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Finding the right place to live in Japan depends on many factors. There are practical considerations such as accommodation prices, standard and cost of living and availability of local amenities. Then there are emotional criteria, such as the desirability of a place – whether what you desire is happiness, friendly locals, entertainment or a quiet life.
Normally expats live in a country’s largest cities, and this is certainly the case with Japan. Around 70% of Japan’s expats live in the three largest urban areas (Tokyo, Osaka-Kobe and Nagoya), which together account for about half of the country’s total population.
Tokyo is by far the most celebrated Japanese city, and is also where most of the available jobs are, especially the higher-paid ones. It is one of the most vibrant, exciting cities on earth. With the exception of accommodation, the cost of living is not that much higher than the other large Japanese cities. Most expats live in the three wards of Minato, Shibuya and Meguro, which are right in the heart of the city. These are more cosmopolitan than other areas and have Western-style shops and other conveniences. However, they are also some of the most expensive areas for accommodation, even in Tokyo.
Of course, Tokyo is not for everyone. The city’s main drawback, apart from the overwhelming size and endless streams of people, is the cost of accommodation, which ranges from high to stratospheric. If you want to live near Tokyo but pay less, there are plenty of suburbs to consider. Japan’s largest port, Yokohama, is to the south of Tokyo. Being a large city in its own right, you can find all the amenities you could wish for and still be within reach of the metropolis to the north. Yokohama is cheaper than its northern neighbour and has a more relaxed pace of life. Naka ward, in the east by Yokohama port, is the most popular ward with expats.
The second-largest city in Japan is Osaka (which forms a continuous urban area with Kobe, Japan’s second-largest port.) Osaka was historically one of Japan’s gateways, has around 120,000 foreign residents and a cosmopolitan feel. Osakians are usually said to more friendly than Tokyoites. Osaka can nearly match Tokyo in many respects, such as entertainment and cuisine. In fact, Osaka is known as the ‘nation’s kitchen.’ Osaka is also cheaper and on a more human scale than its gigantic rival to the east. Note, however, that finding your way around the city will take some getting used to, as there are few street signs.
Kyoto, to the north-east of Osaka, also forms part of the Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto conurbation. For more than a millennium, Kyoto was the capital of Japan, and the city is known for its culture and sense of history. If you want to be in a city that successfully blends ancient and modern, containing some breathtaking architecture and UNESCO World Heritage sites, Kyoto is the place for you.
Nagoya is the third largest urban area in Japan. This city is also popular with expats, and has a less frantic pace of life than either Osaka or Tokyo. Nagoya is a centre for vehicle manufacture, and many of the expats who live here work in positions connected to that industry.
There are many other cities with moderate expat populations and cheaper accommodation, such as Fukuoka, Hiroshima and Kagoshima. In the more remote parts of Japan, expat communities are much smaller and you are likely to find everyday life more challenging. Everything from finding accommodation to getting a job to just doing the shopping will be more difficult if you do not speak or read Japanese.
The area to the north of Tokyo, spanning from Tohoko in north Honshu to the island of Hokkaido is less populated and more remote. Property in parts of these two regions is especially cheap due to depopulation. Sapporo, capital of Hokkaido, is a relatively young city with milder, less humid summers than in the southern cities and long snows in the winter. Sapporo is an ideal base for people who like outdoor activities such as white water rafting, skiing and hill walking. There are approximately 10,000 expats living in Sapporo; many of them are English teachers, as any other work requires fluency in Japanese.
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