Wednesday, 1 June 2011

10 Tips for Saving Money in Japan

While writing my FAQ (see Live, Teach and Work in Japan) I realised that I was writing a lot about living expenses and ways to save money, so I thought that I would expand the discussion to this article.

There is a pre-conception floating around that Japan is really expensive. I'm not out to challenge that view head-on and say that it's a budgeter's paradise, but it does seem that ideas about Japan's average prices come from people who've never stepped foot outside Tokyo's business districts. The cost of living in Japan is probably one of the highest in the world (close to Australia, Euro-using European countries or the UK), but the money that you can make here is pretty good, too. If you're careful and wise (and take on some private English lessons on the side), you could put away around $1000 a month in savings! "HOW?" I hear you cry. Well, let me give you some suggestions...

1) Chill out, stay in, invest in some home entertainment

Would you eat out and drink every night back home? Perhaps, if you only recently graduated, the answer is yes. Many expats go crazy when they first arrive a new country, and with constant partying they soon find that they have nothing left at the end of the month. It's easy to feel that you have to go out every weekend and perhaps on week nights when you first arrive. It's understandable - you don't know anyone, you're bored, you really want to make friends, and perhaps the loneliness and culture shock is getting to you and alcohol seems like a great idea. But, be warned, you will burn yourself out quite quickly on that kind of lifestyle, not to mention burning a hole in your pocket.

So, instead of going out on Wednesday night, why not invite a few friends over to yours for a pot luck party (where everyone brings a dish and you all share)? Instead of beers on Monday evening, you crazy party tiger, you, why don't you just stick to a hot coffee (hot things take longer to drink, so you might order less)!

Alternatively, why not buy a games console, some books, or something else that will keep boredom at bay? I found that I started saving money when I got hooked on watching Doctor Who and True Blood episodes on my laptop during the week. You'll soon find that the long-timers stay in more often, too - so don't worry. There's no massive expectation that you have to attend every social event. But, for when you do party...

2) Nomi and tabe-hodai!

Nomi hodai (飲み放題) - two magical words that should be in any alcohol-guzzling expat's vocabulary. It means "all you can drink". Many izakayas offer "nomi hodai" packages that seem ridiculously cheap compared to the price of a single drink. Say, why pay 600円 for a rum and coke when you can have all you can drink alcohol for 1200円 for 90 minutes?? Many places offer this option, either using the regular drink menu or a special nomi-hodai one. Look out for catches; some places might only offer their drink deals if you purchase food, too. And, of course, be sensible - it's all too common for foreigners to see "all you can drink" as a challenge, and to end up embarrassingly drunk at 8pm. Pace yourself - you're saving money even if you only have three drinks in an hour.

Tabe-hodai (食べ放題) is, as you may have guessed, all you can eat. Many izakayas and other establishments offer this, too. Perhaps it will be 2000円 for all you can eat from a set menu or otherwise. I've seen places that offer all you can eat cake, so look out for those! Some places will advertise their nomi and tabe-hodai offers, so look out for the kanji. Another common phrase used for this is バイキング - "Baikingu" - which means "Viking". Apparently Vikings ate and drank a lot. It's worth asking whether they have these offers at many places, as they often do.

3) Learn to cook!

You can buy a packet of udon noodles for 19円, 6 eggs for 100円 and a pork chop for 98円 at my local Max Valu. Vegetables range from being very cheap (turnips and cabbage) to expensive (peppers and avocados), but take a look around and see what you can find. A big bag of rice for 2000円 will seem expensive, but you can make SO many meals from it. You can find packets of curry that you do nothing but heat up in a pan of boiling water for around 140円. If you eat out every night, it's going to cost you some serious bucks.

For grocery shopping, look for Seiyu, Max Valu, JUSCO etc. Compare prices at a few local ones first, as they can vary wildly (for example, 5 bananas at Seiyu = 95円, 5 bananas in a fruit shop downtown = 398円). Try to cook as the Japanese do, as searching for imported Western goods - while definitely possible (depending on the local foreign population) - will cost a lot more. My personal recommendation is to buy some noodles, some rice, some reduced meat (it's usually 20% off near the end of the day) for freezing, a few vegetables and some herbs and spices. Bam - stir fry/paella/chow mein, call it what you like. Pour some curry sauce on there for extra fun. Alternatively, guys, find a Japanese girlfriend - she may assume that you can't cook, as you are male, and might take pity on you and start feeding you ;)!

4) Special Offers

A film can set you back as much as 2500円 here, which seems crazy to me. Still, in Toho Cinemas (Hamamatsu), the 1st and 14th of every month show movies for 1000円. You can also get loyalty cards where the 7th movie is free, or you can get a free drink/item of food when you collect a certain number of points.

Many places run special offers, so it's worth learning some Japanese just so that you can look out for these! Local area magazines such as Hot Pepper (in Hamamatsu) might list special offers, and many shops/restaurants offer loyalty cards (although not all of them are very good deals).

5) Karaoke - free time!

An hour of karaoke and drinking with your friends can cost around 2000円. When drinks are flowing and your vocal chords are just warming up, it can be very easy to say "oh, just one more hour!" before being faced with the bill. Well, no more. While the sensible are sleeping, karaoke companies reel wannabe popstars in with their "free time" deals. Usually this is from around 11pm to 4am and involves a set price (usually around 1500円 each) for as long as you want. Some places throw in free soft drinks or even alcohol, although the price is usually higher (although, not MUCH higher) for nomi-hodai.

Alternatively, if you're ever free during the week, some karaoke places offer rates from as low as 10円 for 30 minutes during afternoon hours!

6) On your Bike!

Invest in a bicycle and save money on buses and trains. Public transport, while famously reliable (most of the time), can be pretty expensive. A new bicycle generally will cost you around 10,000円, although if you're lucky enough to know any departing people you could purchase one second-hand for a lot less. While the weather in Japan can often be too rainy, too windy, too cold or too hot for enjoyable cycling, all those other times it can be very helpful. Sure, you won't be able to explore as far as you would with a car, but it will cost nothing to run or park, and you can exercise at the same time. Besides, it's far less likely to be stolen here than it would be in most other countries (I've lived in Manchester...).

7) Buy Second Hand

What many people don't realise at first is that there are loads of recycle shops in Japan. One that I know of is called Pick-Up; a company that will deliver your items for an extra fee and pick up things that you want to get rid of. These second-hand stores sell everything from clothes and shoes to video games, TVs, furniture, microwave ovens, fridges, snowboards, musical instruments and trading cards. The prices can be significantly lower than they would be new - for example, my cute little two-seat couch cost me 3000円.

If you know where you're moving to, it could be worth asking your company for the contact details of the person that you'll be replacing. They might have a load of furniture that they need to get rid of (and will often have to pay for recycling them if they can't find a buyer). You could do them and yourself a favour by offering to buy the furniture from them, or even take it off their hands for free. If you have a mutual friend to handle the exchange, it would be helpful, but perhaps your company will be willing to help with the transaction. If you're moving into the same apartment that they lived in, for example, they could just leave everything there for you and you could send them money via online bank transfer.

8) Supermarkets over Combinis

Ah, the combini (convenience store) - so convenient! They sell everything, exist everywhere and never close. But, did you know that a can of chu-hai (alcopops) will set you back around 148円 at a combini, but only around 90円 at a supermarket? How about a bento (boxed lunch) - around 500円 at my local Family Mart, and 300円 at Seiyu. Sometimes it's worth the extra few metres to the nearest supermarket to save a little more!

9) Cheap Food Recommendations

Well, if you absolutely must eat out but don't have much money left, let me throw a few names at you. Sukiya offers very cheap dishes (280円 for a big bowl of beef and rice) but reportedly isn't the healthiest. Similarly, Yoshinoya does filling breakfast sets for around 500円. You'll see both these places almost everywhere - look for red or bright orange signs.

Kaiten-zushi (conveyor-belt sushi) can be very cheap, around 105円 for a plate with two pieces of sushi. Try Kappa (かっぱ寿司) or Sushiro (スシロー) - very filling, delicious and cheap. They do desserts and small meals, too, as well as beer.

Last but not least, there's the classic fast-food junk... McDonalds has a 100円 menu which includes the tasty Mac Pork burger and Shaka-Shaka Chicken. In the morning, it's 100円 for a sausage or egg burger made on the most delicious raisin and cinnamon bread. To be honest, I used to avoid eating at this place, but perhaps the quality of the Japan branch is higher than what I'm used to at home.

10) Avoid Traps!

Firstly, if there's a "menu" outside that says something like "SET: 1 hour - 5000円", possibly with pictures of sexy ladies and no windows, it's a hostess bar. It could even be a blow-job bar (yes, they exist) or sex club. Now, what you get up to is your business, but I know a few unfortunate souls who "accidentally" wandered into these establishments at the start of their Japan experience. Sitting down at a hostess bar gets you lumbered with a giggly girl with poor English (usually, I hear) and a bill for at least 5000円 for perhaps one beer. On top of that, you're expected to buy the girl drinks to keep her interested in you. Ouch.

Many bars and izakayas have a "table fee" or "service charge". You'll know it if, when you sit down, a small dish of something that you didn't order comes your way. Sometimes it's possible to say that you don't want it or that you didn't order it - I've seen it work! Alternatively you can ask before you sit down whether there is a charge. Remember, though, tipping isn't done in Japan (it's seen as insulting!) so think of the table charge as the tip that you might leave elsewhere.

I've seen some "package tours" advertised for tourists in Japan, too. These normally charge extortionate amounts to do things that you can easily do alone without spending anywhere near that amount of money. Invest in a Lonely Planet book, check out and get exploring on your own. The language barrier might bother you sometimes, but I don't think there's a safer country for wandering off the beaten track - and chances are, you'll never be far from a vending machine to light your way home.

That's all for now... if anybody has a tip for saving money in Japan, please leave a comment!


  1. 11) Get a roommate.

    You'll save SO much more than you can save even living a very "not going out ever" lifestyle just by sharing the rent with someone. Are apartments in Japan small? Yeah, they sure are. But you can often find apartments double the size of the "shoebox models" for only a pittance more...thus saving you close to 40-50% of what you'd otherwise pay for rent.

  2. Great tips! Learning to cook is especially a must if you want to save money. Can cheaply make enough food for dinner and save some for a future meal.

  3. Yeah, I def agree with buying your beer or chuhai at the supermarket instead of the konbini. The supermarket is way cheaper.

  4. I'm actually surprised that the conbinis are so cheap. In Australia, you can pay 3 or 4 times more for things than at the supermarket.

    My fave food recommendation is the places - I have no idea what they are called - where you have all the self service dishes - fish, various vegetables, etc then you go to the counter to get rice. They aren't chains and are usually a bit rundown looking and most of the other customers (at least at the one near me) look like they are spending the money they have left over from their pachinko parlour losses! Super cheap though and the food is much healthier.

  5. I'd echo the "get a roommate" tip, but ONLY if you know the person well and know 100% that they won't try to move out before the contract runs out, because saving Y50,000 a month on rent can seem BIG but that deal'll quickly turn sour if your roommate disappears and you realize you're suddenly having to pay the full rent.

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