9 Things that are Cheaper in Japan

Japan definitely has the reputation of being expensive. I would have to agree. Housing in Japan is expensive. Groceries in Japan are expensive. Just plain buying stuff in Japan is expensive.

When I say Japan is expensive, I mean compared to my experiences living on both the east and west costs of the U.S. (relatively pricey regions in the U.S.). Even compared to Los Angeles and Boston, the prices of many goods and services in Japan make me think twice. According to the Wall Street Journal, Tokyo ranks among one of the most expensive cities on the planet (right there along with London, New York, and Geneva) as of April 2015.

While Japan is definitely expensive, there are actually a surprising number of things that can be cheaper in Japan (at least in my experience).

Here are 9 things that are definitely worth buying in Japan:

  1. Fish

Japan is the land of seafood. (It is after all an island nation!) The wonderful abundance of ocean access in Japan means that fish (and most seafood) is quite cheap. The first time I visited Japan, I was amazed to see sashimi-grade fish sold in regular grocery stores. Usually in Boston, I had to hunt to find a special fish market that sold sashimi-grade fish (and it was always at a premium). But in Japan it is everywhere, and at bargain bin prices!

So fish is definitely a great buy in Japan! I would especially recommend mackerel (which is my absolute favorite fish) and sea scallops.

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  1. Chicken Breasts

Not thighs or drumsticks, just the breasts. I am not sure why white meat is so cheap in Japan. It might have something to do with Japan’s love of fatty meats. Whatever the reason, plain old chicken breasts are quite inexpensive in Japan. Surprisingly though, whole chickens are pricey! During senior year of college when I was cooking for myself, I often enjoyed roasted chicken. It was easy and cheap. I was shocked to see that a whole chicken in Japan can easily top $30!! Maybe the lack of demand for whole chickens (after all, most houses in Japan do not have the ovens required to roast chickens) accounts for the premium prices on whole chickens.

Yum! Raw chicken breast…! (Surprisingly good actually, once I got over my fear of food poisoning.)

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  1. Oil Blotting Sheets

Okay, so this one is pretty specific.

For the uninitiated, oil blotting sheets are pocket-sized filmy sheets that are used to blot excess facial oil. The sheets start out opaque and then turn transparent as they absorb oil. The sheets remove oil but otherwise do not smudge make-up. I use more of these sheets in a day than I would like to admit… Especially whenever it feels like my glasses are sliding down my face.

In the U.S., a couple of brands sell them, including Sephora, Clean & Clear, and the store brand of Target. Japanese offerings are vast. There are blotting sheets made from rice paper, similar to the ones traditionally used by geisha. Others have powder for an extra layer of oil protection. My favorite type absorbs not only oil, but also sweat! The price is fantastic (roughly around 4 cents per sheet, compared to 10 cents in the U.S.). Whenever I visit Japan, blotting sheets are always on the top of my things-to-buy list. On my last visit, I stocked up on 10 packages (or, 700 sheets!).

Oil blotting sheets are called “aburatorigami” in Japan, and can be easily found at any pharmacy, cosmetic store, or even convenience store. Perhaps the most famous brand is “Tatcha.” However, these are pretty luxurious oil blotting sheets (made of 100% abaca leaf and with flakes of gold leaf!). In my opinion, the simple drugstore versions are just as good. Some common brands are STF (maker of my favorite sweat/oil combo sheets), Shiseido, and Kose.

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  1. Castles and Shrines

Especially for visitors to Japan, the low entrance fees into castles and shrines are a fantastic bargain! Usually the grounds of the site are open to the public. You can enjoy the landscaping and traditional architecture totally for free. My top recommendation is Fushimi-Inari Shrine in Kyoto, which has over 1000 red gates lining the paths. It is a beautiful hike to the top and there is a great spot for soft serve along the way! At some castles, you might have to pay to go inside but usually the cost of admission is modest, just a couple of dollars. I even saw one place where you could go inside a Buddha sculpture for 10 cents!

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  1. Medical Care

I have only gotten to enjoy Japan’s national health care system once, when I was living in Kyoto for a year. And fortunately, I was pretty healthy so I never had to visit the office for being sick. However, I did have two physicals during that year! (Both were for Japanese scholarship applications, where I had to show proof of good health.)

For the first physical, I visited a small doctor’s office; and for the second, I went to a large hospital near the university where I was studying. Both times, I was amazed by the efficiency of the system. The first visit I had an appointment about a month ahead of time. When I showed up, I simply handed over my medical insurance card and explained that I was there for a physical. I hardly waited and the entire appointment was completed in less than an hour. I really enjoyed the polite and gentle treatment from the nurses and doctor. After taking a blood sample, the nurse placed a fuzzy blue fleece band over the bandaid to soothe the area and protect it. It was quite comforting after getting stuck with a needle. In the end, I paid about $50 for the physical.

My second appointment felt a bit less personal but again was incredibly efficient. Even though I showed up without an appointment, I could be seen right away. I followed a series of colored lines on the floor around the hospital to go from one testing room to another. In the course of an hour, I had blood drawn, my vision checked, my heart monitored, chest X-rays taken, and a physical exam. All for less than $100!

  1. Hotel Rooms

This one is a little tricky… Hotel rooms can be cheaper in Japan. That is because hotel prices in Japan are based on number of occupants, while prices in the U.S. are based on the room. In other words, if two people stay in a room in Japan, the cost is doubled. But in the U.S., if you reserve a room with two beds, whether there are two guests or one, the price is the same. For someone like myself, who often travels alone in Japan, it is usually cheaper to get a hotel room compared to the U.S. In Japan, I can request a single occupancy room, while in the U.S. I might have to pay for a room that could sleep two or even four people (even though I am alone).

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  1. Tea

Tea is the national beverage of Japan. It is everywhere! Instead of water, tea is often the default drink served at restaurants in Japan. If you visit someone’s house, they will likely offer you a pot of tea (along with some delicious snacks). When you want to hang out and chat with someone, rather than saying, “Want to grab a coffee” you ask, “How about some tea or something?”

  1. Prepared Foods

This puzzles me every time I visit Japan. Grocery stores in Japan have large sections of prepared foods – fried food, grilled meat, salads, sushi. The puzzling part is that the prepared foods often cost less than buying the raw ingredients and making it yourself. And if you wait for the “end of day” sales that happen at most grocery stores around 7 or 8pm, the prices are even lower! I still do not quite understand the economics of this system. Maybe it is similar to sausages being cheaper than good cuts of meat? Perhaps grocery stores uses less-than-the-freshest foods to make prepared foods for the next day. Whatever the reason, I honestly love prepared foods at the grocery store. The food is awesome and the options are fun to explore.

  1. Shipping Rates

Regular postage is roughly equal in Japan to the U.S. But shipping services in Japan are an excellent bargain. If you are going to be traveling in Japan for any distance and you have a large suitcase, I would strongly encourage you to take advantage of shipping services. Many companies even have locations inside the airport, so that you can ship large suitcases directly to (or from) the airport. So much easier than dragging your suitcase on the train! I shipped a very heavy and very large rolling suitcase across Japan for less than $20. And it arrived the very next day!

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