How I Built a House in Japan - Part One

An image of a large loghouse made by Bess Japan
A house by Bess Loghouse company here in Japan

When I moved from America to Japan in 2016, I knew there was a possibility that I’d be staying here forever. Still, I was single, in an entry level job with a five year maximum contract, and only really thinking about the now. Mostly I was excited to experience life in Japan and see if it was a good fit for me. 

Fast forward seven years and now I’m married with two fur babies and in the process of building a home in rural Southern Japan. While there are many things I miss about America, I find life in Japan to be very enjoyable. The top three things I love about living in Japan are the sense of safety I feel, the low cost of living, and the delicious food. 

I figured that some of you might want to know about my experiences with building a home in Japan, so I’ve decided to document them in a series of articles. Before we dive in, let’s cover a few frequently asked questions:

A photograph of a kitchen built by Japanese housemaker NEO Homes
A kitchen done by housemaker NEO Homes


How Did You Move to Japan in the First Place?

I came to Japan through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET). It is notoriously difficult to start a life in Japan, especially for Americans, due to the strict visa requirements. 

In short, most people can’t just pack up and move to Japan. Even for mega millionaires like Pewdiepie, the process is long and difficult. Most foreigners I know who live here came through an English teaching program like JET. While the majority of English teachers eventually return to their home countries, some, like myself, choose to make a life here.

Are You A Japanese Citizen or Permanent Resident?

No and no. I’m married to a Japanese citizen, so I live here on a spouse visa. The requirements are strict and I have to renew my visa once a year. Again, this process is more Japanese red tape that foreigners have to jump through. If I weren’t on a spouse visa, I most likely wouldn’t be allowed to keep living in Japan unless I found an employer willing to sponsor my visa.

Before you even ask, no, I didn’t get married just so I could keep living in Japan. I can’t even imagine doing that. Marriage only works if both partners are a great match. Even then, marriage is only enjoyable if both partners are spectacularly matched. By some miracle, my husband and I seem to fit together perfectly. Anyone who has spent five minutes around us can attest to that.

Do Most People Build Houses in Japan?

Japanese housing and real estate is radically different from America. In America, especially in the suburbs, most people go through the cycle of living in apartments until they can afford to buy a home. A lot of people buy their “first” home until they can afford something better. Some families will go through multiple houses over the course of their lifetime. The houses are typically “used” and very few people can afford to build a house from the ground up.

In Japan, most people live in apartments. For the people that choose to buy homes, oftentimes, they build them. There are countless home construction companies in Japan that let buyers choose from several different models. As for selling “used” homes (it feels so weird to call them that but I can’t think of a better term), you can find them but there isn’t much of a market. There isn’t a huge market for renting houses either.

It’s my understanding that while American homes are built to last for decades, Japanese homes aren’t. Rather, Japanese homes are meant to be torn down so that new owners can rebuild. Based on the amount of 

What About Those Abandoned Houses that You Can Practically Get for Free?

I want to quell this myth of dirt-cheap houses in Japan that anyone can buy right now. Cheap, abandoned houses exist in Japan, yes. They’re called “akiya.” However, 90% of them would require more trouble than they are worth. I feel like “akiya” have been idealized to a ridiculous degree and false information about them has been spread to Western audiences (likely by other Western people). So while you can buy old, dilapidated houses in Japan, most of them are still at least 100K or more. I’m sure there are some gems that can be fixed up by the right person but a). Good luck finding one and b). Good luck finding all the tools and supplies you’d need to renovate one if you don’t speak or can’t read Japanese.

I’m not trying to be a pessimist but it’s frustrating to see ridiculous videos filled with false information about Japan go viral and Western audiences just eat them up. The last thing I want is for someone to have false hopes about living their dream life in Japan. It’s possible, sure, but it isn’t easy. Anyway, that’s a topic for a different article.

What Made You Decide to Build a House in Japan?

My husband is Japanese and doesn’t speak English. We’re both fine with staying in Japan, so that’s what we’ve decided to do. My husband is fine with apartment living. I, however, am not. I’ve hated apartment living for as long as I can remember. They’re cramped, noisy, have zero outdoor space, and can’t be customized at all. Heck, you can’t even hang things on the wall in Japanese apartments.

My husband was very skeptical and assumed we’d never be able to afford a house. It wasn’t until I dragged him to an open house that he began to see reason. He was able to talk with the staff, ask questions about loans, and see the drastic difference between home life and apartment life. Once he saw a few model houses, my dream of owning a home quickly became his, too.

We’re both homebodies. For us, the perfect day off includes relaxing at home with a good book (or manga, in his case) and snuggling with our dogs. We rarely travel. Even though I live in a foreign country, I actually hate traveling. We both enjoy camping and the outdoors though, and we hope there will be plenty of “niwa kyan” (aka, camping in the yard) in our future. We also desperately want a place where our dogs can run around safely.

I think of myself as a hobbit. I like small, cozy homes with squashy armchairs, handmade quilts, and flickering candles. Hot coffee and a warm cinnamon roll is my idea of luxury. Throw in a dog (or two) on my lap and put a novel in my hand and I’m set. That’s the life I want: slow, cozy, quiet, and gentle. 

My husband is very much the same. He doesn’t have big, crazy dreams. All he wants is his own space where he can play games, watch anime, and read manga to his heart’s content. He also wants a pull-up bar and a yard where he can grill and have a beer with friends. I want more than anything to give him that.

Now that we’ve covered the important questions, let me get into the actual process of building a home in Japan.

A model house by Japanese housemaker Storyhouse Kumamoto

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