Live Like a Local in Japan : Transportation and Food

I belong to a membership group on Facebook for foreigners living the Tokyo area. An all too common question posed by newcomers to the group who are about to or have just landed is “How can I find X from (or just like in) my home country?” As humans, we always default to what is familiar and comfortable. Yet, at the same time clinging to those comforts can be limiting. Letting go and taking the opportunity to embrace the host culture can be a liberating and even a stress relieving process. Take the plunge and live like a local in Japan !

Getting Around Like a Local in Japan

For many non-Japanese the first glance of the totality of the confounding web that comprises Tokyo’s infrastructure can be daunting. With a little bit of study, a good app and the ability to use it, paired with the confidence that you can always go back the way you came, you’ll be well on your way to blending in with the millions of daily commuters buzzing back and forth across the world’ largest city like you were born here. Recently Google Maps and Apple Maps have been vastly improved to use for transit, and are usable in English.

To start with, learn what lines and stations are near where you live. Keep in mind this may include the use of a bus. Speaking of busses, a hidden gem in many of the central wards of Tokyo are mini “super local” busses that run on a local loop within the area.

Live like a local -- Use the bus! Photo by Josh Fields
Live like a local — Use the bus! Photo by Josh Fields

Most are private and run by the same company which operates Fujikyu Highland amusement park. The redeeming part of these is the fare is only ¥100. A few, like the one in Adachi Ward are also operated by the Keisei Company which operates several train lines. The fares will be similar.

Once you have learned the ropes with the trains and busses, you should make sure you have a Suica or Pasmo card, always charged with cash, to use for your daily comings a goings. Here’s an important point that will really make you local. When buying your IC card, you can register it with your name and phone number. This will protect the value of your card, should you lose it. Even if it’s not returned, which they often are, you can report it to the train company and get it replaced

Putting food on the table like a local in Japan

It’s common knowledge that food costs in Japan are some of the highest in the world. So, if you really want to live like a local, you just need to get wise on how to shop for what and when. Start by getting point cards for any supermarkets you’ll be frequenting.

Make points by living like a local in Japan -- Photo by Josh Fields
Photo by Josh Fields

EVERY store chain has one, and getting the points is like free money. One of the more popular ones, from the Aeon group even offers 2x or 5x points on certain dates every month. In addition to that there are always bonus points on many items which can add up quickly. Points can then are redeemed 1 for 1 to spendable yen. Make sure you take your own reusable bag, as nearly every store will offer a small “eco-discount”, usually ¥2 for doing so. And remember, the goal here is to live like a local in Japan.

Next is your timing. Produce – Get accustomed to what’s in season and try new fruits and veggies when they are in season. If you go later in the day, usually after 6:00 you’ll find many fresh items marked down for quick sale. In addition, most stores will have a discounted day each week with many featured produce items on sale. Meat… let’s face it most westerners love…love…LOVE meat! It’s usually cost prohibitive to buy it in the quantities we’re used to. A couple of strategies can help though. Firstly, always shop for fresh meats later in the day, they will be marked down, again usually after 6:00pm.

Locals know about daily discounts -- Photo by Josh Fields
Photo by Josh Fields

For the real bargains though, wait until Saturday morning. It’s common to find markdowns as much as 50% on fresh meats. Once you have made a trial run to investigate you’ll figure out the timing.

Finally, Japanese super markets are well known for their amazing variety of prepared foods. While they may be moderately priced, you can always find a bargain if you just can’t bear to cook and go usually between 8-9pm, when nearly everything is marked town to half price. Just look for the stickers which are usually red to show the mark-downs.

Eating like a local in Japan -- Photo by Josh Fields
Photo by Josh Fields

It’s quite common for shoppers to linger around the display table waiting for the staff to apply the discount stickers, at which point it becomes a free-for-all.

Over anything else, try new things, and you may just find something you never knew you couldn’t live without.

You can find so many ins and outs to  live like a local in Japan. Hopefully, with some of these tips, you’ll be able to get around town and get yourself fed well. Another time we’ll look at other local secrets like using a convenience store to its maximum potential.