5 things to prepare you for life in Japan : Part 1

With the UK economy in the horrendous state, it’s in, there’s no surprise that increasing numbers of young people are fleeing the baron jobless wasteland that our great Britain has become in search of greener pastures, where they can drink and sleep in peace without being labelled as wasters. Japan is becoming a popular haven for the fallen to run to after they realise that a degree in the Arts will get you about as far as you can throw it.

Traditionally, travellers have favoured places like India or Malaysia for their spiritual and cultural awakenings but in recent years people have come to favour Japan for its modern living, cheap (ish) lifestyle and an abundance of job opportunities for those willing to pass on their native language to the locals.

I happen to be one of those poor aforementioned bastards, taking the plunge to move abroad after flailing around for the best part of two years trying to find permanent employment. The reality is that our generation(86-92 birthdates) is quickly becoming ‘lost’ with no prospects in sight. Even being armed with the best grades, a decent portfolio from Uni and being a generally likeable person, no matter what the industry, you come out of the interview with the same feedback:

Yes, it really was a better idea to jump straight into that dead-end admin role instead of following your dreams and hoping to somehow better yourself as a person. So flee we do, into the warm embracing arms of the working holiday visa and fly away on the first cheap, indirect flight we can find. Or I did anyway. There are many, so many things that are wonderful and enriching about Japan but before you can truly experience them there are a few minor quid pro quo’s which need to be observed. They seem like nothing to worry about but as a foreigner with no Japanese skills, what starts as a small inconvenience on your first day can rapidly develop into such a disheartening series of events you’ll be sat in an internet café booking your flight home and applying for Jobseekers allowance.

So here it is, my definitive list of pitfalls on your first few days in Japan, everything listed below is something that I encountered and eventually overcame (with the help of J-Curi’s Fraser). Here we go:

  • 1. Leaving the airport.

When I arrived in Narita I was tired and had no one meeting me, I had to get from the airport to Shinjuku station with no phone and no internet. The signs are predominantly in Japanese and very few staff members speak English, you can either be proactive and break out your phrasebook or just stand and stare.

There are two options available here, you should make your way down to the subway area and look for the JR barriers, they are green and the ‘JR’ is always written in Roman Script. You can ask at the help desk for a Suica (Swee – ka)card, basically a Japanese Oyster card. This will let you travel anywhere on the JR line if you charge it with money. If you approach the desk and simply say“Swee – ka wa?” it should work. This essentially means “What is Suica?” but toa Japanese official it means “please help me, I’m a foreigner and I have no clue what I’m doing and if you ignore me I’ll die.”

Then, through a pantomime of gestures and a lot of crying, you will be able to pay for a card, its about 3,000 yen (18 quid), 500 yen for the card and2,500 in credit. If you want to put more money on the card there are always green charge stations both before and after the barriers, they all have Englishlanguage options as well, thank god.

I did not do this. I wandered over to a desk where I could see ‘Shinjuku’written on the departure board. As it turns out this was for the Narita Express,a slightly more expensive venture but easy enough, I just held up one finger and said “Shinjuku” and they typed the price into a calculator. It was roughly3,000 yen to go, its slightly faster than the JR line but I was faced with the problem of how to travel after I arrived. So you need to get a Suica card anyway, might as well be as soon as you land.

  • 2. Getting around with no GPS (no phone)

This is a slight issue, if you don’t know the area and you are on your own there are usually very few options but to wander around in a gradually increasing radius, systematically learning your surroundings and then quietly lamenting because everything looks too similar. The answer? Go old school; use a paper map or a print out from Google maps that you prepared in your home country with all your technological luxuries and your common sense.

Even just for your very first day, you would be amazed by how much easier it is to get around with a rudimentary scribble of where to go and what to look out for. You might feel a bit of a tourist and you’ll look like one too, but let’s face it, you’re a foreigner on the streets of Japan, you’re never going to blend in seamlessly.

  • 3. Registering your foreigners’ card.

You can do nothing without first registering your foreigner’s card. Carry it with you always, get caught without it and you can be deported on the spot! I just placed it in my wallet where my drivers’ license was. If you try and rent, buy a phone, or open a bank account, no one will do anything without seeing a registered card.

You need to go to your local Ward Office, which is a bit like a city council office. I cannot stress enough that it has to be your local one. Wherever you are living, permanent or temporary, you must find the office in that area, if you go anywhere else, the staff will not allow you to register your card. I met Fraser who speaks some Japanese to try and help me, I travelled for an hour to go and see him and register at the nearest Ward office. Obviously it was not anywhere near my local one so they told me (very politely) to do one.

The good news is that most Ward Offices do actually have English speaking staff, it’s not a high level of English but as with most things, a mixture of broken phrases and gestures usually gets the job done.

Find the location on Google, go there and allow at least an hour. Once there it is relatively simple; take a ticket wait till you number is called and give them your card. They will check your address and print it on the back of your card, then you’re done! Until next time…