An Expat Guide to Living in Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo, the capital and the heart of Japan, is ranked as the 11th most expensive city for expatriates.

Is Tokyo an excellent place to live as an expat? What it’s like to live in Tokyo?

In this Expat Interview, Lena, an expat who is living in Tokyo, shares about her life in Tokyo from the cost of living in Tokyo, moving to Tokyo, being foreigners in Japan, and more!

This article is not only useful for people who are interested in Japan and living in Japan in general but also an excellent read for those who plan to visit Japan.

Tokyo - The heart of Japan

Tokyo is located on the main island Honshu and has more than 13 million people living in the greater Tokyo area. It is the center of business, the seat of government, and the Emperor of Japan.

Tokyo was ranked as the “Best overall experience” on TripAdvisor World City Survey. In Tokyo, you can find everything your heart desires.

Let’s start our interview to know more about expat life in Tokyo.

1. Why did you move to Tokyo?

I studied Japanese at university and wanted to use Japanese for my first job, so I was thrilled and excited when I found a job at a Japanese company in Germany.

The best part was that I would be sent to Japan right away for one year to undergo training at the headquarters. That was in March 2015.

Like most prominent companies, the headquarter of my IT consulting company was in Tokyo, so Tokyo is where I have been living since.

2. How to prepare for moving to Tokyo?

This time was not my first move to Japan, so there wasn’t much for me to prepare mentally any-more, as I already knew what I was getting myself into.

I also had the support of my company, which prepared my apartment and visa, so it was all effortless for me to make a move from Germany to Japan.

I only had to pack my bags and hop on a flight. Upon arrival in Tokyo, I got the key to a fully furnished apartment. I started working there the next day.

3. Cost of living in Tokyo, Japan

a) Accommodation

Accommodation is the most expensive part of life in Tokyo. I live in a 40 square meter apartment together with my boyfriend, and we pay 180.000 Yen per month.

The apartment is conveniently located in the city center 1-minute walk from the closest station. This is what makes it so expensive.

But even if you want to live in a 20 square meter one-room apartment with a walking distance of about 10 minutes to the station, you will pay roughly 80.000 Yen.

b) Food

Food can be cheap or expensive, depending on your preferences. If you want to cook yourself and love cooking with a lot of fresh vegetables, then it can be quite expensive. 

If you are okay with eating convenience store Bento (Japanese home-packed meal), then a meal will cost you roughly 500 Yen. There are also many Japanese fast-food restaurants or small shops selling set meals at around 800 to 1000 Yen.

c) Transportation in Tokyo

Transportation to and from the company is covered in full by the company. It is a big plus. It doesn’t make sense to own a car in Tokyo if you aren’t super-wealthy and so most people use trains and the metro to get around.

It is very convenient and also not too expensive. The price depends on the distance, but you roughly pay 200 Yen wherever you want to go within Tokyo.

d) Japanese tax

Taxes are way cheaper than in Europe. It goes for the consumption tax (8%) but also for social security and income tax (20-30%).

4. How to deal with difficulties when living in Japan?

As I mentioned above, this was not the first time that I moved to Japan. I had been living in Japan before as a student when I was 20 years old.

I attended the Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka for ten months. Surprisingly, I didn’t have any difficulties moving to Japan both times.

Of course, some paperwork is needed to be done, such as registration at the city office. However, it is not a huge challenge, even without being able to speak Japanese.

Culture shock is something else I didn’t experience. It probably has to do with the expectations that one has before coming to live in a new country.

I had visited Japan before for a short period, living with a host family. I also heard a lot of stories from other people who had studied in Japan before me.

5. Discrimination in Japan: Being a foreigner in Japan

No matter how long you live in Japan, you will never be Japanese. Japanese people will never see you like Japanese.

It is something a foreigner should know and understand before coming to Japan to avoid disappointment. It means the Japanese treat you differently.

They will comment on how good your Japanese is, or your skills with chopsticks and other such superficial comments. It can get annoying after a while, but you should better get used to it fast, say thank you and smile.

Sometimes when I am out with my Japanese boyfriend, people will talk to him even when I ask a question in Japanese. They will answer him.

I find this weird and sometimes a little offensive, but it is not something I get worked up about. The same goes for people answering me in English even though I am talking to them in Japanese.

6. What do you like about Tokyo?

Tokyo is a city that has every comfort you could ever wish for.

Not only Japanese food is delicious, but you will be able to find food from all over the world here, which will help with occasional homesickness and food cravings.

As far as amusement goes, Tokyo has something to offer for everyone. There are Karaoke and bars, world-class cinemas, and game center where you can play darts or practice your bowling skills.

Then, of course, there are amusement parks and other attractions in Tokyo like the Tokyo Tower, Sky Tree, and of course, all the famous tourist areas that are worth exploring.

If you like shopping, you can do that in the many shopping centers, department stores, and brand shops everywhere around Tokyo. It is a large city with something for every taste.

7. Are there any bad things about Tokyo?

There are multiple things that one can complain about.

Due to the living cost, if you don’t have a well-paying job, you might not be able to afford a comfortable place in the city center and have to commute to work for an hour or more.

The commute can be stressful in itself because the trains are packed with people, especially in the morning before 9 a.m., when everyone is on their way to work.

Not only the trains are crowded but also many areas around Tokyo that you might be interested in visiting during the weekends are always busy with tourists and locals alike. If you don’t like crowds living in Tokyo can be quite stressful.

8. Where do you recommend to visit in Tokyo?

I would visit Shibuya to see the scramble crossing at night. The best place to see it is at Shibuya Starbucks across the street from the station. Some people prefer wandering Yoyogi Park and Harajuku areas.

Otherwise, you can go window-shopping in Omotesando, where all the world-famous brands have their shops.

A visit to Asakusa with its souvenir stalls leading to the Sensoji Temple is an excellent idea for spending time in Tokyo too!

9. How to make friends in Japan?

I made friends with some of my colleagues, which was quite easy, and I imagine depending on where you work, and how open you are, it should be possible for anyone to do that.

Making friends with Japanese outside of work can be trickier.

I suggest joining some activities where you can meet Japanese people like sports circles.

If you are looking to meet foreigners or Japanese interested in meeting foreigners, you could also take advantage of Couchsurfing events that are held once a week.

10. Do you hang out with locals or foreigners, mostly in Tokyo?

I mostly spend time with my Japanese boyfriend, Taka, whom I met at work. I see some Japanese colleagues for Karaoke on some weekends and other friends for some shopping.

My German friends in Japan are people I have already known before coming to Japan.

I haven’t made new close foreign friends since coming here, but I guess this all depends on how open you are and how much you go out.

11. Where to hang out with friends in Tokyo?

I love going to Karaoke with my friends. Other than that, I love to meet my friends at different places to see different things each time. There is not one place as Tokyo has so many exciting places.

12. A memorable experience in Tokyo

For the first year around Christmas, my boyfriend and I went to visit the Tokyo Dome illumination, which is one of the nicer ones around Tokyo (there are many nice ones).

We walked around and also took a ride on the Ferris wheel to have a spectacular view of the city at night time.

It was super romantic and also beautiful to see the city in this different way. It makes one realize how small we all are and how big the city is. It stretches out in all directions without end in sight.

13. Did you change your perspective after living in Tokyo?

I always knew it was a hectic and crowded city. It hasn’t changed. But I think I have changed with the city. I got used to the crowds, although I still avoid them as much as I can.

I am relaxed in overcrowded trains, and even though I don’t like it at all, I will occasionally stand in line to eat at a restaurant.

14. What are your advice and tips for moving/ living in Tokyo?

The biggest challenge of living in Japan is gaining a work visa. When you manage to get one through a company, you are good to go.

I imagine it is very hard living in Tokyo without being able to speak the language to a certain degree, so I would recommend to learn Japanese in advance or to attend a language school while you are in Tokyo.

Moving to Tokyo can be expensive because you have to pay a lot of money when renting a place, so make sure you have enough savings. Something like five times the monthly rent + money for buying furniture.

15. Would you recommend others to live in Tokyo?

I would recommend it to people who like living in a big metropolis with many people. I wouldn’t recommend it if you love quiet and nature.

These people won’t be happy here. I also have to say that it isn’t easy for vegetarians to live here.

Almost all Japanese food is made with some animal ingredients, and vegetarian restaurants are view and expensive. Cooking for yourself is, of course, an option but can be quite expensive as well.

16. What have you learned from living abroad?

I’ve learned that people who only live in one city or one country miss out on so many things the world has to offer.

Living in another country teaches perspective about other people’s lives and cultures. Also, I’ve learned that people have different styles of thinking and working.

So, my way is not necessarily the only way and not always in the right direction. It taught me to be open to other ideas and to be more curious about food.

Many people who want to live in Japan and especially Tokyo have this image of a dream country that they have learned from the media and especially anime and manga.

Japan is not like that. Japan has its bad sides like any other country in the world. They might do a better job of hiding these sides from the eyes of the outside world, but Japan also has problems, and it is not some dreamland.

I would like for everyone who is thinking about moving here to keep this in mind so they won’t be disappointed.

More about Lena

Lena is a passionate traveler and has been in love with Japanese culture and food for a long time. She has made Tokyo her home, where she has been living and working for almost three years now.

Even though she is planning a trip around the world this year to see more of this beautiful planet, Japan is still one of her favorite places in the world, and she is looking forward to coming back here when her trip is over.

You can find her travel adventures of Japan and other countries on her blog, The Social Travel Experiment and her social channels: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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