It’s been two months since we kicked off our open-ended stay in Japan. We had a couple of goals in mind when we landed at KIX, but our primary focus was to see how it would feel to live like a local in Osaka — to try out a long-term, maybe even forever, stay in Japan.
We’d already sold the house and the car, and thrown out or given away about 90 percent of our possessions. And we were free of all job responsibilities — Meg was no longer working her shifts at the hospital, and the bnb had gone bye-bye with the sale of the house.
So on a brisk night in November, of 2017, we landed and in minutes were on the last bus from the airport to downtown Osaka where we were picked up by Meg’s brother and sister-in-law. Like we’d never left the place, I thought to myself.
Finally feeling the past 36 hours of travel catching up on us (we had a 24-hour layover in China), we stuffed Manabu’s tiny Honda Fit to the gills with luggage and headed to Meg’s family house in Taisho where we would stay for the first week or so.
The plan was to integrate into city life as purely as we could. We knew if we didn’t act like locals we could never feel like ones; that if we never slowed the pace and intentionally became self-sufficient city dwellers we’d never appreciate daily life in ways that would mimic a resident’s. Our mantra was simple: to live and ultimately feel like a local.
Here’s what we did
After a week of mooching off Meg’s family — staying in the upstairs bedroom of her mom’s tiny home — we rented a room in a nearby share house (the new trend in hostel-like lodging in Osaka). We also borrowed a couple of bikes from Meg’s sister so we could tool around town like everyone else. And we started shopping in both tiny mom and pop stores (the ones specializing in a single product: tofu, eggs, rice, or kimchee, for example) as well as larger grocery stores when we needed more of the staple-y supplies like pasta or bottled water. We cooked for ourselves rather than eating out.
It’s worth noting that there are still a huge number of tiny, family-owned and operated, neighborhood food shops around town. Take the tofu shop. It’s a veritable museum of tofu, selling not just one or two types of tofu, but probably twenty different kinds. All made from scratch in that one shop. Then there’s the rice shop that carries about ten different varieties of rice, which they polish to your specific request while you wait. By polishing I mean going from a full-on brown rice (genmai rice) to a highly polished white like what we might find in the U.S., all done in a machine the size of a small coffee roaster. The owner sets a dial and then pours the rice in through an opening in the top. The polished rice is spit out and then it’s time to look, discuss and either put the rice back for a finer polish or pay up and head home.
The kimchee and pickle shop has at least ten kinds of kimchee. And on and on.
We also spent many a cold night soaking in one of two sentos (public bath houses) within walking distance of our Kujo apartment. At a government-set cost of 440 yen (about $3.90), sentos are fiendishly addictive for the person who loves a hot bath/hot springs experience.
Talk about blending in, we started to feel invisible as we melted into our new routine. Which after all, was exactly the point.
Apart from the way we were intentionally living in Japan were the ways we were not living in Japan. What we gave up (but hardly missed) were nights frequenting the izakayas or gaijen bars of Namba, cruising the underground shopping malls of Umeda, and any sort of “sport shopping” (which is always a temptation in Osaka).
Maybe because we’d already experienced those indulgences over the past 20 years of visiting Japan, we hardly missed any of it this time around. Thinking back, in fact, all the money thrown at coffee shops and bars and Uniqlo “on-sale” racks started to look like one big waste.
We took a few additional steps in our “total immersion” plan. We were committed to limiting our reliance on public transportation. Which is not a bad thing per se, we just wanted to be free of the subways and trains which are so pervasive. So instead of jumping on the Loop Line or a bus to get anywhere we were going, we’d walk and bike as much as we could.
One last nod to living like a local was to get out of town as frequently as possible — to hike the nearby hills and low (but snowy) mountains to the north and east of Osaka.
(That’s me, lost on the backside of Kongo, trying to look cool.)
We didn’t want to deny ourselves the fun of being in Japan by any means, but we decided to treat our stay as one that would extend the worth of a dollar rather than cast frugality to the wind. Lucky for us, prices in Japan have come down and the choice of goods has gone way up (the result of tons of foreign-produced goods and foods entering the market).
Now, two months in, I can tell you that life in Japan is pretty much the same as life anywhere else. I wake up craving coffee, I need to break my day with some sort of long-ish walk (usually for produce and basic food as we no longer buy in Wal-mart sized chunks), and I remain near-religious about my wine or hot sake at night. I have my same old habits and most of the same old fears, so it’s not like moving to Japan has remade Curt or Meg.
Here’s how it’s gone down for us, which you can use as a blueprint for your own long- or mid-term stay in Japan. Or even as model to avoid!
Lodging, biking, and shopping: the basics
You can’t couch surf forever, so we knew from the start that our stay with Meg’s mom was temporary. We’d cruised Craigslist while we were still in Berkeley and narrowed choices to four categories of housing (apart from buying a house or a condo, which we actually considered given condos in Osaka can be had for as little as 80K and fixer-upper houses are sold for as little as 50K).
Apart from buying, which we decided against, our options were as follows:
We could rent a place for a full year, signing a lease and paying anywhere from about 400 dollars up. The average size of an apartment at that amount (they come cheaper) isn’t big — in fact, they are darn small by American standards. Figure 450 square feet. Kitchens are microscopic, never more than two burners in the kitchen, no stove, and refrigerators (and washing machines) are not included. Coming from the gi-normous house we owned in Hiouchi, the thought of renting a sub-500 square foot apartment actually appealed to us. But the closer we looked, the more difficult it was to actually qualify as renters. And even though the price was attractive, who really wanted to commit for a full year.
Nonetheless, we looked at two apartments out of curiosity. The first was in an enormous city-owned complex that overlooked a park (though as I mentioned, we weren’t sure we could, as foreigners, qualify). Despite being public housing, the apartment wasn’t so bad. With high-ish ceilings, a tiny (I mean, tiny) balcony, and a homey feel, Meg and I could have easily moved in and made it our own. The price for this apartment was $450/month.
The other we looked at was a spectacularly small, two-room apartment. But only $250 a month. Though when we did the math with the agent — with all the extras such as cleaning fee, security, and utilities — the rent shot up another couple of hundred. Ultimately, we had to come to terms with the fact that real estate agents tend to low-ball the monthly rental fee merely to secure interest. The extras add up.
Next up were three, more likely, options. Let’s call the first a Gaijen Apartment, the second a share house, and the last, a long-tern Airbnb (focusing on airbnb’s that offered discounts for LT stays).
The first is promoted by companies that own or lease an entire building. Monthly rentals are about $600 to $900 a month, depending on the size of the apartment. The only additional fees are for utilities (which, given the generally small size of Japanese apartments, run low, about $50 per person per month). These apartments generally come unfurnished, but for another $100 or so a month, can be furnished by the landlord and include basic furniture for a living room and bedroom, a fridge, bedding and kitchen utensils. Kitchens are tiny, with burners numbering one or two, and bathrooms are similarly small and multi-functional in that they are often pre-fab plastic shells so everything gets wet and nothing gets damaged (like an RV bathroom-shower-sink combo). A plus for Gaijen Apartment rentals is that they are usually close to city transportation be it the Osaka Loop Line or another above or below ground train line. And they require little if any background information to qualify, save for a deposit.
The Airbnb option is a viable choice for a long-term stay but beware the details. We found that apartment locations stated in a number of Osaka descriptions were flatly untrue. Hosts would state their location as being near Namba or near Tennoji, two highly desirable neighborhoods, but after closer examination (revealed when the host would mention the station stop closest to their listing) it just wasn’t the case. Additionally, most airbnbs within our price range, under $1000 a month, were microscopically tiny — too small for anything more than a sofa-bed and maybe a side table. Occasionally, there’d be room for a small kitchen table to sit at, but not always. Airbnbs have some huge benefits, though, as well. Often, airbnb’s have a washing machine, the price is inclusive of utilities, and you have reviews that detail the space’s pluses and minuses so there are few surprises.
What we finally settled on and what still feels like the right choice was a share house. Just google ‘share house’ and the city you are moving to (share house Osaka, share house Tokyo, etc.) and you’ll see a good selection of options. Share houses follow a similar set-up, which should come as no surprise. Figure on a single or multi-floor situation (sometimes the whole building), a share house has private and lockable rooms for one or two people. There’s a shared kitchen, living room or lounge-ish areas, toilets, showers, and sinks in numbers (hopefully) suitable for the total number of rooms. And there’s WiFi.
Meg and I are in a corner room (tons of light) in a sixth floor, penthouse-located share house overlooking the Aji River on one side and the neighborhood of Kujo on the other.
(That shot above is from the share house rooftop. Not bad.)
Unusual for Japan, we have huge, floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors as windows (clear glass, which open on to the rooftop deck) and that view of the city. When it’s not overcast or raining, the sun pours in in the morning and afternoon; then later in the day, sunsets fill the room with color again.
Our cost is $650 a month, no deposit or security deposit required. We stay on a month-to-month basis, deciding mid-month if we are staying the next. The room came furnished with coat racks (which we use as a dresser, hanging shirts, pants, jackets, wet laundry, day packs, purses…anything we can get onto a hanger), a desk, two chairs, and two IKEA twin mattresses. A low frame. And bedding.
The price includes everything, so we are cooking, showering, washing clothes and running the room heater with abandon. Common spaces are cold (common in Japan as central heating is rare) so we spend a bit more time than we expected in our room, but it is spacious for two people and the light is truly inviting.
Transportation in Osaka is all about the bike. It’s so easy to ride safely on city sidewalks! Biking is the absolute best way to get around Osaka.
I’ve always found being on two wheels utterly exhilarating, so I’ll jump on a bicycle any chance I can. In the states, however, biking comes with a huge downside. Which. of course, is other cars.
In Japan, that never-ending battle we are so familiar with in the states doesn’t exist here. Of course, as a biker it pays to always be aware of your surroundings, but in Japan there’s a far greater danger of running into another biker than into a car. I can only speak for Osaka, but believe me. it’s a biker’s dream.
The custom (it’s the law as well) is to bike on the city’s broad sidewalks, never the streets, unless you are on a street that has no sidewalks. Those are everywhere, by the way. Stay to your left on sidewalks (similar to driving) and always bike at a controlled speed. Just roll along with everyone else and you’ll do fine.
The beauty of biking in Osaka is that the town isn’t that big so getting from one point to another — and I mean even the most distant points of Osaka City to each other — is entirely doable.
I was fairly freaked by the idea of city riding without a helmet (no one wears helmets here), but Meg convinced me to leave ours in California. No regrets. Just keep your speed within reason and observe the traffic lights and you’ll be fine. Another plus that makes biking so easy in Osaka is that curbs — and I mean all curbs — are cut to road height. That is, there are no curbs (at corners, at least) to deal with. There’s never a need to dismount as you pedal on your merry way.
Rent, borrow, or buy a bike. Then push off and observe how the locals do it — slow and steady, keeping to the left, always deferring to pedestrians, and always progressing with the lights, never against them.
Call me old-fashioned, but get a huge kick out of shopping with the moms, single guys and office gals in the Japanese supermarkets — all of us with our miniature shopping carts, bumper carring up and down the mini-aisles so short and narrow, filling up on daikon, sprouts, onigiri, futomaki and korokke. Apart from the thrill of new fruits and vegetables, to say nothing of the endless ways Japanese butchers slice and dice pork and beef (chicken seems to come in more recognizable formats), I spend way too much time comparing costs (must be in my blood) and rejoicing the new, now-level playing field. Pineapples for 4 bucks, red and yellow peppers for a dollar each, whole milk for $1.29 a quart, packets of bean sprouts for 29 and 39 cents (on sale for 19 cents, sometimes)…it’s pretty crazy now, the fair pricing of produce and meats in Japan.
You won’t be making any sacrifices when shopping for food in Osaka. The choices are so many and the opportunities for shopping are so pervasive, so long as you have a few bucks in your pocket, you will never go hungry.
As for where you’ll end up doing your shopping, more than likely there will be a “shotengai” within walking distance of wherever you are staying. Shotengai are covered shopping streets — auto-fee except for the cross streets which drivers take very slowly.
Your local shotengai, regardless of length (some go on for blocks and blocks) will have all manner of stores: shoe and clothing stores, bike shops, 100 yen stores, 7-11s, stand-up bars and coffee shops, gioza shops, vegetable stores, rice, tofu, fruit, and liquor stores, candy stores, optometrists, medical supplies, pharmacies, banks, bento shops, maybe even a sento. And there is usually a back street when goods can often be had for slightly less.
Biking and walking are the modes of transport. Most have piped in music. And all are lit 24-7 as they remain travel lanes for walkers and bikers after businesses have closed their doors for the day.
Our share house kitchen isn’t the same as what we were used to back home, but it’ll do. I can’t find decent peanut butter anywhere and I haven’t had a decent craft beer since leaving the Bay, but I’m not complaining, either.
And now that we’ve checked off “Living like a Local” from our Japan to-do list, we are on the way toward our next adventure — car-camping Japan, from as far south as we can to as far north. More on that later.