I moved to Tokyo after growing up in Northern Ireland. These are the 10 things that surprised me the most.

David McElhinney and a bowl of ramen with egg and chicken leg

When I moved to Tokyo in 2018, I was immersed in Japanese culture and cuisine.David McElhinney

  • I grew up in Northern Ireland and moved to Tokyo in 2018.

  • English isn’t widely spoken here, so knowing a little bit of Japanese will go a long way.

  • Although I have traveled through Asia before, some cultural differences surprised me.

I have spent a significant portion of my adult life in East Asia.

After growing up in Northern Ireland, I moved to China and Australia and traveled South East Asia whenever I had the chance.

So when I moved to Tokyo in 2018, I had a vague idea of ​​what to expect. But big cities – especially those as dynamic, complex and versatile as the Japanese capital – always bring new surprises.

Here are 10 unexpected things I learned after moving to Tokyo.

The trains are almost silent despite being full of passengers

Tokyo train station, full of people walking through?

Tokyo train station, full of people walking through?

During rush hour, the station is packed with commuters.David McElhinney

The trains in Tokyo are known for being overcrowded.

Professional train pushers, called “oshiya” in Japanese, in boatmen’s hats and white gloves, commuters crush in subway cars to pack as many people as possible. This scramble often happens during weekday rush hours, and it can be very inconvenient.

Even though the trains are often very fullthey are shockingly quiet.

Some seated passengers are asleep during the journey, so I occasionally hear the odd snore drifting through the carriage. But in my experience it seems like hardly anyone on board speaks, eats or causes any kind of disturbance.

Trains stop around midnight

Tokyo street at night with rainy sidewalk, shops on the right

Tokyo street at night with rainy sidewalk, shops on the right

I moved to Tokyo in 2018 after living in China and Australia.David McElhinney

My first home in the Tokyo area was in Chiba, a prefecture northeast of the city center† Although it was well connected to the capital, it usually took an hour or more to get home from the city center.

In Tokyo, trains stop running around midnight† On a night out and living in Chiba, I often missed the last train home, which left at 11:30 PM

On more than one occasion I had to pay at least $100 for a taxi or take refuge in a karaoke room until the trains started running again around 5am

The city is so busy that it can be difficult to find privacy

busy streets of Tokyo from aerial view

busy streets of Tokyo from aerial view

I am constantly surrounded by other people in Tokyo, Japan’s most populous city.David McElhinney

with round 14 million people if you live in Tokyo it can be a challenge to find privacy.

Major highways and commercial districts are jammed from dawn to dusk. Overcrowded train stations cause unrest during rush hours and on weekends. Even alleys and residential streets are rarely without at least a few walkers, joggers or cyclists.

busy street in japan

The streets in Tokyo are filled with people going in all directions.David McElhinney

The lack of privacy and tranquility has extended to my homes as well.

I’ve lived in several houses or apartments in Tokyo and they all had walls as thin as rice paper. Eavesdropping on my neighbors felt inevitable, and I expect they can hear my conversations, too.

If tenants want more space, they must be willing to pay for it

When my mother visited me in Tokyo a few years ago and walked into my apartment, her first words were, “Is this it?”

She tried not to be rude – I had to settle for a shoebox because, like so many others, I wanted to live downtown or downtown Tokyo.

David McElhinney's Bedroom in Tokyo

David McElhinney’s Bedroom in Tokyo

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

It’s one of the world’s most expensive cities to live in, especially when it comes to rental properties

Many local shops only accept cash

Japan has a global image as a high-tech, futuristic cityso I was surprised by the constant reliance on cash.

When I first moved to Tokyo, I was constantly withdrawing Japanese yen from ATMs so I could pay in shops and restaurants. Even bills, such as my utility bill and annual housing tax, had to be paid with paper money.

The pandemic has accelerated the use of digital payment systems in some parts of the city. But some older, mom-and-pop businesses were more resilient to the change.

Many cafes and coffee shops don’t open until late in the morning

cup of coffee in Tokyo cafe with books in the background

cup of coffee in Tokyo cafe with books in the background

I use the local coffee shop as my office.David McElhinney

My neighborhood café, which I also use as an office space, only opens at 2 p.m. on weekdays. And in the evening it turns into a bar, which is a very different business model than I was used to in other countries.

After settling in Tokyo I realized that it is common for cafes and coffee shops to open their doors around 10am or 11am

I think that’s a few hours late. There are of course exceptions. Some places open earlier, but they are not always easy to find.

The Japanese cuisine is more extensive and varied than I expected

Japanese meal with mushrooms sprouts and greens in bowl

Japanese meal with mushrooms sprouts and greens in bowl

The food in Japan is much more varied than I expected.David McElhinney

When I moved here I learned that Japanese cuisine goes way beyond sushi and ramen

Tokyo is the city with the most Michelin star restaurants in the world, with over 200 making the 2021 guide list. They range from sizzling grilled chicken pieces (“yakitori”) to Japanese-French fusion bistros, and many of them are affordable except it’s delicious

sushi on plate

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

I’ve found Michelin-starred noodle dishes, such as ramen, and Japanese soul food, such as Osaka pancakes (“okonomiyaki”), for as little as $10 to $20 per meal.

Social etiquette is very different in Japan

While I was training to work as an English teacher in Tokyo, I asked several of my superiors if it was okay to shake hands with my students. They said yes, but I always heard a slight hesitation in their voices.

I later learned that gestures often used in Western introductions, such as handshakes and hugs, don’t always feel natural in Japanese culture, which is generally associated with less physical touch between strangers or acquaintances.

David McElhinney with a friend eating a Japanese meal together and laughing

David McElhinney with a friend eating a Japanese meal together and laughing

I’ve learned a lot about Japanese culture and social etiquette since moving here.David McElhinney

When I tried to shake people’s hands in Japan, I sometimes got a limp, jelly-like wrist in return. Now I know I must bow, a traditional greeting and a sign of respect, before I extend my hand.

If I’m in a more formal setting, someone can introduce themselves by handing me their business card. I’ve learned that it’s polite to accept it with both hands and not immediately pocket it, which could indicate a lack of respect.

I’ve ruined this delicate social dance many times. However, many understand that I am a foreigner and have forgiven my transgressions.

Knowing a little bit of Japanese will go a long way

misspelled character in japan

misspelled character in japan

During my stay in Tokyo I saw signs of misspelled English.David McElhinney

Tokyo is a metropolis in a country that has the third largest economy in the world, so the lack of English spoken around me in my new home was unexpected.

Education Firsts English Language Proficiency Index 2021 ranked the country’s English skills in 78th place in the world, behind other Asian countries such as Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, China and more.

Being able to communicate a little in Japanese is a huge advantage when navigating everyday life in Tokyo.

The weather can be extreme and very unpredictable

David McElhinney takes a photo of the Japanese street

David McElhinney takes a photo of the Japanese street

I have experienced a wide variety of weather conditions in Tokyo.David McElhinney

The weather in Tokyo really runs the gamut, ranging from scorching hot summers to frigid winters.

Even as someone coming from chilly Northern Ireland, winter in Tokyo is chilling to me. The temperatures can be read as mild, but often feel much colder because of the dryness in the winter air (humidity is usually around 30%).

In the summer, temperatures can reach north of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity reaching about 80%. For someone with fair skin, those summer afternoons in the sun can feel unbearable.

In addition to the routine weather changes, Tokyo has also experienced typhoons and earthquakes.

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