Most Westerners outside of Japan would be hard pushed to name many cities in Japan aside from the capital, Tokyo. As such, it’s the capital that many foreigners flock to when they first arrive, but not necessarily where they stay.
As with all big cities, there are pros and cons of living in the bustling metropolis that is Tokyo, but what are the advantages and disadvantages of big city life compared to living in a smaller city? I spent three months living in Tokyo (population of 37.8 million residents in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, the largest urban area population ever recorded) before significantly downsizing and moving to Kumamoto, Kyushu (population of 1.8 million in the prefecture, and 740,000 in the Kumamoto city.) This is what my experience has taught me.
In a big city, you pay big prices for housing – especially in the city centres where housing is conveniently located. Even as you travel further out from the city, prices are still high compared to what you can get elsewhere for the same price. If you want to live close to public transport lines such as major subway stations, you pay a premium for that too.
In Tokyo, my partner and I lived near Shin-Yurigaoka, a fairly big station where you can catch the famously crowded Odakyu line. An hour from central Tokyo, I would by no means consider this location to be premium or particularly convenient, yet the proximity to the station (a 10 minute walk from the apartment) bumped up rental prices.
We lived on a short-term contract in a housing complex popular with students and foreigners. For 90,000 Yen a month we had a single room, with a tiny box-style bathroom and corridor including our own fridge/freezer and washing machine. Kitchen and dining areas were communal. Having just arrived in Japan, this cramped prison cell was the best we could afford – the epitome of living in a big city.
On moving to Kumamoto, we were in for a wonderful surprise regarding the upgrade of our living standards. From our expensive, one-room abode in Tokyo, we upgraded to an apartment that was five times the size, and half the price. The Kumamoto apartment has a large bathroom area, two bedrooms, and a spacious kitchen/dining area… and is so much cheaper. On top of this, the apartment is located only a 5-minute walk from the very centre of the city. Both my partner and I walk to work every day. There are a plethora of restaurants, shops and bars just a stones throw from our front door, and we don’t have to put up with sharing our home by using communal cooking areas.
Best Choice for Apartments: Small City Life
Another reason that foreigners flock to Tokyo is for the employment. As a big city, there are more jobs and more opportunities. In days gone by, it was usually the case that capital city wages were much higher than in smaller cities, but these days it seems as if that gap has closed. Many large companies will pay the same salary to its employees in Tokyo as well as those in smaller cities. But this is different depending on where you work and also whether or not you are Japanese. While, for example, English Language Schools will pay its teachers the same wages across Japan, Japanese staff in various employment sectors will see a significant difference between their wages and those of people in other cities.
However, it is true that Tokyo has more opportunities. When job searching on a website like GaijinPot, on any day of the week your search results will yield dozens of options in the capital city. However, if you are looking for work in a smaller city, only a handful will be available to you.
In small cities, it’s a double-edged sword in that there will be fewer job opportunities, but there will also likely be fewer people applying for that position, and of course you have a significant advantage if you are already in that city. So there are pros and cons, but in general, because of the sheer number of jobs, the potential of higher wages and the different opportunities available, Tokyo comes out on top.
Best Choice for Jobs: Tokyo Life
It goes without saying that big cities are more expensive than small cities in pretty much every category. Eating out, buying groceries, going to bars, public transport, entertainment… all are noticeably cheaper in small cities compared to Tokyo.
Another good thing about shopping in smaller cities is that small cities will often be closer to farmland, and so local produce can be bought for very cheap prices. While the same fruit and vegetables need to be transported into the big cities, in small cities people sell their produce at local markets, or even just on their doorsteps, especially if things are in season and need to be sold quickly. There is absolutely no question about which lifestyle makes it easier to save money.
Best Choice for Cost of Living: Small City Life
This option largely depends on what you like to do. Clearly, the bigger the city, the more entertainment opportunities you will find. Big cities like Tokyo are more likely to host special events like musical performances, conventions and celebrity events. Bigger cities have a larger number of museums, parks, art galleries, bars, libraries… etc. However, in order to get to these places you often have to travel for a long time, and tourist attractions will be heaving with people.
Smaller cities will have entertainment opportunities proportionate to the size of the city – the smaller the city, the less there is to do. However, you have the added bonus of fewer crowds and less travel time. While you need to travel within a big city to get to something you want to see, in a small city you can travel for the same amount of time to get to another city or town and do some exploring there.
So really, it depends what you’re into. If your entertainment needs can be fulfilled in a bustling city centre, Tokyo is a fine choice. If you prefer being a stone’s throw from nature and having your pick of country walking areas, lakes and nature parks, then a smaller city could be more up your street.
Best Choice for Entertainment: It depends
I’m not a big-city girl – I like small places where you can get to know the locals and not spend a fortune every time you step out your front door. But as far as capital cities go, Tokyo is the cream of the crop. It was voted the Most Liveable City in the World by the Monocle magazine in 2015, and remains a popular choice for ex-pats despite the cost of housing (it’s in the top ten most expensive cities in the world.) If you like the big-city lifestyle, then Tokyo is for you – it’s an exciting place to be, there is always something going on and opportunities to make the cost of… if you can shoulder the cost of being there.
But if you’re looking to save some money, a smaller city in Japan is perfect for you. For many ex-pats its entirely possible to make just as much money as you would in Tokyo – the difference is that you won’t spend half of it on rent every month. Small cities might not be as exciting as living in Tokyo, but for a foreigner fresh to Japan, every new experience you have here is exciting, and I find the small-city lifestyle an absolute pleasure, even if I do end up visiting the same museums over and again.