I love living in Tokyo. My partner is Japanese and we had been married in Australia for seven years before moving to Tokyo two years ago. I still love every second when I go out and explore in and around Tokyo. Who wouldn’t? Tokyo was chosen as the world’s most livable city last year. Living in Tokyo as a foreigner, however, comes with good and not so good experiences. Here is my personal list of pros and cons about living in Tokyo as a foreign national.
Pro 1: Multilingual signage helps living in Tokyo as a Foreigner
That Japan is a monolingual country is a myth that belongs to the 19th century. My Japanese is not fantastic at all, but I never had problem navigating the train system in Tokyo. If you come to Tokyo with the mindset that all will be in Japanese, then the landscape just looks monolingual. But most visitors soon realise that getting around in Tokyo is quite easy thanks to numerous multilingual signage such as at stations and department stores.
Con 1: Missed opportunity to learn Japanese
Just as many of newcomers to Tokyo, I came here with the full intention of perfecting Japanese. I even hired a private Japanese language tutor as my wife has been reluctant to help me at home:-8 Yet, after a year or so I gave up as it was obviously quite possible to live in Tokyo without a high level of fluency. Multilingual signage is everywhere and many iPhone apps such as the train timetable app Jordan are available in English. To top this, the Japanese I come across are just so nice even if I utter incomprehensible Japanese. High language skills would have been indispensable if I were to work with Japanese, though.
Pro 2: Tokyo is never boring
It’s been two years since I moved to Tokyo, but there are many places I haven’t been to yet or a whole bunch of things I’ve planned to do but haven’t. There are hundreds of thousands of shops, restaurants, department stores and theme parks, which I’d love to visit but have no time for, and a number of fascinating events are constantly held all year round in Tokyo. I love bi-yearly big events, such as Design Festa and Comiket, and I haven’t missed a Tokyo Motor Show since I moved to Japan.
I’ve also realised some time ago that Tokyo is bigger than most people think. Eastern Tokyo beyond the famous Tokyo SkyTree remains mysterious to me, and northern Tokyo (e.g. Kita-ku) beyond Tokyo Dome is as foreign as other countries I haven’t been to. I barely covered Oume City in western Tokyo. I’ve lived in several countries before coming here, but Tokyo remains the most diverse city. How could you be bored in a city like Tokyo?
Con 2: Tokyo is too overwhelming
As my office is a walking distance from where I live, I never have to take trains in the morning. But if I had to, I’m pretty sure I’d have been so stressed and grumpy having to get on the super packed train each morning. A morning train ride in Sydney is like a five star hotel room.
When I hang out in busy parts of Tokyo for a few hours, I feel rather overwhelmed. My strategy against this is to have an apartment in a quiet area. If you want to live in Tokyo and be happy, it’s important to get the balance right.
Pro 3: Access to the world’s best cuisine
Bangkok was pretty amazing in terms of food. But no city beats Tokyo in terms of varieties and qualities of cuisine. To begin with, the 2015 Michelin Guide to Tokyo has 12 three-star restaurants, 53 two-star restaurants, 161 one-star restaurants, and 325 Bib Gourmands. The beauty of Tokyo is that you don’t have to go to posh restaurants for a top meal. You get pretty decent, if not amazing, food for a matter of 5 dollars here.
Sushi trains such as Sushiro and Kurazushi offer 100-yen sushi, which are better than what you get in expensive sushi restaurants overseas. Sandwiches at Seven Eleven and other Japan’s convenience stores are cheap (like 2 dollars onwards) unbelievably delicious. Tokyo is a city that you should try once in your lifetime to know that each meal can be a sheer joy but won’t make you go bankrupt.
Con 3: Weight gain
If you gain weight easily, be very, very careful. Great food is everywhere for a reasonably price and they are available 24/7. It’s very dangerous for me when I live very close to Isetan, Takashimaya and other major department stores which have the world’s greatest food sections. Plus, convenience stores are everywhere – I have to pass four convenience stores before I make it home. I have a point card from each of them, and Japanese convenience stores are constantly introducing new products like sweets, drinks, food and more. I haven’t been able to come up with a good strategy against the evil temptations. Good thing that my gym is also 24/7.
Finally: Zairyu Card – Living in Tokyo as a foreigner.
So far, I haven’t addressed the most complex issue which allows living in Tokyo as a foreigner – the visa. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t had any issue with getting a visa as fortunately I received my Zairyu card or residence registration card with a permission to work as soon as we registered our marriage in Japan.
My first Zairyu Card was good for a year. When I extended it the following year, I was told that I could apply for a permanent residency when I extend my Zairyu Card next time. I was rather surprised at this as Japan has the image of “we don’t give out permanent residency that easily”. But in reality, all you need to quality for a permanent residency is a three year Zairyu Card, a record of tax return and enough earning to support yourself in Japan.
As long as you have a Zairyu Card, your life as a foreign national in Japan is quite smooth. If you are employed and have a regular income, you can also apply for a home loan and get your life really started in Japan.
When you are married to a Japanese national, getting a visa as well as permanent residency is not that hard. But when you are on your own, the best place to start is to get a Japanese company to sponsor you and take it from there.