Finding a place to stay in Japan

LivingInJapan

Whether you’re staying long or short-term, finding somewhere to stay in Japan can be a daunting challenge especially if you don’t speak the language and have just arrived.

For travellers coming to Japan, hotels are one obvious option but if you’re staying for more than a few nights, you’ll be burning through your travel budget pretty quick.

Although I haven’t tried it myself, Airbnb, where people rent out their rooms and apartments seems to be a popular choice nowadays. It’s usually cheaper than most hotels and depending on the option you choose, you could have an entire apartment where you can cook, use wireless Internet and perhaps even get some travel advice from your hosts.

Another website called couchsurfing.com connects you with hosts around the world under the condition that you also offer your place to other couchsurfers. This can be a great way to connect with other travelers and organise trips together and basically allows you to stay for free anywhere.

Then of course there are hostels. Hostels also offer the ability to cook but can often be noisy and sometimes rough or dirty. You also have to be careful about having your things stolen if you’re staying in a room with several strangers. On the positive side, they’re also a great place to meet people and can be really memorable experiences. I once stayed in a really ratty hostel in Kyoto with about 8 people in one room. People came in at all hours of the night and we all had to sleep in bunk beds. There was also a big communal shower room with no place to change. It was a rough couple of nights to say the least. But I’ve also stayed in some really nice ones as well, so make sure you do your research and read the reviews.

For those looking at a long term stay, a guesthouse is probably the best option. There are several companies in Japan with English speaking staff and websites where you can book a room by the month ahead of your arrival. There’s a deposit of 20,000~30,000 yen but you get most of it back when you leave as long as you don’t trash the room. The rooms are usually furnished with a bed with new sheets and a desk. The kitchen and bathrooms are shared with your housemates. I’ve actually lived in a guesthouse for the past 2 years. It’s convenient and it’s fun to meet the people from all over that come and go.

Another advantage is that a lot of guesthouses are conveniently located near big train stations so you can live relatively cheaply in a convenient area where rent would typically be very expensive. Paying rent is also easy because all the utilities are included in one price. Learning to live with other people can be a challenge but it’s a good experience that I think everyone should have.

Another viable option is doing a homestay. I spent my first 2 months in Tokyo doing a homestay with a young couple who had two spare rooms. At first it was great having someone to talk to and dinner on the table every night. It was a great chance to see how Japanese people live and they organised a lot of activities every weekend. I would say that for a 2-week stay, a homestay would be perfect. Any longer than that, in my experience, seems to be wearing out your welcome. It became uncomfortable trying to be home on time for dinner and I always felt like I had to be careful about making noise or using the shower.

Homestays can also be quite expensive in the long term but I would say it was a great experience for someone arriving in Japan for the first time. Also, both homestays and guesthouses are ideal places to use as a base while you’re searching for your own apartment. Finding your own apartment presents its own set of pitfalls and challenges. First of all, you’ll need a bank account. But in order to get a bank account, you need an identification card and of course to stay in Japan you need some type of visa, for example a work visa sponsored by your employer. They’ll want to see proof of your income or employment such as a pay stub or a work contract. Even if you have a job lined up before you come, getting everything in order takes time so I recommend staying in a guesthouse for a month or two so you can take your time to find a good apartment.

Most apartments in Japan require at least a 2-year contract as well as up to the equivalent of 1 or 2 months rent or so in deposits and fees. Choosing the right apartment in Tokyo is usually a compromise between price, size or location. Rarely will you find a place that is ideal in all three. You have to decide what’s more important for you depending on your own budget. For me, living in a central convenient location, close to a station and my job is important but I also don’t want to pay a lot for rent. So I decided to sacrifice on space and privacy by just staying in my guesthouse.

Basically, the further the apartment is away from a train station, (i.e. less convenient) the more spacious or cheaper it will be. Some people decide to live outside of Tokyo altogether and commute into the city to save money on rent. For me though, not having to ride the crowded morning trains and being able to ride my bike to work is worth the extra cost of living in the city. I’m also able to stop home for lunch or go back if I forget something and I don’t have to worry about catching the last train at night on the weekends.

Hopefully, someone from your company or a friend will help you with the process at the realtor’s office. You might be shocked to hear that some or many of the landlords will reject you right off the bat simply because you’re a foreigner. The most common reason is that they don’t want to deal with the language barrier, although in most cases you’ll never have to interact with them personally or even meet them. Most likely they’re worried you will have poor Japanese etiquette such as making too much noise or not disposing of your trash properly. Some foreigners also leave Japan suddenly without paying all of their last bills. Whatever the reason, this is one of the most frustrating parts about finding an apartment in Japan. However, they do seem to be more open if you tell them you can speak some Japanese. Another thing to keep in mind is that you won’t have Internet for the first 2 or 3 weeks after you move into an apartment, while the telecommunications company changes the phone lines to your name. With proper research and planning, you may be able to shorten the waiting time by telling them ahead of time to get started on the process.

Make sure you budget ample time and money in your search for a place to stay. There are tons of options, and with a little planning and research, it doesn’t have to be a headache.


How I Learned Japanese

During high school and college, I learned German, but never picked up more than a couple of phrases. Then I lived in Korea for a year and once again I only learned enough to take a taxi or order some food.

I’ve always thought of myself as one of those people who just “wasn’t a language person”, but in hindsight, it was precisely this mindset that held me back.

When I found out I was moving to Japan, I enrolled in an intensive 10-week Japanese course at a local college. No English was allowed and we studied for more than 6 hours a day. During the last session of the day, we were allowed to ask questions in English and we reviewed what we learned during the day. Taking that short class provided me with several of the keys to my success in learning Japanese. First, it gave me a foundation. I learned the basic words and sentence structures that helped me communicate almost any idea even if only in a crude way in the beginning. It also helped me learn correct pronunciation. The textbook was written in Roman characters and not Hiragana, which was easier to read quickly and also helped later on when typing in Japanese with a regular keyboard. It helped me form a steady habit of studying that I carried with me to Japan. And lastly, since I spent quite a bit of money on the class, I was motivated to keep studying in order to get the most value out of it.

Motivation, I found, was the biggest challenge in learning Japanese. But I persevered by setting a goal: I wanted to impress a Japanese friend I met in college when I saw them again after a long time. In hindsight, it seemed like a silly goal and I did not really succeed, but it worked to motivate me through that period of studying. Once I arrived in Japan, I continued my language education by going to the local International Center and signing up for a volunteer teacher. My teacher was a retired Japanese woman who used to teach Japanese at a University. I met her twice a week for 2 hours each and only had to pay 500 yen per hour.
That was 6 years ago now and since then, I have tried many different methods to continue improving my Japanese. Over the years, I’ve gotten frustrated, taken breaks from studying and bought countless textbooks, flashcards, and electronic dictionaries. I’ve even tried putting sticky notes all over my house and taping kanji cards to my wall.

My conclusion is that textbooks are boring, especially if you do them by yourself. Studying isn’t a passive activity where you just absorb information. You need to get excited about it and focus your energy on learning.

Here are some tips I learned over the years that really helped me to learn Japanese.

First of all, set clear short- and long-term goals. Whether it’s being to read your favourite Japanese author’s books in their native language, being able to watch Japanese films without subtitles, passing the proficiency exam, learning to speak fluently or using Japanese in a business environment, decide why you want to learn Japanese and then look at what you need to improve to reach that goal.

Secondly, don’t go it alone. Get a teacher who will correct your mistakes and constantly challenge you. Structuring your learning around formal lessons gives you something to prepare for, and ensures you are regularly learning new things and improving.

Rather than splashing out for a specialised language school, try other cheaper options like meeting a teacher at a cafe or at their home. Having a one-on-one arrangement also means the teacher can customise the lessons for you. I also recommend only using Japanese during your lesson. It will be a lot harder at first, but the sooner you start thinking in Japanese, the better.
A lot of people say all you have to do is get a Japanese partner or friends, and this can be a great way to practice your Japanese and learn day-to-day expressions. But this casual immersion is not a substitute for a teacher, because friends and partners tend to be more accommodating if you make mistakes. You might start to develop a false sense of confidence since your close friends can all understand you, when in fact they might be lowering their speaking level so you can understand them as well.

Lastly, start out with topics that are relevant or interesting to you. Study vocabulary and kanji in context from articles about that topic. In my experience, learning kanji or vocabulary from lists is extremely tedious and boring. And because most textbooks are structured from easiest to hardest, if you never make it through to the end of the book, you’ll never learn the most difficult and important material that you need to pass your tests and become fluent.

It’s better to encounter difficult kanji or vocabulary in context, along with the easier ones. My current teacher prints business and education articles for me to read for homework. Then she makes a quiz of all the difficult words from the article. This way, I’m learning new words in context and since they often repeat several times during the article, by the end I’ve basically remembered them.
For self-study, I recommend buying some small flashcards on a ring, which are sold at the 100-yen shop. You can write down new words or grammar and just toss one in your pocket or bag to study whenever you have some free time. I also recommend using the Google Translate app where you can draw in kanji with your finger. The app recognises them remarkably well, even if your stroke order is off or your writing is sloppy. Another great free way to improve is to watch Japanese TV. Getting a basic antenna in Japan will give you 3 or 4 stations and keep you from switching to an English program. It’s better than normal listening because the sound is connected with a picture and most Japanese shows have subtitles or at least a lot of written words on the screen. Watching TV with a Japanese friend and asking them what was so funny or what does a word mean is a great way to improve fast.

In the end, how you learn depends on your goal and what is fun for you. I hope my advice helps you on your journey. Currently, I’m working as a freelance teacher and translator in Tokyo and my journey to learn Japanese continues on today.


10 ways to live in Japan

1. The 100-yen shop

A good policy is to always check the 100- yen shop before buying something from a regular store. They carry an amazing variety of items and are ideal places to stock up your apartment with dishes, silverware, and other essentials to survive when you first arrive.

2. Buy in bulk

Not everything is a bargain at the 100- yen shop, especially toiletries and other things that you’ll use everyday. It’s better to buy essential consumable supplies like tissues, detergent or body soap in bulk from stores like Costco. There are several around Tokyo and if you can find a friend with a membership, tag along with them every once in a while and stock up. It’s also a good idea to buy lots of frozen veggies and fruits, as these can be absurdly expensive when sold fresh in the supermarkets. If you can’t make it to Costco, try finding a local wholesale food store such as “Niku no Hanamasa” (there are several around Tokyo) which caters to restaurants and sells meat and seafood at big discounts. To manage bulk amounts of food, I bought a cheap box of 200 plastic bags which I then use to separate and freeze a few weeks worth of meat and fish.

3. Shop online

Shopping online using Amazon or Rakuten is easy and convenient in Japan. You can even have your package sent to a local convenience store for pick up and often can get next day delivery. You can use a barcode reader on your phone to find better deals online while you’re shopping at stores too. I usually use Amazon to buy big boxes of oatmeal or my favorite cereal that I know I’ll eat and that last for a long time.

4. Use Craigslist

At any given time, there are a lot of foreign residents who are packing up and leaving Japan and need to sell their things. I bought a big screen TV and a fridge both from people who lived right down the road from me. You can search for the item you’re looking for and sometimes even negotiate the price a little as long as you’re willing to pick it up yourself. I sometimes just search the name of my town to see if anyone is selling something locally that’s easy to pick up. This is a great way to buy big items like a washing machine or a stovetop oven.

5. Beware of “Warikan”

Obviously you should try to cook at home as often as possible if you’re living on a budget. And you should also try to pack a lunch everyday if you can. But sometimes you get invited out and want to have fun. In Japan, it’s pretty normal for a group of friends to share all the food and it’s often (but not always) customary to split the bill at the end of the night (called “Warikan”). The problem is that you end up having to help pay for the 5 bottles of expensive wine someone decided to order. If your friends are considerate they will pitch in more if they had a lot, but don’t count on it! Your best bet is to go to a place with “Nomi-hodai” or allyou- can-drink (usually for 2 hours) with a set individual price or to go to a Western-style pub where you pay separately as you order, (called “Betsu-betsu”). You can also just buy snacks and drinks at a convenience store but be careful because it’s bad etiquette to eat and drink while walking around.

6. Internet only phone

Mobile phone plans can cost up to 8000 yen a month or more and require you to sign a 2-year contract. Opt for an Internet only plan (with no calls included) and use free apps to communicate like Skype or Line, which is really popular in Japan. Or you could buy a portable Wi-Fi router that you can use at home and then carry in your pocket when you’re out to use with your smartphone. Either option will only cost you about 3000 yen a month.

7. Convenience store coffee

Fresh-brewed coffee in convenience stores are, surprisingly, a relatively new thing in Japan. But at 100 yen, it’s a big saving on coffee shops, while tasting pretty much the same. Even better yet, you can buy a pouch of instant coffee and make your own at home with an electric hot water pot. A hot water pot is a good investment because you can use it to make instant noodles and it even does double duty as a humidifier in the winter.

8. Off-hour discounts

If you time your visits right, you can save a lot of money at supermarkets and bakeries. Supermarkets put discount stickers on different foods depending on how long they’ve been out. But as long as you eat the food the same day, it’s not a problem. The best bargains are to be found around 7 and 8pm in the evening right after the main shopping rush. Discounts start at 10 or 20% and can go up to 50% off. But beware that the good stuff can be taken very quickly. You can even go up and ask the sticker person if they can put a sticker on what you want to buy if they haven’t scanned it yet. Bakeries also sell day-old bread or even bags of bread crusts if you’re desperate enough! And if Karaoke is your thing, try going in the afternoon, when rates are around 200 yen per hour compared to more than 1000~2000 yen in the evening.

9. Get a bike

If you don’t mind looking a little uncool, for less than 10,000 yen, you can buy a basic “Mama-Chari” bicycle. It’s basically an old style bike that most Japanese mothers and school children use in Japan. It’s got a basket you can carry your bag or groceries in and tyre and chain guards that will protect your work clothes. It can also save you a lot of money on short train trips. And there’s a lot less of a chance that someone will want to steal it compared with an expensive road bike.

10. Find free fun

There are tons of free or cheap things to do in the city all the time, such as festivals (especially in the summer), free concerts, food fairs, etc. Check out websites like “Time out Tokyo” or “Metropolis” to see what’s going on. You could also organise a picnic with your friends at Yoyogi Park or plan a weekend hiking trip to the many mountains around Tokyo.

A word of caution though: Be wary of becoming obsessed and spending too much time trying to save money. Your time might be better spent just working and making more money!