A lot of people have asked me how we can afford to live in Japan so I thought I would write a blog post about some of the average costs here.
First of all, no matter what people tell you, Japan isn’t as expensive as you would think. It’s just not. It’s cheaper than us living in the San Francisco Bay Area for sure. It’s possible to live here modestly. But it’s not Mexico. And for this reason, Andy and I often can’t believe the vast amount of money we’re spending. We were fully prepared that Japan would cost us more money than Mexico, but still, sometimes we’re in sticker shock.
Here are some frequently incurred expenses.
Coffee is expensive here, especially at nice cafes. An average individually brewed cup of coffee runs about $4.00. A fancier coffee drink costs between $4.50 to $5.00 or sometimes even $6. This probably is just slightly more than the Bay Area, but much, much more expensive than Mexico. In Mexico, a fancy coffee drink costs $2.50 to $3.00, and a regular cup of coffee runs $1. Andy and I try very hard to not drink coffee out more than once a day. We don’t like spending $20 a day on just coffee, but occasionally with a cup in the AM and in the late PM this can happen. The maddening thing about drinking coffee and tea here is that frequently the drinks are served in very, very tiny glasses or they are just filled up 3/4 of the way up. Often we feel like we are getting ripped off. In Mexico we get huge mugs of coffee. Here, not so much. And I don’t think I’ve ever had a free refill! The coffee scene in Japan is really great. It’s hard to not want to buy 3-4 coffees a day! They take their coffee very, very seriously. In Tokyo, we’ll visit two very famous shops that started in Northern, California, Blue Bottle and Verve.
This coffee comes from the sake bar right next door to my house. It’s a great place to hangout.
Groceries are a mixed bag in Japan. Some things are so freaking cheap I do a happy dance. Others grocery items are sky high.
Here’s what makes me do a grocery happy dance.
Mushrooms- Enoki mushrooms are my favorite. They are usually .60 for a big bunch.
Tofu- A block of tofu is about $1.00 and serves the two of us.
Noodles-Always under $1.00
Salmon-$3 for three nice breakfast portions.
Sashimi- Enough for both of us is $4-$6
Sushi (a large tuna roll with 8 pieces is $4) An 8 piece set in the grocery store is usually less than $4 and the quality is simply fantastic.
Bento boxes in the grocery store-They run $5 to $8
Here’s what makes me do a sad dance!
Apples- Sometimes they are $1.50 each unless we find them on sale. Eating apples is a bit of a treat for us.
Avocado- We don’t buy them ever because they are $1.75 for a small one. In Mexico we pay .20 per avocado.
Melons- I don’t know why, but melons are very, very expensive. A small melon can run $15 to $100. We don’t eat melons of any kind.
Vegetables- They seem very, very expensive with the exception of bean sprouts, mushrooms, cucumbers and cabbage (which we eat a lot of).
Cheese- Sometimes we buy processed slices (which we never eat in Mexico) because cheese is outrageously expensive here. I can’t imagine spending $8 or $9 on a wedge of cheddar or goat cheese.
Peanut Butter- A small jar is $5 or 6!
Restaurant meals run all over the place, kind of like in America. In general, medium to high end restaurants cost a LOT more than what we would pay in Mexico. In Mexico, at the fanciest restaurant in Morelia, we’d rarely pay over $25 per person. In Japan, $25 per person will get us a nice and very high-quality meal in a Japanese izakaya (like a Japanese pub) that serves good food. So far, we haven’t been to even one fancy restaurant this trip because we’d be looking at $150 per person or more just for dinner.
Japanese pubs are my favorite places to eat. They are all over Japan and they always have very large menus where we can always find delicious food. We like them because we can always get sushi, tempura, salads, and Andy can always get some type of meat including chicken skewers and other grilled meat. They also have fantastic selection of sake. They also usually have an all-you-can drink menu for about $30. These all-you-can drink menus are very popular in Japan. We see them at many, many places. I’ve never tried one because $30 is a lot of money, and I don’t drink very much. But the best part about eating at an izakaya is the people. They are usually just a tiny bit smokey and they rarely have tourists. We always feel warmly welcomed and usually Japanese patrons will try to start conversations with us in broken English. Last week, two men in there 20’s struck up a conversation with us. One asked me, “what do you think of Tramp”? I must have had a lot of sake by this time because I couldn’t understand what he was asking me. Duh! This was the third time a Japanese person had asked us about our President.
More about food
Japanese train stations are a great place to eat! If you go into the basement of large train stations, you’ll find 10-20 modestly priced restaurants with set lunch and dinner options. For $7-9 I can get a lunch with a piece of grilled fish, miso soup, a few pieces of tempura, fresh tofu salad, pickles, green tea and rice. Andy can get a nice lunch also including his favorite, ramen. Again $15 for a nice lunch for two isn’t that much, but when we are used to $1.00 quesadillas, and $3 breakfasts, it’s a tough nut to swallow.
This lovely shrimp tempura and noodle bowl ran us about $7.50. The noodles were served cold and we really loved it.
Overall, transportation in Japan is fairly expensive. It’s much, much more expensive than in Mexico. The Fukuoka city bus is $1.00 to $2.50 depending on where we travel. The train is much more expensive. The local train is pricey and the long distance train is pricey. For long distance travel, I suggest all serious travelers purchase a Japan Rail pass which are an unbelievable value. They are expensive, but worth it. Rail passes must be purchased outside of Japan. You cannot buy them in country. They are good for 7, 14, and 21 days of travel and have to be used consecutively. This year we bought a series of passes (two 7 day segments). One we used when my friend Kara came to visit. We used it to travel to Nara, Kyoto, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The other 7 day pass will be used on our upcoming trip to Tokyo and Osaka. In addition to train passes good throughout Japan, you can also purchase regional pass. They are cheaper.
The ultimate expense- A Japanese Ryokan
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. It’s a place where travelers can experience Japanese hospitality at its finest. Usually these establishments are small with 10-20 rooms and often they are located in hot spring areas of Japan. Travelers get to sleep on Japanese futons, (some have Western beds) lounge around in traditional Japanese clothes and enjoy multi-course Japanese breakfasts and dinners. Sometimes the food is served in-room, but sometimes it’s served in lovely Japanese dining rooms featuring Japanese traditional art. Usually rooms are located facing rivers or facing nature and have small sitting areas. Travelers can sit by the river and drink Japanese tea provided by the ryokan. Each ryokan also usually has 4-8 different bathing areas (some public and some only for hotel guests) where one can soak from early morning to the late night time hours. It’s traditional to take at least two soaks a day. One before breakfast and the other before going to sleep.
This is a sample room at a ryokan. See the cute chairs facing the river? The futons are kept out of site and will be rolled out for sleeping.
Ryokans are expensive. Really expensive. But breakfast and dinner is usually included and experiencing this type of Japanese hospitality can’t be beat. Andy and I will stay at a ryokan in a hot spring town for two nights soon and I’m excited to do it again. The town is called Kurokawa.
The hot-spring town we will be visiting is on a river. We can buy an onsen pass that will allow us to visit three hot springs and use their bathing facilities. And visitors are encouraged to wear their traditional Japanese yukata while walking through the town. I can’t wait to wear mine!
I don’t think I’m going to look this cool wearing mine!
I would budget about $300 to $400 a night (which will include an very elaborate traditional Japanese breakfast and dinner) in that price range. Many ryokans run $500 to $800 a night and you do have to shop around a bit to get a good deal, but it’s an experience you’ll never forget. The hospitality, scenery and food are incredible.