By Jimmy Soller [Guest Author]
Editor & Founder of JimmyESL.com
With all of the places to teach English abroad, Japan will always remain at the top or near the top of most people’s list. If you’ve ever spent time there, it’s easy to see why. There is no other country like Japan—an idiosyncratic blend of East Asian culture with a modern high tech twist that has fascinated visitors for decades.
While the days of teaching English in Japan when a native English speaker could literally arrive in a city and find a job within a week is long over, it still a great place to teach English. Sure, the job market there for teaching has become quite competitive, but there is work to be had, especially if you possess an accredited TEFL certification. For all the talk about Japan’s ‘struggling economy’, it’s still the third largest economy in the world. So while you are not going to get rich teaching in Japan, one can still live a comfortable lifestyle even on a teacher’s salary. Of course, the smaller the city, the lower the cost of living.
If you willing to make it in places deemed unpopular, or that are simply unknown by Westerners, then finding a job becomes increasingly easier due to the lack of competition. But let’s say you are like me and want to live in a ‘cool’ part of Japan. A place that is a fun. A city where people, both Japanese and foreigners, want to be. Ultimately, where you end up in Japan is a matter of circumstance, but if you want the opinion of someone that lived there for quite some time, below are the best five places to live and teach English in Japan.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of Tokyo, but I have to put it in the top five simply because it has the most jobs and offers an endless amount of attractions, people to meet and sites to see. If you feel at home in a megacity, then this might be the right city for you. There are an estimated 25 million people in the Tokyo area, making it one of the largest and most exciting cities on earth. With so many people, commerce and attractions, there is bound to always be something to do on a daily basis. While it not be the place for me, I’ve come across a fair amount of expats who have raved about Tokyo.
Besides the mere energy and flow of commerce throughout the city, the reality is there are jobs in Tokyo. While the cost of living is higher than the rest of Japan, the pay is also a bit more. Because the transportation system is so efficient, one can easily live and work in the suburbs and come into the downtown area for the nightlife. Another plus of Tokyo is that it is a hub for travel to the rest of Japan and easy. There are an endless supply of buses, trains, and flights leaving and entering the city at a constant pace.
If you can manage to keep enough distance from the military bases and shopping malls, Okinawa remains a place of subtropical pristine beauty. If you make it there, take a drive to the north around Nago or maybe take a ferry or plane ride to the small islands in the outer periphery of the main island of Okinawa. Despite the invasion of globalization, intergovernmental bureaucracy, commercialization, and tourism, there are still places to visit in Okinawa where you can almost step back in time. You may have to go out of your way, but there remain beaches where you can look out into the ocean and feel as if you have reached the end of the world.
Okinawa makes this list simply because it is such a fascinating place to live. The native Okinawans are distinctively different than the mainland Japanese. When I moved to Okinawa from Sapporo, I immediately had the feeling that I had landed in a different country. While you won’t find the same job opportunities or pay as you would in Tokyo or Osaka, there are jobs to be had for teaching English on the island. However, the vast majority of jobs there are ALT positions in junior and senior high schools. Since Okinawans make considerably less money than mainland Japanese, they for the most part lack the extra income to afford private and group English lessons at private schools. Personally, I worked as an ALT for a junior high school in a small town called Yomitan. It was a great experience to say the least.
If I were making no effort at all to be objective, Osaka would be number one on this list. However, it is not the right city for everyone. If you love cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Tokyo, you might not fall in love with Osaka. But if you can appreciate the grittiness of say Chicago or Buenos Aires, you will have a great time in Osaka. It is a robust and boisterous city with an element of grime that is lacking from the rest of Japan. Fittingly, the natives of Osaka are more talkative, sarcastic, and direct than anywhere else in the country. In fact, the vast majority of Japan’s comedians come from Osaka. Let’s put it this way, if you happen to meander into a bar in Osaka by yourself, you will likely find a native to talk your ear off, which can be a welcoming or unwelcoming experience. If you are a typical millennial, deficient in social skills and waiting to be offended by any politically incorrect remark, Osaka will surely slap you in the face.
Being the second biggest city in Japan, Osaka is an economic hub and offers a fair amount of jobs and opportunities. Like Tokyo, it is a massive city with jobs not only in the downtown corridor, but also scattered throughout the metro area. From teaching kids to university students, all types of teaching opportunities can be found there. However, competition for the better jobs is fierce, so you may have to wait a year or two before moving up to a more advantageous situation. In the meantime, enjoy the nightlife, great food and humorous individuals that endow the city with its own unique character. Craigslist or Kansai Scene are good places to look for jobs in Osaka.
I’ll be honest. This pick is a little biased since I lived in Sapporo for two and half wonderful years. I’ve done a fair amount of traveling and living abroad, but nothing will ever compare to Sapporo. Located on the northern island of Hokkaido, it is a city that I will always dream about one day returning to. Sapporo is a beautiful city filled with friendly people and surrounded by majestic, snow-covered mountains during the winter that transform into a luscious green during the mild summer months. If you like snow and snowboarding, Sapporo is about the best place in the world. Another upside is that Sapporo arguably has the best food in Japan and maybe the best food in all of Asia. The cost of living is notably less than Tokyo or Osaka, and there are lots of reasonably priced restaurants and cheap-eats throughout the city. Sapporo also boast a close-knit and diverse foreign community—most of whom seem to gravitate towards two or three streets in the downtown corridor that offer an array of Western-oriented bars and cafés.
Unfortunately, what Sapporo lacks is the same high number quality English teaching jobs that one may find in Japan's largest cities. While there are all types of English teaching positions to found there from teaching small children to conversational schools to landing positions at universities and colleges, Sapporo is immensely popular with Westerners. While many Westerners come to Tokyo and leave after a year or two, Sapporo is an easy place to stay if one is in the right situation. If things had worked out differently, I could easily still be there myself. It is a comfortable city with all the modern amenities of a large metro area, but amazingly clean, fresh, and well-organized. If you are looking for a job there, I would start with Hokkaido Insider. I believe you have to pay a small membership fee, but this site does offer legitimate job leads and valuable information about the city.
There are a lot of similarities between Sapporo and Fukuoka. Roughly the same size, like Sapporo, the culture in Fukuoka generally tends to be more open to an international lifestyle, making it a comfortable place for ex-pats to live. It’s not surprising then that Fukuoka has a strong Western community that is well organized, active and visible. I decided to put Fukuoka ahead of Sapporo on this list simply because many people cannot handle the 6-month long winters covered in a thick blanket of snow. Like Sapporo, Fukuoka also offers amazing food, plenty of nightlife and friendly people.
As far as the job market goes in Fukuoka, it’s not much different than Sapporo or Okinawa. There are certainly jobs available, but because it’s such a popular place with ex-pats, competition can be tough. If you are looking for a job there, check out Fukuoka Now. This is a solid website that also has information about apartments, events and items for sale.
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