How Can the Most Expensive Place on Earth Be Cheap to Live In?


I know a lot of people that never make it over to Japan because they fear the cost.  In recent surveys, Tokyo and Osaka have climbed back up to the top spots as the most expensive cities to live in around the world, having  surged back on the strength of the Yen this year.

Unfortunately, they’re right. Japan can be an extremely expensive place to live. Standard prices across the country means that you rarely see discounts, even when you escape to the countryside. A beer in a conbini in Tokyo is probably going to be the same as in a conbini in the middle of Shikoku, and you might find that taxis in the countryside actually become more expensive. Traveling around by train can destroy your pockets, and you’re not often going to find cheap hostels like you’d find in most other countries.

But I’ve lived here for three and a half years now and I’ve saved more money than I could have possibly ever hoped to save in the US. Here’s how:

Staying In is the new Going Out

Why go out when it can be this good at home?

Why go out when it can be this good at home?

When I came here, one of the first things I realized was that I almost never saw friends’ homes. It’s strange when you come from a culture of home Christmas parties, football BBQs, and summer keggers, but the Japanese don’t often have people over. They’re more prone to meeting out.

This is often because of the fact that their homes just can’t accommodate many people, but even in my countryside city, where people have more space, it’s rare hang out in others’ homes.

It’s also because a home seems to be a more private for Japanese people. While we seek to make our home a sort of meeting place for friends, they often don’t like sharing the intimate details of whats inside their home with acquaintances.

But going out costs a lot!

Lately, I’ve been breaking the taboos down, having people over where my gf and I cook for them and share some beers. I have students who tell me their home Nabe parties have become popular, and a friend of mine now has about 20 people a week over at his tiny Osaka apartment for a wine club.

It’s never impossible, and any festivities at home usually amount to about half the cost of going out.

Of course, you have to live with the fact that people might see your underwear and/or your overzealous Gundam collection.

The Pre-party

At 7% you can get nice and plastered before hitting the town

At 7% you can get nice and plastered before hitting the town

In keeping with the home theme, my girlfriend and I have recently found ourselves staying at home a bit longer to cram in a few extra beverages before going out. If the beer is going to cost 500 yen (5 USD)  a pop at the bar, we can at least drink a few tall cans together at home for around 200-300 yen each. If we can stand skimping on real beer for near beer Happoshu (second category) or the not-really-near-but-dirt-cheap Happousei (third category) we can almost drink at US prices.

Living in Japan I’ve become accustomed to having a drink with my dinner and sometimes even weekend lunches. I’ve recently stopped this to realize about half my bill was turning up drinking related. Dinner at a restaurant where we considered the norm to be about 5,000-6,000 yen was recently a hair above 2,000 because we neglected to drink a bottle of wine with our meal.

All in all, the less drinking at dinner coupled with the increase in cheap beer has left the amount of hangovers at about the same level.

Public Transportation Woes

She may not look like much kid, but she's got it where it counts

She may not look like much kid, but she's got it where it counts

Transportation in Japan can be a pain in the ass and expensive. The highway charges can be insane compared to what I was used to in America (Basically no tolls in Colorado, a bit in the East). A 4ish hour round trip on the highway could sometimes cost about 8,000 yen (80 USD) and forget about getting off Shikoku island to see anywhere else, the Seto Ohashi bridge was a cool 10,000 yen (100 USD) round trip to use.

This seems to make travel suicide, but that’s only if you want to go places! (Sarcasm intended)

In my daily life, I have a bike that takes me everywhere I need to go.

People all ride bikes here in Takamatsu. I ride to work, to the train station, to the grocery store, to the mall, and anywhere else I need to go. As such, I don’t have a car and I don’t have to pay any car insurance. This saves a TON of money.

In America, I lived about a kilometer or two from a grocery store. If I got on a bike and road there, people would assume I’m homeless or insane. It’s normal here and a good way to stay in shape and get around.

Beyond that, my company pays for my travels. I ride to work, so that’s free, and any trips to different company sites throughout the day are paid for. While you’re all gasing up and driving to work, blowing cash on travel, I spend nearly nothing.

But you look worried, perhaps I scared you with the bridge and highway costs?

Don’t worry anymore. Due to the economy and the government’s desire to get people out and spending money, highway charges on holidays and weekends has been reduced. Now a trip on the highway costs about 1,000 yen as far as you can go, with bridges usually falling somewhere around a 1,000 extra as well (well, at least the bridges that get me off Shikoku)

To add to that, highway buses usually run cheap, and while not as fast or comfy as a train or your own car, they’re the best deal when you can’t actually bike somewhere.


The cheapest way to see Japan

The cheapest way to see Japan

I’m still never sure how staying in a room with bunk beds and a bunch of people you don’t know could cost around 4,000 o 5,000 yen (40-50 USD). Somehow, those crazy capsule hotels still end up being near that price, but staying in a coffin for a lot of cash just isn’t my cup of tea.

But there are tons of Camping sites in Japan, and you can often stay at them more for the prices you’re looking for. If you’re traveling outside the cities, I recommend finding them.

Also, I know a lot of people that just find a beach and pitch up a tent. While Japanese people may look at you funny, it often does the trick.

I’ve had friends that existed for months in tents before making a move to an actual apartment of some sort.

Medical Insurance, yay!

It won't eat you here...

It won't eat you here...

In my first year in Japan, the medical insurance was about 10,000 yen (100 US dollars). It was a magical wonderland of awesomeness to pay that little for top of the line treatment of whatever ailed me plus 25% of costs for larger problems.

25% sounds scary, until I realized that 25% wasn’t 25% of American costs, where you pay about 100x the actual cost to help fund hordes of lawyers.

In my more recent years I spend about 100,000 yen a year (1000 US dollars), still a bargain, and still the 25%, which amounts to about 5 dollars here, 20 dollars there from time to time.

I don’t know if it’s the best system in the world, but considering I used to pay about a rent’s worth of money a month to be covered in America, I’m all smiles. I don’t always understand the doctors, and the meds are a bit weak, but they’re friendly and always go that extra mile for me.

A Few More Things I’ve done:

I save all my 500 yen coins whenever I find them in my pocket. The first month you’re all “where’d my money go?” But after you learn to budget after the change, you end up with a LOT of extra money hidden away. Last time I paid for a trip, bought a surf board, then put the other half in the bank

Coffee can run you about 5 bucks a pop via the chain shops, we got a coffee maker for your office

We bought a breadmaker, so now we have whole grain bread cheaply

Do it the Japanese Way, we all share the bathwater and use it to do laundry the next day

Recycle Omiyage (gifts), it sounds bad, but do I don’t really want all that mochi

Don’t travel on the biggest Holidays, the prices nearly double for most anything (I fail at this actually, I love to travel)

I use the city library. It actually has a pretty good selection of English books, also bookshare round the office

We shop at the various local vegetable markets  (and eat the cheaper seasonal veggies and fruits)

Mostly cook for ourselves at home, just hit a restaurant or two on the weekends (no conbini food, it’ll kill you!)

Most of all, don’t become such a penny pincher that you forget to enjoy where you’re at! With a little thinking, you can easily save money here and enjoy yourself at the same time.

25 responses to “How Can the Most Expensive Place on Earth Be Cheap to Live In?

  1. Nice!

    A couple of other things which popped into my head while reading:

    Visiting 100 Yen shops & recycle shops before looking for something at regular shops is a great way to save money.

    Many supermarkets offer discounts ranging from 20% to 50% (hangagaku!) on products which are about to expire.
    For pre-cooked meals the best way to get a discount is by shopping just before closing time.

    If you need to buy a car make sure you get a keijidousha (light car). They cost less, use less fuel and the taxes, insurance, shaken (bi-annual motor vehicle test) and highway tolls are cheaper as well.

    Regarding the recent discount on highway toll, these only apply if you have an ETC card reader installed in your car.
    You can get an ETC card through your Japanese credit card company and the reader can be ordered through most garages (currently there’s a waiting period due to the discounts – I was quoted 2 months but got mine in 2 weeks).

    The cheapest way to get out of Shikoku by car would be to take the ferry (Okayama or Hiroshima (or Oita if I’m not mistaken)).

    Hitchhiking is not common in Japan, but apparently the novelty of giving a foreigner a ride makes this an easy (and cheap) way to travel through Japan (or so I’ve read).

    Compared to the US Japanese healthcare is quite a bargain, but for most Europeans (who pay less AND get 100% coverage) it’s less of a deal though – especially considering how much you pay is based on your income…

  2. A brilliant post. Some fantastic advice, and some fantastic points of view. It gives hope to the ‘it can be done’ ethic..

  3. Good ideas! But please, “conbini” hurts my eyes…

  4. I commend you sir! You have the official FrugalistaJapan seal of frugal approval~ !!

  5. Great article man! Some really sound advice, and if Frugalista is here showering you with praise, we can all be sure it’s pretty accurate ^^

    You’ve got some great stuff to offer I think, having seen your latest posts. But your blog design lets you down (in my humble opinion). Make it distinctive and user-friendly! ^^

  6. Salty: I’m kicking myself for not thinking of some of the stuff you mentioned that I actually do myself and didn’t think of!

    Frugalista: Gracias man, read your post the other night and it was totally from another point of view and totally stuff I’d never even considered! I’m sticking to my way, cause it’s working, but reading yours was a real eye opener as well.

    Mike: I know my format sucks, but I’m new to the whole stuff beyond the writing, so I’m just learning as I go on that! Hopefully I’m a computer person, but never really got into the nuts and bolts, and wordpress is new as hell to me. Hopefully I can figure it all out.

    Thanks to all of ya for the input though, really enjoying the japan-o-sphere so far

  7. Thanks for this article! Great insight *thumbs up*

  8. Nice points.

  9. Great post. I got a kick out of how you and you GF:

    “cram in a few extra beverages before going out”

  10. Don’t hesitate to edit your post to add those then, I’m cool with that ^_^

  11. Some more things which came to mind:


    Many hotels put their unbooked rooms online at a very nice discount a couple of days (or even a day) in advance – discounts of 50% are not uncommon.
    The catch is that these only show up on Japanese language versions of hotel booking websites (the English language versions will only show the expensive hotels).
    Check out (or have a Japanese speaking friend do the booking for you).


    Also Japanese bars don’t really do happy hour, but quite a few offer all-you-can-drink “nomihoudai”. Unfortunately for them their prices are not based on gaijin alcohol consumption ^_^


    Needless to say, but the tokyu express trains are more expensive than the slow ones which stop everywhere.

    Anyone wanting to travel through Japan by train should get a Japan Rail Pass.
    These allow you to travel for free for a set number or days on all regular and express trains and quite a large amount of the shinkansen high speed bullet trains.
    The beauty of this system is that days on which you use the pass don’t have to be consecutive so it’s OK to stay in one place for a couple of days, take in the sights before heading off to your next destination.
    The catch is that you can only buy these through agents outside of Japan and you can only use them on a tourist visa (although you can get around this exchanging the rail pass coupon at a rural station where nobody speaks English – don’t do it in Tokyo or Osaka – and be sure to bring a photocopy of your ID page of your passport (not the actual thing).

    Another option for cheap rail travel would be to get a “Seishun 18 Kippu”, which allows for unlimited use of regular trains (so no express) on 5 consecutive days. It’s also not available all year.

    Of course you should also consider traveling by highway bus, which is usually cheaper than going by train (and saves you having to pay for a night at a hotel if you take the night bus).


    Both JAL and ANA have set periods when they offer discounts.

    Also take note of birthday discount, which allows you + 3 friends to fly for 10000 yen each during one week before and one week after your birthday.

  12. Good article there and I love all of the suggestions in the comments!

    @saltypear – My birthday is coming up and now I want to fly somewhere – I had no idea about the discount. It would actually be cheaper than the shinkansen to most places. :)

  13. Also: Love Hotels are often the cheapest actual hotels around….and you get a really wacky experience!

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  15. NaughtyFerret

    Great list, and let me add something I recently discovered about cheap hotels. Everyone’s favorite business hotel chain Toyoko Inn offers the “Cinderella Liberty Plan” (I know…) in which you can basically get a room for ~4000 yen single/5000 double for one night IF you check in just after midnight (pumpkin optional). Not all branches do it but if you find one that does, it’s cheaper than a capsule hotel and you are getting an actual room with free Internet and (J-style) breakfast. The only drawback is no reservations allowed so it depends on space, and the hotel is precise about checking on after midnight – you can’t begin to check in until 1 second after midnight.

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  17. To reduce beer costs, buy Quo-Cards at discount ticket resellers for purchasing beer at the conbini. The same idea can be used for any number of things. If you want to buy something from a dept store, for example, check the discount ticket resellers for that store’s gift certificates. Movie tickets, train tickets – check the resellers.

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  21. Craig,

    Entertaining posts, seriously. I appreciate the free advice, since I’m planning on going overseas in a month or so. Could you write the dates on them under the title? Some of the info seems time-sensitive.


  22. Could it be that you are all English teachers in Japan? Beause with a normal job as, say, an Engineer, Japan loses most of it’s “too expensive” scare.

    • I’ve never really understood how you couldn’t save money even as an English teacher….I just do whatever I want and bank a good chunk of change every month. Perhaps it’s because I live in Shikoku, but beyond rent, Japanese prices seem fairly standard, so I’m not saving that much more by living on my countryside island.

      I dunno, guess I have magic powers, cause it’s not the spare change extra I get as HR Director

  23. If you’re only paying 100,000 yen a year for your health insurance, something is amiss. Health insurance is about 13% of your income up a max of around 520,000 a year. Unless you’re making dirt poor wages, you should be paying more than you are unless something is going on with your taxes. Additionally, city taxes are supposed to be a flat rate of 10% for everyone now. That means that just those two types of taxes (health and city) are supposed to eat up 23% of your income. That doesn’t even include income tax.

    A lot of foreigners do well in Japan because they don’t pay their proper share of city taxes and health insurance. They manage this because they don’t file an income tax form and therefore never pay a proper share as the government doesn’t know what they really make.

    I’m not saying you are doing this, but if you are paying so little health insurance, you either haven’t filed a tax form or your company augments your payments for health insurance. Not all companies will augment health insurance payments and it results in a substantially bigger bite out of one’s salary each year (about 1 month’s salary). It depends on what sort of employee you are classified as.

    Frankly, a lot of companies that employ English teachers never submit the proper paperwork to allow their local government offices to “catch” them and have them pay their full amounts. This happens for the Japanese employees in some cases as well, but it’s more common for foreigners.

    Also, I’m guessing you have two incomes in your home since you say “we” and you mention a girlfriend. Most foreigners are operating on one income, not two, and that makes a huge difference in saving money because cutting rent in half is very meaningful and, as the saying goes, “two can live cheaper than one.”

    My husband and I have no problems saving in Japan, and we do all of the things you mention (up to and including making our own whole grain bread), but not everyone can do so well because circumstances differ.

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