Surviving Japan. Is it possible to make it out of Japan with your wallet?
As I mentioned in my Tokyo on a Budget post, it seems that travel costs are more related to individual travel style , how much you want to spend and where you want to splurge.
It depends on your travel style and your preferences
I tried to envision friends’ travel styles against mine. Firstly, I travel mostly for sightseeing and photography. I explore places a lot on foot and prefer slow travel to fast. In many ways, my travel style is deterrent of a lot of eating, partying and shopping expenses (the top four budget killers) and I often like my experiences to be as close to “the street” or as local as possible.
How can Japan be traveled in under $50/day?
Let me tell you a secret… you could do it for far less and still have fun. Compared to Southeast Asia, it’s expensive, but next to European or U.S. prices, it felt comparable. In my post about getting around Tokyo cheap, I quote the average of $30/day if you had to shrink-wrap your spending. Of all the cities, Tokyo felt like my biggest challenge, but the budget options were there.
Like anything, admission-charged sights (Tokyo Cheapo lists 101 freebie things to do), nicer restaurants and buying stuff from souvenir shops are all add-on expenses that will quickly add up. You’ll also pay a higher price for convenience and speed, like if you want to take express trains vs. local (I’m talking about Tokyo mostly).
But if you take your sightseeing at a slower pace, eat on the streets or away from touristy areas and check out 100 yen shops, traveling doesn’t have to be wallet rape, but a creative adventure that results in discovering Japan’s more unique and local budget crawls.
The biggest expense for traveling Japan will be transportation. Budget accommodations are easily found, but transportation, you can’t skirt. This is where it costed me the most.
Budget Travel Tips for Japan: Top 4 Budget Killers
Budget Accommodations in Japan
Budget accommodations range from standard to “interesting”. It’s the difference of going from $100-$200/night hotel to $40/night business hotel or hostel to a $15/night manga cafe.
A hotel is a hotel, a hostel is a hostel. You’ll experience more of the local culture by stepping outside of that ring and looking at the more unique flavors, like ryokans, capsule hotels, love motels, minshukus (aka locally-run guesthouses), temple stays, Air BnB’s, manga kissatens… even an overnight bus! I haven’t tried couchsurfing but Wandering Soul has done a bit of it here.
People think that staying with a friend is cheap or free. Not the case in Japan unless you’re a freeloading friend, as it’s Japanese-style to bring gifts if you’re visiting a home. I stayed with a friend and brought pre and post gifts and as she also lived outside of Tokyo, that bill racked up! Here’s Japan Guide’s breakdown of budget accommodations in Japan.
Budget Souvenirs and shopping
Shop at the 100 yen stores.
Did you know they sell Evian water for a $1.00 in Japan? At least they do at the 100 yen stores.
100 yen shops are Japan’s equivalent to $1.00 stores and they’re stocked with a variety of stuff anywhere from household to toiletries, beauty products and gadgetry. It’s not only cheap trinkets but there’s a lot of cool stuff that in the U.S. might cost me more with export tax. They even sell drinks, food and snacks, so you could even stock up on food products, that you could easily cook up in a hostel kitchen.
Budget Transportation in Japan
Transportation is the unavoidable cost. From city to city, prefecture to prefecture… you will be charged for your distance. Going from city to city, your budget is guaranteed to pass the $50/day mark. But with planning and research, there are loopholes.
For long distance travel, your options are:
In Japan, there are times air travel is cheaper than land. Jetstar is one of Japan’s low cost carriers. The prices they quote are surprisingly low if you don’t add-on extras like seat reservations, baggage check-in, etc… My two-hour flight from Fukuoka to Tokyo cost me $60 , but ultimately turned out to $80, because of my add-ons.
Tip: Reduce your luggage to a carry-on and you can save money. But remember, if you have liquids in your bag, that’s an automatic check-in. Ultimately, a smaller luggage bag will also help you get around Japan a lot easier, like on the metro during peak time.
Many travelers opt for this if their itinerary is crunched with cities. Passes are sold at 7 day, 14 day and 21 day categories, includes all trains (shinkasen, express, local, etc..) and a few highway buses . It starts at 28,000 yen and you must pre-purchase your passes in advance. Also big note: you can only buy these passes outside of Japan. In this sense, you must plan ahead.
While the pass offers tourists a big discount on travel, if you only have a few cities to visit, it may be more cost-efficient to book point-to-point travel.
Highway and Overnight buses
This was my preferred option. I only had 3 main cities to get to (Tokyo – Kyoto | Osaka – Fukuoka).
Highway and overnight buses cut efficiency into my sightseeing time and cut down my hotel expenses by allowing me to travel, while I sleep. Schedule your departures around 10pm-12am (when the city and subways close down).
I used Willer Express . It offers anything from a cramped economy seat to a luxury recliner with your own personal entertainment system. If you book in advance, you may get a discounted rate or an upgraded seat from economy. See the Japan Tourism website for more information. A Tokyo to Kyoto overnight trip cost me $60 USD (a savings of $40-75 off the JR/Shinkasen trains ). Travel time was 7 hours and I arrived at 7am.
Fortunately, I was booked at a guesthouse (A-yado Gion Guesthouse), which conveniently allowed check-ins at 7am.
Note: Not all buses have luggage storage under the bus. If you’re planning to go this route, it’s best to pack as light as possible.
Bus and Subways
Japan offers good discounts for tourists such as one to three-day unlimited transportation cards, where you can either use the bus, train, both or on exception. Check it out with the tourism offices as soon as you land. Each city may have different deals depending on their tourism industry.
If you’re coming in through Haneda or Tokyo, you can only pick up a Tokyo metro ticket (photo below) from the airports, not in the city.
Budget Dining in Japan :
Japan has really delicious food. You’ll want to go crazy trying things if you’re not careful. Just walking past the market on the way to the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, I was wanting to try everything. All the rice cracker senbei snacks, mochi, you name it, were being cooked up before my eyes for 100 or 200 yen per pop. It can appear cheap until you add it up and realize you spent it all on snack time.
Eating Street -style
Y0u can easily find onegiri (aka rice balls) on the street for 100 yen, visit yatais or street food tents to slurp noodles or buy cheap food from 7 -11’s.
Restaurants away from touristy areas might get you a bowl of piping hot ramen for around 400-500 yen as well as, vending machine restaurants (photo below or a better one here). Food in Japan is generally tasty…even if it’s fast food.
Grocery stores and basement level of department stores.
Food is prepared fresh daily in Japan. Even in the supermarkets and thus, they want to sell as much of their bento plates and pre-cooked foods by the end of the day. Thus, there are discounts. Sushi plates, salads, tempura… all fresh and delicious Japanese food.
Tip: After 8-9pm grocery stores do a mark down on foods in the take out section.
Budget Travel Tips for Japan on Dining on the Cheap
Cook at your hostel.
The first night I arrived in Tokyo I stayed at a hostel and you would not believe how many travelers cook and bring their own food (just look at my photo of the hostel refrigerator below). But it’s definitely an option if you’re really cutting corners.