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3 Steps to Settling in Tokyo

Sabrina shares a meal with her host family. Sabrina Hassanali

Every day, I'm learning something new about my home in Japan. 

Through the JET program, I have been placed in the “small town” of Tokyo. All kidding aside, I accepted the placement, though it was a world away from my initial requests. Tokyo offers a world of professional opportunities and is well connected to other parts of Japan.

Despite the intense summer heat and humidity, I am convinced this is going to be a great year. Before the school semester starts, I have the urgent task of completing my JET training and searching for an apartment. I am on a mission to get settled. My priorities are to figure out how to use the train, find and move into an apartment, and then get out into nature.

Learning to use Tokyo's subway system

During part of our orientation, I was temporarily paired with a homestay family. My Japanese family were a well-travelled couple living just outside of Tokyo proper. Commuting to their place was just the introduction I needed to Tokyo’s public transportation system.

Riding on the train is a demanding task. In the hour-long commute from the homestay to my training near Shinjuku station, I sometimes skipped taking a train when there were just too packed with commuters. The subway has multiple train lines that cover the metropolis. A few times, I managed to take the correct line, but in the wrong direction.

Through my subway excursions however, I noticed many fields planted with neat rows of vegetables just along the tracks. I later inquired with my host mother, who told me these vegetables are available in each ward’s vegetable stands. Private individuals can also rent tracts of land to grow their own greens. Knowing that produce was growing alongside the tracks as I travelled to the world’s busiest train station lightened my mood. From the train experience during rush hour, I decided I will be living close to my school.

Finding a place to live in Tokyo (and taking out the trash)

A few days into JET training, I spent a sweltering hot day to search for housing.

Finding apartments in Tokyo is quite a task. The JET program paired me with a real estate agent. Japanese landlords have the right to deny prospective tenants based on race and nationality. The agent was tasked with sorting through this hurdle. Many foreigners do, however, live in Tokyo. Consequently, there is competition to find a willing landlord. With my criteria in mind, I was lucky to find a suitable shoebox pretty quickly.

I was surprised to learn that many places are rented without basic appliances. My place came without a fridge, stove or laundry machine. Buying and getting delivery of these became my next task.

Once I picked where I would live, I stopped by the ward office to register my new address with the town. Japan requires registration for those who will be residents for a significant portion of time. Luckily, my host mother was willing and able to assist me. I was able to register my residence and quickly lined up with the Japan post service to receive mail.

When registering with my local ward, I received an entire booklet on recycling. Each of Tokyo’s 23 wards have their own trash and recycling schedule. There is a complicated recycling system which requires residents to separate their belongings into at least seven different categories. (Suginami, my ward, also has an online app with a recycling sorting game.) I have already started practicing how to sort correctly. I look forward to slowly understanding and participating in the city’s awesome waste management system.

Getting out into the city

The summer season in Tokyo is home to many festivals. While shopping for home goods, I chanced upon a shrine complex with live music and beautifully dressed Japanese women. In my surprise, I forgot the exhaustion of my day and joined in the dances. Though the city has thoroughly modern moments, I find that the Japanese make time to celebrate their rich heritage.

As I get settled into my tiny apartment home, I am pleased to have the chance to participate in the spontaneous magic of the city. I appreciate the song of cicadas, the gardenias along the parks and strain of the recycling system. My next order of business will be to get a bicycle and explore the parks and green spaces.

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Sabrina Hassanali

Sabrina Hassanali is perpetually seeking adventures abroad. Her love for travel with a purpose has taken her to teach English in Japan with the JET program. When she is not lawyering or travelling, Sabrina likes to read literature in hammocks.

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