Q&A Sessions Vol. 1 – A Foreigner’s Perspective on Japan

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Simon and I have known each other for more than 3 years. We first met each other at Japanese language school, we were, unfortunately for us, the eldest students (haha) in one of the lower level classes, but we instantly hit it off and have been good mates ever since. He is also a freelance writer and has started contributing to FAQ since late last year. So, you may also be interested in Simon’s first contribution to FAQ about Izu, one of the prettier parts of Shizuoka, it’s an interesting read and great place to visit.

When I asked him if he would let me interview him, not only to lend his perspective on Japan but also to provide some invaluable advice for visitors or even people living here, he was not only enthusiastic about the idea and super-willing, he did a great job too. You can check out the transcript below.

The Interview

So give us a quick intro – who are you, where do you come from and what do you do?

I’m Simon and I’m from Sydney, Australia. I am currently working for an International Travel Company in Tokyo, Japan and I have been working there for 2 years. I’m an Account Manager, so I am responsible for managing the day to day operations for several large corporate accounts.

What motivated you to come to Japan?

Look, I always wanted to try something new, and living overseas, in a different country is a great experience. I lived overseas once before in Bangkok, Thailand back during my early 20s. That was great! I met my current wife, almost 4 years ago now in Tokyo on a vacation, and ever since I met her we’ve been attached, and it certainly was a big incentive for me to come over here. I moved over here 6 months after meeting her and married her, obviously, we weren’t married at the time, but I would say my wife was a big motivation for me coming over. Also, the fact that I had been to Japan several times on holiday. I loved Japan and thought it’s a great country. So living here was kind of like a no-brainer, once the opportunity came up.

What do you like about living in Japan?

There are a few things that I really like about living here. It’s a very safe place, you can walk around anywhere, and even females can feel safe at night.

It’s a very clean place if you compare it to Sydney, it’s just a much cleaner place to live. Everything works efficiently, the transport system is very good. Trains are very crowded during peak hour, but that is something you have to deal with, like everyone here.

The other thing I really like is the quality of food here – Japanese really care about the way they prepare and present their food. I’ve pretty much never had a bad experience with food here, everything is always good quality, tasty, and there is a huge range to choose from. Not only Japanese but Western Cuisine, Asian, Korean, Thai, Chinese food too. The quality and variety are second to none.

So, what are some of the more challenging aspects of living in Tokyo?

Yeah, look the one main thing for me is the space, there is definitely less space than back in my hometown of Sydney. Personal space is very valued here. On the train, people are very aware of their personal space, and if you get anywhere near their personal space, it can turn out to be not such a good experience.

Living – there are a lot smaller confines of living here – for example, a standard apartment for two people living in Tokyo is about 30 to 35 square metres. So I guess that is something I miss about Australia, having that extra space to indulge and spread out a bit.

Another thing that I guess I miss or is a lot different to back home is the Winter’s here. Winter’s are very long here, they start from around November and remain cold all the way through to March, as opposed to Sydney where its just a few weeks of cold. And being an Aussie, I like the warmth!

Tell me more about where you are currently living?

I am actually living outside of Tokyo in Yokohama, so for people who don’t know Yokohama, its the second biggest city in Japan, its only about a 30-minute train ride direct from Tokyo, so I commute there every day to work, as I work in Tokyo.

Yokohama is a great place to live, there’s a really nice bay area which is a short walk from our place and it’s a nice city. So, I have been living there, pretty much the whole time I have been in Japan.

Tell me about your favourite place in Tokyo?

Yeah, I really like Naka-Meguro which is a suburb of Tokyo, located within a very short train ride from Shibuya. Naka-Meguro is a, I’d say, very trendy town, but not over the top trendy. It’s a fantastic place to go in springtime, with the cherry blossoms, there’s a river running through the town, a long river, and the Cherry blossoms in spring hang over the river, and its a very beautiful place to do the Cherry blossom viewing (referred to as ‘Sakura’ in Japanese).

Not only that, there is a lot of nice cafes around there and there are a few great restaurants that I have got to know over the time I have been here. They’re actually reasonably priced and good value, so there is a lot to do there, it’s not a huge bustling place, but its got a nice vibe about, its trendy, and there are several things to do there that are interesting.

Top 3 places that you would recommend for anyone to check out in Japan?

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku that’s one of the highest buildings in Tokyo. And you can go up to the top floor of the building for free, its open every day from morning until night, and you can get a fantastic view of the city and even see Mt Fuji on a clear day. So that’s definitely a great place to go and check out!

Another great place is Asakusa which has Senso-Ji, a very famous temple there, its got the Sumida river there, which is great to walk along! Its got lots of nice bars, restaurants and plenty of history and its lots of good shops to check out if you’re into Kitchenware and knives. Chefs would have a ball there!

The other place I would recommend is the Meijijingu area, which also includes Harajuku, as one destination to check-out. Jingu is just a nice place to stroll to check out the Torii gates, it’s a very tranquil place in the middle of the city. Just a nice place to take a walk, chill out with someone special or with friends or family. My family, whenever they come to Japan, they always want to head there.

Just nearby Meiji Jingu, in Harajuku itself, there is a street called Takeshita Dori (street) which is a really interesting place to walk through. You can sometimes see unusual cosplay, the Japanese younger style of fashion, that is definitely recommended.

Where do you often hang out with your friends or partner?

I work pretty close to Tokyo station, so I tend to drink more towards that way a bit, the place I really like to go lately is Shin-Marunouchi building, which is about a 2-minute walk from Tokyo station. It’s a nice office building with restaurants and bars on the 6th floor, there’s a bar there called Rigoletto which I highly recommend. It’s 500 yen for most drinks and they do tapas as well among other dishes. It’s a really good value place to go in the middle of Tokyo and a very modern place to go. Also, in that section of the building is an outdoor deck, which is fantastic in the warmer months, you can sit out on the deck and enjoy the food and the various establishments that are on that floor. It’s also got a fantastic view of Tokyo station.

What advice do you have for people who are trying to make friends in Tokyo?

I guess for me one of my biggest interests is sports, especially tennis. When I moved here I began looking for friends who were also interested in tennis, so I put an ad in the online classifieds, there’s quite a few for English speakers, and within 2 or 3 months I had made a few tennis buddies and they’re still my friends now. So I recommend not hesitating to do that! If you like music, you can find music buddies, if you like sport, you can find sporting buddies online and so on…

Another option is a site called meetup.com, in a similar vein to that, there are various meetups going on every day in the Tokyo or Yokohama area, or wherever you’re situated. Some of these can include cooking classes, workout classes, etc. There’s often a very small fee involved and you can often find there are people who are there that are into the same thing as you. Definitely a good way to make friends.

I guess the other obvious answer is to hang out with people that you already know and increase your circle of friends that way, by hanging out with friends and friends of friends to meet new people.

How do you feel about approaching Japanese people if you ever need help?

I have had that experience come up when I was a traveller here myself, and occasionally now that I live here too. I feel Japanese people are really helpful, and they’ll go out of their way to make sure you’re ok. Especially, if you’re lost or not sure what train to catch, and even if they don’t have a good command of English, they’ll do their best to help you or try to find someone, even a stranger nearby to help you out. So that is another thing I like about Japan, is the generosity of people here, and how they keep an eye out for everyone.

Any last words of advice for first-time travellers or people considering living here?

Being open-minded is definitely good advice and take a good opportunity to travel around Japan as much as you can!! I have been to probably half the prefectures in Japan, there’s 47 in total, and there’s a lot of great scenery, the islands around Okinawa, mountains and lots of great nature. In addition, everywhere you go in Japan is different, the food is different, different cultures and people are even friendlier outside the major cities, so check out Japan as much as you can, and have fun!

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