headed is usually a place of responsibility and dicipline so they make sure they are comfortable and more uniform, conservative, and basic in order to keep the right focus and display no distractions to others so they’re taken seriously. Most women in Japan wear clothes that aren’t revealing or sexual but rather cute or girly usually lose or moveable fitting. Those guidelines make their body type and clean cut image come together.
      Experimental fashion is very accepted, the only reason its not everywhere always is because there are days and times, even parties or fashion shows, where people can all do it together and enjoy eachother. Otherwise people would just be getting ready for hours in order to walk around alone for hours every day. Look up tokyo fashion news on youtube.. I think that’s what its called. Anyways, Japanese women don’t think Designer brands make them fashionable, they just love fashion, its part of being a girl, but they may come off that way because they look put together.. which is exactly the goal all Japanese fashion fans aim for.
      The trends are based to be feminine and innocent. As well as trends to make them look intelligent and well off. The difference in Japans style vs American style, is the attention it draws. Americans are sloppier and more sexual in fashion while Japanese are more sweet and clean.
      Lastly I suggest going to Tokyo at night during a nice weekend, the day walkers aren’t going anywhere interesting.

    • AnthonyJoh says:

      Japan needs Stacy and Clinton from What Not to Wear!

      • Stephanie Buck says:

        The outfits always look the same to me on that show ._. Yeah it looks better but its always safe and simple, never any personality besides some bold colors or patterns. Plus the outfits look like kohls or jcpenny picture perfect interview outfits.. or even spring wedding attire..
        The outfits aren’t fashionable, they are safe.

      • Cynthia Popper says:

        Word Vivian. You have every right to all of those opinions because they are 100% correct. 🙂

        Anthony dude why do you know about What Not to Wear? #metrocanadian

  • Eric says:

    Not THAT expensive? try raising children here .. At least in SF, you can get out of the city for some inexensive fun. Try leaving here and you’re paying through the nose wherever you go.

    • Cynthia Popper says:

      When I say not expensive, I’m talking about rent for a single person coming over for the first time. I think kids are expensive pretty much anywhere. But to your point, I’m shopping for a short trip out West and holy crap. So you got me there. 😉

  • Tjoepoe says:

    I’m a non-white foreigner live in Gifu, center Japan. It’s a small city. I can get a bag of 6 green apples just for just 200 yen and a bag for red 4 apples. A small melon here just 300 yen.

  • Milla says:

    I continue to be baffled at the tights (or pantyhose – British woman writing…) in this weather. It’s 26°C and everyone has more clothes on than I wear in winter!

    • Barnaby Jones says:

      Winter is even worse: there you go happily wearing all your warm winter clothes, but once you enter a shop or the subway, the heating is up to 1200 degrees!

  • berryz says:

    When I lived in Bangkok, I found some almond milk, but it was $12 for a medium sized carton (maybe 32 ounces). It was imported from Australia. I also noticed that supermarkets sold two kinds of Frosted Flakes. Both were legit Kellogg’s products, but one was made in Malaysia and the other was made in the US. The one from Malaysia was around $3 while the one from the US went for around $10. They even sold Frosted Flakes imported from Japan which was, oddly enough, priced higher than the US made stuff.

    One piece of advice, no matter where you go, would be to learn how to live and eat like the locals.

    • Cynthia Popper says:

      Totally agree and thanks for the advice. I still want almond milk.

      • Stephanie Buck says:

        Its Japan, there’s healthier alternatives or if you can’t live without it, there’s tons of resources online that tell you how to make it yourself. Or if that’s too much I’m sure you can order it online or have a relative ship it to you.
        If its for taste, try earl grey tea with milk and honey, its kinda similar to sweetened almond milk.

  • Ashley says:

    Fruit… it’s always the fruit that people think is expensive, and it certainly can be, but check farmer’s markets (or morning markets)! I used to get bags of five apples for 400-500 yen, big packages of blueberries for only 200 yen, kiwis, strawberries, etc., all much less than at the supermarket. Vegetables, too, of course. I actually found some fruit, like pineapple, to be cheaper in Japan than in the US–at least where I live in the pacific northwest. Now that I’m back here I find food the same price as Japan, especially if you shop organic/natural.

    Not to mention prices also vary by location. I’ve seen/bought watermelons cheaper than 900 yen…

    Also, although not convenient and I rarely had time to do it myself, you can make almond milk in a blender or food processor. Just throw in almonds, some water, blend into pulp and then strain the pulp from the liquid (the almond milk). You can reuse the pulp in baking or something else if desired.

    Vitamins, though, I’ve seen them at almost any supermarket or drugstore. So I’m surprised they’re hard to find in Tokyo?

    • Cynthia Popper says:

      Morning markets! Great idea thank you! Yeah making my own almond milk is such a great idea… but knowing me will never happen. Most of the fruit I find expensive are tomatoes, apples, and oranges. But you are right… vegis are definitely cheaper. Because my Japanese is so bad, I stick to the vitamins I know, which are US brands, so yeah, more expensive and hard to find, for me anyway. I eat local all the time, these are just a few little things in my experience that I wish I had known when I first came over. The folks who have been here a while already know better. 😉

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