Living and Learning in Tokyo

For 2019, I’m living in Tokyo for up to one year, running my freelance design operation from there and studying Japanese in immersive and intensive month long modules. It’s a bit of a jump from my usual lifestyle or working from home in Croydon with my cats. Also - my husband still lives in London so that makes things even more dramatic! I’d planned to post about this earlier and the moving process happened so fast that I was up to my neck in work deadlines and Japanese revision before I knew it!

The first question every asks me is why did I decide to move away to Japan for the year. There’s a lot of smaller reasons that feed into answering the question of, ‘Why this year?’, but the decision of why to do it at all was a more obvious one. I’ve wanted to live abroad for a long time and I’ve wanted to visit Japan for a long time. After I spent my honeymoon in Japan in 2015, I knew that I would love to spend more time based in Tokyo as a ‘local’ resident. My husband was very supportive because he’s been fortunate enough to do a lot of world travelling before we met each other at university. He insisted that it was an experience that I would not want to miss out on.

As time when on, it became apparent that if we waited for the right opportunity for us to both live in Japan together, it really might never happen. We’re very supportive of one another’s careers and goals in life but trying to make them line up with a year out of the country was almost impossible. At the start of 2018, I was getting ready to turn 30. It was at this time that we discovered the ‘Working Holiday Visa’.

Obtaining a visa was, ultimately, the main reason behind the, ‘Why this year?’ question. In most scenarios of living abroad, you need a visa in order to stay in a country for longer than a tourist amount of time (often a maximum of 90 days). Otherwise, you need a working visa (or another kind of visa) and this usually involves a lot of paperwork, time and investment on the part of the employer and the employee. It’s often not even an option if you lack the language skills required for the country you’re interested in staying in. The Working Holiday Visa is a visa which offered an opportunity to live/work in Japan for up to one year. It was ideal for me because my freelance career wasn’t something I wanted to sacrifice, even if I was fortunate enough to secure a working visa allowing me to stay in Japan longer than 3 months.

There was one small catch (isn’t there always?). The age limit for a WHV was 18 to 30 years old and I was about to turn 30. Providing I made my application before my 31st birthday, the window of opportunity was still there for me to stay in Japan, working and learning for up to one year. That’s why I am here, in 2019.

The next thing people are interested in, though it’s actually a very boring subject, is how it all came about. If anyone is looking for inspiration, rather than reality, I would go ahead and skip to the next paragraph. The truth is that it all came about with planning, saving and paperwork. So much paperwork.

I applied to the Japanese Embassy in Piccadilly, in person, once I had gathered all the necessary paperwork advised on their website. There was no appointment system so I simply turned up, pulled a ticketed number and waited my turn. I’m lucky that I live very close to a train route into London Victoria, so getting there twice in the space of a fortnight in order to submit and collect my visa application was not a challenge. It wasn’t very busy and the staff I dealt with were extremely helpful and polite. My main advice would be to just invest a lot of time getting your paperwork nailed before you turn up, especially if you’re travelling from far out of London.

In terms of finding somewhere to live and a school for my language studies, I had a whole year to plan this while we were saving up some extra cash to support the adventure. I really went to town, as far as online research was concerned. In the end, the school I picked was based on a recommendation from my (London-based) Japanese tutor at the time. She had picked up the recommendation from another of her students who had visited Tokyo to study abroad. Future blog post spoiler alert - I only ruddy bumped into this student while I was at my new school! Small world, huh? My accommodation was taking longer to track down but I eventually stumbled on something via a YouTube review and it turned out to be absolutely ideal for my requirements.

I’m living in a studio apartment (one room with an open plan kitchen attached and a separate bathroom) in Tokyo. I’m outside the thick of the tourist central areas but not so far out that I can’t get on the metro with ease. My building is based between three metro stations, actually, so I have my pick of various lines. There’s a huge park across the road from my window and I take a stroll through it every day when I need a screen break. The park is always full of joggers, cyclists and families playing. It’s really well lit at night so it’s a very safe commute in the evenings too. My building is designed to encourage a ‘social experience’ and so there’s a very modern and trendy shared kitchen, lounge, working room (like WeWork), a cafe and a bar/terrace. I’d definitely recommend it for solo travellers who are looking for a more gentle and sociable introduction to living in Japan.

My school turned out to be perfect for my needs. It’s on two of the three metro lines near my apartment and is a reasonable commuting time. The modules I enrolled on were called ‘Intensive Course’ modules and I think that’s a reasonably description. Lessons are Monday to Friday for three hours a day. There’s homework every day and a small test at the end of every week. There’s a lot to take in but the teaching is fantastic, in my opinion and so I managed to really leap ahead in my language levels after just a couple of months. The compound result of speaking Japanese every day at the school also helped improve my confidence in day to day conversation, such as ordering food or using my local post office etc.

After living in Tokyo from 2 January to 2 April, I decided to come home and spend a good chunk of time with my husband. I’m heading back in mid May and will be back on my language course in June. My experience so far has been fantastic but the obvious downside is that I miss my husband (and cats) like crazy. I also had to take some time out from Japanese lessons in March, in order to catch up work my design workload. Getting settled in, signed up to a bank account and registered with a Japanese phone number really wiped me out (more on that in a future post) but once these logistical hurdles were behind me, I really enjoyed the day to day life of Tokyo suburbs and daily language practice. It’s an inspiring and fascinating place to study in and freelance from. Making new friends from so many different countries and backgrounds (not just Japan) has been incredible. I’m very grateful for the experience and I can’t wait to head back and continue the journey.

I’ll follow up with more details in future posts but ping me a message if you have any specific questions I can help with!