Living In Japan: The Dream vs. Reality

If we could live here, this would be my dream apartment! The reality is that it’s probably completely unaffordable – traditional Japanese craftsmanship does not come cheap.

Brett and I have often said if there was a visa available for us, we’d move to Tokyo in a heartbeat. It’s is a busy, crowded space, but it’s safe, and every trip out is a learning experience and an adventure. Our two months of living here hasn’t killed the dream, but it has been tempered by a more realistic view of what life here might be like for us. Here are some of the major issues we’ve become aware of, both good and bad:

Basically all I understand on this sign is the picture of the Kirin Beer can . . . and this is one of the less difficult ones to decipher.
  • Language: Through the kindness of strangers, lots of help from our son and daughter-in-law, translation options on many machines, and simple common sense, we’ve been able to navigate through most language issues here, but not being able to read about 95% of any signs, or not being able to communicate in anything but the most rudimentary phrases would definitely be an issue if we lived here. We know our lack of language ability means we miss out on a while lot of what’s going on. We both agree that we would both absolutely have to enroll in language classes right from the start if we were ever to have any chance of a successful life here. I continue to be extremely grateful that I can read hiragana and katakana, and know a few kanji, which has helped us at times through the past eight weeks, but for the most part my slight knowledge Japanese is worthless (and pitiful).
  • Finances: We’ve looked at the ads for apartment rentals, and we could comfortably afford a new, modern one or two bedroom apartment in the area where we are now (Setagaya), so housing wouldn’t be as big an issue as we initially imagined. Of course we’re not paying for utilities at the moment, so have no idea how much those would add to the cost of living here. Our monthly average for groceries and dining out has been around $450, which is also more affordable than we thought it would be, and our ability to shop at the commissaries and at Costco has helped our bottom line. While we would have to be careful with our spending, we have enough income that besides our living expenses here we could still help with YaYu’s college expenses and pay for things like language classes, rail passes and occasional travel around Japan.
  • Transportation: The train system in Tokyo and throughout Japan is a marvel, and is very affordable too, much more so than owning a car. We’ve had no problems getting around the city, and combined with our son or DIL occasionally taking us places in their car and LOTS of walking we get around OK.

    A Stairmaster would be redundant in Tokyo – these subway stairs show how many calories you’re burning (our station adds an additional two flights up and down). The Tokyo Hands store has this on their stairs as well.
  • Health and wellness: It’s a rare day that Brett and I don’t walk at least two miles (that’s the distance of the walk to our son’s and back, for example), but we often walk much more, up to six miles a day, so we are getting lots of exercise. Thankfully I have not suffered even once from bursitis while we have been here which has been a blessing. However, included in all this walking are stairs, lots and lots and lots of stairs. We climb and descend numerous flights of stairs every day, typically 12 at a minimum. Just to go to our son’s home, for example, we have to go down four flights to get to the subway platform at our station, and up three at our son’s station to get to the street (and then reverse it coming home).  All those stairs have done a number on my knees, and combined with Japan’s bitter cold weather and having to get up from low furniture (everything is closer to the ground here) on some days I have experienced quite a bit of pain in my knees, especially climbing the stairs. We use escalators whenever possible, but there is no way to get around eventually having to deal with flights of stairs. I’m not sure we’ve lost any weight while we’ve been here, but other than my knees bothering me, we are in much, much better physical shape than we were when we arrived back in February. As for healthcare, if we lived here we would be eligible for Japan’s wonderful national health system, and we also have our military insurance and could receive treatment at any of the bases.
  • Miscellaneous: 1) I’ve been frustrated not having an oven or a slow cooker in our apartment, but both of those are things we could take care of if we lived here, even if we only got a toaster oven. 2) I have had some real issues with my body image here. I am an average-sized person in the U.S., but when I am surrounded by Japanese women I feel quite huge and clumsy. Also, I’m the rare person around here with gray hair, but Brett says it makes me easy to spot in a crowd ;-). 3) We had forgotten how bitterly cold it gets here in the winter, the kind of cold that gets into your bones and chills you from the inside out. It also gets extremely humid in the summer, worse than it ever was in Hawai’i, which is something else we’d have to deal with as well if we lived here, although most apartments have air conditioning. 4) A big issue for both of us if we lived here would be clothing – it’s difficult if not impossible to find things in our sizes although we could buy clothes (from a very limited selection) at the military exchanges, or order things online from the U.S. and have them shipped here (expensive). 5) Finally, we realize that if we were here we would be even further away from the girls than we were in Hawai’i, but they have all said they’d love it if we could live here full time as it gives them lots of good excuses to visit Japan.

After two months of living in Tokyo the positives of being here still outweigh the negatives, and we would still relish the chance to make a life here if it were possible. However, we’re no longer wearing rose-colored glasses about what our life here would be like – there would be some serious issues we’d have to work around or overcome, some of them not very easy at our ages. It’s still fun to dream though.


15 thoughts on “Living In Japan: The Dream vs. Reality

  1. Amen to the body image issue. When I’m in the Tokyo office, I’m the giant, bumbling American. I wear a size 8 or so in US women sizing, and if I ever lost my bag, would not be able to easily replace my clothes. Let alone undergarments!


    1. I am slightly larger than you (size 10-12) and pear shaped, but here I feel absolutely immense. The only thing that might fit me are the full cotton skirts, but only if I could find one in an XL. Forget about finding undergarments, but I actually could buy shoes here (Brett couldn’t though). There are more overweight or large-sized Japanese these days, both men and women, but they are still very much the exception. So glad we could use the exchanges if we needed clothing.


  2. I already feel like a giant in most situations, so I don’t think I’d enjoy that feeling amplified! I have been wondering why you didn’t decide to stay in Japan, and these are all very good points. P.S. there is a new outlet mall in San Clemente 😉


    1. Japan would absolutely be the first place we would choose to live, but there are no visas for retirees, and there’s no way for our son to sponsor us. We have long fantasized about living here though, and our stay this time has given us a lot of good insight into what that might be like, both the good and the bad.

      San Clemente/Dana Point/Laguna Beach are still at the top of our list!

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  3. Interesting observations! I hadn’t thought of the size aspect either. I’m probably about your size and would not relish that feeling or the inability to find clothing & shoes. The cost of living is surprising – I would have expected it to be higher. And the ability to ride trains everywhere would be very attractive. It is nice that you have blocks of time with a visa, though, to spend with your family.

    My knees are not unlike yours, I suspect. I do better on even ground, and for some reason going downhill hurts more than uphill. Go figure. I do love the calorie callout on the steps. 😂


    1. The size thing is just something I been working on, because it’s something I cannot change. But for an American female who has been conditioned her whole life to think she is overweight, etc. because she does not have a perfect size 4 body, being surrounded by small, thin women can be difficult. But, I’m getting better about it, and stress about it less than I did when we first arrived.

      We have been pleasantly surprised by the cost of living here. It still is expensive, but because of our frugal lifestyle we’ve been able to make it work for us. We’re not our shopping, shopping, shopping like we used to do when we lived here, knowing the navy would ship it all back to the U.S. for us.

      The stairs are the biggest problem for me knees, but the low furniture plays a role too as I have to push myself up from every chair, sofa, etc. If I lived here I’d either buy from IKEA or from one of the exchanges (they carry American furniture).


  4. I wear size 16. I would definitely not “fit” in….lol. I am average size in the deep U.S. South, so I do not think I could feel good about being the biggest gurl in the room. I also cannot do stairs… knees kill me!


    1. I think the big thing here is that WE feel huge, clumsy, etc. but that the Japanese don’t notice us at all. I don’t think any of them is feeling smug or superior because of their size versus how we judge ourselves. One of the curses of being a female in the U.S. is the constant bombardment of messages telling us we’re the wrong size or shape or whatever. In my opinion, we’ve internalized those messages and bring that along no matter where we go. The clothes issue is something else though – not being able to easily find clothing in our size is problematic, but has nothing to do with our body image issues.

      The stairs are an issue. There are some I can climb or go down with no problem, and others that make my knees scream!


  5. Lots of interesting observations. I think it would be very hard to get around in a city where everything is in a language I didn’t speak. Yesterday I went to an Asian market and had a bit of culture shock. I didn’t know what the majority of items were and most of the people there were speaking a different language. I love that our city has this diversity because it isn’t something that I experience very often. It did make me think about the challenges I would face if surrounded by it constantly. I did get some yummy rice crackers!

    (Also, I can’t remember if I told you, but at the end of the summer last year we found an authentic shave ice place! The owner bought the machine in Hawaii. They were out of the ice cream that they put in the bottom of the bowl but the stand is coming back this summer and I’m definitely going to get it with ice cream this year! Can’t wait!)


  6. I can so relate to feeling like I was the heaviest woman in Japan, and I definitely had the biggest boobs! I didn’t even bother trying to shop for clothes when we visited. I walked by a lingerie store and couldn’t believe how tiny the bras were! I did find as we got farther out of Tokyo that people seemed a little bigger. Also notable is height. My husband is 6’3” and was taller than everyone, but it did make him easier to spot if he walked away!


  7. I was wondering why you were not settling in Japan after your adventure so thank you for sharing your reasons. I have never visited Japan and was very interested in your perspective. I believe I would feel the same as you regarding body image.


    1. We would dearly love to settle here, but there’s currently little to no chance of that happening (emphasis on the no chance). But, we plan on returning as often as possible for as long as we can. I hope you get the chance to visit some day – it’s an amazing, fascinating country! It’s very safe here too – no worries about pickpockets, purse snatching, etc.


  8. I felt the same about clothes when I visited China. I visited a couple of southern towns that do not get many westerners. I was “checked out” a lot. In clothing shops the assistants would giggle when I asked if they had my size. So I’d preemptively ask if they stocked giant size. My travelling companion, who was Chinese, initially wouldn’t translate that for me. I knew when she did, cause they’d all laugh.

    I love the simple, cleanness of the style you’d like. I know I couldn’t keep it like that. Too much stuff and paperwork. I don’t know where all the paper comes from!!??


    1. I was happy to discover clothes that fit at Muji the other day. All their stuff is made from natural fibers and in loose, comfortable styles for the most part. I couldn’t fit into everything, and that skirt added about 12 inches on each side of my hips, but I did find a couple of things I could wear. Sadly though they appear to be the only store I could shop at. We won’t talk about China other than I would hire someone there to make my clothes versus buying them off the rack – there are amazing seamstresses there.

      One of the things I don’t miss with the kids all off on their own now is all. the. papers. My goodness, those three brought a LOT of paper into the house, and like you said, where did it come from and why? Brett tends to hold onto paper, but I keep after him so it doesn’t get out of hand.


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