While it’s quite difficult to find legal paths to moving and settling in Japan permanently, there are many ways and schemes that enable you to experience life in Japan for a shorter period of time. The most famous is the JET programme and if you are planning to teach in Japan or will be based there for any other reason, this post should help you on the path to deciding where to go. It features some of the best and cheapest cities to live in Japan, with a focus on those places that are affordable while also offering a high quality of life.
At the bottom, we also have a 2023 cost of living comparison for 12 cities in Japan. Figures were last updated in May 2023, taking into account recent economic changes.
5 Good Options for Cities to Live in Japan
Japan’s northernmost and second largest island is Hokkaido and its largest city Sapporo is a good base for anyone looking for a slightly different experience to life on Honshu where virtually all the other major cities are located and where most Japanese people live.
Sapporo is the cultural, political and economic centre of life on Hokkaido island and it has grown from a village of just a few thousand people at the end of the 19th Century into Japan’s 5th largest city today. Its northerly location also makes it one of the coldest cities with sub-zero temperatures virtually every day during the winter.
However Sapporo has very much turned its cold climate into an advantage. The annual Sapporo Snow Festival draws in around two million tourists from abroad while it is also a major winter sports destination with its mountainous backdrop home to an array of slopes for skiing and snowboarding. It’s certainly a destination for outdoors and sporty types and the city has hosted everything from the Winter Olympics to World Cup football and rugby in its iconic dome.
Living Cost Index – 160,000 Yen per Month (approx $1150)
While second cities often struggle to shake off a negative reputation, Osaka is something of an exception to the rule. It is a truly vibrant, futuristic city with a vast metropolitan area home to around 20 million people, ranking amongst the world’s largest.
Osaka, which also features on our Japan backpacking route, is a great option for anyone looking to live in a large, 24-7 Japanese city whilst not having to spend quite as much as it costs to live in Tokyo. When it comes to the major urban areas, Osaka certainly ranks amongst the cheapest cities to live in Japan with living costs that are around 30% cheaper than those in the capital.
A port city, Osaka is a major financial centre – home to large electronics companies such as Panasonic and Sharp. However in such a gigantic place, it’s not hard to escape the business world with many hip neighbourhoods such as Namba, Horie and Amemura, prime for living, drinking, dining and exploring.
Living Cost Index – 170,000 Yen per Month (approx $1225)
Only just over 50 km northeast of Osaka lies the neighbouring city of Kyoto. You can travel between the two in just 13 minutes via the blistering bullet trains but the cost of living is more or less the same, so you may as well choose the one that appeals the most.
Kyoto will suit those looking for a slightly less hectic place to live although with around 1.5 million residents, it’s still a relatively large city. It’s also one for the history lovers as Kyoto served as the home to Japanese emperors for no fewer than eleven centuries before power finally transferred to Tokyo in 1869. It’s seen as Japan’s main cultural capital with a host of Shinto and Buddhist shrines as well as some historic landmarks including the Kyoto Imperial Palace.
In terms of living there, you will find Kyoto to be a university town with a deep heritage and plenty of stories to tell, that go well beyond those main sites on the tourist trail. With hotter summers but cooler winters and a bicycle-friendly layout, it’s certainly a complete contrast to Tokyo. Kyoto is known as a safe and clean city with residents enjoying a high standard of living.
Living Cost Index – 165,000 Yen per Month (approx $1175)
If the hustle and bustle of life on Honshu and its enormous metropolitan areas sounds a bit too much, then you can escape it all by heading to Okinawa, the smallest and southernmost of Japan’s five main islands. It has two major advantages over the others.
The first is its subtropical climate which ensures winters remain mild and it is spared the big freeze that engulfs most of Japan between December and February. Daily highs range between 20 and 30°C throughout the year, perfect for enjoying the many beaches on the island, although there is more rainfall than in most other places in Japan with some typhoons in the summer months.
The second major advantage is the low cost of living, although many foreigners opt to live in Naha which is much more expensive than the rest of the island. Naha is known for its excellent Okinawan cuisine and dishes like Okinawa soba (noodles in a pork broth) which can be sampled in many local restaurants and market stalls.
Anyone considering living in Okinawa does though need to appreciate that it is both small and isolated, little more than a dot in the middle of the vast East China Sea.
Living Cost Index – 200,000 Yen per Month (approx $1425)
If you’re looking for a taste of Tokyo but can’t afford the living costs or deal with the crowds of the city proper, then Kawasaki or another of the cities in the metropolitan area might be a good back-up plan.
While it certainly doesn’t rank among the best places to live in Japan and while a quick google search is more likely to serve up photos of motorbikes, the riverside city of Kawasaki is not completely without its charms. Home to an extensive canal network and a number of shrines and museums, Kawasaki isn’t all industry and hard work but those are two factors that certainly played a major role in its growth throughout the 20th Century. Both remain very evident today.
With rent prices in Tokyo over 50% higher than they are in Kawasaki, you can certainly find a better quality of accommodation for the same price in the latter. It’ll take you around an hour by commuter services to reach the heart of the Japanese capital.
Living Cost Index – 150,000 Yen per Month (approx $1075)
Japan Cost of Living Calculation Explained
The living cost index estimates (updated in May 2023) in this post on the cheapest and best cities to live in Japan are very loosely based on what a single person may spend in a typical month. They aim to cover all living costs as well as the cost of renting a room in shared accommodation or a small private flat. We’ve used data from livingcost.org as a guide to help calculate the index.
The figures will vary wildly between different people though as clearly everyone has different spending habits and a different idea of what a comfortable life might entail. Therefore it’s advisable to take this only as a means of comparing the costs in different cities rather than an accurate estimation of what you would spend if you lived in one of these places.
You will also need to factor in any travel or health insurance packages before moving to Japan, the cost of which will vary depending on your age, circumstances and a number of other factors. Get a quote in less than a minute from SafetyWing for an idea of how much this may cost in your circumstances.
Cost of Living (2023) – What are the cheapest cities to live in Japan?
|City||Cost of Living Index (Monthly in Japanese Yen)|
The 12 cities featured above include all of the largest ones in the country plus a couple of smaller ones that have proved popular with foreigners looking to experience life in Japan.
Tokyo, as you might expect, is the most expensive but you can find some cheaper destinations as you work your way down. Some smaller towns and more rural destinations are even cheaper than the likes of Saitama and Sapporo at the bottom of this Japan cost of living table. However unless you are a student or remote worker, you will need to also factor in the likelihood that your salary will also be considerably less in these places.
By most global standards, Japan is an expensive country to live in, although its currency has lost value over the past few years, particularly against the US Dollar which will make it much more affordable for many foreigners now. Overall, living in Japan is certainly cheaper when compared to the best places to live in New Zealand for example but it’s still more expensive than most Asian countries and that includes most of the best cities to live in China.
This post on some of the best cities to live in Japan was last updated in May 2023.