Japan, or maybe Tokyo in particular, has a reputation among Americans as being one of the most expensive cities in the world. With the caveat that I’m from Los Angeles (another rather expensive city), I will heartily disagree and say that Tokyo can be quite affordable. Let’s run down the list of basics:
I really cannot deny that housing in the heart of Tokyo is expensive, but it’s not New York or San Francisco expensive. Because Tokyo is a HUGE and spread out city (like Los Angeles), its real estate prices are pretty comparable to those in Los Angeles. If you come from Texas or some other place in the US where housing is a fraction of these prices, I suppose you’ll find it quite expensive, but as a Los Angelino, I didn’t experience any sticker shock.
There are neighborhoods that are outrageous, but there are also other neighborhoods in the city where you can get a 1K (basically what we call a studio apartment in the US) starting at about 70,000 yen/mo ($800/mo and up). Personally, my dorm is overpriced at 80,000 yen per month (just shy of $1000 USD/mo), but I don’t really mind. It fits the definition of convenience for me. It is very well located on the west side, a 7-minute walk from school, a 5-minute walk to Waseda Station on the Tozai Line and a 15-minute walk to Takadanobaba on the very useful JR Line. It came furnished, so I didn’t need to hassle myself with much, and it even came with linens (bed sheets, comforter, pillow). It has an ensuite bathroom, but a shared kitchen and shower. It’s got both AC and heating. I’m living damn comfortably.
Because I’m too lucky, I also got a JASSO scholarship, which completely covers my housing expenses here. I, unfortunately, cannot answer any questions surrounding the scholarship because I literally did nothing to apply. Rather, Waseda nominated and submitted our application materials on our behalf. I love you, Waseda!! Hontou ni arigatou gozaimasu!!
2. Eating out and Drinking
There are certainly places you can eat that will break the bank, but there are TONS of affordable eateries around Tokyo. There are three concepts here that make going out in Japan even more affordable than the US in many cases — nomihodai (all-you-can-drink), tabehodai (all-you-can-eat), and Viking (buffet).
Tabehodai is where you order unlimited amounts of food off a menu and they bring it to your table. It’s pretty common with izakaya spots, such as Torikizoku (pictured above), which is quite good! You can get all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink for 2800 yen ($35 USD) for 120 minutes. Tell me where you can get such a killer deal (tax and tip included) in the US? From Torikizoku, I recommend trying out all the parts of the chicken (heart, liver, cartilage) and their own whiskey or tantakatan shochu, which is made from shiso leaves (similar to Korean sesame leaves or perilla leaves).
There are also buffets, which are referred to as “Viking” here. This means drinks and food are self-serve. There is one a Viking izakaya called Yotteku that I go to near Takadanobaba that has all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink for 90 minutes for a mere 1980 yen ($24 USD). It’s pretty cute and on the third floor of a building (this blogger has pics). And this includes a couple of types of beer on tap (see those black machines in the above photo? one press of a button and you get the PERFECT POUR), whiskey and other spirits, shochu, and a bunch of mixed drinks. There’s even a cotton candy machine (called candy floss in Japan, the UK and some other places, just FYI).
Guts Soul is a chain yakiniku place in Tokyo. It’s got a 1280 yen AYCE for 90 minutes option, among other variations depending on amount of time, type of meat, and whether you add AYCD or not. There are also all-you-can-eat shabu shabu places for 1500 and up (depending on time of day and pork or beef); for example, Mo Mo Paradise in Takadanobaba.
I know I will get shit for suggesting it, but McDonalds here is good and cheap and English-speaking. The $1 menu’s equivalent here is the 100-yen menu (100 yen = $1.22 USD). For breakfast, you can get a sausage muffin and medium coffee (iced or hot)(I never get small coffee, please) for a mere 220 yen ($2.50), and, if you wish, add a “hash potato” (what we Americans call “hash brown”) for another 100 yen. Also marvel at the fact that they put your coffee cup in a paper bag (why Japan?). Also, no sugar packs, instead, you get tiny cups of simple syrup. Finally, their 100-yen crispy chicken sandwich is the perfect 4am-waiting-for-the-first-train snack and has a great spicy mustard sauce on it!
Finally, drinking in Japan has the potential to be really cheap because there are no open container laws! Therefore, you can pop into a convenience store at any time and grab a big 200-yen can of beer and imbibe as you take in the lights of Tokyo. Reminds me of Vegas.
3. Eating in and cooking
In addition to cheap going-out foods, there are also affordable home foods available. For busy people, Bento is quite affordable and delicious. There are numerous shops, particularly around Waseda, that specialize in bento and only serve bento. They range in price from about 300-500 yen ($3.50-6 USD). If you go to the market around closing time, they often have remaining bento marked 30-50% off.
If you cook a bit, then Lawson 100 (a 100-yen grocery store) will be your friend. I often buy a pack of udon, which comes with a sauce packet for 100-yen and then a bag of veggies, which includes bean sprouts, cabbage, carrot, and green onion for a mere 100-yen. I stir fry those together and, trust, it’s enough for 2 meals. They also have single pieces of fruit (i.e. large apple, grapefruit, pomelo) or a 5-pack of bananas for 100 yen. I get quick foods like Japanese curry, microwave rice packs (so easy, I love it), salad packs, and instant noodles. I also go to a regular market called Santoku for other items, such as refrigerated gyoza (18 gyoza for 280 yen) and yuzu tsukemono (200 yen and so amazing).
What is expensive? Beer isn’t as cheap as in the US, but it isn’t prohibitively expensive (200 yen for 1 large can of beer). Some fruits are expensive (for example, strawberries, grapes, peaches). Meat here isn’t too expensive – chicken, pork, and fish are all reasonable. Beef, however, is quite pricey. Since I’m not very good at preparing meat, I’ll leave it to the experts and get my protein in bento or at restaurants.
4. Home goods
As a Californian, the only “100-yen” store I know of is Daiso, which is a great 100-yen store. However, when I arrived at Waseda, I realized the closest Daiso was in Harajuku, which was a few stations away. I soon realized that 100-yen stores are a common type of store and there are several chain 100-yen stores. Can-do is probably the one I see the most in Tokyo, with one next to Waseda Station and Takadanobaba Station.
100-yen stores make everything cheap and easy (again, 100 yen = $1.22 USD), so they should be your first stop when arriving in Japan. I got almost everything in my dorm there. For example: USB phone charger (saved me a good $10 from the SoftBank store!), towels (thin but adequate), hangers, a kitchen knife, bowls, plates, toothbrush, toothpaste, hand soap, nail polish, food, a beanie, gloves, the list goes on…
They only things I don’t buy from the 100-yen store are clothes, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, laundry detergent, skin lotion, and medicine.
I also thought shopping in Japan would be quite prohibitive because I’m quite cheap when it comes to apparel; however, I will say there are numerous options for getting clothing cheap in Tokyo. There are lots of affordable little shops I’ve seen in every neighborhood of Tokyo, but I’ll cover a couple of chain places that everyone can find without much trouble.
For starters, my favorite shop in Tokyo is a chain of second-hand or resale or recycle shops called Mode Off (list of locations here, use google chrome if you need translation). There are racks and racks of sale items for only 300-yen each ($3.50 USD), and most items are 500-1500 yen. I just bought a wine colored faux leather jacket for 1500 yen ($18 USD) last week! Everything is organized by type of clothing and size, which helps tremendously. I’ve been to the Koenji (take the north exit, look to your left for a 7-11 and walk in that direction about 2 minutes and it’s on your right hand side) and the Ueno one (pictured above, near Ameyoko street). The Ueno one is bigger (I think 4 floors), but I thought the selection and prices were a bit better at Koenji (2 floors). Koenji and Shimokitazawa as a general rule have a lot of second-hand and vintage shops, so they’re worthwhile to check out. Mode Off is the cheapest I’ve found with the best, youngest selection.
For new basic clothing, it’s hard to beat g.u. and Uniqlo. Some American readers have probably heard about Uniqlo, which has locations in NYC and now SF. However, g.u. does not exist in the US. To explain, g.u. is a sister company to Uniqlo. In other words, its a cheaper version of and owned by Uniqlo. I will say though, that g.u. has a younger, trendier look — after all, they picked Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (above) to be the face of their brand! Prices are quite good — I went last week and noted jackets and thin coats to be about about 2000-3000 yen, shorts and tops for as little as 900 yen, and plush scarves for as little as 680 yen.
Other helpful links
Cheesie of Cheeserland is a fashionable Malaysian blogger that also posted about traveling in Japan on a budget. Her article may be useful, as it considers other expenses such as hotel and entrance tickets to attractions, which I largely ignore as someone living temporarily here.
There is also a great website that I recommend: Tokyo Cheapo. It has great features on everything from shopping to travel to eating on the cheap in Tokyo. Love it!