Let’s get straight to the point, Japan is expensive. Without a doubt, it’s in competition for one of the most expensive countries worldwide, and certainly tops the list in Asia. This becomes a major concern for travellers. How much money do you need? How short does the trip have to be? Is it difficult to live on a budget? I had the same concern.
Talking to someone who had travelled there previously, they claimed to have spent about £1000 over a month. I didn’t think this was too bad a figure, and a decent target to aim for. However, with a few careful decisions and stringent budgeting, in the end, I spent the same amount of money over the course of 2 and a half months. That works out to roughly £15 a day. So here’s how to travel Japan on a budget!
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In total, I spent 64 days on the mainland. We won’t consider my time in Okinawa, as island life tends to be more expensive and can be considered a bit of a detour. Regardless, during what amounted to 2 and a half months, in total I spent £1,059. As mentioned previously, this included EVERYTHING. Every night’s accommodation, every form of travel between and within destinations, all food and plenty of extras such as attractions, souvenirs and the odd heavy night out on the town. That works out accurately as £15.43 per day!
It would have been easy to spend much more, though in the end, I didn’t have to sacrifice too much to make such a saving. It may still seem a high figure, certainly when compared to neighbouring Asian countries. However, when considering this includes all the daily essentials, that’s a pretty good deal, particularly for a country as expensive as Japan.
To reach such a limit, there are a few tricks and tips on how to do so. That’s what I’m here to help you with. We’ll look at all the four aspects of travel mentioned above. For each aspect of your travels savings can be made and ensures you can squeeze every last day out of that visa and properly travel Japan on a budget.
Without a shadow of a doubt, this will be your biggest expense during your time in Japan. However, it’s easy enough to make a tonne of savings with a bit of research and a few wise choices. That being said it’s difficult to find a true bargain compared to other countries. Undoubtedly a big factor on why Japan on a budget can be so tricky.
First and foremost, just like anywhere else, hostels are generally your best bet. They typically have the lowest prices available and are never really in short supply. Unfortunately in Japan, the prices can’t be considered low compared to what you might be used to. The lowest prices available throughout various Japanese cities range from £7-£13, which really adds up as your trip gets longer.
Usually, I’d recommend Hostel World to find the cheapest prices, yet Japan is the only country to date which this isn’t the case. In my experience, your best option is finding a place on Air BnB. At practically every point I visited, this is where I managed to find the cheapest accommodation. Not only do they have cheaper hostel options, but will also occasionally include guesthouses which are even cheaper than the equivalent hostel! Added luxury and privacy for a cheaper price!
Additionally, if long-term travel is the game, then I would always suggest volunteering. You can find plenty of hostels, schools, farms, families and much more that are willing to take on volunteers. Though ideally, nobody wants to work while they’re travelling, some of these hosts might only require 3 days of work or a couple of hours over 5 days. This way you’ll get a place to stay without paying a single penny, negating ALL your accommodation costs while you’re there. If you truly want to travel Japan on a budget, this is the way to do it. By doing this I ensured I had a completely free month living in Kyoto and lived in a Buddhist temple for a week.
This can be divided into two sections; travel within and between destinations. Both are equally important to consider as along with accommodation this will most likely be your biggest expense when you travel anywhere in the world.
If travelling Japan on a budget really is your main goal, then you can forget about using the world-famous bullet trains (the Shinkansen). I know that’s devastating as surely its one of the must-do things while you’re in Japan. However, they are by far the most expensive form of travel you can get in the country. It would literally be cheaper to buy a plane ticket for the prices they charge, it is not worth it.
So what other option do you have? Buses! As with every country, bus tickets will ALWAYS be your cheapest option. Okay, in any other country they might not be the most comfortable form of travel, but it’s a different ball game when it comes to Japan. Even the bargain rate cheapest tickets available will be more comfortable than 90% of the buses/coaches you’ve ever taken in any other country. Just compare the cheapest ticket prices:
Type of Transport
Tokyo to Kyoto
Osaka to Hiroshima
Even the cheapest buses available will be equipped with near-horizontal recliners that come with a personal socket, free wi-fi, and even some with a personal pram like a hood for each seat to give yourself an added level of privacy. Along with stopping every hour or two for some quick refreshments or a bathroom break. How much more comfortable do you need to be?
And if we’re talking about time, they’re not that much different to the equivalent train. If you’re hopping between the major cities, we’re talking 4-6 hours at the most. On one of the most comfortable buses you’ve ever been in your life, that sort of time is not a problem. If you truly want to tackle Japan on a budget, this is the way to do it.
Would be quite obvious to suggest walking right? Other than Tokyo, most attractions within major cities are actually within a comfortable walking distance of each other, so why waste your money on transport? In cities like Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka and Hiroshima, this really is the case. Even if you only have a couple of days to play with, it’s easily doable. Save your money.
So what about Tokyo? No matter how physically fit and willing you think you are, walking between Tokyo’s attractions just isn’t an option. It is one of the biggest cities in the world after all. For inner-city travel, you have 3 options: taxis, buses and the subway.
Taxis? Forget it. If you want to pay a whole week’s budget on a cab ride, go right ahead and enjoy your short-lived trip. Buses are the cheapest option, however, in a city like Tokyo, they’re pretty impracticable. It’s a megalithic-sized city, and all the attractions are spread vastly throughout it. Even if you can work out the routes and necessary buses, it would take forever to get there (even without considering the notorious traffic).
There’s a reason the subway system is so iconic. It’s the most reliable and efficient way of travelling from A to B. Though compared to other subway systems it is a little bit more expensive, it’s not too devastating at between 170-320 yen per journey (depending on distance). A valuable money-saving tip is to buy a daily pass at the ticket machine. At 600 yen, during a decent day of travel, you’re more than likely to get your money’s worth from it.
Here is the place where you’ll have to make a little bit of a sacrifice. I understand how tempting it is to walk past the endless amounts of aromas seeping out of the countless restaurants selling utterly delicious dishes out of restaurants all across Japan. It’s just too expensive.
Let’s be honest, even for the hardest budgeters amongst you, it would still be a shame if you travelled across an entire country without dining out. After all, it’s experiencing a culture, eating like a local. Nothing wrong with a bit of a treat now and again. Restaurants will often have examples of dishes displayed outside with prices clearly stated.
And more than likely there’s one particular type of Japanese cuisine you’re just dying to try in a genuine restaurant; sushi! Though it’s not necessarily cheap, the restaurant’s set-up ensures that you can easily control your spending. They usually work on a conveyor belt format with available dishes circulating to all the customers. These will be placed on colour-coded plates, each of increasing price. They start from about 120 yen for the cheapest dish and go all the way to 500 yen for the more luxury ones such as unagi (eel).
Another alternative option is ready-to-go food. I sense some of you recoiling in disgust at the prospect of eating convenience store food daily, but consider this; Japan runs on an on-demand industry. The average Japanese businessman/woman doesn’t have time to sit down and enjoy a meal, they need something quick so they can get back to work. That’s why every supermarket and convenience store has an enormous stock of ready-meals and quick bites.
Additionally, these establishments always have microwaves on hand, even asking if you’d like them to be prepared as you buy them. They’ll most likely even have sections of tables and chairs in their store to sit down and eat. Having such an industry also ensures that the quality of the food is the highest it can be. I promise you the food you get at these places will be better than any other country’s.
That being said, if you’re truly looking to travel through Japan on a budget, preparing your meals absolutely is your cheapest option. Supermarkets and fresh produce markets aren’t too expensive and can go a long way. This can easily be achieved if you ensure that your accommodation has a kitchen. Let’s look at a specific example and work out the math. What about a Japanese staple, like ramen?
As far as attractions are concerned, it’s pretty difficult to make any real savings. Prices are always non-negotiable and your only real way of saving money is deciding not to go or not to do it, which isn’t really a viable option. It’s a one-of-a-lifetime opportunity and not the right time to start making compromises.
Just take solace in a few of these facts. First and foremost your total bill for attractions in Tokyo could be a nice easy 0, without making any real sacrifices. All the major attractions, temples and shrines are completely free. These include the likes of the Shibuya Crossing, Senso-ji, watching sumo wrestlers, watching the tuna auction, the Meiji shrine etc. Of course, you could spend money in certain circumstances, but all the major must-d’s are ticked off your list.
This is also true for many of the biggest highlights across the country, including Fushimi-Inari and the Bamboo Groves of Kyoto. Other than that, a few temples, shrines, castles and museums will have an entrance fee, however individually they aren’t too extravagant. Prices can range anywhere from 200-500 yen, and usually, the price doesn’t correspond to the quality. In order to strictly travel Japan on a budget, some of these extra attractions would have to be cherry-picked, ensuring that you’re only spending on the attractions truly worth seeing.
For any long-term traveller, budgeting is key. The less you spend the longer you can ultimately travel. In a country as expensive as Japan this can be difficult but by no means impossible. There are plenty of ways to ensure you spend as little money as necessary while still making the most of your time there. Spending less does not necessarily mean you will be sacrificing or missing out on an experience of a lifetime. Follow the advice and travelling Japan on a budget can be easily done.
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A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.