Somehow, I’ve arrived in Tokyo. I have a room, food, internet, insurance, and have already started meeting some interesting people. Before now, I had never been to Japan, nor did I know anyone in Japan. And plane tickets aside, I expect my living here to cost only slightly more than in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. If you work online like me or have a few months you’d like to spend somewhere different, here’s a convenient guide to bring you to 日本.
Step 1. Study Japanese.
Arriving solo on a budget means you have to handle situations yourself, and handling situations yourself means you need to be able to read basic signs and ask basic questions. I’ll save the details for another post, but my primary advice for getting started learning Japanese is to study using a variety of software and resources you can find online. My absolute favorite of which is Human Japanese, a digital textbook with beginner and intermediate versions, excellent grammar explanations, and spot-on lesson pacing.
Step 2. Need a visa?
If you’re from the USA like me, you can stay in Japan for 90 days without any extra effort. Just show up and tell customs you’re a tourist. The USA is one of 67 countries with a visa exemption for a short-term stay (some shorter, some longer). Check for your country here. If you’re not on the list, you’ll have to do some more research. On a side note, though they don’t always check, you are required to be able to show that you have an onward flight out of Japan (even three months in advance). Usually it’s the airlines that will request this of you and not the country itself, because if an airline flies you to a country you get turned away from (correct me if I’m wrong), they are required to fly you back for free. This makes the airlines more sensitive about some rules than the actual immigration officers are.
Step 3. Where do I go?!
Okay, Japan’s not exactly a small place. I eventually chose Shimokitazawa (town), Setagaya (ward), Tokyo (metropolis). Not having been around Japan, I can’t be much help here. I was originally looking at Kyoto, because several people recommended living there to me. I settled on Shimokitazawa because my younger brother will start studying abroad at a nearby college in a couple weeks. Shimokita also has a reputation as a slightly more affordable cultural center just a fifteen minute subway ride from central Tokyo. This is the time to do a lot of browsing and day dreaming. Your choice might also be affected by . . .
Step 4. Housing.
Three months can be an awkward duration–too long for a hotel or hostel yet too short for a lease. Furthermore, renting a typical apartment comes with unexpected costs and hurdles, likely including the need for a Japanese phone number and bank account, both of which likely require a residence card you won’t have. This leaves you with a few choices: a lucky sublet or house-sitting situation, a homestay, or a share house. For sublets check craigslist. For homestays check some dedicated listing sites. Share houses are something between an apartment and a dorm. In the basic concept, a house has been partitioned into a number of smaller single and shared rooms rented out from daily to monthly periods. A full range of quality is available with options mostly in larger cities. Good companies to try are Oakhouse, Borderless House, and Sakura House. In Tokyo, careful searches will reveal a few low-quality single-room options for under $600 USD monthly (60,000 JPY including utilities; $400 gets you a bunk in a dorm room in Tokyo). I went with a share house company called Ietomo, but I don’t recommend them.
Step 5. Phone and Internet.
Disconnection from Wikipedia for long periods of time causes cerebral atrophy. I’m pretty sure there’s a study on that. So you’re going to want Internet in your house and a data plan on your phone. The home Internet is easy, because you won’t be setting up a whole new apartment, and the other people who already live there probably don’t like brain atrophy either. The phone is trickier. As far as I know, you can’t get a Japanese number without a subscription plan, and you can’t get a plan without a residence card. Japan has some odd laws against foreigners buying phones. You can rent an entire phone, but only if you want to pay half the cost of another apartment. But what do you really need a phone number for anyway? Nowadays, services like Skype, Google Talk, WeChat, and Line are, in my opinion, entirely superior to calling. So the workaround here is to buy or rent a SIM card with only a data plan. Since the card is not associated with a phone number, you’ve successfully navigated the law. A number of companies now rent out data SIMs for this purpose, but my research and experience has found Sakura Mobile to be both the easiest and best value. I paid about $120 USD for 10 gigs over three months. You can have them mail the SIM right to your share house or hostel to pick up when you arrive. So far, my Sakura Mobile connection has been excellent. In order to do this, you do need to have an unlocked smartphone.
Step 6. Bank accounts, credit cards, and fees.
You will be in Japan for three months, and unless your suitcase is lined with bills, false passports, and espionage gadgets you will need to occasionally move money from your country to your wallet in Japan, preferably with minimal fees. Because most likely, there will be fees: unfavorable conversation rates, foreign transaction fees, transfer fees, and ATM fees. As a side note, though I’m not bold enough to try this, I admit that I can think of one way to avoid any fees whatsoever: in your home country, at a bank with a fair rate, convert all the money you will need to yen, and then carry it with you. However, I prefer to take a balanced approach. Convert maybe a quarter or third of the money you will need before you go–cash is king in Japan, and you would only be converting this later on at worse rates. Then make some smart financial preparations to avoid the other fees. As for foreign transaction fees (the 1-2% taken from each credit or debit card transaction in a foreign country) you need to research credit cards that don’t have them. In particular, look at travel credit cards that offer travel rewards too. It might be smart to get the credit card before you buy your pricey plane ticket, and then buy the ticket with the travel card for the extra rewards and protection. What about transfer fees? This may become an issue if the place you are renting requests you to send money to their bank account. I’m still working on this one, since I just opted to make my first rent payment in cash, but this is good reading. By paying in cash, what I essentially did was opt for ATM fees over transfer fees, which seem to be less. The ATMs in 7-Eleven convenience stores are known to be great for foreigners. They won’t charge a fee, leaving just the fees of your personal bank. I have an account with a credit union that charges a 1% foreign ATM fee, and I have a Wells Fargo account that charges a $5 foreign ATM fee. For best value, use a bank with a flat fee like Wells Fargo (or a bank with no fee if you’re lucky), call them up to request they raise the withdrawal max, and then withdraw an amount that will give you a better than 1% rate (i.e. over $500 for WF). Most likely your bank will give a fair exchange rate after the fee, meaning this is about the best you can do for getting money into Japan.
Step 7. Travel insurance.
Exhausted yet? I hope you aren’t doing this all at once! At least for someone from the USA, the last thing you want to spend money on is more health insurance. But chances are your plan back home won’t cover you abroad, and three months is a long time to risk the costs of a trip to a foreign emergency room. Some quick research will reveal World Nomads to be the most popular travel insurance company for travel writers and global itinerants. I bought a six month plan for $331 USD. This insures me against emergency medical expenses, stolen or damaged property, and travel cancellation. Many people also like World Nomads for covering a wide range of adventure activities, even extreme adventure activities if you pay a little more. Another affordable option is IMG.
Step 8. 日本へようこそ！
There’s both a lot to think about and not a lot to think about at the same time. The fact is, an American could show up in Tokyo with zero preparation, stay in a hostel until they found a share house, and get away with spending just a few hundred dollars more than I am. I respect the soul who does that! But if you’re a planner like me, I hope this guide’s been some help to you. I’m happy to answer questions in the comments.