Things nobody tells you about living in Tokyo

Number one: Bring your favorite hand sanitizer.

It’s not that Japan is dirty, or anything–it’s not. They have crews of street cleaners in Tokyo whose job is to go around town with brooms, sweeping up dead leaves as they fall. If there’s a broken bottle on the sidewalk, it will be gone by the next day because of these guys. Does YOUR city have a team of dudes with rakes clearing off every sidewalk? I’ll bet not.

And while big cities like Tokyo might look a little rough around the edges, sort of like Detroit with fewer broken windows, it’s not actually dirty. Several buildings and houses I walk past every day on my way to the train station look like the sort of buildings that might have meth labs or illegal chop shops inside, but each one is a well-lived in home with three generations living there, or a busy repair shop. Japan just isn’t as concerned with exterior aesthetics–or rather, they are, but in a different way. America wants to keep everything looking brand new, so we repaint our houses frequently, make sure we hire illegal immigrants to do landscaping work, and clean graffiti off of everything. Japan has the unique aesthetic tradition of wabi-sabi, where something is more unique and meaningful if it is less than perfect, old, or broken. So replacing the big sliding door on a building isn’t necessary if the paint starts flaking or a little rust starts to build up, it lends character. And even if the paint is old, or the exterior is a little rusty, it’s STILL so clean you could perform surgery there. Taking off your shoes when you enter a building is more of a formality, given how clean the streets are. Many people regularly hose down their driveways or the street they live on to make sure the outdoors is as clean as their kitchens.

Overall, Japan is super clean. This idea of cleanliness extends to the expectation, however, that you won’t pee on your own hands when going to the bathroom. Japanese restrooms rarely have hand soap in them, and they also rarely have paper towels (a waste of paper), or electric hand dryers (a waste of electricity). Moreover, since the earthquake and tsunami, a lot of establishments that HAVE electric dryers have turned them off to help save electricity (lots of businesses and establishments are trying to reduce electricity consumption due to the ongoing problems with the Fukushima reactor. There are signs up all over Tokyo about saving power, and lots of train stations and metro tunnels are pretty dark these days).

It’s common for Japanese people to carry around a little hand towel or hankie that they can use to dry off their hands after they use the bathroom, but the lack of hand soap will likely still bother Americans. My advice is to always carry a little bottle of hand sanitizer with you while you’re out and about, just in case you need to go to the bathroom and don’t want to be wiping your wet hands on your pants as you leave.

Number two: You never ever ever EVER need to buy facial tissues.

In Japan, they like to hit the streets with advertising. Instead of just handing out leaflets and flyers, most Japanese people handing out ads on the street will be giving you something sort of useful. On hot days, they’ll hand out fans with ads printed on them, for instance. One of the most common mediums for advertisements in Japan, though, is tissues.

In one day of walking around Tokyo, I picked up 5 packs of tissues with ads printed on the back. They’re pretty nice tissues, too. The point is, there is no reason you would ever need to go to the store and buy tissues if you’re in Tokyo.

Strangely enough, though, I don’t think I’ve picked up any tissue ads in Akihabara or Kabuki-cho. Hmm…

Number three: Tokyo is always awake, but that doesn’t mean the trains are.

Last night, I went to a nomihoudai (a sort of all-you-can-eat buffet, but replace ‘eat’ with ‘drink’ and replace ‘buffet’ with ‘cocktails and 10-yen beer draws) and got to drink and enjoy general merriment with about 15 of my classmates. I was the first to leave (I skipped out at 11 after only two and a half drinks), and STILL barely managed to catch my last train.  Every train line stops running at different times, and the last few trains of the night are ridiculously packed with inebriated businessmen. It’s like a tin of sardines, packed in beer.

Some lines run until well after midnight–others, like mine, send their final train off at 11:30.

Taxis, however, are always running, but compared to American taxis, they’re kind of pricey–you can’t hop in on one side of Tokyo, have them drive you to the next ward and toss them $25 and be on your way. A trip that would cost $25 in New York or Chicago will cost you about $80 in Tokyo, and surprise surprise, the taxi fares go up 30% after 10:00–when the trains start shutting down. (The Tokyo fares start at 710 yen–about $9.25–then go up 80 yen every 275 meters. That works out to about a dollar every 6th of a mile. And again, that’s before 10 PM.) A trip to Narita Airport will cost you several hundred dollars. You also pretty much have to be able to tell the driver how to get to where you’re going–Japanese street addresses aren’t laid out in any logical order. The buildings are numbered in the order they are built, so you can have building 1 next to 18 next to 5 on the same street. (Of course, if they have a TomTom in their cab, then you just have to have the address so they can punch it in and let satellites drive for them…but you’ve gotta have that address, unless you want to pay for sitting in the cab while your driver looks up where you want to go on giant maps of Tokyo.)

The number of 24-hour establishments in Tokyo, however, means that you would only have to divide your time between 3 or 4 Starbucks or McDonald’s restaurants before the trains started running again at 5 am, if you miss your last train. And then there will at least be bright lights and colorful things to distract you from the realization that you are stranded in the biggest city in the world and you have 5 hours before the trains start rolling through the station again.

Number four: Conversion rates suck–don’t think about them.

Obviously, if you’re only going to be spending a short time in Tokyo, you should probably pay more attention to conversion rates–work out a budget for yourself, and stick to it. Really think about how many dollars you are spending, because you’ll be spending dollars again, soon. If you CAN buy it back in the States, DO. (For example, the price of the new PS Vita coming out this winter is $250, but 24,980 Yen–that works out to over $300 to buy the same product in Japan. Just buy the damn game system in America; it’s not region locked or anything, so just buy it there. I plan to, and I’m not going to be in America for another 10 months.)

I, however, will be here for a year. If I spend all of my time thinking ‘How many dollars is that?’, then I’ll never buy food or clothes–things I’ll NEED in the next year. With the dollar weakening and the yen growing stronger, conversion rates hover somewhere around 75 yen to the dollar–so the 100 Yen Store is really more like a $1.25 Store. If something costs 1000 Yen, that’s about $13. Couple the strength of the yen with the fact that a city the size of Tokyo is expensive to live in no matter what, and you’ll be cringing at the cost of a cup of coffee. I spent 360 Yen on a Chocolatte at Tully’s yesterday. The cheapest Red Bull I’ve seen is 180 yen from the vending machines on campus. A one-way metro ride from my house to campus is 490 yen–a three-month commuter pass was 35,000 yen–over $450. I was reimbursed 4800 yen for my travel to and from campus for the first two weeks I was here–I spent over $60 going back and forth from school for five days, and it would have been more, if the typhoon hadn’t hit and gotten the day’s activities cancelled.

One plus to having had such an expensive daily commute is now that I have my commuter pass, all of my independent travel costs look insanely cheap. I can ride back and forth from Shibuya or Akihabara for less than what one way of my daily commute used to cost. One downside is that this leads me to travel around Tokyo a lot, and you can really burn through your cash that way.

A lot of people still keep to the ‘100 yen = $1’ conversion rate in their heads when trying to determine if it’s worth it to buy this or that. I stick to the ‘Okay, I have a 10,000 yen bill in my wallet, and I don’t want to break it’ rule, myself.

That’s another thing…

Number five: Japan hates plastic.

Well, okay, not all of Japan, and not all plastic–just you and your damn American debit cards. Apparently, I’m the lucky one of my group, as every ATM I have used in Japan has worked just fine for me. If you carry $100 on you in America, you might never really end up using it, since credit and debit cards are so prevalent in our society. I hate carrying cash, and almost always pay with my debit card in the states.

Not so in Japan.

In Japan, people don’t really use credit cards so much. People routinely carry several man en notes (10,000 Yen) on their person. The closest you get to the ubiquitousness of Visa and MasterCard in the States is the ability to use your train/subway pass card all over the place. You can use your Suica/Pasmo train passes to buy soda from a vending machine in most stations–just wave your card in front of the machine, and it tells you your balance, and what you can afford out of the machine, then make your choice and wave the card again. Ta-da. A lot of other little stands and stalls in train stations accept your commuter pass, too. Buses will also accept Suica/Pasmo cards in lieu of paying cash for your fare. You can even get an app on your smart phone that turns your phone into your train pass.

But nobody really uses credit cards. It’s odd.

I remember going to the Square-Enix Store the other day, and was surprised to see that they accepted credit cards. Most places don’t even have the option.

My advice is this: Make sure your damn ATM card will work in Japan, and always be ready to pop in to 7-11 when you start getting down to about 5,000 yen in your wallet. You’ll be shocked at how quickly you actually spend money when you have to watch bills leave your wallet instead of just swiping your magical little charge card and leaving the store with a trunk full of groceries.

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