Aim To illuminate the lived experiences of Indonesian nurses who previously worked as caregivers in Japanese residential care facilities, by exploring the journey of becoming returnees. Background The creation of bilateral agreements between Indonesia and Japan has facilitated the movement of Indonesian nurses to work as caregivers in Japan since 2008. While this decision raised concerns with regard to the degradation of nursing skills, little is known about this issue from the perspective of nurse returnees and how the experience affects their life. Method A hermeneutic phenomenological method was employed for this study. A purposive sample of 15 Indonesian nurse returnees participated in this study. Semi-structured interviews were conducted in four of Indonesia’s provinces between August and October 2015. Data were analysed thematically, supported by QSR NVIVO 10 software. Findings Four key themes emerged from the data analysis: (i) returning home; (ii) going back to zero; (iii) walking through a difficult journey; and (iv) overcoming barriers. These findings described the lived experiences of nurse returnees when they got back to the country of origin. Conclusion Indonesian nurse returnees experienced deskilling and struggled to re-enter the nursing profession or to find other non-nursing jobs. The significant impact of this migration on individual nurses with regard to maximizing the benefits of return migration deserves further investigation. Implication for nursing and health policy The Indonesian government, jointly with other stakeholders, should develop a brain gain strategy to align returnees’ expertise with the needs of the national labour market. The public-private partnership should be strengthened to utilize returnees in healthcare services.