Future ex-pats, you have been warned.
Japan has been a hot destination for ages and, even now, everyone’s still clamoring over each other to snag a temporary visa. Back in 2016, I was one of those thirsty hopefuls, disembarking at Narita Airport eager to write a chapter in my story that would go something like this: Clumsy Lost In Translation Westerner who doesn’t know Hello Kitty from Pikachu (hopeless, bless him), meets guys with futuristic haircuts who lure him into drag racing (cars, not queens) and is crowned in a glitter-filled ceremony as the Tokyo Drift King and nation’s sweetheart.
As is probably evident, the information I’d garnered beforehand did nothing to set realistic expectations. All the travel guides I’d read and advice from pals who climbed Mount Fuji once contained zero mention of workplace culture or grocery stores. It was all hedgehog cafés, Shibuya Crossing, and geishas.
So, my advice to new ex-pats is to stop scrolling through cherry blossom photos and watching YouTube videos on Tokyo. Here are 10 things that I think will actually benefit you before departure–but just because these were my experiences, doesn’t mean they happen to everyone, and certainly doesn’t mean they’ll actually happen to you. From one ex-pat’s perspective, here are some things I was surprised to learn:
Top Picks for You
Finding a decent apartment is always a challenge, but in Japan you have the added difficulty of finding a rental that will even accept your ex-pat money. Why? Many property owners simply will not rent to foreigners, even in Tokyo. Newcomers are restricted to “foreigner-friendly” buildings, which are generally noisier and worn down. At first, I found this universally accepted rule outrageous, but over time I came to understand that having an English-speaking landlord makes life a million times easier for both parties. I just wish I’d dedicated more time to research instead of hastily joining an eight-person shared house with one bathroom.
Employers Can Be Ruthless About Tardiness
“When you’re early, you’re on time, and when you’re on time, you’re late” is the saying to remember when doing pretty much anything in Japan–my employer’s late policy even involved financial penalty. Now, aside from wanting to be a good employee, I didn’t want deductions to my monthly check (I was living in an eight-person shared house for crying out loud!), so every day, I arrived between 30-60 minutes early.
All was good until an unforeseeable circumstance involving a young girl dressed as a French maid (see image) set me back by 10 minutes. The result…a $100 fine! No excuses. Over two years, I, unfortunately, became a repeat offender (three trains and an hour commute had its moments). Many companies have similar docking systems whereby vacation hours or bonuses are cut instead of monthly pay for every minute of tardiness.
My Boss and I Saw Each Other Naked
Yep, you read that correctly. A regular activity for co-workers to engage in at the end of play is to relax together in an onsen–also known as a traditional hot spring. These geothermal waters carry a plethora of health benefits and all patrons must shower before getting in completely naked (not optional). Some bosses will treat the whole company to an entire weekend of onsen, so expect to get very familiar with a lot of dangly bits at once.
I Needed to Drink More Alcohol Than I Expected
Many people in Japan–both ex-pats and locals–love alcohol. Copious amounts of it. Most socials involve booze even if they are simply karaoke, dinner, or cherry blossom viewing (cherry blossom viewings are not what you think), and being the only teetotaler doesn’t ever sit well. I once was on antibiotics but joined new friends at an izakaya (a bar with shareable food) regardless. Upon arriving, I discovered that I still had to opt-in for the alcoholic happy hour, otherwise nobody could take advantage of it. I grudgingly agreed, paying my share to enjoy two hours of melon soda and orange juice while everybody else got wasted.
I Could Leave Valuables Unattended
Back home in the U.S., you can feel on guard every waking day (I know New Yorkers can relate) but in Japan–where theft is incredibly rare–you can let your guard down and actually trust your fellow citizens. Leaving valuables out in public felt strange at first, but I quickly found it ever so convenient. Need to save a seat at Doutour Coffee? Leave your phone on a chair. Hungry at a co-working space? Leave your laptop and disappear for lunch. Dropped your wallet on the train? No sweat, just get off at the next stop, and station staff will retrieve it for you. Never losing (or having stolen) your valuables is just the most amazing thing ever.
The Unintentional Atkins Diet
After paying for late penalties at work and moving into a slightly nicer apartment, I needed to adjust my eating habits in order to curb spending. However, it wasn’t steaks or shrimp I needed to cut down on–it was fruits and vegetables. In Japan, they are extortionately priced. At my local market, for example, a pack of chicken breast cost less than a head of broccoli, and pork chops cost less than a small box of strawberries!
And let’s talk about bread loaves, which contain up to six slices of bread in them. My local store sold them in packs of three. THREE! That’s not even enough for two sandwiches! If you’re a vegan heading to Japan, prepare to get creative feeding yourself.
On Halloween, Twinning Rules
Here’s how to celebrate Halloween in Japan. Step one, go to Don Quijote (Target on steroids) and buy an outfit in one of four categories: Minions, Mario Kart, Disney, or domestic animal. Step two, find someone who looks similar to you and make them purchase the same costume. Step three, go out to party and let every passerby tell you how adorably kawaii you are, take photos with you, and buy you shots! That’s basically what happened the first time I celebrated Halloween. The following year, I failed to twin, and nobody cared.
Christmas Decor Is a Thing, But Christmas Isn't
Every November 1, the pumpkins come down and are replaced with cotton wool that looks like snow, sparkly tinsel, and Wham! music on loop. It signals the start of my favorite holiday season, and after a blowout Halloween, I couldn’t wait to get my Kelly Clarkson on. Double scoops of stuffing, please! But I was misled. Nobody really celebrates Christmas (though, to be fair, most of the country isn’t Christian). Bring on December 25th and I was saddened that there was no national holiday, no festive cheer, and instead of turkey, it was all about fried chicken. Yes, the only tradition I experienced on Christmas Day in Japan was a KFC bucket.
Anime Porn Is Everywhere
If you aren’t used to seeing cartoon characters in see-thru lingerie, get used to it, because you’ll be seeing a lot of them in Japan. Anime porn is absolutely everywhere. It’s on posters, it’s sold in regular shops like Don Quijote next to children’s toys, it’s plastered on periodicals at convenience stores, and it’s even in libraries! There were times I’d pick up a book with adorable Sailor Moon-type girls on the cover, and realize that inside they were far too busy “mingling” with villains to save the solar system.
“No Bag, Thank You”
Japanese culture includes neatness and hygiene at a more extreme scale than in the U.S., so everything is carefully wrapped in plastic. Everything. When you buy a box of cookies, each cookie is wrapped in plastic. When you buy a banana, it’s wrapped in plastic and put into a plastic bag. When you buy a drink, it’s in a plastic bottle, put in a plastic bag, with a plastic straw that’s wrapped in plastic. To can feel over-the-top. I learned the Japanese phrase for “No bag, thank you” and repeated it at virtually every store interaction, even when I wasn’t offered a bag.