My Sagely Advice for Those Coming to Japan
Over the past few weeks I have been getting emails and questions regarding Japan and what things people should know before coming here to live or visit. This post is going to try to answer the bulk of those questions and some of the stuff I say here is from my own experience that I wish someone would have told me before I came over here. Now, I am telling you!
For those coming to live or visit here:
1) Internet takes a while to get set up, much longer than it does in the States or Canada. Be ready for this and know that when you sign up for the internet, three weeks wait time is quick here. Mine was set up in two and that was consider by many, an act of God.
2) Learn Katakana before Hiragana. In Japanese classes they teach you Hiragana first and Katakana second. You will use Katakana more then Hiragana, learn it, have it down pat before you come. When you see a grocery store here, you will thank me.
3) Bring some three prong to two prong electrical converters. Anything you have that has a ground plug on it will not work here unless you bring some two prong electrical outlet converters. I have known people just to bust off the ground but I would not advise it. All standard plugs in Japan are two prong.
4) Do not bring clocks, hairdryers, or curling irons if they have to be plugged in. Clocks go absolutely nutty here unless they are bought here. I have seen a hairdryer burst into flame and I have never trusted curling irons either since then.
5) If you have the money, get an MP3 player and a Gameboy DS or PSP. When you ride trains as much as I do, you will be glad you have them. My iPod gets used more than almost anything I own. Books are good to read on trains but books weigh a bit and cost a ton to bring with you. They are also a tad tricky and spendy to find in English here. My advice on books, bring only a few that you love and will be able to re-read.
6) If you think you are going to want a car while in Japan(though I am technically not allowed to by my employer) get your international driver's license before coming to Japan. Its illegal to get an international license while in Japan so you need one before you come.
7) Learn some basic phrases in Japanese. Where is something? How much is something? Excuse me. Thanks. Etc. This is just plain good stuff to know. In my opinion, if you are living in Japan, you should learn Japanese. Many people here will not speak to you in English, don't expect them to. I have found people are a ton more helpful even if you just try to speak Japanese. They set the bar pretty low for white people so if they see you even trying to say something, they will be pleased. On that note, if you come to Japan and already know Japanese pretty well, fake that you don't. A) Its funny to see what they say about you when they don't think you will understand and B) Sometimes if you speak Japanese too well, it weirds them out and they are less helpful.
8)Be patient and good natured and that will get you far here. As a rule, that probably applies to life as a whole but in Japan, its crucial. As I said, not all Japanese people know English and those that do probably will not be fluent in it. Be ready to help them out with whatever Japanese you know. Have a sense of humor about the whole thing and know that they are probably as uncomfortable with the situation as you are, if not more. Do not be rude to them! If you get rude with them, like all people, Japanese can turn into jerks really quick. See how far you get when you have pissed off the only kind of English speaking guy in a place. If Japanese people get the feeling you are being a jerk to them, even if they can't understand you, things go South very quickly. I know people that, while the Japanese people act friendly toward them in person, they say some pretty mean things behind their back and its all because this person was rude to a couple of people one time at a meeting. In my group of people at work, if you tick off one of the Japanese teachers, its a good bet news of what you did or did not do will get around to the others. Bottom line, be nice.
9)When you come here, get the train system down. It looks daunting at first but after a day or two you will see its actually very easy to use. The train is your life sometimes, know them, love them. :) You will find that after a while of riding them, you start to have places on each kind of train that you like to sit more than others. On every train I ride, I have a favorite spot on each side of the train depending on the direction I am going. Maybe I am weird, maybe I just figure if I am going to ride them as much as I do, I am going to be comfy doing it.
10) DO NOT BE RUDE TO COPS! This is a biggy. As I have said in other posts, Japanese cops have the ability to make your life a living hell if you tick them off. If you do not have your ARC card yet, carry your passport pretty much everywhere you go. There will be cops that will stop you on the street and ask to see it. If you need directions and stop at a Koban (police box) be ready to show your passport or ARC card. If you do not have it on you and you walk in to ask for directions, considered yourself fined, if not worse.
11) I feel like I say this almost every post these days but, its really really humid here. Bring the appropriate attire for the climate. Be ready to sweat and have deodorant with you. Its hard to find in stores sometimes. Stay hydrated and cool as much as possible. If you are traveling to a meeting, it may be best in the summer months to bring the dress clothes with you and get dressed up right before the meeting. This will keep you from looking like a wet rat in your nice clothes.
12) Learn to cook stuff without an oven or using only one burner. Apartments vary here but none I have seen have a kitchen like we are used to in North America. Find dishes you like that you can make in a pan on the stove. Prepare yourself to be without an oven for a while. If you are lucky enough to get an oven, be ready for it to be very very small.
13) It may be where I am at but as a whole, Japan can be a kind of lonely place. Try to make as many friends as possible and try to find people to hang out with. Aside from the internet, I do not talk to a lot of people very often. This kind of sucks and its really the only complaint I have about living here. Everyone deals with loneliness in different ways but be prepared for it, it will probably creep up on you at some point.
Special notes for females coming to Japan:
1) If you are a blonde or a redhead, prepare to get starred at and possibly photographed. Men are not supposed to take pics but don't be surprised if they do. If a guy really starts hassling you, report him to the train conductor or a cop if you see one. They are cracking down on pervs so odds are if you complain, they will act.
2) On trains especially, keep on eye out for gropers. If you want to feel more at ease and the train you are riding has a women only car, ride it. Groping is a problem here, especially if you are good looking and stand out. Odds are, if you are white, you are going to stand out.
3) While Japan is a pretty safe place, if you are alone, do not walk down certain streets at night. You will know the streets when you see them and I would avoid them unless you have a friend with you.
4) If a guy starts to bother you, go nuts on him. I have heard stories of guys bothering women and once the woman starts yelling at him the guy runs away. Japanese do not like confrontation and people getting in their face, use that to your advantage.
Well, thats about it for my Yoda-esque advice. If anyone has any questions beyond what I mentioned here, feel free to email me or leave a comment. I hope this helps, though a lot of it is kind of general knowledge. If you are moving to Japan, be ready for a fun time. Japan is a cool place to live and I have been pretty happy here, hopefully you will like the country as much as I have.