5 Things No One Tells You About Living In Japan

I decided to make this post now that I've got 6 months abroad under my belt, and my return date to NY is drawing near. When I first came here I had no idea what to expect, and my university didn't prepare me at all for how stressful my first week in Japan was. I hope this list can help you a bit if you're planning on living in Japan!

Be Prepared To Use Cash

This may come as a shock to you, but Japan is not as credit card friendly as you may think. When you're living in Japan, you'll quickly discover that any and all utilities must be paid in cash, no card allowed. Similarly, all health insurance monthly bills must also be paid entirely in cash. Every month you'll get a paper invoice in your mailbox with the amount owed printed on the paper. You can pay your bills at any local convenience store, just bring the slip and the appropriate amount of cash, and the store will pay your bill and give you a stamped receipt. I was really shocked when I tried to pay 6 months of health insurance, and I was told cash only at the counter! So make sure you prepare that $$$ ahead of time!

There are also a surprising amount of shops and restaurants that don't take cards, so it's imperative to ask before you buy anything. As you move outside of Tokyo, the odds of being able to pay with card exclusively gets slimmer and slimmer. Getting caught out when you thought you could use your card is one of the most embarrassing things ever, so always ask, as it's better to be safe than sorry.

You'll Need A Hanko

If you want to open a bank account, you're going to need a Japanese seal, other known as a Hanko. This is the Japanese version of a signature, and you'll have to have one made for you so that you can sign off on official documents. Hanko can come in many colors, and they tend to be as big as your pinky finger, and about the same thickness. The end of the Hanko will have your specific characters carved into it, which will be used to stamp. Banks will not take a regular handwritten signature, so getting a hanko is a must!

You can buy a hanko in designated stores, or you can have one made at a local store like Don Quijote, which has a hanko machine. I purchased my white hanko from there for about 500 yen, and it was made in about 5 minutes. You can also get an optional case for your hanko from these machines as well! If you're worried about not understanding the process, don't fret! These machines have English capabilities! Pictured below is a Hanko Machine.

Beware of Convenience Stores

When I first arrived in Japan I was over the moon at how many convenience stores there were scattered around my area. Around my house, I have 2 different chains of convenience stores within a 5-minute walking distance. At first, I thought this was a blessing. When I was sitting at home at 10 pm, I could take a stroll over to Family Mart and pick up some chips for some late night snacking. If I needed cleaning products, 7/11 was only a few blocks away. However, I've found there's a big problem with how 'convenient' these stores are.

Since the prices seem so cheap, and these stores are stationed virtually everywhere, convenient stores entice you to spend money. When you walk in, you can see dozens of magazines, amazing desserts and fully stocked lunch boxes that seem super affordable. These tiny purchases, a bag of chips here or a red bean bun there, can add up to major dollar signs. 
I admit, there were times when I bought things simply because I was in the vicinity of a 7/11, not because I particularly needed anything. The instant gratification of being able to buy anything, at any time of night, ended up being the perfect recipe for me wasting thousands of yen. Don't fall into the temptation of convenience stores, it's easier than you think!

Walking Can Be... Complicated 

There's a bit of a learning curve when it comes to understanding the silent rules that take place in everyday life, and most of them pertain to walking or standing. When people walk on the street, there is a very clear section that walks up, and one that walks down. People typically do not intermingle, and they stick by their designated section. The left side of the street (near the shops) is for people walking up, while the right side (near the cars) is for people walking down. You typically don't break this walking pattern unless you want to pass someone who's walking slow, or if you're riding a bike. 

Speaking of bikes, you may be surprised to learn that bikes travel on the sidewalk just like you do. While bikes can ride in the street, people tend to ride their bikes right next to pedestrians as well. Japanese people are also skillful enough at riding bikes that they can carry their children with them. The most I've ever seen on a bike was 3 kids, one swaddled on the mom, one in the front and one sitting in a seat that was attached to the back!

Another rule for walking/standing is on escalators. The right side of the escalator is for people wishing to walk up, while the left side is for those who want to stand. During rush hour, you'll see a long line of people simply waiting to get on the escalator, rather than use the stairs.

There are so many rules I don't think I can cover every single one in this post, but the last one I'll share is that you can't talk on the phone on the bus or train. When you ride public transport, the automated voice on the intercom will often tell you to put your phone on 'Manner Mode' which means 'Silent Mode'. When people receive calls on public transport, they deny the call and simply text back 'I'm on the train/bus'.

Japanese Trains Aren't As Complex As You Think

The train system in Japan can be super intimidating, especially if you aren't familiar with subway-style train services, however, it's not as hard as you think and the system is pretty easy to figure out!

Each train line is colored a certain way and has a letter associated with that color that helps you identify the line. As you can see from this chart, the Tozai line is light blue, which means it's letter is a T. In a similar fashion, the Hibiya line is grey, and its representative letter is H.

Let's go through this example! The name in the middle is the current stop, the name that's slightly greyed out is the stop you just came from, and the name near the sign signifies the next stop. You can see the color, which is a seafoam green, and the letter C. There is also a number under the C, which tells you what stop this is on the line.

In this case, the color and symbol combination signifies the Chiyoda Line. Not only will this color be stamped throughout the train station to help you identify this line, but the train will also have this color striped on the side and front! All trains abide by these same rules, so the more you ride the trains the more familiar you'll become with lines and colors. However, for the first few days, I recommend sticking to Google Maps to show you the way!

I hope this post was helpful in some way, and I might come back to the 'Unspoken Rules' subject at a later date. Let me know what you think in the comments!