Slurping Noodles, 15 Earthquakes and Drawing Pictures: My 9 Months as a Freelance Illustrator in Tokyo

Slurping Noodles, 15 Earthquakes and Drawing Pictures: My 9 Months as a Freelance Illustrator in Tokyo

January 13, 2013 by

In the middle of March 2012 I headed out solo to live in Tokyo for 9 months for no other real reason than adventure. Having now returned, I wanted to share my story and some of the things I learnt as an independent freelancer when I was there…

It was a fresh, drizzly January evening in East London when I made the decision to return to Japan for a longer stint as soon as I was able. I’d been twice before. Once in 2007 on a solo trip for ten days, and again to Japan and Korea with two friends for a month in 2010. My interest in Japan: its food, its culture, its people, its ‘Japaneseness’ had grown stronger with each visit. It’s funny how certain places tighten their grip around you the more you reciprocate your own interest for them.

There was nothing about London that I wanted to leave. I loved where I was living and was perfectly content with London-life. London will always be home for me. It must have been a longing for extended adventure in a place other than home that I knew I would love, coupled with a realisation that my freelance work could take me anywhere in the world.

“My freelance work could take me anywhere in the world.”

In all my ‘busyness’ over the past few years I had been oblivious of the fact that I had reached a stage where I was completely footloose and not really tied to any particular location. Having seen ‘location independent’ people like Tim Ferriss and Colin Wright in action, I wanted to see whether this kind of unattached freedom, whilst still earning, was really possible.

Two months later (including a month of focused saving), having moved out and found lodgers to live in my London pad, acquired a ‘Working Holiday Visa’ and organised my stay in a Tokyo monthly apartment I touched down at Narita airport in Japan.

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There is nothing like the nervous thrill of finding yourself on the other side of the world with no contacts, facing almost a year in an environment that was still completely extraterrestrial to me. Even the vegetation in Japan is different to what I’ve known.

“There is nothing like the nervous thrill of finding yourself on the other side of the world with no contacts.”

I don’t plan for this post to be a short novel (perhaps another time), and wanting to spare the time-conscious reader a large piece of their day, I’m going to break things down into the trip’s highlights. Then I’ll share some important lessons learnt, particularly in the interest of the intrepid amongst you who are considering an undertaking of something similar.

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The important thing for me is to show you what is possible, and that it is possible.

So here are the partial highlights…

  • Happening upon a traditional Japanese wedding procession at midday in the grounds of the very special Meiji Jingu shrine in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo.

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  • Perusing the entire original set of artwork for the Akira manga by comic legend Katsuhiro Otomo at an exhibition in Tokyo’s garish and ‘geeky’ (Otaku) Akihabara district. There were thousands of pages of original, beautifully inked artwork to look at. Then comparing this on another occasion at the National Museum with a set of traditional woodblock prints and comparing the similarities.

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  • Trekking to the crater of Mount Fuji in pouring rain, before enjoying the satisfaction of a bowl of Ramen noodles at the peak.
  • Having tea and cakes overlooking the intense Shinjuku urban jungle from the 40th floor of the Park Hyatt hotel, where the film ‘Lost in Translation’ was set.
  • An awkward, yet comical game of dice, figurines and cards with a dressed-up Japanese maid in a ‘meido cafe’.
  • Blurry-eyed 8am train travel with suited commuters going to work; I returning home after a night’s dancing in Shibuya.

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  • Learning to surf in the Pacific with local Japanese surfers.
  • Having the ‘world’s busiest transport hub’, Shinjuku station as one of the half-way points on my jogs.
  • Splashing through a very early morning Tsukiji market, the world’s largest fish market, marvelling at the extraordinarily rich selection of sea creatures that the Japanese haul out of their oceans every morning. These beautiful offerings of the sea would end up on the serving platters of hundreds of sushi restaurants across Tokyo that very day.

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  • Yelling to Radiohead playing an electric night-time gig at FujiRock festival to the backdrop of the Japanese alps and lightening in the sky.
  • Looking out over the entire city from my ‘office’ in the Academy Hills library on the 49th floor of the beautiful Mori Tower in Roppongi.
  • Meditation on a sunny November day on a mountaintop in full view of a crystal clear Mount Fuji.

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  • A trip over to Kyoto and Kanazawa to see Geisha and blood red maple leaves on the bullet train via beautiful alpine countryside, with a stop at a Space Odyssey-style capsule hotel.

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  • Witnessed a Japanese ‘salaryman’ who was so drunk at 9pm that he fell between two train carriages, before being swiftly yanked back onto the platform by attendants.
  • Experiencing around 15 substantial earthquakes and tremors over the space of 9 months, culminating in a 7.3 Richter earthquake at the end of my stay that caused a small Tsunami and had me running out of my building out onto the streets in my socks.

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  • Making new friends, expats and locals, including some neighbourhood cats, and sharing these amazing experiences with great people.

Lessons learnt as a freelancer in Japan (these thoughts are my own opinions):

  • The process of dropping everything and moving somewhere is not as stressful as it might seem. Obviously it’s easier the more location-flexible you are with the work you do, but for many freelancers, this is just a case of taking your laptop with you. For me, I needed to find people to live in my place in London so that my mortgage payments were covered, and find somewhere reasonable to live in advance. That was basically it.
  • Getting a permit to work (in this case, using a ‘working holiday visa’) in Japan as a UK resident was very quick and easy. You simply need to demonstrate your ability to support yourself for the length of time you plan to stay, as well as your interest in Japan.

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  • Accommodation is not cheap in Tokyo, but if you’re ok with sharing, or living somewhere small, it’s not that bad. Monthly apartment schemes run through English-speaking agencies are great for short-term stays.
  • What you put in you will get out. The sense of fulfilment you get from independent travel, is directly proportional to the effort you put into things like going out and trying new experiences, learning the language and making new connections.
  • I found my interest in Japan and it’s seemingly contradictory way growing deeper the longer I stayed. Tokyo is certainly never short on being fascinating, especially from a ‘Western’ viewpoint.

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  • Traveling (and living, for that matter) extremely light is the way. The only way.
  • Japan is a great base from which to explore other parts of the world, including China (like I did during my time there), Korea and Southeast Asia (photo below taken in Shanghai, during my visit there).

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  • Japanese green tea is surprisingly addictive, and the fibre is great for you.
  • It is possible to work anywhere in the world that has an Internet connection for many types of freelance work, including in my case, digital illustration and writing. Just make sure you are legally allowed to work in a place, and I would recommend finding somewhere other than your own home to work in. For me, it was a desk overlooking Tokyo from up high. Magic!

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  • Learning to speak Japanese is very logical and, with practice, could almost be considered easy.
  • There is enormous satisfaction to be felt in living somewhere that is unfamiliar, and sharing the experience with others.
  • Opportunities for local freelance work like being a tv extra, teaching, and voice over work, available in Tokyo (and presumably other cities in Japan) are vast if you know where to look. Refer to David Chester’s excellent site and book: ‘Freelancing in Tokyo’.

For anyone with an interest in travelling the world, whilst continuing to earn money as a freelancer, you need to first ask yourself what is stopping you. More often than not, a lot of the things we think are barriers to doing so can be overcome and dealt with with relative ease.

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Preparing for and actually going somewhere requires logical sense. It will be more challenging I suppose in going to the Congo as a travel writer than to the Maldives, and for all the technical details you need, this is where your research and contacts come in useful.

I would also say to embrace the pressure and sense of fear you might have as well. Not really knowing what you are in for can help you get focused even more, and you will likely be surprised at what you can get out of your time spent overseas as a freelancer when you feel out of place.

I challenge you to allocate some time out of your year to experience the sense of aliveness that comes through combining work with travel.

Bon Voyage!

About the Author: Alex Mathers

Alex is a project starter, sometimes finisher, writer and illustrator. He started Red Lemon Club in 2009 with the aim of helping talented creative people leave their mark.

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"Your blog inspires me so much, and helps me feel somehow not as insignificant, despite the plethora of artists around the world."Natalie, artist

  • Fuzzillustration

    Having dropped everything and moved to new countries three times now I can’t say how much I have grown, artistically and personally from the experience. And you’re right, the logistics aren’t as bad as you would think. I am super excited to be heading back to Japan at the end of the year for a visit, getting lost in all those awesome paper shops. Japan is where my love of paper blossomed and defined my illustration style. Glad you had such a great experience.

  • Alex Mathers

    It’s easier than people think. Amazing! Have fun there! I’m looking forward to heading back :)

  • m.a.tateishi

    Wow, this makes me quite nostalgic for the three months I lived in Japan. I loved all the strange differences in my day-to-day life, even grocery shopping was an exciting challenge. I think travel stimulates our creativity, but the fact you actually worked in a different place is quite inspiring. I’ve been looking into the possibility of having my studio in different places or doing residencies. Thanks for this article!

  • Alex Mathers

    I agree with you about the challenge behind things like grocery shopping :), but something that was part of the thrill of being in an unfamiliar and fascinating environment.

    All the best with your plans, I’m sure you can make it a reality.

  • John Shelley

    Oh Alex, I could have given you some pointers when you were in town, I was the resident western illustrator in Tokyo for 21 years, I still travel back there every year most of my art income still comes from Japan.

  • Andrew McIntosh

    Wow! What a very inspiring article as this is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time! It’s one thing to travel to another western country if you are living in the west, but visiting/living in the east is an entirely different experience1 In addition to Japan, I’d also love to see China and Thailand.

  • Alex Mathers

    oh! Where you based now?

  • Niloufer

    Amazing article! So adventurous and fun and really brave! Lovely photos too! Definitely inspirational, however I don’t think its so easy to get a “working holiday visa” for non-westerners.

  • Alex Mathers

    Thank you! There are ways to get there!

  • kuala

    looks very exciting!
    thanks for sharing Alex:)