Moving to Japan

Japan is where you’ll find your zen. If you want tranquil countryside or high-tech cities, “The Land of the Rising Sun” has them both. Nowhere else in the world will you see flashy skyscrapers alongside cherry blossom trees in the spring. Futuristic cities have grown around ancient temples to create a beautiful blend of the old and the new.

Mount Fuji in Japan

Urban life is lightning-fast, served by cutting-edge technology and Shinkansen bullet trains, while the rural provinces will offer anyone a peaceful respite. Think shrines, streams and homemade sake. What’s more, if you’re looking for a real break from city-dwelling, you can pay a visit to the mighty Mount Fuji, the country’s tallest mountain. Alongside all of this is the iconic Japanese culture, ranging from ancient art forms (bonsai, kabuki, origami) to some seriously good food (sushi, ramen, tempura). Wherever you’re moving to in Japan, we can assure you that it will be utterly unlike anywhere you’ve ever been before.

Essential info for Japan

CategoryInfo
Official languageJapanese
Capital cityTokyo
Population127 million
TimezoneGMT +9
Emergency number110 (police) / 119 (fire, ambulance)
CurrencyYen (¥)
Major religionShinto

Healthcare in Japan

Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world (over 84 years) so they must be doing something right.

The fish and rice diet certainly helps, but the Japanese healthcare system is also world-class. It runs on a mixture of public and private services, so the government covers at least 70% of everyone’s health costs (elderly people and children get a bit more). You have to make up the remaining 30% yourself through a compulsory public insurance programme, which takes around 5% of your salary.

Fortunately, expats have access to this public-private scheme, and if you have a visa that exceeds 90 days then you have to be registered to it. 

If you're interested in topping up with some private medical cover, we recommend Cigna. With four levels of annual cover to choose from and extra modules for more flexibility, Cigna will sort you out with a plan that suits your needs.

Start building a customised plan with a free quote to protect your most important assets - you and your family.

Major cities in Japan

Japan has a handful of major cities and they are really quite exciting. If you’re moving to one of them, expect all the modern conveniences. We’re talking driverless trains, conveyor-belt sushi and cat cafes.

Tokyo

If you’re a people person then you will love Tokyo. The Japanese capital has nearly 39 million of them, making it the most populous city on Earth. Things can feel pretty tightly packed at times, but that’s all part of the fun. For urban thrills you’ve got Shibuya Crossing (a mega junction) and the enormous Skytree (a mega skyscraper), and there’s the beautiful 144-acre Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden for when you need a break. Check out the owl cafe if you want a coffee with a big bird (it’s a hoot).

Kyoto

The name ‘Kyoto’ literally means ‘capital city’, so this place used to be a lot more important than it is now. The city is nestled within the mountains of Western Honshu, which is about as lovely as it sounds. It might not be the capital anymore, but many people reckon Kyoto is Japan’s most beautiful city. It’s also got a silly number of UNESCO heritage sites (only Rome has more), so it’s a dream for history buffs. Monkey buffs can have fun too - in Iwatayama monkey park (about 20 minutes from the centre).

Osaka

In one 15-minute bullet train you can get from Kyoto to Osaka, “Japan’s Second City”. If one nickname wasn’t enough, Osaka is also known as “the nation’s kitchen”, so expect good food. There’s actually a local expression in Osaka, kuidaore, ‘to eat oneself to ruin’. We guess people just love eating there. Along with the world-class cuisine, there’s some seriously good shopping to do. Check out the Amerikamura district for vintage threads.

Yokohama

Although Yokohama is known as the industrial centre of Japan, there’s still lots to do. The zoo’s free, you can touch white whales, and there’s a rollercoaster that goes over the sea. That’s all three life essentials covered.

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

Cost of moving to Japan

If you’re planning on a new life in Japan then you probably have a few belongings that you want to take with you. Use this table to give you an idea of how much it will cost to ship your stuff over there. These rates are based on the port-to-port transportation of household goods worth $55,000 (from London to three major Japanese ports).

Destination City20ft Container40ft Container
Tokyo

1579 ()

2094 ()

Yokohama

1608 ()

2134 ()

Kobe

1596 ()

2116 ()

Visas for Japan

Deciding that you want to come to Japan is all well and good, but they also need to decide if they want you. Fortunately, with a declining population, the need for expats in Japan just keeps on increasing (especially English-speaking ones).

Visa exemption

There’s a lucky group of countries who don’t actually need a visa. They can just swan into Japan and swan back out again, no questions asked. This might not apply to you if you’re going the whole Japanese hog and moving there forever, but visa exemption is super handy for short-term visits. There are 68 nations that have some kind of agreement with Japan and you can view the full list here. However, the length of time is not the same for each country. For example, if you’re coming from Thailand then you’ve only got 30 days, while people from the UK have a whopping six months visa-free. The only requirement is that you don’t have any kind of paid employment while you’re there.

Types of visa

There are 27 types of Japanese visa, which is actually comparatively low worldwide (believe us). Most of them are work-based, and unless you have family members in Japan then you’ll probably need to go down this route. The most popular kinds are the Skilled Labour visa and Highly Skilled Professional visa, so make sure you have some skills. If you’ve got a Japanese university in your sights then there’s also a Student visa. Take a look at the full list of Japanese visas and take your pick.

How to apply

You need a Certificate of Eligibility (COE) before you can secure your visa. It sounds crazy, but the only place you can actually apply for this is in Japan. Your nearest Japanese embassy won’t cut it. Fortunately, someone else is allowed to go there as your sponsor and apply for you (such as a Japanese family member or a prospective Japanese employer), and after one to three months you should get a response. Assuming you’re successful, you can take your COE and submit your visa application at a local embassy. Kantan (easy)!

Transferring money to Japan

If you’re planning a move to Japan, you’ll probably need to convert some of your savings into yen. 

However, it’s best to avoid using high street banks for this process, as you’ll usually have to pay high fees, and you won’t get the best exchange rate. 

That’s why we’ve done our research and compared all the major money transfer services on the market, so you can choose the right one. Check out our expert ratings and find the best money transfer provider today.

Climate in Japan

It would be silly to generalise about the weather in Japan because it varies so much across the country. During the spring months of March and April, you can ski in the northern mountains and you can sunbathe on the southern islands. Hokkaido (in the very north of Japan) is known for its subarctic temperatures while Okinawa (in the very south) is subtropical. If these extremes sound a bit difficult to deal with then you can always head to the middle of Japan for a fine balance. Apart from the northern and southern tips of Japan, most of the country deals with this kind of weather:

Summer (June to August) has temperatures in the high 30s and a month-long rainy season. It’s rice-planting time for the farmers!

Autumn (September to November) is much more bearable, with temperatures around the 8-10°C mark.

Winter (December to February) is a mostly mild affair in the central regions. Temperatures rarely fall below 0°C and it’s even quite sunny along the Eastern coast.

Spring (March to May) is the king of the seasons in Japan. The temperatures are ideal and there’s cherry blossom everywhere. It’s magical.

Japanese cherry blossom

We should also mention the typhoons, which aren’t so magical. They tend to hit Japan from the Pacific Ocean between July and October. Although some can be quite serious, Japan has become very effective at preparing for them. Just keep an ear out for any warnings and do what the locals do. Fortunately, most of the Japanese cities have designed their buildings to be extra resistant to nasty weather events.

Transport in Japan

Japan is famous for its bullet trains so you’d be mad not to give one a try. If you really want to, you can go from one city to another at breakneck speed. The Shinkansen service operates between 150 mph and 200 mph (depending on where it is), but the record for a bullet train in Japan is currently 375 mph. If you want to enjoy the scenery then maybe get one of the slower trains. The metro systems in the cities are also very clean and efficient, although most of them stop running between midnight and 1am. Miss the last train and it’s either a walk home or a pricey taxi. Delightfully, a one-day metro travel card is called an ichi nichi jōsha ken.

If you’d rather drive yourself, ultra-modern Japan has lots of roads that you can do this on. Some key rules: cars go on the left and you can’t drive until you’re 18 years old. Foreigners need an International Driving Permit (IDP), which they can usually get in their home country (for a small fee) if they already hold a driver’s license. After one year you’ll need to get a proper Japanese driving license, though.

Finding a job in Japan

It’s well known that Japan has a very hard-working culture, so don’t go there unless you’re prepared to put some effort in. In most cases, you can’t actually get a Japanese visa unless you have a job there, so finding employment is essential to your move. We’ve delved into the World Wide Web to find some of the best resources for Japanese job-hunting.

Jobs in Japan are truly no-nonsense (just look at their name). They offer a seriously extensive jobs board, along with a handy search function (eg. jobs by industry, location etc). You should also check out their blog for stacks of helpful tips.

Gaijin Pot boasts the ‘largest English job board in Japan’, so it’s a top resource for English-speaking job-hunters. Make sure you subscribe to their daily jobmail newsletter.

Daijob focuses specifically on helping multilingual foreigners find jobs, so if you’ve got more than one language to offer then they want to hear from you. Otherwise just stay away.

Cost of living in Japan

You have to pay a real premium to live in Japan, especially in the major cities. Japan is regularly named one of the most expensive countries in the world, and yet people still insist on moving there. At MoveHub, we recently mapped living costs around the world and Japan placed 9th. However, many places in Japan are actually pretty affordable and it’s Tokyo that’s skewing the average. The capital city is pricey, and it ranked third in Mercer’s Global Cost of Living survey (2017). Numbeo reckons that the cost of living in Japan is about 17% higher than in the UK, but rent is nearly 17% lower. Check out the table below to get an idea of prices around the country.

ItemPrice
Three-course meal for two people

27.02 ()

Domestic beer (0.5 litre draught)

2.70 ()

Cappuccino

2.54 ()

Rice (1kg)2

2.88 ()

Marlboro cigarettes (20 pack)

3.11 ()

One pair of mid-range Nike trainers

52.41 ()

Monthly transport pass

67.54 ()

Petrol (1 litre)

0.89 ()

Monthly gym membership

61.05 ()

One-bedroom flat in city centre

553.40 ()

Average monthly net salary (after tax)

1889.29 ()

Property market

This one might disappoint you: houses in Japan generally lose value over time. Think ‘overripe fruit’ rather than ‘fine wine’. The majority of Japanese houses are prefabricated and, after about 30 years, they are knocked down and cleared for a new one. With anti-earthquake technology improving all the time, it’s never long before a house is out of date. With nobody selling second-hand homes, companies aren’t building houses that last, so the vicious circle continues. Luckily, housing renovation is a quietly growing trend, so it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Check out Gaijin Pot (them again) for help finding a foreigner-friendly property in Japan.

Food

People hear ‘Japan’ and they think ‘great fish’! The country has a lot of coastline so it’s only natural they should be so obsessed with seafood. Their traditional fish dishes, particularly sushi, have become famous the world over (and with good reason). Just in case you’re not mad on fish, we should also mention that Japan have pretty much nailed every type of food. In particular, they’re experts with soup, veg and high-quality beef. We’ve picked a few of our favourite Japanese dishes and suggested where to eat them.

Japanese sushi

Sushi

Most people go around their daily lives thinking sushi means ‘raw fish’, which is just completely wrong. The word actually refers to the vinegared rice that goes with every piece. Raw fish is known as sashimi, and it isn’t even one of the key sushi ingredients. In fact, you’ll find that cooked seafood and vegetables are just as common. To make sushi, talented chefs wrap pieces of delicious food in rolls of seaweed before serving them with a bit of wasabi and gari (ginger). Most of the time, it looks amazing and tastes amazing.

Where to eat sushi

Sushisho Masa, Tokyo

This is a really special dining experience. Sushisho Masa is a basement restaurant that serves only seven people at a time, operating a set menu that lasts three hours and involves up to 50 pieces of sushi. Each diner sits at a simple wooden counter while the chef, Masakatsu Oka, prepares their food in front of them. There is a staggering variety of food on offer, including octopus, sea urchin, rockfish, grilled shrimp head, baby eel, conch brain, Japanese Spanish mackerel, the list goes on and on. With each new piece of sushi, you are also given notes on how to eat it, such as “one bite”, “some wasabi” or “ a little bit of ketchup” (just kidding). The ingredients are fresh, the presentation is exquisite but the price is very high (about £200 per person).

Fugu

Fugu isn’t always as tasty as sushi, but it comes with the added thrill that you might die from eating it. Known as a pufferfish in English, fugu is so poisonous that chefs need a proper license to prepare it. If you think cyanide sounds bad, fugu contains a toxin that is about 1000 times more powerful (it’s all in the liver). Just to make things even more baffling, not only is fugu very popular but it’s also an expensive delicacy. That’s right, you’ll be paying about £70 (at least) for the privilege of risking your life over a fish. Raw fugu is pretty tasteless and chewy (have some sauce), while cooked fugu tends to have the texture of chicken. Either way, you’re taking your life into your own hands when you eat it.

Where to eat fugu

Zuboraya Shinsekai, Osaka

If there was ever any doubt about what this restaurant serves, the big 3D paper pufferfish outside gives a big clue. Nothing goes to waste at Zuboraya Shinsekai, where every part of the fugu is used (including the bones and fins). They’ll pretty much do whatever you want to the fugu, from boiling and broiling to grilling, deep frying. You can also have it just plain raw.

Ramen

Here’s something a bit less frightening. Ramen is a traditional noodle soup dish that’s the perfect winter warmer - and you’ll need one of these in the Japanese winter. It used to be made from chicken bones, but recently people have gone wild and just thrown whatever they want in there. Pork, beef, seafood, curry, it’s all going in. There are over 24,000 ramen restaurants in Japan, so you’re never far away from a hot soup hit. It sounds like a simple meal, but many chefs get pretty serious about ramen, desperately trying to achieve the perfect broth depth and noodle bite.

Where to eat ramen

Ide Shoten, Wakayama

You’ll find a michelin-starred ramen restaurant in Tokyo (the only one in Japan), but the ramen joint regularly voted as the nation’s favourite can be found in Wakayama City on the south coast. Ide Shoten is only a small, family-run shop, but they really know their stuff. They create exquisite chasu (roast pork) ramen by stewing pork bones and then adding soy sauce and thin noodles. The menu is beautifully simple: 700 yen (£4.70) for a bowl of ramen and 100 yen (£0.67) for any extra chasu or noodles. Expect 30-minute queues on weekends.

Expat communities

Once you’re in Japan, you’ll find it extremely helpful to be able to speak to fellow expats. You can compare notes on the challenges you’ve been facing and give each other advice. There are loads of online forums for expats in Japan, and with superfast Japanese broadband you’ll be connected in no time. We recommend that you check out the lovely helpful people on InterNations or ExpatForum.

More info about Japan

If you’d still like some more information, check out these titles:

Etiquette Guide to Japan: Know the Rules That Make the Difference! by Geoff Botting and Boye Lafayette De Mente (2015)

Cool Japan Guide: Fun in the Land of Manga, Lucky Cats and Ramen by Abby Denson (2015)

Live & Work in Japan by Erica Simms (2008)