Here we come Japan. This next crash course on expat life is a place I have dreamed of going to for many years now. There is something about the combination of zen, minimalism, safety, great food and unique culture that beckons me. Our guest poster in not the spouse of a diplomat, but a diplomat herself. For this reason she has requested to remain anonymous and I really appreciate the time she took, in addition to her full time job, to participate. She is stationed at an Embassy in Japan with her husband and 4 year old. Pour yourself some sake and dive into her seven salient notes about living in Japan and enjoy. Kanpai!
Relaxing in hot spring waters in a traditional Ryokan may be one of the most sublime experiences that you can live in Japan, and one of the most effective ways to disconnect from busy Tokyo, relieve stress, get in contact with nature, and recharge energy. What you do basically in a Ryokan (traditional Japanese style hotel) is to immerse yourself in the spring waters (indoor or outdoor) while viewing nature; eat traditional kaiseki cuisine (which is a real feast for the eyes) based on local products and delicacies that can be served at your room or dining area; and just relax; pure bliss! There are Ryokans everywhere in Japan. Each destination has hot springs with different mineral properties. Among the most popular hot springs destinations is Hakone due to its proximity to Tokyo (90 minutes by bullet train), and for its view to Mount Fuji, Lake Ashi, and many art museums around.
Discover the old and the new in Tokyo. Many would agree that one of the exciting aspects of Tokyo, is that you can find the very old and the very new coexisting in one same city. Must visits are: Sensoji Temple in Asakusa; Old Town of Yanaka; Tokyo Edo Museum; Aoyama-Omotesando-Harajuku shopping area; Tokyo Station-Marunouchi-Ginza shopping area; the new Toyosu Fish Market; Mori Building Digital Art Museum and the Yayoi Kusama Museum. Must experience: Kabuki Theatre at Kabukiza and watch a Sumo wrestlers tournament. You can consult sites in English for current events, exhibitions and recommendations such as: https://metropolisjapan.com/ and https://www.timeout.com/tokyo.
Visit Kyoto. The ancient former capital of Kyoto is a MUST. The ideal way to get there is by bullet train (don't forget to buy a bento box in the train station). Currently the cultural capital of Japan, it concentrates the most important temples and shrines in the country. Don't miss visiting temples such as Kiyomizudera, Kinkakuji (golden temple), and Ginkakuji (silver temple); stroll along Higashiyama alley; wonder at night along Pontocho Lane; get lost along the torii gates of Fushiminari Shrine; clear your mind in the zen garden of Ryoanji Temple; wonder in the moss garden of Kokedera Temple; walk through the Philosopher´s Path; and sip green match tea with traditional sweet delicacies in the many of the tea houses in between. We recommend to enjoy the route of temples and shrines by bike; many hotels provide or rent them.
Cherry blossom picnic or “Hanami” (blossoms viewing). After a long and cold winter, the beginning of spring is announced by the cherry trees blossoming and is very heart-warming. After living some winters and years in Japan, you will understand why the cherry blossoms are so anticipated by the Japanese and why they make such a fuss. There are many great spots in Tokyo to view the blossoms which only last for two weeks at most. The most traditional way to enjoy this season is by picnicking or doing “hanami” under the cherry blossoms during the day and/or night. Be aware that to get a spot in popular areas, such as around the Imperial Gardens, it requires an early arrival to reserve a space by placing picnic mats.
Shopping in Japanese antique flea markets. One of the most exciting activities that we have adopted since living in Japan is to explore antique flea markets. Our favorite is the Oedo Antique Market, the largest outdoor flea market in the country, that takes place at the Tokyo International Forum in central Tokyo every other weekend (schedules vary due to weather and season https://www.antique-market.jp/english/). Price and quality range varies; there is something for everyone: pottery, second hand kimonos, fabrics, Kabuki theatre masks, Edo era furnitures, etc. One of our favorite finds is a big vintage maneki cat which used to be part of a sushi shop that we purchased for $10 USD that welcomes guests at the entrance of our home.
Karaoke. Though at first people can find it kind of bizarre to enter a Japanese karaoke which are basically halls of tiny rooms which you rent by the hour, order snacks and drinks, and just sing with company or with none, there is a high possibility that it may become one of your major new hobbies. Many karaoke places, especially in big cities, have a decent catalogue of songs in English, even in other languages such as Spanish, Chinese, and Korean. Tip: karaoke will help you bond with Japanese colleagues and new friends.
Sushi is excellent; always fresh no matter if it is from the convenience store, a kaiten sushi (conveyor belt restaurant) or a high end specialty restaurant.
Matcha green tea. You can enjoy it hot or iced as a beverage, enjoy it with traditional wagashi sweets which vary according to the season, and also in many other forms such as roll cake, ice-cream, candies, etc.
Sake. The variety of this Japanese rice wine is huge and comes from different regions of Japan. You can taste it little by little hot or cold, ideally accompanied with small “tapas style” Japanese dishes. Though you can find well established big brands, small artisanal young makers are offering interesting alternatives to taste it alone or mixed in cocktails like “saketinis”. There are many sake festivals taking place in many cities during the year, being great opportunities to learn more about sake culture.
Whisky. Though Japan is traditionally best known for its sake and shochu, the country has been making whisky since 1923 and has been gaining international attention in the last years, especially since the Nikka's 10 Year Yoichi whisky was considered by “Whisky Magazine” as its “Best of the Best” in 2001, and the Suntory's Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 was named the world's best whisky by Jim Murray's Whisky Bible in 2015. If you like whisky, it is very recommendable to visit the different whisky distilleries located mainly in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Major brands are Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki. Tip: These brands are available in most of the liquor stores in Japan or in duty free stores, and have proved to be great special gifts from Japan.
Kakigori shaved ice, the best! Super fluffy, like eating a sweet cloud. A must during summer. (See photo)
Medicines. Bring your own medical cabinet, especially if you are used to certain over the counter meds because Japanese medicines tend to be too mild for foreigners. (Just make sure that the over the counter medicines are allowed in Japan, and be very careful of what prescription drugs you bring with you).
Shoes, especially if your size is 28 cm and over. My husband's shoe size is usually between 29 cm and 30 cm, and he has faced difficulty to find these sizes in Japan. Many brands (even foreign brands) and establishments usually only carry sizes up to 27-28 cms.
Mobile phone. Unless you receive a Japanese mobile phone upon your arrival from work or someone you already know in Japan, it might be more convenient to bring your unlocked foreign mobile phone because it can be a real pain to hire a mobile phone service as a foreigner with still no official Japanese ID, no official address and no bank account in Japan. Some major mobile carriers have started having English speaking personnel to help setting up contracts, but be prepared to wait a few hours to get your Japanese phone.
Deodorants and Anti-perspirants. You may be surprised that though summer in Japan tends to be very hot, humid and sticky, it is very difficult to find anti-perspirants. Those deodorants available in regular Japanese supermarkets are in roll-on presentation only, and are not necessarily available all year round. (The undershirts in Japan are light-years ahead of most countries, consider investing in some during the hot muggy months).
Avoid “key money”. Many rental contracts ask for an extra payment equivalent to one month rent fee as a symbolic “appreciation to the land owner” known as “key money”, besides the payment of regular requirements such as security deposits, some months rental fees in advance, one month rent commission for the real state agency (direct deal with landowners is almost nonexistent in Japan) and other services (such as fire insurance, guarantor services, etc.) Additionally, many contracts requires the payment of one month rent additional fee to renovate the contract every two years. Though this renovation fee is almost non negotiable, the “key money” many times is.
Simplify and embrace minimalism. Space in Japan, but especially in Tokyo, is very limited. When looking for properties, you will be surprised that a living, dinning, one bathroom, and two bedroom fits in a very tiny space. We moved to Tokyo after living in the US for 5 years, and we needed to get rid of almost 70% of our things, mostly furniture. Take in consideration that usually, homes in Japan only have one bathroom for the whole family, even if the property has two/three bedrooms. When renting, many apartments do not let you make holes in the wall to hang paintings for different reasons (high cost to repair the wall or security in case of earthquakes).
Gifts or “Omiyage”. The culture of “bringing gifs” to relatives, friends and work colleagues when returning from domestic or international personal or work trips is very entrenched in Japanese mentality. Usually these gifts are local delicacies such as sweets or snacks. Especially by travelling inside Japan, you will find them in airports, train stations, and touristic spots; boxes with local delicacies conveniently individually wrapped in a box for “omiyage” purposes. Many Japanese acquaintances or colleagues may not expect to receive “omiyages” because you are a foreigner, but if you do it, they will appreciate it very much and will give you “extra points”.
English. Not everybody speaks English as you may expect from the third largest economy in the world or a cosmopolitan city like Tokyo. This can be frustrating or isolating when living in Japan. Good news is that, though still insufficient, resources in English are growing. For example you can shop on Amazon Japan in English and some service companies offer phone customer service in English. These improvements are more evident in the tourism industry which is preparing to receive an increasing number of international visitors before, during and after the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Earthquakes are a constant in Japan, and the menace of major earthquakes is always high. Awareness and preparation are essential. Be sure to register yourself and family members at your Embassy in Japan for any emergency, and approach your residential municipality or district office to receive information in English regarding emergency phone numbers, evacuation maps and shelters. Always have prepared at home/office helmets, flashlights, water, long lasting food, and an emergency backpack with essential documents (such as Passports), cash, blankets, medicines, and essentials for babies.
Security, though there many great things in Japan that can make it a fascinating and interesting place to live, what we appreciate very much in our daily life is how secure Japan is, even in a crowded city like Tokyo. It is not rare to see elementary school children walking and taking public transport by themselves back and forth from school or staying alone at home after school while parents are still at work. This has been a blessing, specially when starting a family.
Thanks so much for the glimpse into Japan. If anyone decides to take a trip after reading this, be sure to send me an Omiyage! Haha
In Love & Travel
Guest Posts From Diplo-families Worldwide
What is life like all over the globe? This area is a window into the lives of diplomats and their families. These interviews serve as mini crash courses in expat living worldwide. 7 salient notes about expat life in a given location. Enjoy!