How to Live on Japan

Four years in New York City left Matt Naiman wanting even more big-city excitement. So after graduating from Columbia University in 1996, he went to the only place that could out- bustle the Big Apple — Tokyo. Matt now owns four bars and nightclubs in Japan and recently became part owner of a resort lodge near the world-class ski resorts on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. Here, the Philadelphia native talks about the urban energy that brought him to Japan — and the surprises that keep him there.

What made you go to Japan in the first place? Tokyo is one place that can go toe to toe with New York in terms of excitement and stimulation. It's got a ­vibrant art scene, club culture, and great restaurants, parks and museums, and its visual appeal is undeniable. But when I got off the plane after a 23-hour journey here, I felt like I had taken a spaceship to a different planet.

What did you know about Japan before you moved there? I knew Japan had a rich history and vibrant economy and that it was very technologically advanced. But there were a lot of things that I still didn't know, of course, like how beautiful the natural environment was.

So was it a difficult transition? Not really. I took Japanese at ­Columbia, so I had a reasonable understanding of the language. And my childhood friend Greg Natali was already living in Tokyo. I also got a job with a company that specialized in furniture design, which ended up being a great way to get to know the culture because I was working alongside a lot of creative Japanese people.

How did you initially get started working in the nightclub business? I tended bar during college and managed a Manhattan club for a while. Tokyo didn't have the kind of downtown DJ bars that I was used to in New York. House music was just starting to catch on here, so it seemed like a good time to open a bar, if only to have a place to spend time with friends and listen to ­music I liked. So the idea was in my head. Greg and I played soccer every weekend, and there was an older Japanese guy on our team who owned a building in the middle of a busy Tokyo nightlife district called Shibuya. He had an open floor, and after a lot of long nights spent convincing Greg that he should quit his job and we should open a bar, we signed a lease. The bar was called Sugar High, and it really caught on. We eventually rented four floors and had two dance floors, an art gallery and a live space for performances. From there we opened three larger venues in different cities around Japan.

What about that ski lodge you have? A friend who was developing some land in Hokkaido called me and said there was a lodge called Annupuri at the base of a ski resort in Niseko for sale. When I was a child, my grandparents built a ski lodge at the base of Mount Snow in Vermont, and we used to go there every winter. This seemed like a great opportunity to re-create that atmosphere I remembered from my childhood. Plus, Niseko averages about 50 feet of dry, powdery snow per year. The skiing is a lot better than in Vermont.

You've obviously got a lot going on in Japan. What's a typical day like for you? It I usually walk to work, as it's a short distance from home. I have a nice little place on the park, with a balcony that looks out over a wide expanse of green. My favorite lunch spot is a ramen-noodle shop called Suzuran. They have a mind-blowing dish called miso-chashu tsukemen. You get a plate of homemade noodles and dip them in a hot miso-flavored broth with pork and bean sprouts. It's so delicious I don't even mind that whenever you go there, the same ­Carpenters album is always playing. Always.

Fourteen years in, what do you think is the best part of being an expat in Japan? The best thing is also the worst thing — you are different from the ­locals, and as such, people are always interested in you. Sometimes it feels like there's an invisible barrier that is very difficult to cross. All in all, though, living here is a positive experience.

** Did you expect to stay this long?** I didn’t, but I was open to the possibility. Basically, I decided to stay after I started a business here and it began to do well. But there are things that have made staying here easier as time has gone on. For example, one of my favorite shops in New York was Ess-a-Bagel on 21st street. In Tokyo, for the longest time, you couldn’t get a good bagel. But then this young Japanese girl went to New York to learn how to make bagels and worked at Ess-a. She came back and opened up a shop three blocks away from my house in Tokyo, and I’m happy to say she has perfectly reverse-engineered the NYC bagel! I love how Japanese people are always open to new things and are so focused on craftsmanship.

How often do you get to visit the States or host American friends and family? I do go back about once a year. Friends occasionally show up here, and it is nice because I'll take them out to some smoky yakitori restaurant or out for a rowboat ride in the moat near the emperor's palace, and I see the country again through their eyes. I guess that's why I do what I do. Whether it's introducing someone to Tokyo's funky nightlife or showing them the best powder snow in the world, I want people to enjoy the same things that I have. Experiencing Japan that way, it's as if I'm taking it all in for the first time.

Facts of Life

  • Climate: Temperate
  • Population of Tokyo: 8.5 million
  • Main hospital: The University Hospital, one of many in the Tokyo metro area
  • Price of local beer: $6 for a Sapporo draft at most neighborhood bars
  • Languages: Japanese
  • Ease of immigration: Difficult
  • Ease of buying a home: Difficult (many regulations for foreigners apply)
  • House starting price: $530,000 for a fairly basic two-bedroom apartment located in central Tokyo
  • Website: realestate-tokyo.com