Expensive bubbles

Soapbox time.  Tokyo has a reputation as an expensive city – a reputation that gets echoed repeatedly.  The most recent example of this was in Businessweek recently,  when Tokyo picked up the gong for #1 most expensive city in the world.

But is it true?  Is Tokyo prohibitively expensive?

No.  It doesn’t have to be.

Of course Tokyo can be a expensive city, if you so choose.  The reality is that if you live like the locals do, Tokyo is not nearly as expensive as it’s made out to be.  Let’s look at some of the claims of the article.

Lunch at a restaurant: $18*

Actual cost: $6 – $12.

$18 might be a Western-style upmarket eatery with cloth napkins and white wine.  At the restaurants I go to with my co-workers every day, which are uniformly excellent Japanese-style establishments, the most expensive set lunches cost 1000 yen (~$12.00).  A more typical example is the generously-sized, outstanding pad thai I had today for 700 yen (~$8.50).

…according to restaurant surveyor Zagat, dinner with a glass of wine plus tip in Tokyo costs $94, on average.

Firstly, Tokyo does not have a tipping culture as standard.  I believe you can tip for absolutely outstanding service (the purpose of a “gratuity” anyway), but it’s rare.  As for a $94 average for dinner – sure, there are high-end dining experiences in Tokyo running hundreds of dollars, but you don’t have to pay anywhere near this for a brilliant dining experience.  Meat on a stick, edamame beans, beers and a great atmosphere will set you back between $15 – $30 a person.

Source: Kobakou on Flickr

Movie ticket: $22*

This is true – going to the movies is expensive in Tokyo.  Still, cinemas are a discretionary expense, and DVD rental shops are practically begging you to loan DVDs at $3 overnight for a new release and $1 for a weekly.  Late night session discounts, “ladies day” and the first of every month sees cinema prices discounted down to about $12.

…rent for a two-bedroom apartment for expats is typically more than $5,000 per month in Tokyo…

Perhaps the key phrase here is “for expats”.  There are real estate agents in Tokyo set up specifically for cashed-up expats.  They’d be delighted to show you insanely over-priced rentals if you don’t know any better, or can’t find someone to help you with language issues.  If you’d like to live in a furnished apartment in the exclusive area inside the Yamanote ring line, you’ll pay for it.  Likewise, if you’d like a great deal of unnecessary space in your apartment, you’ll pay for it.  Once again, live like the locals do, live where they do, and you’ll be paying somewhere between $1000 and $2000 a month for a nice, if not extravagantly spacious, place.

For convenience, King shops at expatriate grocery stores, where goods sell at a premium, and it is not uncommon for him to pay $50 for a steak.

It shouldn’t be surprising that if you buy imported goods, you’ll pay a lot more for them.  Go to the same supermarkets as everyone else, and the prices are far more reasonable.  It’s also true that steak is expensive in Tokyo.  Other cuts of meat, smaller parts or the type you’d use in stir fry, are priced reasonably. Fish, too, is cheap, and is more of a staple of Japanese diets.

So, I’d summarise the article like this.  If you refuse to integrate into Japanese culture at all, and insist on creating your own little bubble of the West in Tokyo, then yes, your Japanese experience is going to be expensive.  Otherwise, you can have a great time in Tokyo for not too much money.  For an extreme version of living frugally in Tokyo, this guy tries to survive for one month on $400.


3 thoughts on “Expensive bubbles

  1. heh, sounds pretty much the same as what they say about London. Personally, I find it much more expensive when I’m in Brisbane than I do here!!

  2. Right, the fact that Brisbane might be more expensive than Tokyo or London is not what many would expect. I’m hoping to put together a future article comparing the cost of living in both. I know that not buying, fueling, servicing and insuring a car in Tokyo is a huge saving by itself. Here, rents are comparable (with less space), fresh food is more expensive, restaurants are cheaper. I’m kind of interested to see what the result of a side-by-side analysis is myself.

  3. It would be incredibly interesting. I know my Dad used to always keep track of prices of Big Macs whenever he travelled as an indicator. I personally tend to use chocolate bars 🙂

    For example, average price of a chocolate bar here is about 50p which is AU$0.82. Try buying a chocolate bar for 80c anywhere in Oz! (and not a milky way!)

    Silly example I know, but it sticks in my mind!

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