Safe and clean – yet rarely dull – Japan’s capital buzzes with energy and can be surprisingly affordable for those willing to adapt.
By Lindsey Galloway24 September 2014
Described by residents as a “mixture of many faces” and a “Disney remake of Blade Runner” thanks to its diverse, trend-setting inhabitants and futuristic backdrop, Tokyo buzzes with an eclectic energy. But despite being one of the busiest cities in the world, it is also one of the most accommodating to outsiders and expats.
“Many Tokyoites encounter foreigners on a daily basis, and can be very helpful and patient with tourists,” said American Natalia Doan, a former Tokyo resident and author of How to Work, Travel, and Study in Japan. English speakers, in particular, can expect to feel more comfortable in coming years. “In preparation for the 2020 Olympics, Tokyo is making an even greater commitment to English language education,” Doan said.
Tokyo is one of safest capital cities in the world, too. “People reserve their seats in Starbucks by leaving their wallet on the table,” said Chris Kirkland, a British expat who has lived in Tokyo for five years and founded the site TokyoCheapo.com. In general, residents respect personal space and privacy, and public spaces are remarkably clean.
These traits do not mean the city is dull, however. After all, this is a place where the latest café trend has customers mingling with animals. “The central districts are stuffed full of clubs, bars and goat cafes that open till 5 am,” said Kirkland. “After dark when the alcohol starts to flow, the locals tend to loosen up a bit.” In particular, the neighbourhood of Shibuya operates around the clock and is popular with teens and 20-somethings.
Where do you want to live?
Kirkland said expats planning to move to Tokyo should only consider the city centre. “Suburbia in Tokyo is pretty dull and isolating for foreigners due to its top-heavy age population,” he said. Also, the train doesn’t run past midnight, which makes staying out late a challenge. “The only exception would be to live on the very end of a train line, where you still get the benefit of fast access to the city during the day, plus proximity to nature or the ocean,” Kirkland added.
The neighbourhoods directly around Shibuya, including Daikanyama, Nakameguro, Aoyama and Ebisu, are popular with younger people and creative types. For an upscale feel close to Shibuya, Doan suggested Gaienmae, a neighbourhood near Omotesandō that’s known as the Champes-Elysees of Japan for its grand, tree-lined boulevard. “Gaienmae is a wonderful and convenient place to live, with a price tag to match,” Doan said.
As a study-abroad student, Doan lived in Nakacho, 10km north of downtown, which she loved for its proximity to “Happy Road Oyama”, a covered road full of fruit stalls, shopping and restaurants that gave the area a “friendly, bustling vibe”.
The up-and-coming Minami Senju neighbourhood 18km northeast of downtown has low rents for a surprising reason. “It was actually one of the least popular areas of Tokyo due to its distant past as a former execution ground in the Edo period, which ended in 1868,” said Andrew Hall, who works for Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo. Since most younger people are not superstitious, the area is popular with families with small children and expats.
What do you want to live in?
Residents agree that Tokyo’s architecture leaves much to be desired. Both houses and high-rises have to be earthquake-ready, and designs lean toward the practical. Most people live in basic condos or apartments where privacy is at a premium.
That said, sometimes a bland exterior can give way to an interior oasis. “A Japanese building that seems ordinary from the outside might be a fantastic restaurant or luxurious home on the inside,” Doan said. “Some of the best Japanese restaurants I’ve been to have been on the fourth or fifth floors of seemingly ‘typical’ office buildings.”
Where can you travel?
Due to its central location, Tokyo makes an easy base for exploring the rest of Japan. Both Doan and Hall suggested getting away to hot spring baths on weekends. Hall recommended Hakone, less than 100km south of Tokyo, for its views of Mt Fuji and mountain hikes, and Doan suggested Oedo Onsen Monogatari, 18km and less than an hour train ride from Shibuya, for its sand baths and fish pedicures.
Only a 10-minute walk from Oedo Onsen Monogatari, the Sega Joypolis is a must-see for videogame fans with its multi-floor arcade and historical exhibits. For a break from the big city, Okutama offers canyoning adventures that include sliding down waterfalls and hiking through lush forests.
How much does it cost?
Tokyo ranked number one on Mercer’s 2012 Cost of Living Index for expats and number eight in the 2014 survey – yet residents said that living in the city doesn’t have to be overly pricey.
“If you can cope with more compact accommodation, not owning a car and curbing your consumption of certain Western ‘luxuries’ like cheese, wine, berries, organic muesli and pregnancy yoga, then Tokyo is significantly cheaper and better value than London and many other major western cities,” Kirkland said.
Good food needn’t break the bank. A hearty sushi meal starts at less than 850 yen, and noodle bowls like ramen, udon and soba also come cheap. Even in trendy restaurants, you can dine for under 1,700 yen if you don’t order drinks. “Whether you spend 20,000 or 2,000 yen, you can always find an amazing meal,” Doan said.
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