Let’s go ahead and talk about money. Yes, living in Tokyo is expensive, but it doesn’t have to break the bank.
Like I mentioned in my previous post, where you live in Tokyo can make all the difference between shelling out ¥80,000 (~$780), which is normal for a Shinjuku sharehouse, or my lucky ¥38,000 (~$350) which isn’t normal at all for Tokyo. If you are looking for an apartment in Japan, I can’t recommend GaijinPot enough. That’s the website where I got my current job and apartment. Anyways, for the most part you’ll be paying on average ¥50,000 (~$480) for your own apartment on the outskirts of Tokyo.
When I lived in Ibaraki, I won the JET Program placement lottery and got my apartment rent paid off by the Board of Education. Notice: Never count on this happening to you. JET has gotten stingier over the years, and usually they might pay for half your rent if they’re inclined to be kind. Once again, don’t count on it. If you’re heading over to Japan in the near future, save up money to pay for the first couple months rent at least.
Regardless, while I didn’t pay for my rent, I paid for my car. I leased out a Toyota IST at the price of ¥30,000 per month. If you live out in the countryside in Japan, you’ll need a car. As much as trying to save the earth with a mamachari sounds great in theory, getting groceries and other things without a car can be a pain (figuratively and literally). I figured that alright, when I moved to Tokyo my car rent will be essentially what I pay for in terms of apartment rent, so I’d be fine.
I was wrong. I was very, very wrong. I didn’t take into account how I’d have to pay for trains and buses on my days off. If you have even a semi-active social life, you will be spending money to get somewhere and then spending money once you get to where ever you’re going. I didn’t realize that those numbers added up to well over the amount I paid for renting my car back in Ibaraki. Even with gas money, it’s more to just get around in Tokyo.
I usually cut costs in terms of eating out. I enjoy cooking, so for me it’s not a hardship to buy some food at the grocery store everyday and whip up some soba, udon, or spaghetti with veggies. Occasionally I’ll splurge and get some meat, usually chicken or fish. Steak is so expensive I consider it a rare treat I only buy around payday.
Even if you hate cooking, Japanese grocery stores are amazing. They have pre-made meals ranging from ¥200-600 for a single person. It’s absolutely feasible to live off pre-made meals, since that’s what salarymen do all the time here in Tokyo (that or eat at the ramen stands at the stations). And if all else fails, cup noodles are super cheap at ¥100 per container. Unlike in Kentucky, the varieties in cup noodles are near endless here. You can get chicken, beef, pork, kimuchi, whatever flavor you want the grocery store has got it.
If you want to eat out but don’t want to spend very much, Yoshinoya and Sukiya are the places I usually go for some don (rice bowl) meals. They’re so reasonable and delicious. IN terms of famiriresturan (family restaurants) Jonathans, Saizeriya, and Dennys are the top three in my opinion. They’ve got variations that you can mix and match to make a cheap and filling meal. When I lived out in the countryside, the only restaurant in my town was called COCO’s Family Restaurant. For some reason, COCO’s isn’t as popular in Tokyo, but it had some nice curry and rice plates that I miss.
Shopping for other items, I recommend going to the used stores. Book-Off, Book-Off Bazaar, Hard-Off, and Off-House are all great places to get second hand books, clothes, electronics, and furniture (respectively). Also, Craigslist Tokyo is also a great place to find cheap items for sale. Sayonara sales are happening around March and August every year, so be sure to check around those times for when people are just giving things away before they leave the country.
In the countryside, because of my waistline, I usually had to drive to a different city to find my clothes. It’s not uncommon for foreigners to go to their nearest big town to buy clothes and shoes. Because I had to travel and pay so much more for newer items, I would actually spend more money on buying clothes in Ibaraki. Sometimes fate might smile kindly upon me if I went to Shimamura or the Aeon store, but not very often. Shimamura is kind of like a smaller version of Wal-Mart, and Aeon is a multi-level mall store that has various other shops inside of it. I’d have to drive over to Chiba’s COSTCO to get some clothes that fit.
In terms of small necessities, DAISO or ¥100 shops are the best. They’ve got everything you could possibly need for smaller items. Notebooks, silverware, plates, make-up, dish soap, and so much more. Whether in the countryside or the city, they are everywhere. Take advantage of them and buy what you need for your apartment there. The majority of my shopping every month is done in a DAISO near my station. In Kentucky, the $1.00 store generally didn’t have much besides stationary and knock-off toys. I’ve been told they’re getting better as the years go on, but Japan’s is just above and beyond what you can expect at a Dollar General.
No doubt though, Tokyo definitely is more expensive in terms of bills, taxes, rent, and living expenses. Kentucky was cheaper for all of those things, but my main issue in Kentucky was that I knew once I graduated there wasn’t a chance in hell of getting a job after graduation, not one that could help me pay off my student loans anyway. In Japan, I’ve also got a small safety net of unemployment insurance, which I wouldn’t get in Kentucky. Granted, I might not get that here either, but there’s a chance. Regardless, my job security here is definitely better. If I sign a contract, barring some illegal activity, I can’t be legally fired from my job.
I got a credit card through Rakuten last year after falling on hard times, and I wished I’d had one before then honestly. An emergency credit card will definitely give you peace of mind when things get really tight. Unlike American credit cards though, you will need to pay off your credit once a month. You can’t put off at least paying the fees because your card will get canceled if you don’t pay those. Still, it’s easier to get a cell phone, internet, and hotel reservations with a credit card. Combinis (convenience store) will take your credit card. Most other places are starting to take credit cards, too, although most local places are cash based. The countryside of Japan remains very cash based.
The one thing that I miss so much from the U.S. is debit cards. Debit cards are the best option, but it’s super difficult for foreigners to get approval for them. Why? Because you’ve got to be living here for over a year to get even near approval, and then the banks want most people to stay in the long term. Foreigners only get 3-5 years visas, which isn’t as long as they’d like. The debit cards are awesome because they can be used as credit cards, but unfortunately I don’t think I’ll ever get one here. If anyone has permanent status, mind telling me if you’ve ever gotten approval? I’d appreciate it.
Final Judgement Call
Tokyo is more expensive in terms of rent and transportation, but cheaper in terms of nearly everything else, with the added benefit of using a credit card freely nearly anywhere. The Japanese countryside is cheaper in terms of rent and transport, but more expensive for shopping without the thrift shops. Food will be cheap at grocery stores, but for eating out the prices will be dependent upon the local crowd that’s available. Credit cards usually can’t be used at local stores and markets. Kentucky was cheaper on all fronts, but in the end I need a job, more job opportunities than my home state.
Feel free to share your experiences of you area and how it compares to Tokyo!