David McElhinney and a bowl of ramen with egg and chicken leg
When I moved to Tokyo in 2018, I became immersed in Japanese culture and cuisine.David McElhinney
  • I moved to Tokyo in the summer of 2018).

  • Being aware of a little Japanese goes a long way.

  • I've traveled through Asia before, but I was surprised by some of the differences.

I've lived in East Asia for a long time.

Whenever I had the chance, I traveled through Southeast Asia after moving to China and Australia.

I didn't know what to expect when I moved to Tokyo in the fall of last year. The Japanese capital is an example of a big city that brings new surprises.

I moved to Tokyo and learned a lot.

The trains are almost silent despite being packed with passengers

tokyo train station, crowded with people walking through
tokyo train station, crowded with people walking through
During rush hour, the train station is packed with commuters.David McElhinney

The trains in Tokyo are packed.

During rush hour, professional train pushers, called "oshiya" in Japanese, in skipper caps and white gloves, rush commuters into subway carriages to pack in as many people as possible.

The trains are surprisingly quiet even though they are full.

I occasionally hear the snores of some seated passengers on the journey. In my experience, it doesn't seem like a lot of people are on board.

Trains stop running around midnight

tokyo street at night with rainy sidewalk, shops to the right
tokyo street at night with rainy sidewalk, shops to the right
I moved to Tokyo in 2018 after living in China and Australia.David McElhinney

The first house I owned in the Tokyo area was in the prefecture of Chiba. It took an hour or more to get home from the city center though it was well connected to the capital.

The trains stop running in Tokyo. I missed the final train home many times when I lived in Chiba.

I had to pay at least $100 for a taxi or take refuge in a karaoke room when the trains were not running.

The city is so crowded that it can be hard to find privacy

crowded tokyo streets from aerial view
I'm constantly surrounded by other people in Tokyo, the most populous Japanese city.David McElhinney

Finding privacy in Tokyo can be difficult.

There are major highways and commercial districts. Crowded train stations make people anxious. There are usually at least a few walkers, joggers, or cyclists on the streets.

The streets in Tokyo are filled with people headed in every direction.David McElhinney

Privacy and quiet have been lost in my homes as well.

I've lived in several houses and apartments in Tokyo and they all had walls made of rice paper. I expect my conversations to be heard by my neighbors as well.

If renters want more space, they should be prepared to pay for it

The first thing my mom said when she entered my apartment was "Is this it?".

I wanted to live in central or downtown Tokyo, so I settled for a small apartment.

David McElhinney's bedroom in Tokyo
My bedroom in Tokyo doesn't have much space.David McElhinney

It is one of the most expensive places to live in the world.

Many local shops only accept cash 

I was surprised that Japan continued to rely on cash despite its high-tech image.

When I first moved to Tokyo, I used to withdraw money from ATMs to pay for my purchases. Paper money was used to pay my utility bill.

Digital payment systems have been used more quickly in some areas of the city due to the Pandemic. Some mom-and-pop businesses are more resistant to change than others.

A lot of cafés and coffee shops don't open until late morning

cup of coffee in tokyo cafe with books in the background
I use the local coffee shop as my office.David McElhinney

On weekdays, my local cafe doesn't open until 2 p.m. It turns into a bar in the evening, which is a different business model than I've seen in other countries.

cafés and coffee shops usually open at 10 a.m. or 11 a.m.

I think it's too late. It's difficult to find places that open earlier.

Japanese cuisine is more vast and varied than I expected

japanese meal with mushrooms sprouts and greens in bowl
The food in Japan is much more varied than I expected.David McElhinney

Japanese cuisine is much more than just sushi and ramen.

The city of Tokyo has over 200Michelin-starred restaurants and is the most visited city in the world. Many of them are affordable and delicious and range from sizzling grilled chicken to Japanese- French fusion bistros.

Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world.David McElhinney

For as little as $10 to $20 per meal, I've found some of the world's best noodle dishes, like ramen, and Japanese soul food.

Social etiquette is very different in Japan

I asked my superiors if it was okay for me to shake hands with my students when I was training to teach English in Tokyo. They said yes, but I was hesitant in their voices.

Western introductions, like handshakes and hugs, don't always feel natural in Japanese culture, which often involves less physical contact between strangers or acquaintances.

David McElhinney with friend eating a japanese meal together and smiling
I've learned a lot about Japanese culture and social etiquette since moving here.David McElhinney

Sometimes I get a floppy, jelly-like wrist when I shake hands in Japan. I bow and extend my hand now that I know how to do that.

A person may introduce themselves by giving me their business card. It's a good idea to accept it with two hands and not immediately pocket it, which can signal disrespect.

I've messed up this dance a lot. Many people know that I am a foreigner and have forgiven my mistakes.

Knowing a little Japanese goes a long way

During my time in Tokyo, I've seen signs with misspelled English.David McElhinney

Tokyo is a global city that has the third largest economy in the world, so the lack of English spoken around me was unexpected.

The country's English skills were ranked 78th in the world, behind other Asian countries such as Singapore and the Philippines.

It's a huge advantage to be able to communicate in Japanese when you're in Tokyo.

The weather can be extreme and very unpredictable

David McElhinney taking a photo of japanese street
I've experienced a wide range of weather in Tokyo.David McElhinney

The weather in Tokyo varies from hot to cold.

I find the winter in Tokyo to be very cold. The temperature might be mild, but it can feel much colder because of the dry winter air.

During the summer months, the temperature can go up to 90 degrees and the humidity can go up to 80%. Summer afternoons in the sun can be hard for a person with a fair complexion.

Tokyo has experienced earthquakes and typhoons.

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