During my time living in the “inaka” town of Kyotango, every time I would bring up to someone how I wanted to move to Tokyo, it would be met with looks of horror. “You don’t want to move to Tokyo,” they would say. “Tokyo’s expensive.”
But I knew that wasn’t necessarily the case. Seeing as I had lived in Tokyo for a year during college, I was already familiar with the art of living there cheaply. In fact, though I had no records of my living expenses from that time, I was pretty convinced that I spent less money in Tokyo than I did in the inaka. Since I am living in Tokyo again, and have been for six months now, I thought it’d be a good time to put that theory to the test by dissecting my living expenses.
I will be inputting the amount in yen, but if you have no idea how much money that is, a good rule of thumb is to simply drop the last two zeros. It won’t be an exact conversion, as the exchange rate is ever-changing, but it’ll give you a good idea at least. Observe!
Kyotango Living Expenses: January 2016
Car (rental): 26,000
Car (insurance): 14,000
Car (gas): 8,000
Groceries/Eating out: 22,000
School Lunch: 4,500
Gym Membership: 4,000
Total: 176,100, approx. $1,761
Tokyo Living Expenses: January 2017
Transportation (aka train fare): 20,000
Eating out: 16,000
Gym Membership: 10,000
Total: 173,100, approx. $1,731
Aha – so Tokyo is cheaper!
Even I’m a bit surprised to see this, as I haven’t compared my living expenses until now. As you can see, it’s only about $30 cheaper, but considering everyone was so convinced Tokyo was unfathomably expensive, I’d say that’s pretty incredible!
The above doesn’t include extras such as traveling, seeing movies, or buying video games, of course. But ultimately I’d say the amount I put into my slush fund more or less evens out no matter where I’m living.
It’s also worth noting that this sample was taken in January – aka the dead of winter – so things like utilities ended up being more expensive than they typically are. Maybe I’ll do another comparison in the summer to see if Tokyo would still be cheaper?
It definitely goes without saying that rent is cheaper in the inaka – that’s true of anywhere. No matter which country you’re living in, urban areas tend to be more pricey. You also get less space considering what you’re paying. I was living in a big apartment in the country – about 56 square meters (600 sq ft). Here in Tokyo, I’m paying more but living in a tiny 20 square meter (215 sq ft) apartment! On a side note, I’m planning on finally doing that Tokyo apartment tour as my next post. That should give you a good idea of the size difference if you’re having a hard time imagining it!
On the same token, my utilities in the inaka cost more. The total for utilities came to 28,600 yen. Then add the money I needed for my kerosene heaters each month (man, am I glad I don’t have to deal with those things anymore!) and the total ended up being over 30,000. My Tokyo utilities, on the other hand, total at 19,100 yen. I would attribute this to both the size and age of the apartment. My Kyotango apartment was big and therefore required more energy for me to reach a desirable level of comfort in the winter. In addition, it was older and the insulation wasn’t great. My Tokyo apartment, though small, heats up quickly. And, considering it was only built a few years ago, is well-insulated.
Like rent, food is generally more expensive in Tokyo. Luckily for me, I live close to a discount supermarket (it’s called “OK Supermarket” in case you live in Tokyo and wanted to check it out!) so that helps me keep the costs reasonable. If you don’t have a cheapo supermarket close by, groceries can really hurt!
Since we’re on the topic of food, time to touch on eating out. As you can see, I spend a lot more on eating out in Tokyo. I rarely ate out in the country – typically, “eating out” for me would be getting the school lunch at work. Here in Tokyo, it’s hard to avoid. I end up doing it once, sometimes twice a day. That’s because I work all over the city, often staying out for 12-14 hours at a time. It’d be pretty hard to abstain from food that whole time! And if I were to pack food, it wouldn’t hold so well over such a long period of time.
In addition to being out all day, I go to cafes and restaurants to hang out with friends. Since everyone I know lives all over Tokyo and has small apartments, meeting up at restaurants in easily-accessible places is the thing to do. That tends to be a cultural thing too; Japanese people typically don’t invite friends to their residences to hang out. I think it goes back to the limited space thing.
Now let’s get to what actually makes Tokyo cheaper: the transportation! As you could see above, having the car in the inaka really killed my budget. It almost cost 50,000 yen per month – ouch! And I still ended up taking the train on occasion, so ultimately, I would put even more money into transportation. This is one of those things that’s really specific to my situation, however. I know a few people living in rural areas who don’t need cars or who don’t spend as much as I did on their cars; it’s really variable. But since I was with JET, I didn’t have a choice. They said I needed a car and then took me to the place they take all new Kyotango JETs to get their cars. And that was that. Though I miss having a car, in the end I’m much happier being able to use that extra 30,000 yen per month on other things!
So finally that brings us to the gym membership! This, of course, is totally optional for most people. I am not most people. I need a gym. And a good gym – complete with bench presses, free weights, and squat racks (you’d be surprised at how difficult finding those things can be here!). And gyms in Tokyo are expensive. It hurts me to think I’m spending the same amount of money per month that I’d spend in three months for a gym membership in the US, but such is life in Japan. Certain things can be painfully expensive like that. I will say that I’m going to Gold’s now and it is by far the best gym I’ve been to in Japan. That makes it worth the price, in my opinion.
Is the inaka really cheaper than the city – specifically, Tokyo? The answer is, “that depends.” In my case, Tokyo is cheaper. But only slightly. Honestly, I think both could be as cheap or as expensive as you make them.
For me, I think the reason the inaka ended up being more expensive is because I didn’t have a choice in a lot of things. Since I came through the JET Programme, I had to live in the apartment JET provided for me and go through the car rental, phone, and internet companies that they put me into contact with. If I had time to scope out the area, I could have probably lived in Kyotango a lot more cheaply. But then again, the same could be true of Tokyo. I have friends living in share houses who pay half of what I pay for my apartment. Or friends who live in the suburbs and pay less for a bigger apartment.
All in all, it comes down to what’s important to you and what you are and are not willing to compromise on. But I think what I just proved here is that it is very possible to spend less money in Tokyo! So if you’re in the inaka and people are pooh-poohing your dreams of moving to The Big Mikan because it’s “expensive” – you can tell them to go suck it. Tokyo’s as affordable as you make it to be!