Thinking about moving to Japan? Congratulations! Making your move to a new country will undoubtedly be both exciting and intimidating, even if you know the language.
We have put together a list of tips, links, and ideas for making the move a little more organized. Take it from someone who moved here, got off the train to a drunken man shouting “This isn’t the airport!”, asked the platform attendant which way was north, and headed into the suburbs with nay but a printed map and giant suitcases to lug up a hill or two. The last thing you need when you get here is to be homeless for the night!
Plan These Before You Leave
Your planning should start as soon as possible, and below are 10 points that will make your first few steps in the country that much easier.
Take enough cash for 2 weeks. And more if you can. Japan is a cash based society, so you can do everything with cash, but you can’t do everything with a card. This includes everything from setting up your gas to paying for your deliveries. Plus, if your bank messes up and it takes longer to send your money to your new account (like mine did), you won’t want to be stranded.
Have your new address written down in English, and if you can, Japanese. This will help when you arrive at the airport and need to tell them your address, with getting to your home (see step 2 in the next section), and when going to the city office.
Pick a day that you’ll go to the city office to register your address. It’s easy and quick, but if you don’t know where you’re going it’s going to be a pain. Plan your route and day beforehand, and make sure you know what to take.
Find all the local necessities using Google Maps, and save them to a list. Look for your local supermarkets (Life, Maruetsu, Big-A, Create, Ozeki, to name a few) because you’ll want to get water and snacks. Look for your local bank branch (or one nearest your new work) so you can make an account quickly. And look for some recreational things to do, coffee shops, parks, cinema etc, for when you need a break from the crazy of moving country.
Speaking of banks, I encourage you to avoid Yuuchou Ginko (the post office bank), as it’s easy to make an account but very inconvenient in the long run for sending or receiving money, and they don’t have great options for cards or savings.
You can order a lot of stuff to arrive at your place shortly after you do, AND you can pay in cash on delivery! So if your place isn’t furnished, order a bed/futon and ceiling lights! Check out sites like Nitori and Ikea for easy furniture and kitchen stuff purchasing.
You can order your hanko, or seal, to arrive at your place as well. But did you know, you don’t have to have your full name? You can go with first, last, katakana, kanji, whatever! I ended up with my full name, because I thought I needed to on an official thing. It ended up being VERY expensive, and so big I couldn’t use generic cases or ink for it. I had to scrap it.
Get your gas, electric, and water sorted before you go. We could only do our electricity online before we went, so we had to organize the gas person to visit us on day 2, and for
Phones. I can’t stress how much this would have helped us if we’d known. You can get temporary sims at the airport, which will save you not knowing where your house is, not being able to phone the water company, and with it you can arrange redelivery if you miss your bed. GET. A. SIM. Before you go though, you’ll need to check if your phone can take other sims, and if not, get a phone that can. You can sort out a long term contract when you get settled.
Plan your wardrobe. If you have big feet, you’ll want to bring shoes. Women’s sizes go up to 25cm on average, with some places doing up to 26cm. Men’s sizes go up to about 28cm, and some places go up to 30cm but they get expensive. If you’re coming in summer, try and avoid sleeveless tops, despite the heat. Baring your shoulders marks you as a tourist in Japan. Generally, fashion here covers the shoulders at least, for all genders. Cleavage is VERY rare. Legs are pretty much always on display, however, so if you’re hot, go for shorts or a skirt, and a light top with sleeves. Having your shoulders out won’t be considered rude or anything, but you will stick out.
Get a Suica or Pasmo at the airport. These nifty public transport cards are easy to get at most ticket machines and are WAY easier than trying to get tickets, especially if you need to change train company services. They’re technically cheaper too; you pay 500 yen to get the card and then get a few yen off every journey. See a step by step guide here.
Get a taxi from your home station. We valiantly tried to save money by walking the “12 minutes” to our place. But we didn’t know the way, there was a HUGE hill, and dragging two suitcases and a backpack is exhausting after a long flight. It will likely cost no more than 800 yen and it will be so worth it. Luckily we went as a two; I stood with the 4 cases while my partner went house-scouting. On my own I might have given up! Usually the station will have a taxi rank, and you can ask for it by saying: “Takushii dai wa doko desu ka?” (タクシー代はどこですか).
Your New Home
So you’ve made it! Awesome. Now to settle in.
If you’ve managed to order all your stuff for your arrival and are paying cash on delivery, then get that cash ready and look forward to your new things. If it took longer than you thought to get there and you’ve missed a delivery, don’t panic. If you’ve got internet and a QR scanner, you can usually reschedule the delivery for later that day, using the delivery slip. If you speak Japanese, you can phone the driver and ask if they’re still in the area if the QR won’t let you do same day.
Once you’ve received your exciting new stuff, keep the boxes! You can make some excellent temporary furniture using the bigger ones. We made bedside cabinets, a clothes shelf, and tables.
Kitchens in Japan are incredibly small, some come with only one stove and a sink. So if you’re the type that likes to cook you’ll need to look into getting around the lack of appliances.
You’ll also want to get your white furnishings second hand if you can. Washing machines, ceiling lights, refrigerators are all easy to get locally if you’re not too fussed about how they look. Your local recycle shop will probably have a few in stock.
Once you get here, you can check how your area’s trash system works. Some places require special bags that you can buy in the local convenience store. Some places ask you to only put out rubbish on certain days, while others have an area that gets maintained by a building manager so you can put it out any time. If the rubbish isn’t split properly the rubbish collectors won’t take the whole bag, so make sure you know how to split it!
Health Care in Japan
An incredibly important thing to know wherever you live, is how the healthcare system works. For Japan, you are enrolled in either your (or your partner’s) company’s insurance, or the national health insurance. This means you’ll pay 30% of your bills, except in some circumstances (for example the pill is not covered.)
Something you’ll want to look into asap is which practices near you do what. Doctors in Japan aren’t GPs; they’re split into specialists, so you have to go to different ones for different things. Finding a doctor when you’re sick can be really stressful so if you have the time, find out where you’d go locally for a fever, a physical therapist (twisted ankles, injured joints etc), a gyno, gastrointestinal problems, skin issues (warts, allergic reactions). Be careful when finding a gyno, make sure you get a female doctor if you prefer one, since they don’t all have female doctors available at every practice.
English speaking doctors are not necessarily good ones. Check online for a list of reputable medical centers.
Abortion requires the father’s consent on a form, but if the father can be proven missing, deceased or a rapist, it is not required. However, they won’t confirm who the father is, so you could take a male friend you trust along to sign the form with you.
Local practices and hospitals have very specific opening times. Most close for a few hours in the afternoon and re-open around 2/3pm. Check the times of each one you might need so if you’re ever sick you know when you can plan your naps for.
Calling the emergency services is always nerve wracking, but there are guides available for what to say should there be no operator that speaks your language. Call 119 for medical or fire emergencies, and 110 for the police. The services are free so anyone in a medical emergency won’t be lumped with a huge bill at the end.
Japan still lags behind in same-sex marriage rights. Even if you’re married abroad, Japan will not recognize your same-sex partner as family. Tax deductions and other issues are unfair and problematic, but the most difficulty comes with medical care. If your spouse falls ill, you may not be able to visit them in hospital or sign consent forms. Make sure you know exactly where you stand if you’re coming from a country with better human rights so neither of you will be caught off guard.
Life in General
Learning Japanese actually gets harder the longer you are here. Sounds contradictory, but hear me out. If you don’t know much Japanese, you can get along well enough with the help of others and the amount of English available. So a year or three goes by and you have spent the whole time intending to learn, but instead of piling up a load of kanji workbooks, you only have a pile of guilt. The same goes for if you speak Japanese already but you don’t have a job that uses it. Every day conversation in Japanese won’t push you, so unless you really make the effort, you’ll stagnate. Luckily, most local wards offer really cheap language classes, from about 1000 yen an hour. I highly recommend you take advantage of these, whatever your level.
Having said that, for those times when you’re really stuck, Google Translate can be your best friend. You can use it to translate menus on the fly, or even just type something into it to get a message across to someone when you need to ask something. You have the power of the internet in your hands, use it well!
Taking the train or bus to get around is the most obvious option, especially given how convenient and organized Japan’s public transport system is. However, walking around the city not only a fantastic way to see the city (and avoid the crowds), sometimes it can be comparable in terms of price and time if you include getting to the station, the walk through the station, waiting for the train, changing, then leaving the station and arriving at your destination. Bonus tip, for Kyoto especially, if you’re tight for time or walking isn’t an option, if you’re in a group of 4, it’s also worth thinking about a taxi, as it might be cheaper than 4 train or bus tickets.
Gluten free restaurants are few and far between but they DO exist. Check out a list here. Soy milk is available in supermarkets readily, as is almond milk. However not many independent cafes serve soy milk, so if you’re after a fancy beverage you’re best going for Tully’s or Starbucks. Vegetarians also need to be quite careful, as Japan doesn’t yet understand the difference between vegetarian and pescatarian. A lot of sauces and bases are fish or meat stock even if it’s not written down, so it always pays to double check.
As a foreigner, you’re going to be a novelty. You have a choice; either own it, and choose to blend in (or not) as much as you’re comfortable. Or, grin and bear it, and let people know you’d rather it wasn’t a thing. I have tried both approaches, and sometimes when one doesn’t work I switch to the other. Generally I have an easier time when I go along with it, people are quite friendly. But if I start feeling the little creeps of alienation or even assumptions made because I am foreign, I try and bring it back to a more grounded situation. Even though it’s slowly becoming more of an international capital, there’s still a lot of people that just don’t get it. I have even seen adverts (recently!) on the train that are essentially “be nice to foreigners, they’re normal people too.” My current tact is to make friends with as many Japanese people as possible and let them know that “Nihongo ojouzu desune” (“you’re Japanese is good”), is not really a compliment when all you said was hello.
There are plenty of things that will make or break your experience here. Not least of all anxiety, homesickness, new job etc. But before ANY of that has a chance to settle in, reach out. There are great groups and events on Meetup and Peatix, in many languages and for many interests. People at the gym are generally friendly and they even sometimes have events and parties. Board game cafes have solo nights. There are places that will teach you how to deal with natural disasters so you can at least feel prepared. There’s Reddit, Discord, and Skype. And of course, you can always chat to us at Geek Impulse, we have friendly people in Japan and we’d love to hear from you!