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How To Plan A Gap Year In Japan

A gap year in Japan can be an amazing way to discover the country as well as new sides of yourself.

Often, a “gap year” is taken by young adults after high school or university before further education or employment. The duration is typically a year because for young adults in school, an annual timeline falls neatly into the school cycle.

Older adults ranging from their late twenties to sixties are increasingly taking breaks from their careers. Call it a “gap year”, a “career break”, or whatever you’d like (you’ll see me refer to it as a gap year or career break interchangeably).

No matter your age or stage of life, you can change your current life trajectory by taking a break. The break can be a few weeks, months, or years.

I personally plan to take a break to travel throughout Japan in the near future (I fall in the “older adults” category!). I am really excited to spend time investing in myself and my interests.

As I evaluate my own situation and readiness for a gap year, I outlined some of my learnings and considerations in case you are thinking of doing the same.

Read on for advice about how to plan a gap year in Japan.

Tips To Plan A Gap Year In Japan

In order to increase your likelihood of actually moving forward with and enjoying a gap year in Japan, it is crucial that you have clarity about your reasons for and how you will actually accomplish this major step.

I encourage you to plan your career break by considering why, when, what, where, and how you will spend your time in Japan.

Your Why

Itsukushima Jinja during high tide

Itsukushima Jinja in Miyajima


Taking a break from school or work to travel in Japan will change your life.

Whether you take a gap of a week or over a year, you will invest time, energy, and money in yourself. You can maximize this investment through intentionality. Understand very clearly why you will take a break to travel in Japan.

Your why will be personal and unique. However, here are a few reasons that may resonate with you:

  1. You want to develop a new hobby.

  2. You want to refresh physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.

  3. You want to learn Japanese.

  4. You want to meet new people from different cultures.

  5. You want to gain professional skills.

  6. You want to explore nature.

  7. You want to volunteer.

  8. You want first-hand experience learning Japan’s culture or history.

  9. You want to work on personal projects in a new setting.

Your When

A blue lake surrounded by mountains and greenery. A blue and yellow flag flies next to a green shed.

Lake Aoki Paddle Club in Hakuba


Duration

Although the term “gap year” suggests that your career break must last for a year, you have the freedom to decide it’s duration.

I have a friend who took a break from employment for 3 months to travel, while I know a couple taking a gap for 18 months.

How long your career break lasts is completely up to you. This decision will provide the necessary framework as you fill in the other details about how and where you spend your time.

As you consider the duration of your gap year, I suggest taking into account your desired budget, short and long-term life goals, and other responsibilities (for example, if you plan to travel with a school-age child, you may need to return from your break before the school year begins).

Seasons

Close-up photo of sakura blossoms

Sakura season is usually between March-April

Deer standing in front of bright red leaves in Nara, Japan

Nara in the autumn


Compared to visiting many countries, your ability to travel in Japan isn’t very seasonally dependent. Japan’s climate varies in different regions, so you can always find an area pleasant to visit no matter the season.

Personally, I like Japan best between September and May. The summer is a bit too humid for my liking, although this summer I plan to spend a while in Hokkaido for more comfortable temperatures.

Autumn and spring are generally very mild throughout the country. Colorful foliage and blossoms erupt, providing beautiful backdrops to explore cities or the countryside.

Winter in central and southern Japan typically brings clear skies and brisk temperatures. The Japanese Alps and Hokkaido receive substantial snowfall and are some of the most famous places in the world for snow sports.

Check out my seasonal packing guide to Japan for specific suggestions about what to bring with you.

Phase of life

Another key consideration when deciding the timing of your gap year in Japan is your phase of life.

Are you single or do you have a partner? Do you have familial obligations, like caring for aging parents, children, or pets?

Are you a homeowner, renting, or living with your family?

Do you have a job currently? Are you in school? Between programs or jobs?

Do you have any short or long-term financial goals you are trying to reach? Do you have significant financial debt?

Are you generally healthy, or do you have physical, mental, or emotional health issues you are working to heal?

None of these questions have a right or wrong answer that indicates when or whether you should take a gap year. However, it is useful to evaluate your current phase of life from many different angles to take stock of where you are now, where you want to go, and how a gap year in Japan can help you get there.

Your What

The main street of Enoshima island seen through green leaves

Time for the fun part! Imagine what you want to spend your gap year in Japan doing. There is nothing you must or cannot do – this is literally your year (or weeks or months) to spend your time as you’d like.

Here are a few gap year ideas to get your imagination flowing:

Learn Japanese

If you’d like to learn or improve your Japanese, then the obvious place to best do that is in Japan. Whether you take classes online or in person, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice as soon as you step out your door.

Many language school and other learning opportunities exist in Japan. I had a great experience with Meguro Language Center (they offer in-person or virtual classes) and recommend them. Several of my friends attend Coto Academy (they offer in-person or virtual classes).

If you’d like to supplement classes with casual conversation, I suggest looking for local MeetUp events. In Tokyo, several events a week provide opportunities to practice speaking in Japanese and another language (typically English) with native speakers. Each event costs less than ¥500 to attend. As a bonus, these events are a great way to meet new people.

Hike

Japan has incredible nature. With 34 national parks and countless other scenic areas, Japan is one of the best hiking destinations in the world.

This website is a great resource to plan hikes in Japan. A few hiking areas on my personal bucket list include:

  1. Kumano Kodō

  2. Shiretoko National Park

  3. Shakotandake

  4. Towada-Hachimantai National Park

  5. Kamikochi

Most mountainous areas in Japan receive a significant amount of snow, so plan to hike between the spring and fall.

Volunteer

Volunteering can be a fulfilling way to give back to a community, further a cause you believe in, or gain professional skills.

This Medium article offers a comprehensive list of organizations that you can volunteer with.

You can decide how much of your time you’d like to spend volunteering. Volunteering may be a great way to meet new people and enrich your time in Japan.

Backpack

Perhaps one of your main objectives during a gap year in Japan is to see as much of the country as possible. Longer travel is a great opportunity to visit lesser known or harder-to-reach destinations (see my off-the-beaten-path ideas for Tokyo and Kyoto for inspiration).

You don’t need to plan in advance every detail of a long backpacking trip unless you would like to, but it will probably be useful to roughly plan your high-level itinerary.

One way to structure your backpacking itinerary is to pick a travel theme. For example, maybe your goal is to visit a number of Japan’s national parks. I think a really neat idea would be to discover Japan’s most beautiful or famous onsens (this coffee table book is a great starting point for ideas, along with my list of favorite onsens).

Develop your hobbies

A gap year is one of the best times in your life to dive into hobbies. These can be hobbies you already pursue or ones that are completely new to you.

Since you’ll be in Japan, you could spend your gap year studying traditional Japanese arts. Some examples:

  1. Kintsugi (traditional Japanese method of repairing broken ceramics with powdered gold or silver)

  2. Japanese tea ceremony

  3. Cooking classes

  4. Edo Kiriko (traditional Japanese glass cutting)

  5. Caligraphy

You can also spend your career break developing non-Japan specific hobbies, like:

  1. Writing a book or blog

  2. Photography

  3. Art

  4. Taking a fitness course (for a certification, enjoyment, or a retreat)

Work on personal projects

Japan may be the perfect setting for you to explore personal projects.

Want to open a cafe in your hometown? Visit as many cafes in Japan as possible for inspiration.

Writing a book? The Japanese countryside may spark creativity.

Hope to spread awareness for sustainable travel? Pioneer new ways to responsibly explore Japan and share them on your social media or personal website.

No matter your personal project, the more specific you can be with your goals, the more likely you will see progress. In my first example above about opening a cafe, perhaps you set a goal for yourself that you will visit 2 new cafes per week. Or, that you will reach out for a conversation to 1 cafe owner a week.

Enjoy daily life

Simply enjoying daily life in Japan is a wonderful goal. Staying in places for longer stretches of time will allow you more time and freedom to integrate in local society. You can join MeetUp groups, enroll in workout classes, read from cafes, try new restaurants, navigate Japanese grocery stores and shops, and meander around the city or countryside.

Your Where

Ishigaki Sunset Cove Hotel

Sunset seen from Ishigaki


Now that you know your why, when, and what, it’s time to decide where you’d like to spend your gap year in Japan.

Do you plan to spend your whole time in one place? A few places? Many?

Consider what you are hoping to do during your career break and whether certain locations are better than others (for instance, if your main goal is to hike in Japan, you probably don’t want to stay in Shibuya in Tokyo the whole time).

Budget may also play a factor. Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto are three of Japan’s most expensive cities. Other cities or the countryside will be significantly more affordable.

Traveling slowly in fewer places will allow you to more deeply experience the area as well as economize your budget.

If you plan to stay in a location for over a month, I suggest booking a furnished apartment. Companies that I or my friends have had good experiences with in the Tokyo area are:

Your How

Mount Fuji and Heiwa no Torii on a sunny day

Mount Fuji and Heiwa no Torii seen from Lake Ashi in Hakone


Budget

A gap year will cost money. Unless you work or have a passive income stream, you will likely need to dip into your savings to afford the gap year.

In order to determine how much you can afford and need to spend for your gap year in Japan, I suggest taking top-down and bottom-up approaches.

For the top-down approach, decide roughly how much you would like to spend during your time in Japan. You don’t need to have an exact figure. Pick a round, easy number. For example, let’s say you would like to spend up to $20,000 over the course of your career break.

For the bottom-up approach, make approximate calculations of how much you will need to spend during your time in Japan. Again, no need to agonize over getting every penny exactly right. Just do your best to approximate, and err on the conservative side. If your home country has a similar cost of living to Japan, you can even look through your past credit card statements to get a general sense of how much your normal life costs. Take a look at the table below for an example of the bottom-up approach.

Multiply your monthly cost estimate by the number of months you plan to travel. Using my example from above, let’s say you want to travel for 6 months and estimate you need $3,450 per month. 6 months x $3,450 = $20,700.

Add any one-time costs to your sum of recurring costs. Common one-time expenses include:

  1. Visa application fee

  2. Flight tickets to/from Japan

  3. Additional gear you need to buy for your trip

For the sake of my example, I will assume that the total of one-time expenses will cost $3,500. Therefore, your total bottom-up approach cost estimate is $20,700 + $3,500 = $24,200.

Compare the figures you reached via the top-down and bottom-up approaches.

If your top-down figure is greater than your bottom-up figure, then amazing! You can expect to spend within your desired budget.

If, like in my example, your bottom-up figure is greater than your top-down figure, then you need to make adjustments to stay within your target budget. In order to reconcile the deficit, you either need to obtain more money to spend or cut costs.

Some ideas to get more money:

  1. Budget more from your savings (this depends on your personal situation and willingness to dip further into savings)

  2. Postpone your gap year in Japan until you save more money

  3. Work during your trip (make sure your visa allows this – see the “Visas” section below)

Some ways to cut costs:

  1. Housesit during your gap year

  2. Book long-term accommodations to save money (I’ve had great experiences with MetroResidences in Tokyo)

  3. Take indirect flights to/from Japan

  4. Either cook more meals for yourself or by inexpensive pre-made meals from Japanese convenience stores or supermarkets

Accommodations will generally be your biggest expense, so prioritize reducing that to have the biggest cost savings impact. If I’m not booking long-term accommodations (over 2-4 weeks), I prefer to reserve hotels on Booking.com. Many of their properties have generous cancellation policies that will give you flexibility to change your plans at the last minute (which can come in handy if you realize later on in your gap year that you need to look for more affordable accommodations).

Visas

The next logistical step is to find out whether you require a visa to spend a gap year in Japan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan is the source of truth about visas. For most people, you will need a visa to stay in Japan for longer than 90 days.

If you plan to work during your stay in Japan, ensure that you apply for a visa that allows for that. Anecdotally, common jobs of foreigners that I meet in Japan include teaching their native language or modeling.

Nationals between the ages of 18-30 of certain countries may be eligible for Japan’s working holiday visa. The working holiday visa’s main purpose is to encourage travel in Japan. You will be able to work while holding this visa.

The visa application fees are around ¥3,000 for a single-entry visa and around ¥6,000 for multi-entry visas.

Tying up loose ends

You may need to tie up any loose ends in your current life before beginning a gap year in Japan.

Consider the below areas:

Career

Understand your employer’s departure or leave of absence policies. Usually, you will need to give your employer at least a few weeks of advanced notice prior to quitting. Some companies allow employees to take paid or unpaid leaves of absence. If your company has such a program, you may want to consider taking a leave instead of quitting your job entirely.

Finances

If you have debt, prepare a plan to address it either before, during, or after your career break. It may also be wise to budget 3-6 months of extra living expenses beyond your career break in case you have difficulty returning to the workforce or other unforeseen circumstances arise.

Family

Everyone has different familial obligations that may or may not impact gap year plans. If you have a partner, children, aging parents, or pets, you will need to plan how to navigate those responsibilities before or from Japan.

Living arrangements

Create a plan to transition out of your current living arrangements. If you rent property, you will likely either need to stay or pay for the rest of the lease (or pay a fee to break it early) or find a sublease. If you own property, decide who will care for it while you are gone or if you will rent it out to someone.

Belongings

Particularly for large and expensive belongings, such as a car, you will need to either sell them or find storage solutions. A gap year may be the perfect catalyst to minimize your belongings.

Packing

The final step to realizing your goal of a gap year in Japan is packing!

See my detailed packing guide for Japan to get a list of basic essentials that you should bring. Additionally, ensure that you pack any specific items you may need for your travels. For example, if you plan to spend most of your time hiking, prepare adequate hiking gear.

Fortunately, you can buy pretty much anything that you forget in Japan. I’d err on the side of bringing less and getting things you need as you go. Here is a list of a few stores in Japan where you can find necessities:

  1. Maruetsu / Maruetsu Petit (affordable groceries)

  2. Hands (formerly Tokyu Hands, general home and life department store)

  3. Amazon Japan (anything, it’s Amazon)

  4. Nitori (affordable homeware and furniture)

  5. Muji (affordable homeware)

  6. Uniqlo (affordable clothing basics)

Pre-Gap Year Checklist

At least for myself, I can (and probably have) read dozens of articles about taking a gap year and still feel overwhelmed and hesitant. I outlined the below checklist to help simplify the main items to consider before taking the leap:

✓ Understand your goals for your gap year

✓ Pick a date to begin and end your gap year (can be more or less than a year)

✓ Decide what you will do during your gap year (this is where things can get nebulous, so ideally write the activities against specific timelines or schedules)

✓ Write down a few ways that you can measure the success of your gap year

✓ Set a budget (estimate by year, month, and week, if relevant)

✓ Save enough money to cover your budget (plus 3-6 months of emergency expenses)

✓ Apply for a visa, if required

✓ Figure out a plan to cover any loose ends (like selling your car, ending your apartment lease, getting a renter for your house, finding a petsitter, etc.)

✓ Book flights and accommodations

✓ Pack for your time in Japan

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