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Quick Tips for getting settled in Tokyo

After arriving in Tokyo, making the trip from the airport to your new home or apartment, and trying to get over the jetlag, the real process of getting settling in and adjusted begins.

What this involves will certainly vary from person to person and family to family, but one thing is bound to be true: the realization of the fact that “we aren’t in Kansas anymore.”  This can be traumatic or exhilarating (or, more likely, both at the same time!), but whichever it is, you will find yourself having to readjust to your new environment and adapt to it.

Below is a short list of some “Do’s” and “Don’ts”, tips for living in Tokyo that should help you get a handle on your surroundings and make the process of mastering life here a bit easier and faster.  This list is in no particular order and is geared more to helping you settle in and build a foundation for your life rather than bare bones essentials needed to set-up house.

DO: get a Suica (JR) or Pasmo (Tokyo Metro) card.  These are re-chargeable IC cards for the train systems and they can now be used interchangeably; that is, you can use a Suica card when riding or transferring to the Tokyo Metro and a PASMO card when getting on a JR rail system.  While there is a JPY 500 deposit needed when buying the card, one of the beauties of these cards is that the correct fare will be deducted from you card automatically, saving you the hassle of having to figure out the fare, or worse yet pay more than you should have.  Additionally, these cards can be used as e-money to purchase products at most convenience stores, kiosks, and some fast food chains.  An additional tip:  if you do not buy either of these cards, but choose to use the regular ticket system, when in doubt of how much the correct fare is, BUY THE CHEAPEST TICKET.  You can always adjust the fare when you are leaving the station that you get off at.  On the other hand, if you overpay, you will not be able to get the difference refunded.

DON’T: count on using traveler’s cheques, Amex offices, or currency exchanges.  Unlike most major cities in Europe, you will not find any currency exchanges on street corners or in heavily trafficked tourist areas.  They simply don’t exist in enough numbers to be relevant.  Likewise, American Express has NO travel offices in all of Tokyo.  Even if you were to bring traveler’s cheques purchased overseas with you, you would not be able to use them anywhere except perhaps the largest department stores.  If you do need to exchange currency or traveler’s cheques, you will be able to do so at most major banks, and will generally get a favorable rate.

DO: carry more cash than you are used to at home.  Cash is still king in Japan, and while credit cards are becoming more widely accepted – most larger stores and almost all department stores will accept them – many smaller shops and especially neighborhood restaurants will not.  Further, until you get a Japanese bank account, locating an ATM that will accept your overseas ATM or debit card will be problematic.  Your best bet will be Citibank, but given the size of Tokyo, their branches are less numerous than one would expect.  Another option is to use the ATMs found at Japan Post branches/offices.  Be aware that operation hours for most ATMs are limited and should you find yourself in need of cash in the wee hours, you may be out of luck.  As mentioned before: carry more cash than you think you may need.

DO: get a bi-lingual Tokyo atlas or map.  One recommendation is the Tokyo City Atlas.  This little book is just the right size to fit in a bag or purse and as it is written in both Japanese and English, anybody you run into on the street will be able to use it and point you in the right direction (you weren’t counting on everybody being able to read English and/or English maps, were you?).  Another option: Kodansha’s Tokyo: A Bilingual Map.  This is a foldout map, which makes it bit more impractical than the Atlas above, but on the other hand, it will allow you to look at Tokyo as a whole and get a better sense of how the city is laid out and connected.

DON’T: worry about getting lost on the train system.  It will happen.  It happens to long-time residents here and it happens to Japanese who have been born and raised in Tokyo.  While it is a hassle, you can usually get yourself sorted out quickly and back on track with a minimum of fuss.  Tokyo Metro’s English webpage has a downloadable subway map (this can be picked up at almost all Metro stations as well) and there is a handy-dandy route planner as well.  JR East’s website is a little less helpful, but offers a rail line and station map in English.  Both Tokyo Metro and JR lines are colored coded and have station names written in English, so this will make navigating the system a bit less problematic.

DO: get your “gaijin card” as soon as you can.  For anybody who will be in Japan for longer than 90 days, regardless of purpose – business or vacation, having a “Gaikokujin Touroku Shoumeisho” (Alien Registration Card) is a legal requirement.  Getting one is not particularly time consuming or troublesome and aside from the legal requirement, having one will make life a lot easier.  They are often required for opening bank accounts and getting a Japanese cell phone, and while in Japan, can be carried in lieu of your passport, thereby allowing you to store your passport in a safe place and not have to worry about losing it.

You will have to register at your local ward office and will need to fill out an application.  The page is in Japanese, but if you click on the PDF links, you will be able to see the front and reverse of the application.  You will need to bring your passport and two photos.  There is no fee for the card itself, but you will have to supply the photos yourself.  These will cost about JPY 700 if you use one of the photo-booths often seen in and around train and subway stations.  By the way, you will probably be using the ward office quite a bit while you are here, so learning where it is and how to get there will make life a bit easier.

DO: open a Japanese bank account.  Even if you are not planning on using it very often and/or will be having your pay deposited in your account at home (if an expat), having a Japanese bank account with sufficient funds in it will give you more options – primarily in the form of having a Japanese ATM.  This will make getting funds in a pinch MUCH easier and if you are working for a Japanese branch of a multi-national, they make well direct deposit your pay (in yen) and so stipulate an account at a Japanese bank.  Note that you will need your Alien Registration Card and may well need an inkan (personal seal) as well.  As a foreigner, the bank may (or may not) allow you to use your signature as proof, but this will depend on the bank.  As a rule, in Japan, even today all legal documents need to be stamped with a registered inkan (more on this in a later post) in order to be valid.  This, and not a signature, is legally binding.  Here is a link with information on opening a bank account from a blog I encountered and that is far better than I could have written: http://onceatraveler.com/opening-a-japanese-bank-account.

DO: make a point of getting a weekly copy of “Metropolis” or visiting their website.  “Metropolis” is a free weekly magazine and will help you get a feel for what is going on around the city and where popular areas and venues are.  It will also put you into contact with the expat community (if you are so inclined) and speed the process of making friends, finding a support network, or find a significant other.  The Classifieds section is a treasure trove – use it to find bargains on PCs, electronics, furniture, and other stuff you may need to make house a home when in Tokyo.

DO: go to the local supermarket frequently.  This serves two purposes: one, to get you out and used to the food stuffs you will be encountering daily and make them less “foreign”, but more importantly, it will help you save money!  Prices change almost daily for various meat, produce, fish, and other items.  One day you may enter the store and see avocados for JPY 138 yen apiece.  The next day, the same avocados could be JPY 98 or even cheaper, with no reason for the price reduction.  Red bell peppers (called paprika here in Japan) can vary widely, finding them as high as JPY 158 on Tuesday and then on the Wednesday weekly sale being as low as JPY 78…  The point is, if you don’t go, you may well be missing out on a huge bargain and spending more than you need to on already expensive produce.  There is the added plus of always having fresh veggies, too.

DO: start to learn or at least get a handle on hiragana (one of the two phonetic syllabaries in Japanese).  This may seem like a daunting task, but there are only 46 characters and if you take the time to memorize just five a day, in less than two weeks, you will have committed the entire thing to memory.  Even if you aren’t inclined to memorize the whole thing, having a bit of it, will make your life psychologically MUCH easier; being able to puzzle out what is written around you is a huge psychological anchor and will make Tokyo much more fathomable.  It will also help when having to look up words in your Japnese-English dictionary.  Granted, you will still be surrounded by a sea of kanji (Chinese based ideograms), but being able to pick out the bits between them will allow you at least a chance to figure out what you are looking at.  Another tip: carry a notebook and/or pen and paper with you.  If the person you are speaking to cannot understand what you are saying, try writing I down.  Chances are that they will understand what you have written down and will be able to help from there.

DO: find and go to the local coffee shops!  This is more of a creature comfort tip, but will definitely make your adjustment period easier.  Tokyo is home to many different coffee shop chains (aside from Starbuck’s!) and they are scattered all over the city, particularly near train and subway stations.  Coffee is generally less expensive than Starbuck’s (quality can vary from on par to a little less, but as a rule, Japanese are pretty particular about their coffee, so it’ll be a decent cup of joe) and most have sandwiches – hot and cold – as well as a good selection of pastries.  In the morning, they will offer two or three breakfast specials and these can be a real bargain.  In addition, these specials are often a taste of home, for example a fried egg, bacon, and toast combo at Beck’s.  Major chains in Tokyo are Doutor, Excelsior, Tully’s, Caffé Veloce, Saint Marc Cafe (excellent fresh baked chocolate croissants here!).  Be aware that aside from Starbuck’s, there are no all non-smoking cafes and while there have been great strides in separating the smoking and non-smoking areas, some smaller neighborhood coffee shops (Doutour tends to be the biggest offender in this category), seating in the non-smoking section will be an exercise in futility simply because of the limited seating area.

What you experience here and how you react to it will be uniquely yours, but by following some of the advice above, you should find that some of the bumps you encounter will be lessened.  Hopefully, they will make slipping into life in Tokyo much more seamless and help to make at least one small part of Tokyo “yours!”