Japan on a shoe­string

You’d expect Japan to be an expensive country for an exchange semester, right? Well, you’d be wrong! To my surprise, I found my student life in Tokyo to be less expensive than in Berlin. In this blog post, let me share with you what to expect and how to save your yen.

The fruit isle at the supermarket: choosing your produce wisely will pay off! Photo: private

Leaving Europe – and the Erasmus zone – for a semester abroad sounds like it could be financially challenging. I definitely worried about that but was pleasantly surprised. Some things here are simply more affordable and for others you just need to know where (or when) to look. Here is my run-down!


Luckily, Hitotsubashi University automatically assigns every exchange student a room at the university dormitory. The dorm is about 30 to 40 minutes away by train from the campus, 20 to 25 minutes by bike. Two types of rooms are available: ones where bathrooms and kitchens are shared with five other people and ones where you only share the shower and the kitchen among 12 people. They both have the same rent: around 200 euros per month, including utilities. You will not get any cheaper in Japan! Note that at the beginning of the semester, you will have some additional fees. For example, I paid around 100 euros for bed sheets and health insurance.

Bikes are very popular within Tokyo to get around the suburbs. Photo: private

Getting around

Living at the dorms in Kodaira, you have multiple options for getting around. You can either find yourself a second-hand bike for a minimum of 60 euros and use that every day to go to class (if you are very lucky, you may even win the dorm lottery and get a bike for free!) or take the train. I opted for the latter and here is why: With a commuter pass you pay a flat fee for a selected time and path. This means you can get off on any stop on your selected route without additional fees. This made sense to me because I often went to the city centre on the subway and also to a bouldering gym that was on the same line, between the campus and the city centre. For three months of travel between Kunitachi and Shinjuku (you can check a map to get an idea) I paid around 220 euros.

Various meals offered at a convenience store: from pasta to rice triangles. Photo: private


The university has a canteen where an average meal costs around 500 yen, which is about 3,20 euros at the time I am writing this blog post. Otherwise, there are always the grocery stores. I would suggest to buy Japanese brands and produce, which tend to be cheaper. In general, fruit is more expensive here, except for bananas and mandarins; on vegetables you can save by buying frozen. It’s hard to give an estimate for what you’ll spend on groceries – it really depends on you and your eating habits.

You can also get food at “konbinis”. The best translation that I can provide to you is “convenience store”. These little shops are open 24/7 and provide foods to cook with but also ready-made meals that range from 300 to 1200 yen (2 - 8 euros). These ready meals can also be found at supermarkets. If you go late enough, as all is prepared fresh, you can get good discounts. Some of the konbinis also provide fruit smoothies for 2 euros and that is where I got my additional vitamins without spending a fortune.

Eating out is another possibility: the fast food chains are rather high quality in comparison to Europe, and range from 500 to 1000 yen (4 to 7 euros) per meal. I have never spent more. In general, eating out in Japan does not need to be expensive. You can eat very well for 8 euros!

Japanese meal from a restaurant.
This meal cost me approximately 900 yen - less than 6 euros. Photo: private

Potential financial aid

This topic is rather individual. I would advise to look into the PROMOS and JASSO scholarships. The HU International Department’s website has a lot of information that could help you navigate the various options. If you happen to not be German, maybe your home country has something to offer, too.

I personally decided to work part-time while studying in Japan and also had relatives helping me out. It is important to know that you are allowed to work in Japan. If your Japanese level is high enough, it will be easier to find something. Otherwise, Hitotsubashi University does offer a few positions as an English tutor to converse with local students.

Thrift store
This second-hand shop also had sales and a large selection of winter coats, I found one for 15 euros! It’s the one I am wearing in the photo with the bike, above. Photo: private

Funsies to buy

Second-hand culture is big in Tokyo. At the dorms, there is a pick and place section, where people can take things for free and leave stuff for others. There are also second-hand shops with comics, games, books, clothes and accessories. If you look online, you may find recommendations for trendy neighbourhoods such as Harajuku or Shimokitawa, but the second-hand stores there tend to be vintage, which is not attractive if you are on a budget. In general, Japanese people take very good care of their belongings, so practically everything I could see in the second-hand shops looked brand new! For example, a manga was 2 euros, and a Nintendo Switch game was 30 euros.

(Published: 22 January 2024)