When someone from overseas considers spending time in Japan, there are usually three options: you come as a tourist and experience the country over a short period of time, you move to work here and balance exploring alongside your work obligations, or the third choice, you come on a working holiday. Having experienced all the above, the third option has been my favorite by far and this is down to the freedom you are granted on this particular visa. You can work in multiple roles, can move from one city to another and you have the opportunity to explore Japan over a more prolonged period. 

A Working Holiday Visa

First things first, what is a working holiday exactly? A working holiday is a visa type that allows young people (up to the age of 30 upon application) from various countries (see the MOFA list) to come and explore Japan while also being allowed to work to supplement their travel costs. The visa’s main requisite is that you are here to travel and, for the most part, that’s what I did. 

Earlier in my 20s, I had come here as a tourist and a few years later returned as an assistant language instructor (ALT), both of which had their merits. During the pandemic, I was in the UK and desperate to find a way back to Japan but craved a new experience. I wanted more time to explore the places I still hadn’t visited, witness events I didn’t have time for, experience life away from the big cities that I had previously been in and explore career options here that I could gain experience in and maybe transition to. As a result, the working holiday visa was the perfect option for me. In February 2022, the moment the borders relaxed enough to allow it, I flew to Japan on a working holiday visa, valid for one year. 

I spent the first few months in Osaka, a city I had spent little time in and was the home of a friend of a friend who was kind enough to help with the transition. I thoroughly recommend that you allow yourself some time to acclimatize. If you know someone here, utilize them, otherwise I suggest moving to a share house, where foreigners and Japanese often live together and are potentially able to offer recommendations, help with some of the paperwork and introduce you to life in Japan. I currently reside in one. There are a few individuals on working holiday visas that use it as a base or stay here to begin with before moving on. 

During those first few months, I was working as a writer for an online site and devoted half my days to writing, earning a small income. The other half I spent exploring the area. Any free time I had, I worked on my Japanese language skills and prepared myself for the next stage of my journey.

working holiday in japan

How to Stay, Work and Explore Without Paying Rent

My recommendation for traveling, especially if you are on a budget, is to find sites online that show you places across the country where you can stay, work and explore without paying rent, while also making a little money. I signed up to a well-known working holiday site, WorkAway, where host families or businesses offer rooms in exchange for some labor. I scoured the site, looking for places on my route from Osaka to Oita, to see where I could stop for a few weeks at a time. I reached out to the various hosts through the site. Gradually, my itinerary started to take shape. 

I stopped for a few days on Awaji Island before heading to Mima in Tokushima Prefecture, to stay with a friend for a week and then onto my first WorkAway stay in the small, quiet town of Kamigori in Hyogo Prefecture. I stayed with a wonderful couple who had a restaurant attached to their house that was open on weekends and was surrounded by a stunning garden space. I slept in the traditional Japanese portion of their home for free and worked in the restaurant on weekends, earning a little money and getting fed some excellent food. 

This was the ideal spot for me, with my wonderful host, Hiring-san, who was happy to introduce me to the local culture, taking me on day trips and bringing me tasty treats. I helped out with a few chores, painted a wall and, in return, she found ways to introduce me to the local culture, for which I will always be so grateful. I spent three weeks in Kamigori and they were some of the most tranquil and peaceful days I’ve ever had in Japan. 

Beppu, Japan

Inexpensive and Truly Rewarding

For me, this opportunity was exactly why I’d wanted to come back on a working holiday. It gave me the chance to connect with an area and community untouched by the crowds of tourists. I could cycle around every day and discover something new, whether that be a shrine, temple, or a field of sunflowers. Sometimes, it was simply watching the farmers working in the rice fields. Staying here was inexpensive and truly rewarding. 

After Kamigori, I moved on to Hiroshima for a few days, then to Fukuoka where I stayed in another WorkAway spot, this time by the sea, right out in the deep countryside (the nearest tiny convenience store was a 30-40-minute bike ride away), working on a landscaping project. This required some manual labor with no pay, but in return I stayed free of charge and all my food was bought for me.

A Liberating and Worthwhile Experience

I worked from 6 a.m. until 12 p.m. landscaping, and after 12 p.m., it was my time to explore, to relax, to cycle alongside the sea, and to watch the phenomenal sunsets on the beach every night. Again, even though I had previously lived in Japan, this was an entirely new experience for me. The labor was hard but enjoyable and taking the time to disconnect and just be was wonderfully liberating. 

I moved on to stay a week in hostels in Oita Prefecture’s famous onsen town of Beppu, before making my way back to Osaka and then to Tokyo, where I am currently settled having transferred to a working visa (but that’s another story). 

I’m by no means the first person to have traveled around Japan this way, nor will I be the last (as I write this, I have two friends traveling around the country in this way). For those coming to Japan with the goal of exploring, connecting and engaging with life outside what you see in popular Instagram posts, working your way around the country, meeting new people and opening yourself up to new experiences has to be one of the best ways to spend your time on a working holiday. I personally look back at this time with an enormous sense of gratitude and accomplishment. It wasn’t always easy, but my god, it was worth it.

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