Tokyo, Once Again the Most Expensive City in the World, Sorta

June 11, 2011

Once again, Tokyo has crowned the list of expensive places for expats to live, edging out such perennial list-toppers as Oslo, Geneva, Zurich, and (oddly), Luanda, the capital of Angola, according to ECA International, a global human resources firm quoted by Business Week yesterday. It was noted in the article that a movie in Tokyo would set one back some $24, a quickie lunch would come in a bit north of twenty bucks, and a beer in a bar would run a whopping $11! As we say in Japan, “Yikes-u”!

Another website,, concurs with ECA’s assessment, noting that an unfurnished two-bedroom apartment runs in the neighborhood of $4500, a cup of coffee comes in at $5, and a cheap meal will cost between $17 and $35. Scary, eh? Especially if it were true.

Okay, I suppose it is technically possible to spend $4500 on a luxury apartment in Tokyo, but that would be true in lots of places in the US as well. San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles jump to mind. By contrast, I pay 72000 yen, about $900, for a small (450 square feet) three-room apaato. It is in the burbs, true enough, but a sixteen-minute three-dollar ride by train gets me into the heart of Tokyo, so not that far into the burbs. That price, by the way, includes internet connection and basic cable. Granted, the apartment is small by American standards, but close to twice the size of an average single-person dwelling here, and suitable for my simple expat needs. Utilities run about $50 a month, all in (heat, electricity, a/c, water, gas for the stove and water heating, the whole megilla).

Last weekend, I went out with a couple of friends to a well-known fish restaurant in Ikebukuro, a West Tokyo high-rise center. We all had supper, feasting on sushi, sashimi and a variety of cooked fish until we were too stuffed to jump. I had a couple of beers, the girls had soft drinks. The bill: $60 for the three of us, tax included (as it always is, so the price on the menu is the price you pay), and there is no tipping in Japan. Coffee and beignets at Café Du Monde (the Japanese outlet of the world-famous New Orleans French Market restaurant) set us back an additional $15 or so, a delectably calorie-laden finish to a lovely evening. A far cry from the mid-range $33-$75 per person suggested by (and that didn’t even include the drinks!).

The Economist periodically reviews its Big Mac Index, which compares the prices of McDonald’s iconic double patty burger around the world. Tokyo was about on par with the US last time out, both in terms of actual dollars, and in the number of minutes’ work required to purchase the Mac. Those figures, incidentally, ranked Tokyo among the lowest-priced cities in the world in which to indulge at the sign of the Golden Arches.

When I came here first, I had to load up on all the stuff necessary for setting up an apartment, so I got a pretty good idea of what a wide variety of items would cost: dishes ($20 for nice Japanese stoneware, service for four), rice cooker (National, the local name for products of Panasonic, $40), DVD player (LG, $50), oven (Sharp Healsio steam oven, very cool, bought lightly used for $150), a bit of furniture (sumptuous leather reclining love seat from Shinjuku design center, demo model $350; real Stickley morris chair from antique shop, $300) bedding (futon with cover, down comforter, sheets ($200 and change), and so on. Fairly cheap, I would say.

As to transportation, the train runs about $3 into town, and local buses are a bit over $2 for anything up to a half-hour ride. My Honda 50cc scooter, new in 2009, ran about $1200, or $1500 if you count all the taxes and a couple of years’ insurance. A used 2007 Honda Civic, not unlike the one I drive in Canada, can be had in Japan for slightly more than half the US price ($7500 vs. $13500), and it will likely have fewer than 25000 miles on it.

There are some things that are through-the-roof expensive in Tokyo (and, for that matter, all over Japan): canteloupes ($60, compared to perhaps $3 in the US); Mosquito Magnet ($2200, compared to $800 or less stateside); Krispy Kreme donuts, which are not only double the price, but you have to wait in an endless queue for the privilege of purchasing them; and that bit about $24 movies—sadly, that’s a fact. That said, those things tend to be items one can manage without, not daily necessities.

So, once again, statistics don’t necessarily give you the whole story, and should be taken with enough grains of salt to send one’s blood pressure into the stratosphere. Mostly, though, don’t be scared off about coming to Tokyo based on what you read. You can eat well here (at restaurants, of course) for $30 a day, no problem; there are perfectly acceptable business hotels available for around $60 a night, and day-long subway passes are about $8. Most museums, parks, and temples are free (or very cheap), and you can entertain yourself for next to no outlay, if necessity (or your nature) demands it. Just avoid the $24 movies…