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
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.
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
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.
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!
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.