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Stretching your Yen: How to make your money go further in Japan

OK, I’ll admit right from the start, I’m not good with money.

Indeed one of the reasons why you see my name on this site so often, along with a few others, is that, in addition to my full-time teaching job, I simply need to bring in more money to support myself.

It used to be a real hassle taking care of all the necessary bills from month to month. However, in recent months, I’ve uncovered a few small, yet very useful tricks for saving a little money here and there, and overall, now, I’m actually able to save some money each month.

It got me thinking, for travelers to Japan, both short and long term, some of these tricks may also prove useful. So, today I would like to share with you my top 5 hints and tips for saving money in Japan.

1) If possible, bring your own phone

Now, mobile phones in Japan, as many of my regular readers will know, have long been a bone of contention for me here. The frankly criminally high charges that the big 3 companies (namely Docomo, AU and Softbank) level on subscribers each month, along with the various “stealth charges” they sneak into your contract without being totally transparent, makes for a frustrating time. I have heard similar grumbles from visitors to Japan, who, as well as having difficulty obtaining a phone in the first place, also have to contend with what many believe to be excessive costs.

Photo: SophieSchieli on Flickr

Recently however, the government has introduced new measures to combat the monopolistic practices of the big 3, and one major area has been in making it much easier to bring you own phone into your contract, rather than being forced to buy a new one from your would-be provider.

For travelers, there are two ways you can save money here. Rather than pay the over-the-odds rental prices for a Japanese cell phone when you visit here, just bring your own, and makes sure it is unlocked and also compatible with Japanese networks.

The excellent website “” is a great place to check your device’s compatibility with the various networks in Japan.

From there, it’s just a case of buying a sim-card. Depending on how long you are staying you could either get a pre-paid sim, recommended if you are staying for a week or two, or a pay monthly sim (recommended if you are staying 2 months or more).

Pocket Wi-Fi options

Pocket Wi-Fi options

Photo: phil-it on Flickr

Typically, doing this will save you about 40% on the price of doing similar through one of the big three networks. The only potential problem is that many of these smaller sim-card networks only have guidance in Japanese at the moment, so it may be worthwhile to get a local friend to help you find the best deal.

However, if calls aren’t so important for you, and you are able to keep in touch via apps and social media, then an even cheaper option would be to rent a pocket wi-fi router. This typically costs around 5,000 yen per month, again about 30-40 percent cheaper than a conventional contract. These portable routers also have the additional bonus of being able to connect to multiple devices, so you can run your phone, laptop and iPad all off of one data subscription.

Pocket Wi-Fis are available at the airport, or can be pre-ordered online before you arrive in Japan.

2) The 100 yen shop is your best friend

For decades 100 yen shops in Japan have been a staple of the high street, offering household goods and small scale souvenirs at a rock bottom price. A more recent addition though has been the increase in 100 yen supermarkets, that, not only provide souvenirs and household implements, but also food, drinks and sanitation products.

Photo: throgers on Flickr

And, much like the 100 yen shops they spawned from, the lower price doesn’t necessarily mean lower quality. A few weeks ago, having just paid my tax bill, and still with about 5 days to go till payday, I found myself a bit strapped for cash.

The 100 yen supermarket across from my apartment became my savior. I was able to make delicious curry, tofu, pasta, and casserole dishes, for as little as 2 or 300 yen. Including the cost of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and my daily commute to and from work, I was able to make a single 10,000 yen note, last a whole week!

3) Where you can, walk

In today’s society of fast times and fast results, it is all too easy to think that the train and buses are our only means of transport.

For example, each day, to get to my job in Sakai City, I first have to take the subway from my home to Bentencho, which is two stops away. However, on a pleasant day, this walk can be done in about 20-30 minutes, and it is a very pleasant walk too.


Walk or cycle, both are good for health and good for saving a few bucks

Photo: halfrain on Flickr

So, not only can I save 15,000 yen per month by walking to Bentencho instead of taking the train, but I’m also getting fitter too!

Try it next time you have to take the train for one or two stops. You’ll be amazed at just how close together train stations in Japan actually are, especially in the larger cities.

4) Check your mailbox for coupons

If there’s one thing Japanese shoppers love, it is the feeling that they are getting a bargain. As such, I seem to be inundated with various discounts, money off coupons and promotional offers on an almost daily basis.

However, whereas in Scotland I would dismiss such nonsense out of hand, here in Japan, a lot of these coupons can actually be pretty good.

As a case in point, a friend and I were watching a soccer game recently and decided to order a pizza. Using the coupons I had be given with the latest menu, I was not only able to save about 15% on the price of the pizza, but I also got some free chicken nuggets and a bottle of coke too! These coupons aren’t just limited to residents either, stop by the restaurants in question and in many cases, you will find the coupons sitting on the counter ready to be used at will.

5) Bank your 500 yen coins

Photo: David Woo on Flickr

This is a simple one, yet probably the best piece of advice I ever received in all the time I’ve lived in Japan. Everytime you get a 500 yen coin in your change, don’t spend it, keep it and after just a couple of weeks, you’ll be amazed at the extra few thousand yen you have amassed. I once paid for a trip to Tokyo entirely from the proceeds.

As you can see, there are a number of small steps we can take to make our money go a little further in Japan, and believe me, after being here for several years, it really does make a big difference!

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