Is Japan Expensive? Part 1: Travel

Is the UK more expensive than Japan these days? Over the next few posts I’ll be exploring just how much things cost in both countries. Let’s start with travel:

Travel by car:

First off, we’ll need to buy a car to get around in. I’ve chosen two examples here: the VW Golf R32, which is a beast of a machine; and a Honda Civic, which is your general pootling-about vehicle.

Japanese road tax varies from ¥10-50,000 (approx. £50-250) depending on engine size; in the UK road tax can be anything from £35 to £400. Our sample cars would probably fall into the higher and medium-range tax brackets, respectively:

Golf R32 (Same model in both countries – 3-door MT)

  • UK price: £24,950
  • JP price: £19,610 (¥4,114,286)

Honda Civic (Japan – 1.8G, 5-door MT; UK – Civic 1.4S, 3-door MT. Both were the cheapest possible models I could find)

  • JP price: £9,231 (¥1,937,250)
  • UK price: £13,410

So for a simple purchase, Japan wins on both counts. Of course, Japan’s motorways are tolled, whereas the UK is – with one or two exceptions – free, which is something to take into account when thinking about travelling long distances. And there’s the added cost of a parking space, which would probably cost somewhere in the region of ¥30,000 (approx. £150) per month around west Tokyo.

Fuel prices are easy to compare. I’ve chosen a representative suburb of London and Tokyo from which to work on: Southgate in North London and Kichijoji in west Tokyo. Both are around the same distance from the political and financial centres of their respective cities:

Petrol (regular unleaded, per litre):

  • UK price: £1.13
  • JP price: £0.83 (¥164)

Blimey, that’s quite a huge difference!

Commuting:

First off, I should point out that most (95%+) Japanese companies pay for the cost of their employees’ commute to work, which is usually by train. This may happen with some companies in the UK, but is far less common.

For our sample journey, I’m again going to use Southgate (London) and Kichijoji (Tokyo) as our representative suburbs. I’ve picked Southgate to Westminster and Kichijoji to Ichigaya as our routes. Both take approximately the same length of time and cover the same distance, travelling from the outer suburbs to the centre of their respective cities. Let’s start with a monthly rail pass:

  • UK price: £132.90 – Southgate to Westminster, Zones 1-4
  • JP price £42.01 (¥8,890) – Kichijoji to Ichigaya

The big difference with both of these passes, apart from the huge gulf in price, is that with a pass in London you would be able to travel anywhere within Zones 1-4. With the Tokyo pass you would be able to travel anywhere between Kichijoji and Ichigaya for free, provided you use the same train line (in this case the JR Chuo-Sobu line). That’s good if you want to travel to, say, Shinjuku, but for the other “centres” of Tokyo you’d have to pay a little bit extra each time.

To make it a bit fairer, let’s compare the price of a one-way journey along the same routes:

  • UK price: £2.50 – Southgate to Westminster
  • JP price: £1.38 (¥290) – Kichijoji to Ichigaya

Tokyo still comes out on top, but the price difference isn’t quite as enormous.

Long-distance rail travel:

Japan is famous for their shinkansen (bullet trains), so I couldn’t write a post about travel without mentioning them at some point, could I? I’ve personally never had that much trouble with high-speed trains in the UK, but I’m sure there are millions who have, and who would be more than happy to recount their horror stories.

For high-speed trains, I’ve chosen London-Newcastle (270 miles) for the UK, and Tokyo-Osaka (343 miles) for Japan. Despite the extra 130 miles covered by our Japanese train it still manages to reach its destination more than 20 minutes ahead of its British counterpart (2hrs 36mins for Tokyo-Osaka and 2hrs 59mins for London-Newcastle).

Pricing is a bit different for both countries. In the UK it’s possible to get hugely discounted high-speed train tickets provided you book well in advance; in Japan shinkansen tickets are – in general – the same no matter how far in advance you book. To make it fair, I’ve compared the price for an open-single ticket for both (travel at any time of the day, on any train):

  • UK price: £124.50 – London King’s Cross to Newcastle, standard open single ticket
  • JP price: £66.07 (¥13,850) – Tokyo to Shin Osaka, reserved seat

The shinkansen looks much cheaper here, but bearing in mind the booking-in-advance rule in the UK, it really isn’t: I could get a return ticket from London to Newcastle for £66 provided I sorted it out a week or two in advance.

That’s all for this post. Look out for “Part 2: Household Goods”, where I’ll be comparing the price of TVs, sofas and other assorted gubbins!

(Prices based on 11th June 2008 exchange rates: 1GBP = 209.55JPY)

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