I moved to Japan from the UK 17 years ago;  Which surprised me

I moved to Japan from the UK 17 years ago; Which surprised me

Kyoto, Japan.
ARUTTHAPHON POOLSAWASD/Getty Images

  • Tom Fay moved from a small village in North Wales to Osaka in 2007, having never been to Japan.
  • What started as a one-year adventure to teach English turned into 17 years of study.
  • Recommends studying Japanese language and history and preparing for shortages good cheese.

This essay is based on a conversation with Tom Fay, a 40-year-old British outdoor and travel writer who has lived in Japan since 2007. Edited for length and clarity.

I always wanted to live in another country, but I didn’t have a specific place in mind. I am originally from a small village in North Wales. Before coming to Japan in 2007, I studied medieval history at the University of Manchester.

After university, I heard about programs in Japan for people to teach English, which I only saw somewhere in video games and on TV. What I thought would be a one or two year adventure completely changed the course of my life.

I moved to Osaka and worked as an English teaching assistant in the suburbs. Over the years, I started doing more freelance writing, mostly about travel and the outdoors. Now I’m primarily a freelance writer and copywriter, although I still do some teaching.

Since 2022, I have lived in a renovated 150-year-old farmhouse in the hills south of Kyoto. I’ve always been more comfortable living in the countryside, and after 15 years in Osaka, I was ready to say goodbye to city life.

I was looking for an old house with some land and finally found the perfect place.

The best part is its location – it’s only an hour by train to Osaka or Kyoto, but it feels like another world. The house is on the mountain. Monkeys, boars and deer visit my garden. I have space for farming and BBQ and the neighbors are lovely.

The downside is that although the initial purchase price is cheap, it costs a lot to renovate an old house in Japan. Summers are also hot and humid, although the countryside is noticeably cooler than the city.

Japan is a great place to live as a foreigner. I enjoy the food, the low crime compared to the UK and generally feeling safe. I enjoy Japan’s diverse natural scenery, excellent public transportation, and the friendliness of the people.

On the contrary, you will always be seen as an outsider in Japan. Apart from common language problems, there are sometimes infuriating levels of bureaucracy. If you can overcome these things, it’s an easy and comfortable place to live.

Looking back, I have found a few surprising things about twenty years of living in Japan.

Quality cheese and Western products are hard to find

I should have brought more cheese with me because it is very expensive in Japan and not very good. I also struggle to find effective Japanese deodorant or toothpaste; here the options are often very poor. I either go without or sometimes get packages sent from home or stock up when I visit the UK. Living in Japan broadened my palette for readily available seafood and local seasonal vegetables.

People don’t speak much English

Despite the spread of Western culture and the desire to teach English in schools, overall English ability is poor at best, so any Japanese you can learn beforehand makes moving here much easier.

The weather changes massively

Most of Japan has incredibly hot summers and incredibly cold winters. Be prepared for extreme changes in weather. It can also help you research the area you’ll be living in, as places vary greatly in risk of snowfall, typhoons, and tsunamis.

Japan is not as high-tech as most people imagine

People still use fax machines, sometimes you have to print out emails, and many government offices haven’t changed much since the 1980s. A low-tech approach means that things are not as efficient as most people expect.

It doesn’t bother me, but I can see how some people get angry. There is also a lot of bureaucracy and rules involved in getting official work done – patience and persistence are key.

City life and village life are very different

I wish I had moved to the countryside sooner. My monthly mortgage payment is much less than city rent and my quality of life is exponentially better.

Village life is quieter. Our neighbors are friendly and give us vegetables and food from their fields. Being surrounded by fascinating wildlife and the changing seasons is never boring. The weather is fresher, the summers are cooler than the city.

Studying Japanese history can enrich your experience

Learning about the origins of a particular shrine or tradition – the “Obon” holiday or New Yearohfor example, “gatsu” celebrations—add richness to everyday life and explain some customs that Westerners might find unusual. Food in Japan is also often tied to history in the way it’s developed, eaten, or served.

A basic level of knowledge will help you better understand Japan in terms of its infrastructure, society and culture.

Japan is a great place to pursue your hobby

After you’ve seen all the major tourist attractions and sites, spend your time digging deeper into the things that interest you. For example, I’m really into hiking. If you’re hiking in Japan, even on short nature trails, everyone is kitted out like they’re pioneering a new route in the Himalayas. That’s how it is in Japan: people go full and total and it’s not something to be laughed at.

The same goes for people with more niche interests like obscure manga or bonsai gardening. It’s a great place to be geeky about things. People don’t judge, and finding people who enjoy your passion is a good way to make friends, especially since cultured Japanese people are more reserved.

I could see myself living in Japan forever, but part of me would love to go back to the UK. Regardless, I will always have a connection to the country through my home.

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