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

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.


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.


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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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).


  • 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!


  • 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.


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!



  1. Thank you very much Alex, for sharing this wonderful adventure with us.
    For me Japan, especially for its culture, also has a great attraction for my since childhood, but I never went.
    Faced with some drawbacks that freedom is the great advantage of self-employment. Many times we forget to make use of it. Thanks for reminding me this.
    In my case a adventure like this, is more complicated in this moment, because I’m married and I’m father of two girls, still small. This is my adventure right now.

  2. Thanks guys,

    @Jesus thank you! Yes, for some of us, timing will not be perfect and I wish you all the best on your adventure.

    The trouble is when people create their own blocks to doing what they really want, when there are so many ways to overcome them.

  3. Hey Alex!

    What an inspiring text! You have given me courage to not forget one of my dreams: to go to a distant country to live for a long time or even make a trip around the world. If I go to a particular country I would chose Japan, like you. I’ve been once and since childhood I love this country.

    If I go my idea is to write a book being there or improve my photography to sell some of the pics…! I don’t know… maybe everything is just a dream. But a dream I can make real.

    Next March I start a travel journalism master in Barcelona (where I live). When I finish it (at the end of 2013), I will make a decision. It’s now or never!

    Sorry for my english ;P

  4. This is such an inspiring post! Coincidentally I’m going to Japan for the first time this Spring, and I’m planning on returning to the UK as a freelancer – also a first time! It’s a scary but exciting time and reading about your experience has really helped the nerves 🙂

  5. That was a great read Alex :-). I’m starting my own adventure soon and going to live in Berlin for a while! You’re so right about just making it “real” by booking a flight/going, it focuses the mind tremendously!

    So true about the barriers we put up too, most of them are purely psychological. Once we get rid of these, we can truly fly.

    All the best with your future adventures 😀


  6. @AnaM Thank you for the comment – I think it’s a great idea to have a project in mind like writing a book, to have as a focus for your travels. It has to start with a dream! Good luck

    @cat thank you! Glad to hear that the post has made the idea of it easier for you. I’m sure you will succeed.

    @Chris Thank you. Absolutely right. There will never be the perfect moment to do anything bold like going overseas for a longer period. Just go despite the ‘barriers’! All the best with it!

    @Lloyd Harvey I have a few places swirling around, including Iceland and India….hopefully this year!

  7. Fantastic read Alex. If you ever do decide to make this post into a short novel I’ll be sure to read it.

    I’m happy you made the most of your trip and lived fully every experience thrown your way (even the commuting). Big, epic moments are easy to recognize. They bonk us on the head and shout in our ears. The little, subtle moments that surround us in between are easily missed. Thanks for sharing your moments, both big and small.

  8. Very nice writing style. Makes reading your experience so much more enjoyable. No bullshit, straight to the point and informative. As someone who grew up abroad and then travelled alone and learnt another language, I think itI is very true that you regret what you don’t do rather than what you do do.

  9. I’m currently living in another country and working as an illustrator, and I must say it’s the best way to learn a new language and to broaden your mind. And I agree about the light traveling! My packing list has evolved to a point where I’ve managed to do a two week Trans-Siberian trip with just one backpack. It feels great to know that all I will ever need for my trips is that one bag. We didn’t keep our old apartment in Finland so the move wasn’t so light, but it sure motivates to get rid of extra stuff when you have to write down a detailed inventory of your belongings for the customs 🙂

    • Fantastic Sanna! I see you’re in Norway, one of the places I’d love to soon visit. Maybe I’ll do a post on travelling light for creative types! Thanks for the comment :).


  10. Please do! Here’s one tip I learned from my Trans-Siberian trip: ANY paper and pen will do when you feel like drawing or writing. Really. I bought some nice Moleskine watercolour notebooks for the trip and packed traveling sized watercolours too, but I always ended up drawing with my pencil on a “regular” notebook. Keep it simple! 🙂

  11. Love this Alex! Glad to see you had a wonderful time and sharing some lessons to help others take the plunge with freelancing. Now, I really can’t wait to see Tokyo too! 🙂

  12. Yes! So easy to think you need to bring everything on a trip, when the very extreme basics will do. I travelled light to Japan, but didn’t even use a lot of what I brought in the end….

  13. Thanks Alex! Inspiring article! I’m taking japanese classes for an eventual trip to Japan, but who knows, maybe one day it will be for freelance out there!

  14. Hi ya. I am happy to read this post as I am a Japanese artist used to live in Japan. As I was in Japan I did many odd jobs. One of my Japanese friend and her South African husband started new business together in Tokyo. You could get permanent visa if you open some business in Japan.

    • Thanks for the comment Junko! Do you have plans to go back and work there? There are lots of opportunities for freelance work and other business there. Where are you now? Alex

  15. Alex…glad to see this worked out for you. My situation is a bit different but I just returned to the United States from being in Sydney, Australia for two years. Most rewarding time of my life. I’d just like to quote something you wrote that can’t be stated enough when trying to make any kind of decision:

    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.

    I hope folks follow your advice.

  16. “There is nothing like the nervous thrill of finding yourself on the other side of the world with no contacts.” – there is something so exciting about that, and also so scary… I guess it depends on each one’s state of mind.

    Thank you for this post,


  17. Thanks for the inspirational post Alex! I passed it on to a freelancer friend who’s moving to Tokyo, and it got me thinking of where in the world I’d like to work myself!

  18. Incredible post I’m currently playing a trip to go out to Japan on my own having recently won a travelling scholarship to travel somewhere to enhance my architectural scope, this has just enthused me further to save money, pack my bags and go! 🙂

  19. As a US-based designer who married a Japanese citizen, this article hits really close to home. My wife and I want to spend more time in Japan in the future, so I’m going to get to relive this step by step. Thanks for posting this!

  20. Awesome article! I live in France and I
    plan to go to Japan this summer. I was thinking if I could get a short
    time job or freelance for one month or so, but I am not sure if this is
    possible..searching at the moment.

  21. Fantastic inspirational post ! This gives me a lot of energy to pursue my dream of working in another country for a while. I like that you just went for the adventure.

  22. 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.

  23. 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!

    • 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. Hi Alex, so how exactly do you illustrate while in a library?? Do you have paper/pens/scanner/Wacom/MacBookPro all squished together? What’s your ‘portable studio’ look like?

    Cheers, matthk
    PS: ‘lightning’ not ‘lightening’ 😉

    • I had a small wacom tablet and a 13 inch macbook laptop. That’s all I needed to do the work I do. Scanner – you could maybe use an iphone for portable. Paper / pens is not a problem.

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