Frugal Living in Japan

You’ve arrived in Japan. You’ve been saving up money for this adventure, and you’ve been telling everyone back home about the manga you’re going to buy, or the clothes, or the sushi. But all of a sudden, you aren’t working any more. There’s no way to earn money, so all you do is spend it. It’s only October, and you’re already getting worried about the amount left in your bank account. So how do you hold on to enough money to sustain yourself and still enjoy your adventure abroad?

This is a common problem faced by students who go abroad, especially those in intensive language programs like JCMU. There is either no time for work, or it is expressly prohibited by their visa status. And savings don’t last forever. There are so many different exciting opportunities around you, and it can be hard to accept that you may not be able to afford them. Yes, Tokyo is closer to Hikone than Michigan is, but it still costs money to get there, and all that delicious Japanese food starts to add up after a while.

A bowl of ramen in a bowl with the words "Sugakiya"
Cheap ramen, the original fast food

But there are ways to have your ramen and eat it too. First off, don’t rule out those dreams of traveling to larger cities or going to exclusive restaurants. There’s room for those, just not all the time. Try planning those excursions ahead of time and laying aside funds that you won’t touch for daily necessitates. Also think about what’s more important to you—would you rather travel further and eat cheaper, or eat more extravagantly but stay closer to home?

Next, make a budget for a normal week. ¥10000 is pretty typical, but if you’re already feeling squeezed, it can be less. You might, alternatively, make a food budget that’s a bit smaller and have a secondary budget for fun stuff, like clothes and souvenirs. And don’t forget to factor in normal travel costs like train tickets.

In order to stick to a budget, it’s important to keep track of your spending in some way. Maybe you put each receipt into a spreadsheet, or maybe you keep track of every withdrawal you make from an ATM. Since Japan is a cash-based economy, very few of your purchases are going to be recorded on a credit card.

Once you figure out your spending limit, it’s time to figure out how you’re going to get everything you need for only that much. Getting discounts on big purchases or travel is one thing, but what about day-to-day living? Here are some things to consider.

First, forget the convenience store for groceries. This can be hard because the 7-11 right down the street from JCMU offers a nice array of food supplies, and they’re pretty good quality. However, they’re usually a little more expensive than a traditional grocery store, especially if you’re buying large amounts. The pre-made meals can also be pricier than those you’d find at a grocery store, and certainly cost more than making something yourself. But if you’re buying a bento for dinner, you probably don’t have time to go to a grocery store anyway, so don’t worry about it too much.

The same goes for restaurants. If you’ve lived alone in America you know this already, but it’s harder to resist when every meal feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Eat out sometimes to get a taste of authentic Japanese food, but it’s not realistic for every meal. You’ll have to be the one to decide where your once-in-a-lifetime distinction is.

Shirt with text: "iMages Are Hopefully in Your head since 1982 Lovey-Dovey Night Highfalutin"
“High fashion”

Next, explore the local grocery stores to find out the best prices on your favorite items. TRIAL is one of the most cost-effective stores in Hikone, but depending on what you’re looking for, you might have to go to Beisia instead. TRIAL also sells discount clothing for only a few hundred yen. It’s not as trendy as Beisia and there’s a smaller selection, but both stores boast an impressive number of shirts bearing confusing English slogans.

Another less-explored option is the discount drug store. In addition to over-the-counter medication and cosmetics, these shops also sell a wide variety of grocery items, and often for very cheap. The fewer food aisles can be misleading because you sometimes stumble upon something that may exist at a larger store, but would be harder to find. The store down the street from Beisia, Drug Yutaka, sells larger packages of yeast and baking powder than most grocery stores.

Wherever you shop, always be sure to compare prices and keep a tally of what you’re picking out so you aren’t surprised at the register. Most of the food you’re able to purchase at a Japanese grocery store will be pretty good quality, no matter the price point, but don’t keep buying the discount version if it’s noticeably worse! Some final tips for grocery shopping are to look for the discount produce cart and the sale tables laid out around the store. Both of these sell misshapen, damaged, or slightly old products for a lower price.

There are a few meals that are easy to put together for cheap. One is mapo tofu. Buy a brick of tofu and a package of flavoring mix, each available for less than ¥100, and fry them together at home for one or two meals. A good breakfast option is toast because a loaf of bread is between ¥50 and ¥200. A popular topping is white and milk chocolate drizzle, which comes in a one-serving package you crack open and squeeze the chocolate out of. Tiny sausages are also easy to find at good prices. For eating out, the food court attached to Beisia sells a mini chicken katsu bowl that’s quite filling for only ¥400.

Tofu in a dark red sauce and green onion on top.
A nice big bowl of mapo tofu

When it comes to other necessities, look first at a 100 yen store. You can find anything from baking supplies to slippers there, and much of it is surprisingly good quality. Food not so much, but Daiso plastic wrap knocks all other brands out of the park!

If you go to the Daiso in Hikone behind the station, you’ll be right next door to another discount grocery store, Big Save, and a discount clothing store. Check out both to see what deals you can find. Just don’t get distracted by the Wan Love pet store. Pets are expensive! …And kind-of sort-of not allowed in JCMU dorms.

The important thing, more than saving money, is making choices that help you learn and experience new things. This means that it’s okay to buy an expensive item you’re dying to try, and it’s okay if it takes a while to figure out a reasonable budget. You just don’t want to be the person whose trip money runs out in the first month, and you’re stuck in Hikone for the rest of the semester when you wish you could be traveling. What really matters is making the most of your time in Japan, whatever form that takes.

Now that you know some of the unique ways to save money in Japan, what are you going to use all that extra cash for? A vacation in Okinawa? A Nintendo Switch? More groceries? Whatever it is, enjoy. You’ve earned it!

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