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Living in Tokyo Japan

On the first morning in our new home in Tokyo, we sat down to breakfast and solemnly poured drinking yoghurt over our cereal.

Depending on your mood these sort of occurances can be funny or frustrating; everyone knows that mistakes are the hallmarks of any new posting, but the unique thing about living in Tokyo is that they are not due to a lack of anything. The problem is that one is so 'partially sighted' when it comes to recognising what you want. Everywhere you see familiar signs - McDonalds, Virgin Cinemas, the 'P' sign for a car park - only to find that everything apart from the sign is in Japanese.

In other - less first world - countries, it is tempting just to 'wing it' John Wayne style and hope for the best. In Tokyo, short cuts like falling into a taxi when you are unsure of the destination can result in eye watering fares and grabbing 'familiar' looking products in the supermarket is clearly not the answer. 

Newcomers should accept the fact that, however organised you normally are, you will blunder about and make mistakes at the beginning, but before long - with immense patience - you will find precisely what you are after, whether it is organic, semi-skimmed, unpasteurised milk or a pair of Armani jeans for your pet dog! In the mean time your confusion will be greeted with a degree of consideration, patience and kindness that you won't find in any other country.

Useful information

Banking and Money

Another major bonus in the early days is that it is unlikely you will be taken advantage of financially. Although opening a bank account does take quite a while - mainly because to do so you will require an 'alien registration card' (I'm not joking!) - you can feel quite safe as you walk about with huge wads of cash. The Japanese are notoriously honest and you will not need to check your change. As a rough, but useful, rule of thumb if you knock two zeros off the yen price of something you will get the US dollar value. I.e: Yen 1,000 is ten bucks.

Even after opening a bank account (like many 'aliens', we used Citibank as they use English) we got in the habit of having around US$100 on us all the time (quickly now - what is that is yen?). In this fairly cash-based society not all the little stores take credit cards and it is lovely to walk around the greengrocers, bakeries and cafes - not to mention the wonderful '100 Yen' shops (paradise for children with pocket money) - and to stop for incredibly reasonable, utterly delicious set lunches.


Once you have acclimatised a bit, it is well worth heading out of town to stock up at Costco (allow at least 1.5 hours each way due to traffic); you will save a fortune. One note of caution - this Costco does not accept all credit cards so bring plenty of cash for your purchases and for the motorway tolls. Alternatively you can buy a smaller selection of Costco products on-line at and have them delivered - the bulk quantities can be a relief after the exquisite but tiny quantities you find locally. 

It is also worth going on a 'supermarket tour' (many PTA groups offer these); a quick trip round a Japanese supermarket will introduce you to many convenient products, some but not all, at lower prices. This is one country where local does not necessarily mean cheaper, the Japanese are sticklers for premium products. Similarly, don't panic too much about not being able to read every label - sell-by dates tend to be rigorously adhered to, quality is a matter of pride and Japanese people don't go in for artificial additives in a big way.

Finding Friends

Tokyo is a bit like unfurling a flower - just take it layer by layer and enjoy each stage. On a bad day, when that Lost in Translation feeling has kicked in and it just isn't a big adventure any more, find comfort and shelter in the fact that, within the world's second biggest city, you will quickly find one of the friendliest, expat 'villages' anywhere.

It is very easy to make a huge number of friends... there is only one expat club and a handful of international schools plus people tend to go out of their way to be friendly and helpful. You could easily spend your entire time with foreigners, shop at the two international supermarkets (with valet parking and white-gloved delivery people) and never speak a word of Japanese if you so wish.

Tokyo is rich in 'alpha type' trailing spouses who give generously of their time and talents. You will find all manner of events organised through some of the formidable PTA's from welcome sessions for newcomers through to exciting excursions and social events. If you are lucky enough to be a member of the Tokyo American Club, you will also find a huge range of courses and activities through the women's group including an excellent 3 day seminar aimed at newcomers called 'Tokyo Here and Now' (this course is also open to non members).

Another useful feature of the Tokyo American Club is its noticeboard - before you rush off and buy everything for your new house, have a look at the adverts here. Many people sell off whole house contents at low prices, some pretty new as Tokyo is a very transient place.

Domestic Help

You do not have to be a member to go and look at the club noticeboard; it is just by the recreation desk and is probably the best place to look for domestic help with references. Predominantly Filippina, most helpers will speak good English; they need to be 'sponsored' by their official employer but are usually available for extra work on a 'freelance' basis. Rates are set at Western prices and if you wish to sponsor a full time housekeeper or nanny it is best to go through your company or an agency as it is quite an involved process.


Health care is not a big issue, there are some good English-speaking doctors. The most popular amongst expats can be found at Tokyo Medical and Surgical Clinic which is just opposite Tokyo Tower (use their car park!) and has a good range of specialists. Tokyo has one of the lowest rates of infant mortality in the world and any criticisms I've heard from new mums tend to be about 'over fussiness' rather than anything more sinister.

There are American-trained dentists for adults and children (the famous Kakuz in Hiroo has tiny dental chairs with videos in the ceiling and 'goody bags' that make going there a real treat).


As in any foreign country it is a good idea to phonetically write out your address and leave it by the phone in case of emergencies (it is amazing how all knowledge of another language can abandon one under stress). Another emergency precaution to be aware of is earthquake preparation. Japan is prone to quakes and tremors so it is advisable to have a basic earthquake kit to hand containing water, money, blankets etc (suggested contents are widely available as are ready prepared kits).

Navigating the City and Japan

Ever since the Kobe earth quake in the 1980's building regulations have been very strict (it is worth asking if a building is 'post-Kobe' when house hunting). The result is a city of fairly low rise buildings compared to other Asian cities, in fact Tokyo can seem to sprawl for miles in every direction with few clear landmarks to differentiate one area from the next. It is incredibly easy to get lost in the many quaint but fairly identical looking side streets and drivers are well advised to invest in an English satellite navigation system.

Luckily the metro is excellent - clean, efficient and - best of all - easy to understand and inexpensive. Bicycling is also a wonderful way to get around and explore, especially with children, as you bike on the pavements - the theory being that you can kill a cyclist with a car more easily than a cyclist can harm a pedestrian. 

For travelling further afield, there are plenty of good, English speaking travel agents to help you and, of course, bargains to be found on-line. If travelling within Japan, the bullet train is a wonderful experience - super quick, very efficient and immaculately clean but pricey (think flying). Beware of the lack of luggage space, it is common practice to send bags, ski equipment etc ahead.

To help negotiate this and to save money it is a good idea to look at package tours and there are some good Club Med centres in Japan as well. One of the best travel agents for tours can be found in the Hiroo shopping Plaza on the first floor, you can even book a package trip for a single day to go skiing or to explore the stunning countryside near Tokyo.


Once you have been away and returned to Tokyo the strangest things can suddenly seem homely and familiar. Slowly the initial clouds of confusion will begin to disperse as they do in a Japanese landscape. Once this begins to happen it is hard not to fall in love with this amazing city that is so unlike any other. Meanwhile, enjoy the haziness if you can - there is a certain innocence in not understanding, especially for adults and older children who suddenly have all advertising and commercial messages stripped from their lives.

The quality of everything in Tokyo is enormously high - from education to housing, health care to food - all you need to do is identify what is best for you - and who knows, in the process you may even develop a taste for drinking yoghurt on your cereal.

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