This is the first post from our new author Leon. Leon is a web developer and is raising a family in Japan, so he knows all too well the importance of frugality. Be sure to leave and comment, and if you’d like to hear more from Leon and I, then subscribe to the feed!
Being frugal about your transport in Japan takes a little knowledge. I prefer a motorbike for everyday use, but I also have a car for the family and transporting stuff around.
While you can pick up a late model car for a fraction of what it would cost you back home, you need to be aware of the fees structure here. A 5-door regular sedan will cost you upwards of ¥100,000 a year for registration, taxes and jibaiseki (mandatory 3rd party insurance).
A “k-car” or keijidousha on the other hand – which is any car with about 660cc of grunt – will only set you back a few man per year for the same.
It is usually easier to find a good price on a futsusha, regular sedan or bigger car. But when you factor in the increase in fuel, fees and parts costs, the total cost of ownership of a k-car will be significantly lower.
K-cars also get a discount when you use highways or toll roads. A ¥700 toll, for example would usually be ¥500 yen in a k-car (or 250cc motorbike!). Keep in mind though that k-cars are only allowed to carry 4 people at a time, including the driver for a combined weight of I think 200 – 350kgs.
When buying a car, I strongly encourage budding frugalistas to pay the extra for nihoken or 2nd level insurance. This is similar to fully comprehensive cover back home and there are various plans available. Why spend the extra money? The mandatory jibaiseki, which is illegal to drive without, only covers you up to ¥1,000,000. The minimum cost of damages just for hitting a jidouhanbaiki (a vending machine) is ¥5,000,000! You can imagine how many more lifetimes worth of pay-checks you will be paying if you injure a real person!
As with all frugal things and life in general: failing to plan is planning to fail.
Stay tuned for a follow up on 2-wheeled frugalistic fun!
Since coming to Japan a good friend introduced me to boardgames, more specifically to what is commonly known as designer boardgames, or eurogames – called such because they generally come from Europe and the game designers name is strongly associated with the game to extent of being printed boldly on the box. These boardgames are nothing like your typical chance-based family games such as Monopoly and Game of Life, where the outcome is decided almost 90% on the roll of dice; instead they are mostly strategy-based, and for that reason they tend to have a lot more depth and whole lot more replayability. They generally aren’t suitable for children due to the sometimes complex rule systems, but adults will get a lot more from these kinds of games. You can also get better at these games the more you play them, developing your strategies. These are games that will make you think!
How are Eurogames frugal?
Though Eurogames games are generally expensive (most are around 5,000~10,000円) you will find yourself playing them for a lifetime. They are an entertainment investment, and will reward you many times over compared to other forms of entertainment. Instead of going out for a night on the town and hitting up the local gaijin bar for an evening of complaining about the JET programme and your JTEs non-existant English ability, get some friends round and host a game night! You get all the benefits of going out (drink, socialising, and complaining if you really want) but it’s a whole lot cheaper and more rewarding in the long-run.
Anyway, let me introduce you to my top 3 eurogames…
I strongly suggest Catan if you’ve never played a Eurogame before. It was the first game I ever played and has very simple rules. It has a good balance of chance and skill too, so it’s a great game for both new players and seasoned veterans. It is the most requested game at my house, and it’s great if you have a mix of English and Japanese speakers as there’s very little language-dependency on the cards etc. The basic version of the game is for 3-4 players.
Basic gameplay consists of collecting resources according to where you have placed your towns, then using those resources wisely to expand or upgrade your empire. The hexagonal board tiles are randomized each time you play, and the numbers on top of those tiles (also random) indicate when you can receive that particular resource. Each turn, a pair of dice are rolled – the sum of which shows which squares produce a resource that turn; any town built around the resource receives one of that resource type. The win condition is having a certain number of points; points are obtained by building towns, cities (upgraded towns) and the longest road. It’s a very simple game mechanic and there are numerous different strategies for winning. Trading between players is also a big aspect to the game.
Right now you can it looks at though you can buy the American version through Amazon Japan (though strangely the Japanese version has sold out) for 5,600円. I would suggest the American version anyway though, as there are expansion packs available for Catan that you might want to get at a later point which aren’t compatible with the Japanese version due to different tile sizes etc.
Carcassonne is a little more complicated and probably something I would introduce to people after they’ve tried Catan. Gameplay consists of drawing a tile from the deck and connecting it to one already placed; the only chance element comes in with this drawing of a tile – there are no dice. Once you’ve placed your tile – be it a piece of road, a piece of castle, or a church – you then have the opportunity to “claim” that item by placing one of little men on it (technically they are called “meeples”, though I couldn’t tell you why). Finishing your road or castle will get you some points, and the player with the most points wins the end of the game. There’s no language-specific requirements at all (everything is graphical) so this is also a great game for mixed language sessions, assuming you can explain the game or print out the instructions in your language.
Up to 5 players, Agricola is a recent acquisition for me and quickly becoming one of my favourites. It is however pretty language intensive and I really recommend getting the English version either from Yahoo auctions or importing it from America. You will also need a large table to play on as there’s quite a lot of bits to this game, and a lot of time (the rules estimate about 30 minutes per player – assuming they know the basics).
The concept of the game is to build a farm during the harsh times of the middle ages. You score points for having a well built, productive and varied farm – with bonus points for card-based house improvements like an oven etc. Each round you choose one action per family member from a limited action choice. At the start of the game, you’re only real choices are which resources to gather – but every round a new action is revealed that you can choose. At a certain point, and assuming you have built enough rooms in your house, you are given the option of having children. Growing your family which means you get more actions each round, but come harvest time you have more mouths to feed. Again, the game outcome is based almost entirely on your choices – the only chance enters the game with the improvement and job cards you are dealt at the start (although these can be very powerful sometimes).
It’s also a great value game as there are 3 different decks of cards that are included (a total of 350!) of increasing complexity – so when you feel you’ve outgrown the easy deck and your players are experienced enough, you switch over to the “interactive” deck, the cards of which appropriatly deal bonuses to interactions of players and combinations of cards in play rather than basic improved resource gathering or simple bonuses.
If you fancy playing some of these games and you live in Kyoto city, drop me a line and we’ll try and get something organized. I have a small gaming group, but the pressures of work, studies, family and research projects mean we are always down a few players.
Over the last year or so there have been some amazing new sites on the intertubes that I personally believe can take your Japanese to the next level. Today I’d like to introduce those to you – hopefully saving you some pennies in the process.
Note that these sites are really not for absolute beginners. Before you start learning in this way, you really should have the basic Japanese grammar rules down, such as knowing all the different possible verb conjugations and tenses etc. From here on out, your only problem should be lack of vocabulary and fluency errors. That is where these sites come in.
Working on your fluency in a language is a big problem for most people. In speaking situations, there are constants debates over whether one should be even be directly corrected iKnow is a “social learning platform“. Ignoring the social aspect of it though, what we have here is a personalized vocabulary trainer with proven method to help you remember the kanji and the meaning. Essentially, it shows you some vocab flashcards and pronounces them, then tests you on them with a variety of increasingly difficult testing methods (starting at multiple choice of meaning given the Japanese with a choice of 4, then 8, then choosing the Japanese reading given only the English meaning, and finally typing the reading straight from memory). You do this daily, and each time the system reinforces previously studied vocabulary. It sounds simple, but it does it so well and is honestly effective. There’s a huge variety of courses, not just Japanese for English speakers, and you can even create your own vocab lists (with voice recordings) for yourself or others to study from. What really makes the sites stand out is just the slick interface and how well everything is tied together. You can even subscribe to a automagically generated personalized podcast which contains example sentences of all the vocab you studied the previous day.
Working on your fluency in any language is a big issue. As for speaking, debates rage on as to whether it is ever appropriate to correct someone if they are understood, so this is something you will have to work out yourself with the people you communicate with on a daily basis. As for your writing fluency though – wouldn’t it be great if there was somewhere you could have your written work corrected by a native, even better if it was all free? Well, such a site does exist. Lang-8.com is precisely that. Again, a kind of social network with friend connections and blogging (or journals, as the site refers to them), but with one major differece – your journal entries are corrected by a native, usually within minutes. Of course in order for this to be free, there has to be some kind of exchange going on. The beauty of the site is that the exchange part of correcting journals is all automated – you don’t have to search for an exchange partner, you don’t have to keep correcting one particular persons journal. Instead when you login you are given a short list of journals entries written in your native language that are awaiting corrections; correct them and the system will add points to your account. Next time you add a journal entry, assuming you have points, your entry will be displayed on the awaiting correction list for other users. In my experience, my journal entries written in Japanese have been corrected by around 3 people all within the space of a few minutes of publishing. Of course, I also regularly correct others Englishs journals if I have 10 minutes free.
Both sites require a valid email address to register, but I can personally confirm they are spam free. If you’d to add my me as a study-buddy (!?), my username for both sites is “w0lfi3” (careful with the zero and a three in there…)
If you liked this article and would like to subscribe to our feed for more down the line, click here. If you don’t know what subscribing to a feed means, you can find out more here. By subscribing, you will also be donating $0.50 towards a micro loan once I reach my first goal of 50 subscribers. At the time of publishing, we are currently at the grand total of 5 readers, so there is a long way to go yet!
GaijinStuff is another site of mine that I started a few months before this one. It’s essentially a free classifieds site, but it has a specific category for “free stuff”. I’m hoping that eventually it’ll turn into the FreeCycle of Japan, with people listing everything to give away. It’s a little Kyoto-centric right now as it’s difficult to get free advertising across Japan, but you guys can change that. It’s super easy to use and only requires registration to list items, not to respond to ads.
Personally it’s been a great tool for me to get rid of junk that’s only really worth a couple of hundred yen, if anything. But by giving it away for free, I achieve a number of distinctly wonderful things:
The item no longer goes into the trash. In some cases with large objects and appliances / electrical goods, this is actually a direct saving since you normally have to pay to have those collected and disposed of.
Someone else will have use of the item, so the responsibility for all production waste and transport costs that it took to make that item can now be morally shared with another person.
It means that someone will not be putting cash and profits back into the worthless consumerist system and giant corporations that drive our modern life. If enough people did this, they would realise the system needs to be rethought.
I am connecting with people! When someone comes to collect the item, I get to meet someone. Maybe this will result in nothing more than “hi, here’s your stuff, take care now”, but maybe it will turn out to be a half hour thoroughly interesting conversation with a complete stranger.
Anyway, please go take a look at the site and browse the stuff on there. If you have anything you’d like to give away, it’s really easy to register and post your item so please do. It would also be a really big help if you could link to the site on your Japan related blog, or tell your friends about it. If you have any comments about the site, please write them on this page or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org
ps: the subscriber count is still too low to fund my first micro loan to a needy entrepreneur. If you’d like to help me reach my goal of 50 subscribers and hence fund my first micro loan of $25, all you need to do is subscribe to the feed using your favorite feed reader. If you have no idea what subscribing to a feed means, then click here to read all about syndication.
One of the reasons I started this site and began to seriously examine my personal lifestyle and spending habits was so that I would be able to give more back to support those less fortunate. I think sometimes that I have it rough – that I’m only just about going to be able to pay the rent and utilities this month – but then is time to consider the billions of families around the world who live on less than $1 a day.
Until recently, I was quite unaware of the concept of micro loans. The idea is that you lend money (in this case via Kiva) to a business or individual that is struggling to survive or even to get off the ground due to lack of financing. The micro loan gives them the capital they need to get started, and by using that investment wisely they will soon be providing not only for their own families, but also employing other local workers and building a real economy.
Kiva is the world’s first person-to-person micro-lending website, empowering individuals to lend directly to unique entrepreneurs in the developing world
So how can you help? Apart from going and loaning $25 or more yourself, you could just subscribe to my RSS feed. For each subscriber I will pledge $0.50 towards a micro loan. Our first target is 50 subscribers, at which point I will choose a recipient for a micro loan of $25.
You can see how far I am towards my target on the feedburner widget on the sidebar so you’ll know how close we are to the target. When the target is hit, I’ll donate the micro loan (you’ll be able to check on my lender profile at Kiva) and we’ll set a new target! It’s never been easier to help by doing nothing!
If you think this is a great idea and you’re willing to subscribe to the feed to help out, please go check out the wonderful FreeMicroloan site where you can do the same there too!
Am I crazy? Am I seriously advising you to be frugal by getting a credit card? Well, yes actually I am, and I’ll explain why.
The absolute best part of having a card is getting an itemized bill at the end of month that tells you exactly where every yen went. In most countries, internet banking allows similar functionality if you use your banks debit card, but sadly the Japanese banking systems are stuck somewhere between 1910 and 1960, so your only way to get this functionality is with a credit card.
Using the itemized bill for December last year, I was able to break down my credit card spending as follows.
Now you can truly start budgeting and take control of your finances.
It’s not often you can get nothing for free, but credit card points are really one of those times. Even if the point percentage is 1% (1 point for every ¥100 you spend), that’s still going to add up over the years you are in Japan. There’s a pretty good selection of products you can choose from including kitchen appliances and short breaks in a traditional Japanese ryokans (at least with my Aeon card, which I thoroughly recommend). Get even more out of your investment payments and utility bills (gas, keitai, internet, electricity) by having them go through your card too. My average monthly credit card bill comes to about ¥150,000 yen, but that includes ¥50,000 that I invest into a managed fund and all my utilities, all of which are getting me an extra 1% return in points!
Getting a Card in Japan:
Most foreigners in Japan are unable to get credit cards, even directly with their banks. I only managed to get one after 2 years of being here. You will have to wait too, this is unavoidable. You can complain that this is discrimination all you want, but then consider that most foreigners end up staying for a year or less.: But to avoid having to wait even longer though, make sure you always pay your phone and utilities bills on time. In addition, when applying for the card always select the lowest possible credit rating and lowest withdrawal limit (you shouldn’t be using it as a credit source anyway if you’re following my advice).
Avoiding the credit part of credit cards:
When you set up your credit card, choose to have the entire balance paid off each month. This is the easiest way to never get into debt. As a responsible adult, you should be quite capable of realising how much you earn each month and therefore roughly how much your personal absolute limit on your card is. Do not make large purchases on a credit card unless you can split up the payments interest-free directly with the shop involved, or unless you know you have the cash in the bank to be able to pay it straight off. For example, Sofmap computer store allows you to break a payment into 6 months at no extra cost, so purchasing a new computer is not impossible (although you’re much better off upgrading instead, and always buy a desktop tower style computer for regular home use – not a laptop).
The internet has brought us wonderful things, but restraint is certainly not one of them. Before the internet came along, shopping was an outing, an effort – you had to actually GO and FIND the item you wanted before you could buy it. This gave us enough time to seriously consider the purchase. But online shopping changed all of that.
This is especially relevant here in Japan, where we tend to crave items of our own culture – “foreign” food, English language video games, books actually worth reading – and oftentimes the internet is the easiest and most convenient way to purchase. Then, once you get your Japanese language skills down, you have a whole new world of Japanese shops online to battle with! There’s no end to the impulse purchasing madness, and it used to bring me right back down to ZERO a few days after each pay check to pay off the credit card.
Assuming for one that you’re not willing to trash your credit card, and yet you’re willing to accept that perhaps you are addicted to online shopping (as I myself am), then I think I may have a genuinely workable solution for you! Wait for it… Scrapbooking!
Here’s what I started doing a while ago now: whenever I find something I think I want to buy on the internet, whatever it may be, I print a copy of the page – just something with a little picture and price tag or something is sufficient. Then I cut out the picture and paste it into my “want to get” net-shopping-prevention scrapbook. Just the fact that I now have it pasted in there is often enough ~ it’s not so much that I really desperately wanted to buy it, more that I wanted to remember it’s existence beyond a mere Firefox bookmark. Hard-copy visual bookmarking I guess you could call it. Then, assuming you do actually want some of the stuff you pasted into your book, you can flick through it at the end of the month and give yourself ¥10,000 limit to go crazy.
Don’t try the impossible if you know it’s not going to work for you – be reasonable. Good luck, and let me know how it works out for you in the comments.
I think many people still have hang-ups about living in shared housing, but there are an awful lot of benefits I’d like to discuss if you follow some basic advice. Let me first state that when I say “shared housing” I do not mean the gaijin houses that seem to proliferate the cheaper areas of town with tiny rooms, generally poor conditions and horrendous landlords – instead I mean getting together with a group of friends and finding a nice big place to live in. This can especially work out well if you’re entering into your 2nd or 3rd year on the JET programme and are sick of the rat-cage your B.O.E. arranged for you when you first arrived. I spent my entire university career living with up to 8 other friends in some really impressive houses, and I’ve lived in a few shared houses in Japan, so I have had just every kind of issue and argument that can arise.
First though, Why live in shared housing?
You will save a lot of money by cooking in larger amounts, not to mention you will be taking it in turns so you no longer have to cook every night of the week.
You will become a better cook, because your house mates will tell you when your cooking sucks and will help you to improve
Internet connections nowadays are fast enough (in Japan at least) to support up to around 10 simultaneous users and no one will experience any reduced speed. Our connection costs ¥4,000 a month, so by splitting between 4 of us, we save ¥36,000 every year. That’s enough to buy an Xbox360, so you can all game together!
Movie nights. Every movie is better when you watch it with a friend, so cut all the hassle of arranging to have friends over by just living with them~ make every night a movie night!
Don’t underestimate the power of having an on-hand support group to get you through those depressions that most foreigners in Japan get to at some point.
Shared furniture and appliances. What a better way to show you’re now a non-consumer than by using someone else’s couch or widescreen TV!
Especially for couples, living with other people can really help to defuse heated situations and give each a break occasionally. It’s a great half-way point between living by just the two of you and living separately.
But in order to make it all happen smoothly and to successfully stay friends with these people, let’s have a look at some of the issues involved with shared housing, specifically in Japan but these could equally be applied anywhere.
The only real downside that so many are keen to point out is the lack of privacy. In my experience, this has never been an issue in the slightest. As long as you move in with close friends only and keep it that way, along with some ground-rules, this really shouldn’t arise. I have been living in a house of 4 for over a year now, and not one of our bedroom doors has lock on it – this is the norm in a typical Japanese house. This simply hasn’t bothered any of us, including the girls. The most important thing is trust and a basic common courtesy – knock and ask politely before opening a door, don’t go into rooms without permission etc. It’s really not that big a deal among friends, but I think some people need to get over their ingrained idea that everything needs to be locked to be kept safe.
Again, this is a basic common courtesy issue and more or less about choosing your friends wisely. Japanese houses are especially vulnerable to noise pollution, so you need to be more considerate than ever. I used to live next-door a to a South African (next-door, not even in a shared house), and the screams the girl made when they were… really, just unbelievable. I swear they left their balcony door open on-purpose so we, and the whole world of Japanese passers-by could hear them getting some. It’s these kinds of people you probably don’t want in your shared house. Not just couples though – if you have a friend who tends to go out and pick up random j-girls in bars a lot, you might want to talk them about the benefits of a steady relationship.
Some people can never been convinced to wash their dishes right after dinner, but it doesn’t have to be a big issue. That’s how I am anyway. But I do more than my fair share by going on cleaning sprees on the occasional free morning or while something is simmering etc. My general rule is that instead of being picky about only washing up your own dishes, just do everything that’s there when you have a little free time. If you’re going to wash your own bowl anyway, it really doesn’t hurt to wash a few more that are just sitting in the sink and it will keep the kitchen clean and avoid arguments. As for cleaning the rest of the house (toilet, bathroom etc), that’s something I have yet to sort out efficiently (in over 4 years of various shared houses). As a general rule: avoid making a mess in the first place, then you’ll only have to do a communal “big clean” every couple of months.
Split the utilities bills equally:
…and don’t take any discussions on this. “Waaa~ you’ve been using your heater all the time, I don’t think I should pay for as much as you!” – avoid this kind of whinging by agreeing upfront to just split equally, regardless. If everyone is environmentally mindful of their own energy usage, the bills should be reasonable anyway and this will never become an issue. Even better though is to have one person in charge of all the bills each month, and for them to privately sum and divide everything and just tell one figure to the rest of the house – don’t be specific about water or gas or electric amounts etc. – just sum and divide!
Charging for meals:
Don’t get into the habit of charging for communal meals. In my adventures so far, I have found that Americans tend to do this the most (my apologies if you are American and the idea of charging for a meal you have made appals you). I have never met a British, Canadian, or Australian person do this, even when the meal was obviously expensive. After cooking a meal for everyone, the culprit will charge a couple of hundred yen to cover the cost of ingredients, but will remain suspiciously quiet if anyone else doesn’t afford the same treatment to them. If you’re living in a house with solely Americans perhaps this won’t be an issue – but for every other culture I have ever come into contact with, this is just considered downright rude. I’m British myself, and I would never even dream of doing this. In a house of mixed cultures, this kind of money-collection will simply breed disdain with everyone. Anyone who is fundamentally against this kind of thing will either be financially out of pocket every time they cook for the house, or the house will simply stop eating together. You need to sit that person down and have a friendly talk with them. Generally the best argument to go with is that over time – taking the cooking in roughly equal turns – it all works out as equal anyway. Perhaps I spent 400 yen more than you on dinner ingredients this week, but then you spend 600 yen more the next week – after a period of months, it works out as really about equal. If you really want to squabble over a hundred yen difference in 6 months worth of nice friendly shared cooking, knock yourself out. Literally, please, it will do us all a favour. Of course, for this to work you will all need to be reasonably good and be prepared to cook, so help out and teach those who are still living in the last century.
In the last year or so, cities across Japan have started implementing the new expensive trash bag scheme in an effort to curb the amount of waste that needs to be burnt every day. Where I am, a 10 pack of bags costs around ¥500! While I applaud them for their ecological initiative, the special new coloured trash bags are *really* expensive, and you can save a lot if you know how to recycle wisely.
It still shocks me how many people are unaware that plastics other than just PET bottles can be recycled – or at least, for the purposes of saving money, can be put into much cheaper clear recycling bags. Some plastics are not worth recycling, but thats not for you to worry about. Indeed, anything and everything that has that little PURA mark on it can be thrown into the recycling bags, albeit separately from cans and bottles in another bag. In our house, we have a little recycling station in the corner of the kitchen. We have two recycling bags hanging there, one for cans and bottles, and the other for household plastic waste. You would be truly surprised at how much of your general waste is actually plastic.
So, regardless of whether the local government is actually recycling the plastic or not – there was a news report about Kyoto city just burning it along with all the other waste (I can’t for the life of me find a link to the video or an English article on it, sorry) – there are serious savings to be made by cutting down on the number of trash bags you’re buying each month.
On another shelf we put cardboard and papers. Depending on your area, there may actually be a pickup for paper recycling. I lived here for years oblivious to the fact that one of those trucks playing an annoying tune that drove around at all hours of the morning was actually a paper recycling merchant – and they’ll even give you a little pack of tissues or a free trash bag if you’re getting rid of a lot (now there’s a reward we can really get motivated by!). They’ll also take your milk-packs, which is slightly more convenient than having to carry it to your local store to recycle them. Ask around about the paper pickups in your area.
My project for next month is to reduce our waste even more by making an indoor smell-free fast composter! Stay tuned for the next instalment of saving on trash bags.
“Gyomu Supa” is an incredibly cheap bulk-buy discount food store designed for businesses rather than home consumers, but there’s nothing to stop you shopping there. I’ve heard some people say they don’t like Gyomu because the food is poor quality, but I’m sure they’re mainly referring to the frozen meat. The fact is that frozen anything is worse than fresh, so let’s just ignore that and look at what else you can get there. Other than the frozen foods, they also have a good selection of fresh vegetables and various spices and sauces.
Though I would never do my weekly shopping at Gyomu and I certainly wouldn’t recommend you do either, I do go there specifically to buy a couple of items in bulk maybe once a month. Namely: tinned whole and cut tomatoes for about ¥100 (perfect for making a quick pasta sauce or chilli-con-carne); also a 1kg bag of real Italian Fusilli for only ¥300 – bargain; and finally a pack or two of frozen pizza bases (I forget the cost now, but I think it’s around 50 yen for a small pizza base). Gyomu also happens to be the only place in Japan I have ever found real hotdog buns – I’d say the trip is worth if for those alone! Every 6 months or so we end up getting a big bag of those little chopped up dried red peppers – can’t think what they’re actually called, but they really add a kick of hot goodness, especially sprinkled on pizzas. Since my girlfriend is Chinese, she likes the range of random Chinese sauces and cooking ingredients – I have no idea what they are though, to be honest. While I’m there, I also pick up some button mushrooms for about half the price of our local supermarket. Of course, what’s cheaper for you will vary, but shopping smart and knowing what you can purchase in bulk will save you quite a lot.
Find your local area on Google Maps, then enter this search term to find your nearest store (copy and paste the Japanese): 業務スーパー