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.
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
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?
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.
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’
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.
Farther afield, Haneda and Narita International airports allow for affordable travel to Taiwan,
Seoul and Shanghai in less than four hours.
How much does it
Tokyo ranked number one on Mercer’s
2012 Cost of Living Index for expats and number eight in the 2014 survey
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.