While Japan is not usually the first destination that comes to mind for digital nomads and traveling freelancers, it is actually a great option.
With a huge range of city stays, and natural wonders, as well as amazing facilities to make work easier, Japan should be near the top of your travel list! Here, we’ll take a deeper look into what to expect when traveling in Japan.
How expensive is it to travel in Japan as a digital nomad?
One of the main reasons people are often quick to rule out Japan is because they think that it is an expensive country to visit. But in reality, other than flight costs, this isn’t the case.
Admittedly, flights to Japan can become quite pricey. At the time of writing, booking a flight one month in advance from New York to Tokyo is around $1,400 (USD), and a flight from London to Tokyo is about £650 (around $815 USD). So if you are flying from a distant land, you will need decent savings to get to Japan. However, if you are flying from somewhere closer, you’ll be able to find much lower rates. This is often the case for digital nomads, as they are hopping from country to country. For example, a flight from Singapore to Tokyo comes in at around $325 (USD).
Once you’re over the hurdle of getting to Japan, however, it’s not difficult to keep costs down while traveling within the country.
So, how can you save money while traveling in Japan?
For one thing, many points of interest when traveling around Japan are completely free, or have very low entrance fees. Beautiful shrines and temples are free to enter, as are many of the gorgeous national parks and natural land all over the country. There are even free tour guides available in some areas like Tokyo.
Of course there are other things to consider when setting a budget. One of those is transportation. While trains and bullet trains can be quite pricey, the country is well connected by bus and overnight bus, which is a great budget alternative. As for accommodation, capsule hotels, hostels, and even manga kissa (manga cafes) make for good places to sleep when the purse strings are tight.
You might think that food will then take up the remainder of your budget, but that’s certainly not the case if you do your research and know where to go. If you’re staying at an Airbnb, you can easily cut down costs by buying groceries and cooking for yourself most of the time. Otherwise, there are plenty of chain restaurants or locally owned spots with incredibly low prices. For example, a bowl of rice topped with beef at a popular chain, Yoshinoya, is just 388 JPY ($3 USD).
All in all, while getting to Japan in the first place might be a bit tricky, it’s easy enough to stick to a budget once you’re here.
What’s it like to stay in Japan as a foreign digital nomad?
When traveling as a digital nomad in Japan, there are a lot of things to consider. Although budget is likely one of the first things to think about, you will probably also be wondering what it’s like to stay in Japan for longer than the average holiday, and whether it is right for you.
Choosing your base
After deciding your budget, it’s a good idea to do some research into what area you want to stay in. Here’s a quick overview of some of the popular areas and the reason people choose to visit them.
- Tokyo: The country’s capital city. People visit for the city lights, lively atmosphere, and overwhelming selection of food and shops. However, it can be quite pricey.
- Kyoto: The ancient capital. People visit for the traditional and calm atmosphere, and a sense of the Japan of old. It can also be pricey, but not as much as Tokyo.
- Osaka: Kyoto’s funky neighbor. Osaka has a completely different vibe to Kyoto and is very lively and friendly. It is cheaper, but still has tourist traps that charge higher rates.
- Hokkaido: Japan’s northern region. People visit to experience incredibly deep snow in the winter, alongside their ice sculptures and more comfortable summer climates.
- Okinawa: Japan’s southern region, and home to a large American army base. People visit for its almost Hawaiian atmosphere, sunny climate, and laid-back vibes.
Of course, these are just a few of the amazing areas that Japan has to offer, and there’s no reason that you need to visit just one. But if it’s your first time in Japan, you might feel more at ease sticking to one area at first.
Japan’s work spaces
Another thing to consider is Japan’s work spaces. As a digital nomad or traveling freelancer, WiFi is your lifeline! If you can’t connect to the internet, how are you going to upload your work or contact your clients? It’s a good idea to make sure you know how well covered your area of choice is.
In recent years there has been a surge in the number of coworking spaces in Japan, particularly in Tokyo. It’s not at all difficult to find a coworking space to suit your needs, that has all the facilities and capabilities of a regular office. Major cities like Osaka and Sapporo have a few coworking spaces too, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find them in the less densely populated areas.
If you have a higher budget, coworking spaces in Tokyo are a great option as an office away from home, but for others, they can seem a tad pricey. If that’s the case, there are plenty of alternatives. These days, most of Japan’s chain cafes have free WiFi available, and there are lots of spots around the country where you can connect to WiFi if you are visiting from abroad. Otherwise, you can pick a hostel or accommodation that has good WiFi capabilities and a nice space to work, and simply work from your accommodation rather than going out to find another option.
If you’re always going to be on the move, and aren’t able to plan your next work spot or find out if it has WiFi, you might want to consider getting a portable or pocket WiFi. This way, you know you’ll never be without your lifeline!
Traveling around the country
If you do choose to hop around the country and visit different areas, you’ll be pleased to know that Japan is generally a very organized and clean place. Trains are considered late if they arrive one or two minutes off schedule, and cancellations are very rare except in adverse weather conditions.
It’s not just the trains that run on time, either. In general, people in Japan are very good at staying punctual, and will almost always turn up exactly on time. If you throw a party and say it starts at 7, everyone will turn up at 7 or even earlier!
Japan has also long been known for its cleanliness, and it’s not uncommon to see staff cleaning escalator handrails or sweeping the floors. Throughout most of Japan, it’s usually very hard to spot any littering, as most people bring their trash home with them – seriously.
The cleanliness also is reflected in accommodations. It’s uncommon to find a hotel or hostel that is dirty or unkempt, even on a budget.
Other than the cleanliness and great punctuality, Japan is also a great place to travel for digital nomads because it simply has to many amazing places to visit, from luscious natural scenes to busy cityscapes, and everything in between.
Although Japan is often simplified to Tokyo and Kyoto, there are so many other exciting places to visit. If your work isn’t location dependent, then why not make the most of it? You could go kayaking in the gorges of Kumamoto, or skiing in the Japanese Alps, or even take a dip in a natural hot spring by a frozen lake in Hokkaido. There’s no reason to stick to the beaten path on a trip to Japan.
You’ll also find that on your travels, people are largely very willing to help, even if they don’t know much English. They will use the few words that they do know, and plenty of gestures to get their message across. If you’re lost, it’s not unheard of for someone to walk with you to show you the way to your destination, and if you have any questions, people will try their best to help. Of course, there are always exceptions, and you should always be careful when talking to strangers.
Things to note about traveling in Japan
As with any country, there are some things to be aware of before you go rushing off to start your digital nomad travels in Japan.
One of the first things to note is the general lack of English speakers in the country. Although we’ve mentioned that many people will be happy to help you out, they’re unlikely to be able to speak much or any English, particularly outside of larger cities. Unsurprisingly, more touristy areas have a lot more people who can speak and offer help in English, but even then, their English may not be quite the level that you’re used to. Just make sure to clarify if anything is unclear, and be patient if it takes a bit longer to get their message across, because they’re only trying to help!
To get around the lack of English, it’s good to travel with a guide or Japanese speaker, or at the very least to make sure you have enough battery to use Google Translate or another translation app to help you get around. Translation apps have come a long way, and may prove useful on your travels.
On the same note, if you travel into further flung regions of Japan, you might get a few sideways glances or outright stares, simply because there are not many non-Japanese in the area. Usually, these looks are not purposeful or intentionally rude, but they can feel a little uncomfortable, so it’s something to mentally prepare yourself for.
Another thing to be mindful of while traveling in Japan is that routes can be tricky. Although Japan is generally very well connected by trains and buses, and almost everywhere is accessible via public transport, that doesn’t always mean it’s easy to get there.
While most areas and public transport will have some form of English and other language capabilities, not every aspect of the journey will. For example, if you ride a local bus, it’s quite common for the destination on the front of the bus to only be shown in Japanese. There may also be announcements or screens showing the next stop only in Japanese. As for trains, although there may be English available, major cities have incredibly complex train systems, so it’s not rare to have to change multiple times to get from one place to another.
To help make your journey as easy as possible, make sure to plan your route ahead of time. It’s best if you know which stops or stations you need to get off at, and how far away the next leg of the journey is. Although Google Maps might say that it is only 2 minutes away from one train to the next, it might actually be on a completely different line or station close by, and you have to exit and come back in.
A lot of these kinds of problems are usually fairly easy to solve with a phone, but if your phone is out of battery or has no access to internet, it will be no use to you! So another important thing to keep in mind is to carry a portable charger and perhaps a pocket WiFi to make sure you are always connected in some way.
Lastly, as with anywhere, if you are traveling alone always be cautious. Keep your personal items safe and never leave them unattended, and make sure there is someone who knows roughly what you’ll be doing throughout the day. That way, your mind will be at ease while you’re traveling around Japan!