Living in Tokyo: 6 Things You Need to Know

Shinjuku, convenience stores, delicious food, an efficient public transportation system — Tokyo is an amazing, vibrant city and I’m very grateful that I get to spend my college years here! Living and learning in a foreign country is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience that every student needs to try because being in an unfamiliar environment forces you to think for yourself and develop your independence in more ways than one. 

Photo by Sofia Terzoni

When I first moved to Tokyo, I knew absolutely nothing about the culture and had to pick up on things as I went along. My cluelessness led me to a series of easily avoidable mistakes...and the following list! The following six points are things about life in Tokyo that I learned, rather than reading about it online or in a guidebook. Though they’re specific and cover completely different parts of everyday life, I hope they’ll help you with your transition to Tokyo. 

Photo by Brodie Vissers

  1. People in Tokyo stand on the left side of the escalator. If you’re planning on standing, you should be on the left as the right side of the escalator is meant to be left clear for people who want to walk up. Although this appears to be more of an unspoken rule than an official, regulated one, everyone seems to respect and do their best to follow it. Keep this in mind for your next trip to Tokyo! (In contrast, Osaka is the complete opposite and uses the right side for standing; once, I was pushed out of the way by an exasperated businessman when I stood on the left!)  
  2. “Sumimasen” is a surprisingly versatile phrase. My Japanese textbooks made “sumimasen” seem like an expression that should be used as an apology, but I’ve come to learn that it’s much more flexible than that! I often find myself using it at restaurants, when thanking someone for a favor (“Sumimasen, arigatou gozaimasu!”), when approaching a stranger to ask for directions, and more. It’s used in a lot more situations than you would think! 
  3. Clubs are an important part of university life for many students. Though it isn’t mandatory, many Japanese university students join clubs (referred to as “circles”) during the first semester of their freshman year. Circles will almost always be on campus the day of the spring entrance ceremonies to promote themselves. I remember coming home with a bag full of flyers from hundreds of different circles, with each one outlining their freshmen recruitment period (called “shinkan”). Freshmen will often rotate through different circles between April and May before settling on one to officially sign up for. If the circle you join is a large, established one, you’ll most likely get to use it as a networking system as well. The sports circle I joined had an impressive alumni association that came together at least once a year for a friendly match + dinner party. If you want to meet new people and improve your Japanese, circles are definitely an option you should consider — however, make sure to ask the club officers (called “kanbus”) if they accept foreign students as some circles are hesitant to take in non-Japanese speakers! 
  4. If you’re not home for a delivery, the mailman will probably leave a slip in your mailbox instead of leaving it in front of your door. The slip will have a package delivery number that you can submit through an online form to schedule a re-delivery. They’ll let you choose a date and time period (e.g. between morning to noon) when you’ll be at home to receive it! I’ve noticed that I get the most missed delivery slips from the Japan Post; packages by Yamato Transport often get put in the lockable delivery boxes on the first floor of my apartment building. 
  5. You can pay for Amazon Japan orders at convenience stores. Select the convenience store option at the payment section, go to your nearest convenience store (make sure to check the list of available brands!), and input the order code into the ticket machine. Then, take the printed receipt to the register, pay the appropriate amount, and voilà — your order is ready to go! 
  6. Official forms almost always require an inkan (personal seal). Inkans are small stamps that you can use in place of your signature. Banks, post offices, real estate agencies, and more will often ask for you to bring an inkan to use to officialize forms (e.g. registering a new address at the bank). Waseda gave us a list of inkan shops near the main campus during the new student orientation, but you can also find inkan machines at stores like Don Quijote/Donki