Japan is stereotyped as the land of the $80 watermelon and the $90 mushroom. Many expats think it easier to rearrange the rings of Saturn than use the word "affordable" and "Tokyo" in the same sentence.
Yet as urban real estate values rise globally, and as prices for Japanese basics like food and clothing drop, Japan is being seen as less prohibitively expensive. Apart from three uniquely Japanese money guzzlers - buying property, elite dining, and taxis - costs seem less extreme these days, say expats and Japanese interviewed.
One reason given is "globalization." As wealth and cosmopolitan lifestyles globalize, urban costs are starting to equalize.
"Other than taxis and property I'm paying about the same here as in L.A., New York, or London," says James Delano, a photographer who lives in Tokyo. "Japan has become more affordable, comparatively."
Another reason: greater price diversity, engineered by the government to close the yawning rich-poor gap. Cheaper goods are on the shelves. Long-distance phone costs are down. Large discount retail stores are appearing.
Food and goods from China, a short barge trip away, are slowly dribbling in. One can buy a new Nissan or Toyota for $20,000 - similar to the US. Gas prices in the past year are only slightly higher than Uncle Sam's. At a downtown McDonald's, a Big Mac, Coke, and fries go for $5.25.
One major downtick is airline prices: Tokyo now has an industry of discount air packages often lower than in Europe and the US.
Expat Ben Dorman just went to Australia for $400, round trip. Two years ago the ticket was $1,900. When he got to Canberra, moreover, he was shocked and amused to find his favorite noodles were more expensive than in Nagoya. Plus the quality wasn't as good, he says.
Eased import restrictions are felt at the grocery store. Bananas used to cost $8 a bunch. At a busy store in Shibuya, Mexican organic bananas were $3.20 for three. The Chiquita brand was $1.60 for five.
Food imports from China especially have lowered family costs. But lower costs are also due to Japanese consumer demands for cheaper goods in the late 1990s. Electronics and cameras at new discount houses in Chiyoda ward are pricier than anywhere in Asia. A Canon lens costing $550 in Hong Kong is $725 in Tokyo. But stores now offer big coupons that discount future purchases. Pick up the Canon lens, and you get $150 off the next purchase.
"You've had various types of restructuring and new competition," says David Wank of Sophia University. "By the '90s Japanese were aware of global prices and began making demands. China is just one element."
Buzz about an affordable Japan is news that locals want to hear. It comes at a time of change. Last week a landslide election for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was followed by news of an economic upturn.
"Japanese used to read in the Western press about $150 melons," says Toshi Morikawa, a longtime journalist. "Every story about Japan mentioned that melon. But now there are ordinary places with ordinary prices. Restaurant meals used to cost $100, and maybe all you got was a little moss from a deep mountain valley, and a small black bean. The days of the moss and bean are mostly gone."
Expat high-end prices are down. An executive who paid $8,000 a month for 1,600 square feet in Manhattan last year pays $6,000 for the same space here.
Still, "affordable Japan" is relative. Many Japanese weigh lower costs against salary cuts. Apartments generally cost a third higher than in major metro areas of the US and Europe. A cab ride can quickly jump to $20 - albeit in the world's most gracious taxis. Then there's dining: It is $50 to $100 for two for most places people go to. To move here, rigid rules and hidden costs abound.
And while it's cheaper to live in Tokyo than it has been in years, the city still ranks as the No. 1 most expensive in the world, according to two rankings this year by The Economist and Mercer Consulting. However, Miki Tanikawa, a Japanese real estate writer, argues that the perception inside multinational corporations of Tokyo's costs has been higher than the reality in recent years.
But for those coming from cheaper parts of the globe, Japan still daunts.
"I come from a culture where a sack of potatoes costs nothing," says Asmat Afridi, a Pakistani expat who is a computer specialist. "Here I'm paying an arm and a leg for 12 individual okras."