Thursday, September 30, 2010

Cost of Living in Japan from a foreigner's viewpoint

It is well known that Tokyo is the most expensive city in the world. Is it not justified considering that Tokyo is the capital of the most expensive country in the world. Yes, as of 2009 Japan is or rather was the most expensive country to live in. I recently read a news article that the African nation of Angola has overtaken Japan in 2010. But then I have no idea about things in Angola so I don’t want to touch the subject.

Yes, Japan is an expensive country to live in.  Whether you live in Japan or are a visiting  here, the prices are sure to shock you. The shock is greater if you are from a country like India where prices of essential goods like food and commuting costs are not unreasonably high. For New Yorkers or Londoners, the price difference may not seem to be too high though. My friends in Iwaki say that the costs of the same products or services are even higher in bigger cities like Tokyo and Osaka.

At times we find the price comparison strange- for example the cost of 1 litre petrol is almost the same as 500 ml bottled water and much cheaper than a cup of coffee at a Coffee Shop. Also prices vary from store to store and the price gap is wide. In some stores you may be able to find a pack of 6 tomatoes to cost the same as the cost of 1 tomato in another.

You may find things to be expensive or cheap but one thing is for sure - for the price you are paying you are not compromising on the quality. Most Japanese products are costlier because the manufacturers do not compromise on the quality. Also the brand name or the reputation is of utmost importance here. Things which are expensive are considered to be of a better quality and big brands seldom reduce prices to woo customers.

I remember searching the internet looking for costs in Japan just few months back. Lots of information was there on the net- some old and some new but nevertheless these gave us a fair idea of the costs out here. I too thought of putting up some information about costs so that others can have a fair idea of what to expect.

Food items

Food items tend to be on the higher side. Fruits and vegetables are costlier compared to meat, poultry and seafood . I have listed down a few costs which more or less part form of our daily consumption. In most cases I have indicated a range of prices because these prices more or less vary between this range on a weekly basis and the variations can be shocking at times.

 Price in Yen
Drinking water
1 bottle-500 ml
 Pack of 6 or 8 slices
1 litre tetra pack
Fruit Yogurt
4 packs of 80 gm each
1 cup -150gm
1 pack
1 pack of 4 or 5
Okra / lady’s finger
1 pack of 10
Pack of 6
Pack of
French Beans
1 pack of 10-15
1 medium size
1 Big
1 bunch
Green chillies/ Pepper
Pack of 6-10
1 piece
100 gm
1 kg
Bunch of 6
200 gm
1 mediumsized
Watermelon piece
300 gm size
Tender coconut
200 gm
Fruit juice/ Coke
1 Litre Bottle
Cooking Oil-
 (Canola / Sunflower)
1 Litre Bottle
Tomato Ketchup
1 400 gm bottle
Instant Ramen Cup
80 gm
Potato chips
100 gm
Pack of 10
Bento Box
1 box
1 tin
Chicken (boneless)
2 kg
Chicken wings
500 gm
8-12 pieces
4-6 slices

In Japan, usually everything is available in small quantities too. If you need just one onion or one banana, you can buy it easily. Price per piece is indicated in most cases and usually in the range of 50 to 100 yen apiece. Also certain fruits and vegetables are packed in single piece packaging. Moreover usually the price per piece or for a pack is charged on per unit or weight basis. So you don’t save by stocking more pieces. In a way, this is a good method of reducing wastage.

If you happen to come from a country where you find a large variety of vegetables and pulses, shopping is tough because you don’t get to see much variety. We have now got used to it but initially shopping for vegetables was difficult as you get to see the same vegetables all the time. Offcourse, the situation is not as bad as in South Korea where the choice was even more narrow. Milk and Milk products are plenty. The good part is that foreigners can find lot of food stuff and ingredients required for their home cuisine easily. So you don’t need to depend on people traveling from your homecountry for your supplies. This was not the case in South Korea where we lived before we moved to Japan this year. Finding foodstuff other than for Korean cuisine was a difficult task. Few stores in Seoul did stock stuff for foreigners. The only boon in South Korea was the Costco stores where American stuff could be found.


Cosmetics for each and every kind of need are available. If you are used to a particular brand of cosmetics , it may be difficult to find it easily. For example, I am used to the Neutrogena brand and I haven’t been able to find Neutrogena products at least in Iwaki. If you have sensitive skin /hair then it would be better to carry some for your requirements in Japan. However it is better to check the customs rules as there are strict rules for cosmetics and perfumes. Most of the P&G and Unilever products are available easily at all department stores, pharmacies.

 Price in Yen
700 ml
Body Wash/ Liquid  Soap
200 ml
Body Moisturiser
400 ml
600 - 1200
Deodorant sprays
150 ml
20 strips
Dishwashing liquid
400 ml
Laundry Detergent
1 kg
Fabric Softener
3 litre

Eating out

Eating out can be expensive too. But then it depends on the place you choose to dine and the cuisine you select.

If you eat in a ramen shop or a smaller joint the cost is obviously less, The cheapest food probably is the O Bento or Lunch box. If you want to have a decent meal in a good joint then off course you should be prepared to pay about 3000 yen per head and this does not include drinks.

Atleast in Iwaki, the cost of a decent meal is usually in the range of 1000 - 3000 Yen per person. And usually this does not include the cost of drinks. Prices usually start from 300 Yen and can go higher up per dish. A set meal is usually priced between  700 Yen to 1000 Yen. Some restaurants like Denny’s offer free coffee or juice if you order food . A normal cup of coffee is priced between 300-700 Yen depending on the flavour and brewing style. The serving size in Japan is not very big and usually the portions are small. So if you have kids who enjoys eating it is better to order something from the kids menu for them. Some restaurants have a nice variety of kids menu and these include a small toy or candies or some other stuff which kids love. Moreover each dish you order comes separately and does not include any accompaniments . In South Korea, one main dish would come with 5-6 accompanying dishes, salads, and offcourse the kimchi and to top it these accompaniments were unlimited . After our South Korean experience , we definitely find the Japanese serving size small.

Sushi Bars are joints which specialize in Sushi and usually have a conveyor system. The price is usually per plate and the prices generally vary as per the colour of the plate. The good part is that usually there are pictures of the plates with prices printed against them and displayed at every table in the sushi joint.

Most of the restaurants do not have an English menu though nowadays it is much easier to find some waiters/waitresses willing to try and translate in broken English. The good part is that most Menu cards have pictures so you can choose what appeals to you. Most places have display shelves with a sample of the dishes available . If you cant speak or read Japanese, this is the best place for you. You can just point out the dish you want and you can prepare to eat your meal. There is a small hitch though. Usually the portion size in the sample is much more than what you will be served. So don’t be disappointed when you are served your food. However it is best advised to inform while ordering if you do not eat a particular kind of meat or seafood. Usually pork and beef are commonly used in Japanese meat dishes and seafood dishes may include octopus or sea urchin. Finding pure vegetarian dishes is difficult and you need to specify


Japan has a variety of options when it comes to Furniture. Nitori is the Japanese counterpart of Ikea. The variety is good and there are stores all over Japan. The pricing is reasonable and apart from furniture they also sell home décor, appliances , cutlery, pottery, gardening stuff etc . They have a English website too where the products and prices are listed down. Ironically in a country reputed for being expensive, the furniture and home décor stuff costs are much cheaper compared to the other countries I have lived in.

There are other chains too like Marhom and Tokyo Interior which offer a range of products to cater to home furnishing and décor.

In Japan, there is a concept of Renting furniture too. If you do not intend to stay in Japan for long and need only a few things for a short duration, then this could be a good choice. I am not sure about the prices but I have heard that it could be expensive depending on the city and offcourse the type of furnishing.


Clothes tend to be a bit overpriced in Japan if you are brand conscious and are specific about the latest trend.  If you don’t care for brands and trends, then you find the cloth prices reasonable. Most department stores have cloth outlets and these have off price sales at various times during the year. Usually during the end of season sale, you could snatch a great bargain.

There is one hitch. Most Japanese people have a slim build . As such if you are of a slightly bigger size, finding clothes of your size could be difficult. The clothes are usually marked as S, M. L and it is very rare to find an XL size. Moreover , you should remember these are Asian sizes and not comparable to the standard definition of S,M,L and XL in US or Europe. One of our non Japanese friend had a very tough time searching for an evening dress in Iwaki and had to go to Koriyama to find one. I am sure it is easier to find bigger sizes in big cities like Tokyo but then the prices are similarly higher.

Monthly utility costs:

Electricity, gas and water bill costs are high and as expected vary based on usage, the city you live in and offcourse the season. Since it is only 4 months since we came here, I don’t think it is correct to indicate these costs at this point of time. We have just experienced the summer and I understand that these bills tend to shoot up during summer. I will try and put up more information on this front when I get a fair idea in the coming months.

We have a NTT Broadband Internet which costs us 6000 yen per month for unlimited usage. We do not have a landline and did not require one for the internet broadband either. The speed is good, but certainly slower compared to the internet speeds we had in South Korea.

Mobile phone costs are substantially high. I have a NTT Docomo handset and as per my plan the call charges are about 21 yen /30 seconds in addition to a Basic monthly charge . The minimum you could expect to pay would be in the range of 2000 Yen per month even if you use the mobile phone sparingly.

We hardly use the mobilephone or calling cards to call our family back in India. We mostly use Skype or Voipzoom and could recommend these for the clarity and connectivity and most of all for reasonable costs.

We do not have a cable television or set top box at home as we are not regular television viewers. However in Japan, we need to make a payment to NHK if we have a television at home. We pay about 2500 yen per month to NHK which is for the basic plan. We get about 6 channels- all Japanese channels with the only English program being the bilingual news telecast on NHK-G.

Hair cutting charges begin from 3100 Yen and vary based on the styling and other services that we choose. The 3100 yen that I have mentioned is the least one could expect to pay.

One more major cost is the daily commuting charges . My husband drives to his work and as such we are not aware of what the average daily commuting charges add up to. Also in Iwaki, parking is not a major problem and many offices and other stores have free parking lots so we do not incur cost on that front. In the big cities, if you drive to work and need to park you car in a parking lot then it costs atleast  1000 Yen to park the car between 8am to 6 pm daily on week days. In cities like Tokyo parking rates vary from 100 yen for 1 hour to 100 yen for 15 minutes depending on the area. As such most Tokyo commuters prefer to use public transportation such as bus or the metro to save on the cost and most importantly the time. Tokyo’s metro system is very convenient and even first time visitors can easily find their way, thanks to the maps, displays in English and the colour coding of the various lines. There is a monthly or season pass system available for daily commuters. Also I have heard that most employers usually cover a certain percentage of the commuting costs as part of the pay package.

Please note that I have compiled the costs based on personal experience and these costs are as of September 2010. Moreover these are the costs that we are currently incurring in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. However prices in Tokyo and Osaka tend to be atleast 10 to 20% higher than in other places. So if you intend to be in these places you should factor in this price gap.

Health and Medical Costs:
Medical costs in Japan tend to be on the higher side. But offcourse with Health insurance, you don’t feel the pinch. Like in most other cases, our health insurance is taken care of by my husband’s company and 70 % of the healthcare costs are covered under insurance. So in effect we pay only 30% of medical costs. Moreover for children under a certain age, the government takes care of the medical costs and you don’t have to pay anything from your pocket .Just ensure you carry the child medical registration card on your visit to the doctor or pharmacy. This is something you need to register for when you get your alien registration card from your local city hall. This is not all, we also get intimations from the kindergarten and city hall whenever any vaccination drive or any periodic checkup is organized by the City Hall. 

A small apartment in central Taira in Iwaki could cost you 45000-65000 yen for 50 sq.mtrs . If you choose to live in a locality little further away from Taira, then for almost the same price you could get a bigger apartment/house of 80-100 sq mtrs.

These rental rates are as per my knowledge for homes in  Iwaki. However in Tokyo, Kawasaki, Yokohama and other big cities , the rent could be easily twice or thrice the amount I have indicated above.

Travel costs : 

Road tolls vary on basis of distance. The standard rate is 20 yen per km. However currently ETC card holders have a discounted flat rate applicable only on Saturday, Sunday and public holidays.. This is for a limited time and I am not sure when this discounted rate will be discontinued. A one-way drive from Iwaki to Narita airport costs about 6000 Yen only for Road toll on a regular day.

I will not elaborate on the other travel costs here since I intend to write a separate blog about traveling in Japan soon.

Electronic items:

Atleast for me Japan is synonymous with Electronics. Japan is and has been the world leader when it comes to electronic goods. There are hundreds of varieties of each product. There are lot of chain stores too like Yamada Denki or K’s Denki. If you live in or near Tokyo then you will surely be advised to pay a visit to Akihabara – the mecca for gadget lovers.

In case of most home appliances, the prices are comparable to other countries. What is good is that most of these products are made in Japan and not made in China. However we have observed that the cost of Washing machine (laundry machine as the locals call it) is exorbitantly high. Plus most laundry machines do not come with a hot water inlet . Another home appliance which is highly expensive is the dishwasher. Also the dishwasher is not a common appliance in most Japanese homes and you will hardly find a kitchen fitted with one. Also finding a dishwasher at the electronic stores can be a difficult task.

Most important to note is that Japan uses a 100 V voltage and frequency of electric current is 50Hz in central and eastern Japan .This covers Tokyo, Yokohama, Iwaki, Hokkaido and the entire Tohoku region, . The frequency is 60 Hz in Western Japan and this includes Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, Hiroshima , Fukuoka, Shikuoka, Kyushu and other places in the south and west of Japan.

Japanese electrical plugs have two identical flat prongs with a hole near each tip. These appear similar to the American plugs. I have heard that the American plugs work fine in Japan but Japanese plugs may not work in USA.

We use voltage step up transformer for small electronic appliances that we had carried from India and South Korea. We however use these appliances only once in a while and it is best not to use electronic items with the transformer for long periods or on regular basis. Also if you are planning to carry back any appliances to your home country from Japan, you might need a step down transformer and these are easily available at electronic stores across Japan.

If you are purchasing any electronic appliances in Japan, it is better to ask for the models which come with an inbuilt English menu. It is difficult to change the settings if the English menu is not available. Most items like microwave oven, refrigerator, oven, rice cooker, laundry machine etc do not have English menu and we have managed to identify the functions and which buttons to use with the help of our Japanese friends. We did manage to get a Television set with English menu though the remote control is purely in Japanese. For those who are aware, Japanese prefer the usage of Kanji ( derived from Chinese characters) and it is difficult even for most Japanese to decipher the difficult Kanji. Most appliances have these Kanji characters ! Moreover even the user manuals rarely come with an English language translation. Even the car navigation system that we use has only voice guidance and display in English, while the input is only in Japanese. We use only the telephone number or post code input option and as such have not encountered any problems on that front till now.

Japan is not always expensive and sometimes Japan can be affordable too. If you are a traveller on a shoestring budget, Japan has lot of affordable accommodations, travel options and cheap dining joints which will ensure that you haven’t missed out experiencing the country and its culture while you were here. If you intend to live like an expat, go to the most happening joints, eat food from your country then offcourse you should be willing to shell out more.

100 YEN Stores

100 Yen Stores or "Sen En" stores as they call it in Japanese are a boon for people looking for good bargains and value for money. A visit to a 100 Yen store is an eye opener. You start wondering if this is the same country which is so reputed for being expensive. You can find a huge variety of goods for a much lower price compared to the big stores. The range of products is wide. You can buy stationery, gardening equipment, pet food, plants, toiletries, toys, party stuff, school stuff, fashion accessories, cosmetics, home décor, cutlery, crockery, pots and pans, plastic and glass ware, clothing and even food stuff and small electronic items in these 100 yen stores. A visit to a 100 yen store gives you the satisfaction of leaving the store with bags full of goodies without burning a hole in your pocket. Some 100 yen stores have a great deal of Japanese souvenirs too so a trip to these stores is good if you want lots of gifts to carry back home. There are many 100 Yen stores but the most popular ones seem to be those part of the Daiso chain. Daiso has about 2500 stores all over Japan  with hundreds of overseas branches . Not everything is priced at 100 Yen but yes most of the products are priced at 100 yen. The others are also usually in multiples of 100. The interesting thing that we noticed is that when the price is 100 Yen there is usually no price tag but as the price increases to multiples of hundred the price tags are attached. But you should be aware that sales tax of 5% is added to the product . So for a product priced at 100 yen , you pay 105 yen and for 200 Yen you pay 210 Yen and so on. A visit to a 100 yen store is a must when you are in Japan.

Recycle Shops

You can find recycle shops easily in Japan. Usually they have the words Used or Recycled  written in English somewhere on the name board so you can spot them easily. You can find anything from used furniture, home accessories, toys,  used Kimonos, clothes , bicycles and  footwear in these shops. Usually the people from good financial background do not prefer these shops and that’s why you don’t see much crowds in these shops. Usually you can find people looking for antiques or garden décor items or people looking for items to fulfill short term needs in these shops. Not everything in these shops is used. You can find some things still in their original packaging and unused . This is because these are off the market and if you are lucky you can find some good bargains in these shops.

Off Season Stores:

We have come across some stores which have year round sales on the off season products.
You can buy winter clothing in peak summer for discounted prices. The discount can go upto 80% and if you are lucky you can really get a great bargain.

We saw one such store near our home.. It is called the Abe-Kobe Ya. We went in because we saw Christmas decorations including a Santa Claus effigy at the entrance in July. We saw jackets and snowboots etc on sale for 30-80% discount.  

To sum it up , it depends on each individual's lifestyle to define his or her stay in Japan as expensive or affordable.  I have tried my best to share as much information as possible based on my personal experience.

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