I’ve been interested in Japan and Japanese culture for some time now.
I wouldn’t call myself a Japanophile: I’ve never read manga, don’t particularly like video games and speak approximately 10 words of Japanese.
But there’s something totally fascinating about the place. After spending time travelling through Asia, Europe and South America, I hold the opinion that Japan is the strangest and most culturally perplexing country for Westerners in the world.
I was inspired to write about my experiences in Japan after travelling there on two separate occasions. The reason for my inspiration was twofold: firstly because I think Japan is vastly underrated as a potential hotspot for digital nomads. More importantly, I wanted to dispel the somewhat undeserved reputation of Japan as being a place that is simply too expensive for long-term travellers.
But first up, the motivation. Why should you consider Japan as a place for long-term travel?
There are obvious benefits to living in Japan. The infrastructure, food and living standards are all mind-blowingly good. What I find more interesting, though, are the opportunities for personal growth. Japan is just so different: you can’t help but have your beliefs challenged and comfort zone expanded on a daily basis.
Some aspects of the country are just blatantly foreign when viewed from the perspective of a Westerner. The permeation of politeness through all interpersonal interactions, reverence for tradition and rejection of individualism come to mind as obvious and jarring differences.
What I find equally interesting, however, are the subtle differences. Especially the concepts, technologies and cultural items that have been imported from the West, but have all been passed through a “Japanese filter,” highlighting and accentuating aspects which resonate with Japanese ideals. I’ve heard it described as “viewing Western culture through a funhouse mirror.”
The Japanese have an incredible ability to borrow things from other cultures, change them slightly, somehow improving them in the process. Tom Downey explores this phenomena in his article “How Japan Copied American Culture and Made It Better” for Smithsonian Magazine. He says:
There’s something about the perspective of the Japanese that allows them to home in on the essential elements of foreign cultures and then perfectly recreate them at home…
…the best examples of Japanese Americana don’t just replicate our culture. They strike out, on their own, into levels of appreciation and refinement rarely found in America. They give us an opportunity to consider our culture as refracted through a foreign and clarifying prism.
But perhaps the most fascinating things about the country are the contradictions.
For example, despite the order and cleanliness exhibited on every street corner, you can’t walk a block in many of the main business districts without being exposed to the sex-industry (love hotels, brothels, strip clubs), thinly veiled in a veneer of innocence and decency.
And although respect, courtesy and hospitality are some of the most highly regarded virtues in Japanese culture, walking through megalopolises in Japan is often an isolating and alienating experience.
Japan is pretty much as culturally different from the West as it gets. This is what keeps me coming back: I’m addicted to the intriguing customs, sprawling cities and pure culture shock.
The Cost of Living in Japan
But Japan is “just too expensive” for long-term travellers and digital nomads… right?
This is a common (and somewhat) valid concern that I hear from people all the time when the topic of Japan comes up. And if you base your analysis solely off the cost-of-living indexes for Tokyo, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that you need to sell your soul (and perhaps some body parts) to afford to live in the country longterm.
While these metrics do tell partial truths, bootstrappers, digital nomads and budget travellers will be happy to hear that these claims have been vastly over exaggerated.
Living in Japan longterm without becoming a salaryman or eating into your savings account is totally possible.
The Secret to Affordable Slow-travel in Japan
Let’s get this one out of the way first. Yes, rent is expensive… especially in Tokyo.
But it isn’t that expensive, especially if you’re willing to make some concessions. An emerging trend in Japan is the concept of sharehouses.
Sharehouses are basically a dormitory set-up, where you live with 5-10 other people, typically students and/or expats. Admittedly you won’t be living in luxury: it’s likely your room will be very small, you’ll have to share a bathroom and will need to live by the house rules (sorry, no impromptu open-invite keg parties).
But if you’re willing to live within these limitations, sharehouses are a great, affordable way to experience Japan. I’d even argue that sharehouses are a better way to experience the country than going solo. You’ll instantly score a small network of friends that are probably also living away from home and willing to explore the city with you. Many sharehouses end up functioning like small families; cooking, eating and hanging out together.
Realistically, you can rent a room in a centrally located sharehouse in a major city (Tokyo, Osaka, etc.) for a pittance.
A friend in Osaka pays around ¥ 40000-60000 (approximately $400-600 USD) per month including all utilities to live 10 minutes from the centre of the city. A slightly higher budget (¥ 70000-80000) will land you in the middle of Tokyo (Shibuya or Shinjuku area).
Check out Sakura House Real Estate to get an indication of what’s available.
Eating in Japan
Coming from a Western country (Australia), I’m still surprised by how cheaply you can eat-out all through Asia, and Japan is no exception.
You can easily find local restaurants that serve basic (but tasty) meals in the ¥ 400-600 ($4-6 USD) range. In this price bracket we’re talking about ramen and rice bowls; think basic staples, not gourmet dining experiences. If you’re after sashimi or Western fare, you’re going to pay at least 3 to 4 times that amount.
Pre-made meals from convenience stores and supermarkets (sushi, rice-balls, sandwiches, basic salads) are also an option in this price range. If you’re really on a budget, you could also buy simple ingredients from the supermarket and cook your own meals… although I never bothered to try this.
Accessing the Internet
This was probably the most surprising thing for me in Japan – it’s hard to find free, easily accessible wifi.
Coming from Ho Chi Minh, a city in a developing country that STILL manages to offer free wifi in practically every restaurant and café, it was surprising to find that I was pretty much limited to Starbucks if I wanted to access the internet. The problem isn’t that wifi is not ubiquitous in the city. The problem is that you need a contract with a local phone company in order to use most of the free wifi options.
This isn’t a problem if you’re staying in Japan longterm: you simply need to sign up to a phone contract. This will depend on the carrier and your usage plan, but you can cover this for ¥ 1500 ($15 USD) per week (slow, but unlimited data transfer). The best thing about having a phone contract is that it enables you to use any of the wifi access points throughout the country operated by that carrier.
I can only comment on Tokyo and Osaka, but for these two cities, transport is fast and reliable. The rail networks are extensive and reasonably priced.
If you live just outside of the city centre, you’re probably looking at ¥ 200-300 ($2 -3 USD) in either direction.
The “local” option is to get around the city via bicycle, which is what I would recommend. Japanese cities are remarkably easy to navigate on a bike, being well equipped with dedicated cycle lanes and bike parking. Osaka and Tokyo are relatively flat as well, so easy on the calf muscles.
You can purchase a cheap bike for around ¥ 10000-20000 ($100 – 200 USD). Rental is also an option, around ¥ 2000-3000 ($20-30 USD) per month.
Now that we’ve considered different areas of expenses, let’s put it all together to see what we’re looking at in terms of combined monthly expenses.
- Rent: ¥ 70000 ($700 USD) for a centrally located sharehouse, including utilities and (fast) Internet.
- Food: ¥ 50000 ($500 USD), eating out most days, occasionally cooking at home.
- Transport: ¥ 20000 ($200 USD) to either ride the metro every day or rent a bike and occasionally ride the metro.
- Mobile phone: ¥ 6000 ($60 USD) for slow but unlimited data.
- Coffee: ¥ 15000 ($150 USD) to cover your daily caffeine fix.
- Entertainment: ¥ 20000 ($200 USD) for incidental entertainment costs.
So in total, we’re looking at around ¥ 180000, or $1800 USD per month. Note that this is to live comfortably. If you lived outside of the city and spent conservatively (ate out less, drank less expensive lattes, forwent expensive entertainment options) you could easily get this under $1500 USD per month.
Not so fast…
Hopefully you should be convinced by now that living in Japan is an affordable proposition… so should you jump on the next flight to Tokyo?
Before buying that one-way ticket, there are a couple of things you should consider. The first (and possibly most important) question you need to confront is whether or not you’re ready for life in a traditional and insular society where you’re (by and large) always going to be seen as an outsider. I’ve neither experienced nor am worried about experiencing discrimination in Japan, but I can understand how certain personality types may find the life of a Gaijin slightly lonely and/or alienating.
Also, if you’re planning on spending any serious amount of time in the country, you’re also probably going to need to make a decent attempt at learning the language. Despite the typical local having decent written English skills, spoken English is notoriously absent in the country. And while it is possible to get by exclusively speaking English, you’re going to be seriously limited in the things you can do and the relationships you can build while living in Japan.
Another primary concern for location independent entrepreneurs considering relocating to Japan is the likelihood of a large disconnect between their own personal values and the values of the society surrounding them. The Japanese are traditionally very risk averse, and this trend appears only to be getting stronger with recent generations. As a result, it’s likely that most locals will not be particularly supportive of your entrepreneurial aspirations.
Personally I find these challenges interesting parts of the Japanese experience rather than critical flaws. You’ll need to decide for yourself how you feel about them.
With all that said, what are the key benefits and drawbacks of living in Japan as a digital nomad? Let’s start with the benefits:
- Culturally intriguing. Great opportunities for personal growth, expanding your worldview and questioning your own personal beliefs.
- Hyper-modern. Extremely high standard of living and (beyond) first-world infrastructure.
- Incredibly safe. Crime is practically unheard of in Japan.
- Food. Plenty of delicious and reasonably priced options.
And now the negatives:
- Cost. Despite the fact you can live cheaply in Japan, you get significantly less bang-for-buck when compared with other digital nomad hotspots (Saigon, Taipei, Bangkok / Chiang Mai).
- Entrepreneurial climate. The Japanese are highly risk averse. Being a location independent entrepreneur in the land of the rising sun can be (at times) a lonely proposition.
- The foreigner effect. Japanese society can be isolating, especially for foreigners.
In a sentence: if your primary concern is saving money and living in an environment that’s going to make building a business easier, don’t go to Japan. It’s comparatively expensive and not particularly welcoming to entrepreneurs.
On the other hand, if you enjoy experiencing culture shock, being outside of your comfort zone and testing your open-mindedness, Japan is a great location, and one that won’t (necessarily) break the bank.