My First Year In Tokyo, Japan
It’s hard to believe, but on August 1st, 2018, my family celebrated our one year anniversary of moving to Tokyo, Japan from Los Angeles, CA. A lot has happened this past year and I can’t possibly cover it all in this post, so I’m going to cover some things and will write subsequent posts that focus on specific topics including how I became a mountain monk.
WHY WE MOVED
We traveled to Tokyo each February for the previous five years because the nonprofit that Sean co-founded is located in Shibuya, Tokyo and it was important to him that Ripley and I spent time in his second home. I enjoyed celebrating Ripley and Sean’s birthdays in Tokyo because it was non-stop fun, but I never considered making it a permanent base. After a lot of lonely weeks year after year while Sean was working in Tokyo and Fukushima, it occurred to me that despite my love for LA, it would be easier on all of us if we lived closer to his office. To be honest, I was feeling in desperate need of a change. I had become pretty depressed after my head injury and various changes in my work life. It also just so happened that we were making the move during one of the most traumatic times in US political history – a coincidence in timing not the primary reason for the move.
Like most families with kids, we chose to move in the summer when school is out. That gave us 7 months from the time of the announcement to pack up and get on a plane. At the time it seemed like we had all the time in the world, which should have raised a red flag, but instead, we dragged our feet. We figured that so long as we got our visas, confirmed our son in his new school and made sure our cat had all his vaccines, that everything else would just fall into place. For the most part that was true, except we underestimated how much stuff we had. Our place in Los Angeles wasn’t that big and I consider myself a minimalist, however, we are a family of three and I won’t name names but there is a collector in the family. Needless to say, the two months leading up to our departure was the most stressful, emotional, grueling time in my life. In addition to taking care of our personal belongings, I had to figure out what to do with my company.
We didn’t have a place in Tokyo rented before we moved and so we had to reduce the number of items we could initially ship and put everything else into storage until we figured it out. That proved to be a huge on-going hassle and costly mistake.
Advice: Make an aggressive schedule over 6 months to sort, sell, scrap and ship your belongings. Decide if you will store your belongings in your current city (give yourself a budget to do that) and have somewhere to ship your stuff to in your next city. Also, have a point person in your current city that can manage your mail and other items that will undoubtedly pop up once you have moved.
We were very lucky that Sean was able to get us resident visas through Keio University and friends in Tokyo helped us during our transition. We are grateful to Joe for picking us up from Narita airport when we arrived and for letting us stay with him for 2 weeks while we hunted for an apartment. I’m really not sure how we would have managed without his generosity.
This is the second time I’ve moved between countries and let me tell you, moving from Canada to the US was cake compared to moving from the US to Japan. For my first move, Microsoft took care of everything including packing and shipping my stuff and paying for a temporary residence. I was able to speak the language and was close enough to home that if I needed to make a quick trip back it was no big deal. We were pretty much on our own for this move and it was a full-time job to do it.
Advice: If your company isn’t moving you, and you can afford it, get help. Hire a contractor to help sort or sell your belongings. Hire an agent to help you find an apartment.
Once we arrived in Tokyo things got a little easier. We were able to look for apartments, set up a bank account, get phone numbers and more. I say “little” because each of those tasks was still pretty hard. There’s a lot of chicken and egg in this country and cash is king. This is not the place to move to if you don’t have dolla dolla bills.
We struggled to look for an apartment on our own because there’s quite a lot of discrimination against foreigners renting apartments. Sometimes it’s because of a communication barrier, sometimes it’s because foreigners aren’t good at following rules (sorting garbage is a big deal and you can’t play music loud). Needless to say, we couldn’t rent an apartment on our own so we had to hire an agency to help us. It was actually a big relief to get help and have someone take care of the paperwork and setting up things like gas and electricity.
Our top concern once we got the keys to our new house was to get Ripley as comfortable as possible before he started school. We literally had nothing and had to get the basics including beds, kitchen table, chairs, plates, towels, etc. It got pretty aggravating buying things like cutlery knowing we had a full set in storage in Los Angeles.
Thankfully we ran into a lot of cuteness during our numerous shopping trips.
Advice: If you are shipping your belongings overseas, consider renting furniture and other basics until they arrive.
We have tried more language apps that I can count. Initially, I used Mango to learn how to say simple sentences and Duolingo to learn hiragana and katakana (Japan has three alphabets including kanji); both are free and I love free. That being said, you get what you pay for and it wasn’t until I took a 10-week in-person course that I actually felt comfortable speaking in Japanese. It’s really important to get the pronunciation correct and the apps can’t give you that type of feedback.
Thank tech for Google Translate – we use it on a daily basis to read the ingredients on products in the grocery store. We’re vegan so it’s a must for us.
Advice: Take a course and/or learn pronunciation, vocabulary and find people to practice with – it’s the best thing you can do. There is no magic babble you can stick in your ear. Yet.
There are 4 distinct seasons – Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. And in-between those basic seasons, Japan experiences 72 micro-seasons. Nature is ingrained in the culture here.
August is typhoon season and I experienced it in all its torrential rain and wind glory shortly after arriving. It scared the crap out of me. Long-term residences are used to this kind of weather and our house is tucked in-between 3 houses so it doesn’t get too bad, but I definitely avoid the trains. They get behind schedule and subsequently getting really packed. Not to mention how humid it is after a big rain.
Advice: Don’t move to Japan in July or August if you can help it. It’s very very very hot and humid.
Mid to late October it finally starts to cool off and you can dig out your pants and sweaters. It’s also the most insane Halloween celebration I have ever experienced.
November brings Autumn Color Viewing. There are maps of Japan specifically dedicated to “autumn colors” so you can plan where to visit to get the best selfies with your favorite trees. I have a particular affinity toward Gingko and Japanese maples.
I would be remiss to not tell you about yakiimo – Japanese sweet potato. We eat it all year long but you can buy it on the street in the Fall and Winter and it’s really oishii desu (delicious).
Late November is when you can start viewing Illuminations which are holiday light displays. Like autumn colors, there are maps dedicated to the illuminations around Tokyo and other parts of Japan.
In late December we experienced a big dump of snow in Tokyo and it was marvelous but this city doesn’t really deal with snow very well so it was really quiet walking home at night in fluffy snow up to my knees. I loved it.
Christmas isn’t really a holiday in Japan, but, there are some funny traditions that crack me up, like how KFC has become one with Santa Claus.
There is an overwhelming number of ski resorts in Japan, lots of people go to Nagano as its close to Tokyo, but the best J-pow is up in Hokkaido. That’s also where you can experience ice sculpting contests.
It’s also the best time of year to enjoy an outside onsen. If you are like us and have tattoos, then check out this map for tattoo-friendly onsens, beaches, pools and more
In February, before Sakura season (cherry blossoms), is when you can enjoy ume (plum) blossoms. They don’t get a lot of airtime because I suppose they aren’t as abundant but they are quite beautiful and the crowds aren’t too bad.
March and April are when you can start viewing cherry blossoms but it’s not an exact science so it’s a good idea to pay attention to the Japan Meteorological Society for updates.
From Spring through Summer you’ll see various trees and flowers blooming in large enough quantities and locations that you’ll start to notice a pattern. We opted to head south to the Yayaema Islands before it got too hot.
We don’t have our Japanese drivers licenses because the Japanese government deems US driving records to be so dismal that they require American drivers (exceptions are Washington state and Maryland) to take both a written and driving test. Our International Drivers License just expired and so that sucks. What sucks more is that I actually learned to drive in Canada and I used to have a Washington state license. I wonder if I can take in my expired licenses and convince them of my mad skills.
In the meantime, that leaves us with trains, bikes, buses, taxis and walking. It’s really easy to get around major cities here using a myriad of transportation options. In Tokyo, it has become a lot easier to rent bikes including convenience stores and parks, so keep that in mind.
It’s a lot harder to get around the countryside. Trains and buses are a lot less frequent.
Advice: If you plan to go to the countryside or any of the smaller islands, before coming to Japan, get your International Drivers License at AAA so you can rent a car if you need to. You can’t get it once you are in Japan.
It’s fairly expensive to travel around Japan by bullet train or plane. The latter can sometimes be less expensive but you have to deal with the hassle of going through the airport whereas you can simply hop on the shinkansen.
There are plenty of day and weekend trips you can take from Tokyo. Here are some of the places in Japan we’ve traveled to this past year:
- Hida, Gifu
- Yamagata prefecture (three sacred mountains)
- Ishigaki, Okinawa
- Iriomote, Okinawa
- Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima
- Minami-soma, Fukushima
We have a long list of other places to go and look forward to seeing them all.
Until next time!