Someone emailed me recently asking for advice on how to live on a budget in Tokyo. Perfect timing! I’ve actually been brain-storming ways to cut back costs in the last few weeks, being that I’m perpetually broke and soon to be unemployed.
In general, I’m not one to give advice on anything, let alone saving money. I’m the girl who’s never seen without a 500 yen cup of Starbucks in hand and who has taken a 7,000 yen cab ride home from a club not once or twice, but five times in the last six months.
I guess that’s what happens when you treat a stint teaching in Japan like a jail sentence. You end up discovering new and more expensive ways to make yourself feel better. I worked hard for this 1,800 yen movie ticket. I deserve this 1,200 yen hamburger. And then before you know it, you find yourself surviving off of 100 yen shop ramen for six days straight while you wait for your next paycheck to get deposited.
Yeah, that’s pretty much my life.
So for an awesome ‘How-to’ guide on surviving Tokyo, check out the blog Tokyo Survival Tips. I wish I’d discovered her site sooner, say, when I first moved here! I had to learn everything the hard way, completely on my own.
But I have mentally stashed away a few tips and tidbits of advice over the last few months. Little mental notes stored away for whenever the time came when I found myself broke and jobless, (I.e., last December and next week Thursday).
Shop in Thrift Stores
Fashion Recycle, Nishikasai
The pictures above are ones I took of a thrift store in Nishi-Kasai (Tozai line). Look at those racks of 100 yen clothing! Everything outside was only 100 yen, and there were a few racks inside as well. I’ve been back to that shop a couple of times now, and the 100 yen racks and bins are always there, so it wasn’t just a fluke ‘one day’ sale.
There are a lot of thrift stores in this city. Harajuku is known for them and two of my favorites are Chicago (best quality) and Kinji (biggest selection, cheapest) but I find that for the best prices, it’s better to explore outside of downtown Tokyo.
Thrift stores/ Used clothing stores/ Second-hand shops in Tokyo aren’t your grandmother’s Savers or Goodwill, because the clothing is stylish and in excellent condition. I don’t know if it’s because most Japanese people air dry their clothing versus machine dry or if it’s because they replace their last seasons pieces with newer, trendier ones at a higher rate than in the States, but most of the clothing in these ‘used clothing stores’ look almost brand new. There are no holes, missing buttons, broken zippers or faded colors.
Switch from Coffee to Tea
I love coffee and used to drink three or four cups a day, so this one was tough. But I made the decision to switch because not only is it healthier, it’s a helluva lot cheaper.
Never mind Starbucks, even buying ground coffee beans in the grocery store can set you back 700 yen. But you can buy 25 tea bags at the grocery store for only 300 yen, which is a third of the price of that equivalent in coffee.
A good place to taste-test teas (if you’re a Tea Newbie) is the Japanese equivalent of a diner, (Jonathan’s, for example). They have decently-priced lunch and dinner specials (500-800 yen) and for 200 yen you can purchase an all-you-can-drink “drink bar”. In addition to all-you-can drink coffee, lattes, espressos, hot chocolate and sodas, they have a wide-variety of flavored teas.
Tip for the caffeine-addicted: black tea has the most caffeine!
If you’re really craving a cup of coffee, then McDonalds sells 120 yen iced or hot coffees (small) and 220 yen medium sized cups of coffee. Note: A medium in Japan sizes would be a small by US standards.
Eat at Ticket Machine Restaurants
I’m obsessed with these restaurants. You can usually find them most anywhere, especially in or around train or subway stations. It’s great a place to go if you don’t speak or read Japanese because you place your food order by depositing money into a vending machine and not with a waiter or waitress.
A plate of beef curry and rice only costs 350 yen, and ditto for a bowl of rice and beef. All of the meals come with a cup of miso soup as well as a cup of tea. It’s a healthier (and cheaper!) alternative to American fast food.
Watch TV Shows and Movies Online…Instead of Renting
A co-worker told me about Watchtvsitcoms.com a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been spending all of the time I’d set aside for studying Japanese, catching up on episodes of Entourage and The Office.
The site has a wide-selection of shows and movies and you can view them legally and for free. You don’t have to (and can’t) download any of them, but the site might try to encourage you to download some software or pay a monthly rate – Just hit the ‘No Thanks’ button.
Learn How to Cook Japanese Food!
I think that my biggest money saver has been to stop trying to cook Western food and incorporate more Japanese food into my diet. A lot of what I knew how to cook involved an oven or an ingredient that I couldn’t readily buy from the local grocery store. And spending 2,000 yen on sour cream and salsa at an International store just to make a small plate of nachos, wasn’t worth it, ‘comfort food’ or not. Besides, have you ever noticed how many American / European dishes call for meat as a staple ingredient? Steak and mashed potatoes. Meat Loaf. Baked Chicken casserole. Meat is expensive here!
Stir fry, however, is not. Vegetables like mushrooms, spinach, onions, carrots and cabbage are really reasonably priced and frequently on sale, often for as little as 10 yen each. The Japanese packages of curry mix are usually around 150 yen and that’s enough for four or five meals.
Okonomiyaki is econonomical…and it tastes good too! Rather than try to explain what it is, here’s a video on how to make it. It features some foo foo dog and a voice-over by some guy with a strange (french?) accent. Funny.
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