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Most expensive, most livable … with Tokyo, it’s all about who you ask

41 Comments
By James Hadfield

“These prices suck!” complains Bart when he and his family visit a Tokyo restaurant in a 1999 episode of The Simpsons. “10,000 yen for coleslaw?”

Such, alas, is the enduring reputation of this city. Though it’s been 20 years since the peak of the Bubble Era, Tokyo is still famed for its exorbitance. Earlier this month, the city reclaimed the No. 1 spot in Mercer’s annual Cost of Living survey, buoyed by the strength of the yen. The BBC dutifully quoted its Japan man as saying this “would not surprise locals, who could find themselves paying $15 for a watermelon and $25 for a mango” — which struck me as an asinine bit of reporting until I spotted a shop near my local station hawking watermelons for 2,000 yen a pop.

But, really, is it that bad? What often gets forgotten with the Mercer survey is that it’s actually quite specific in its aims. Far from being a one-size-fits-all guide, the results are intended to help companies determine salaries when sending employees overseas. To exchange one stereotype for another, if you don’t live in a luxury apartment in Hiroo and do all your family shopping at National Azabu, Mercer’s findings might not really chime with your own experience of Tokyo.

Last month, a different survey painted the capital in an altogether rosier light. For the past three years, Monocle, the current affairs/design/culture magazine started by Wallpaper founder Tyler Brule, has been releasing its own city ranking, focusing on quality of life rather than brute economics. In this year’s list, Tokyo once again occupies the third spot, with only Zurich and Copenhagen scoring higher.

“The reason we did it in the first place was that, when we looked at all these city surveys... they seem to be missing out on a huge chunk of what actually makes a city quite pleasant or livable,” explains editor Andrew Tuck when I catch him at the magazine’s Tokyo office during a flying visit. “Can you go for a drink at 1 o’clock in the morning? Is there a vibrant restaurant scene? If you come back from a trip on a Saturday, can you go and do your shopping on a Sunday? All these small things also make a city function.”

The Monocle metric takes account of public transport, crime rates and education, but also hours of sunshine, international flight connections and “chain store pollution.” These are, Tuck admits, “softer” and “more subjective” aspects of the city experience. But what of it? “Even when people pretend that their guides are 100 percent scientific, there is an element of what makes a city work for you.”

And, in Monocle’s case, Tokyo works rather nicely. The city is praised for its service culture, efficient public transport, low crime and abundant greenery. Tuck also admires the 2016 Olympic bid, which proposes to use existing buildings as much as possible rather than embarking on a construction spree. “It’s a real shame that wasn’t a lesson learned in London,” he notes dryly.

“I think what’s interesting about Tokyo is: here’s a massive metropolis that actually works,” he says. “Whereas that’s why, for us, we haven’t put on London or New York, because they don’t have that efficiency at their heart — they don’t tick in quite the same way.

“We also make it very clear that this isn’t a ranking of the most exciting places to live, or the grittiest, or the best place to be an artist, or the best place to become a millionaire. It really is about livability — so it’s about public transport, the green city, the ease of being able to set up a small company. Those are the kinds of things that matter.”

Monocle’s approach has attracted flak in some quarters for being too one-sided, too whimsical, but it’s not without its supporters. Since starting the survey, Tuck says that the magazine has become “very central to a debate” on livability, and that they are regularly contacted by city halls around the world looking for advice on how to up their game. Shintaro Ishihara is also a fan. When the Tokyo governor spoke about the Olympic bid at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan earlier this year, he held up the Monocle survey as an indication of what the capital was doing right.

“He was interested by the fact we like Tokyo so much,” says the magazine’s Asia bureau chief, Fiona Wilson. “I think he’s probably used to hearing a lot of negative comments, so he’s quite interested in anyone who’s really, really positive about it.”

Wilson has lived here for nine years herself, and admits that she struggled to think of any bad points about Tokyo for this year’s survey. “Sometimes you hear people complaining, and you think, ‘Hang on a minute,’” she says. “I was having dinner the other night, and the waitress was being super polite. And this English person went, ‘Oh, she’s so polite, it’s really irritating...’”

Tuck roars with laughter. And well you might.

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

41 Comments
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These surveys are aimed at finding out how much it would cost to have a Western lifestyle in various countries, and compare costs for a certain size and style of apartment complete with Western appliances and Western food.

Almost nobody lives that way. Like everywhere else, you adjust how you live to your income and what's available.

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"abundant greenery" ?? Think they got the wrong city.

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Potsu, I did a double take on this too.

I mean I thought "besides Hamamatsu, Yoyogi, Shinjuku gyouen, Hibiya, ok and the palace, Ueno, Kasai Rinkai, Rikugien, Shiba all those Teiens," and then the list started to grow. The big rivers have their green spaces too, not just concrete embankments.

But I think it's really if you include the western part of tokyo that really puts it over the edge. Like Showa kinenkouen, Tama, Chofu and all that.

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"Livability" - an interesting concept - though the expat in their "paid for by the company" homat in Azabu and the local 'kachou' in his 3LDK in the west side of Ikebukuro might have different ideas about it. Tyler Brule on his brief visits to Tokyo see one side through his rose-tinted spectacles, Taro Suzuki who actually lives here experiences another. For most Japanese, and many of the foreigners here, it is about gaman or enduring it, the crowded commute, the small place to live, the pollution, taxes, healthcare and pension payments, the pressure to conform, and the honne and tatemae aspects of service here. Tokyo can work, but the price you have to to pay for it is high.

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LOndon, New York and Paris. The three cities that are the pinnicle of excellence. Went to Tokyo once and it was yucky wucky, the difference between rich and poor was astonishing, and i do look beyond the veneer darlings.

Wilson is a prejudiced Japanophile who's claims should be taken with a grain of salt. I mean i adore LOndon and my lovely home in Earls Court, but there are always things to complain about.

Utopia doesn't exist, except possibly to the insane.

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i always get a kick about how people talk about how expensive fruit is here. yes they are expensive but you have to remember that these 2000 yen watermelons, mangoes, peaches, etc. are basically hand raised. the farmers hand wrap them individually to protect them from bugs and actually cut off the other lesser fruits so that the nutrients all go into raising those select ones.

the big downsides that i can think of about living here are the crowds and lack of manners. while tokyo is expensive, i don't think its much worse than any large metropolis. there are places where you can get things inexpensively. the barrier to some extent is language. its hard to find some of these places and get service once you do if you don't read/speak japanese.

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fds; Do you also get a kick about how most minorities are treated yucky wucky and those not "normal" have t hide their true selves. Bet that wasn't considered in the poll by the rich know alls.

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As a Londoner living int Tokyo for 8+ years give me Tokyo any day.

If you stick to the ex-pat havens in Minato-ku then you are going to get ripped off - same as going shopping or to restaurants in the West End.

When I was ex-pat though I was once shown the "shopping basket" and it was laughable. To guage the cost of sports they had the price of tennis balls and golf balls but not the cost of trying to get a game of either :-)

And yes there is plenty of green - again get out of minato-ku

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"As a Londoner living int Tokyo for 8+ years give me Tokyo any day." Must have a been a really sad life in London.

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As a Londoner living int Tokyo for 8+ years give me Tokyo any day.

heard that.. still find Ldn way more expensive. 2 stops on the "tube".. 1000yen. Tokyo 160yen. do these muppets actually take this into account when doing these survey?

The price of a mango really isnt my swaying factor when choosing a city to live in.

If youre earning pounds and living in Tokyo, sure it blows, but if youre earning yen, then where`s the problem?

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The Monocle metric takes account of...international flight connections.

That's interesting, since there is no full fledged international airport in either Tokyo or Yokohama - whose combined population equals Canada's.

Narita is located in the rice fields of Chiba Prefecture, 70 clicks away from the two cities. What's more, Narita's limited size means its slots have long been filled, ruling out any additional capacity.

I advise the authors to visit, say, Singapore.

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"again get out of minato-ku" DeepAir65 -- I think you miss the point. The survey on cost is specifically for multi-national companies who are planning to send ex-pats here for a relatively short time, so they can set their compensation packages accordingly. So, the cost of J-style accomodations way outside central Tokyo is not relevant to that audience. Whether you like it or not, those folks are not English teachers, and don't expect to have to greatly change their lifestyle to come here, as they have other options. The fact that you can eat at Yoshinoya for a couple of hundred yen has no bearing on this particular survey. So, Minato-ku is the relevant comparable.

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You can spend a lot of money anywhere in Tokyo. If you live like Japanese then Tokyo is very affordable.

My shopping basket usually contains a bottle of red wine, red meat, expensive fruit like mangoes, some cheese and fancy French looking bread, whereas the Japanese will be buying things like fish, sausages, cheap fruit and veg and noodles.

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"These prices suck!"

"National Azabu"

I went there to see if they had any sweet relish. They have little jars of Del Monte sweet relish for like 650 yen. I laughed and went somewhere else to buy cucumbers and a red pepper, and chopped them up and mixed them with some vinegar and sugar. Delicious!

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"These prices suck!"

"National Azabu"

For the price of a little jar of relish, you can buy an armload of firewood for your backyard barbeque! Now, if only I had a backyard...

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"These prices suck!"

"National Azabu"

Altria went these once, saw a Kano sister, and left without buying anything.

Altria: 1

National Azabu: 0

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National Azabu is the only place you can get matzo ball mix. For 700 yen a box.

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Whether you like it or not, those folks are not English teachers, and don't expect to have to greatly change their lifestyle to come here, as they have other options. The fact that you can eat at Yoshinoya for a couple of hundred yen has no bearing on this particular survey.

Why not? Expats eat cheaply in their home country too. Most people don't live in the best part of town shopping at the most expensive supermarkets and eating at the finest restaurants every night.

It sounds to me like they DO want to greatly change their lifestyle when they move to Japan - upwards. If my company sends me to London should I expect to be put up in the toniest address in town?

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I often enjoy Brule's "Fast Lane" column in the weekend FT, but Monocle including Tokyo as on the most livable cities in the world is based almost entirely on his experiences there, which involves staying at a five-star hotel for a few days maybe at a time, eating all his meals out, shopping, and club hopping. Being here for a short visit or even living here as a well compensated ex-pat is not the same thing 99% of what Japanese experience as long-term residents.

I love Tokyo. It's one of the most interesting and entertaining cities in the world. But like NYC, it's not particularly livable unless you have awfully deep pockets.

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Shayouzoku, Note Sarge's approach to sweet relish. Make it yourself. Flour and water are not that hard to come by. Recipes are out there. Have fun. I made my first marmalade here because there is a tree in my yard with sour oranges. It's pretty good. Japan has the raw materials for most things, other things can be bought internationally, and if it's something special, you can cough up the money once in a while. Japan is not that expensive if you adapt, though I'll admit the price to rent a nice apartment in certain areas of Tokyo makes my eyes tear up.

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herfornow - sorry you are missing the point. In London I did not go supermarket shopping in the West End, I did not live in Knightsbridge etc.

I guess one problem is in London the green stuff is largely in central Londond but then the countryside is so near if you live in the suburbs - guess what same here for the latter.

The thing I miss most about London is how easy it was to get out of the UK - the airport question. Let's hope they open up Haneda more to international flights, but a new terminal first please!

Overall the standard and quality of life in Tokyo is much better than London

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fds; Do you also get a kick about how most minorities are treated yucky wucky and those not "normal" have t hide their true selves. Bet that wasn't considered in the poll by the rich know alls.

unfortunately, minorities are pretty much treated "yucky wucky" (whatever that is) where ever they are in the minority but what does this have to do with my comment? or the article? i'm guessing that you are not a minority in london so is that why you favor london?

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been around the world to most of the major cities and tokyo is by far the best, in my opinion and love living here.

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The "abundant greenery" bit is way out of kilter. When I lived in Oshiage, my nearest tree was a fair step away.

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I know where to spend 90 minutes or more stuffing yourself with yakiniku, sushi, beer, etc., for a mere 3,000 yen.

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Kind of amusing how this is becoming more of a London vs Tokyo conversation. For me I would pick Tokyo over London simply because food in the UK is horrible. As far as the expensive fruit goes, right there well always be overpriced produce. I don't believe most people buy that for daily consumption (the word omiyage comes to mind). I'm just happy with my 500 yen momo.. mmm pricey still yes. But just so worth it.

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Why would UK food be 'horrible'?

Don't they have all the foods that first-world countries have?

Are you actually sayin' that good food is bein' ruined by dentist cooks?

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ah come on now...as I see most of you probably eat regular food from your native America, England or Canada etc. here in Japan if you eat Japanese...you can buy a good teishoku for about ¥600~800. and you go to a super market (local) i can get same (shark) for ¥500 for three good sized pieces...daikon a buck, can go out with my wife for a quick meal and drink at an izakaya for about ¥3,000~5,000. and I went to Itayokodo and bought some nice cheap light work shirts and some shorts for ¥950 each. Now if you want fashion and expensive steak etc...You've gotta pay.....I'm not interested...I can live pretty cheap in these cases. Other cases cars...etc. are expensive...

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USARonin, yeah they have all the foods first-world countries have. They just don't make it good =D.

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shawnth, read xrc's post, s/he makes an excellent point.

it is rather odd to compare western food in Japan to western food in western countries, and then base one's argument about how livable Tokyo is on this ridiculous comparison.

how overpriced and inauthentic is Japanese food western countries? I know in Montreal(my hometown), half of what passes for Japanese food is actually overpriced, Canadianized, fusion Chinese-Japanese food. The other half is just plain bad.

but just because you can't get good Japanese food in Montreal doesn't mean the food in Montreal is bad altogether. au contraire!

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shawth, i forgot to add my main response to you:

i agree about English food being bad, except for their Indian stuff.

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Tokyo is overpriced and that is why it has few tourists fcrom western nations. Come to London Fish and chips, chicken tikka masala, i could go on forever, yummy wummy.

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If you want to know about over-priced check out Dublin some time. Cigarettes and whiskey are 3 times the price they are in Tokyo. And that's all that matters really ... So if you're really rich you holiday in Ireland ...

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Tokyo is overpriced and that is why it has few tourists fcrom western nations.

I don't think you've ever actually been to Japan. There's plenty of western tourists here.

Come to London Fish and chips, chicken tikka masala, i could go on forever, yummy wummy.

Chicken Tikka Masala isn't exactly English now, is it?

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I may be wrong, but I think Tikka Masala is an english dish...I remember reading it was first served in the Midlands?

Tokyo - like the rest of Japan - can be very affordable, if you stay away from all the tourist trap restaurants, and eat/drink/stay where the locals do. A night out in my hometown of Sydney is much more expensive...no nomi-hodai!

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I have just come back from 2 fab months back in the UK and British food is NOT bad! It was wonderful - you just have to know where to get it and how to cook it.

BurakuminDes - yes, I saw the same article - but I think it might have been a Balti you are thinking of? They are trying to get it banned from being sold elsewhere (a bit like the champagne argument of the 90`s) because it was "invented" in a particular part of Birmingham. Although I am sure there are chefs in a corner of India somewhere who would beg to differ...

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Chicken tikka masala was invented in Britain when a customer asked for sauce as he found chicken tikka too dry, so the chef made a sauce. It became a nation wide hit after a decade or so and beats any Japanese food anyday, yummy wummy!!!! Tokyo is cheap, and yes sweeties i have been there and found it rather queer that gays had to hide out in litttle areas and not flaunt themselves. It's called repression, not nice is it. Tokyo, you are over rated, over priced and intolerant of minorities and lastly you have a ghastly xenapobe for a mayor.

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"shawnth, read xrc's post, s/he makes an excellent point. it is rather odd to compare western food in Japan to western food in western countries, and then base one's argument about how livable Tokyo is on this ridiculous comparison."

Ok, so lets just focus on the daily life of the typical J salaryman !

Starts the day with a newspaper... 130-140 yen, or about $1.45 ! Hmm, the last time I checked the ol "Times" back home it was 35 cents !

Well maybe our salryman can find some comfort in his morning rice bowl... not ! Japanese pay, on average 8-10 times the world price for rice !

OK, how about that morning commute ? I think not... Mine costs me more than 650 yen one way here in Japan($6.55 US). I found prices at one of Americas most averaged sized cities with a light rail system to be charging $5 for a "day pass" !!! Moving along, after a day of paying through the nose for this and that... lets settle down to a beer ! Hah, only if yer livin high off the hog ! A beer in Tokyo goes for better than $2.00 bucks a can ! About 3x's the price I pay stateside. Well, lets forget the beer and just head to a movie... yep, that'll set ya back $18-$20 bucks ! No where near the $3-$5 I pay on tightwad tuesday in the US. Face it folks... Japan is the most expensive country on the planet. Due mainly to closed and heavily controlled markets... anyone tries to tell you otherwise is lying ! As for liveability ? Hmm, the crowds, dirt, grime, weather, crime, prices, dark dreary faces, high suicide rates... I think not !

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I also agree with hokeydokey, prices here are shocking. I just priced a quarter slice of watermelon for 400 yen. That's $4.00 US and would would come to $16.00 for one stinking melon stateside, that is unbelievable. A melon back home is $3.00 tops ! As for the rest of this jibberish, I have found Tokyo and the rest of Japan to be anything but liveable. For me its all about comfort. The houses are cramped and poorly built. The morning commute is a drain. And anyone who hasn't experienced this on a daily basis has no right commenting about life here, it is the norm. Throw in the heated summers and well, no thank you !

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As for the rest of this jibberish, I have found Tokyo and the rest of Japan to be anything but liveable. For me its all about comfort. The houses are cramped and poorly built. The morning commute is a drain. And anyone who hasn't experienced this on a daily basis has no right commenting about life here, it is the norm.

Depends where you live. My apartment is cool, spacious, and comfy. My commute is short and I usually get a seat. My neighbors are nice, the neighborhood is pleasant. All my home-related needs are within a short walk. I have several reasonably priced shopping centers nearby.

Life is good! And yes, I live in the Tokyo area.

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Hah ! If Japan was so livable why aren't the worlds immigrants knocking the door down to get in ? Japan is fine for singles who have no problem living in squallered cramped conditions. But if it's a family you want, well just follow the lead of the local citizens and... don't ! I'm right there with hokey on this, the prices quoted seem accurate and that final comment on suicides is a fair observation. Pawatan makes me laugh. Seems to me if the morning commute is so short, comfortable, and stress free, then why bother going for a seat ? Hell stand like I do, rub shoulders with the cutey on your right !

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