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Living in Tokyo
A comprehensive guide about living well in Tokyo
Living in Tokyo, although a mind-blowing experience, is not without its pitfalls. If you have never been to Japan before, life in Tokyo will not come without a culture shock. With our InterNations GO! guide, you will learn all about healthcare, education, and other aspects of an expat’s daily life.
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Life in Tokyo
Upon arriving in Tokyo, you will probably notice that Japan is a relatively homogeneous society, ethnically and culturally, but Tokyo is an exception to this rule. Nearly 490,000 foreign residents are currently living in Tokyo Prefecture, among them numerous expats from China, the Philippines, or South Korea.
Living in Tokyo’s central wards is especially popular among more affluent expatriates. We have described this in our overview of moving to Tokyo and the neighborhoods that expats prefer.
This article should give you a brief introduction to daily life in Tokyo. If you have seen the award-winning US movie Lost in Translation (2003), you may remember that it depicts the city as lonely and alienating. Sofia Coppola’s portrayal of solitary life in Tokyo was criticized for its caricature of modern Japan, which is a far cry from reality.
Staying Safe in Japan
The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake resulted in a tsunami and a nuclear disaster around the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The area surrounding the nuclear plant has seen a dramatic increase in radiation levels and large sections are still closed off to the public.
Radiation levels initially increased in Tokyo as well, and various governments issued travel warnings for Japan. However, these warnings were lifted a long time ago, and the Greater Tokyo Area is now considered safe.
There are no other travel health warnings for the Tokyo area at the moment. As far as immunizations are concerned, doctors recommend a standard set of tetanus, polio and diphtheria, measles, mumps, and rubella (German measles), influenza, whooping cough, Japanese encephalitis, and hepatitis A/B vaccinations.
Crime levels in Japan as a whole are low; however, there are reports of drink spiking, pickpocketing, and credit card theft. Tokyo’s entertainment districts such as Roppongi, Kabukichō, Shibuya, and Ikebukuro are particular hotspots for this kind of petty crime. If you do find yourself a victim of crime, the emergency phone number for the police is 110.
Foreigners interested in living in Tokyo may be glad to hear that medical standards in Japan are very high. Using the National Health Insurance scheme, many medical procedures in Japan are far cheaper than in the US or Canada. However, it is worth noting that the recipient is expected to make a financial contribution, even if they have insurance. A first consultation will usually cost somewhere between 5,000 – 10,000 JPY.
The language barrier is often the biggest problem for expatriates. Doctors and nurses in Japan do not necessarily speak English or another foreign language. Therefore, some embassies offer lists of recommended medical service providers for their nationals living in Tokyo. A list of English-speaking doctors has been provided by the US embassy.
Medical Insurance Options
As a foreign resident living in Tokyo for one year or more, you have to enroll in the national healthcare plan (see our article on living in Japan). Unfortunately, some doctors, medical specialists, and clinics catering to foreign residents are private and may not accept public health insurance. Expats often take out additional health insurance from a private provider, which can cover you for extra treatments not paid for by the public health insurance scheme, such as certain dental treatments and vaccinations.
If you don’t have any private medical insurance, always enquire first if patients enrolled in the Japanese National Health Insurance plan are welcome. However, if you can afford it or if your employer is willing to support you, getting private healthcare is essential for expat life in Tokyo.
If your doctor accepts the options of the National Health Insurance Plan, don’t forget to bring your health insurance card to every visit. Otherwise, you have to pay in cash. Please note that at clinics and hospitals you usually have to pay for 30% of medical costs from your own pocket immediately, as they are not covered by the public option. For treatment given to children under three years old, the insurance will repay 80% of the costs, but you may still be required to pay upfront.
Most patients with private medical insurance also have to pay on the spot and then file an insurance claim to be reimbursed later. If you have private insurance, make sure to check if your insurance provider offers a direct billing service at selected clinics. Many international clinics in Tokyo also accept credit cards as a form of payment. Since this is not a given, however, make sure to ask about payment methods and billing options beforehand.
Further Medical Information
If you have any further questions on medical care in Tokyo, just call the AMDA International Medical Information Center. They provide information in English, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Portuguese, Thai, Spanish, and Filipino (+81 (0)35 2858088).
A similar service in English, Chinese, Korean, Thai, and Spanish is offered by the Metropolitan Health and Medical Information Center for foreign residents living in Tokyo. It is available daily from 09:00 to 20:00 (+81 (0)35 2858181). The latter also has a translation hotline for medical services (+81 (0)35 2858185).
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Education and Public Transport in Tokyo
Educating Your Children
In Japan, education is compulsory for all children aged 6 to 15. After attending a nursery or day care center (hoikuen) as toddlers, they go on to kindergarten (yōchien).
At the age of six, Japanese kids usually start primary school (shōgakkō). Primary education lasts for six years, teaching the pupils about the Japanese language, math, music, art, P.E., and moral education. Later on, the primary school curriculum also features social studies, science, and home economics.
After completing their primary school education, the students progress to junior high school (chōgakkō) for three years. Although high school (kōtōgakkō) is not compulsory, most Japanese teenagers do attend it. Different kinds of high school cater to different student populations.
There are vocational high schools, academic ones, and the (private) elite high schools that prepare their students for prestigious universities. Even if they don’t enroll for studies at a top university, many young people in Japan graduate from a college or university (daigaku) with a four-year bachelor’s degree.
Although public schools in Japan are free for everyone, most expats in Tokyo send their kids to international schools. That way, their children don’t have to cope with the language barrier, culture shock, vastly different academic requirements, and socialization issues.
There are numerous international schools in Japan’s biggest metropolitan regions. Some of them create an English-language environment for Japanese kids whose parents want them to acquire language skills and intercultural awareness. Others directly cater to various foreign communities.
In the Greater Tokyo Area, there are international schools for expat kids of various nationalities. On the downside, all these schools are private institutions, which require tuition payments. Homeschooling could be an alternative but its legal situation is fuzzy — although homeschooling is not officially considered illegal, it is very rare in Japan.
Selected International Schools in Tokyo
- The American School in Japan
- The British School in Tokyo
- Canadian International School Tokyo
- Deutsche Schule Tokyo-Yokohama
- Indian International School in Japan
- Lycée Franco-Japonais de Tokyo
- Tokyo Chinese School
- Tokyo Korean School
Since the Tokyo Metropolitan Region is such a vast area, most expats will want to become familiar with the public transportation network as soon as possible. Due to the frequency of traffic congestions, driving your own car is rather uncommon in Greater Tokyo. Trains are among the most popular means of transportation.
It may be especially confusing for foreign residents of Tokyo that there is not one rail network in the metropolitan area, but rather a maze of overlapping networks. Dozens of lines are run by a multitude of companies. The most important are JR (Japan Railway) East, Tokyo Metro, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation. They are responsible for Tokyo’s subway lines.
However, there are many other train operators. They serve particularly the suburbs of Greater Tokyo (e.g. the Chiba Urban Monorail to Chiba City, the Keisei Electric Railway to Narita Airport, etc.).
Getting around Tokyo
To avoid getting lost in the labyrinth of Tokyo’s railway and subway lines, expats need to find out which operators serve the areas relevant to them. If you would like to learn more about transport in different neighborhoods, ask in one of the numerous tourist offices across Tokyo. They provide visitors with free maps, travel brochures, and public transportation information, and there is usually English-speaking staff available. The Tokyo Metro Service also offers a free English-language app to help navigate the public transport system.
Moreover, there are electronic signs announcing the next stop in English and Japanese on many (albeit not all) trains. That way, if you find yourself on an unfamiliar line, you know at least where you are and where you are going.
If you are going to spend a lot of time on Tokyo’s public transportation, you should make sure to buy a reloadable smart card. The Suica card and the Pasmo card are virtually interchangeable nowadays.
Smart cards can be used for most JR trains, subway lines, and buses in Tokyo. You can recharge them at every ticket-vending machine displaying the Suica logo or the Pasmo sign. They can also be used for some vending machines or baggage lockers, at station kiosks or selected convenience stores.
Paying with your cell phone is also an option. Japan has been using contactless payment technology for decades, so certain devices will be able to function as a pre-paid card in Tokyo. Foreign debit and credit cards can be trickier to use in Tokyo, so cash, smart card or paying with your cell phone is preferable.
Transportation and Shopping in Tokyo
Tokyo’s two airports are well connected to the public transportation network. Narita Airport, the one for international flights to and from Japan, is located almost 70 kilometers east of Tokyo. Going by train to central Tokyo takes between 41 minutes and over an hour, depending on the connection you choose.
Two of the fastest lines are the Skyliner Service (fare in March 2017: 2,470 JPY) to Nippori, Ueno, and Tokyo Station and JR’s N’Ex (Narita Express) to Tokyo Central (fare: about 4,000 JPY for a round trip). The Skyliner takes 36 minutes from Narita to Nippori, and Narita Express is a bit slower with a travel time of about an hour to downtown Tokyo.
Haneda Airport, on the other hand, is far closer to central Tokyo. With the JR monorail, you can reach Tokyo Hamamatsuchō Station in about 15 minutes. Since the late 1970s, Haneda has been served mainly by domestic airlines and charter flights. However, in 2010, the airport opened a new international terminal.
Late at night, between midnight and 4:00, when even the extensive train network fails you, taking a taxi is a good alternative. Taxis in Tokyo are generally convenient, comfortable, and safe, but also expensive. Taxi fares start at 710 JPY for the first two kilometers, and the meter adds up to 90 JPY for every 250-300 meters travelled or 40 seconds of waiting time. It is also worth noting that between 22:00 and 05:00, the price tends to be 30% higher than in the daytime.
With such high prices, most taxis will accept credit cards, although usually, the fare must be over 5,000 JPY before you can pay with plastic. Payment by smartphone can be an easy alternative to credit cards or cash since plenty of cabbies carry an e-wallet reader for mobile device.
Due to the costs, most expats reserve taxis for late-night excursions and business trips. Just remember to carry a business card or map with the Japanese address of your destination with you. Most cabbies don’t speak English.
Where to Get Your Shopping
Food safety standards in Japan are mostly excellent. If you avoid eating the cheapest sushi at some dingy street-corner bar, you needn’t worry about eating out. The larger Tokyo supermarket chains might even have some imported foods available to satisfy your sudden cravings. Even if they don’t, they sell a wide range of Japanese groceries, convenience food, toiletries, and household goods.
Some supermarkets in Tokyo, such as Costco, Nissin World Delicatessen, or Medi-Ya, specialize in catering to the foreign community, but they are not as numerous as Japanese stores and also more expensive. So the best shopping option is to buy your daily fare at a Japanese supermarket, shop for fresh produce like vegetables, seafood or meat in smaller neighborhood cornershops, and adopt a Japanese-style diet.
Groceries and supermarkets are usually open from 10:00 to 20:00 or 21:00, although opening hours vary for smaller shops. If you should run out of snacks or toothpaste in the middle of the night, there’s always a combini round the corner.
Combini is Japanese for ‘convenience store’, and Tokyo’s combini are very convenient indeed. They sell fast food, some other food items, a few toiletries, and selected household goods 24/7, although at higher prices than other shops. In any food-related emergency, just look out for the closest Family Mart, Seven Eleven, Mini Stop, Sunkus, etc.
A combini is also a good place to stop by and quickly stock up on snacks for a daytrip or longer journey. You’ll quickly learn to appreciate their niku-man (hot meat buns), o-nigiri (rice balls), and bentō lunch boxes.
A depāto (‘department store’) is the very opposite of the combini experience. They don’t want to attract busy commuters looking for a quick lunch or hungover students in search of coca cola and aspirin. Japanese department stores create a luxurious shopping environment for their customers, offering designer brands, gourmet food, and high-value handicrafts, such as kimonos or lacquerware.
Although the conservative depāto have been losing customers to the competition for years, they are still an important part of commercial life in Japan. During your time in Tokyo, you should definitely go (window) shopping in one of the prestigious department stores, such as Mitsukoshi.
However, there are some items that even the likes of Mitsukoshi might not have in store — and that’s larger clothes, tall-size and plus-size clothing for expats (including shoes in larger sizes). They are all harder to find and often more expensive to buy. Take this into account when packing your suitcase for Japan.
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