In a previous article I outlined the basics of teaching English in Japan: how to find a job, how much you’ll make, what’s expected of you, and so on. So, you’ve found a job, you’ve packed your bags, and your visa is in your passport. Now what?
First of all, above anything else you glean from this article, know this: living in Japan is absolutely amazing. It has everything you could possibly want in a year or two of working abroad: great food, fascinating history, interesting culture, beautiful people, and an insane amount of things to do to keep you busy.
Is it necessary to learn Japanese in order to live in Japan?
A lot of people have asked me if learning Japanese is necessary to living in Japan. The short answer is no, especially if you are living in an urban center such as Tokyo or Osaka. I met people who had lived in the country for over 20 years and didn’t speak Japanese (though I questioned their every motive for living there). If you want a more enhanced cultural experience, if you want to make Japanese friends, and if you don’t want to come across as a total neo-colonialist, you should definitely pick up at least the basics of the language. At the very minimum, learn Katakana and Hiragana, two of the three alphabets used in Japan. The other, Kanji, will come with further study. Katakana is extremely useful, especially when dealing with menus and shopping. There are hundreds of books and websites to get you started, and once you get to Japan, there are tons of language exchange groups and classes you can join. If you learn nothing else, learn this word: kawaii (pronounced ka-wa-ee), meaning cute. Everything in Japan is cute. You may roll your cynical eyes, but sooner or later you’ll be purchasing a Rilakumma pencil case while squealing “Kawaiiiiiii!” and then you won’t judge me anymore.
Costs of Living in Japan: Housing & expenses
If you are going to be teaching English in Japan, your school will most likely help you find your first flat, though once you’re in Japan there are real estate offices that cater to foreigners and can help you find your dream place. Japanese apartments are generally small, and it’s very common to have tatami mats on the floor and to sleep on a futon (note that a futon in Japan is different than what we call a futon; there it’s essentially a mat that you roll up every morning to utilize the space in your home). Tokyo is indeed very expensive, and the apartments very small, but outside of the capital there are affordable and spacious places to rent. I lived in a beautiful apartment in Osaka Japan, and I paid approximately $800 for my rent and bills per month. This was for a one-bedroom apartment with a huge balcony that was only 7 minutes by train to the city center (Namba). As I was making almost $3000 a month, this was very reasonable. Talk to other teachers to find out the best areas of town, and keep an eye out for sayonara sales. Be warned that Japan gets extremely hot in summer, and quite cold in winter, so pack your clothes accordingly. Also, try not to laugh when people warn you of “fan death”, that is, if you leave your fan on overnight, you will DIE. Seriously, you might.
Traveling in Japan
Getting around in Japan is incredibly easy, and you’ll curse your hometown’s public transportation system the day you set foot on any Japanese subway or train. Fast, efficient, and clean, the only problems are figuring out where to go (here’s where your Japanese will come in handy) and attempting to travel at off-peak hours. Anyone who has ever seen a video of the notorious train-pushers in rush-hour Tokyo understands what I mean. If you want to travel throughout the country, the glorious Shinkansen is at your service. You can get from Kyoto to Tokyo in about 2.5 hours, a distance of almost 500 kilometers. While it’s not cheap, it’s an experience everyone living in Japan should have at least once, if only to marvel at the speed at which you pass, well, everything. On that particular route, you also get a view of Mount Fuji.
Now that Air Asia has branched out to Japan, air travel is getting cheaper and cheaper, and it’s fairly easy to fly to Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and other Asian destinations for a holiday. The beauty of living in Japan is how much travel can be done locally, however. Japan covers about the same size as the state of Montana, but, with no offence to Montanans, packs a lot more punch in that area. From skiing in the mountains of Hokkaido to diving in the waters of Okinawa, from Kobe’s beef to Osaka’s okonomiyaki, from Tokyo’s fashion districts to Hiroshima’s museums and Kyoto’s temples, you could go away every single weekend for a year and still never scratch the surface of Japan. Some of the best trips to take include the hot springs in Nagano (go in winter, when the macaques take advantage of the warm water, too), staying in a monastery in Koyasan, hiking Mount Fuji, visiting Arashiyama in the autumn, and spending at least a few days wandering around Tokyo’s Akihabara, Shibuya, and Harajuku districts (and on Sundays, to Yoyogi Park to see the rockabilly dancers). You will never run out of things to do in Japan, but you may run out of money – travelling in Japan is expensive, so budget your trips accordingly. Thankfully, there seems to be a festival every single weekend in Japan, so get to know your neighbourhood and keep an eye out for events celebrating everything from oysters to anime to penises.
Dating in Japan
Speaking of, the dating scene in Japan is much like any dating scene in an English-speaking country, and lots of foreign teachers end up dating local men and women. There is the stereotype of the “zero to hero”, meaning that men who may not have had much luck with women in their home countries find it easier to date in Japan; I will leave it to your own opinion on whether or not that’s true. Regardless, both men and women can find dating in Japan really exciting, and it’s a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture, not to mention the local tongue (language, guys. I’m talking about the local language). There is also a growing gay scene in the major cities, with some same-sex host clubs opening up around Tokyo and Osaka.
And now to address the elephant in the room: sex. Sex in Japan has gotten a reputation for being bizarre, but I believe that Japanese people are just a bit more open about their sexual preferences and fetishes, and it’s not as taboo to discuss them in public. Yes, some of the stuff is downright wrong, such as the fascination with schoolgirls and the horrifying pedophilia sections in certain sex shops, but, for the most part, the kinkiest thing you’ll probably ever see is a few pages of tentacle porn in manga or perhaps a man on a date with his sex doll. OK, I take it back, that is pretty damn kinky. All I can say is, if you ever get the chance to go to an otaku (“nerd”) convention or parade, GO. You will not regret it… other than the terrifying furry sex dreams you’ll have for weeks afterward.
Drinking and Nightlife Culture in Japan
Something that surprised me a lot when I first moved to Japan was how big the drinking culture is. People are expected to drink with the boss after work, and it’s quite common for Japanese and foreign teachers to go out together either after work or on the weekends. Before socializing with adult students, check with your company or school first. My advice: don’t drink more than two drinks with current students, and certainly don’t date a current student. When they’ve left your class, by all means, go forth (yes, I’m still talking about adult students, you pervert). Karaoke is as popular as you think it is, and it is often done in private booths which can be rented out quite cheaply. If you’ve missed the last train and fancy spending the night with someone, love hotels are a fun place to, um, sleep… or whatever else you do in a love hotel. Some of them come with themed rooms (if you find the infamous Hello Kitty S&M room of Tokyo, I will send you a present) but most have at least a Jacuzzi and a few game consoles. Because who wants to have sex when you can wear a cushy bathrobe and play Mario Kart on a big screen TV, amirite?
Although the nightlife in Japan’s cities can be incredible, it can get pricey, so I recommend the budget-friendly way to drink with friends: purchase all of your alcohol from vending machines or conbinis (convenience stores) and drink in the park. Way cooler and way less hobo-ish than it sounds. For another cheap night out, try an izakaya; some of these pubs offer all their food and drinks for less than $3 a pop. There are lots of great music venues in the urban centers, too, so make friends with a local bartender and keep your eyes peeled for events.
The thing I loved most about Japan was its ability to surprise and delight me almost every day for two years. You will experience a lot, be it cherry blossoms or over-the-top fashion or the best food you’ve ever had, and it is home to some of the kindest, funniest, most hard-working people I’ve ever met. I honestly cannot sing Japan’s praises enough. If you have the chance to live there, even for a few months, I highly recommend it.
Just watch out for the furries. Unless, you know, you’re into that.