An expat guide to living in Tokyo Japan
Tokyo, the capital and the heart of Japan, is ranked as the 11th most expensive city for expatriates.
Is Tokyo an excellent place to live as an expat? What it’s like to live in Tokyo?
In this Expat Interview, Lena, an expat living in Tokyo, shares about her life in Tokyo from the cost of living in Tokyo, moving to Tokyo, being a foreigner in Japan, and more!
This article is useful for people interested in living in Japan and an excellent read for those who plan to visit Japan.
Tokyo – The heart of Japan
Tokyo is located on the main island Honshu and has more than 13 million people living in the greater Tokyo area.
It is the center of business, the seat of government, and the Emperor of Japan.
Tokyo was ranked as the “Best overall experience” on TripAdvisor World City Survey. In Tokyo, you can find everything your heart desires.
Let’s start our interview to know more about expat life in Tokyo.
1. Why did you move to Tokyo?
I studied Japanese at university and wanted to use Japanese for my first job, so I was thrilled and excited when I found a job at a Japanese company in Germany.
The best part was that I would be sent to Japan right away for one year to undergo training at the headquarters. That was in March 2015.
Like most prominent companies, the headquarter of my IT consulting company was in Tokyo, so Tokyo is where I have been living since.
2. How to prepare for moving to Tokyo?
This time was not my first move to Japan, so there wasn’t much to prepare mentally anymore, as I already knew what I was getting myself into.
I also had the support of my company, which prepared my apartment and visa, so it was all effortless for me to make a move from Germany to Japan.
I only had to pack my bags and hop on a flight. Upon arrival in Tokyo, I got the key to a fully furnished apartment. I started working there the next day.
3. Cost of living in Tokyo, Japan
Accommodation is the most expensive part of life in Tokyo. I live in a 40 square meter apartment with my boyfriend, and we pay 180.000 Yen per month.
The apartment is conveniently located in the city center 1-minute walk from the closest station. This is what makes it so expensive.
But even if you want to live in a 20 square meter one-room apartment with a walking distance of about 10 minutes to the station, you will pay roughly 80.000 Yen.
Food can be cheap or expensive, depending on your preferences. It can be pretty expensive if you want to cook yourself and love cooking with fresh vegetables.
If you are okay with eating convenience store Bento (a Japanese home-packed meal), a meal will cost you roughly 500 Yen.
Many Japanese fast-food restaurants or small shops sell set meals at around 800 to 1000 Yen.
c) Transportation in Tokyo
Transportation to and from the company is covered in full by the company.
It is a big plus. It doesn’t make sense to own a car in Tokyo if you aren’t super-wealthy, so most people use trains and the metro to get around.
It is very convenient and also not too expensive. The price depends on the distance, but you roughly pay 200 Yen wherever you want to go within Tokyo.
d) Japanese tax
Taxes are way cheaper than in Europe. It goes for the consumption tax (8%) but also for social security and income tax (20-30%).
4. How to deal with difficulties when living in Japan?
As I mentioned above, this was not the first time I moved to Japan. I lived in Japan before as a student when I was 20 years old.
I attended the Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka for ten months. Surprisingly, I didn’t have any difficulties moving to Japan both times.
Of course, some paperwork is needed to be done, such as registration at the city office. However, it is not a huge challenge, even without speaking Japanese.
Culture shock is something else I didn’t experience. It probably has to do with the expectations that one has before living in a new country.
I had visited Japan before for a short period, living with a host family. I also heard many stories from other people who had studied in Japan before me.
5. Discrimination in Japan: Being a foreigner in Japan
No matter how long you live in Japan, you will never be Japanese. Japanese people will never see you like Japanese.
It is something a foreigner should know and understand before coming to Japan to avoid disappointment. It means the Japanese treat you differently.
They will comment on how good your Japanese is or your skills with chopsticks and other superficial comments. It can get annoying after a while, but you should better get used to it fast, say thank you, and smile.
Sometimes when I am out with my Japanese boyfriend, people talk to him even when I ask a question in Japanese. They will answer him.
I find this weird and sometimes a little offensive, but it is not something I get worked up about. The same goes for people answering me in English even though I talk to them in Japanese.
6. What do you like about Tokyo?
Tokyo is a city that has every comfort you could ever wish for.
Not only is Japanese food delicious, but you will be able to find food from all over the world here, which will help with occasional homesickness and food cravings.
As far as amusement goes, Tokyo has something to offer for everyone. There are Karaoke and bars, world-class cinemas, and a game center where you can play darts or practice your bowling skills.
Then, of course, there are amusement parks and other attractions in Tokyo like the Tokyo Tower, Sky Tree, and of course, all the famous tourist areas that are worth exploring.
If you like shopping, you can do that in the many shopping centers, department stores, and brand shops everywhere around Tokyo. It is a large city with something for every taste.
7. Are there any bad things about Tokyo?
There are multiple things that one can complain about.
Due to the living cost, if you don’t have a well-paying job, you might not be able to afford a comfortable place in the city center and have to commute to work for an hour or more.
The commute can be stressful because the trains are packed with people, especially in the morning before 9 a.m., when everyone is on their way to work.
The trains are crowded, and many areas around Tokyo that you might be interested in visiting during the weekends are always busy with tourists and locals alike. If you don’t like crowds living in Tokyo can be pretty stressful.
8. Where do you recommend visiting in Tokyo?
I would visit Shibuya to see the scramble crossing at night. The best place to see it is at Shibuya Starbucks across the street from the station. Some people prefer wandering Yoyogi Park and Harajuku areas.
Otherwise, you can go window-shopping in Omotesando, where all the world-famous brands have their shops.
A visit to Asakusa with its souvenir stalls leading to the Sensoji Temple is an excellent idea for spending time in Tokyo too!
9. How to make friends in Japan?
I made friends with some of my colleagues, which was quite easy, and I imagine depending on where you work and how open you are, it should be possible for anyone to do that.
Making friends with Japanese outside of work can be trickier.
I suggest joining some activities to meet Japanese people like sports circles.
If you are looking to meet foreigners or Japanese interested in meeting foreigners, you could also take advantage of Couchsurfing events held once a week.
10. Do you hang out with locals or foreigners, mostly in Tokyo?
I mostly spend time with my Japanese boyfriend, Taka, whom I met at work. I see some Japanese colleagues for Karaoke on some weekends and other friends for some shopping.
My German friends in Japan are people I have already known before coming to Japan.
I haven’t made new close foreign friends since coming here, but I guess this depends on how open you are and how much you go out.
11. Where to hang out with friends in Tokyo?
I love going to Karaoke with my friends. Besides that, I love to meet my friends at different places to see other things each time. There is not one place as Tokyo has so many exciting places.
12. A memorable experience in Tokyo
For the first year around Christmas, my boyfriend and I visited the Tokyo Dome illumination, one of the nicer ones around Tokyo (there are many nice ones).
We walked around and also took a ride on the Ferris wheel to have a spectacular view of the city at night time.
It was super romantic and beautiful to see the city in this different way. It makes one realize how small we all are and how big the city is. It stretches out in all directions without end in sight.
13. Did you change your perspective after living in Tokyo?
I always knew it was a hectic and crowded city. It hasn’t changed. But I think I have changed with the city. I got used to the crowds, although I still avoid them as much as I can.
I am relaxed in overcrowded trains, and even though I don’t like it at all, I will occasionally stand in line to eat at a restaurant.
14. What are your advice and tips for moving/ living in Tokyo?
The biggest challenge of living in Japan is gaining a work visa. You are good to go when you manage to get one through a company.
I imagine it is very hard living in Tokyo without speaking the language to a certain degree, so I would recommend learning Japanese in advance or attending a language school while you are in Tokyo.
Moving to Tokyo can be expensive because you have to pay a lot of money when renting a place, so make sure you have enough savings. Something like five times the monthly rent + money for buying furniture.
15. Would you recommend others to live in Tokyo?
I would recommend it to people who like living in a big metropolis with many people. I wouldn’t recommend it if you love quiet and nature.
These people won’t be happy here. I also have to say that it isn’t easy for vegetarians to live here.
Almost all Japanese food is made with some animal ingredients, and vegetarian restaurants are view and expensive. Cooking for yourself is, of course, an option but can be quite expensive as well.
16. What have you learned from living abroad?
I’ve learned that people who only live in one city or one country miss out on so many things the world has to offer.
Living in another country teaches perspective about other people’s lives and cultures. Also, I’ve learned that people have different styles of thinking and working.
So, my way is not necessarily the only way and not always in the right direction. It taught me to be open to other ideas and be more curious about food.
Many people who want to live in Japan and especially Tokyo have this image of a dream country that they have learned from the media, especially anime and manga.
Japan is not like that. Japan has its bad sides like any other country in the world. They might do a better job of hiding these sides from the eyes of the outside world, but Japan also has problems, and it is not some dreamland.
I would like everyone thinking about moving here to keep this in mind so they won’t be disappointed.
More about Lena
Lena is a passionate traveler and has been in love with Japanese culture and food for a long time. She has made Tokyo her home, where she has been living and working for almost three years.
Even though she is planning a trip around the world this year to see more of this beautiful planet, Japan is still one of her favorite places in the world, and she is looking forward to coming back here when her trip is over.
You can find her travel adventures of Japan and other countries on her blog, The Social Travel Experiment, and her social channels: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
The opinions expressed here by Expatolife columnists are their own, not those of Expatolife.
This was fascinating because I always like to hear about how people adjust to living in other countries. Tokyo sounds very much like New York to me, and I think it would be a challenging place to move to unless you were already used to that kind of lifestyle. I had no idea Tokyo would be a difficult city for vegetarians.
Thanks for sharing your opinion :)
Such an interesting article! Japan is a place I’m dying to visit, but I’m sure the experience is completely different as an expat. I guess you should always develop a connection with the place in order to feel at home. Also, I liked quite a lot that Lena managed to make so many Japanese friends, that speaks so well of a country!
I hope that you can visit Japan one day :)
I’ve wanted to visit Japan for some time now. While the interview would definitely be much more useful to expats planning to move to Japan, I think some suggestions, especially on things to do, traffic and so on, would be equally worthwhile for short term visitors. I like the Q& A format which ensures that necessary details are not missed.
Thanks, Denny. I’m glad that you like the interview.
What an interesting piece! I must admit, I have never felt such a desire to travel to more Eastern parts of the world, but Lena’s interview and the photos of the post really made me reconsider my position :) I wouldn’t directly say that I would move there, but .. I have to visit it asap :) anyway, the post is very helpful for those who are seeking to move to Japan and it contains a lot of practical information, which I always find really useful!
I hope you can visit Japan soon :)
What a fun read! I have many Japanese friends living here in Switzerland and we ourself have been to Japan using Couchsurfing for almost two months. I love Japan but I am having a hard time picturing myself living there for a long time. I know the Swiss husbands of my Japanese friends would love to move there but strangely their Japanese wifes dont want to! I think definitely Japan is one of the countries where it is very important to know the language if one wants to enjoy living there.
Thank you, Dada, for sharing :)
It must be so interesting to live in Japan. I’ve not yet visited but would love to go. I think the language differences are the same in every country. Back in Italy, some people try to speak English to me, even though I’m speaking in Italian! It’s something you just get used to. Good to know the taxes are lower than here in Europe!
I think you’ll love visiting Tokyo.
The image I’ve had about Tokio before is the same one you describe here… Hectic place often crowded. I had no idea it was that expensive for expats too, I thought it was only for us tourists. Thanks for sharing!
I’m glad that you like the interview.
This was so interesting to read! I am a country girl at heart, so I could never live in Tokyo, but I absolutely loved reading about what it’s like to live there. I love Lena’s honest take on the city and country – she obviously loves Japan but is also realistic about what it offers people. It’s high on my list of places to visit, and I really can’t wait to go. Interesting that it costs more to cook for yourself than it is to eat out!
Thanks a lot for sharing your opinion.
Interesting, if you cook food at home, it works out costlier in Japan, usually it is the other way round in rest of the world. All said and done, I would love to explore Tokyo and Japan sometime.
Tokyo is a beautiful city to explore.
Thanks for the article !
Five times the rent to move in is not really true anymore (been here for 15 tears). I would say it’s the maximum you will have to upfront – if you are not lucky. Language skills are also a plus. Distance from the closest station is a big criteria. Anything further than 10 minutes will be cheaper (it’s not “real” 10 minutes, they just draw a straight line on a map).
You can find rent as cheap as 50-60 man if you are ok to live in a small space, in a non popular area (forget ebisu or nakameguro for example).
About discrimination : it’s totally ok for a landlord to refuse a lease because you are foreigner. I had many real estate folks talk to the landlord (or their “titular” real estate agency) on the phone on front of me asking if “gaikokujin were ok”. If your company is not helping you for your place be ready to hear that a lot (or be shown shitty places). The good thing is that real estate in Tokyo is a very competitive industry, and there are A LOT of empty places. If you don’t like your real estate agent, just pick another one. They will also pressure you to sign real quixk, you absolutely don’t have to do this, take your time (if you can), you’ll find something.
Last thing is about making friends. I think that if you don’t speak japanese, you can really easily make foreign friends. If you do speak japanese… it depends on the industry you are in. IT folks, people in fashion, tourism obv tend to be more open. But after 15 years I can count my japanese friends on one single hand. I think it might be easier in the countryside (if you speak the language). Got many friends from all over the world though!
Then now there is covid and social distancing. Many small places closed. Karaoke would probably be the last place I’d like to go now. Not enough terrasses in this city hehe ?