Is Japan Expensive?

People say Japan’s expensive, which is crazy. But then people say lots of things—like Japan’s “high-tech” and “polite,” so clearly their minds are all mixed up after their round-the-world tour … like, What country was that? Denmark? Singapore? Switzerland? Wasn’t everybody wearing lederhosen and yodeling? Drinking cocoa with mini marshmallows? Well, all right, maybe it was Japan. Ah, Harajuku, how I love your alpine ways.


A Tokyo Weekender exclusive by Ken Seeroi, Japanese Rule of 7


Lies About Japan

So one big lie about Japan is that it’s expensive. I was having this conversation with a friend from the States in an Ikebukuro noodle shop. He’s a photographer who takes guidebook pictures of brightly-colored koi fish, Korean girls in kimonos, and ancient temples dating back to the 1950s. You know, real Japan.

“It cost me thirty bucks for a bacon-cheeseburger and a large coffee,” he lamented. For some reason, we always talk in U.S. dollars when we really mean yen. Must be a white thing. “Thirty bucks?” I choked on my noodles. Though to be fair, that’s pretty easy to do when you’re slurping them. “Where’d you go?”
“That little cafe on the corner,” he said.
“No, not there!” I slurped. “There’s nothing but grannies nodding off into their espressos. Look at these noodles, five bucks each. Manly bowls o’ deliciousness.
“My hotel room’s the size of a closet,” he whined.
“You said you wanted a cheap place, and it’s twenty bucks, in Tokyo, jeez.”
“I can’t open my suitcase and the room door at the same time.”
“You can’t put a price on spatial-thinking skills. Anyway, we’ll have dinner tonight for six bucks, and it’ll be awesome.”
“Sure, for you,” he said. “You’ve gone native.”
“Gone native?” I said. “It’s not like I’m wearing a hair shirt on jungle island, eating monkeys. That’s Taiwan, get it straight.”
“Isn’t there somewhere we can get a grilled cheese sandwich?” he pleaded.

A Sense of Value

So that’s part of it. You compare oranges to oranges, and Japan looks expensive. That’s because you should be eating mikan instead of oranges. Plus they’re juicier too. What I mean is that something’s always expensive somewhere. Sushi costs a fortune in the U.S., even though it’s terrible. A cup of coffee is four bucks in Italy and it comes in a thimble. So choosing what you want to eat, or do, versus what’s locally popular, is always expensive. That’s the price of swimming against the current. Like swimming – don’t do that here. Better to stick with a traditional Japanese sport, like baseball.

Why People Think Japan’s Expensive

After much investigative research, I’ve narrowed down the misinformation about Japan to two sources. Okay, so I went to a bar and talked to some foreigners. Anyway, here’s what I concluded:

#1 Tourists from Nebraska

I assume we’ve all been this guy. You stumble off the plane from East Omaha, check into the hotel and ride the elevator straight to the Sky Deck for a deluxe wagyu beef extravaganza. And as you’re savoring the breathtaking Tokyo panorama, you suddenly realize the 5,000-yen glasses of Burgundy you’re slamming down aren’t five dollars each. You really gotta work on those math skills. Then you bumble outside for a nightcap and a kindly Nigerian doorman ushers you into a dimly lit bar where you spend 60 bucks for a beer and half an hour on a couch with a Russian girl. Hey, at least you’re having an authentic Japanese experience. Now, you’re not being ripped off because you’re a tourist; you’re ripping yourself off by having no freaking clue what you’re doing. I spent my first year here like that too. It was awesome! Okay, now I’m broke, but still it was awesome.

#2 Recent College Grads, Also Coincidentally From Nebraska

This group is stunned to find that things in the world actually cost money. Like I chatted with this attractive American girl who’d just moved here to teach English. She must’ve been about 23, which is basically why I was talking to her.

“Restaurants in Japan are so expensive!” she exclaimed. Gaijin are always exclaiming things. I don’t know why.
“Really?” I exclaimed, “what’d you eat?”
“Italian,” she said. “The teachers at my school took me, and the bill was $30 each.
“Okay,” I said. “How long were you there?“
“Like three hours.”
“Well, three hours . . . ” I offered.
“Then we went to karaoke. Another 20 dollars.”
“So fifty bucks for a full night of eating, drinking, and singing?”
“Exactly.”
“Well, it’s Tokyo, not the corner booth of Bob’s Big Boy in Omaha.”
“Hmph,” she scoffed, “I’m not from Nebraska.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Kansas? Missouri? Oklahoma?”
“It’s Iowa!” she exclaimed.
“My bad,” I said. “That’s where they grow potatoes, right?”

High Prices in Japan

If I’ve learned nothing else from the The Discovery Channel, it’s that you have to be scientific about stuff. So let’s take a look at some common prices in Japan:

Clean and safe hotel room in a major city: $50
Sketchy all-night booth in an internet cafe, including 5 movie rentals: $15
Japanese dinner at a restaurant, including drinks and tip: $10
Clean and safe apartment in a major city, 1 month: $500
Monthly cost of the car you no longer need because you live in a civilized nation that has trains: -$500
Sturdy bike for hauling groceries and beer: $45
Full day at a hot spring spa: $10
All-you-can-drink beer, wine, and liquor for 2 hours: $15
Fresh boxers and a t-shirt, the morning after biking to a hot spring followed by two hours’ worth of booze and a night in a sketchy internet cafe: $2

I’m trying to think of any other essentials, but for the life of me, I can’t imagine what those would be. So Japan’s cheap, is my conclusion.


Six Steps to Finding Bargains in Japan

Ah, but then you go on the internet, check prices, and Holy Cow, Ken Seeroi was wrong! It really is expensive. Okay, let me assure you, Ken Seeroi is never wrong. The internet is wrong. Whatever. Here’s how to find inexpensive Japan:

Step 1: Order a guidebook for Japan from Amazon. When it arrives, place the book inside a large, sturdy can. You’ll also need some matches and kerosene, but gasoline will do in a pinch. Next, go to your computer.

Step 2: Stop wanting Japan to be a land of bacon cheeseburgers and motels with swimming pools. Remind yourself that it’s, you know, Japan.

Step 3: Place your computer in the can too. Realize those things are only keeping you from the Japan you love. Now say, “I consign you to the flames of hell.”

Step 4: Stand back, light a match, then run and find a Japanese person.

Step 5: Do whatever that person says, while repeating Step 2. Japanese people can recommend cheap hotels, authentic restaurants, even call the fire department. They can all fix computers too.
To put it simply, you need someone who understands the way things work in Japan.

Then Step 6 – and this is pretty tough – is convincing your Japanese person that, No, you actually want to do things the Japanese way.

What I mean is, if you just find a random Japanese dude and ask for a restaurant recommendation, he’s gonna point you to the Tokyo Bob’s Big Boy. So instead, approach from behind, wrestle him to the ground, and box his ears until he takes you to the neighborhood teishokuya where you can get a decent, cheap meal. Then just pay for dinner and apologize for going all sumo. Don’t worry, all Japanese people are quick to forgive and forget. It’s an Asian thing.

Japanese Economy

In the end, Japan’s not expensive once you make some life adjustments. Like, sure, I live in an apartment smaller than a doghouse and have to use chopsticks because forks take up too much cupboard space, but still, it’s cheap. You gotta love a place you can clean in one minute flat, just by running a rag around the floorboards. Think of all the time you’ll save. And of course, when I say “you,” I actually mean you, as in, not me. Please come over and clean my tiny apartment. I’ll pay you in beer, how’s that? See? Now you’re making a profit. You really can’t afford not to live in Japan.

Main Image: Katy Ereira/Flickr

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