Tokyo Is Not Expensive

The Good Life On Less Than $2000USD A Month

You probably have this idea that Tokyo is a super expensive place to live or visit. Having lived here for most of the last 10 years, I beg to differ.

I’m the co-founder of the popular blog Tokyo Cheapo, so as you’d expect I’m a fan boy for minimalism, living within one’s means and the Mr Money Mustache way. However Tokyo is not expensive, at least not like London, Paris or San Francisco. I’m living the good life without even trying that hard to scrimp and save.

I suppose I’m more of a “Money Beard.”

Life In The Centre Of Tokyo

I live 15 minutes walk from the centre of Shibuya, i.e. “that busy intersection in Lost In Translation”. Here I am standing, well headstanding there:

One of my hobbies is pulling stunts like this. Photo — Joe Ward

My ~$760USD/month 25m² apartment is compact but modern, comfortable, has a (tiny) balcony and a great view of the city.

The Skyline Stretches from the Cerulean Tower in Shibuya, past the Tokyo Sky Tree and over to the Docomo Tower in Shinjuku

I Eat Good Food.

I like to shop for organic and local vegetables. I drink the coconut oil cool aid. I even buy “expensive” food stuffs like nuts, berries and cheese. In short, I don’t try to save on grocery shopping, yet I still struggle to spend much more than $200USD/month.

Eringi Mushrooms, basil and garlic, frying in my fancy french iron skillet

I do a lot of cooking at home, but I still take my girlfriend out for dinner quite a few times a month. And you’d be a fool not to in Tokyo when you can eat amazing fresh sushi for less than $10USD/head.

Isari Juuhachiban Sashimi lunch 850yen (about $7USD)

Coffee Is My Office Rent

I’m my own boss, and one of the reasons for this is I hate sitting in an office.

I get most of my work done in one of the now numerous good coffee shops in central Tokyo. On average a good caffè macchiato costs me around 400yen ($3.30USD), and many cafés have high tables or counter seating so I can do my “standing desk thing.”

Lattest Omotesando

Squat Racks, Pensioners And Saunas

I used to use the Tokyo community gyms which typically charge around 300yen (about $3.50USD) per session. They are quite a fun experience, usually a mix of polite pensioners, students and fellow cheapo foreigners.

Since I like to exercise pretty much every day and the community gyms don’t usually open till 9am, I decided to upgrade and join Golds Gym. I now pay 9,700yen ($81USD)/month for the deluxe experience, complete with kick boxing pads, kettle bells, numerous squat racks and The Sauna.

I Cycle Everywhere.

Living in central Tokyo means I can get to most places in less than half an hour on my hipster single gear bike. As you’d expect, the Japanese drivers are courteous and polite, there’s no road rage, waving guns in your face etc here. I feel very safe and the roads are pretty clear for the most part, since most people use public transport.

This means I spend next to nothing on public transport.

I Don’t Pay To Get Into Clubs

Cherry Blossom or ‘Hanami’ season in Nakameguro

Night clubs, all night partying, cinemas and sausages are expensive in Tokyo.

But Tokyo is a city of free events and entertainment. Traditional festivals, museums, arts, street performers, not to mention the mountains a mere 620yen (~$5USD) train ride away.

No Phone, No Life?

Phone contracts are lengthy and pricey in Japan, typically 2 year commitment at $100/month. The work-around is to get a pay monthly data-only plan. I’m paying less than 2000yen ($20USD)/month for my LTE data SIM card plan.

If you really need an incoming phone number, you can a use a VOIP or Skype number. There’s good LTE coverage all over Tokyo now — I don’t give a second thought to calling someone in Europe from Skype on my phone whilst wandering the streets, like some kind of vagrant executive hobo.

My Other Running Costs Are Low

One of the upsides with living in a shoebox sized apartment, is the bills are shoebox sized too. Even with the recent electricity rate hike (as Japan switched fossil fuel since most nuclear reactors are offline), my bills are still a pittance.

The national health insurance scheme is pretty cheap, and payments vary with your income. So if you’re on low income your payments are low. I’m not even that poor (for Japanese standards) and I’m paying well under $100/month.

Fancy 3D Graph Of My Monthly Living Costs

I‘ve been keeping a log of my expenses every day, and here’s a graph of the last 30 days (USD):

And in a table (both USD and JPY):

How Does Tokyo Compare To Other Cities?

In the last five years, I’ve also lived for up to a year in several other cities — London, Berlin and Ho Chi Minh City. Here’s how my average monthly living cost compares between them all:

London: $2700 Tokyo: $1675 Berlin: $1500 Ho Chi Minh City: $1400

Tips For Cheap Tokyo Living

Live in one of the cheaper central areas (here’s a handy map for finding them), the increase in rental prices is more than offset by the decrease in transport costs and improvements in your social life.

Beware of contracts — phone, internet, gyms etc make sure you read the small print and don’t get locked in to something you can’t cancel for two years.

Eat at Japanese eateries — sushi, soba, ramen, tempura, you just can’t get great Japanese food this cheap anywhere else in the world.

Don’t buy a car — keeping a car in Tokyo isn’t cheap. Use the public transport like everyone else or better, cycle. If you must have a car, try one of the car sharing schemes.

Learn Japanese — a lot of the bargains become apparent when you can actually read/understand them.

Further Reading

I’m also putting together a guide book on Tokyo called — “A Cheapo’s Guide To Tokyo”, check it out!

laser cats destroying the myth that Tokyo is expensive