How to Travel and Live Frugally in Japan
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, but not for your wallet. The cost of living is high, and tourists do not get very many price breaks either. A trip through Japan takes careful planning and budgeting. Residing in Japan, especially in Tokyo, takes an economic strategy that would make even the legendary samurai tactician Takeda Shingen tip his helm in recognition.
Having lived amongst the rush of Tokyo for some time now, I have gleaned enough advice and experience to outline how to travel and live frugally in Japan without ever feeling bound by a paycheck.
Essentially the Japanese version of “waste not, want not,” the phrase mottainai is one of the ruling cultural philosophies that seems to have stuck with the country since the beginning. The Japanese are not very wasteful people. For example, a common practice is to recycle nearly everything they purchase in some way.
From garbage separating, composting, refurbishing and repurposing, the nation has a very sustainable system of living. Second-hand stores are also extremely popular. This does not pertain to just clothes either. You can find previously owned kitchen appliances, electronics, furnishings, dinnerware and other goods at discounted prices. A popular chain is called Hard Off, which has several branch groups like Book Off and Liquor Off.
Another way to live the mottainai method is to take advantage of discounted grocery items. Fresh produce and bento lunches and side dishes are brought in daily. And the grocer wants them to be gone the same day.
So what do they do when these items are not bought up by closing? They drastically reduce the prices, sometimes to the point of liquidation. If these things do not sell, they are sent to discounted grocery stores, where they get an even deeper price drop.
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Get those points
A system that has been embraced by the Japanese is accumulating points that function as electronic money. Some of the biggest companies have cards that work in the vein of “cash back” but also cinch your loyalty. The more you purchase with that card in affiliated places, the more points you get. Those points can then be used towards groceries, utilities or be funneled into any other payment.
Some of my favorite cards are:
- The Summit point card for Summit grocery stores and the Korumopia fashion stores that are awesome for finding trendy yet affordable clothing and interior goods.
- The Waon point card for Aeon-affiliated stores like Acore discount grocers, Daiso, Peacock markets and Shimamura Fashion Centers.
- The Nanaco card embraced for Omni7 locations like 7-11 convenience stores, York Mart, Ito Yokado grocery stores, LOFT and All Nippon Airways.
You can cash in these points starting from 1 point. Use them during product campaigns and sales to get even more rewards. I have gotten so many points at Summit that I could pay entire grocery bills with them.
100 and 300 yen Stores
Now, just like anywhere else in the world, there are some things at the 100-yen shops that are actually pricier than some other places. Groceries, for one, are not always the best thing to pick up here, unless you are getting the same size as you would at the supermarket. What you should buy at places like Daiso Family Stores, Can*Do 100-yen stores, Lawson 100-yen, Seria and 3-Coins are household furnishings, cookware, organizational supplies and stationary, and socks.
Compared to some designer stores, which will sell a shelf for 2000 yen, you can often find the same exact thing at a cheaper location for 300 to 500 yen. Why spend more money when you can get the same quality for much less?
Some people are obsessed with a certain brand, and that’s fine. But the aforementioned locations are comparable to more pricier options like Muji and IKEA. Seria and 3-Coins even beat out Donki, a globally known “discount” store that’s actually not in any way cheap. When searching for Japan-made items, souvenirs, toiletries and dinnerware, head to the nearest 100 yen or 3-Coins for a wonderful, high-quality selection.
Be the budget traveler
Are you planning to visit Japan in the near future? Here are some tips to save money so that you can get the most enriching experience.
First, do not go to the convenience store for toiletries, pre-packaged food and bread. Unless it is a 100-yen Lawson, you will end up paying at least 50 coins more than if you went to a grocery store or drug store. The convenience store (konbini) is great for paying bills, drawing money from the ATM or picking up some fresh onigiri or coffee, but other things are outrageously priced. Want shampoo for a good price? Go to the drug store. HAC and Tomod’s are two chains that offer a wide variety of unfathomably great deals.
Wave your passport. As a resident of Japan, I can’t take advantage of this, but it is great for travelers. Bring your passport to any place that has a “Tax-free Japan” sticker on display or makes the announcement that tourists can get their tax reimbursed. Getting spared that 8% consumption tax is really a boon, so don’t forget about it.
Another way your passport comes in handy is when buying discount train tickets. Yes, you can purchase these tickets prior to arriving in Japan – and in some instances, it is smarter to do it this way. But for those who would rather wait, grab your passport and head to the nearest JR station (Tokyo Free Pass) or Tokyo Metro (Tokyo Subway Ticket) station window. Transportation in Japan is kind of steep.
With a pass, however, you pay a flat rate that covers a set duration or route on buses, trains, and subways. These also allow for multiple connections and transfers. Optionally, rent a bike. Major tourist locations like Odaiba seem to have an infinite supply so everyone in your group can have one. Also, note that these are not limited to Tokyo. Wherever you go in Japan, there are special tickets and transportation options much like these.
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When it comes to traveling and residing in Japan, penny-pinching is a way of life. However, because minimalism and sustainability are part of the Japanese culture, you can find ways to keep your bank account healthy.
Travelers have multiple options for getting through the country on a budget, like tax-free souvenirs and duty-free shopping. Deals are happening all the time, so keep your eyes open and have fun bargain-hunting like the Japanese.