Tokyo is a fascinating destination for expats offering high quality of healthcare, delicious cuisine, historic sights, abundance of cultural activities and advanced public transport with the most extensive urban railway network in the world! To find out what it’s like to live in Tokyo, we interviewed Mikhail Kotykhov. Read on for his interesting insights and valuable tips that may come in handy to those looking to relocate to this city.
1Mikhail, please tell where originally are you from and how did it happen that you decided to take the big leap and move to Japan and Tokyo particularly?
Good question… I am from Krasnodar, Russia originally. Lived there, finished the local University and worked there after graduation. A few years later decided to go overseas to do my Masters. So, I did… went to Auckland, New Zealand, lived and worked there for about 7 years. After that I moved to Japan since my wife is Japanese.
2What do you do in Tokyo?
I teach Business and Economics to college students here in Tokyo. I also teach communication skills to managers in local companies. English is my current working language, don’t use Russian or Japanese often. Recently I started a couple of my own online education projects, trying to help people learn languages and skills.
3The very unique culture and a completely different way of life of Japanese people can make it hard to adjust to life in this country. What was your very first impression of Tokyo when you first landed there? Did you have (or maybe still have) a so-called culture shock? Could you give an example or two of Tokyoites’ customs or day-to-day activities which appeared weird or confusing to you?
My first impressions were back in 2008. I visited Japan for the first time when I was still living in New Zealand.
One thing I can tell you… certainly you get a completely different view of the country and its people if you are just visiting it or living here for at least a few months.
Culture shock… well, as a tourist, you probably don’t feel much of that. You see one side of things and you don’t really have time to ask questions or understand the cultural differences.
Of course, you get mostly positive impressions of people you meet, everyone is surprisingly polite and nice to you. There are lots of things to see, and later you learn that only a few of them are in the guidebooks or travel blogs.
As for the weird stuff… How about a 11.30pm subway train packed with commuters going home from work or after work-related drinking? For me it is still hard to get used to it, but this is something you might see every day if you have to commute at this time.
And how unique is the local culture… Yes, you see a lot of interesting stuff, sometimes exciting or often strange. But I don’t think that the culture is any more unique than any other culture. Foreigners visiting Russia for the first time will certainly find local culture and habits unique. I do too, sometimes.
4What advice can you give to other fellow expats to help them adjust to new environment in Tokyo? Do you think it will be beneficial to take cross cultural training?
My honest advice… and it is not specific to Japan only… you’ve got to be open-minded and see things as they are, and not as you want to see them through your own culture.
And something I learned in Japan myself… it always takes time to understand how people live, what they think, what they say and how they say it. Many foreigners tend to jump to conclusions based on anecdotal learning and then sharing their thoughts on the Internet. This leads to stereotyping.
So, it takes time and patience to do a bit of learning about the other culture.
The best cross-cultural training I would recommend is talking to many people and trying to see multiple perspectives. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend doing a formal training, informal one works better and brings results over time.
And, if at a glance, Japanese appear unemotional or even “robotic” to you, the best way to get rid of this feeling is to go drinking with them and communicate in a more informal setting. You will certainly change this perception.
5What is the locals’ attitude toward foreigners in Tokyo? Do you feel welcome in this country? Is it easy to blend into their society? I’ve heard they refer to foreigners as “gaijin” (an “outsider” in Japanese), is it true?
These are really challenging questions. Each of them has both “yes” and “no” answers and lots of details. Should probably write a book about that some time. Can share only a few thoughts based on my own experience.
Foreigners in Japan somehow enjoy an amazing amount of patience, friendliness and curiosity about themselves and their native cultures. It’s amazing for me that you can go around town without any knowledge of a local language and customs, and no one will ever refuse talking to you just because they feel that you need to speak to them in their language, and not in English. I would think that a foreigner will have a hard time doing that in Russia or China.
On the other hand it does not mean that people love you just because you are a foreigner. I personally think they understand that it takes time for you to learn how things are done in Japan. This is why they are really patient about the fact that you tend to break the local communication rules all the time.
It is certainly not easy to blend in, may be even impossible, unless you were growing up in this culture. It is different from other countries where you see more influence of an immigrant culture (Europe, US, Canada, Australia). Living in Japan, and possibly also in China, Russia or Korea, as a foreigner, simply means that you cannot expect the local culture to adopt to your needs and preferences, but you can try to adjust your habits to the local culture. At least, to the extent possible.
6One of the most challenging things when moving to a foreign city is building a new circle of friends from scratch. Do you have your own socialising techniques that help acquire new connections in Tokyo? Maybe there are any expat networking events or online communities you can recommend that are worth participating in?
I did not really have a strategy for making contacts here in Japan. If I met some good friends, it happened naturally, through daily communication. Did not attend any networking events just to make new friends. But that’s in my experience, might work well for other people.
One thing I certainly wouldn’t do is to limit your circle of friends to people who speak only your native language.
7Is it necessary to have a car in Tokyo to get around? If you have an experience of renting a car in Tokyo, please share how it went.
Never had a chance to rent or drive the car here. Most people do have cars, but use them only for short family trips on weekends. Almost everyone commutes to work by train. It is possible to rent a car, but almost never seen foreigners doing it.
8Can you recommend any apps, blogs or books which you find to be useful and which can help newly arrived expats to explore Tokyo and Japan?
I am pretty sure there are some good blogs or books, but the thing is… I’ve never used them myself. Not because I don’t want to. Just wanted to get a first-hand experience dealing with a different culture, rather than reading about someone else’s. Wish I could be more helpful on this one, but really have no personal recommendations.
9What are the best Tokyo neighborhoods for foreign expats to rent accommodation in?
It’s surprising, perhaps, but there is hardly any difference, in my experience, to where you live. The distance to one of the city centers does matter, however.
It is also interesting that “wealthy” neighborhoods might not necessarily look posh compared to “working-class” ones.
And also, let’s not forget that Tokyo is the city where the top-ranked executives in multi-billion dollar corporations are taking a normal train to work every day.
10Tokyo has 14,184 bars comparing to London which has only 2,143 and boasts the biggest number of Michelin-starred restaurants of any city in the world. How do you find Tokyo’s bar and nightclub scene? Can you share some cool restaurants or bars which you personally like that are worth checking out?
The choice of restaurants/bars is quite possibly one of the best in world. Consider the purchasing power as one of the reasons, plus the fact that many Japanese travel overseas often and love foreign things.
However, the quality of foreign food might be quite different from its original version in the native country. The best bet is to find a good place that serves Japanese food. It is also often a cheaper option, although it depends on a location.
11Tokyo is the 7th most expensive city in the world for expats according to the most recent Mercer’s Cost of Living Survey 2014. What is your outlook on this? Do you find Tokyo to be very expensive?
Yes and no. Prices of many food items are reasonable. Rent and utilities are certainly expensive, but now I guess even Shanghai or Moscow might be ahead. The same might apply to the money you need to eat out.
One thing that is really expensive here is fruits. Locally-produced fruits are sometimes priced at a level that even a person with a good salary would consider expensive. Imported fruits are usually cheaper, but still are very expensive if you compared to prices in other countries.
12What are the English speaking abilities of the locals? Did you have any communication problems when taking a taxi or visiting a doctor? Did you ever have to use an interpreter’s services? And do you think learning Japanese is essential if one wants to enjoy life and fit in culturally in Tokyo?
English-speaking abilities of locals vary greatly. It’s very easy to find a Japanese person who lived overseas for years and speaks a near-native English. The majority, however, cannot communicate in it. Even if they do, they will try to avoid communicating with you in English. Certainly, Japanese would be their preferred option.
Communicating with taxi drivers or even asking directions from random people in the street is not a problem. But finding an English-speaking doctor surely is.
Of course, learning Japanese is the only way to overcome the communication barrier. The difficulty is, however, that just learning the language does not necessarily make you an effective communicator. You’ve got to understand many things that are not said in conversation and you cannot learn these things from the book or any formal training. Only first-hand experience counts.
13What are the 5 things you like most and 5 things you dislike about living in Tokyo?
I’ll go with just a few random thoughts.
I like the friendliness and openness of people, their natural and genuine curiosity about other cultures, tolerance to foreigners not obeying the local rules for communication. Of course, the food is great. The transportation system is generally reliable and efficient.
On the other hand, it can get really hot and humid in summer. Also, not as a dislike, but rather as a challenge – it takes a lot of time for any business decision to be made, as people are focusing on the process and not the outcome. This an assumption, however, and it might not apply to any situation.
14Can you share some interesting “things I didn’t know about Tokyo before I moved here”?
I guess there are many small differences you notice once you walk by the street together with locals. Most visitors don’t really have a chance to see Tokyo beyond the famous sightseeing places.
To me, Tokyo, looked surprisingly green in summer.
15Do you enjoy living in Tokyo and can you see yourself staying here for a long period? Or do you want to return to your home country or maybe move somewhere else?
Well, this is always a challenging question. I would say, it is pretty much like everywhere, there are certain advantages and disadvantages of living in any place.
Certainly, Japan is a rather challenging place for a foreigner to live and you need to adjust to the local language/customs. But there are some advantages as well.
Thank You, Mikhail!