Japan is a country about the size of California (and 75% of that is mountainous), yet has a population of about 126 million (nearly half the US population). 25% of the population lives in the Tokyo area (Kanto) and over 50% of the population lives between the Osaka area (Kansai) and Kanto. As soon as you arrive, you'll be faced with the next big challenge if you plan to stay here: finding a place to live. When you come to Japan you should bring at least US$5,000, and several thousand more if you need to get your own place in a big city like Tokyo or Osaka (where most of the jobs are).
Moving to Japan isn't cheap, and living here certainly isn't. If the school/company you'll work for already has an apartment/dorm set up, you're in luck -- this'll save you from a big hassle, but you won't be able to choose where you live. If not, you're on your own. Apartments in Japan are found through real-estate agents (fudosan). Many have ads of available apartments pasted on their windows, and magazines for apartment-seekers exist as well.
For your first few nights, you may need to stay in a hotel or youth hostel. For hotels, you have 4 cheaper options -- a "Love Hotel", a capsule hotel, a Ryokan, and a Business Hotel. A business hotel is the most straightforward -- it is just a spartan hotel with your own room. A ryokan, or Japanese inn, is cheaper though and you may or may not have your own room. Hygiene also varies. Youth hostels are a cheap alternative but privacy is often lacking. That said, staying in one can be fun and you can pick up a lot of good info from others there. Availability can be a big problem though. A capsule hotel is perhaps the cheapest with a coffin sized room for you to sleep in. There may be a sauna in the hotel also. However, most if not all these hotels are for men only. The last option, the love hotel, is a hotel you can use for a few hours or a full night, for obvious reasons.
Afterward, you'll probably end up in your own apartment, a "weekly manshon", or a "gaijin house". Weekly manshon are like apartments or small condos you rent on a weekly basis -- they are cheaper than a hotel but more expensive than a regular apartment. They may provide a temporary home but will drain your financial reserves if you stay too long. The gaijin house is like a college dormitory and can be fun and informative also. You can also escape the huge fees of moving into an apartment until you earn enough money; on the flip side, they're only available in the largest cities, and security of your items may be an issue. Costs range from 40,000 yen a month and up.
For looking for housing, try The Japan Times or regional ex-pat magazines.
When choosing an apartment a few things to consider are: How close it is to a bus or train station? How close it is to a supermarket, post office, restaurant or laundromat? Is it on a busy street? (Many motorcycle gangs called "bosozoku" love blowing your eardrums out at all hours of the night by revving their engines). Is it near a hostess-bar ("sunakku")? Then I hope you like the drunken wails of old men who actually think they can sing. Is the place old? Then you might have lots of roaches in the summer who want to party with you. Is it on a slope? Japanese bicycle brakes will make your ears bleed. Is there any building construction going on in the area? Can you adapt to the Japanese toilet? Does the place face south where more sun shines in? Is the place smaller than your closet back home? Can you afford it? These are some things to think over carefully.
Rooms are measured according to how many tatami mats fit into it. A tatami mat (-jo) is 1.8m x 90cm, and a typical room has 6-jo, or about 10 square meters. A 1K apt. has one 6-jo room, 1DK has that plus a kitchen room, 1LDK has that plus a living room. Other apartments have 2DK which means 2 6-jo rooms and kitchen room, etc. A small one-person apt. in Tokyo can easily cost over $800/month in rent excluding utilities. Your next hurdle is finding a fudosan which will actually serve you. Some fudosan refuse foreigners, or drag their feet and make excuses until you go away. At this point screaming about discrimination and "My Rights" until your face turns purple won't help you. In many cases it's actually the landlord who doesn't want you, not the fudosan. Assuming you find a fudosan that'll help you, most will show you whatever places they have open for no fee -- you only pay if you decide to move in.
See more information on the next page... (next)