Several times, when I shared with others about my experience studying in a Japanese university, they would comment that Japan is ‘very expensive’. While the perception of Japan as a ‘costly place’ can be true depending on where you live, Japan is not necessarily a ‘very expensive’ place.
Of course, if you live in the capital city Tokyo, you would most likely spend way more on rent and living expenses than if you were to live in the outskirts of rural Hokkaido. That being said, a lot of reputable Japanese universities such as Tokyo University and Kyoto University are located in bustling cities with considerably higher living costs (compared to the rest of the country).
As a former international student in Japan, I found it tough to resist the urge to spend in face of the lure of the vibrant city life and endless entertainment options in Japan’s major urban centers like Tokyo and Osaka. Also, as my Japanese language proficiency was limited, monitoring local bargains written in Japanese proved to be a challenge. However, knowing some hacks on saving money as a university student in Japan, I managed to fulfill my dream of studying in Japan while not having to worry too much about money. I even had some spare cash to explore the various sights and sounds this island-nation has to offer. Here are some tips on how to save money as a university student in Japan below.
#1: Live in A Shared Housing/Dormitory
In addition to tuition fees, you may find yourself forking the most amount of money on accommodation in Japan, particularly if you have to live in a big city like Osaka or Tokyo. An apartment with a separate kitchen, called a 1K apartment in Tokyo can vary between 68,300 yen to 123,800 yen depending on the district or ward that it is located in. Thus, save some money by living in your university dormitory or a shared house. While you may have to forgo some of your privacy as common spaces like living and bathrooms have to be shared, you can save hundreds of dollars (or thousands of yen) as compared to living alone.
#2: Live in the Suburbs Instead Of The City Centre
Besides living in a school dormitory or a shared space, consider looking for a shared house in a suburban area further out from the city centre to further cut costs. Rent in suburban areas tends to be much more affordable. That being said, do your math and include the cost of transportation to your school as well as other places of interest that you may want to visit on a more regular basis, such as your part-time job location. When I was studying in Sophia University in Japan, I decided to rent a shared house in the suburbs of Musashi-Sakai station on the Chuo (Japan Railway) Line, instead of living near my university (in Yotsuya). By doing so, I could save tens of thousands of yen in monthly rent as rent in Yotsuya (near the city centre and government buildings) was way above my budget.
(Tokyo is a huge city, so living in the city centre can be unbearably expensive.)
#3: Get a Heated Blanket Or A Kotatsu In The Winter
Winter in Japan can be harsh, with strong and biting winds as well as frighteningly low temperatures. Therefore, staying warm is essential for your physical and mental well being. However, if you find the utility costs for heating at your rented place to be eating away at your budget, buy an affordable heated blanket sold at places like Don Quijote to heat your body up during the dreary winter nights. Moreover, consider getting a kotatsu that entails a low table with a special futon (or shitagake) placed over it. An electric heater attached underneath the table can keep your lower body very warm, especially if the place you are renting does not have under-floor heating. This heated table concept is way cheaper than an electric heater, and not only saves utility costs, but also saves on energy too! Get your kotatsu at places like Nitori for only around 5000 yen per piece.
(Winter in Japan can be harsh, and knowing how to heat yourself up is key.)
#4: Get a Commuter Pass
If you are regularly commuting between two stations for school or even your part time job, you should get a commuter pass that enables you to enjoy unlimited journeys between those two stations over a fixed period of time, for a fixed fee. This pass can help you cover multiple routes, based on your travel routes. This is because the majority of railway companies in Japan (especially in Tokyo) are private companies and not public ones. Each private railway company would then apply its own transportation fares to commuters. If you only use the railway owned by one private company from home to school or work, you may not find the cost that expensive. Even if you have to change trains, you only pay the distance if the other train belongs to the same company. However, if you have to make a train line change owned by two separate railway companies, your fare can skyrocket. If your daily route involves changing tracks owned by three different companies, your transportation fees could be burning a huge hole in your wallet. Therefore, save some money on your transportation expenses with a commuter’s pass known as the Teikiken.
Simply put, the teikiken is a commuter pass that is used to travel between two stations, usually from your home to work or from your home to school / university. If for example a trip from your house to work costs you 10,000 yen/month (counting two trips a day, 5 days), you could buy a teikiken (lasting 1, 3 or 6 months) that could offer you a discounted price on the particular route you are purchasing for.
(Transportation fees in Japan can be very expensive.)
#5: Scrimp whenever you can on food costs, household items and stationery
One thing that I remember fondly about my alma mater, Sophia University, is that its cafeterias served very affordable and nutritious meals with staples like soba, udon noodles and rice. For merely 400 yen or 500 yen for an entire meal set (a couple of years back), I could get a decent meal with a salad side and a bowl of miso soup! Hence, on those days when I finished class late in the evenings (and when I was lazy to cook), I found myself actually eating dinner in the school cafeteria before my final evening lecture began. In contrast, dinner sets at Japanese restaurants in Tokyo typically cost at least 1500 to 2000 yen. Furthermore, I found it way more economical to purchase basic household items or even cute decorations for my room from places like Daiso (where almost every product sold was around 100 yen). Some schoolmates obtained their household items cheaply by joining university student groups and obtaining pre-loved items from their seniors.
#6: Apply For A Discount Certificate From Your School To Enjoy Travel Discounts
You can enquire if your school can issue discount certificates or stamps for travel concessions. For example, Temple University in Tokyo issues a Student Travel Fare Discount Certificate for students to enjoy a 20% discount (Gakuwari) on regular base fare for train trips exceeding 100 km one way by Japan Railway lines. Students who wish to apply for this Discount Certificate would need to have both the current semester sticker and a valid commuter sticker (Tsugakushomeisho) on the student ID before applying for a Discount Certificate.
#7: Travel By Night Buses Instead of The Shinkansen
When you first think about traveling in Japan, the bullet train or Shinkansen may first come to mind. That being said, the Shinkansen is not the only travel option around Japan, especially for university students on a budget. Rather, night buses are cheaper and comfortable options for long term university students in Japan who cannot obtain the Japan Railway (JR) pass. Moreover, traveling from city to city on a night bus would effectively cover accommodation for one night as well. Contrast the price of a typical one-way Shinkansen ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto (14,110 yen) with the price of a cheap night bus ticket along the same route (around 3,800 yen). One of the most well-known and popular bus companies that operates night buses is Willer Express. Willer has a user-friendly English website where you can book bus tickets as well as pay by card or at a convenience store. After purchase, Willer will email your bus ticket to you. Furthermore, Kosoku Bus is a website that compares prices from several bus companies to enable travelers to make the most wallet-friendly decisions for their needs.
While it can be relatively more costly to study abroad in Japan as compared to studying at a local Singapore university, it does not have to be that way. Hopefully, these cost-saving tips will help you relieve some of your financial burdens so you can truly enjoy your life there!
And to satisfy your inner wanderlust at negligible cost, also check out these free things you can do in Tokyo!