I spent a good part of my adult life in East Asia.
After growing up in Northern Ireland, I moved to China and Australia, traveling through South East Asia whenever I had the chance.
So when I moved to Tokyo in 2018, I had a vague idea of what to expect. But big cities – especially those as dynamic, complex and multifaceted as the Japanese capital – always hold new surprises.
Here are 10 unexpected things I learned after moving to Tokyo.
The trains are almost silent despite being full of passengers
Tokyo trains are known to be crowded.
Professional train pushers, called “oshiya” in Japanese, in skipper’s caps and white gloves, squeeze commuters into subway cars to pack as many people as possible. This jostling occurs frequently during weekday rush hours and can be very uncomfortable.
Although the trains are often very full, they are surprisingly quiet.
Some seated passengers sleep during the trip, so I sometimes hear strange humming drifting through the car. But in my experience, it seems almost no one on board talks, eats or causes disturbances of any kind.
Trains stop around midnight
My first home in the Tokyo area was in Chiba, a prefecture northeast of the city center. Although well connected to the capital, it usually took an hour or more to get home from the city center.
In Tokyo, trains stop around midnight. When I was spending a night out and living in Chiba, I often missed the last train home, which left at 11:30 p.m.
On more than one occasion, I had to shell out at least $100 for a taxi or take refuge in a karaoke room until the trains resumed service around 5 am.
The city is so crowded that it can be difficult to find privacy
With around 14 million people living in Tokyo, finding privacy can be difficult.
Major highways and commercial districts are blocked from dawn to dusk. Crowded stations are anxiety-provoking at rush hour and on weekends. Even lanes and residential streets are rarely without at least a few walkers, joggers or cyclists.
The lack of privacy and quiet extended to my homes as well.
I lived in several houses or apartments in Tokyo, and they all had walls as thin as rice paper. Eavesdropping on my neighbors seemed unavoidable, and I expect them to be able to overhear my conversations as well.
If tenants want more space, they should be willing to pay for it
When my mother visited me in Tokyo a few years ago and walked into my apartment, her first words were, “Is that it?”
She wasn’t trying to be rude – I had to settle for a shoebox apartment because, like so many others, I wanted to live in central or downtown Tokyo.
It is one of the most expensive cities in the world, especially when it comes to rental properties.
Many local stores only accept cash
Japan has a global image of a high-tech, futuristic city, so I was surprised by its continued reliance on silver.
When I first moved to Tokyo, I constantly withdrew Japanese yen from ATMs to pay in shops and restaurants. Even the bills, like my utility bill and my annual tourist tax, had to be paid with paper money.
The pandemic has accelerated the use of digital payment systems in some parts of the city. But some older, family-owned businesses have been more resistant to change.
Many cafes and cafes only open late morning
My local cafe, which I also use as an office space, only opens at 2 p.m. on weekdays. And in the evening, it turns into a bar, which is a very different business model from what I used to see in other countries.
After moving to Tokyo, I realized that it is common for cafes and coffee shops to open their doors around 10 or 11 am.
In my opinion, it is several hours too late. There are exceptions, of course. Some places open earlier, but they are not always easy to find.
Japanese cuisine is more extensive and varied than I expected
When I moved here, I learned that Japanese cuisine extends far beyond sushi and ramen.
Tokyo is the city with the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, with more than 200 appearing on the 2021 guide’s list. They range from sizzling grilled chicken (“yakitori”) to French-Japanese fusion bistros, and many in between. they are affordable and delicious.
I’ve found Michelin-starred noodle dishes, like ramen, and Japanese soul food, like Osaka pancakes (“okonomiyaki”), for as low as $10 to $20 per meal.
Social etiquette is very different in Japan
When I was training to work as an English teacher in Tokyo, I asked several of my superiors if it was okay to shake hands with my students. They said yes, but I still noticed a slight hesitation in their voices.
I later learned that gestures commonly used in Western introductions, such as handshakes and hugs, don’t always feel natural in Japanese culture, which generally involves less physical contact between strangers or acquaintances.
When I tried to shake hands with people in Japan, I sometimes got a floppy, jelly-like wrist in return. Now I know how to bow, a traditional greeting and a sign of respect, before extending my hand.
If I’m in a more formal setting, someone can introduce themselves by handing me their business card. I’ve learned that it’s polite to accept it with both hands and refrain from pocketing it immediately, which can signal a lack of respect.
I’ve messed up this tricky social dance many times. However, many understand that I am an outsider and have forgiven my missteps.
Knowing a little Japanese goes a long way
Tokyo is a global city in a country that has the third largest economy in the world, so the lack of spoken English around me in my new home was unexpected.
Education First’s 2021 English Proficiency Index ranked the country’s English proficiency 78th in the world, behind other Asian countries such as Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, China, etc.
Being able to communicate a little in Japanese is a huge advantage for navigating daily life in Tokyo.
The weather can be extreme and very unpredictable
Tokyo’s climate really runs the gamut, from scorching summers to freezing winters.
Even as someone from cold Northern Ireland, I find winter in Tokyo to be freezing. Temperatures may seem mild but are often much colder due to the dry winter air (humidity is usually around 30%).
In the summer, the temperature can soar north of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity climbing to around 80%. For a fair-skinned person, those summer afternoons in the sun can seem unbearable.
Beyond the usual weather changes, Tokyo has also experienced typhoons and earthquakes.