Japan is not the cheapest place to live, and it can be frustratingly confusing, even for long-timers. Fortunately, there is NihonHacks.com, the blog devoted to tips for stretching your yen and saving time, courtesy of American-born, Japan-based blogger Thomas Hjelm (with some input from his wife and his readers). The topics of the tips (or “hacks,” in computer-programmer parlance) have value for both veteran and newbie residents, and range from where to find a 300-yen steak and how to make yourself a soap dish out of a plastic tofu container. Who knows? Japanese might even learn something new here . . .

How did NihonHacks begin?

I wish there was an interesting story for this, but there wasn’t much to it really. One day I decided I wanted to start a blog for fun. I had a little brainstorming session where I wrote down some ideas on a piece of paper and “tips for living in Japan” was one of them. Then I looked around at other Japan blogs to make sure the idea hadn’t been done yet. I didn’t find anything so I decided to go ahead with it.

Define what you mean by “hack.”

I don’t really know what the difference between a “hack” and a “tip” is. When I started NihonHacks I was reading other blogs like Lifehacker and Parent Hack. I just grabbed the word thinking that people who read blogs would associate it with tips that make things easier. That turned out not to be the case though. That turned out not to be the case though. I advertised the blog on an English mixi community and there was a little discussion about the name. Apparently in Australia, “hack” is used to describe something poorly done. Someone pointed out that cats “hack-up” hairballs. You can call a bad writer a “hack.” Then, of course, there is the idea of a “hacker” breaking into your computer and messing stuff up. Not exactly the first impression I wanted to make, but I had already spent the $10 on the domain name, so that was that.

How do you come up with your hacks?

I don’t come up with many of them all by myself. Most of the hacks are tips I have learned from other people. I get a lot of them from my wife, who is Japanese. Using old rice for zousui (rice porridge) , dissolving miso in a ladle , using the water from your potto to get a faster boil : these are all tips I learned from watching my wife. Readers send in a lot of great tips too. I think the only tip that was 100% my idea was the tofu soap dish hack . It’s sounds really silly, but I still use mine to this day and its the best soap dish I’ve ever had.

Has the blog changed your life in any way?

Not in a major way. I’ve learned a lot of great tips along the way that have saved me some time and some yen. I’ve learned a bit about blogs, blogging and marketing. I’ve met a lot of cool Japan bloggers. These are things that probably wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have the blog, but they aren’t exactly “life-changing.”.

Do you have a personal favorite of any of your hacks?

I don’t leave rice in the rice cooker that often anymore, but back when I did the zousui hack helped me out a lot. I also regularly order cheese from the company mentioned in my cheese hack . Just recently I posted about how to tell the difference between farm-raised fish and wild fish in the supermarket . That’s something I would’ve liked to know about two years ago.

Are there many hacks that have impressed you in Japan (ones that are common sense here but unheard of abroad)?

Not off the top of my head, but learning about zousui was kinda an “Aha!” moment for me. Back home we use old stale bread to make French toast or bread pudding. Over here, rice is the staple food, not bread, so it was cool to find out how the Japanese avoid wasting old rice.

Do you feel like you have a commitment to your readers to produce content regularly, or do you just get around to it when you can?

I get around to it when I can. NihonHacks is just a hobby to me. If I were to put pressure on myself to write on a regular schedule, I’d probably start looking at the blog as work instead of fun. I want it to stay fun.

Do you see yourself doing this five years from now?

I don’t know what the Internet will look like five years from now. But if blogs are still around and if I’m still in Japan, sure. Even if I’m not, I’ll probably keep the site up in some form or another so that future visitors can benefit from it. I’m really looking forward to the site’s one-year birthday in September. A whole new wave of exchange students and first-year JETs will be coming in at the end of the summer and I hope they’ll find NihonHacks. The more people there are reading the blog, the more people there will be commenting and leaving their own tips and hacks.

Have any indispensable advice for those looking to live as cheaply as possible?

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