Japan--especially the megalopolis areas like Tokyo are notoriously expensive. Finishing the day with a non-empty wallet or bank account can prove a disheartening day-to-day challenge. I offer some tips on how to save money in Japan.
Go With the Flow
You live in Japan, but you just love Mexican food. Well, you're in the wrong place, my friend. I suggest giving up that affiliation with Mexican food right now, and surrendering your soul to the Japanese experience you signed up for. I'll graciously allow you the once-in-a-blue-moon Mexican food binge, but don't expect to save money while maintaining a consistent flow of authentic Mexican food.
Instead, how about Japanese food? This is what my mother likes to call "go with the flow." Drink sake, eat udon, take your shoes off, bow, relax in a hotspring, use Japanese deodorant, wear Japanese underwear, watch Japanese porn, dress up like an anime character, and do as the Japanese do because you're likely to save more money on daily life if you do so. Those rare and opulent imported treasures you're in love with are likely to chip away at your nest egg. Immersing and blending in with the resident culture will prove easier on your wallet.
Don't Buy Beer
Commensurate with the above is the sin of beer. Ahhhhh, beer. How I miss it so. My home country's beer prices are something to write award-winning novellas about. Not so in Japan, where beer is taxed worse than exotic myrrh from the valleys of the moon. Unless someone else is buying you one (or seven), I advise avoiding beer. Consider it a rare treat for a self-celebratory dance you may do one day in a summer month of your choice.
Japan may be water-rich, but electric power here is expensive, especially now that the country relies so heavily on thermal power. This is why my apartment is a call-back to the 1800s, complete with a trash-burning potbelly stove and a bicycle-powered Macbook Pro.
Here are some things I've done to reduce my monthly power bill:
* I replaced all but the most rarely used lights in the house with energy-efficient LED lights. Japan sells some really kick-ass LED lights, and they're not as pricey as they used to be. I also find them easier on the eyes than fluorescent bulbs.
* I try to avoid using the air conditioner in the summer. Instead, I opt for fans blowing across frozen water-filled PET bottles and walking around naked while misting myself with chilled water. As I pass by mirrors, this also has the effect of motivating me to work out more often.
* To a lesser extent, I try to avoid using heaters in the winter. Instead, I opt for ultra-thick pajamas that look like something the Heaven's Gate cult members would wear, along with special sleeping socks--socks with an open toe area to prevent roasting your feet while you sleep.
* If I do use the AC or heater, I use it in the minimal number rooms. Japanese apartments are generally designed well for such compartmentalization as they feature doors and sliding screens allowing for tidy, energy-efficient room segregation.
* I keep the filters on my air conditioner clean as a whistle (Yeah! How long has it been since the last time you heard that expression?). Performing simple maintenance on your AC, shower room fans, and kitchen ventilators (most filters are easily removed and cleaned) boosts their efficiency and reduces running costs.
Don't Buy a Car, Ride a Bike Instead
Even when I lived in the countryside, I got along just fine without owning a car. I've never owned one in Japan and probably never will, which says a lot since I'm originally from car-loving Los Angeles. Japan's A1 blue-ribbon rail system undoes the daily reliance on cars for most. This proves a welcome facet of life here as owning a car is prohibitively expensive.
Time and again I've had fellow foreigners from various countries tell me that owning a car in Japan is more expensive than their home countries. Everything from driver's training, gasoline, insurance, registration (which goes up as the car ages), taxes, and parking is universally considered exorbitant.
F that, I say. I walk, ride my bike, and use Japan's superior public transportation. Not only does it save money, but it also saves the environment and preserves my dandy boyish figure. The carless in Los Angeles are considered losers. The carless in Japan are considered money-wise.
Discover the Wonders of the 100-Yen Shop
I need a new tea pitcher. The one at the local home center is 700 yen, but the 100-yen shop sells tea pitchers for a measly (here it comes) 100 yen (actually 105 yen with the sales tax). Check out the 100-yen shop, spending time to take a detailed mental inventory of what they carry. You may be surprised at what you find. I certainly was.
Besides tea pitchers, I've been more than satisfied with their...
* iPhone & USB reel cables
* toilet deodorizers
* organizer boxes & holders
* small item cases & pouches
* box curtains
* cleaning supplies
* cable management supplies
* cotton swabs
* magnetic hooks
HOWEVER, this place is a place of mysterious paradox. In other words, there's most often a good reason it's only 100 yen. Here are some of those reasons:
* It will break or wear out soon.
* There's less of it in the package. 300ml instead of the usual 500ml.
* It doesn't work as well. Tape isn't as sticky or glue not as strong. It's watered-down.
* It's not Mickey Mouse, but Macky Moose, who bears a striking resemblance in an inbred cousin sort of way. Hmmmm...is Disney aware of this product?
* Plug in the iPhone cable and the iPhone says it's not officially supported. Oh, F-U Apple! So sorry I didn't buy your 3000-yen also-made-in-China cable.
Keeping reasons like the above in mind as you shop will aid in making informed purchase decisions before you plop down your hard-earned loose change. Don't go crazy like I do and buy 10 of some new, untested item. Buy one first, and try it out. If it works out for you, then proceed conservatively.
Don't Buy Stuff, Dig Through the Garbage Instead
Japanese people are rich. They have a first-world economy and avoid sticking their carrots in other countries' mashed potatoes. You'd be amazed at the incredible stuff they throw in the garbage. It's awesome.
As I pass the large garbage area by my apartment building (i.e. for furniture, bicycles, etc.), I behold unimaginable treasures. Haul that shit home before someone else takes it, dude! Hose it down with bug spray and deodorizer (from the 100-yen shop of course), and you just got yourself a FREE mattress. Your spouse / significant other will love it. Mine doesn't, but she's kinda weird that way.
Sell Unwanted Stuff on Auction Sites
At the beginning of this article I advocated doing as the Japanese do. I have one notable exception--don't throw your unwanted stuff in the trash like many of them do. Instead, sell it on an auction site like Yahoo Auctions.
When I first moved to Japan, I was told that Japanese people aren't really into buying used stuff like we Americans are. That's total B.S. It's a diverse, populous country they have here, and cheapskates just like me abound. You can sell just about anything and everything, recovering at least some of your original investment.
Best of luck to you, fellow foreigner!