Living on the cheap in Tokyo

How to live cheaply in one of the world’s most expensive cities? Well, it really isn’t that expensive unless you want it to be, and I will submit that living a broke life in Tokyo is MUCH better than living a broke life anywhere in America.

Here are some ideas:


This is the big kahuna that makes life in Tokyo expensive. If you want a swank apartment in the middle of the city, it might set you back ¥400,000 a month. Fortunately, there are cheaper ways to do things.

  • Best way: seduce someone of your preferred gender who has a nice apartment. If they’re female, they’ll even make you breakfast in the morning! (And if they don’t, find one who will; Japan is a buyer’s market.)
  • Stay with a host family. You get conversation, you probably get meals, and you might even get your laundry done. On the other hand, host families have their drawbacks; you can’t go out partying late at night, and they might turn out to be batshit crazy. (I never had the former problem in high school; I definitely had the latter problem.)
  • Get a place in the middle of nowhere, like a ¥40,000 room in Nishi-nippori located a cool 20-minute bus ride from the Yamanote Line.
  • If you insist on living in the middle of the city, you can ditch your bathroom and live in a 6-mat room 5 minutes away from Shibuya for the same price. Granted, you have to go to a sento to clean yourself up, and your toilet is shared… but still!
  • By the way, Yahoo! Japan Real Estate is an excellent resource for scouting out really cheap places to stay, assuming you know enough Japanese to navigate around. If English is your only language (or if you aren’t staying for a year or so), you might be relegated to the hell that is Sakura House.


  • There are always noodle products, of course, and those sketchy pasta sauces they sell in foil pouches at Don Quijote. Yum!
  • If you want slightly better food, you can live on a diet of convenience store bentos, gyudon and curry for under ¥2,000 a day. Pretty easy, if not all that healthy.
  • If you’re into eating out, my advice would be to get used to having big lunches. Many of the smaller restaurants around the business districts of Tokyo will sell you a massive lunch prepared with good ingredients for ¥1,000 or less. Then you can make your other calories for the day more or less blank.
  • One of the best money-savers out there—as much as it might pain some of you to consider it—is to avoid booze. “What you say! No drinking in Japan? Heresy!” But it’s true: consider that a beer or chuhai will cost you ¥300 even at a cheap place.


This one is easy. Ditch the subway and get yourself a bicycle. You might still want to hop on the Metro when it’s raining, but biking around is a great way to see the city, burn some calories and save some money. (I was spending ¥5,000 a month on Metro cards before I got my bike; at ¥10,000 it paid for itself after two nice winter/spring months, although it got pretty unbearable during the summer. If you have a cheap sento near your workplace, go for it! If you work at a sento, double points!)

27 thoughts on “Living on the cheap in Tokyo”

  1. Food: What about legitimately cooking for yourself? Why live on 2,000 yen/day when you can live on 2,000 yen/a week! Chicken is ultra cheap, and if you pay attention to your local grocery stores specials, you can get plenty of good deals (yesterday was a 20% discount on all meets if you buy three or more packages for me at the local Seiyu aka Walmart.)

    I’m glad to say I’ve never had a host family 🙂

  2. “If you want a swank apartment in the middle of the city, it might set you back ¥400,000 a month.”

    Uh, I think that the Roppongi Hills Residences are more along the order of JPY2,000,000 a month…

  3. Hills is overrated. Midtown is where it is at 😉

    I hate both, actually.

    My advice is to get a car license (actually costs less than 10,000 yen if you dont go to any schools and you already have a license from your home country) and get a used scooter for transportation. Larger initial cost but much faster and convenient.

  4. When I was staying in Waseda at the end of last year I found an izakaya with beers for 100 or 200 yen each.


  5. pretty informative!

    I was considering moving to Tokyo for a while….though not quite possible in near term….

  6. If you cook for yourself, you should be able to keep food costs under 1200 yen a day without much effort.

    As for entertainment, you can probably get by with a 10,000 yen television and some 100 yen books from Bookoff.

  7. Avoid drinking at bars/clubs (800Y for a pint of Guinness!). Just pre-drink before you go, or hide the bottle in your coat. In Urayasu there were a few liquor stores selling .75L bottles of decent or ok stuff (bacardi/tanquerray/smirnoff) for 1100-1700 yen a pop.

  8. If you like to drink — you can buy a bottle of 180 proof (or higher) stuff for about 1000 yen and mix it with something (like Qoo or High C), should last for quite a while. You can also get a 3L bottle of junk whiskey or some other such swill and mix it with coke.

    I’m not an alcoholic, BTW. It’s just that I lived in a university dorm in Japan for a few months and learned some brokeass college student drunk tricks.

    Also, come to think of it, most supermarkets slap 20-50% off stickers on some items (like sashimi) after 8 in the evening. These can be pretty expensive if you pay full price. Food safety is not really an issue because, as far as I can tell, they are pretty careful with what they sell. This fits well with Joe’s “eat a big lunch” bit of advice – you can tank up at around midday and hold off until late for dinner.

  9. If you are intent on living cheaply in an Asian city, just go live in Bangkok or Chiang Mai… You can easily live on just a couple hundred dollars per month, and it’s fun once you get past the relative filth and pollution, annoying tuk tuk drivers, and insane traffic… And if you have more than jus a couple hundred each much you can use the extra to splurge on movies and booze.. They even have most of the American chains so you won’t get as homesick for American food. I guess people have different reasons for doing things but if all you need is Asia on the cheap Thailand is the way to go.

  10. Don’t knock Nishi-Nippori and Senju areas. Good shitamachi areas those, and that twenty minute walk could help clear your head at the end of a nasty commuter crush. Mind you a twenty minute walk from a Yamanote station is better than a ten minute walk from somewhere out in Chiba (I typed ‘China’ by mistake and sometimes it seems about that far…). Distance from the station is everything, and if you have a bike or scooter then it’s not so much of an issue. I’d be looking seriously at those 40,000 yen places in the shitamachi myself if I was in the market.

    Food is cheap. Two thousand a week could be pushing it, but four thousand a week is ample. Chicken is damn cheap, though probably full of hormones, and M-Bone’s point about the ‘half off’ stickers is crucial. Timing is everything there though. A decent freezer is a vital investment. Moyashi are dirt cheap and filling. A thousand yen for lunch is too expensive – you should be able to get by on much less. Gyudon places like sukiya (had that for dinner tonight) are cheap and filling. A bowl of ramen should be about 400-600 yen.

    Host families are good if you are new and/or not familiar with the language\culture etc and still of a reasonable age (up to about mid twenties I’d say). And if they’re not insane. Not too insane I mean. I did that for a year and had a great time.

    Used TVs are cheap, and work fine, at least until 2011, and you can get a converter then anyway. I very much suspect that used analogue TVs are going to rocket down in price as everyone dumps them in favour of digital ones too. Of course most of what is shown on TV is mouldy crud, but you get that. Personally I’d just get a computer and an internet connection (broadband of course).

    If you buy a bike, avoid the mama-charis. Apparently cops will only stop gaijin on mama-charis, from posts I have read on various forums, and from my own experiences (stopped twice, both times on an m-c, but since riding an ATB off and on for the past dozen years have not once been stopped). This is presumably as they are more common and easier to ‘borrow’ from station parking lots etc. And anyway, as the name suggests, they’re not for big hulking gaijin guys – a gaijin female should be okay though.

    And don’t go out partying and drinking every night. It’s a no-brainer, in any country.

    And try not to think of Japanese women as something akin to slabs of meat in a supermarket. “Charisma Man” should be put to death….

    Huh? “Spam protection: Sum of 6 + 8 ?” What about those of us who are mathematically-challenged? I need to think about this one….

  11. You can easily live on just a couple hundred dollars per month, and it’s fun once you get past the relative filth and pollution, annoying tuk tuk drivers, and insane traffic…

    I prefer sushi and not getting robbed at night, so it’s still Japan for me.

  12. Funny nobody mentions about Department stores food section,depachika.
    Hit the place around half past six and you have throw away price on many things
    from sushi to tonkatsu.
    Found a blog on depachika.

  13. I’m with Gen, though for environmental reasons have gone with the bicycle instead of a scooter for now.

    5,000 yen a month on train tickets? Damn…I think I put about 12,000 a month on mine.

    In terms of rent, if you really want to save – look just outside the Yamanote line loop, then look for major loop thoroughfares. For example, Kanana Dori, Setagaya Dori, Kanpachi Dori…then look for places that just across those roads, on the far side. Prices slip quite a bit that way.

  14. Just thought of another one – most movie theaters have a 1/2 off “Men’s day” and “Women’s day” weekly and a “customer appreciation day” monthly. You can save some on the savage movie ticket prices that you get in Japan.

  15. I’ll chime in on the scooter thing. When I have to ride the trains (during the rainy season, for example), I spend close to ¥5000/week. My scooter costs less than ¥1000 per week in gas. You also get the added benefit of learning the city better.

    ¥400-¥600 ramen? I’d rather pay another 300 for something palatable. Also, though places like sukiya and yoshinoya are good deals, the quality of the product is pretty low. I think they’re ok for a quick bite after a night of getting soused, but would never darken their doors for (a presumably sober) lunch. If I’m out and about I often look for teishoku restaurants. They tend to serve lunch for about ¥800 and you get some kind of meat or (more often) fish, miso soup, rice, and pickles. A great deal.

    Food in general can be a big expense. I live fairly far out of the center of the city (Soshigaya Okura), and the food prices are considerably lower than more central areas. Rather than patronize the big box supermarkets, I hit up the local vegetable place, meat place, and fish place, and in addition to supporting local business I save a lot (about 20%) on most items.

  16. Haven’t seen those “Men’s Day” prices. Women’s Day, yes. Movie Appreciation Day (the first of each month) is good, and there was also the special Foreign Student Price (same as geriatrics).

    There is some damn good ramen out there, though you have to know where to look. Not sure about Tokyo ramen on the whole actually, but in Japan as a whole I’d take a good bowl of ramen over pretty much anything else you can get for under 600 yen. There is no local shoutengai where I live, so that really isn’t an option.

    And gaijin on a megabudget don’t have the luxury of caring about quality product (though I have no complaints against Sukiya. Don’t like Yoshinoya though). For the price of one teishoku you can have lunch AND dinner. And save enough money to go to Thailand to do whatever one does in Thailand.

  17. The ramen-ya rated as the best in the country in places like Fukuoka / Hakata, Sapporo, Kumamoto, etc. all charge about 600-700 for regular “ramen”. Even in Tokyo, where things like that tend to be 100-200 yen more, its not like 600 yen ramen is going to be junk if you find the right place.

    Living really cheap while traveling to a big city in Japan –

    Breakfast – Jam-pan (120yen)
    Lunch – 2 onigiri (240yen)
    Dinner – ramen (600yen)
    Cup ramen if you are starving later (100 yen)

    May not be that healthy but if you eat like this and log 10-15 km walking around, you will probably drop 1-2 kg a week.

  18. You guys are being wimps. You need to go for the North Korean diet (at least what I call it) to really eat cheaply. The main way to save money is to get stuff at the supermarket and cook it yourself. Get the cheapest rice available (I don’t know maybe 10kg for 1000yen), a bunch of natto, a bulk box of ‘chicken ramen’ (the kind in the plastic bag not cups), and cheap vegetables and discount chicken or something. Your diet should be 1) natto for breakfast; 2) Skip lunch (it is for the weak, but if you need something eat a chicken ramen), 3) stir fry with rice for dinner. Mix things up a bit with salady vegetables and miso soup (made from miso/wakame/dashi, NOT the ripoff instant kind) to stay healthy. I have never actually stuck to this diet precisely because I have no discipline but something like that. Basically what I’m saying is live the spartan Japanese lifestyle and you will prosper.

  19. I hate to be cynical, but given that a standard English teaching job pays *at least* 250,000 yen, and employment abounds, is there really any reason to live cheap in Tokyo? Just don’t go out drinking every night and get a hussy in to cook you dinner a couple of nights a week and you’re set.

  20. Sure there are reasons to live cheap. You want to save money for example. Travel the world, perhaps. Save for post-expat life, when your average Nova slave will be lucky to get minimum wage, etc.

    Don’t agree with Adamu’s diet. Though if you live in the country there are a ton of edible grasses and plants. However if you need to skip a meal, skip dinner: your body needs few calories to sleep, after all. For that reason I’d swap around M-Bone’s menu, and have the ramen for lunch, or even breakfast ideally.

  21. Cooking is kind of therapeutic, but for freelancers like us it almost makes more sense to use the time we would otherwise spend cooking to make money (whether it’s writing, translating or whatever) to pay a skilled person to cook our food for us. This is not the case in Philadelphia, where everyone who will cook your food for under $15 will only do it with hyper-saturated baby seal oil and “scrapple,” but in Tokyo, where every tenchou and their sister can cook really well, it makes much more sense, and you’ll feel the benefits in your belly.

    I would get into a discussion of commuting with platform tickets at this point, but the bar examiners might be reading this. (Hi, guys!)

  22. Bryce – Normally, I’d agree. However, there was that time I went to Japan to do some research, stayed with a friend, and only had about 100,000 yen for three months. Had to live on the cheap.

    Jade – I agree that you need calories in the afternoon. However, when I’m on the road, I usually end up eating dinner at about 4 for the early energy boost.

    An alternative to the lunchtime onigiri would be banging down a few McDonald’s burgers (no fries, no drink) which have ranged from 80-120 yen in recent years.

    Joe has a good idea (dosen’t really apply to me because my wife does most of the cooking). If I was eating out to save time while doing research or something I’d probably go for the following menu –

    Breakfast –

    – McDonald’s breakfast (if you just have to have pancakes) is one of the easier to find reliable hot options (if you don’t dig grilled fish before 9 that is). 380 yen.
    – Jam pan is still a decent choice (120 yen), with orange juice (120 yen).
    – I usually just end up eating cereal at home and grab an early lunch before the rush. Can even do this in a hotel if you need to.

    Lunch –

    – Teishoku somewhere. You can switch it up and still not pay more than 1000 yen. Alternatively, you can go to a family restaurant. Some of them (Joyfull) have lunch sets with a drink bar for about 600 yen.

    Dinner –

    – Ramen for junkfood (600 yen) and some gyoza (250 yen)
    – Kaitenzushi is great, you can eat exactly enough to fill you up (1000 or more)
    – Go to a shokudo for saba no shioyaki, rice, miso, tamago yaki, etc. (probably about 800).

    You can enjoy eating out for 2000 yen a day (2500-3000 is better). If that powers your production (or keeps you going on the road) it is a small price to pay.

  23. Actually to really save time (and money) I’d just go to Jusco once every few days and get stuff I could throw in the microwave….

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