One of my favourite things about house-sitting is the chance to live a slice of local life. I discover things I’d never have learned by simply traveling through as a tourist. As such, here are 16 random observations about Tokyo that I gleaned from two months of house-sitting, to give you a taste of what it’s like to live in Tokyo, along with some “local tips” to make your own life easier if you visit.
This post was originally published in 2017. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
During my time in Tokyo, I ran the full gambit of emotions.
I enjoyed the change of pace from the previous three years of living in South America, doing “shaman things”. I loved the friendly Asian culture, and discovering yet another new place, and figuring out how to live (and shop) there. I was blown away by the bizarre and outlandish things that make Tokyo (and to a larger extent, Japan) shine.
And sushi. I ate lots…and lots….and lots…of sushi.
I was also confused (and at times disgusted) by certain aspects of the culture. I was bamboozled by the language. And I was overwhelmed by the number of people.
I recently published a post about Why I Could Never Live in Japan. I didn’t mince my words in making some harsh observations about the Japanese culture that for me, are deal-breakers in choosing Japan as a place to live “forever”.
A number of readers observed that it wasn’t the full picture. They’re right. That post was never meant to give a complete analysis of what it’s like to live in Japan. So today, I’d like to share with you some random observations about Tokyo that hopefully, will give you a slightly more well-rounded sense of why people might choose to – or not to – live in Tokyo.
16 Random Observations About Tokyo
I’ve done these “random observations” articles in a variety of countries (like Switzerland and Grenada for example), and they’re always a hit. Let’s see what you think of these 16 random observations about Tokyo.
Transportation is Expensive, but Effective
…to which you might reply “DUH, Nora! It’s Tokyo!”. Hear me out. I know things like taxis are murderously expensive (I’d heard years ago from afar, that it costs something like $400 to take a taxi from the airport to the city).
But even the trains; the trains that everybody takes every day to and from work, shopping, and play; they’re really expensive. Even more expensive than Switzerland – and Swiss trains aren’t cheap. You pay for the train according the line you ride on, and the distance you travel. So every trip is different. I spent an average of $25 per week on trains, and I only went out a few days a week. It ain’t cheap.
But there’s good news: since public transportation is the way most people in Tokyo get around, it’s everywhere, and everything generally runs on time. Tokyo is one well-connected efficient city.
Local Tip: If you’re coming to Tokyo, get a Suica card right away. You can get them from vending machines at any train station. They cost 500yen (a deposit that’s refunded to you when you turn in the card, minus an admin fee). Charge up the card with cash at any of the same vending machines. When you ride the trains, you simply swipe your Suica card when you enter and leave each train line.
Fruit is Obscene
The cost of fruit makes trains looks cheap. My breakfast of choice in general is a homemade fruit smoothie; packed with whatever is plentiful and locally available wherever I’m living. In Tokyo not only is the variety of selection a little unimpressive, but the price of what’s on offer is ridiculous. $4 for a peach (in season no less!). The same for a bunch of grapes the size of your fist. $10 for a cantaloupe.
And this is just your average fruit. Japan has a culture of gift-giving, and it’s customary to give fruit as presents. But not just any $10 cantaloupe – no, that would be an insult. Instead, you buy beautifully wrapped, obscenely-priced prizes. $50 for a mango. $140 for a melon. Yes, $140 for a melon. I watched a hilarious video made by some Canadian vloggers living in Tokyo, comparing your average $10 melon to a $140 melon – well worth a watch and a laugh.
So needless to say, I didn’t have my usual morning fruit smoothies. I did however, indulge in the cheapest fruit available: $1 grapefruits, kiwis, and mini-nectarines.
For the record, fresh vegetables are cheaper on the whole, but it depends on what you buy.
Local Tip: If you’re a fruitarian, stay far, far away from Tokyo, and probably Japan on the whole.
But Sushi is Cheap
Oh, glorious sushi. Tokyo has been financially redeemed! It’s available everywhere, even in convenience stores. For less than $4 you can get a tuna roll that would fetch double the price in a North American grocery store, and the quality is even better. I regularly stuffed myself to oblivion at sushi train restaurants for under $10 (which was even cheaper and better quality than supermarket sushi). A beautiful bowl of donburi (sushi fish on rice) is regularly around $8. Now, as with many things in Tokyo, the sky is the limit for price; the more you want to spend, the better the quality of sushi you’ll receive.
Local Tip: Find a sushi train restaurant near you, ideally of the MySushiro chain. Although sushi-snobs will tell you it’s on the lower end of the quality scale, my practiced palate didn’t mind. The beauty of sushi train restaurants is that you eat only what you like; and at 100yen ($1) for a plate with two pieces of nigiri, you can’t go wrong. Your bill is tallied by the number of plates on your table at the end of the meal. I was the only non-local at my regular sushi train restaurant, so it’s not just a “touristy” thing.
It’s Super Safe
Considering Tokyo is the most populated metropolitan area in the world, it’s ridiculously safe. I’m writing this in a coffee shop while waiting for my airport bus. I left my luggage and drink unsupervised at my table while I went to the bathroom; not something I’ve ever before considered. As a solo female traveler, I can walk around at night in most areas of Tokyo without worrying. (See also: Traveling Alone as a Woman)
Bicycles are the preferred mode of short-term transportation in Tokyo, especially in the suburbs. Most stores and restaurants have designated (at times extensive) bicycle parking. And although most bicycles are inexpensive cruisers, people don’t generally lock them up. Imagine that.
A reader who used to live in Tokyo wrote this to me: “After the big earthquake there was NO crime; imagine that scenario happening in the U.S., or other places.” Wow! No looting. No crimes of opportunity. I actually can’t imagine that happening in most countries.
Vegetarians: Good Luck
I was warned before arriving that if I were vegetarian (I’m not) I’d have a hard time in Japan. Not only is the cost of fresh produce a bit prohibitive, but keeping a vegetarian diet while eating at restaurants is challenging. Basic staples of Japanese cuisine seem to be fish or meat, and rice or noodles. Vegetables are generally garnish at best.
Local Tip: Shop for what’s seasonally available at major grocery stores, which will have the most variety. For me, it was lots of bok choy, mung bean sprouts, cabbage, carrots, onions, some mushrooms, and the occasional $2 shrub of broccoli.
Medical Care is Good, Cheap, and Fast
I can’t attest to this personally, but more than one American expat pointed this out to me emphatically as an exemplary quality of Tokyo (and Japan). Apparently getting medical insurance is a cinch, and it’s incredibly cost effective. Should you need to actually use the medical system, that too, is efficient and effective.
Buddhism and Shintoism Coexist Peacefully
When I toured Tsukiji Fish Market with a local, we ran across a Shinto shrine. She shared with me a brief history of how Buddhism and Shintoism came to coexist in Japan, and although it wasn’t always peaceful, it now is. Today, you’ll often see Buddhist and Shinto shrines right next to one another in Tokyo. According to an expat reader of mine, together they “lend an air of the love of nature and doing good deeds. Streets are clean, and the countryside is beautiful.”
Garbage Separation is an Art
There is a distinct lack of garbage cans on the streets of Tokyo. If you have something to throw away, you take it home with you and figure out how to get rid of it. There’s a book about how to separate garbage in Tokyo. There are different pick-up days for wet/burnable/organic waste, plastic wrappers, plastic bottles, cans, glass bottles, milk cartons, cardboard, clothes, and more. And don’t screw up, because they won’t take your garbage (it’s in colour-coded transparent bags so you can’t sneak stuff in that doesn’t belong there). I thought the garbage separation process was finicky in Switzerland; Tokyo takes it to a whole new level.
Interestingly, this attention to separation of garbage (and lack of ability to throw things away while you’re out and about) makes for a very clean urban landscape. I didn’t see any litter in Tokyo – the world’s most populated metropolitan area; that’s impressive.
Local Tip: Get somebody to walk you through the garbage separation process; the “garbage guidebook” is all in Japanese, and although there are pictures, it’s not the easiest to understand.
Packaging is Over the Top
For a city so attentive to the separation and recycling of waste, I was mildly horrified at the amount of packaging. First of all, because of the work culture (see below), people don’t often have time to cook their own meals, so buying prepared meals at stores on the way home is common. Almost a quarter of every grocery store is dedicated to such prepared food. Every prepared meal comes in its own plastic container, with a plastic pack (or two, or three) of accompanying sauce. That’s a lot of plastic.
Or maybe you want to get some ramen at the supermarket to make at home. Each ingredient is separately packaged in its own plastic wrap for you to assemble. Maybe you want some cookies or snacks; within the double-wrapped package are more individually wrapped goodies.
And it’s not just food; I bought some underwear. Each pair came double wrapped and hermetically sealed in heavy-duty plastic, with a piece of cardboard in the middle.
I guess all this packaging is a testament to the general sterility and cleanliness of the culture. Which in a place as packed as Tokyo, serves a purpose in not enabling the spread of germs and disease. But when it came to separation of garbage, the most garbage I produced – by far – was plastics. And I don’t honestly know if these plastics are actually recycled at the end of the day.
Local Tip: Be careful what you buy; you can reduce waste by choosing products that aren’t over-packaged. And as tasty as that little plastic bento box to go looks, perhaps you don’t need it.
Toilets are Funny
I’d heard about Japan’s confusing toilets from afar. So the first thing I did on landing in Tokyo was race to the airport washroom to take a picture of the “dashboard” of my toilet. There are buttons for everything, from ambient music (to drown out the sounds of your ablutions), to bidet spray, to “lady” spray, butt dryers, seat heating, and more. Every toilet is different, so make a point of visiting the bathroom in as many places as possible if such things amuse you as much as they did me.
Also, some toilets are squat toilets; a commonality in Asia. They lack dashboard functions though.
Local Tip: Funny story: some expat friends warned me to sit firmly on the toilet when I dare to try these buttons. They had a visiting friend who emerged from a public toilet soaked. He was standing in front of the toilet when he started pushing buttons to see what they did, and ended up learning – first hand – the power of the various spray functions. Don’t be him.
A Culture of Overwork
I discuss this in detail in my post about Why I Could Never Live in Japan. I find Japan’s working culture to be disturbing, with overtime expected and changing jobs frowned upon. There’s a uniquely Japanese term for working yourself to death. There’s also a uniquely Japanese term for leaving work on time, and it’s akin to a miracle. After a highly-publicized suicide that highlighted Japan’s culture of overworking its employees, they implemented “Premium Fridays”, allowing people to leave work early, at 4:30pm. Most people continue to stay late. Although this culture of overwork is likely exaggerated in Tokyo, from what I understand it’s prevalent throughout Japan.
Local Tip: If you’re an expat (or even a local) looking to land a job in Tokyo/Japan, it’s best to work for international companies; they adhere more to international standards and don’t expect the same kinds of hours from their employees.
Stability (of Job AND Home) is Revered
Changing jobs within your first three years out of school is considered taboo, because it labels you an unreliable employee. Moving house too often is also a no-no. Actually it’s financial suicide to move too often; every time you sign a new lease it’s an expensive proposition with costly “gifts” and “deposits” owed to the landlord, much of which you don’t actually ever get back. In fact, there’s a uniquely Japanese term for becoming poor because you move too often.
Local Tip: Many expats who come to live in Japan (the most common of whom are English Teachers) often have housing arranged for them. The school has leases on a number of places to live, so when you move in you’re sub-leasing from them, thus not having to pay these “gifts” and “deposits” to the landlord. As I understand it, if you’re not working for a company that arranges your accommodation, you can find a place to live through a similar company that acts as a landlord and subleases their place to you, again saving all the move-in fees.
Again in my post about why I could never live in Japan, I indulge in a little rant about how tattoos are taboo in Japan, and how it meant I refused to go to any onsen/sento (public hot springs/baths) for fear of being kicked out or ostracized.
Although this social policy is apparently relaxing, to my eyes it’s not quickly enough, given the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. If anything, I guess it will just be mass chaos during the Olympics where anything goes, then Tokyo will return to its antiquated ways.
What shocked me the most was when I went to the Robot Restaurant (more on that soon) – a wonderfully gaudy and touristy place. But right there on the ticket, they stated clearly that people with visible tattoos would not be allowed in.
Local Tip: If you can, dress in a way that covers your tattoos. Most people dress pretty conservatively in Japan anyway (eg: spaghetti straps and flip flops are uncommon). And if you can’t (or won’t) cover up your tattoos, wear ’em loud and proud. Just don’t expect to blend in, and don’t be surprised if you get the odd dirty look.
It’s a Fashion Show
Every single time I left the house, I was impressed by how well put together people in Tokyo are. The people-watching opportunities are everywhere; Tokyo is not just about Harajuku Girls and cosplay either. There are many styles on the street, many of them understated and classy. Other styles are fresh and flirty. Both men and women are consistently well-coordinated and accessorized. I guess all this “girl power” stuff (I didn’t think much of the Japanese interpretation of “girl power”) pays off in producing a generally pretty population.
People are Honest
I never worried about being scammed in Tokyo. I guess honesty goes hand-in-hand with the general level of safety. In many cultures, a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language and is a total fish out of water (as I was in Tokyo) is a prime target for scams, large and small. Although I guess I’ll never know if I got scammed, I can pretty safely assume I didn’t.
It’s All About Your Blood Type
“What is your blood type?” is a common first-date question in Japan, and apparently much of Asia. Compatibility and personality profiling is judged not by your astrological sign or numerology, but rather, your blood type. It’s a big thing. There are some Japanese traditional festivals that involve buying little plaques and writing your wish on them. Instead of writing in your own wish, you can actually search pre-made plaques by blood type and find a wish that suits your (stereotypical blood type) desires.
Local Tip: Uh. I’m lost for words. Don’t date in Japan unless you know your blood type, I guess??
Random Observations About Tokyo: Conclusion
Before arriving to Japan, I expected Tokyo to be over the top. And it was. Years ago, after a friend showed me a crazy anime movie set in Tokyo, I coined a phrase that became a silly go-to among my group of friends: “Tokyo is years ahead of us in nonsense”.
And while Tokyo is certainly ahead of western countries on many levels (not the least of which is technologically), it’s also steeped in what we in the west would call antiquated ways. This juxtaposition of futuristic and antiquated is one of the most culturally bizarre phenomenons I’ve ever experienced.
Its been a while since I’ve been in Asia; perhaps I forgot how jarring the culture shock can be. This was also my first time in Asia totally solo, which likely exacerbated my feeling like a fish out of water. Cap it off with a transition from Andean mountaintop to Tokyo skyline, and it’s no wonder I suffered a “crisis of dislike” with the place.
But I’m not giving up on Asia (I’m currently settling in Bali for a month or two), nor am I giving up on Japan or Tokyo; in fact I just might return to the same house-sitting gig next summer. Sucker for punishment, or open-minded? We’ll just have to wait and see.
History of Japan: A Short Movie
Shortly after arriving in Japan, I saw this little animated movie, which was simultaneously the most educational and entertaining nine minutes I’ve experienced in recent memory. I highly recommend watching this; I found it culturally and historically enlightening.
Click here to watch this on YouTube
Where to Stay in Tokyo and Japan
Open your wallets to the possibilities of accommodation in Tokyo! It’ll cost you, but the transportation is ridiculously efficient. Have a search to see what’s possible here:
Things to do in Tokyo
There is no end of amazing activities to take part in in Tokyo alone, much less Japan as a whole! Click below to get started in planning your trip to Tokyo.