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Living in Tokyo, Japan: Expats Speak Out

Jessica Korteman and Hai Huynh are a travel-blogging husband and wife team from Melbourne, currently residing in Tokyo. You can most often find them chasing Japanese festivals and seeking out best-kept travel secrets. Learn more about them over on their blog Notes of Nomads and on their YouTube channel.

Q: What’s one thing most tourists don’t know about where you live?

A: Most people probably know that Tokyo’s rail network looks like a big plate of spaghetti and that so many people use the trains that there are even staff employed to “push” people onboard. But in amongst the bustling city areas and sometimes confusing stations, Tokyo has its quieter sides too.

We love the fact that you can be on a busy street one moment, and in the quiet solace of a small shrine the next. There are so many relatively “unknown” places in Tokyo both to visitors and to many Japanese who are often taking the same routes between home and work. Just 20 minutes from the center you can find the lovely traditional town of Shibamata, and if you’re prepared to travel farther afield, you can go to one of our favorite hiking spots: Okutama. It’s so serene; you wouldn’t even know you were still in Tokyo!

Q: What’s the worst culture shock you experienced as you settled into your new home?

A: We were really shocked to learn about the process of renting an apartment here. In Australia, you pay a security deposit, a month’s rent in advance and that’s it.

In Japan, a security deposit is required along with a month or two of rent, but then there are a whole host of other fees that are also tacked onto your moving-in bill — for example, agent fees, guarantor fees and this cultural thing called “key money.” Key money is essentially a mandatory gift for the owner of the apartment to say “thank you for letting us live here,” and it can be the equivalent of one or two months’ rent! It can cost several thousand dollars just to move in.

Fortunately, this is only something you have to deal with when moving or renewing your lease, and things like the cost of furnishing the apartment and living expenses can be relatively inexpensive if you know where to look.

Q: Do you find that living in a foreign country makes you a better traveler when you visit other places? If so, how?

A: Absolutely! Living in a foreign country opens your mind to different ways of doing things. At first it can be easy to judge because something doesn’t seem “right” to you based on your own cultural experiences. But spending more time in a place gives you a different level of understanding. That’s not to say you have to change your way of thinking to agree with everything that goes on in each country, but it gives you a different perspective, which is really important.

When you are traveling, you then think about things in different ways, making you less quick to judge based on outward appearances. Plus, if you compare everything to how things are done “back home,” then you’re probably not going to have a great time abroad. Things can and will be different in many ways. Embrace these differences and you’re sure to have a much more fulfilling holiday.

Which tourist attraction in Tokyo is most overrated, and where should travelers go instead?

A: Probably Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree. We’re usually not that into towers. They tend to be expensive and the views kind of generic. Plus, you often have to wait in line for a long time too.

If you’d like to see the city from above, we’d recommend visiting the observatories on the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building instead. You still get a great view (with the added bonus of actually having the aforementioned towers in your photos), and it’s absolutely FREE!

Q: No one should visit Japan without tasting _________.

A: Definitely a rice bowl of some kind. I love katsudon (pork cutlets with egg over rice). It’s my comfort food on a chilly day. Hai enjoys unagidon (grilled eel on rice). And you can’t go wrong with tendon (the tempura version), also known as delicious fried things over rice.

If you have the budget, Wagyu and Kobe beef are a culinary delight. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try fugu, or pufferfish served various ways.

Q: What’s the toughest thing about being an expat? The most rewarding?

A: The toughest thing would have to be the fact the everything is so different compared to what you are used to: the culture, the language, the food. You have to learn to navigate a completely different system and way of life. Suddenly things that used to be so simple, like booking a doctor’s appointment or explaining the haircut you want, become the biggest of tasks.

But that’s also the best part of being an expat too. We didn’t move to Japan to have the same experiences we had in Australia. We’ve learned to find joy in really small things. Those everyday tasks that used to just be a chore are now fun challenges that make each day really interesting. We feel genuinely proud of ourselves when we hang up the phone knowing that we just successfully completed a task using another language. Then once you master one task, there’s always something else new to learn. Life is never dull, that’s for sure.

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