In the past few years I was asked many times about the practicalities of studying in Japan, so I decided to try and answer the most common questions. Should you have any doubts that are not addressed below, please leave a comment and ask away!
All prices are in yen, here you find an online converter for your reference.
How do I go to Japan to study? What do I need?
If you want to study in Japan only for a short time you can enter the country on a tourist visa. Most passports allow you to stay up to 90 days, please check the details on the JNTO website.
If you are planning on staying longer, you are going to need a student visa. First you must get a Certificate of Eligibility, and convert it into a visa at the Japanese Embassy or Consulate in your country.
The documents you will have to provide are: copy of your passport, two passport photos, copy of a certificate for the studies you completed, and a proof that you are (or your sponsor is) able to sustain yourself financially during your stay.
I recommend you contact Go! Go! Nihon, an agency helping students to go through the bureaucracy and to arrange their stay in Japan. Their services are free and I can vouch they are reliable.
How much money do I need to study in Japan for one year?
The language course will cost you about ¥800,000 for one year. The cost of life in Japan is relatively high; here you can compare the cost of living of different countries and get an idea. If your accommodation is not too expensive your monthly expenses (including rent) will be at least ¥100,000.
In which city should I study?
It depends on many factors, including your interests, your future plans, your budget.
I stayed in Kyoto and for me it was the best possible choice. The city is beautiful, it is not too big and very livable, the cost of living is cheaper than in Osaka or Tokyo. You can easily ride your bike around town and save money on transportation. On the negative side, the most touristic spots can become overcrowded, especially during foliage and cherry blossoming seasons. If you like traditional Japan and don’t want to live in a huge city, you will like it there.
Tokyo is a huge metropolis, with all resulting pros and cons. You can find pretty much everything there, it is an exciting place, where each area has its own personality: it feels like many different towns put together. The cost of life is way higher than everywhere else in the country, in fact Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. It also offers more opportunities to find a job after you finish your studies, so if your plan is to move to Japan permanently and your budget is not too tight it might be the right choice for you.
Osaka is somewhere inbetween the two: it is a big, quite expensive city, but not as overwhelming as Tokyo can be, and it is less than one hour away from Kyoto. It offers more job opportunities than Kyoto, and people there are known to be more friendly and relaxed (and loud) than elsewhere in Japan.
Other options are Yokohama (very close to Tokyo, lively and less expensive than the capital), Fukuoka (in Kyushu, close to the ocean, you will be able to have a more relaxed time compared to Osaka or Tokyo), Sapporo (in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, where winters are long and very snowy).
I suggest you write down a list of your priorities, that will help you find the right place for your stay.
Can you recommend a good language school?
I had a positive experience at Arc Academy in Kyoto. The study pace is average, and it allows you to have time for sightseeing or a part-time job.
Try and ask yourself what your necessities are. Do you need to get fluent very soon? Then you might want to pick an intensive study plan, like the ones at Akamonkai (Tokyo) or KICL (Kyoto). Do you need to work? You better go for a school that leaves you some free time. Do you want to avoid English speakers for a full immersion in the Japanese language? Look for a school where Europeans are not the majority of students. Once again, you can contact Go! Go! Nihon and ask them for advice, as they have contacts with many schools.
How are the lessons?
Most schools offer a balanced program that will train you in all four language skills: reading, listening, writing and speaking. A typical lesson can start with pronounciation exercises, then focus on learning a few kanji, grammar and vocabulary. Optional classes include JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) preparation, Japanese for business, culture related lessons.
Even for absolute beginners the lessons are exclusively in Japanese and you will be incouraged to talk to your classmates only in the language you are studying.
How long will it take me to get to an advanced level?
If you start from zero it will take you about 2 years of full time studies. After that you should be able to pass N2 level of JLPT. Of course this is very subjective and your efforts and consistency can make all the difference.
How long can I study in Japan?
The student visa you get from language schools allows you to stay in Japan for up to 2 years. If you enroll at a university you can extend it for 4 more years.
Some schools offer the opportunity to study for 3 months on a tourist visa, and you might also be able to attend lessons for a month in the summer. Please check with the schools if they offer short courses.
How do I look for accommodation?
If you are in contact with Go! Go! Nihon they will see with you the different opportunities you have – share house, dormitory, apartment of homestay. If not, try and do a Google search using “monthly apartment” or “share house” and the name of the city you picked, to find international agencies which will able to assist you in English. The rent would be more expensive than average, but you can look for a fully furnished house (rented houses in Japan usually come unfurnished) and you will not have to pay the key money (礼金 reikin), a sum amounting to 1 to 3 monthly rents, considered as a present to the landlord.
Can I work with a student visa?
Yes, you will be able to work for up to 28 hours a week. It will help with the bills and more importantly it will do magic for your Japanese. The minimum hourly wage is between ¥750-800. The most common jobs for foreigners who are not fluent yet are in hospitality or language teaching.
To find a job you can bring your CV (handwritten!) directly, contact the company by email or reply to ads on the internet. Here are some example keywords to look for job offers aimed at foreigners: 外国人求人 gaikokujin kyuujin, 外国人募集 gaikokujin boshuu, 外国人歓迎アルバイト gaikokujin kangei arubaito.
Networking is very important, as people tend to trust you more if they get to know you through word of mouth. Also, try and ask for advise to your school’s staff: they often are in contact with job agencies and can help you improve your resume.
Warning! Some jobs are not permitted with a student visa, and you risk to be deported if you break the law. These include any kind of job (even washing dishes or flyering) for a pachinko or adult clubs.
Important: 28 hours a week will hardly cover your monthly expenses, and will definitely not be enough if you include the school cost. If you arrive in Japan as an absolute beginner, you will have to study for a few months before being able to work. Make sure you have enough savings for your stay, and don’t count only on finding a part-time job once there.
A few more pieces of advice
Learn hiragana and katakana sillabaries, and a few basic expressions before leaving for Japan: it will save you a lot of headaches!
Write down your expenses: it’s easy to get carried away when all is new and exciting, so keeping track of the money you spend can be a life saver!
Write a list of all the things you want to see and do in Japan: you might not be able to do everything, but a bucket list is always fun!
Disclaimer: these information come from my own experience between 2012-2015 in Kyoto and I don’t live in Japan anymore. The above is definitely not universal: if you have any questions, corrections, suggestions, additions, please do leave a comment and let me know!