A Typical Thursday in Tokyo
[4,000 words, estimated reading time 20 minutes]
This post is the first in a multi-part series that will explore the details of daily life as a foreigner living and working in Tokyo. My experience in Tokyo is unique to me in some aspects, but the patterns and details should still be telling of what life in Tokyo is like for many. I am a white American male currently working primarily as an English teacher, and this makes me fairly standard-issue within the expat community. White dudes teaching English are, after all, hardly a rare find.
Still, most people I know back in the USA and elsewhere haven't lived abroad, and they regularly ask me about what my daily life is like. It varies quite a bit, but I've tried to assemble a cross section of a quasi-typical work day to give you some sense of what my daily life is like. The truth is that my schedule changes every single day, so there is no truly typical day I could describe, though there are trends. Later this year, when I will hopefully have my business up and running and am out of the corporate EFL rat race, there will likely be even less regularity to my schedule (freelancing is many things, but predictable it tends not to be). But for now, daily life falls within certain fairly regular parameters.
I enjoy my life here in Tokyo. My current work situation is taxing, in that I'm working six days a week teaching and otherwise spending most of my time trying to figure out how to launch my business and change my visa, but that's OK. Hard work is, after all, how we make worthwhile things happen. I work a lot of split shifts, I almost never get enough sleep, and honestly I feel pretty worn out most of the time right now. Being able to live and work in Tokyo is a great opportunity for me, however, and while it's true that my schedule comes closer than I'd like to sending me into burnout, it remains that my focus at the moment is to work like hell now so that I can build the lifestyle I want in the long run. Time management is my biggest struggle, as I attempt to get the important things done and fit them into the weirdly shaped gaps of my days. Sometimes I feel like I'm doing well, but at other times other times, things go wildly wrong and I do things like take six weeks instead of two to finish a blog post.
The following timeline is theoretically representative of most of my working days. Some days I might start later, and on other days I might finish earlier. My midday break might be longer or shorter, and depending on scheduling, I might end up teaching at a school in a different part of Tokyo than Roppongi, which is where I usually teach. I don't usually get my teaching schedule for the following day until about 19:00, so between the variability of my schedule and when I receive it, I can never really settle into any real routine. My days off are Friday and Saturday, but I'm currently working an extra shift on Fridays for extra cash, and Saturdays are spent partially with my girlfriend and partially working on photography or whatever else needs worked on. But for now, let's focus on this supposed Thursday in Tokyo.
5:45 - Alarm rings
I use two alarms, as I am paranoid about oversleeping, especially when chronically tired. On my phone, I use an app that monitors my movement and tries to wake me up at a time when I am sleeping less deeply. Part of the idea is that I am therefore less likely to suffer from that dreaded foe of he who must appear chipper in the classroom: sleep inertia. I also use a small, battery-powered alarm clock that sits on my desk across the room, which is set for five minutes after my main alarm. The thinking is that I would have to get out of bed to turn it off, were it to ring. I have never needed the second alarm, but sleep better knowing it's there to prevent me from missing work.
5:50 - Meditation
To be perfectly honest, right now this isn't happening all that consistently, but it is something that I try to make a habit of. I have found that sitting meditation first thing in the morning, even just for 10-15 minutes, can radically shift the trajectory of my day in a very positive way. The tricky thing is actually having the resolve to do so after a week of getting only 4 hours of sleep a night. A chronic lack of sleep is, unfortunately, simply a fact of life for me right now. A bad schedule plus a strong loyalty to insomnia make for a reliably tired Dave.
6:10 - Tea and sometimes breakfast
While living in Taiwan and China, I developed a deep appreciation of oolong tea, which I drink most mornings and make in a fairly traditional way using a gaiwan instead of a teapot. It gives me a bit of a boost with the caffeine, but it's also just plain delicious and a very soothing thing to have at the beginning of what will probably be a hectic day. Handling the warm ceramics also adds a nice tactile element, one that is of particular pleasure during the colder months.
Most of the time, I skip breakfast at home. Why? Because I'm tired and not especially hungry. Plus, I've discovered that, if I do eat breakfast, I actually get hungry for lunch sooner and have to put up with more stomach grumbles in the midst of my morning classes.
6:40 - Dress for work
Nine days out of ten, my personal uniform is chinos and an oxford-cloth shirt. I am required to wear a tie except during the warmer months when Cool Biz is in effect. I am not against ties, necessarily, but am opposed to the requirement of a tie. Most days, the tie I wear is an old United Airlines tie I found at a thrift store in Chicago years ago. It looks good, is indestructible, and it lives permanently in my locker at the school. My work shoes also live at the school. In the colder months, I wear a blazer or a cardigan. Every year, I buy a new charcoal-gray lambswool cardigan, and every year around February the right elbow of that cardigan wears through from dragging my elbow around the table while writing. I darn or otherwise fix that elbow repeatedly until the weather warms and I throw the sweater in the back of the closet with other half-dead garments.
6:55 - Leave for the station
The walk to the station takes me past no fewer than eleven drink vending machines (these things being everywhere in Japan), over a river, and through a small park where a group of older people from the neighborhood play croquet once or twice a month. It takes about twelve minutes on most days, and along the way I usually buy a vitamin drink or canned coffee from one those machines. You can buy cold drinks, of course, but one thing I love about Japan is that you can also buy drinks that come out of the machine hot, so if I spring for a ¥120 can of coffee, it comes out at a temperature that is very satisfying on a cold day.
7:09 - Board the Seibu Ikebukuro Line
This is the first of two trains I take on my commute. I ride this train for three stops. I like this train because, unlike the longer leg of my commute, the train is above ground and I can look out over the city. On clear days, I can also see Mt Fuji if I look to the south. Interestingly, this is also a train line that occasionally has a feline passenger. There is a cat that sometimes rides this train all by itself, which sounds made up, but it's actually true. I know it's true because got on the train one Sunday morning back in September and was perplexed to see a cat sitting across from me.
On weekend mornings, I usually get to sit down on the train but otherwise have to stand. On weekdays, I have never been able to sit on the train on my morning or evening commute. The Seibu Ikebukuro line can get a bit busy, but it's nothing too bad, except once in a while when there's a delay and more people feel the need to stuff themselves into each car than would seem possible, let alone advisable.
7:20-7:28 - Transfer lines at Nerima Station and board the Toei Oedo Line
This is where I head underground. Pretty simple affair, just head from the elevated platform to the ticket gate, go down into the subway station, through another ticket gate, and down to the tracks. I ride at the very end of the train, as there's slightly more standing room. I often see the same people a few times a week on my train, including one guy who wears a polo shirt and khakis every day of the year, regardless of the weather (including snow and typhoons). There also used to be a very pretty young woman who did a very bad job of pretending she wasn't looking at me, but I haven't seen her in a year.
When I get on, I try to score a spot against the interior wall so that I don't have to constantly move around as people get on and off the train. After about three stops, the train is packed. During my morning commute, I study Japanese on my iPhone, but when the train gets like a sardine can, I end up with the screen about five inches from my nose or basically held over my head, because that's all the room I have to work with. I've actually considered buying reading glasses for the sake of not giving myself a headache by trying to study kanji (the Chinese characters used in writing Japanese) while my phone is framed between one guy's shoulder and someone else's hair, all of it too close to focus on.
I ride this train for twelve stops, which takes twenty-seven minutes. Note that I didn't say about twenty-seven minutes. Trains in Japan are often so punctual it's spooky. Weather and accidents can cause massive delays on the above-ground lines, but with the Oedo Line, this essentially never happens. In almost two years of riding this route almost every day, I have never had a delay on this line. It takes twenty-seven minutes.
7:55 - Debark at Roppongi Station
The southbound platform of the Oedo Line at Roppongi Station is 42 meters underground, making it the deepest subway platform in Tokyo (though not the deepest in Japan). From the moment I get off the train, I'm vying with hundreds of other people who are all trying to get up the escalator. Two very long lines instantly form, one for people who simply wish to ride the escalator, the other for slightly more motivated people who wish to walk up the escalator. I take the stairs instead, though at peak times there's a line for that as well.
8:00 - Konbini
Konbini is the Japanese term for convenience stores, and there are two essential things you should know about convenience stores in east Asia: they are everywhere and they are vastly more convenient than their equivalents in the USA. I can do things like pay my utility bills at the convenience store at 3:00 AM if I so desire, though before work I'm simply stopping for a bolus of caffeine and possibly an onigiri (rice ball wrapped in seaweed, usually with some kind of filling) for breakfast if I really need it.
8:05 - Class Prep
This actually consists of poking at an iPad for a few minutes and then bullshitting with my coworkers until the first class of the morning begins. I am fortunate to work in an office with good banter and a good collective sense of humor. I have worked in offices where everything was oh-so-serious, and it was not a good situation for me. Give me the silly, the absurd, the good-natured coworkers who understand just as well as I do that this whole thing is a farce anyway, so we might as well laugh our way through it.
It is also at this time that I don the missing components of my work attire. When I put on the tie and change from my Converse All-Stars to a generic black leather shoe, my level of apparent professionalism shoots through the roof, or so I am led to believe. I just wouldn't be a legitimate English teacher without these components. If not for looping a strip of patterned cloth around my neck and fastening it with a standardized knot, how would my students know they could trust me on such critically important topics as the unreal conditional and gerundives? And it is only by wearing leather shoes that my students are guaranteed fully recognize my authority on linguistic matters. Without the shoe change, they might ask, "Who is this weirdo?" But with feet shod in supple animal skin, it's a guaranteed, "Rejoice! He is clearly the English-teaching messiah for whom I have waited oh these many long years!"
Four forty-minute classes with five-minute breaks between them. Usually, two classes each for two students. The time passes pretty quickly, unless the student is extraordinarily low in ability or the material is test prep for TOEIC, TOEFL, etc. Sometimes my morning may have five or six classes, but usually four.
11:30-16:45 - Break time
Depending on the day, the length of this break varies, but I'm most often free from 11:30 to either 16:45 or 18:15. We recently lost a couple of teachers, so this is less true at the moment than usual, as I'm picking up some of the slack and have afternoon classes more often right now. My contract stipulates no fewer than eight classes per day, and now I often teach ten or twelve.
What do I do during the break time? This varies immensely, depending on what projects I'm working on, the weather, how tired I am on any given day, where I'm working, and if I have enough time to go home on my break. When the break is from 11:30 to 18:15, I do often go home, even though this means my total time commuting for the day gets doubled to about four and a half hours. Going home in the afternoon means I can take a nap in my own bed, do laundry and have it hang to dry when the sun is still out, develop film, or attempt to organize my apartment. With my schedule the way it is, my apartment has a habit of imploding during the week. Disorganization doesn't so much creep in at the edges as it does rapidly invade every cabinet, surface, and container, all while I am too tired to notice much until it is wildly out of control.
The last couple of weeks, my break times have been split between working on photography, working on my business plan so I can get out of teaching English full time later this year, working on one web site or another, or studying Japanese. For the sake of this piece of writing, let's assume that I usually get through some amount of each of those. During this break, I will often hole up in some vacant classroom and do my thing until it's time to get back to work. Which brings us to:
16:45-17:30 - Travel to Outservice
While most of my teaching activities happen at the school, a few times a week I travel to other locations to teach private lessons for my company at the officies of other companies. These are called outservices and I like them for the variety and the opportunity to move around the city more in my day-to-day life. Tokyo is a huge and interesting place, so any opportunity I can have to go even a few stations away on the subway is a welcome opportunity. Besides, a lot of the outservices are with interesting people and organizations. My Thursday evening outservice is in Hamamatsucho, which isn't far from Roppongi, just three stops on the Oedo Line to Daimon, and then a short walk to the office building. It doesn't take the full 45 minutes, though that's what I'm afforded in my schedule. Any surplus time is spent with an improving book.
17:30-19:00 - Teach at Outservice
Aside from the location, this is an otherwise-normal two-unit block of classes. The location change is the nice part, though, and sometimes outservices are in very nice offices in tall buildings with sweeping views of the city. It's harder to complain with a good view.
19:00-19:45 - Return to Roppongi
Exactly as it you would expect, this is just like the previous journey, only in reverse.
19:45-21:15 - Teach in Roppongi
The last two classes of the day, by this point I generally resemble a zombie, especially if I've had extra classes in the middle portion of the day. If I have an interesting, lively, or engaging student, I can get through these classes no problem. If I get a sleeper of a student, it is essentially torture. Coffee isn't an option to help at this stage, either, as I have a personal cutoff time of about 15:00 on caffeine, lest I absentmindedly keep consuming it until late in the evening and thereby screw myself on sleep that night. I'm seriously awful at sleeping sometimes and prefer not to take chances involving stimulants making me even worse at going unconscious for the night.
21:20 - Board the Toei Oedo Line
Just like the morning commute, only in reverse and not usually quite as crowded. Depending on how much studying I've gotten through during the day before this point, I may or may not continue my studies of Japanese. If not, I'll listen to a podcast, read a book, or write emails.
21:48 - Debark at Nerima, walk a while
I have to get enough walking time in every day or I get really restless and don't sleep as well. As such, depending on the day, I'll get off the train as many as three stops early and walk home from there to make up any discrepancies. This can take as long as an hour, but is time well spent in physical activity and mental enjoyment, as I also listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks during this part of the day. If I have a camera with me (which I pretty much always do), I'll probably also make some photos in between the station and home.
22:35 - Stop at the grocery store, pick up something to eat
At this point in the day, the chances of my cooking something for dinner are pretty much nil. Unless it's instant ramen, which isn't really cooking and barely counts as food. So instead of instant ramen, I might pick something up at the konbini again or stop at the supermarket by my station, which closes at 23:00. Late in the evening, they mark down all the ready-to-eat stuff that has to sell by the end of the day. Sometimes I get a great deal on something actually delicious, other times I get a great deal on something I don't really feel like eating, and at other times still I don't get anything at all because, despite all of us being about to fall over from fatigue, the other dead-eyed Tokyoites in the supermarket will strike with lightning speed the very instant the supermarket employee puts that discount sticker on the plastic container of whatever-it-is. We are, after all, too tired to really enjoy the food, so we certainly aren't going to overpay for it.
22:45 - Arrive home, eat
If it's warm, I sometimes just eat whatever I bought in a corner of a local park, as it's nice to be outside and enjoy the night, but otherwise I carry my plastic bag of plastic containers of pre-made food items the fifteen minutes home and eat them while watching something on Youtube and sitting at my desk. Or if my desk has succumbed to clutter, standing at my small refrigerator, making use of the six inches of flat space in front of the microwave. Or I'll just sit on my bed as I eat my cold soba noodles and wash them down with a store-brand beer of simply adequate quality. When I'm done, I rinse the plastic containers and put them in my recycling bin. One could likely intuit the general business of my week based on how much plastic recycling I take out on Saturday morning.
23:30 - Shower and...?
The shower doesn't actually take half an hour. More like half of that, including standing there for what seems like a really long time until I feel guilty and get out. The very end of the day tends to get a bit vague. Before getting into bed I'll suddenly remember things like that I need to fill my fountain pen or that garbage needs to go out tomorrow. It is around this time that I'm also sending messages back and forth with my girlfriend on LINE, one of the preferred messaging platforms in east Asia. I get to see her about once a week, and so must content myself with a few lines of text-based flirting on work nights. I get home late, but she often gets home even later than I do. This is one of the difficulties of dating in Tokyo, but that's an essay topic all on its own, and one I'll save for another day.
00:00 - Go to bed, read
Just as it sounds, really. If I'm really tired, I may not even attempt to read. I like reading, though, so I at least give it a try most nights, even if I know I'm probably just two minutes from dropping my Kindle on my nose.
00:30 - Sleep (hopefully)
As you may have gathered from my having said so about twenty times already, I don't always have the most success with sleep. When I'm having trouble sleeping, I'm a complete wreck, and over the last handful of months have been making a concerted effort to get a handle on the situation. Early cutoff time for caffeine, daily exercise, only reading fiction before bed. The meditation helps as well. And if all goes according to plan, I'm asleep not too long after midnight, as I'll probably be up at 5:45 to do it all over again.