Life in Japan: Year One

Amy and I moved to Tokyo one year ago this August. And in light of that anniversary, I thought I’d reflect on a few aspects of our not-so-new lives here.

Challenges – For a foreigner, Japan can sometimes be a difficult place to live. There is of course the big challenge: a formidable language barrier that can add complexity to even the most routine of tasks – like buying a cup of coffee or consulting a subway map. But then there are other, more nuanced cultural challenges. Like the odd and often mystifying bureaucracy of rules and social politenesses that can make little sense to an outsider. For example, there is the unspoken rule that requires near silence on a morning train but condones the violent, almost mosh-pit like aggressiveness of people smashing their way onto the same packed trains.

Rush hour in the rain, no one’s idea of fun

Good news. Still, in many ways Tokyo is an easy place to live. Many aspects of daily life have been designed to provide maximum benefit at minimum effort. For example, the local convenience store – my closest outlet is just a 90 second walk from my house (or I can go to one 2 minutes away, or another one 3 minutes away or 5 minutes or 7 minutes ad infinitum) – is open 24 hours a day and is stocked with pretty much every conceivable (and not so conceivable) human necessity. From the obvious, like toilet paper and freshly prepared foods – restocked thrice daily – to the not so obvious, like one-use disposable underwear and white, super cheap business dress shirts.  You could easily write an entire blog about the ever changing delights of the Japanese convenience store.


Oh the Japanese convenience store: food, booze and everything else!

Vending machines – But there are other aspects of life in Tokyo that are also designed for maximum ease. Like the ubiquitous, high-tech vending machines that make dehydration in the city a near impossibility. Vending machine locations aren’t limited to just obvious places like an office cafeteria or the train station, but are found almost anywhere in the city – from serene parks to otherwise quiet residential streets. In case I get thirsty and, for whatever reason, can’t manage the 90 second walk to the closest convenience store, no problem – there are two vending machines right around the corner from our apartment.

My favorite local ramen shop requires ordering and payment via a vending machine – a great option for those who – like myself – do not speak Japanese (although written in Kanji, there is a helpful yellow star pasted next to the restaurant’s top recommendation, which I’ve never seen cause to veer from).

Unfortunately, this Sapporo vending machine is not on my street

My days are filled with confusion and misunderstanding. This is to put things lightly. Despite my fairly serious efforts to learn Japanese – both weekly classes and self-study – I evidently have no aptitude for the thing. I still struggle to understand even the most basic of human interactions and the simple prospect of going to the dry cleaner or to get a haircut can induce stress. Even more routine interactions, like a shop clerk asking if I want a bag, can quickly spiral into confusion and misunderstanding.

Business Attire – In Tokyo, the general rule appears to be this: men wear well-tailored, expensive black suits with pressed white shirts and polished shoes; and women, women wear whatever the hell they want.  Parachute pants with 4” wooden sandals – why not? Jeans that look suspiciously like sweat pants up close – no problem. A pillowcase with holes cut out for the head and arms – hey, that’s fashion! Baggy pants are in, and so are black heels with white socks.  Business shorts – a real thing – are perfectly acceptable, as are skirt suits paired with white tennis shoes. In Tokyo, when it comes to women’s fashion, anything goes.

If cash is king, are coins the devil? A too large part of my day is often concerned with the getting and then getting rid of coins. Despite claims of being a technologically advanced society, Japan is rather antiquated when it comes to the country’s reliance on cash. Because the smallest bill is a thousand yen note (equivalent to approximately $10) and the smallest coin is just one yen, an annoying plastic thing worth less than a penny, there are a lot of opportunities to pay for something with a bill and receive a dozen heavy coins as change. I am constantly thinking of where and how I can get rid of my ever expanding pile of change.


Garbage! For such a large city, the streets of Tokyo are remarkably free of litter. This is despite the fact – or maybe in part due to the fact – that the city has virtually no public trash cans. This can make unloading an empty coffee cup or a candy wrapper a quixotic task (hint: try the convenience store).

However, it’s on the home front that the garbage situation really becomes byzantine. There is a large booklet that details the complicated garbage pick-up schedule and even more complicated garbage disposal rules. Special bags are required on Monday’s and Thursdays; boxes and spare paper has to be tied up neatly with string on Fridays; bottles and cans have to be separated and are picked-up every other Tuesday; plastic bottles need to be stripped of labels and are picked up on the opposite Tuesday; etcetera. The rules are frustratingly complex.

This is just page 1!

But here’s the thing, with a few exceptions (read: plastic bottles and cans) none of it really matters. No one cares. I often throw everything into the general, bi-weekly garbage pick-up and hitherto, I have neither been confronted by the garbage authorities nor suffered through a sleepless night of guilt.

Other thoughts  

  • The Japanese culture is an odd mix of contradictions and curiosities. It is a society that acquiesces to public intoxication and ubiquitous “hostess clubs” but remains remarkably safe and, at least where I live, family oriented.
  • Hold the door! Not in Tokyo. People will push the door just hard enough so they can squeeze through – and not one bit more. If you hold the door for someone else, they will look upon you with either confused thanks or outright distrust. 
  • Chivalry. If you are injured or old and infirm, good luck getting a seat on the train. People simply do not give up their seats.  And after working 16 hour days, I can understand why.
  • Fruit in Japan is exceptional and, unlike in the US, most grocery stores only stock fresh, seasonal offerings. But really, some of the prices are downright shocking.
Clockwise from top left: a single $8 white strawberry, a $100 melon, and a bunch of red grapes that cost a shocking $150!

One year – So here is to one year in Japan.  It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s certainly been interesting.