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Best Places to Live in Japan: 5 Cities That Aren't Tokyo

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After living in Japan for a year I can vouch that it is one of the most ideal destinations to live and work abroad. The people are friendly, the food is terrific, and there’s something exciting to do or see whenever you turn your head.

When deciding to move to Japan, like many others who come to the country, I initially thought living in Tokyo would be the best choice as a place to set up shop.

And why not? Tokyo is fantastic: it's glistening with bright lights, one-of-a-kind shops and cafes, and plenty of work opportunities. But, as I soon found out, it's not the only amazing option for living and working in Japan.

So, while the capital city of Japan might be the most obvious choice when filtering through the best places to live in Japan, there's far more to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Here are 5 other incredible Japanese cities that you should take a look at before making your final choice on where to move in Japan. Trust me, none of these cities will disappoint!

Short on time? Here's the cheat sheet:

💭While most go straight for Tokyo, there are plenty of other great Japanese cities to call your home abroad.

🛂Most expats live in Japan on a Working Holiday Visa, Work Visa, or Student Visa.

📚Make your transition easier and get a headstart learning the language with Mondly.

🏙️My top 5 recommendations for best places to live in Japan are:

  • Nagoya
  • Yokohama
  • Kagoshima
  • Osaka
  • Sapporo

1. Nagoya

a street view of Nagoya, Japan
Urban and sleek Nagoya

Nagoya is Japan’s fourth-largest city and often gets overlooked when thinking of where to move or where to visit in Japan, but it's a good idea to keep this place on your radar.

It is centrally located in the Chubu region meaning it is in a prime spot for traveling the whole country and has a well-connected train station and airport. For those that want to see as much of Japan as possible while living here, living in Nagoya is a great choice.

There are plenty of options for work including teaching at international schools and universities and is known as a great choice for expats with families due to its high level of safety, low crime rates, and abundance of parks and play spaces.

Bonus Perk: If you’re a fan of anime then this is the place for you! Studio Ghibli, the creators of the beloved anime ‘Spirited Away' as well as other classics like ‘Princess Mononoke’ and ‘My Neighbor Totoro’, have their own theme park here. It's called Park Ghibli

Things to Know Before Moving to Nagoya

  • Sakae is the main downtown area of Nagoya and is bustling both day and night. It is great to visit but it's not the ideal part of town to choose to live in as apartments are smaller and more expensive than the rest of the city.
  • Kakuozan, not far from Sakae, is an underrated area to visit or live in. Known as the artist district, here you will find many beautiful cafes and workshops and traditional craft markets. For those dreaming of moving here for Japan's rich culture, you'll love living in Kakuozan.
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2. Yokohama

An outdoor food court in Yokohama, Japan
Big, bustling Yokohama

Yokohama should be on your radar as a great place to live in Japan for a few reasons.

Firstly, it is Japan’s second-largest city, which means there's a lot going on here. You’re not likely to find yourself bored living there, that’s for sure.

Secondly, it is pretty much the next-door neighbor to Tokyo meaning that you can get to the capital quickly and cheaply, which is saying a lot considering Japan’s train fares can be fairly expensive.

Thirdly, Yokohama lies right on Tokyo Bay which means it offers gorgeous ocean views. If you're the kind of person, like me, who feels the need to be near the water at all times this is hard to beat.

Fourthly, it is home to some really unique festivals which will fill your weekends all year round. The most famous is the Pikachu Festival when you'll see loads of Pikachu's fill the streets of Yokohama, which provided me with the most adorable weekend of my life. 

Things to Know Before Moving to Yokohama

  • Yokohama is embracing the co-working/digital nomad scene and has lots of spaces you can rent to work from. These are usually cheaper than the ones in Tokyo as well so if you plan to work remotely from Japan, doing so from Yokohama will offer more affordable living.
  • Yamate is traditionally where international residents came to live when they moved to Yokohama. It is a beautiful part of town with lots of history but can be more expensive than other parts of the city to live in. It is worth checking out more of Yokohama before you make your choice on which area you want to live.

3. Kagoshima

Sakurajima, an active volcano, completes your daily view

Kagoshima can be found right at the southern tip of mainland Japan. This means that it is one of the warmest places to live in Japan, so if you’re someone who is not a fan of the cold then this is the spot for you.

Kagoshima has a much lower living costs than Tokyo which means it is better for saving money and you'll have more yen for sushi dinners and karaoke with your friends!

Kagoshima is full of outdoor activities! It has some of the best beaches and hikes and is a great option for those who love spending their time outdoors in nature. And yes, there is indeed an active volcano just off the bay of the city which is almost always smoking, but truthfully, while that might sound intimidating, it makes for an incredible photo. 

Things to Know Before Moving to Kagoshima

  • Kagoshima has much more of a rural vibe than some of the other cities on this list. If you prefer to be near the action then it would be best to choose a place as close to the city center as possible. 
  • From Kagoshima, you can catch ferries to many of the small islands to the south of the mainland. One of the most famous is Yakushima Island which is known for breathtaking wildlife and forests. 

4. Osaka

Osaka, Japan at night with it's bright neon lights
Bustling Osaka lit up at night

Not exactly a hidden gem, Osaka is a very popular city for both expats and tourists alike, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered as a great place to live in Japan, no way!

Osaka is like nowhere else in Japan and usually ranks among one of the best places to live in Asia.

It has a very unique charm with many believing that the locals are less reserved and the city itself is much louder than other Japanese cities, and I agree with them.

Osaka is a port town and because of this, it has an international flair about it with lots of people from many countries calling it home. Here you'll find more English speakers, expat families, and a unique culture compared to other large cities. It actually has the largest Korean population of any city in Japan which is great if you love Korean food.

Osaka is also known as “the nation's kitchen,” originally because it was the warehouse and trading port for Japanese food imports, but now it is known as that because it hosts some of the most mouth-watering food in Japan. If you’re a foodie then this is a good reason to choose Osaka, yum! 

Just know that after falling in love with Osaka, you'll be craving the flavors once (or if you ever!) leave. Order a Sakura box and get monthly treats inspired by the cherry blossoms delivered right to your door, no matter where in the world you live next.

Things to Know Before Moving to Osaka

  • It is common for foreigners to live close to downtown in Osaka with the Umeda and Namba areas offering lots of high-rise apartments to choose from. Naturally they will cost more than staying further out but it can be worth it to have so much at your door-step. 
  • Osaka locals pride themselves on being the friendliest people in Japan. This is great for making friends or even if you just find yourself lost and need directions. 

5. Sapporo

A view of old meets new architure in Sapporo, Japan
Sapporo feels completely different than other places in Japan

Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. Hokkaido is known to have some of the best snow in the world and if skiing is life for you then Sapporo is where you should call home.

Although, even if you’re not a ski bum then Sapporo is still a wonderful place to live. The public transport is very easy to use, the famous soup curry is hearty and flavorful, and the summers are gorgeous without the stifling heat and humidity that the rest of Japan is known for.

Also, as many people move to Hokkaido and Sapporo to work in the snow fields, it has an excellent expat community to help you find your tribe. It's a really popular place for foreigners on working holiday visas to spend time in since they offer a lot of good options for seasonal work.

Things to know Before Moving to Sapporo

  • Living close to Sapporo Station or Odori Station can be great for access around the city, however it will also be a touch noisier than other parts of the city.
  • If you prefer something a little more quiet, then living closer to Hokkaido University is a good option. It is only 1 or 2 stops away from downtown but has a calmer vibe and more peaceful residential streets. 
  • Otaru is a town 30 minutes outside of Sapporo and is the most gorgeous day-trip. It is known for glass-workshops and oil lamps and resembles the kind of towns that are modeled inside snow globes.

Long-Term Visa Options to Move to Japan

Photo by Kyle Kroeger from Pexels

Moving to Japan is a dream for many but before you get your heart set on living here, know that getting a visa can be challenging or stricter than other countries.

Luckily, there are a few great options for long-term visas in Japan.

A Working Holiday Visa

The Japanese Working Holiday Visa is comparable to the working holiday visas in Australia or the working holiday visa in New Zealand. It allows foreigners of certain nationalities, aged 18-30, to live and work for 1 year anywhere in Japan.

Most people on this visa choose to spend half of the year working in ski resorts and the other half of the year working in agriculture. These tend to be the easiest jobs to get on the Japanese Working Holiday Visa but you aren't limited to those industries only.

A Work Visa

The level of difficulty to get a work visa in Japan will greatly depend on the type of job you're looking for. In general, the easiest way to get a work visa in Japan is to get hired as an English teacher.

Other industries will have the need for foreign employees, especially at international companies that has offices throughout Japan, but the most common way to work in Japan is by teaching English, either at a public school, private school, or university.

Another common place to work is teaching at international schools or universities.

By opting for a work visa, your employer should handle the visa application for you, you'll just need to provide the paperwork they ask for and meet the requirements set by immigration and the Japanese government.

If you plan to live in Japan on a work visa, note that you should also get some perks like local health insurance, a local bank account, paid travel expenses to the country, and in some cases, an apartment included in your contract.

A Student Visa

For those wanting to study in Japan, you might be able to get a student visa. Student visas are applicable to those wanting to learn Japanese or study at a university. Depending on what you're studying at university, you may be required to already speak Japanese as a pre-req for the visa.

There are a handful of programs that offer services to getting a student visa in Japan, especially for those wanting to learn the language and Japanese culture.

A Tourist Visa

This last option, a tourist visa, is better for those simply wanting to visit, not those who want to live in Japan. The specifications of entering Japan as a tourist will change based on your nationality. I know for Australian and U.S. citizens, you're allowed to visit Japan for 90 days visa-free, whereas for Colombian citizens, you're required to apply for a visa from the Japanese embassy in your country of residence.

For other nationalities, you'll need to check the specific requirements.

Where Will You Live in Japan?

So there they are, 5 of the best cities to experience life in Japan, excluding Tokyo. This is no way a definitive list and there are other totally liveable towns and cities that are also worthy of a look in but from my time living in Japan, these were my favorite.

I know that no matter where you choose you will find Japan to be a country of kindness, interesting cultural traditions, stunning natural beauty, and delicious artisan food. It is a wonderful place to live and work that I know you'll love it! 

Hero picture by Pixabay.

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