Shun the vending machine. The ubiquitous vending machine is one of Japan’s most enduring symbols. True, they are everywhere. And true, they can be a welcome sight when you need a rush of caffeine or something to quench a raging thirst. But you will pay a premium for the convenience. That coffee you just paid 130 or 140 yen for in a vending machine can be had for 105 in a nearby 7-11. The savings will be the same for that cup ramen, cold tea or beer you may be needing. Bottom line: Figure on a paying a ten percent premium when you buy from a vending machine vs in a store. So limit those vending machine purchases. (Business Insider Japan posted an excellent profile of vending machines and the vending machine industry. Worth a read.)
Shop smart for groceries — buy the mark downs. Almost every grocery store marks down produce that can’t spend another minute on the shelves, or items that are slightly bruised. Just like the markets in the US, right? So go for it, because the savings can be steep — figure 10 to 30 percent. The trick is finding out where in the store that rack of discounted items is located. No matter — just take the time to find that rack and load up on ready-to-eat-now bananas, apples, and lettuce.
Walk when you can. No exactly rocket science here, but with transportation costs on the high side in Japan, consider walking — even long walks — to get where you want, be it city walks for shopping, or heading to a restaurant, or in the countryside heading off to a trailhead. Just resist that knee-jerk reaction to jump on yet another subway or drive just because you can.
Cheap parking means cheap sleeping. I haven’t tried this yet but it’s on my Frugal VanLife to-do list. Which is to sleep in the van while parked in one of the many open-air parking lots you see all over in Japan. You see, while pulling over at the end of the day in the countryside is usually no problem, city boondocking is another story. You can’t just blend into the scenery on Japan’s city streets. In Osaka, the rate for 24 hour parking in in the 600 -700 yen range (6 or 7 bucks), and often you can find a lot that charges 500 yen or a 24-hour period. I say: park, set up your window baffles. and get some shut-eye. I certainly wouldn’t advertise the fact you are sleeping in your van, but if you can keep the sleeping on the down-low, this is a great way to a catch your nighttime Zzzzz’s in the middle of downtown anywhere, Japan.
Shop where parking is free. Outside of the frenzied entertainment districts where parking is rare, you should find plenty of free parking at various stores — LAMU for discount groceries, Konan for building supplies and storage solutions, 2nd Street for used clothing (see below), and Joshin for electronics are a few big brands that always have adjacent free parking. I’m not advocating turning your vanlife experience in Japan into one, giant shopping extravaganza. Just suggesting that when you do have to shop, you aim for stores that make parking a breeze and free. Free is good, yes?
Dollar stores are your friend. Not your best friend, mind you. Fact is, I’ve regretted buying certain items in a 100 Yen shop (not recommended for food, trust me), but when it comes to basics and basics-plus, you can usually find what you are looking for in a Japanese dollar store. Think rain gear, pens and envelopes, underwear and socks, slippers, snacks (not staples!), and basic pharmacy-type items. Why pay more than a buck if you don’t need to, right?
Fill up at “circle sushi” restaurants. Not every circle sushi joint serves top-quality sushi and maki, but many do. The experience is fun, filling, and (here’s a plus) usually have free parking — and far less expensive than most sushi restaurants, which tend to run on the pricey side in Japan. Look for Ku-ra Sushi for the best in frugal and good-tasting sushi fare.
Know your (free!) WiFi options. Free WiFi is as close as the nearest convenience store, which is an advantage for the traveler in Japan. Family Mart and 7-11, the two largest convenience chains, both support WiFi. Their networks are open, free, and widely used (you often see people standing just outside the doors, tapping a store’s crisp web connection). Sure, you can rent or buy a pocket WiFi hub, but if your connectivity needs are slim, convenience-store WiFi might be all you need.
Shop the second hand and discount stores. Two brands to remember while traveling Japan: 2nd Street and Don Quixote (which locals casually refer to as DONKI, pronounced “don-KEE”). The first, 2nd Street, is a second-hand store where you can replace that dying jacket or those busted up shoes. As well, day packs, winter hats, and all manner of clothing are offered at fair prices — and sometimes surprisingly cheap, sale prices. Brands run the gamut from high to low, North Face and Columbia to the anonymous Chinese brand. And some 2nd Street stores sell more than clothes (and look surprisingly similar to a high-end thrift stores in the states). Don Quixote is often referred to as the Walmart of Japan, but from what I’ve seen, it can’t compare in scale. DONKI does do deep discounts of everyday items — clothing, health products, liquor, electronics, housewares. YouTube channel “Tokyo Drew” posted a walk-through of a Tokyo DONKI store which shows off the business model and typical store layout (skip the first minute or so). We buy small instant heat pads in bulk at the local DONKI stores, as well as shampoos and clothing basics like socks and gloves.
Those are a few of our strategies for cutting costs and staying frugal. What are your go-to tips and tricks?