Haircuts in Tokyo: What to Know

One of the challenges I didn’t foresee upon moving to Japan was getting my haircut. For some reason, the idea that this seemingly mundane task back home would become an almost overwhelming obstacle had never crossed my mind. Setting aside the language barrier, which is already a huge challenge, there are also a few Japan-specific elements I had never considered. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) my hair has continued to grow at a steady rate, forcing me to make my bi-weekly trips to the barber. It’s been about three and half years since I first stepped into a Japanese salon, at the time full of doubt and uncertainty. Since then, I’ve compiled a list of recommendations to make your trips to the salon all the smoother. I should note, some of these recommendations are geared more for those with limited Japanese. In any case, below are some of the most important, in my opinion, and in no particular order:

Bring a Photo

There are tons of Japanse language resources out there, and lots of people will tell you getting your haircut is an excellent language learning opportunity. This may be true, but if you’re anything like me, you prefer not to deal with a bad haircut in order to get said practice. This is why you should definitely bring a photo of what you want your hair to look like. A photo of yourself from before, of a celebrity with a similar hairstyle, or even just a google photo of a random person online. In general, this is good advice even when there are no language barriers. Bringing a picture helps your barber or stylist to understand exactly what you have in mind.

In my experience, Japan is no exception. In fact, I find my barber prefers working from a photo, jumping right into work with only a few questions. As a result, I am almost always more satisfied with the result. So if you’re worried you will look silly or might offend someone by bringing a photo, don’t. Just bring the picture and make life easier for everyone.

Study Some Conversation Topics

For those of us who are still in need of real-world Japanese practice, I’ve found that salons/barbers tend to be great places for just that. For me, however, the practice doesn’t come in the form of describing my ideal haircut. Instead, I’ve found that nearly every barber I’ve ever been to is a great conversationalist. Regardless of what my Japanese level has been over the years, all of the stylists I’ve ever been to were great at compensating for my lack of Japanese vocabulary. What’s even better is I’ve rarely gotten the feeling that this conversation was out of obligation. Whether this is some kind of universal trait all barbers here share, or they are simply all curious,
I find talking to my barbers to be a super pleasant experience.

That being said, it’s on you to have a list of questions and topics at the ready to make this happen. Usually, it’s as simple as asking how their day is going, or what they do for fun. In any case, just come with some ideas at the ready and be sure to study up beforehand to make the most of the interaction. Also, be ready to push yourself and stray from this list.

One final point on practising Japanese with your barber/stylist. I tend not to have the same barber every time I go, thus many times I end up having repeat conversations. This has been amazing as it has given me a chance to gauge my progress and to try words or sentences I had previously been uncomfortable using.

Research Pricing and Know What You Want Beforehand

This seems fairly obvious, however, it’s worth going into some detail here. There are tons and tons of hair salons in Tokyo (sometimes I feel there are more salons than restaurants) and consequently, there is also a wide range of prices. This does not mean that the more you pay the better your haircut will be. By far my worse haircut here cost me just under 4000 Yen, which was way more than I had wanted to spend. But because I didn’t do my research and just walked in assuming a men’s haircut wouldn’t be too bad, I ended up getting roped into it and was very disappointed with the end result.

If you have short hair and aren’t very picky, like me, there is no reason you should be paying some of the prices listed at many of the salons around Tokyo. Instead, you may want to check out one of several budget salon chains. Here are a few of the more popular ones:

The one I’ve been going to for the past year is 11cut. The full price of a cut there is around 1700 Yen, but they have a sort of monthly coupon cutting that price to 1000 Yen. For as long as I’ve been going, I have not had a visit without the coupon.

In terms of quality, 11cut is not too bad. I find it really depends on who I get. Of course, you can make a reservation with specific stylists, but I am pretty horrible at planning. In any case, the staff there aims to finish cutting your hair within 10 minutes but will take the extra time if you have a very specific request. One final note on 11cut and other budget chains: make sure you plan for a short wait if you walk in. Because of the price, these places tend to be busier.

Regardless of where you choose to go, it’s important to know exactly what you want beforehand. This ties into my earlier point of bringing a photo. If you are unclear about what you want, your stylist/barber will likely not put their own twist on things to save the day. Coming from a barber back home that would advise me when I am making a bad call, or recommend I go with a certain style when he noticed I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted, this was actually very annoying for me. While it’s true I am responsible for know exactly what I want, it’s always nice to have a stylist that has some say in all of this. Well, don’t expect too much of that here if your language ability is limited. If you do plan on describing your perfect haircut, be sure you are able to describe it perfectly, or you will likely not get what you expect.

My only other advice on the subject is to try walking into a place when they are busy and seeing the kinds of hairstyles they are cutting at the moment. See if anyone has similar hair to yours and if anyone is getting a haircut that is like something you want.

Don’t Tip

I repeat, don’t tip. In general, Japanese society frowns upon tipping. This is true for barbers, taxis and restaurants alike. There are a few places which have adopted more of a western culture which do accept tips, however, these are few and far between. So after you get your haircut, no matter how satisfied you are and no matter how friendly your barber was, just don’t do it. I’ve actually offended a previous stylist by trying to tip. They were all smiles until I dropped the T-word, at which point they quickly changed attitude, turned it down, and rushed me out of their salon.

Find an English Speaking Salon

If all of this is simply too overwhelming, and you’d rather not risk a bad haircut, your safest bet is to find an English speaking salon/barber. There are actually plenty scattered around Tokyo if you look for them. Many of these locations have stylists who have been trained in overseas, or who have worked abroad for several years. The one caveat is, these places tend to be a bit pricier (at least for my tastes).

If dealing with a higher price point just isn’t for you, English-speaking staff is still not out of the question. While they may not market themselves as such, some places actually do have staff with some English skills. Many times, staff will understand at a minimum “haircut” English, which is enough to get you by. Don’t expect this to be the norm though, so make sure to explore a few shops and ask around first.

Below are a few popular salons that market English-speaking staff around Tokyo:

Finding Free WiFi in Tokyo

If you’re anything like me, you find it hard to get things done at home where distractions are aplenty. The problem is, despite what the world believes about Tokyo, it can be very difficult to find reliable WiFi in public places. And when you do find a spot, a lot of times it’s a gamble as to whether you will actually be able to connect. In fact, after over three years living in Tokyo, I still only have a few go-to options when I want to do some work outside of home or the office. So, in hopes of making your life a bit simpler, I’ve listed some of my go-to places for WiFi in Tokyo (Where you can actually sit and get things done). I should mention before continuing, that not all locations listed below will have power outlets available. It varies from location to location, so be sure to have a full charge or call ahead just in case!

Coffee Shops

Let’s start with the obvious. Coffee shops are always a great place to start. However, don’t just stroll into any coffee shop and expect to be connected. In my experience, this is extremely hit-or-miss. Especially in terms of small local shops. So if you have a few coffee shops near you, take some time to figure out which ones, if any, have free WiFi available.

Many of the chain coffee shops in Tokyo do have some form of free connection available, but there are often stipulations. For example, some shops require you to be a member of a service called Freespot in order to utilize their WiFi. That being said there are plenty which don’t. However, you will have to go through some type of ‘sign-up’ process. This usually involves connecting to a network, being directed to a sign in page, and following the directions. Many times these options are in Japanese, but many do have an English menu.

Below are three coffee shop chains I frequently use and their respective ‘sign-up’ processes.


Starbucks is one of the more popular chains in Tokyo (as it is in many other places in the world). In order to use WiFi here, you will have to sign up for a free Starbucks WiFi account. Once complete, you can use that login info at any Starbucks location in Japan to connect to WiFi. Considering there are so many Starbucks in Japan, this is usually my best option. I should note that the busier locations, such as Shibuya or Omotesando often have very, very slow connections. So make sure you don’t need to do any data-heavy work in them.

You can find directions on how to connect to Starbucks Wifi below:


Dotour is another very popular coffee shop in Tokyo, probably second only to Starbucks. The sign in process is a bit different here though. Instead of creating an account, you must ask the staff for directions at the counter. They will give you a card with an email address. Basically, you email this address for a guest password. Once you have this password, connect to the network, get redirected to a login page, and use it to get connected.

Wired Cafe

Wired Cafe is much less popular than the both Starbucks and Dotour, however, the process to get set up is much simpler. You just ask the staff for the wifi info. Easy as that. Look for the network and use the given password to get connected.

Below is a list of Wired Cafe locations in Tokyo:


If coffee is not your thing, or you prefer a full meal while you work, another option is to find a restaurant chain which offers WiFi. Like coffee shops, it’s not super common for these to offer it, however, they definitely do exist. Below are two chains which I sometimes use.


This one is probably no surprise. McDonald’s, which can be found pretty much everywhere, offers free WiFi. And what’s better is there is no real sign up process. You simply connect, get redirected to a permission form, accept the conditions, and you are online.


Denny’s is another very popular restaurant for going to get work done. Many high-schoolers or college kids come here to do just that. The best thing is they offer a drink bar for unlimited drinks while you stay. So you don’t have to worry about spending too much if you get too thirsty throughout your time there. The process for getting connected is the same as it is for McDonald’s: connect, get redirected and accept conditions.

Convenience Stores

Finally, if you prefer not to dine while you work, or if you have none of the above options near you, you can always look for a convenience store. Not all stores have places for you to sit and do work, however both 7/11 and Lawson have special stores with areas specifically just for that.

Natural Lawson

Many Natural Lawsons in Tokyo serve a bit more food than the standard Lawson. Furthermore, they have a small ‘bakery’ and ‘coffee shop’ area. As a result, these locations also have a seat and table area. The benefit of these places is you do not have to buy food or drink to utilize them. Or, if you aren’t comfortable with sitting without buying, you can always get a small sports drink or snack. Again the sign up process is a simple accept conditions type thing and as far as I can tell, there is no limit to how long you can stay. (I have never been asked to leave.) One important note is that connections last for about one hour. After which point, you will need to re-sign in using the same process.


These special 7/11’s are just like the Natural Lawsons. They usually offer a bit more than their standard counterparts and have seat and table areas where visitors can eat, relax or get work done. The sign up process is the same as Natural Lawson, and just like Natural Lawson, you will have to reconnect every 60 minutes or so.

Below is the 7/11 Japan website:

Hopefully all of this is enough to get you set to do some work in Tokyo. Any of these options are pretty easy to find, and if you do find one, it’s a safe bet to assume you will get connected. However, if none of them are nearby, you are not out of luck. Although it’s not terribly common for places to offer free WiFi, it is definitely still a thing. So explore your local area and see if any of your local shops can get you set up!

Staying Fit in Tokyo

I’ve always been an active person, and these days especially I’ve gotten very serious about fitness. As anyone with fitness goals will tell you, doing what it takes to reach your goals requires patience, dedication, and the ability to overcome temptation. Already, this can be quite the challenge, however, I have found living in Tokyo makes matters even worse. If you also live here, then you know that:

  • Getting started at a Japanese gym can be overwhelming
  • Restaurants here tend to be on the carb-heavy side
  • The drinking culture is very real here, and so cutting back is next to impossible without a plan

These challenges coupled with a low level of Japanese language abilities make the process of living a healthy lifestyle an uphill battle, to say the least. So I’ve decided to create this post as a sort of guide to getting past these very common obstacles.

Note: I plan to update this post from time to time, so be sure to check back to see if there are any additions relevant to your situation.

Hitting the Gym

Let’s begin with the most obvious obstacle. Where does one go to exercise in the city? If you are anything like I was, you know a gym when you see it, but (assuming your level of Japanese is also as low as mine was when I first moved to Tokyo) stepping in and getting started is entirely too overwhelming. Luckily, with some preparation and foresight, the process becomes drastically simpler.

Ward Gyms

Perhaps the simplest and cheapest option is to locate your ward’s sports center. Basically, every ward in Tokyo has some sort of activity center open to the public, and discounted for anyone who lives, works or studies in the area. These sports centers are maintained by each local ward and are very affordable. Generally, you pay anywhere between 200-500 yen for a set amount of time (Usually 2 hours). It’s important to note that not all sports centers are created equal. Some have weight rooms, while others don’t. Some have pools, open mat areas, lessons, etc. So make sure to plan a visit to make sure your nearest center is a viable option for you.

As an example, I work in Minato-ku, and so I often visit the Minato-ku Sports Center . To get started, I was required to fill out a registration form and show proof of my association with the ward, in this case, my work ID. Once I finished this process, I was given a refillable membership card with which I pay 500 yen each time I visit the sports center. People who don’t go through this initial process are still able to use the sports center’s facilities, however, they must purchase single-use tickets for 800 yen.

To give you an idea of what to expect from sports centers, some of the facilities available at the Minato-ku sports center include:

  • 25 meter pool
  • Indoor and outdoor tracks
  • Training room (with Weight area)
  • Open matted areas
  • Dance, Workout, Martial arts lessons
  • Basketball Court
  • Volleyball Court
  • And more

I should also note before moving on that the Minato-ku sports center is one of the more updated centers, so don’t expect every one of the same services at other locations. To find your nearest sports center, you can ask at your local ward office, police box, or just google “[your ward] sports center.”


If ward gyms don’t cut it, or you simply want a less crowded option, Tokyo has tons of gyms that offer monthly memberships. It’s always best to bring a Japanese speaker with you if you yourself don’t speak the language, however, I have found most gyms in Tokyo have some way of accommodating English speakers. In either case, the following are two gyms I would recommend checking out if you would like to go the membership route.

Anytime Fitness

This is the option I currently go with for three reasons. Members have access to any Anytime Fitness in Japan, all locations are open 24 hours, and they are very affordable. Signing up is fairly pain free, and depending on which location you choose, some staff actually speak English. In terms of equipment, with a few exceptions most locations include at least all of the following:

  • Flat Bench
  • Power Cage
  • Smith Machine
  • Cable Machine
  • Free Weights
  • A bunch of various machines designed for specific body parts
  • Belts and straps for lifting support

In terms of price, the monthly cost varies location to location with the average being about 7500 yen/month. Essentially, you sign up for one “home” Anytime Fitness. After your first 30 days of membership, you will then have access to all of the anytime fitness’ in Japan via a small keychain which you use to buzz yourself in at any of the locations. There is one stipulation though, you must go to your “home” location more than the others each month. In the event you don’t abide by this guideline, your membership transfers to the other Anytime and you will begin being charged their monthly rate instead. I haven’t run into an issue with this system yet and can’t foresee a problem coming up anytime soon.

One last thing worth mentioning is if you are interested in signing up wait for a campaign. Almost every location will run their own versions of a campaign once every couple of months, which can save you a good chunk of change. When I signed up, my initial fee and key fee were both waived. Additionally, my first 3 months were half off!

Here is the link to their Japanese website. There is no English, but google translate should make it manageable:

Gold’s Gym

This international gym chain is essentially a fancier version of Anytime Fitness. There tends to be more equipment and more space, which translates to fewer chances of having to wait for a machine. However, the cost is also a bit higher, averaging at about 10000 yen/month. One other major benefit to signing up to Gold’s Gym is that the crowd here tends to be a bit more serious about fitness. And so if you are the kind of person who gets motivation from others, it’s definitely worth the investment!

Here is the link to their Japanese website:

Eating Out

Going out to eat is kind of the thing to do when meeting friends in Tokyo, and so it can be very challenging to eat right. That being said, I feel the only reason this is a challenge for me in the first place is that when
I was caught in the moment, I was never prepared, and so I always just gave in and chose to eat an unhealthy, albeit delicious meal. (Tokyo has the most Michelin Stars in the world.)

So in an effort to help all of you going through a similar sort of problem, I have listed out some common dishes which are on the healthier side. I’ve also listed out some pretty healthy restaurants for those of you who are in a more strict phase of your eating habits.



A Japanese style full set meal (The word literally means set menu) which includes a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup, a pickled vegetable, and is served with a meat or fish. Look for this kanji: 定食.

Soba Noodles (Cold)

Buckwheat noodles served chilled. They can be dipped into a special soba sauce. The sauce contains pretty high levels of sodium, so its best to use only a bit and dilute it if possible.

Sashimi or Sushi

Hopefuly you’ve heard of sushi before, raw meat served with white rice. Sashimi is essentially sushi minus the rice.


Below is a list of healthy (or at least as healthy as it gets eating out in Tokyo) which will be updated from time to time:


Of the three points I listed at the start of this post, I’d have to say this is the most difficult because drinking is so ingrained in the culture of this country. In fact, there is a Japanese word specifically for going out for drinks with colleagues after work: Nomikai. If you are associated with any culturally Japanese group, you will at one point or other be forced to partake.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably already aware of the effect alcohol has on your fitness goals. From things like reducing your body’s ability to process protein, adding a bunch of empty carbs into your diet, and inhibiting you from resisting food cravings throughout the night, drinking too much or too often is a huge barrier to any plans to stay in shape. Fortunately, dealing with this problem is very similar to dealing with eating out: you just have to be prepared.

Firstly, assuming you socialize in any way, you will probably be drinking to a few kanpai‘s (The Japanese word for cheers). However, as you are probably already aware, there are some drinks which pack fewer calories and can be drunk a bit slower than others. Here are a few I fall back on and how to say them if your bartender doesn’t speak English:

  • Whiskey on the Rocks: wiss-key-roc-kku
  • Gin and Tonic: gin-toni-kku
  • Standard Draft Beer (normally Kirin or Asahi): nama-bee-ru

Aside from the Kanpai‘s, you can probably get away with going non-alcoholic. Here are a few drinks you can order in place of alcohol that give off the appearance of being part of the in-crowd:

  • Oolong Tea: oo-ron-cha
  • Jasmin Tea: ja-su-min-cha
  • Sparkling Water: tan-san-mizu

Hopefully, with these small pieces of advice, you too can attain a healthy lifestyle, despite the social pressures of Tokyo. It took me a while, but after a few years of figuring out small life hacks, I was able to do just that. If you’ve taken anything from this post, I hope it’s that while staying fit in Tokyo can be quite the challenge, with some planning and foresight (and some dedication) it is definitely possible.

I am always open to trying new things, so if you have any other recommendations for staying fit in Tokyo, leave a comment below!

Getting A Japanese Driver’s License – Part 2

If you’re reading this post, I’m assuming you have already finished Part 1 of Getting A Japanese Driver’s License. This post continues from that one and goes over the remainder of the process, so be sure to check that one out before reading on!

At this point, you have handed in all of your paperwork, and the administrative part of the process is out of the way. For the most part, this first half is straightforward, albeit cumbersome. The next steps are where the real work begins: the tests!

Step 2: The Written Test

I feel I’ve built up some hype here, so let me begin by saying the written test is (in this writer’s humble opinion) a joke. At the Samezu driving center in Tokyo, the test was comprised of 10 questions. It was all in English. And, assuming you have even a minuscule amount of driving experience, was pretty much a gimme. You will need to get at least 7 questions correct, but I strongly feel that with a review session or two this should be no problem at all.

For context, one of the questions asked whether I should drive in an intoxicated state. If the answer to this question is difficult for you, I imagine you should not be driving in any country. I found that the remaining 9 questions weren’t much more difficult. In fact, I finished the test in less than two minutes and had to wait for the test center agent to confirm I had finished. That being said, I did get one question wrong, which asked me to identify a sign I had never seen before. So again, be sure to have at least one or two review sessions in which you look up the various road signs in Japan.

The following two resources are pretty helpful for getting familiar with the test beforehand:

Step 3: The Driving Test

If the written test is the mini-boss of the game, then the driving test is the secret boss which makes the games final boss look like cake. Coming from the states, and from what I can remember from my first driving test, I can tell you that the Japanese driving test is definitely much harder. The level of scrutiny, the required skills tested and the overall level of driving skill needed to pass are all held to a much higher standard than in Pennsylvania USA. (I hear that Japanese Citizens actually have to take an even more rigorous test, but I have no way of confirming this.)

Couple that with the incredibly structured way in which the test is implemented, and it’s easy to see why most people are intimidated by the test. That being said, I definitely feel the level of pressure and fear surrounding the test is a bit much, and that the actual test is much more reasonable than it’s made out to be. So, to demystify and hopefully reduce the level of anxiety on the subject, I present to you my experience with the driving test. I should quickly note that I failed my first time around (completely my fault and had nothing to do with the difficulty of the test), and will be describing my second attempt.

The Arrival

Upon arriving at the designated test area in the driver’s center, I was told to wait in a medium size “classroom”. There were about 20 or so other test takers and together we waited until a staff member came in to tell us all what was going on. Once someone did arrive, they called our names one by one, handed us a test sheet and had us sit in an ordered fashion in three different groups. (The number of groups will depend on the number of people taking the test, and whether there are people taking the manual test.)

The Introduction

From here, the staff member launched into a presentation of the test, some of the basic things they would be looking for during the test, as well as the procedures for test takers. The explanation was entirely in Japanese, however, they do give us the opportunity to ask questions to clarify afterward.

My Japanese is far from perfect, so I couldn’t catch everything. That being said, the short presentation was pretty simple with very clear visuals. Some of the things I definitely did understand were:

  • Be sure to stop behind the line when approaching a stop sign, traffic light, or blinking red light thingy.
  • When turning left, stick to the left side of the lane.
  • When turning right, stick to the right side of the lane.
  • If another car is approaching, be sure to understand the concept of right-of-way.
  • Do not touch the curb, ever.
  • After the crank (more on this later), when turning right, make sure to turn into the left-most lane.

I don’t think there were any other points that weren’t immediately obvious to me. Aside from these, perhaps the only other important thing to understand was the process of taking the test itself and the waiting that’s involved.

The Wait

To start, the tester(s) took 2 people from each group with them to the car. In Samezu, this was outside on the second floor. The way it worked was fairly systematic. Test taker A sat in the driver’s seat, while test taker B sat in the back. Once test taker A finished their test, they exited the vehicle and test taker B moved to the front. In the interim, test taker C was called out via an on-screen message to enter the vehicle as the next passenger. This happened over and over again until all test takers finished their tests.

From inside the room, we basically sat and chatted until our number appeared on a large screen at the front of the room. Honestly, this waiting made the experience a bit more stressful than it needed to be, but in the end was quite efficient. The benefit of not going first, obviously, is that you get to watch the test taker before you take the test. This means you get to feel out the course and see what you are in for. For the most part, your test will be almost identical to the persons before you. If you happen to be first, tough luck I suppose. Although, if you just take your time and relax, I’m sure there won’t be any problems.

The Test

When it finally was my turn, I found the tester to be very quiet. Aside from giving directions, there was little else said. The test itself was pretty straightforward: I simply listened to where I needed to turn or go straight, then did it. If you aren’t very good at Japanese, you will only need to know your numbers as well as the words for right, left and straight (migi, hidari and mou sugu). The course will have numbered roads which the tester will tell you to turn right or left into.

There are two points here which I think might be worth discussing in more detail. That is the s-turn and crank. The s-turn is hopefully self-explanatory. You turn into an s-shaped road. However this road is very narrow, and driving through it at a normal speed will more than likely cause you to hit a curb and fail. So take your time here. Do not go at a normal speed. In fact, it is expected for you to drive cautiously and slowly through it.

As for the crank (two 90 degree turns in the shape of a crank), pretty much the same advice applies. Take it slow! One other thing worth mentioning that it seems most testers will not tell you is it is okay to back up while you are in the middle of both the s-turn and the crank. You don’t have to make it in one go, so feel free to back up a total of three times I believe. I ended up having to back up during the crank twice, once at each 90-degree turn.

The first time I failed, was because, after the crank, I turned right into the right-most lane instead of the left-most. A rookie mistake by all accounts and definitely entirely my fault.

Aside from this foolish mistake, I’d say a few things to be aware of are:

  • The tester expects you to drive cautiously, so actively look around and inspect your surroundings.
  • There are a few long stretches of road (Or at least relative to the other roads on the course). Here you will want to speed up to about 30-40.
  • There may be another car on the road. You might have to interact with it or you might not. It’s not always a part of the test (As its another test taker).

The Results

So you’ve finished your test and have exited the vehicle after parking at the designated start/stop area. Next, you will go to the passenger seat and receive a piece of paper from the tester. If this paper is yellow, you have failed the test and must reschedule at the designated counter. If it is pink, you have passed and must wait in the same classroom where you received instructions.

If you fail the test, you will need to pay 2200 yen in order to make your next attempt. If you pass your test, congratulations, the hard work is done. Now all that is left to do is wait for everyone to finish, then follow the tester(s) to another area of the building where they will collect your paperwork and get you set up for a photo. I’d go into more detail here, but this part is pretty much going to point A, follow some instructions then going to point B. Rinse and repeat until you are told to wait for about an hour or two. At some point, you will also have to pay 2100 yen in order to get your actual license card.

Once you’ve done all of this, you will be led to another area where you can collect your brand-spankin’ new Japanese driver’s license. All that will be left for you to do is get a car and hit the mean streets of Japan!

Getting A Japanese Driver’s License – Part 1

For a long while, the idea of getting a Japanese driver’s license was enigmatic for me. I had heard lots of rumors of how difficult it was and of the complications imposed on you when you actually did get one (apparently for Italians, once you get your Japanese driver’s license your Italian license is revoked). And so when it came time to get mine, I was admittedly very anxious. But to my surprise, while the process was a bit cumbersome, I was pleased to discover it was very manageable.

Before diving into the process, I should probably mention getting a driver’s license is different depending on which country you are from. For example, if you are from Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Taiwan, or South Korea, you are not required to take any tests. (US citizens of either Maryland or Washington are also exempt from taking the test.) Furthermore, if you didn’t have a license in your home country for more than 3 months before moving to Japan, you will have to go through an entirely different process altogether.

So to clarify, I am a US citizen, I had been driving for almost 10 years before moving to Japan, and I live in Tokyo. So in my case, I simply converted my US drivers license into a Japanese one. The remainder of this post will outline the steps I took to get there, the necessary documents, and what I experienced each step of the way.

Step 1: The Documents

The documents you will need are as follows:

  • Valid foreign drivers license
  • Residence card
  • A Japanese translation of your foreign license (more on this follows)
  • A residence certificate (Juminhyo) (also more on this follows)
  • Passport + A document proving you lived in your home country for at least 3 months while you had your license
  • A photo

Most of this is pretty straightforward if you live here. Your residence card and passport are documents you must have while living in Japan anyway. Hopefully, you still have your foreign drivers license and it is not expired. As for the photo, this can be taken at any of the photo booths found in most large stations. There is also likely one at the drivers licensing center you will be going to. Perhaps the trickiest parts here are the translation and residence certificate.

The Juminhyo

Your residence certificate can be found at your local ward office. You must be sure to go to the ward office associated with the ward you are a resident of. This may sound silly, but living between two wards can be a bit tricky, so be sure to double check! The cost for me was something like 300 yen. And because I went during a weekday while everyone was working, the wait time was pretty minimal. (I advise you do the same, but in my experience, even during peak hours ward offices aren’t too bad.)

The Translation

There are two places for you to obtain a Japanese translation of your foreign driver’s license:

  1. JAF
  2. Your Embassy in Japan

JAF happened to be closer to my apartment, so I went with them. When you go for the translation, be sure you set aside a good half day. The process will take anywhere from 2-3 hours so bring a book or plan to do something nearby. (their website claims that the translation can take up to two weeks, but I haven’t heard of anyone having to wait that long.) You will need to bring your residence card, your foreign driver’s license, and a completed application form for the Japanese Translation . Once you bring all of the required documentation, the translation will cost around 3000 yen as of the writing of this post.

After you’ve put together all of the documents for your Japanese driver’s license, you will need to make a trip out to a Driving License Testing and Issuing center. It’s very important that you verify the center you visit is a Testing and Issuing center as some do not provide these services.

Here, a bit of Japanese comprehension will go a long way. For me, the staff did not even attempt to speak English. Most of the employees wouldn’t even slow their rate of speech. If your Japanese isn’t up to snuff though, don’t worry, just be patient and keep asking them to repeat themselves. There is no penalty for asking too many questions. At this point, you will simply be going from window to window filling out paperwork, submitting paperwork, waiting for verification, and at some point making a payment of about 1800 yen. Also, during the visit you will be required to take an eye exam, so make sure to have your glasses or contact lenses if you need them.

One problem I ran into while I was handing in all of my paperwork was that my passport had been renewed just before I moved to Japan, and so I didn’t have proper documentation showing I had lived in my home country for at least 3 months prior to moving to Japan. This caused a huge fuss. I found that the staff were very quick to dismiss me and assume I had absolutely no way of obtaining such a document on the spot. However, after a very stressful exchange of words and a lot of google searching, I found I could print out my driving history from my state’s driver’s licensing center website, which did the trick. If you take anything away from this, it’s to be sure you have that proof BEFORE you get to the center.

It was pretty interesting going through this stage. It almost felt like I was doing a small stamp rally:
going from floor to floor to the various counters and making a small exchange, to then move on to another window on another floor. In any case, once you’ve finished the process, you will be scheduled for the next leg of the journey, the tests.