Ultimate Guide to Life in Tokyo

By Hei Kin Wong | June 16 2021

Do you have an interest in living in Tokyo and want to know what life will be like? Or maybe you have just arrived in Tokyo and you want to know what you should do to make your life easier in Tokyo? Don’t worry we’ve got you covered! Thousands of foreigners start their life in Tokyo each month so rest assured you are not the only one having problems. This guide is not only for those who want to know the pros and cons of life in Tokyo, but also for those who have just arrived and want to know some basic rules and tips that would make your life here much easier.

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    Overview of Life in Tokyo

    Tokyo is a giant metropolis with a population of 13 million. It is one of the largest cities in the world and has one of the most developed train networks of all metropolises. While living in Tokyo might sound great for shopping enthusiasts or individuals who enjoy Japanese culture, there are many problems that come with living in Tokyo. Furthermore, depending on where you come from, life in Tokyo might feel somewhat similar to completely different. With this article, we hope to shed some light on what you can expect living in Tokyo and some rules you will want to remember.

    Do I need to learn Japanese for a good life in Tokyo?

    While you can survive in Japan without knowing Japanese, it is highly recommended that you learn at least a good degree of Japanese before starting your life in Tokyo. While many of the basic services in Tokyo are now available in English, there are many more (especially some government agencies) that cannot provide their services if you don't understand Japanese. Additionally, many opportunities in Tokyo are also only available to you if you know some Japanese. I started my life in Tokyo without knowing Japanese and it was a nightmare in more ways than one. From going to the ward office to ordering meals, it will make your life so much easier if you learn some basics of the Japanese language. 

    Knowing some Japanese will also give you the opportunity to make some Japanese friends. Whether it's in your school or workplace, learning their language shows them a willingness to adapt to the Japanese culture and lifestyle, providing you with excellent opportunities to make some good friends.

    We at Japan Switch provide great and affordable offline and online Japanese lessons for beginner to intermediate level learners! If you are a foreigner still thinking about whether to commit and live in Tokyo or not, then why not take some online Japanese lessons first! We have some great Japanese teachers who will not only teach you about the Japanese language, but also the culture as well. On the other hand, if you have just arrived in Tokyo and have some time to spare, why not take some offline Japanese classes at our Shinjuku office? Our online group classes are only 6000 yen a month so it is most definitely a bang for your buck. Try out the Survival Japanese Conversation for Beginners if you are planning on doing some self-study!

    Life in Tokyo City

    Life in Tokyo: What are the pros?

    For many foreigners, living in Tokyo might be a dream come true. And in many ways, it is. From the food to culture to people, there are countless reasons as to why someone would like to live in Tokyo compared to other cities. Here's some of our selection on why people choose to live in Tokyo.

    One of the best transportation systems in the world

    If you are coming from a city where driving is the main way to get around places, then be prepared to drop that car key since you won’t be needing that anytime soon. The train network is made to such a detailed degree that it highly disincentives people from driving. No matter where you want to go in Tokyo, there will be a station near it.

    Trains in Tokyo are integrated so that matter what line you take, you can always transfer to another line without too much hassle. You will only need one IC card to ride all of the trains in Tokyo. Unlike many other countries’ train networks, trains in Japan are always (well, when there’s no accident) on time. Since trains arrive on schedule and tell you when you will arrive at a station down to the minute, you would often find yourself not needing to make extra time for commuting. 

    Additionally, trains and train stations are also extremely clean. With staff often checking trains and cleaning stations, you would be lucky to find trash laying on the ground in Tokyo’s trains and train stations. Another thing that we don’t see in other articles discussing Tokyo’s train stations are the excellent shops and supporting facilities that many other countries lack. There are vending machines and convenience stores in/near every single train station in Tokyo, perfect for people who want to grab some food and drinks on the way. 

    Finally, since the train network is centered around Tokyo, living in Tokyo provides you access to areas around the city, which opens up open events and activities you can participate in while you are in Tokyo.

    An extremely safe city

    Tokyo is, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the safest city in the world. If you are coming from the US or most cities in Europe, you might be surprised how safe Tokyo is compared to your home city. Crime rates are extraordinarily low compared to other metropolises and there are little worries of your personal belongings being stolen even if you dropped them on the trains. In places like Paris, if you dropped your wallet, it is unlikely you would be able to recover it. In Tokyo, however, you are more than likely to get your wallet back with not a single yen missing at a nearby police box. 

    That is not to say that Tokyo is this Utopia where crime does not occur. crime still happens in certain areas in the city, where there is a large concentration of bars and clubs. So if you are planning to live or just started living in Tokyo, do be careful around those areas.

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    Rich in Both Culture and Nature

    Tokyo has a rich history that dates all the way back to the Edo period. While Tokyo was not the capital at the time, it was still one of the largest cities in the world and an important trading hub for Japan. it became the capital after the Meiji Restoration and was rapidly developed to the Tokyo we know today. As such it is rich in both historical and modern Japanese culture. If you are interested in traditional Japanese culture then Tokyo has places like Sensoji; if you are looking for modern culture then you need not look further than Shinjuku and Akihabara. Needless to say, Tokyo is the perfect place if you are looking to experience both traditional and modern Japanese culture while living in Tokyo. You would never be bored if you choose to live in Tokyo.

    Want to know more about Japanese culture? Our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Culture talks all about it! Be sure to check it out after this article.

    Lot’s of job opportunities as an English speaker

    If you are a native level English speaker then finding a job in Japan is not that difficult. But the variety of jobs available to you are lacking, to say the least. There is always a demand for more English teachers in Tokyo. If you don’t care about the type of work you are in, then look no further than getting a teaching job in Tokyo. That being said, a teaching job doesn’t pay that well in Tokyo. It does, however, serve as a stopgap to find another job or to improve your Japanese while still living in Tokyo.

    If you are fluent in both English and Japanese, then there are many more job opportunities open for you. Though you don't feel confident using Japanese in an office yet, our lessons are designed to help take the umms and ahhs out of your speaking and help you get what you want to say across.

    Tokyo - Akiba

    Great Food!

    This is kind of a no-brainer if you have traveled to Tokyo before. Tokyo has all kinds of excellent Japanese cuisine. From ramen to sushi to okonomiyaki, everything is made with fresh ingredients and with care. As one of the largest metropolises in the world, Tokyo also has great cuisines from all over the globe. Many foreigners living in Tokyo have opened restaurants to sell their food, making Tokyo a giant melting pot of great dishes from all over the world. While we certainly don’t recommend living in Tokyo simply because of the excellent food, you won’t be disappointed by them if you choose to live here. 

    Konbini! (Convenience store)

    While many other cities have their own version of the Konbini, Tokyo just does it better. It’s an integrated part of life in Tokyo (and Japan for that matter). From getting food to paying bills to withdraw cash, there is very little that you cannot do in the convenience store. There is also very little that you cannot buy. It also provides delivery service for post and packages. This amount of convenience has made many in Tokyo rely on the konbini. This is also great for foreigners who have just started their life in Tokyo since you can pretty much get everything you need from the convenience store. It is also a good substitute if you cannot find a supermarket. In any case, if you are planning on starting a new life in Tokyo, then you should expect convenience stores to play an important role in your life in Tokyo.

    Why can’t I see a single trash bin on the street?

    While you might see this as a downside, it is also one of the reasons why Tokyo is such a clean city! Since there are no trash bins anywhere on the street, everyone brings their trash back home and recycles it according to the recycling rules. Since part of the Japanese culture includes being responsible for their trash, you would be surprised to find even a cigarette bud on the streets of Tokyo. This is nice if you are one that enjoys cleanliness and are willing to do the same.


    Asakusa Temple Tokyo

    Life in Tokyo: What’s the catch?

    So far we’ve discussed many benefits that come with life in Tokyo and what it will be like. It does sound like the perfect city to live in so far. And in many ways, it is considered one of the best cities to live in the world. However, it does come with downsides that cannot be ignored. Let’s talk about some of them here.

    Rush hour at the train station is worse than you think 

    As a student that needs to take a one-hour commute to campus, this is one of the worst parts of life in Tokyo. While Tokyo has one of the best transportation networks in the world, it is also home to 13 million people(with more from other prefectures coming to work). No matter how good the transportation is, the trains are bound to be filled with people during rush hour (7-9 am). Every train will be packed during this period and it can feel unbearable at times. Worst case scenario some might even find it hard to breathe. It also does not help that Japan has a collectivist culture, where the idea of personal space takes a back seat before society.

    In more practical terms, this means that it is acceptable for people to push their way inside the train if it means they could make that ride. Since maintaining social harmony is crucial, no one would mention it and simply continue with their lives. As you will see later in the article, this contrast between personal freedom and society is the foundation of many rules you will need to follow if you wish to start a life in Tokyo.

    Finally, if you wish to avoid the crowd of rush-hour trains, you might want to consider getting a car and a driving license in Japan. Fortunately for you, we have a guide on how you can get your international driving license in Tokyo! 

    Rent is expensive, but…

    Being able to live in one of the best cities in the world comes with its cost. Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities to live in terms of rent. This could be problematic if you lack the required Japanese proficiency and were forced to take an English teaching job in Tokyo. Combined with the tax and other miscellaneous fees you need to pay, you might not be left with that much disposable income. If a good life in Tokyo is simply being able to live and enjoy Tokyo, then this is less of a problem. However, if your enjoyment in Tokyo comes from shopping and consuming modern Japanese culture, then I’d suggest you rethink your decision if you don't know Japanese at all.

    Fortunately, life in Tokyo can be cheap other than rent. There are many things you can do to save money when living in Tokyo. My personal favorite is to cook your own meal. In most cases, it will be much cheaper than the restaurants in Tokyo and you get to control the portion. If you are enrolled in a school or at work you should also get a commute pass. Trains in Tokyo are not cheap as well and would be quite the dent in your wallet if you don't buy one. We also have some recommendations later in the article on how you can improve your life in Tokyo.

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    The train network is very confusing for new arrivals

    Yes, the train network in Tokyo is incredible, it is also incredibly confusing for people who just started their life in Tokyo. With over 121 rail lines going from and through Tokyo, navigating to your destination can be confusing at times. App services like Google Maps will be your best tool to help you navigate the train network. Another thing to look out for is the complexity of the train stations. Take a look at the JR Shinjuku station for example.

    There are dozens of lines that go through the station with an expensive underground network that connects to train lines from other companies. Sometimes it can take you upwards of 10 mins just to get from one line to another (given you took the correct route too). Furthermore, since the train network is so integrated that at times what looks like an exit gate might be a transition gate to another line, so be careful next time you tap your IC card at the gate. All and all, we are not saying that the network itself is bad, but it just needs time to get used to. 

    What about work culture & work-life balance?

    If you plan on starting your life in Tokyo with a job at a traditional Japanese company, then be prepared to have very little work-life balance. While the situation has improved ever since the Japanese government implemented more national holidays to give more rest to office workers, it is still not great. Like we’ve mentioned before, Japanese society is centered around collectivism, meaning that benefits to society come before personal freedom/time. In Tokyo, work trumps everything else in your personal life and this is something you will need to be prepared for. There are still stories where office workers in Japan would work 13 hours a day from Monday all the way to Saturday. However, as more and more companies move away from the traditional Japanese work model, many jobs in Japan are more flexible than ever before. This is especially the case if you work at a multinational company. 

    As the work culture in Tokyo continues to evolve, some interesting work cultures spawned from different industries. For example, the pharmaceutical industry in Tokyo has implemented the weekend Wednesday. The idea is to increase productivity by inserting breaks within the weekdays so workers would feel more energetic. This is quite a new concept and I suggest you check out this video if you want to know more about it.

    Life in Tokyo Train Station

    Recycling: it takes time to figure out

    If you are not coming from a country that always has recycling in mind, the rules of recycling in Tokyo might seem daunting. This happened to me when I first started my life in Tokyo. Looking at the recycling sheet and things you will need to separate can be a lot to take in. Again, this is something that you will need to get used to with time. The Japanese culture has a great emphasis on recycling. It would cause your neighbor and the trash collector great frustration if you don’t recycle properly. My suggestion is to stick your local recycling rule sheet on the back of your front door. Now every time you go out and throw away your trash you could check whether you have done something wrong. 

    The recycling date for different materials also varies with the ward you are in, so make sure you’re looking at your local rules. Once you get the hang of the rules, recycling in Tokyo is much easier than you might think. Items you will need to recycle are limited and in most cases, everything that is not paper, bottles, or can goes straight to burnable trash. *This is an oversimplification of how the recycling rule works and in no way should be treated as a guide. We do, however, have a guide on recycling and garbage disposal you can check out!

    To conclude, recycling is a huge part of Japanese culture, therefore, if you wish to start a life in Tokyo then you should prepare to do some recycling.

    Life in Tokyo: Some rules you need to know

    Knowing the pros and cons of life in Tokyo is great, but what if you have just started your life in Tokyo? As a collectivist society, there are many rules in Tokyo that you will need to follow in order to “not stand out”. While some behavior might be acceptable if you pull out your “Gaijin” card, but you are here to experience all there is to life in Tokyo after all. So try to remember the rules below if you wish to become part of Tokyo's “family”.

    Why do people look at me weirdly when I talk loudly on transports?

    This is something that can be difficult to understand if you are coming from the west. Even me and my foreign friends had a difficult time adapting to this “no talking on train” thing when we are from Asia. Talking loudly on the train in Tokyo is a big no-no. The reason, again, goes back to the collectivist mentality that Japanese society has. Your personal space/conversation should not be extended to the point where it annoys others. The train is a rather uniquely quiet place (except for the sound of the train) for the Japanese as they spend their time reading, sleeping, and generally just minding their own business. Therefore talking loudly on the train is seen as inconsiderate behavior. 

    Though the idea of personal space in Japan is much smaller than what we have in the west. it is still a crucial component of their life. You are expected to consider what your actions will do to other’s personal space. Talking loudly on trains forces others to listen to your conversation and you should do your best to refrain from it. While the reasons why we don't talk on the phone on trains are similar, it is also considered common etiquette to not talk on the phone while on any public transportation.

    Sorry, Smokers

    While smoking is not exactly an uncommon behavior in Tokyo, it is pretty restrictive. You cannot smoke on the street nor in any indoor areas. There are designated smoking areas for people who want to smoke. This is done in part to keep the city as clean as possible. It also helps with containing the effects of second-hand smoke. 

    Another important point to note is that the legal smoking age is actually 20 in Japan. So if you are a student below the age of 20, you will have to hold out for a little longer in Tokyo before you can smoke. Although we spoke a lot about the restrictions that smokers will face when smoking, it is rather easy for you to get cigarettes. Every convenience store has a range of cigarettes you can choose from. There are also vending machines that can be used to buy cigarettes from, but you will need an identification card to do so.

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    Remember there are women-only train cars

    The women-only train cars are just that, train cars that are reserved for female passengers. During rush hour there will be cars on busy lines that are designated for female passengers only. This is done in order to prevent sexual harassment behaviors. This has been a major issue in population centers like Tokyo and Osaka and in no small part caused by the “mind your own business” mentality many Japanese have. While the situation has drastically improved from where it was in the early 2000s, there are still reports of sexual harassment from time to time. 

    One thing of note is that this measure is only in effect during rush hour. Other times everyone can still enter the women-only train cars, so don’t treat it like it’s a fixed rule that no males are welcome at any time. For the female foreigners reading this article, you can also use these train cars too. Just remember that all the other rules of public transportation still apply here.

    Do not eat on the go

    If the amount of plastic used to package your food is not enough of a hint, then the slow realization that no one else is eating while walking should be a good enough sign that you shouldn’t eat on the go. However, it’s not like there are set rules that you cannot eat while on the street or on the train. It is merely a byproduct of Japanese culture. This again goes back to the concept that you should consider how your action would influence others. You might be having the best sandwich of your life while on the streets of Tokyo, but others might have just finished work and are starving to death. It is considered inappropriate for you to eat in front of them.

    Another point is that the Japanese are very sensitive about the trash they produce and think they have a natural responsibility to keep the street clean. Therefore, eating on the go isn’t exactly the action you would take if you are trying to do your part. 

    Finally, there is also this unspoken rule of how offensive you can be while eating on the go. To put it simply: the more people who see you eat the worse. So, next time when you pull out your onigiri on the train, think again.

    For the younger foreigners: Drinking age is 20

    Since the age of being an adult in Japan is 20, it is only natural that the legal drinking age is 20 as well. You might have started and enjoyed your life in Tokyo with a bit of booze, but we still strongly advise you to just hold out for a little longer until you are 20. Most of the foreigners below 20 come to Tokyo with a student visa. It is not worth the risk of losing your visa or the chance of extending your visa for a can of beer. 

    If you are 20, however, then congrats! Nightlife in Tokyo can be just as if not more exciting than the day. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Tokyo at Night!

    Can I sit on the priority seats?

    Well, yes and no. Every country has its own version of priority seats that are intended for seniors as well as people with disabilities. While there are no rules that young citizens cannot sit on priority seats, you should generally avoid them if there are still normal seats left. The main problem is that it is an annoyance for both you and the elderly who try to get you to give up the seat. It’s also an intrusion to other people’s time to ask for a seat. The best rule of thumb we could give is to avoid priority seats if possible.

    Tips and things you will need to know for a Good Life in Tokyo

    Knowing all the rules is great but what other things will you know to improve your life in Tokyo? Here are some of our choices on what you can do to make sure you have a good life in Tokyo.

    How much cash do I need to carry with me in Tokyo?

    As much as Tokyo has innovated for the past decade, it is still a cash-centered society. There are restaurants that still don’t take credit cards and you still need to charge your IC card with cash if you haven’t set up an auto charge for your IC card. Of course, the amount of cash you will need changes based on the area you live in and how much your commute will cost. However, on a day-to-day basis, 5000 Yen is more than you will ever need for a typical day. Tokyo is a shopping paradise with lots of attractive goods. Keeping the right amount of cash can sometimes help with your spending habit as well.

    What is the best thing to use to get around Tokyo?

    The train is always your best friend for students and workers alike. That being said, buses are also an integral part of the Tokyo transport system and you can use IC cards to get on and off buses just as you did with trains. So next time if Google tells you to take a bus instead of a train, you might want to try it out. The final method of transportation is, well, cars. However, unless you find the crowded train and train stations to be absolutely unbearable, there isn’t a lot of merit to driving in Tokyo.

    What do I need to do to register as a resident in Tokyo?

    Go to your ward office, find a friend who has been through this process to go with you if possible. Fill out the required form and you are good to go! If you have yet to make any Japanese friends or don’t understand Japanese, many wards provide English (as well as other languages) services for foreigners living in the ward. See this link to find the phone number of your local ward office consultation service and give them a call! 

    What English services are available?

    There are actually more than you might think. We have just talked about the English consultation services in various wards of Tokyo, but there are many more services that are available to you in English. From banking to housing the telecommunication, most of the basic services you will need are available in English. The issue is that there aren’t many choices you can go for if you only know English. Banking, for example, English service is only available for very few banks. This is also the same as telephone companies, which limits your option of choosing the right plan. 

    Just like we have said in the beginning, You can survive in Tokyo without learning Japanese. But if you wish to have a good time with your life in Tokyo, then I’d suggest you start taking some online Japanese classes.

    Tokyo - Shibuya Crossing
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    The 100 Yen shop is your other best friend

    Just like the dollar store in the US, 100 Yen shops will be your second best friend during your life in Tokyo (the first one is Bff Tokyo, of course). From Can-Do to Daiso to Seria, you can find just about everything you would need in your life for 100 Yen. 100 Yen shops are perfect when your wallet is tight or you want to buy something that doesn’t need to be of the highest quality. The rarity of goods that a 100 Yen shop in Tokyo provides is astonishing, sometimes you might even find things that you didn’t know you needed in a 100 yen shop. If you have just started your life in Tokyo, definitely give one of the 100 Yen shops in Tokyo a look. 

    How do I get a credit card and sim card?

    We actually have an Ultimate Guide to Debit and Credit Cards in Japan which tells you how to get your credit card in Japan! The simplified version is that you will need your residence card to apply for both of the cards mentioned above.

    But why would you want a credit card issued in Japan? This is because many Japanese online shops do not take overseas credit cards as payment. Without one, you would be limited in your options of online shopping in Tokyo. The case is similar for sim cards. Many Japanese sites (as well as the bank) would want your phone number as a step of verification. you would be limited in your purchase options if you don’t get a phone number when you arrive in Tokyo. 

    Do I really need a bank account?

    Yes, if you are here for more than six months in Japan then we strongly suggest you to get a bank account. We have an Ultimate Guide to Banking in Japan if you want to open a bank account and don’t know where to start. Basic requirements include an identification card and sometimes a phone number. So make sure to get one before you open a bank account.

    What holidays and events are there in Tokyo?

    There are various holidays and events in Tokyo each year. We have a detailed guide on the best things you can partake in Tokyo for each season. Every season has some unique events/matsuri that will make your life in Tokyo a memorable one. It would also be a great chance to make some Japanese friends after taking our online classes!

    3 Mistakes most people make that stop you from having a Good Life in Tokyo

    These are small mistakes that people make when they just started their life in Tokyo. More often than not, they are made because of a lack of understanding of Tokyo culture and customs. Let’s take a look at three mistakes that we find people made the most.

    People stared at me when I stood on the right side of the escalator. Why?

    Most of the world’s cities have the “stand on right, walk on left” rule. The exact opposite is true for Tokyo. This is a common mistake for people living in other metropolises because it just comes so naturally to them. While not a huge issue (since the official rule is that you should never walk on the escalator), it does present an awkward situation where you are blocking everyone from the right side from walking up.

    *Even this rule is regionally based so if you were to visit Kansai make sure to change it back

    Not checking the station exit

    This is especially important when it comes to large stations like Shinjuku or Tokyo. I cannot begin to explain the frustration I’ve been through simply because I’ve exited from the wrong exit. Station exits sometimes also make for terrible meetup spots since each railway company has its own exit. It is difficult for your friend that took JR to find you at a specific exit if you took the metro. If you want some excellent meetup spots, or enjoy a cup of coffee while waiting for your friend who doesn’t know the 15-minute rule, then we check out our guide on some of the best cafes in Tokyo!

    Wait for the next train in rush hour

    Do not. The next train is going to be just as bad as the one you missed. The best thing you could do is to follow the Japanese way and push yourself in. For the ladies, use women-only cars provided to you.

    Life in Tokyo Cafe

    Final Thoughts

    Life in Tokyo can be exciting, memorable and you will never be bored. While there are just numerous benefits of living in Tokyo, there are just as many points where you might want to avoid living in this city. That being said, if you have made up your mind on whether to come to Japan or not, then check out our guide on how to move to Japan! If you are already here and are looking for some interesting activities at night, why not take a look at our suggestions? Finally, if you have recently received your NHI or pension bill, then check our articles that talks all about them.


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