Before I came to Japan, I had already had a few ideas in my head of what it would be like – super futuristic, crammed full of polite people, a place imbued with culture and history, and… expensive. Well, some of these preconceived ideas have turned out to be true, and others completely false – but what about the expense? When choosing a potential new home or a holiday destination, cost is a major factor that people consider, and the reality of expenses in Japan is often misunderstood. So, let’s explore this question and try to discover: is Japan actually expensive or not?
To understand whether or not Japan is actually expensive, we must look at recent changes to the value of the currency of Japan – Yen. In the past, perhaps Japan could more accurately hold the title of ‘expensive’, but the Yen dropped sharply from 2012 to 2015, contributing to a lower cost of living that made Japan a less expensive place to be than it was in the past. In 2016, the Yen was trading at about 108 Yen to a Dollar, and at about 109 Yen to a Dollar in 2017.
As of October 2015, the Yen was trading at about 120 Yen to the Dollar. A year earlier (October 2014) the Yen was trading at about 108 Yen to the Dollar. Go back three years more (October 2011) and the Yen was the strongest it’s ever been, trading at about 77 Yen to the Dollar. So within a four-year time period, the Yen has dropped by about 50 Yen to the dollar – a colossal change.
What that means is both good news and bad news – bad news for those non-Japanese who are living in Japan long-term, and whose funds here are worth less and less at home every year, but good news for travellers coming here for a holiday as their money from home goes much further than it would have in the past. However, the bad side of the coin isn’t all bad – a long-timer might find their wages here are worth less at home, but at least the cost of living is low in Japan so their spendings are also lower. A low cost of living means more potential for savings – the savings won’t be as big but, percentage wise, they’re not inconsiderable.
As with all countries, certain things are more major expenses in Japan than others, and they are mostly influenced by location. In Tokyo, a well-placed apartment of a reasonable size will cost a fortune. However, get out of the main cities to somewhere a little more local and you can find a decent apartment for a cut of the price.
Travel in Japan is one of those double-edged swords too. On the one hand, you can get amazing deals such the Japan Rail Pass and cheap flights on JetStar. Local travel is also very reasonable too, with long distance buses available for a mere few hundred Yen, and public transport like local trams costing little more than the change in your wallet. However, for non-tourists in Japan who aren’t able to get discount tickets, taking the Shinkansen is a hugely expensive outlay, especially with confusing ticket machines that never give the same information regarding seat reservations.
Fruit is also fairly expensive in Japan – especially in big cities. Things that are in-season are obviously much cheaper to come by, but you can expect apples to cost a lot more than other fruits, and any other specialist or luxury items like watermelons, blueberries, avocados, etc. For expensive items, sometimes you will find a cheaper version sitting right next to it on the stall – reason being that one is grown locally and the other is from China. You can often get a whole bag of Chinese garlic for the same price of a single head of Japanese garlic.
Eating out is one of the greatest surprises of life in Japan. In the UK, eating out was a special occasion event – not every week, maybe once or twice a month, but certainly not a frequent occurrence. Many budget restaurants in Japan have such good deals that it’s almost impossible to recreate the same meal at home for cheaper. This is particularly true at lunch time when there are special offers available. Eating out for lunch could cost you as little as 500 Yen (or even less if you know some truly local, down-to-earth places) and you can get huge set meals for 1,000 Yen or less. Even if your time in Japan (be it living or holidaying) is being done on a budget, you could eat out several times a week without seeing a major dent in your finances.
Shopping is generally quite cheap on all frontiers too. Fruit and veggies are cheaper at the local markets than at the supermarket, but for tinned foods, dry goods, dairy, fish and meat, the supermarket is very reasonably priced with good quality own brands for you to choose if you want a cheaper option. While medicines can sometimes be a bit pricey, cosmetics from the pharmacy are very cheap compared to home, especially if you avoid foreign brands.
Even luxury items aren’t that expensive. Sometimes I overhear young people complaining about the cost of drinks and entry at bars when they have a night out, but if you choose to drink in local bars rather than night clubs (or better still, grab something from the shop to have at home), Japan is an alcohol lover’s paradise! Good quality wine is much cheaper than at home, and locally made items like Japanese beers or chu-hi cocktails are more than reasonable.
So, is Japan actually expensive? Uhh… no, not really! Especially if you know where to go and where to find your bargains. It all depends on your lifestyle. If you’re planning a trip to Japan and are worried about the cost, just consider how important those luxury items are to you. If you want to stay in the Bridal Suite at the Nikko Hotel, eat at specialty sashimi restaurants every night and have a private tour guide… yeah, your trip will cost a packet! But if you stay at a charmingly local ryokan, eat cheap lunches at delicious chains such as Yoshinoya and Coco Curry house, and if you plan your days to include cheap (or free!) attractions such as museums, shrines and temples… your trip to Japan will be money well spent.