After having concluded my 3-year stay in Japan, it seems fitting to summarize my experience which has been an extremely positive one. Japan has been very good to us. The last three years have been among the best and most interesting in my life.
I was very regretful to leave and have often thought that it’s a real pity to leave now that we are finally figuring out how to do things best, how to deal with Japanese weather, where to go and what to eat, etc. I’ll be definitely missing Japan and hope to come back for visits or even for longer stays.
So what should a foreigner expect when moving to Japan? In my experience it will depend largely on what type of person you are whether or not your stay will be a happy one. Japan will be very different from what you know, and you’ll be doing better if you welcome this fact. It is possible to a certain degree to build yourself a Western bubble and only live in this bubble, but your little Western universe will always be imperfect, and your movements will be restricted by it. If you are looking for a place just like home, I am sorry, this won’t work out. In our case, we did keep some of our European habits and we did buy Italian pasta and olive oil at the imported food store, but at the same time we tried to take in as much of the Japanese way of life as we could. Some Japanese people have sometimes expressed surprise and amazement by us enjoying some typically Japanese food or doing something that’s considered Japanese, but hey, if I was just going to stick to my old ways, I could have remained at home. Trying out new things has been the best part of our life in Japan.
What about earthquakes and extreme weather? Both are a fact of life in Japan, an experience that was new to me. Living in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands, I never experienced more than an occasional storm, which maybe tore down some trees or flooded some cellars. In Japan, a natural disaster is always a possibility, and we experienced our fair share of this. I can only advocate to be as prepared as you can (like actually keeping some emergency supplies at home as the government recommends and know where to evacuate to in your area), and otherwise get on with your life. There is no advantage from leaving in fear. Japan is actually well prepared for disasters, building codes are good and people keep their cool.
What’s the main obstacle for a foreigner to getting settled and having a happy life in Japan? It’s clearly the language. If you want to rely on English, you will be very restricted. Often, English information does not exist. If you need English customer service, you have to go looking for it. All this kind of trouble can be avoided by learning Japanese. Everything becomes so much easier. My Japanese never became very good, which is mostly due to the fact that at my workplace, I didn’t need it (colleagues in Japanese speaking labs did learn the language rather quickly). Yet it was sufficient to go to a shop and ask questions, it was sufficient not to be restricted in my movements by the language barrier.
What are the advantages of living in Japan, and what are the things one shouldn’t miss out on? Japan has a very high quality of live. It’s clean, it’s quiet, stuff is well-organized and on time, service is impeccable. Public transit is fantastic. These things are easy to get used to and I miss them sorely back in Europe.
Japan has great cultural riches and amazing arts and crafts you should sample if ever possible. The museums in Ueno Park are a good starting point. For crafts, I was very impressed with the displays of the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts. Personally, I am crazy for Kabuki theater. I love the costumes and the make-up (hint: for maximum effect, try to go for aragoto-style plays, avoid Shin-kabuki and be wary of “full length plays”). Also the varied food specialties of the different regions are an experience. But my most important advice of all is: go places, do day-trips, and travel as much as you can. And go to see the cherry blossoms!