How Being Broke Helps Me See Japan

I remember getting the offer to teach English in Japan. I don’t remember reading anything more than “We’re pleased to offer you…” before writing a hasty reply, telling my new employers that I’d absolutely accept the position. It was the opportunity to check a goal off my list, one I’d ignored to personal and professional ruin before.

I wasn’t completely sold on going. Emotionally and in most other ways that meant anything, I knew I could go. If I didn’t like it, well, you can survive anything for a year. Still, the nagging thought that my ongoing student loan payments and the cost of living here would perpetually land me in the poor house made me doubt my decision. You could chalk it up to pre-move jitters, but the predictions of my low-income bracket quickly came true. It turns out it’s not such a bad thing.

I am not unique. Talking to my peers, student debt is the single biggest factor that keeps them from fulfilling their dreams of travelling, starting families. The average student leaves college with $33,000 in debt. Thanks to a number of trips overseas during my undergraduate years and an extra year spent finding my passions, the total red in my ledger is significantly higher than that. All told, I put nearly 20% of my monthly income into paying back my school loans. The insane part? I’m thinking of adding to that debt when I return to graduate school next year.

When my other living expenses are taken care of, I usually have about 20% left over. I’ve made the mistake over and over again, despite my best intentions, of spending a good chunk of that money right away. Payday? Awesome. I’m going to rack up a heavy bill from too much chicken guts and beer.  Cool poster I’ll doubtlessly want for my apartment when I move back home? Why not?

The shine hasn’t quite warn off this place for me yet. The local izakaya (a traditional Japanese bar), every seat filled with the bent backs of farmers, still feels fresh, even if I’ve eaten the same bowl of fish cake, egg, and pork chittlins from the same spot for weeks. My mouth still waters uncontrollably when I walk past the yakitori shop, the stink of charcoal-grilled flesh intoxicating. Even used bookstores, as much centers for literature as toys for grown nerds, still evoke a mental “wow” when I pass through the doors.

All of these things cost money. It should be no surprise when I find my bank account dwindled to $200 with two and a half weeks to go until payday. I’ve curbed my habits somewhat. After a two-week stretch spent eating little more than natto, tofu, and rice — three stinky, largely flavorless squares a day — it was time to remove my head from the darker regions of my anatomy.

Eating like a Zen priest aside, my self-inflicted poverty brought unexpected insight into the city, the people around me. With money, I did the things everybody does. I ate at the popular, expensive places offering top of the line sushi. I went to the movies. I traveled to Kyoto and hung out with some monkeys and walked through the lush bamboo forests in Arashiyama (hordes of hungry monkeys are equal parts terrifying, adorable, and stinky, by the way).

When I have money to spend, I don’t really try to dig any deeper into life here. When, through a combination of paying bills and stupidity, I’m suddenly left to struggle for a few weeks, it’s then that I find the real treasures my immediate area has to offer. Walking and running are free. There is no cover charge for adding miles to your feet.

It was on one of these penny-pinched journeys that I came across Kabutoyama, a fifth century burial mound in Sabae City. It’s a nationally recognized historical heritage site, but I never knew a thing about it. The hiking trails, curving around the nearby Monjyusan like a coiled dragon, would have remained a mystery had I not needed something cheap or free to do.

None of this is to say I’m recommending you beggar yourself to better understand your surroundings; if anything, you should avoid emulating my idiocy. Rather, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be broke while trying to see everything the world has to offer.

Has the fear of finding yourself dirt poor in a foreign land kept you from the road? Tell me about it in the comments below.



  1. My lack of funds is THE thing keeping me from traveling and exploring the world. I’ve never understood how so many people are able to do it; backpacking through Europe, making their way across Australia, or jumping from island to island in Asia; it all seems so effortless and simple for some people, while I’m over here struggling to figure out how to even save for a trip to the east coast of my own country while paying tuition payments for school and various other bills, let alone trying to go overseas.
    If only money really did grow on trees, I’d hop on a plane in a heartbeat and set off on an adventure.
    Great post, thanks for sharing!


    1. I know that felling all too well, and I wish I could offer some sort of advice to help. Unfortunately, it’s so dependent on your situation. The best I can say is cut corners where you can and keep your eyes on the prize. You’ll get where you want to go eventually 🙂


      1. Hopefully so! I’m one of those people that goes with the “works to live” motto, rather than the “lives to work” one. Every dollar I make that doesn’t go towards bills, necessities, and the occasional splurge goes straight into a savings account accurately labeled in my bank as “For Adventures”. 🙂

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