I moved to Tokyo after growing up in Northern Ireland. Here are the 10 things that surprised me most.

·7 min read
David McElhinney and a bowl of ramen with egg and chicken leg
When I moved to Tokyo in 2018, I became immersed in Japanese culture and cuisine.David McElhinney
  • I grew up in Northern Ireland and relocated to Tokyo in 2018.

  • English isn't widely spoken here, so knowing a little Japanese goes a long way.

  • Even though I've traveled through Asia before, some of the cultural differences surprised me.

I've spent a significant portion of my adult life in East Asia.

After growing up in Northern Ireland, I moved around to China and Australia, traveling through Southeast Asia whenever I had the opportunity.

So when I relocated to Tokyo in 2018, I had a loose idea of what to expect. But big cities — especially ones as dynamic, complex, and multifaceted as the Japanese capital — always bring new surprises.

Here are 10 unexpected things that I learned after moving to Tokyo.

The trains are almost silent despite being packed with passengers

tokyo train station, crowded with people walking through
tokyo train station, crowded with people walking through

During rush hour, the train station is packed with commuters.David McElhinney

Tokyo's trains are known for being jam-packed.

Professional train-pushers, called "oshiya" in Japanese, in skipper caps and white gloves squish commuters into subway carriages to pack in as many people as possible.  This scramble happens frequently during weekday rush hour, and it can be very uncomfortable.

Even though the trains are often very full, they're shockingly quiet.

Some seated passengers sleep during the journey, so I occasionally hear the odd snore drift through the carriage. But in my experience, it seems like barely anybody onboard speaks, eats, or causes disturbances of any kind.

Trains stop running around midnight

tokyo street at night with rainy sidewalk, shops to the right
tokyo street at night with rainy sidewalk, shops to the right

I moved to Tokyo in 2018 after living in China and Australia.David McElhinney

My first house in the Tokyo area was in Chiba, a prefecture northeast of the city center. Though it was well-connected to the capital, it usually took an hour or more to get home from the city center.

In Tokyo, trains stop running around midnight. When I was having a night out and living in Chiba, I frequently missed the final train home, which departed at 11:30 p.m.

On more than one occasion, I had to fork out at least $100 for a taxi or take refuge in a karaoke room until the trains resumed service around 5 a.m.

The city is so crowded that it can be hard to find privacy

crowded tokyo streets from aerial view
crowded tokyo streets from aerial view

I'm constantly surrounded by other people in Tokyo, the most populous Japanese city.David McElhinney

With around 14 million people living in Tokyo, finding privacy can be challenging.

Major highways and commercial districts are chock-a-block from dawn to dusk. Crowded train stations are anxiety-inducing during rush hour and on weekends. Even alleyways and residential streets are seldom without at least a few walkers, joggers, or cyclists.

crowded street in japan
The streets in Tokyo are filled with people headed in every direction.David McElhinney

The lack of privacy and quiet has extended to my homes as well.

I've lived in several houses or apartments in Tokyo, and they've all had walls as thin as rice paper. Eavesdropping on my neighbors has felt unavoidable, and I expect they can hear my conversations too.

If renters want more space, they should be prepared to pay for it

When my mom visited me in Tokyo a couple of years ago and entered my apartment, her first words were: "Is this it?"

She wasn't trying to be rude — I had to settle for a shoebox apartment because I, like so many others, wanted to live in central or downtown Tokyo.

David McElhinney's bedroom in Tokyo
David McElhinney's bedroom in Tokyo

My bedroom in Tokyo doesn't have much space.David McElhinney

It's one of the world's most expensive cities to live in, especially when it comes to rental properties.

Many local shops only accept cash 

Japan has a global image as a high-tech, futuristic city, so I was surprised by its continued reliance on cash.

When I first moved to Tokyo, I was constantly withdrawing Japanese yen from ATMs so that I could pay at shops and restaurants. Even invoices, like my utility bill and annual residence tax, had to be paid with paper money.

The pandemic has expedited the use of digital payment systems in some areas of the city. But some older, mom-and-pop businesses have been more resistant to the change.

A lot of cafés and coffee shops don't open until late morning

cup of coffee in tokyo cafe with books in the background
cup of coffee in tokyo cafe with books in the background

I use the local coffee shop as my office.David McElhinney

My local café, which I also use as an office space, doesn't open until 2 p.m. on weekdays. And in the evening, it turns into a bar, which is a much different business model than I was used to seeing in other countries.

After getting settled in Tokyo, I realized that it's common for cafés and coffee shops to open their doors around 10 a.m. or 11 a.m.

In my opinion, that's several hours too late. There are exceptions, of course. Some places do open earlier, but they're not always easy to find.

Japanese cuisine is more vast and varied than I expected

japanese meal with mushrooms sprouts and greens in bowl
japanese meal with mushrooms sprouts and greens in bowl

The food in Japan is much more varied than I expected.David McElhinney

When I moved here, I learned that Japanese cuisine extends far beyond sushi and ramen.

Tokyo is the city with the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, with over 200 making the 2021 guide list. They range from sizzling grilled chicken ("yakitori") joints to Japanese-French fusion bistros, and many of them are affordable in addition to being delicious.

sushi on plate
Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world.David McElhinney

I've found Michelin-starred noodle dishes, like ramen, and Japanese soul food, like Osaka pancakes ("okonomiyaki"), for as little as $10 to $20 per meal.

Social etiquette is very different in Japan

When I was training to work as an English teacher in Tokyo, I asked several of my superiors if it was OK to shake hands with my students. They said yes, but I always picked up on a slight hesitation in their voices.

I later learned that gestures commonly used in Western introductions, like handshakes and hugs, don't always feel natural in Japanese culture, which generally involves less physical touch between strangers or acquaintances.

David McElhinney with friend eating a japanese meal together and smiling
David McElhinney with friend eating a japanese meal together and smiling

I've learned a lot about Japanese culture and social etiquette since moving here.David McElhinney

When I've tried to shake hands with people in Japan, I've sometimes gotten a floppy, jelly-like wrist in return. Now I know to bow, a traditional greeting and sign of respect, before extending my hand.

If I'm in a more formal setting, a person may introduce themselves by handing me their business card. I've learned that it's polite to accept it with two hands and refrain from pocketing it immediately, which can signal disrespect.

I've messed up this delicate social dance many times. However, many understand that I'm a foreigner and have forgiven my missteps.

Knowing a little Japanese goes a long way

misspelled sign in japan
misspelled sign in japan

During my time in Tokyo, I've seen signs with misspelled English.David McElhinney

Tokyo is a global city in a country that has the third-largest economy in the world, so the lack of English spoken around me in my new home was unexpected.

Education First's 2021 English Proficiency Index ranked the country's English skills at 78th in the world, behind other Asian countries such as Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, China, and more.

Being able to communicate a bit in Japanese is a massive advantage when navigating day-to-day life in Tokyo.

The weather can be extreme and very unpredictable

David McElhinney taking a photo of japanese street
David McElhinney taking a photo of japanese street

I've experienced a wide range of weather in Tokyo.David McElhinney

Tokyo weather really runs the full gamut, ranging from scorching-hot summers to ice-cold winters.

Even as someone who comes from chilly Northern Ireland, I find winter in Tokyo to be bone-chilling. The temperatures might read as mild but often feel much colder because of the dryness in the winter air (humidity is usually at around 30%).

In summer, the temperature can spike north of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity that climbs to around 80%. For a person who has a fair complexion, those summer afternoons in the sun can feel unbearable.

Beyond the routine weather changes, Tokyo has also experienced typhoons and earthquakes.

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