What is it like to live in Sendai? In this Expat Interview, Viola shares her experience of moving to Japan with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET program). From the cost of living in Sendai to being a foreigner in Japan, you will understand the expat life in Japan.
Sendai is the capital and the largest city in Miyagi prefecture of Japan. It is known for many things such as its colorful Tanabata festival, traditional “sparrow” dance, and signature foods like grilled beef tongue and sweet edamame desserts.
There are also beautiful nature sights all around the region, which earned Sendai the nickname “city of trees”. Even though it is located just 1.5 hours away from Tokyo by bullet train, Sendai is often overlooked by international travelers.
I have been living in this city for the last two years and my love for it has not diminished one bit since day one. There are tons of things to do here and a great expat community. While popular cities like Tokyo and Osaka are wonderful, Sendai will always have a special place in my heart.
Moving to Sendai
I came to Sendai in 2016 as an assistant language teacher. I have always wanted to experience living in Japan, so I finally made the move by applying to a program called “Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET)”.
I had to write an essay about why I wanted to go to Japan, get reference letters, go through an interview, so it was a lot of work. But I was ecstatic when I was finally chosen! The whole process took about 9 months from application to getting on the flight.
Why did you choose to live in Sendai?
It was actually a placement rather than a choice. We were asked by the program for 3 preferred cities. However, I didn’t get any of my preferences and ended up with Sendai. At first, I had no idea what to expect as I even never heard of the city before. But after moving here, I quickly fell in love.
How to prepare for moving to Sendai?
There was a lot to do before moving. Thankfully, The JET Programme was very organized in helping the participants prepare. We had to apply for visas, pack, study conversing in Japanese, learn about the culture and etiquettes, attend workshops on English teaching, etc. It was a very nerve-racking yet exciting time!
Cost of living in Sendai
Sendai is relatively affordable. I live in a good area in the city and my rent is a bit over $500 USD per month. The average rent is about 500-700. I definitely got lucky to be on the lower end. Transportation is, unfortunately, a bit expensive. The subway base fare starts at 200 yen (over $2 USD) for just one stop!
Thankfully, commute cost to and from work every day is covered by the employer. And there are ways to save such as a metro card that earns points. Japan has a reputation for being pricey food wise but I really don’t think it’s that bad. I spend about $200 USD on groceries per month when I live alone.
Difficulties of living in Japan
The biggest challenge was definitely the language barrier. I was a beginner in Japanese and it was hard to do many things. I am a lot better these days but there are still tons of things that I don’t understand.
The cultural differences were also interesting to observe. The Japanese are very polite, sometimes leading to indirect and convoluted ways of dealing with issues due to fears of offending people. Overall, it just takes an open mind and patience to learn about Japanese culture.
Discrimination in Japan
Japan is a pretty homogeneous society and foreigners are sometimes met with wide-eyed fascination. Waiters may nervously pass you a menu in English and smile awkwardly. But people are generally respectful and kind.
I have personally never felt any type of discrimination or hostility. Western culture is seen as cool to the younger generation so you may sometimes get looks of admiration if you are visibly foreign or speak English.
What do you like about Sendai?
Sendai is a big city with a small town feel. While it has all the convenience and fun stuff that you would ever want, it is safe from the crowds and bustles of tourist hot spots like Tokyo.
Also, it has its own airport, so I can travel easily to other cities in Japan and rest of Asia. That is probably the best part!
Are there any bad things about Sendai Japan?
As the city is north, the winters are cold! The indoor heating system in Japan is almost non-existential so December to about March is a challenging time. That is probably my least favorite part of living here but I got to admit the winter sceneries are magical.
What are your favorite things to do in Sendai?
There are so many awesome things to do in Sendai! My favorites are going to hot springs, shopping, checking out festivals and eating out with friends. The foods are so delicious here!
Where do you recommend to visit in the Sendai?
Sendai has several attractions depending on your interest. You can learn about its traditional side by visiting Osaki Hachimangu Shrine or hike to the Aoba Castle ruins. For nature lovers, check out Nanakita Park or simply walked down the beautiful Jozenji Dori shaded in tall trees.
How can you meet new people in Sendai?
You can make friends in many ways. I met many friends through the JET programme. There are about 60 JET participants teaching English in Sendai. We are from all over the world.
I have also made local friends by connecting with coworkers in the school that I teach at, as well as by joining a traditional dance team in the community.
Do you hang out with locals or foreigners mostly?
I hang out with both. But perhaps I spend more time with my foreigner friends. It’s just easier to talk with other expats who share my language, culture, and similar experience of living in a foreign country. However, I do make a lot of efforts to connect with locals as well.
Where is your favorite place in Sendai to meet friends?
I love to hang out in restaurants just because I’m a big foodie! Sendai has endless restaurant choices. Sushi, Japanese hot pot, udon, ramen, foreign cuisine, you name it.
Do you interact with any expat communities in Sendai Japan?
As mentioned, I hang out with the expat communities often. The foreign English teachers often have organized outings like taking a day trip somewhere, playing volleyball, or having holiday potlucks. It’s always a fun time.
A memorable experience in Sendai, Japan
I honestly have not a single bad memory of Sendai, only good ones. One of my favorite memories was dancing at the Aoba Festival. This famous spring festival in the city features the traditional “sparrow dance”.
I joined a community dance team the year before and we practiced the routine for many months. It was really fun to perform in the parade. You can really feel a sense of community and togetherness during that weekend of celebration. Amongst the music and dancing, the whole city just comes alive!
Did you change your perspective about Sendai after living here?
I can say my perspective about the city has pretty much been the same. Before I moved to Japan, I imagined and hoped that Sendai is a welcoming and lovely place. I was happy that all my expectations had been met and even exceeded. I will continue to discover this city’s beauty and make the most out of the expat life experience.
What are your advice and tips for moving/ living in Sendai?
Study Japanese! Sendai is not as internationalized as Tokyo (again), so you won’t encounter as many people who are confident in communicating in English. So don’t expect them to adapt to you. YOU have to be the one adapting. Having the language skills will make your life much easier.
Would you recommend others to live in Sendai?
Absolutely. I can’t recommend this hidden gem enough. Convenience, lower housing cost, delicious food, friendly people…Sendai is a great place for expats to live.
What have you learned from living abroad?
The biggest take away I have from my experience living abroad is the realization that we can be so adaptable to our surroundings. When you are determined, there are no challenges that you can’t overcome.
Living in a foreign country will throw many hustles your way, but conquering these hustles is extremely empowering. I have truly grown a lot in the last two years thanks to coming to Japan. I believe that living abroad is something everyone should try at least once in their lifetime.
Viola is a Canadian girl who is obsessed with seeing the world. She loves hunting for unusual destinations and best sunset spots with her camera. Viola currently documents her adventures living in Japan and travels throughout Asia. Read her easy to digest itineraries, foodie guides, packing advice and more on her blog.