Japan for Digital Nomads
Japan is a surprisingly good destination for the digital nomad lifestyle
Japan is usually thought of as a major travel destination: it's the place you go to marvel at centuries-old temples and traditional towns, not necessarily to get some work done. But it turns out it can also make you seriously productive once you move past its touristic charms.
Being a “digital nomad” is a fancy way to describe spending a few weeks or months in a new country while working remotely. And today, I'll show you while Japan is a more-than-worthy nomading destination.
Let's get the key $$$ question out of the way first. Yes, Japan is more expensive than famously-cheap countries like Thailand or Vietnam. But it's also not as pricey as you might think! Sure, traveling in Japan certainly costs a lot, but simply living and working there can be done for much less.
Most restaurants offer great-value lunchtime set meals for ¥1000, or around $9. And that can often include a main dish, side dish, soup, and sometimes even a small desert. Or, if ramen is more your thing, you can usually get a huge bowl of noodles for the same price.
This could be yours for less than $10! (Credit: Hari Panicker)
Restaurants get more expensive at night, but thankfully every Japanese supermarket or convenience store offers ready-made bentos starting at round ¥500 (or $4.50). And here's a tip: supermarkets usually discount their bentos at night, meaning you might get one for as low as ¥300.
Altogether, even eating prepared food for every meal you can probably get by for less than $15 a day, and of course if you're able to cook for yourself then that figure will only go down. Contrary to what you've been told, eating in Japan doesn't have to be expensive!
The other major cost center when living in a foreign country is always accomodation. Here again, Japan isn't as expensive as it might seem. Even in Tokyo, you can find hotel rooms for $50-$75 a night, and if you're staying a month or longer then rental rates will also get much cheaper.
And as soon as you get out of Tokyo, prices fall dramatically. You can rent a fully-furnished one-bedroom appartment in the heart of Osaka (voted third most livable city in the world) for ¥75,000, or about $700/month!
When it comes to clothing, Japan has you covered with one of the world's most reliable source for cheap yet durable clothing, Uniqlo.
Uniqlo stores are omnipresent in every large cities in Japan, and they usually carry a decent variety of styles and sizes. They're especially nice for basics like underwear and t-shirts, meaning you can travel light and know you won't have trouble stocking up!
Uniqlo's flagship store in Osaka
And for the truly desperate, even some of your larger konbinis also carry underwear. Although similar to sushi, only the bravest souls have dared to try konbini underwear…
Public transportation is admittedly pretty pricey in Japan, with a single bus or train ride often costing ¥200 ($2) or more. If you have to transfer once or twice, and then include the return trip as well, the costs can pile up quickly.
Thankfully most Japanese cities are also very walkable and bikeable. Ideally you'll pick a neighborhood you like and spend most of your time there. After all, one of the perks of working remotely is not having to commute!
Entertainment and sports can also be somewhat expensive, but thankfully Japan has plenty of beautiful nature available for your pleasure, and that doesn't cost anything to visit.
Assuming you're considering Japan as your next work/play destination, the next big question is obviously which city to pick.
The obvious choice is Tokyo: it's extremely livable despite its huge size, as it's broken up in smaller neighborhoods that each have their own vibe and feel almost like self-contained little villages. It's also Japan's most international city, with many English speakers and lots of foreigner-friendly events going on.
Osaka can be a crazy place! (Credit: Koi Visuals)
If you're into the big-city vibe but want a more budget-conscious option, then you can't go wrong with Osaka. It offers most of the same amenities as Tokyo (although admittedly in a less foreigner-friendly package) at a cheaper price, and also has its own unique character. Osakans are famously a bit rougher than their Tokyo counterparts, but also warmer and friendlier.
If on the other hand you need a break from big cities, then Kyoto is worth considering. It's kept its traditional, subdued atmosphere even while developing a modern food and cafe scene and a number of good coworking spaces. Sadly, the large amount of tourists does tend to drive up prices, but if you can stomach it then the city will more than make up for it with its small hidden alleys, nearby mountains, and traditional charm.
Adopting a nomadic lifestyle usually involves lugging around large quantities of expensive, hard-to-replace electronics in the form of laptops, smartphones, and cameras.
If that's your case, it's worth considering the upside of being in a country where you can leave your laptop unattended while you go to the bathroom in a cafe; or where passerbys will return your wallet when you drop it.
So while many other countries do offer a cheaper lifestyle, it's hard to put a price on peace of mind. And for that reason alone Japan should be near the top of anybody's destinations list.
Japan is extremely tourist-friendly, with helpful staff at every tourist attraction, and a population that makes up their lack of English skills with a willingness to go the extra mile to help a confused stranger.
On the other hand, if your goal is to live in Japan for good and become part of Japanese society, you may find that some barrier are hard to knock down, and that you're never fully accepted.
As someone visiting for a few months, you'll probably find your experience to be somewhere in between: a great experience overall which might nonetheless include a few frustrating moments when you try to go off the beaten path and run smack dab into the dreaded language barrier.
Still, it's hard to find a more welcoming place than Japan, especially if you make the effort of learning a few basic words of Japanese.
A busy Tokyo street (Credit: Cory Schadt)
Most visitors to Japan opt for “Pocket Wifi” devices, small portable radio modems that offer the same kind of data connection you'd get with a smartphone, except at much higher speeds. While not as fast as landlines, you can't underestimate the convenience of being able to bring your internet access with you wherever you go, and never having to worry about finding wifi again.
Speaking of which, wifi can be tricky to find in Japan, but it's there if you know where to look. Your best bet is the omnipresent konbinis (convenience stores such as Lawson, Family Mart, and Seven Eleven) which often offer their own free-access wifi networks.
Many cities also offer free wifi networks meant for tourists, but they usually provide miserably low speeds, provided you can even manage to connect to them.
Finally, some cafe chains such as Starbucks or Mos Cafe also offer free wifi, but again access is far from guaranteed.
One positive note about wifi in Japan: more and more, train companies are starting to offer pretty good free wifi inside their trains. This can help turn any train ride into a productive work session… provided you can find a much-coveted seat, of course!
Coworking spaces are a somewhat new concept for Japan, but most major cities now boast at least a few of them, usually for around ¥1000 ($9) a day.
Coworking spaces are great to get some work done as well as meet other people, but that being said if you already have your own internet access in the form of a Pocket Wifi, then a cafe can often offer nicer surroundings and better food. And unlike in the U.S., prohibitions against laptop work are still pretty uncommon in Japanese cafés.
If you're really desperate you can even work in konbinis, as a lot of them provide free seating spaces with outlets. And hey, sometimes they're the only thing still left open!
Working on your own can get lonely after a while, so even if you enjoy peace and quiet it's also good to know where to go to make new friends.
Coworking spaces are a great starting point, as are cafes. But if you're worried about bothering your fellow customers, you can also attend meetups and other special events.
The author attending the Hacker News Kansai meetup.
Meetup is a great starting point, but be aware that it will mostly feature English-speaking events geared towards foreigners. If you're looking to connect with a more local population, check out Meetup alternatives like Connpass or Doorkeeper.
Finally, even if you're here to work there's no reason why you can't enjoy some of Japan's tourism attractions. While a lot has already been written about Japan travel, it should be pointed out that staying here for a longer period will let you experience Japan from another angle: instead of rushing from one place to the other, you'll be able to take your time to discover a region, and maybe get a more local, more authentic experience.
Also, having more time means you'll be able to save up big time by taking night buses rather than expensive high-speed trains. It'll take longer but your wallet will thank you!
If you want to learn more, here are a few other resources:
- Nomadlist: while not Japan-focused Nomadlist is always a good source of basic info on any place, and its vibrant community can also provide some good info.
- ThriftyNomads: this site has a handful of articles about Japan.
- Digital Nomads in Japan thread on Reddit.
- Japan as a digital nomad destination? Anything is possible by David James.
- Living in Japan: A Guide For Digital Nomads by Goats on the Road.
- We also have many other guides about Japan on this very blog.
If you're ready to take the plunge, we can help make sure your Japanese adventure goes smoothly. We have lots of modern, fully-furnished apartments available for rent at very competitive prices, and our 24/7 support staff speaks English and will be happy to help you even with non-apartment-related inquiries.
We promise you won't regret it: after an afternoon spent working while sipping green tea and contemplating a mossy, verdant garden, you'll wonder how you ever got anything done before!