“Stretching Your Yen” – A Survival Guide to Study Abroad in Japan


This is it! The big one! The one everyone’s been waiting for! I’ve received countless requests from multiple people, asking me to write a blog on my experience with making a very small amount of money go a very long way. It is possible, even in an expensive country like Japan. It’s not always easy, but follow this guide and it will not only enhance your experience, it will keep more money in your pocket for things you REALLY want to do.

Tip #1 – Brown Bag It!

I love Japanese food. When I first came to Japan, I wanted to eat at every restaurant I saw. This is obviously not a good idea. The average meal for lunch at food stands and shops in Japan is anywhere from about 500-900 Yen. “Well, what does that mean to me?”, you might ask yourself. Well, you do the math. I’ll even be nice and stay on the cheap end of this one for you. Let’s say 500 Yen for lunch every day. That’s 5 x 500 = 2,500 Yen per week. One term at KCP is roughly 12 weeks. Again, 2,500 x 12 = 30,000 Yen. “English please?” That’s about $360 over the course of 12 weeks just for food. Once again, I was nice in assuming you would go for the 500 Yen lunch every day. But, life doesn’t work like that. Sometimes, you’re going to want the 900 Yen lunch just because it looks, tastes, and or smells better, which quickly depletes your funds. Trust me, I know. I did this for the first 3 weeks. That is, until I learned the tricks. Living with a Japanese family, I learned a lot of things that most of the students don’t learn because they live in dorms and not with native Japanese people. So, here’s the secret. Japanese people are very conservative when it comes to resources. One phrase that you will learn and appreciate when you come to Japan is “Mottainai” which means wasteful. But when used in Japan, it expresses a sense of regret for wasting food. Because of this outlook on not wasting resources like food, every night, about 30 minutes before any local grocery store or convenience store closes, all of the prepared food goes half-price. In Japanese, it’s called “Han-gaku” so I hope you’re taking notes. The terms will come in handy when you get here.  The selection is also usually very generous if you get there early enough. On average, I spend maybe about 150 – 200 Yen a day on lunch. This is a considerable amount of savings. Invest in a bento (lunch) box from the Hyaku-Yen (pronounced En) store, which is basically a dollar store, and you’ve just cut your food expense in half over the course of your term. Congratulations!

Tip #2 – Become an Explorer

Who said you have to have money to have fun? If you have an adventurous spirit, take a hike, literally. Japan is huge when you’re traveling on foot. It may take some motivation depending on your lifestyle, but pick a direction and just walk for a few hours. You will see places and things in Japan most foreigners will never see. “Why is that?”, you ask. Well, to be frank, most students stay within the city and don’t care to venture into the unknown, unless its accessible by train. If they get lost, it’s easy to get back. The train and subway system is the most efficient transportation system in the world. Getting lost in mainstream areas of the country is really tough. But take a trip to a city only locals have heard of, not only will you impress them by saying you’ve been to such an unusual (for tourists) place, but you will find things that may interest you more than what the city has to offer. Public bath houses, car and motorcycle showrooms, and really great food, just to name a few. I usually saved these trips for the weekends when I have lots of free time. Becoming one with your surroundings is the name of the game. In Japan, it doesn’t matter if you speak great Japanese. If you try hard to blend in and act as the Japanese act, you will be much more accepted by the Japanese.

Tip #3 – Don’t Shop in the City

When I first got to Shinjuku, I was mesmerized by all of the department stores and shops available. Uniqlo, Bic Camera, Isetan… If you’re looking to take out a second mortgage and/or file for bankruptcy, by all means, this is the place to start. But once again, venture outside of the city. Find places that are maybe 40 minutes away by train. These places are usually less populated, and seemingly suburban compared to places like Shinjuku, but their local department stores will usually have the same items for much better prices. *Little known fact – Walmart is in Japan. They operate under the name Seiyu, a department store chain they acquired a few years ago.* Here you can find some really cool things you can’t find in the states, but under the “Homestay’s” label, so it’s pretty inexpensive.

Tip #4 – Don’t Fall for Tourist Traps

I can’t stress this point enough. As a study abroad student, whether it be with KCP or any other school in Japan, you will likely have some sort of excursions in which you will travel to a popular tourist location for lessons in history or just sightseeing. However, these places sell things for a reason. Most tourists may not be traveling many other places out side of them. So coupled with the high tourist population and overpriced good, they are guaranteed to make a pretty penny off each item. Especially knowing that most tourist will want to bring home gifts from where they’ve visited. Don’t fall for this. You now have the knowledge. Save yourself the money and the regret. You can find stores that sell similar items for much cheaper. Items that are exclusive to that place are the exception. You really have to use your own discretion and decide if you want that shirt from Tokyo Disney Land or that $100 Noh Mask from Asakusa.

Tip #5 – Travel Light

Your going to be in Japan for at least 3 months. So, how exactly do you plan to get that 200lbs. Red Oak dresser to Japan anyway? Exactly, you absolutely do not need 5 suitcases filled with clothes and junk. Bring enough underwear (socks, undershirts, underpants) for about 1 and a half weeks, about 5 days worth of outfits, 1 or 2 dressy type outfits, and maybe some workout clothes if you need them. That’s all you need. It’s called doing laundry and I recommend it at least once a week. Part of your experience abroad is to become independent, learn responsibility, and to learn to take care of yourself. This is a good start that will save you tons on fees at the airport, and I’ll tell you why. You have family and friends back home, don’t you? Chances are, you’re going to want to bring home gifts. If this is the case, you’re going to need at least 1 or 2 extra suitcases from gifts alone. Add that to the 5 you already have, and you’re looking at a few hundred dollars in baggage fees when you come home. Travel as light as possible. Bring one bag with all of your clothes and necessities, and 1 or 2 other bags. You can check up to 2 bags for free (depending on your airline) and carry one one bag and one personal item (laptop, instrument, small bag). Get here with as little as possible because I promise you, unless you lose your luggage, you will be going home with more than you came with.

Tip #6 – Get Involved in School Activities

Over the course of the semester at KCP, I attended a few cooking classes. They offer these cooking classes as: 1.) A way to help the students meet and socialize with Japanese students from local universities, and 2.) To teach the student (specifically the long-term students) how to cook so they can save money on food. This is a great way to learn how to make great-tasting food and save money at the same time. The classes usually cost a few hundred Yen to attend, but that’s really for the ingredients that you’ll be using. And I think it’s a small price to pay. After all, you’re learning something invaluable. You’re learning to live on your own. Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he can eat for a lifetime.

Tip #7 – Try Data Only

Everyone has and/or needs a cell phone nowadays, myself included. But, what price are you willing to pay? In Japan, they have prepaid cell phones available to foreigners who will be in the country for a while and they’re not really that expensive. However, you can’t make calls to the U.S. without a hefty fee and how many people do you really know in Japan just yet? I’m not saying it’s a bad option, I’m simply saying it’s not the only option. However, keep in mind also, you cannot just buy a prepaid sim card from a Japanese carrier and stick it in your phone. But these do exist in Japan, but many people don’t know about them. If you have a smart phone and can get in unlocked by your service provider before you come to Japan, this may be the best way to go. The service provider is called B-Mobile. They offer sim cards that give access to Japanese mobile networks, but you can access data only. This is not a major issue if you are handy with finding cool apps for your phone. Using WiFi or data, you can make calls to the U.S. for free using apps like Talkatone, which sends calls through Google Voice. There are texting apps too. Heywire, Line, and Skype are some that I use. These apps are all free. If you want to make calls within Japan, you can make cheap international calls through Skype. If you have friends who have some of the same apps as you, Heywire or Line, for instance, you can make calls and send texts for free. I highly recommend this. Of course, many of these apps require registration on the phone, so install them before you leave the states, otherwise you won’t be able to install them when you’re here. Using the B-Mobile sim card, you will be given a Japanese phone number that is used for the purpose of identifying and connection your phone to the data network, but it cannot make or receive calls or texts. The card costs about 9,500 Yen (about $115) and is initially valid for up to 4 months. They start you with 1GB of data. Use this data sparingly and it will last you the entire term. Operate within WiFi whenever possible. I would advise against streaming videos while using data as they will eat your data alive. If for whatever reason you run out within the 4 months, you can recharge for about $40, which also extends the validity term of the sim itself. If you have questions about this seemingly complex process, feel free to email me.

Tip #8 – Make Friends Before you Come to Japan

This is not only a great way to prepare for the trip and learn about the culture, but it’s a great way to make a pen-pal, practice your speaking skills, and learn to live as a local. There are sites, like Japan-guide.com, where you can look for language exchange partners in Japan. You have the ability to look for people in certain regions as well. So, if you know you’re going to be in Tokyo, you can look for people in Tokyo. This is a great tool because once you can develop a relationship with these pen-pals, they will likely help you adjust to life in Japan when you get here. In addition to obviously being able to read, write and speak the language fluently, they will know the best spots, they will know how to save money, and they will help you learn and adapt in any way they can. If a goal is to make connections around the world, this would be a great place to start.

Tip #9 – Make Studying your First Priority

As with any student, you’re going to want to go out and see the city, hang out with friends, and so on. However, don’t forget the reason you’re here in the first place. You’re here to learn. You are a student and your schoolwork should come second to nothing while you’re abroad. While abroad, you are a representative of your country. Don’t be that guy/girl who always wants to party and get wasted, never comes to class on time (or at all), and treats the experience like a vacation. You will not make friends this way, at least not with the right people. I’m also not saying you have to spend 6 hours a night studying (although some of the teachers at KCP might recommend it). But you know yourself well enough to know how much time and effort you need to put towards your studies. Do it. By spending more time studying, not only are you setting yourself up for success in the school, but you’re also spending less time clubbing, shopping, eating, wasting money, etc. Make this time abroad count. It can open doors for you that would not be available otherwise.

Coming to Japan been the greatest experience of my life (thus far). I am happy to have been able to share my experience and these money-saving tips with all of you. I am on my own journey, heading towards new and unexplored horizons in international education. I wish the best to all students in their future endeavors. I wish success to those who work hard for it. I wish discipline and motivation to those who lack them. I wish goals for those who have not yet started the mission. And last but not least, I wish happiness and peace to all. Maybe one day, our paths will meet and we can learn from each other.

Until then, Sayonara.