Japan is an archipelago of 6,852 islands located in East Asia between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan. Of the nearly 7,000 islands, only about 430 are inhabited, and four are considered the primary islands: Hokkaido, the northernmost island, home to the island’s capital city of Sapporo; Honshu, Japan’s largest island (and the seventh largest island in the world), home to Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto; and the islands of Shikoku and Kyushu in the south.
Japan has long been popular with tourists who want to experience its scenic beauty, natural hot springs (onsen), artistic cuisine, traditional culture, and 18 World Heritage Sites, including Fujisan (Mount Fuji), Himeji-jo Castle and the historic monuments of ancient Kyoto. It’s not just tourists who take advantage of all that Japan has to offer. About 2 million expats from around the world – mostly from neighboring Asian countries – live in Japan, which was named a great place to live in HSBC’s most recent annual Expat Explorer survey.
Retiring in Japan has its challenges. For one, Japan has no formal retirement visa plan, so expats have to apply for either a work or spouse visa – or undergo the long process of obtaining a permanent resident visa, which can take anywhere from three to ten years, depending on your situation, and requires an intimate knowledge of Japanese language and culture. Another challenge is the high cost of living in Japan – Tokyo in particular has one of the highest costs of living in the world. Housing can be both expensive and surprisingly (and uncomfortably) small to many foreigners.
Despite these challenges, many expats from all over the world are drawn to this beautiful, vibrant and culturally rich island nation and wouldn’t consider retiring anywhere else. Here, we take a look at five of the best cities in Japan for retired expats.
Fukuoka is on the island of Kyushu, and is that island’s – and one of Japan’s – most populated cities. Because of Fukuoka’s proximity to the Asian mainland, it has been an important harbor city for centuries and was the landing point of the Mongol invasion forces in the 13th century. The city is surrounded by mountains on three sides and Hakata Bay on the fourth.
Among its accolades, Fukuoka was named one of Newsweek’s “10 Most Dynamic Cities” in 2006 and one of the “Top 25 Livable Cities” by lifestyle magazine Monocle, in 2014. The city offers shrines and temples, chic boutiques, a diverse dining scene, nearby beaches, parks, biking and walking paths, and lots of green space.
Located on Honshu, Japan’s largest island, Kyoto was the capital of Japan for centuries. It was also the seat of imperial power for more than 1,000 years until 1869, when Meiji the Great, the 122nd Emperor of Japan, moved his residence to Tokyo. It is considered one of the most beautiful places in all of Japan – quite a tribute in a country already famous for its natural beauty. Kyoto is also considered Japan’s go-to place for experiencing the maximum amount of architectural beauty, culture and history in a short amount of time.
Kyoto is home to about 2,000 temples and shrines, and dozens of museums and botanical gardens. Gion is Kyoto’s famous geisha district filled with shops and restaurants, as well as teahouses (ochaya) where geisha and their apprentices entertain visitors by performing traditional music and dance.
Sapporo, the fourth most populous city in Japan, is located on the country’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido. Being a northern city, Sapporo is a popular destination for winter enthusiasts, and tourists and residents alike enjoy the area’s numerous ski resorts, including the Sapporo Bankei Ski Area and Sapporo Teine, a venue in the 1972 Winter Olympic Games.
Historic buildings, museums, galleries, shopping malls, parks – and the Sapporo Beer Museum – are popular attractions. The Sapporo Symphony Orchestra performs regularly at the Sapporo Concert Hall, also known as "Kitara." Numerous festivals take place each year, including the well-known Yuki Matsuri – the Sapporo Snow Festival – which each February attracts more than 2 million tourists from around the world. Sapporo is also home to several popular spots for cherry blossom viewing (hanami), which peaks in late April to early May each year.
Japan’s capital city is Tokyo, located in the Kanto region of Honshu. The Greater Tokyo Area is the world’s most populous metropolitan area, with more than 37 million people living inside the metro region and its surrounding suburbs. To many, Tokyo is overwhelmingly huge and crowded, but if you are comfortable with the hustle and bustle, you will never run out of things to do. According to the Japan National Tourist Organization, seven of the 10 most-visited attractions in Japan are in Tokyo, including the #1 attraction, Shinjuku, a crowded skyscraper district brimming with shopping and nightlife. For everyday entertainment, Tokyo offers art galleries, museums, an extensive live music scene and world-renowned shopping.
If Tokyo doesn’t have what you’re looking for, or you just want a break from the city, its central location makes a good base for exploring the rest of Japan. A short trip in virtually any direction will land you somewhere interesting, whether it’s hiking in the mountains, strolling through a Zen garden or enjoying a soak in a natural hot spring.
Roughly 19 miles from Tokyo is Yokohama, Japan’s second largest city. Nicknamed the city of cultures, Yokohama is home to numerous museums, galleries, traditional Japanese gardens, parks and the Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse, which holds dozens of shops, restaurants, art galleries, and a 300-seat performance center.
Right in the center of Yokohama is Yokohama Chinatown, the largest Chinatown in Japan – and one of the world’s largest – famous for its brightly colored temples and gates, its many restaurants and food stands, and the various festivals held here each year.
The Bottom Line
Japan has long been a popular tourist destination, and is gaining in popularity as a retirement spot for expats (foreigners are known in Japan as gaijin) from around the world. Retiring here can be challenging due to the lack of a retirement visa and the high cost of living. But many expats gladly face these difficulties in order to experience Japan’s beauty, culture, history and cuisine. For more information, see A Guide To Retiring In Japan As A Foreigner and Plan Your Retirement Abroad.