Expat Interview: From USA to Japan

Hakone Shrine Torii Gate

When people think of Japan they think of high-level technology, sushi, cherry blossom, karaoke, fashion and much more. No wonder it became a more popular country for expats to live.

Kristen from Kristen Abroad is one of them, and in this interview she is going to share information about the cost of living, local traditions, most delicious food beyond sushi and much more with us.

Hi Kristen, tell us about yourself…

Hi Sixtina! I’m excited to share a glimpse of my world, I love encouraging people to get out and see the world!  I’m a Naval Architect and supervise a team of engineers. I’m originally from outside Washington, D.C. and always lived in Virginia before I moved to Japan.

In my free time I like to run (though I’ve been completely slacking with the summer heat!), explore the country, write in my blog (I’ve loved writing since I was little but didn’t get the courage to have a blog till a few years ago), read and find good food and beer!  I’ve been to over 20 countries and want to see them all.

What was the main reason for moving to Japan? 

The main reason was for my job but I’ve loved Japan since I was little (I joke that I must have been Japanese in a past life) so it was always a dream of mine to see the country. 

I started coming for work in 2006 but just quick trips.  When I found out I could get a position here, I worked hard to get selected!  I’m in Yokosuka, which is about an hour south of Tokyo. 

Living in a different country makes me want to live in some others as well, and I’m constantly looking where to next.

Hakone Shrine Torii Gate
Hakone Shrine Torii Gate

Is it easy to connect with locals or are there any language/cultural barriers?

I consider myself a major people person so for me, I find friends by default.  But it was hard when I first moved here with the language barrier.  I love Japanese and it’s fairly simple speaking but it still takes time to learn! 

Being close to Tokyo though, and meeting some expats that introduced me to some of THEIR friends that are locals, slowly my network expanded.  At work it was a little simpler as though most of my coworkers are Japanese, there is an English requirement so I have friends there as well. 

I try and speak Japanese but it’s hard when they speak English much better than my Japanese!

Culturally, Japan is very homogenous. As a tall American female, I tend to stick out like a sore thumb but I haven’t found a problem with that.

How about the cost of living?

The cost of living isn’t as bad as people make it out to be, in my opinion.  There is a mind set shift you need to make though on the SIZE of living arrangements here, but I find that even though my apartment is a fraction of the size of what I had in the USA, I don’t really “need” that much space. I almost want something even smaller! 

It’s all about perspective I think.  Japan makes a lot more use of public spaces, I feel.

Himeji Castle in Japan
Himeji Castle in Japan

On the food side, you can definitely go to high end restaurants like anywhere else in the world, but there’s plenty of reasonable options for under $10 USD. And don’t forget about the dollar sushi plate restaurants!  I can have a yummy sushi meal for $5 USD and be full.

Another is I’m a big Disney fan and it’s SO much cheaper here than in the states! So you find things that are actually much more reasonable than being too expensive.

What is your favourite part about living in Japan?

The people, the culture, everything. It’s hard to say, but everything is very “Japanese”. You get to experience new things every day and see the world a bit differently. Plus the food is great and there is so much to go see and do.

The public transportation being top notch is so very convenient. I don’t have a car, I just take trains everywhere. And honestly, I find that I don’t WANT a car ever again because it’s so nice not having to deal with it. That’s tricky in some locations though.

What is your favorite Japanese local dish?

Okonomiyaki.  I’ve never seen it outside of Japan and it varies by region but is basically a savory pancake with either cabbage or noodles as the base and then you add vegetables and meat to it.

Can you share any funny/typical tradition from Japan?

There’s a lot of tradition around festivals here but one small thing that sticks out to me I actually just truly noticed the other day. For work, we will have “nomikai”, which literally translates to “drinking meeting” with all our coworkers.

These are normally 2-3 hour parties with a set course meal and all you can drink. Yes, literally as much as you want, they get a little crazy sometimes lol. 

But at the end, when you are done with this party, everyone stands together and at the same time all clap their hands once. I think that’s pretty neat, a unity to everyone.

What is your favourite thing to do in Japan that people should do if they had 24h there?

This is a really hard one because it depends on where you are! Japan is very regional. See a temple and shrine and if you can, normally on weekends you can find a festival going on.

The festivals are amazing! Just get out and walk around though, everything feels a little different here and I think walking is the best way to see a country and get to know it.

Matsuyama Castle
Matsuyama Castle

What don’t you like about living in Japan?

After awhile I think anywhere there will be little nuances that drive you bonkers but really there aren’t that many. And sometimes I wonder if they are just the same things that bothered me before and it took me awhile to realize it was the same here.

One thing that I don’t like about living in Japan though is trash.  Streets are clean but there are NOT ANY TRASHCANS. Its very frustrating to have to carry your trash around for what feels like ages.

What was the biggest challenge for you once you moved to Japan?

I think I probably had it a little easier than most people coming to Japan as my work is very supportive of you getting settled in and I don’t think all people moving here get that luxury. But there’s little things you have to get used to.

Back to the trash thing, we sort everything, which I love because its better for the environment, but it took some getting used to. And things like you don’t mail in your bill payments or have the option to pay them online but pay them at a convenience store was something to adjust to.

Takayama Inari Shrine in Aomori Prefecture
Takayama Inari Shrine in Aomori Prefecture

What are fun facts about Japan most people don’t know about?

I have a few.  The floors in houses are raised and you never wear shoes in the house! Or even in some restaurants and businesses! There are special toilet shoes as to not contaminate the house as well.

The bathroom is split into two rooms, the toilet is always separate from the shower.

Beer vending machines exist but I’ve never seen any of the more outlandish “rumored” ones.

What would be your top advice for people who are thinking to move to Japan?

If you’re a country person, the cities can be overwhelming, and if its “country” in Japan, its very remote, so do research on where you would like to live if your profession allows for it.

Definitely learn the language! I know too many people that because our workplace is required to speak English, they don’t bother learning. There are places that won’t serve you if you don’t speak Japanese as it is difficult on both ends to have a positive experience. Especially when Kanji is involved.

I use WaniKani for learning Kanji and its AMAZING and based on memory science. I highly recommend you learn how to read Hiragana before Katakana, though most people will tell you the opposite. I found it more useful to know Hiragana.

Takayama Inari Shrine in Aomori Prefecture in Japan
Takayama Inari Shrine

What is the biggest difference between your home country USA and Japan?

The public transportation.  Everyone here rides the trains and buses.  I really wish we had a better option in the states than having to drive everywhere. I hate going back and sitting in traffic.

Other channels to follow Kristen is on Instagram and Facebook

You can read more expat stories here.

2 thoughts on “Expat Interview: From USA to Japan

    • Sixtina says:

      I am sure you can. 🙂 You are already an experienced expat! I think the hardest is always the visa if you don’t already have an employer who sponsors you basically. But even that you will figure out 🙂 If not, long-term tourist or some sort of travel visa probably exists. 🙂

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