Japan: Not as Expensive as You Think It Is
Japan is a country steeped in tradition, with a rich and proud history going back beyond 300 AD. I’ve wanted to visit this magnificent country for nearly 20 years, and now that I’m here, I’m discovering that the real Japan is greater than I ever imagined. In a series of posts, I’m going to share some initial observations about the country, from the perspective of common American pre-conceived notions about coming here.
First of all, let’s talk money. Just about everybody in America believes that Japan is one of the most expensive places in the world to visit, let alone live. Actually, let me back up a bit. Any discussion about the cost of Japan has to start with the cost of converting currency. Unless you live under a rock, you know that the U.S. dollar has been getting weaker and weaker by the day. In high school and studying Japanese, I remember the dollar being worth about 140 yen. Today, I got exactly half that when I pulled money out of the ATM: 70 yen to the dollar. Think about what that means in terms of purchasing power. If you earn money in yen and spend it in dollars, you’ve got a golden ticket. But earning dollars and spending yen, quite frankly, sucks.
Next, let’s talk costs. Yes, Japan can be a very, very expensive place to visit. The standard rate for a Western-style hotel that we saw during the vacation phase of coming here was about $120 per night, for an incredibly tiny room with it’s own bathroom. However, Japan also has a huge quantity of budget accommodations. Although we didn’t do this, there are traditional Japanese ryokan for under $50 a night, and some Buddhist temples can accommodate overnight guests for under $50/night. In Nagoya, we stayed in a super budget hotel for about $25 for the night, and the place didn’t even have showers (think “sponge bath”). In Tokyo, we stayed (and I still am), at two different capsule hotels, one of which is more like a hostel than a business capsule hotel, and it is less than $40/night (plus I get to meet some interesting foreigners, but that’s a subject for another post). Some of the onsen (hot spring public baths) will let you stay the night for very cheap, if you don’t mind sleeping on the floor.
What about food and drink? Again, there is a huge range. Last night, I splurged 14,000 yen ($182) on a 6-course meal of the best bar food ever and unlimited beverages for four people (all you can drink in two hours). But today I had a delicious lunch of cucumber rice rolls, fried prawns, and shredded cabbage that was more than filling, and it was about $5. In other words, I had a fairly healthy lunch for cheaper than the McDonald’s that was a block down the street, and it was delicious.
Transportation in Japan is another thing that can be considered expensive. Flying from place to place within the country can run $100 to $300 on way, which is high compared to regional flight costs in the U.S. and Europe. Also, the bullet trains (shinkansen) can be pricey. For example, going from Tokyo to the northernmost point in Honshu (the main island) is going to be close to $200 by shinkansen. If we had traveled from Shikoku back to Tokyo all on express or bullet trains, we probably would have spent close to $1,000 on transit.
However, all the rail lines offer various discount tickets. The JR Rail Pass is a bargain if you use it a lot, but can only be purchased outside the country. In order to be worthwhile, you HAVE to use the shinkansen I think, just from a cost standpoint. We used a special ticket intended for teenagers and college kids on school breaks, but that is available to everybody, in order to get unlimited travel on JR local trains, which enabled us to see more of Japan by town hopping back to Tokyo. These tickets run about $35 per day, and are worth every dime if you travel the countryside extensively for a day on local trains. Also, if you purchase airline tickets at least 45 days in advance, the major carriers and the budget operators offer steep discounts. You can fly from Tokyo to Sapporo for well under $100 if you plan it right.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the ferries. Japan is an island nation, of course, so it is well suited to water travel. Ferries operate daily between all the major cities in the country. While they are not the fastest means of getting around, they are super fun and also super cheap. We took the ferry from Tokyo to Tokushima, Shikoku. The trip took 18 hours or so, overnight, and was a blast. It was much cheaper than flying or train, also, and we had a private cabin for not much extra money — it was about the price of a Western-style hotel room for the night to make the trip. If it weren’t for the approaching typhoon (that’s what they call hurricanes here — they are the exact same thing in meteorological terms), I’d take the ferry to Sapporo instead of the shinkansen.
Within Tokyo, it can add up quickly to bounce around between the two competing subway operators and the JR trains that encircle the city. However, for $12/day, you can get unlimited use of the subway system, and for about $20 a day you can get an unlimited use pass for both subway lines and the JR trains. These tickets can be purchased at almost any ticket machine, and will save you possibly hundreds of dollars during a week or two in Tokyo.
As I plan for living here in Japan short-term, I’ve been looking at other expenses. The interesting thing I’m discovering is that Japan is not as expensive to live as people in America think it is. The horrifying sticker shock to find a place to live here really comes down to what is called “key money”, essentially the same as your first and last month’s rent plus deposit, except bigger. In many cases, two year leases are the norm on an apartment, and your “key money” is equal to six months worth of rent. In some cases, that can essentially be the equivalent of a down payment on a house in some parts of the U.S.
But, again, there are less expensive options. Since Japan is a major destination for both foreign tourists and international business people, there is an entire industry here that caters to providing short-term (which can become long-term) housing for gaijin (foreigners). The most common of these places are called “gaijin houses”. Basically, they are just regular apartments or houses that are owned or managed by property management companies that specifically cater to the foreign market, and offer deposit options that are much more “normal” to Westerners. Some of these guest houses can accommodate couples and even families. If you’re single, the options greatly expand, though. For example, dorm style guest houses, with two to four blokes to a room, can be had for under $350 per month and a $100 deposit. For a private room in a house, rents are closer to $600 to $800 per month and deposits of about $400. However, compared to your own apartment, this is a bargain, and really is in line with what most Americans are used to paying for rent if they live in any large U.S. city.
As somebody that likes to splurge on occasion, but that is basically a cheapskate at heart, exploring these kind of options is of value to me personally. My place in Sapporo (I’ve narrowed it down to two options) won’t be posh by any means, but it also won’t be any worse than where I lived in Provo before coming here. On top of that, there’s the great benefit that it’s someplace interesting and living with people from other countries. Since part of my objective here in Japan is to not only work on my Japanese, but also begin picking up a European language (such as Spanish, French, or German), the opportunities in a gaijin house are quite spectacular.
I hope that this quick and dirty guide to doing Japan on the cheap is helpful to somebody out there on the interwebs. If you have any interest in visiting Japan, just go — don’t be frightened by sticker shock perpetuated by people in the travel industry that have never been here physically on the ground. Just like anywhere you go, it’s what you make of it, and if you want to or have to do it on the cheap, you totally can.
Leave a Comment
You must be logged in to post a comment.