Japan on a Shoestring: 7 Cheapest Places to Live

cheapest places to live in Japan
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Known for its arts, innovations, and tantalizing cuisine, Japan has a legacy of distinctive culture and is a bucket list destination for all travelers. With a large developed economy and one of the most contemporary societies, Japan also has a standard of living among the highest in the world. But this means that cheap is one thing the country is not. 

Situated in the northwest Pacific, 124 miles from mainland Asia, Japan is an island country that thrives off its exports. Still, many everyday goods need to be imported, raising prices and tax tariffs for consumers. Home to some of the world’s most impressive megacities, breathtaking rural scenery, and vibrant pop culture, Japan is popular with ex-pats. So is it as expensive as you think? 

You might have to cross Tokyo off your list, but you don’t need to sacrifice your life savings for this move. These seven cheapest places to live in Japan present authentic Japanese living without breaking the bank. Let’s go. 

 

Sapporo

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The birthplace of Japan’s oldest namesake beer brand, Sapporo, is the largest city on the northernmost Hokkaido island and a far cry from life on Honshu, where most major Japanese cities are located. Sapporo offers something different in the way of traditional Japanese life than you’ll find in central regions, but it has gained an impressive reputation of its own.

It is the cultural, economic, and political epicenter of Hokkaido Island and has grown to prominence since the 19th-century; once a rural village, Sapporo is now the fifth largest Japanese city. It is also one of the coldest, with sub-zero temperatures dominating the winter months. But the city has used this to its advantage, and the region is well-known for its excellent skiing and the annual Sapporo Snow Festival, which draws millions of tourists every year. 

Hosting every outdoor event from the Winter Olympics to the football and rugby World Cups, Sapporo put Hokkaido on the map and is definitely worth visiting. Better yet, despite its popularity and cultural significance, Sapporo is one of the cheapest places to live in Japan. Residents can get by on an average of 160,000 Yen per month, around $1,550. This is even cheaper for students with lower tuition costs than other major cities and living expenses of approximately $800 a month. 

Osaka

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We’re not sure why second cities get such a bad rep, but Osaka breaks the mold. This vibrant and youthful metropolis has a bit of everything and is the closest you can get to Tokyo-living on a budget. 

With a population of around 20 million, it ranks up there with some of the world’s most populous cities. It is a perfect option for energetic ex-pats looking for round-the-clock city life without forking out a fortune. Osaka is a port city and a financial hub where large technology companies, such as Sharp and Panasonic, have their bases. But the business world is easy to escape with hip neighborhoods like Horie, Namba, and Amemura on the rise for drinking, dining, and living.

Estimated living costs average at 170,000 Yen per month, or $1500, with reasonable living costs, utilities, and groceries. The efficient transport system is also a big pull, yet Osaka is around 15 percent cheaper than Tokyo on the whole. 

Kawasaki 

Photo by Sean Pavonne on Envato Elements

Another option for a taste of Tokyo without the steep prices is Kawasaki, just a stone’s throw from the wider metropolitan area and a short 40-minute commute by train. The motorbike of the same name might be the first image that this city conjures, but Kawasaki is much more than industry and full of undiscovered charm.

The riverside town is home to an extensive network of canals with intricate shrines and fascinating museums waiting to be uncovered. But Kawasaki is also a great vantage point to surrounding areas, with the newest facilities and technology in the country making everyday life ever-convenient. 

Kawasaki is an excellent option for escaping Tokyo crowds and pollution with its own strong job market. Still, it’s also a clever gateway to the capital for commuters, with rent prices at 50 percent lower. Estimated living costs average at 165,000 Yen a month, around $1450. 

Tsushima Island

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Life in Japan is not all about modern metropoles. Despite being one of the most innovative societies, the diverse landscape is worth making the most of, and on Tsushima Island, you can sample it all.  

Comprising nature reserves, tropical vegetation, pristine beaches, and towering mountain peaks, there is sumptuous scenery to soak up at every turn and big-city sights too just for balance. The archipelago is actually made up of 100 different islands, spanning 709 square kilometers and 90 percent of which are made up of mountain forests. 

Still, the island city of Tsushima is a convenient and accessible place to live. The only city in the region, life is centered around the sea with a unique society where Japanese and Korean culture meet. The cost of living in Tsushima is astonishingly low for a region that offers so much. Residents can get by on as little as 140,000 Yen per month, or $1,200, and one-bedroom apartments can go for $400 a month. 

Naha

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The capital of the Okinawa Prefecture, Naha, sits in the small tropical island group just south of mainland Japan. On the East China Sea coast, Naha is another city that marries multiple cultures with traditional art and architecture and a modern metropolitan area.

Naha is home to the Shuri Castle, a restored 15th-century palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom and the birthplace of Japan’s national martial art, Karate. The Tsuboya district draws tourists with its traditional ceramics, shophouses, and “shiisa” stalls, selling the miniature lion-dog figures native to the region. The main street and surrounding neighborhood of Kokusaidori is the life and soul of Naha. With shops, bars, and restaurants aplenty, you’ll find a bustling atmosphere and an excellent base for ex-pats.     

Okinawa is generally a reasonable place to live in Japan, considering the unique geographical location and stunning scenery. Naha’s estimated living expenses sit at around 150,000 Yen per month, or $1300, with city center studios averaging $660 a month. 

Fukuoka

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Japan’s sixth-largest city and second-largest port, Fukuoka, is best known for its distinct cuisine, memorable shrines, castle ruins, and diverse nightlife. Situated on the north shores of Kyushu, it is a gateway into the rest of the island with excellent career prospects and a fast-growing urban vibe that is perfect for ex-pats. 

You can find modern shopping, beaches, and amusement among ancient temples and fortifications. In the central Hakata district is the Tocho-ji Temple, which houses a 10m wooden Buddha, and the Hakaha Mahiya Folk Museum documenting Meji and Taisho era life. While just up the river is the Nakasu red-light district, scattered with bars and clubs and the epicenter of entertainment.   

You can find attractive city center accommodation for less than $700 a month, and living costs are around 25 percent less than in Tokyo. Expect averages of 133,000 Yen per month, or $1,155, which can be as much as halved for students. 

Kyoto

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It’s not only one of the best cities to live in Japan, but across the whole globe, and Kyoto is the religious and cultural hub of the country. Kyoto rivals Tokyo in greatness as the “imperial capital,” and its historical importance is undoubted.

Kyoto draws millions of tourists every year, and its ex-pat community is alive and thriving. Offering a slower pace of life to the eastern capital, there’s charm around every corner, and the city is excellent for exploring the raw beauty of Japan. There are endless gems from the Kinkaku-Ji, Kamigamo, and Shimagamo Shines, to the Shibuya Crossing, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, and none other than Mount Fuji to uncover, all of which contribute to the high quality of life.

The housing options are extensive and incredibly affordable, averaging around $400 a month, making it one of Japan’s cheapest places to live. Groceries and utilities can add up and are slightly pricier than other regions, but this affords Kyoto a reasonable monthly living cost of around 180,000 Yen, or $1550.  

Is Japan expensive?

Japan can be considerably more costly than other Asian giants countries like China, Thailand, Vietnam, and India. But it might come as a surprise to some travelers that Japan doesn’t have to break the bank. The birthplace of sushi is generally cheaper to live in than Singapore, Australia, Scandinavia, and some areas of the UK. Japan’s innovative and expensive capital has afforded it a reputation of affluence that not all regions uphold. 

Where is the cheapest place to live in Japan?

Japan has several low-cost places to live, including popular cities like Kyoto, Fukuoka, and Sapporo, and tropical island paradises like Tshushima and Okinawa. Kyoto and Kawasaki are among the cheapest places to rent in Japan, and Tsushima city and Fukuoka boast some of the lowest living costs for utilities, groceries, and eating out. 

How much is one month in Japan?

How much one-month costs in Japan depends on the nature of your visit and what you’re looking to do. For traveling around the country, visiting tourist attractions, and staying in short-stay accommodation in different regions, you can expect to spend a minimum of $3,000 per person, with most holidaymakers averaging closer to $5,000. But if you’re not on vacation, your living costs can be more than half. With comfortable accommodation in most major cities offered at fantastic monthly discounts, you can expect to spend an average of $1,500 a month living in Japan as an ex-pat and closer to the $1,000 mark for locals. 

Where is the most expensive part of Japan?

Tokyo is the wealthiest and most expensive part of Japan and one of the most costly destinations in the world. You can expect to fork out around 250,000 Yen a month for a one-bedroom apartment, around $2,150, while three-bedroom lodgings can cost more than 400,000 Yen or $3,500. Utilities cost on average 22,000 Yen per month, that’s almost $200, and groceries and eating out can far exceed this number. 

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Esmé is an English literature graduate and freelance writer. Originally from London, Esmé is lucky enough to call Bali home. Her travels have taken her from the far corners of the East to the islands of the Caribbean. When she's not writing, you'll find her lying on a beach somewhere, lost in a crime novel.