Flying into Japan and Japanese Airports – A Completely Serious Guide Part 2

If you have not checked out Part 1 of the guide, you can do so here.

 You have overcome immigration, got your baggage – hopefully, you got the right suitcase, better to double-check – and even your salami made it through customs without raising alarms. Now you are in the arrival lobby and probably wondering what to do next. 

Available options are again very different, depending on the airport where you land. Narita Airport in Chiba prefecture (don’t get fooled into thinking it’s in Tokyo, although they would like you to think that) is Japans biggest airport with most international connections, and probably the airport where most people will land when they come to Japan for the first time. Haneda Airport has fewer international flights but is actually located in Tokyo and it only takes about 30 minutes to go to the city centre from the airport. If you are looking to start your adventures in the Kansai region around Kyoto and Osaka, Kansai Airport will be your best bet. Flights might be sparse and expensive, however, depending on where you will be flying from, so even in this case, it might be sometimes more economical to fly to one of the Tokyo airports and then move by train or bus to Osaka.

For the sake of simplicity, let us assume that you landed at Narita Airport and want to go on to Tokyo now, where you will be staying in a hotel for the time being. As stated earlier, the airport is located in Chiba prefecture (even though it used to be called Tokyo-Narita Airport), and it takes at least around one hour to reach the Tokyo city centre from the airport. You can either take the bus or the train or if you have too much money on hand you can get a taxi. The counter that sells bus tickets is located directly opposite the arrival gate. A bus ticket to Tokyo will be between 2000 and 3000 Japanese Yen and the bus stops are easy to find. The only problem is that there’s a lot of different busses and finding the correct bus stop for the ticket that you just bought can be a challenge. Your other reasonable option is to take the train. Trains are by far the most common means of public transportation in Japan, especially urban areas, so getting used to them early is a good idea as well. If you have the patience and stamina left, I would recommend taking the local train, operated by Keisei Electric Railway, into Tokyo. This will take a while, but it will take you through some pretty scenic countryside and it will also let you experience the absolute chasm that is the gap that separates rural and urban Japan. If you are exhausted and just want to get to Tokyo quickly, there are a few express trains available, such as the Keisei Skyliner or the Narita Express operated by Japan Railway.

 Before you leave the airport in the direction of Tokyo, there are a few optional steps that you could take. First, if you have not already, get some cash. Acceptance for credit cards is growing in Japan but paying in cash is still infinitely easier in many cases. If you have a card that allows you to withdraw money at Japanese ATMs do so, otherwise, you can exchange money at the airport, there are machines and tellers all over the airport. Next, depending on the airline that you used food may have been inedible (looking at you Aeroflot), so get some food and drink with your fresh Yen. Finally, it is a good idea to get internet for your smartphone as soon as possible. You WILL get lost and while Japanese people are usually helpful if you ask them for directions, having Google Maps or something similar available will make your life a lot easier. You can buy sim cards, data-only, aimed at tourists and usually only valid for a few days or weeks at most. Or you can rent a small portable WIFI device called “Pocket-Wifi”, which lets you connect multiple devices if you also brought a Laptop for example (though data is limited). Also available at the airport are luggage forwarding services (for example JTBs Luggage Free Travel or Yamato Transports Hands-Free Travel), which lets you send luggage from the airport to your hotel. 

If you take the train, make sure that you get an IC card as early as possible. These rechargeable cards let you pay train fare seamlessly and are available at the airport or any major train station. There are special IC cards for tourists, but all that really differentiates them is that you do not need the 500 Yen deposit and that they expire after 28 days. Unless you are short on cash, I would recommend just getting a normal IC card. The normal card does not expire and even if you leave Japan you can keep it at as a souvenir or use it when you come to Japan again the next time. One last thing that you can take advantage of at the airport is the plethora of free pamphlets and guidebooks in English that are available. You can of course also simply research online, but if you are looking for some inspiration it is available for free here.

And that’s it. In the end, airport design is pretty streamlined and most major airports will resemble each other in some or even most ways. If you have been to any major airport before, chances are there will be a lot of similarities to Narita Airport. Also, Narita Airport is one of the rare places where you will truly be fine If you only speak English (or even Chinese or Korean), because there is a lot of international staff and multilanguage support is everywhere. The only real difficulty is getting from the airport to Tokyo or wherever else you want to go and deciding whether you take the bus or the train. 

 For the time being, that is all I have to say about airports. There might be a part 3 in the future, explaining the process in more detail or focusing on different airports than Narita. It is also possible that part 3 will not be an article but a video, at this stage nothing is decided yet. Anyway, thank you very much for reading and I hope that this was useful to you in some way.

So You Want to Work in Japan

In the current digital age, it is easy to glance all kind of news and information about a foreign country simply by visiting the internet and websites such as this one. But, as in most other cases, the real thing is a lot different from what you can see on a computer or smartphone screen. If you are studying the Japanese language or simply have an interest in Japan, you might start thinking about visiting Japan, to experience the country that has piqued your interest for real. For some people, visiting for a couple of weeks on a tourist visa might be sufficient, but especially if you are trying to learn the language and understand Japanese culture, you will soon find that just a couple of weeks are simply not enough to get a good grasp of either. There are several options available that allow for a longer stay. You could apply to a Language school in, or student exchange to Japan. If your country has a Working Holiday agreement with Japan (at the time of writing 26 countries have such an agreement with Japan), you might be able to get your hands on a Working Holiday visa. Both of these usually grant you a one-year stay. But, I hear you say, that is not enough! If you want to stay longer consider the following: living in Japan is not cheap and if you want to stay long-term you will need to find work.

A working culture that is certainly plagued by many issues – but stereotypes is one of them

The internet is full of people that have very strong opinions on working in Japan. Be it on websites like Reddit or Twitter, even the comment sections on news articles (reading those is a bad habit of mine), if Japan is mentioned you can almost guarantee that someone will bring up the working culture. Inevitably, a grizzled veteran will chime in, claiming that he has worked in Japan or a Japanese company for five years and that he hated every minute of it, how the working culture is abysmal, working hours are unreasonably long and that the Japanese even have a specific word for people killing themselves due to work-related stress (過労死, karoushi, lit. death from overwork). Other commenters will react with surprise and point to suicide as a big issue in Japan and that Japan ought to do something about their working culture to stem the tide of suicides and to attract foreigners to work in Japan.

There are several things wrong with the above statements. While it must be said that Japanese working culture can indeed be very overbearing, it is usually not the slave-driving hellscape that people on social media like to paint it to be. More often than not, the reason people work long hours is due to simple inefficiency. From my own experience, workers seem reluctant to make decisions by themselves and will instead consult their direct supervisor. If they are working in a more modern company, they might get an answer at this step (or simply be told to figure it out by themselves), but in one of the bigger and traditional companies, the supervisor might, in turn, defer the decision to the person above him. This process will then repeat itself until it reaches someone high enough in the chain of command to make a decision. By this point, a lot of time may have passed and the worker that is waiting for the decision may have simply been sitting on his thumbs the whole time, doing nothing. Another issue is excessive record keeping. Let’s say you work in a call centre and it is a busy day. You are expected to make a record of EVERY call that you take, but you are also expected to answer the phone as quickly as possible. So, what ends up happening is that you constantly answer the phone until your shift is over, and then write your call reports after your shift is over. Yet another pattern (especially observed in older people) is that people simply do not want to go home or are specifically looking to stay longer to collect overtime pay. 

Do not get me wrong, overtime and related stress are big issues in Japan, but just as there is a word for death from overwork, there is also a word for companies with these abysmal working conditions with people calling them “black” companies (ブラック, burakku). Awareness is slowly but surely rising. Due to an ageing population (though this is another problem that is blown out of proportion by the internet at large, Japans population is ageing at a similar rate as many other first world countries’), there are 108 job offers for every 100 people seeking work, and companies have taken to lure potential candidates with promises of little overtime, maternal/paternal leave among other things. Change is slow but happening.

Another issue that gets raised is the so-called karoushi, death from overwork, and suicides in Japan in general. First, the existence of the word itself seems to surprise many people, but that simply shows that they most likely do not have an understanding of the Japanese language. If you are familiar with the language you will know about Kanji (characters that were imported from Chinese script). If you want to create a new word in Japanese, you simply pick the appropriate Kanji, stick them together and you have a new word. New words and phrases are coined all the time in any language, but few make it as easy as Japanese (or by association most likely Chinese, though I cannot speak to that), so there being a specific word for a specific issue or phenomenon does not necessarily speak to the severity of said issues or phenomena. Further, let me say that every suicide no matter the issues that led to it, is a serious and sad issue and should be treated as such. I do not mean to downplay the stress that some people have to endure and the mental issues that might lead one to end one’s own life. But looking at the bigger picture ( figures on suicide rates per country, released by the WHO in 2016), we see that Japan is lower on the list than countries such as Russia, South Korea and Belgium, and only marginally higher than for example the United States. Especially so-called “Westerners” (as a German I would count myself under this label, whatever it’s worth) often think suicides are only a problem in the eastern hemisphere, but looking at the numbers, rising suicide rates are a global problem that every country needs to address and are not isolated to Asia or Japan.

If you made it until this point in the article, お疲れ様です(otsukaresamadesu). All that is to say, that many people with strong opinions about working in Japan might not be fully informed about the bigger picture or are basing their opinion on outdated or incorrect information. There is a lot of that out there so do not rely on information from the internet to make your decision about whether you want to work in Japan or not (I appreciate the irony of telling you not to listen to me, but hopefully you know what I mean). My recommendation to anyone looking to work in Japan would be: do a language exchange and maybe try to do an internship, though those are far and few between, get a Working Holiday visa if your country allows for it and get some work experience, or maybe even come on a tourist visa to do some volunteer work (as long as you are not paid for it, you are allowed to work on a tourist visa). Of course, do your research as well, but do not let your opinion be swayed too far, be that either by promises of anime delights that await in Akihabara or by the threat of death from overwork that might kill you as soon as you set foot in a Japanese company building. Experiencing the real thing for yourself will give you a much clearer picture and will let you make an informed decision on if you want to work in Japan or not.

Flying into Japan and Japanese Airports – A Completely Serious Guide, Part 1

First a few words about flying into Japan. This is a long flight for most people. If you are coming from Europe or America, the flight will take upwards of ten hours, and that’s only if you are lucky enough to get a direct flight. Stopping somewhere for transit will increase that time to at least 16 hours, in some cases even more than 20. On the other hand, if you are stopping somewhere on the way flights will be significantly cheaper. 

Get all the amenities that are available to make flying bearable that you can get your hands on, neck-pillows, earplugs and eye-masks are not a must but will make your prolonged existence in a sealed metal tube a lot more comfortable. People around you and airline crew will follow a different schedule than you, so being able to fade that out is valuable. Just be aware that, whatever you do, the flight will most likely be uncomfortable and you will be seriously exhausted by the end. If you are planning to do sightseeing or other activities after landing, keep the possible exhaustion in mind. 

So, you are on the plane and about to land in the next couple of hours. The first sniff of Japanese bureaucracy comes wafting when you are still in the air. Airline crew will hand out paper slips from customs control, where you have to fill in your name, address where you will be staying in Japan (if you even remember that) and if you are carrying goods that would fall under customs regulation. At this point, you will probably notice that you are not allowed to bring meat (among other things) into the country and start sweating. That salami that you planned to distribute, to woo the hearts of your Japanese hosts (or girls, I won’t judge) suddenly seems like a not so great idea. But don’t worry, your luggage will most likely not be checked for such things and your tiny salami is not going to get you detained or deported.

Once you have landed, you will have to go through immigration control first. What happens here depends largely on the type of visa that you have and at what airport you land. Most international flights will land either in Tokyo (Narita or Haneda) or Osaka (Kansai Airport). Should you land at a smaller airport, your experience may vary.

If you have a short-term visa (90 days or less) a couple of friendly – or not so friendly, depending on your luck – old men will ask you to wait in a line. Remember this practice, waiting in line is somewhat of a Japanese national activity and vastly important to the citizens’ identity. When it is your turn, you will have your fingerprints and picture taken, most likely to prevent you from getting up to anything too nasty while you are in peaceful Japan, and then you have to wait in a different queue once more. This is the normal immigration queue, where at the end an immigration officer will grumpily stamp your passport and allow you to finally get out of the immigration area.

If you are one of the elite few who was able to get their hands on a long-term visa, the process will be different for you. You do not have to wait in line with the other travellers to get your prints and picture taken (though you most likely will be made to do that anyway, because the friendly/unfriendly old men do not know what to do in these cases). You will then be brought to a waiting area where you have to wait, sometimes for quite a long time. Once an immigration agent is available to see you, you will have your fingerprints and picture taken again and they will issue you your Residence Card (zairyuu kaado, 在留カード). This is your personal identity document for the time that you are in Japan, make sure to have it with you at all times, there are stories of people being fined hundreds of thousands of yen when they were caught without their card on their person, though I have never personally been stopped by Police or know of anyone who has been. At this stage, you will most likely be asked for an address again (if you even remember that), but as far as I know, it is not a big deal if you can only tell them a hotel name or nothing at all.

Once that’s over and you are through immigration, you are officially in Japan! Welcome, and enjoy but a few procedures await you still. You will now want to pick up your luggage, at bigger airports, there are overhead screens that show where the luggage for a specific flight can be picked up. Once you have your luggage, you will then head to customs. This is probably the most dangerous step in the process because that salami is at risk of being discovered. Unlike some other countries, you cannot simply walk through customs. You have to see an immigration officer and hand him the slip of paper that you filled out while still on the airplane, right? Whether you are asked to open your suitcase or not seems to be entirely up to chance. If you talk to the officer in Japanese, chances seem to be that your luggage is not going to get searched (completely based on personal experience). Just pull out your best keigo, appear confident and hope that the officer is not specifically trained to smell processed Italian meat products. Once that is over, you can take your suitcase and finally get out of the regulated space of the airport and into the arrival lobby. 

For how to proceed from now, check out part 2 of our guide here!