Japan is one of the most fascinating countries on the planet thanks to its unique skill in effortlessly combining the ultra-modern with the highly traditional. Known the world over for being at the cutting edge of modern technology, it’s also a country still governed by ancient customs and beliefs that point towards its enchanting history - think Emperors’ castles, Samurai warriors and binding codes of honour.
Relatively few budget travellers visit Japan due to a widely held belief that it’s ridiculously expensive. And whilst it is by no means easy on the wallet, there are ways to see and experience it without breaking the bank.
If you are looking to visit Japan on the cheap then our 5 budget travel tips should help keep you within your budget.
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1. Shop Around for Accommodation in Japan
We figured out early on that accommodation was going to be our biggest cost, so shopping around to find the cheapest option for you is our top tip if you’re looking to visit Japan on the cheap.
With a single bed in a dorm room often costing upwards of £20, we pretty much ruled out being able to stay in hostels so we began to look elsewhere to find the most budget friendly option.
We’d read about cubicle hotels being a cheaper alternative but actually when we looked into them they were equally as expensive as hostels and without any of the benefits of social spaces to meet people in.
We’d also read about manga cafes where people go to use the internet and read comics during the day, but as they’re open 24hrs people often stay the night in them. Many have installed shower rooms to cater for this and provide toiletries such as toothbrushes and soap when you check in.
Whilst manga cafes are cheap, sometimes as low as £7 per night per person, the downsides are that your room is essentially a cubicle in an internet café and your bed is a computer chair. As we were spending 5 weeks in Japan this wasn’t really a viable option.
We found that by far the best option (outside of Tokyo) was Airbnb where we found small private apartments in decent areas with kitchenettes and clothes washing facilities included. These apartments ranged in price from £6.50 per person in Osaka to £11 per person in Fukuoka. We found that hosts often provide a discount if you book for one week or longer, sometimes up to 50%, which actually made it more cost effective for us to stay longer in places than we had originally intended to keep costs down.
Another great benefit of the Airbnb apartments we stayed in was they all provided “pocket wifi” which is a little device you can carry around with you that acts as a wifi hotspot so you’re connected wherever you go.
However, if you are visiting alone then apartments will still be quite costly but Airbnb may still provide the cheapest option – try looking for rooms in shared apartments rather than private apartments and you’ll often find deals for under a tenner. You may also get lucky with a sociable host to spend time with!
Tokyo is a whole other beast, and while there are still good deals on Airbnb we found that the ones in our price range were not in the areas we wanted to stay in. It’s also worth planning in advance if possible as the cheapest places get booked up very early.
We found a quirky camping shop that doubled as a hostel by allowing guests to make use of its showroom after hours with the idea being that people are able to “test drive” the equipment before purchasing. It was in a very central area allowing us to save a bit on transportation costs as we were able to walk to many nearby attractions. This hostel cost us £14 per night per person where most hostels in central Tokyo were closer to £30 per night per person.
Now on to the cheapest option of all - couchsurfing. This is how the idea for us to visit Japan came about in the first place when we met a Japanese guy in Uruguay who inspired us to go and told us that couchsurfing in Japan is growing in popularity, particularly with hosts wanting to practice their conversational English.
In reality, we didn’t manage to secure any couchsurfing despite applying for a number of opportunities, but we found out why, so this information could help you if you’re looking to couchsurf in japan.
The couchsurfing hosts that we applied to were kind enough to message back and the feedback that we got was that couchsurfing in Japan is very popular amongst travellers due to the cost of accommodation and as a result there is a lot of competition. The other thing we found out was that many couchsurfing hosts in Japan understandably only allow guests to be in their home when they are present. As a result, this means that many only accept applications for weekend stays.
So if you want to do some couchsurfing in Japan make sure you apply to hosts well in advance, we’re talking weeks rather than days. Even if you are only accepted for weekend stays, every little helps when trying to visit Japan on the cheap and it will save you a few quid for other activities.
2. Keep Transport Costs to a Minimum
Japan has got one of the most advanced transport networks in the world, exemplified by the famous bullet trains that travel at over 200mph. Whilst these trains are amazing feats of engineering and a great experience, they’re not necessarily the cheapest option. That said, they do provide great flexibility so are worth considering.
JR Rail Pass
The JR Pass is a good choice if you’re visiting Japan for a shorter period of time, usually under a month as the passes come in three lengths – 7 days, 14 days or 21 days and have to be used within that timeframe.
They cost £209, £334 or £427 respectively (2016 prices) and whilst this is quite a large initial cost, you can travel huge distances in short periods of time and allow you unlimited usage on trains, buses and ferries. If you’re planning on visiting a lot of the islands or lots of cities in Japan then this may be a good option.
Japan is well connected with many domestic airports and there are cheap internal flights available. As always with flying though you have to factor in any extra baggage costs etc, whether your destination has an airport and costs of getting to and from the airport.
This is the option that best suited us to get around Japan as it offered us the most amount of flexibility at the lowest price.
The bus company we used, Willer Express offers passes for any 3, 5 or 7 journeys taken within 2 months and has a great route network that covers much of the country. The prices are very reasonable at £75 (3 day), £95 (5 day) or £115 (7 day) for Monday to Thursday passes and £95 (3 day) and £115 (5 day) for passes you can use on the weekends as well. The buses are extremely modern and comfortable and have curtains that pull down over your head, almost like a pram canopy, effectively creating your own little private booth.
If time is not a concern to you, coach may well be the best option as many of the journeys can be done overnight meaning you also save on a night’s accommodation.
Walking & Cycling
Now this may seem obvious, but actually when many of the cities are so well connected by trams, buses and metros, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need to use public transport. But a word of caution, it’s not cheap!
Download MapsMe which enables you to plan routes on the app even if you are offline and get your comfortable shoes on because walking is free!
You can also hire bicycles for very little in most cities and we even found some apartments on Airbnb where bicycles were included for us to use for free.
3. Eat and Drink Well for Less
Japanese food is AMAZING! And food is an extremely important part of the culture.
This is something we were really concerned about as we are a bit obsessed with food and loving getting stuck in to local cuisines wherever we go. We were worried that good food might be out of our price range, but actually you can eat well and still visit Japan on the cheap.
Granted, many restaurants are very expensive and even buying and cooking your own food can be quite costly in comparison to many nearby countries.
Despite all of this, there are plenty of low cost, good quality places to eat in Japan and the term “fast food” is not one to be ashamed of here.
Our favourite low cost meal during our time in Japan was ramen. If you’ve not had proper ramen before, forget the 25p packet noodles you’re probably thinking of, real Japanese ramen is an artform.
Freshly made noodles, a hearty, savoury broth, slices of pork and a soft boiled egg combine to create something truly magical, and at under £2 for a good quality bowl that will fill you up for hours it’s the perfect budget meal.
Some of the national chains such as Ichiran, whilst being high quality, are more expensive than smaller local operators. Look out for these smaller ramen shops or do a bit of research online to find the best value ones. Ramen is a national obsession so there is plenty of advice online on which places to try, there are even whole blogs dedicated to ramen written by people who eat it every single day!
Fast Food Chains
There are 4 or 5 national fast food chains that serve freshly cooked, decent quality nutritious meals for a very low price.
Our favourite was Hotto Motto, it’s take away only so you’re best off taking it back to where you’re staying to eat it (eating and drinking in public spaces such as on streets or in parks is frowned on in Japan), but it’s well worth it. Their menu is regularly updated with delicious new bento boxes which are freshly cooked to order and cost from about £2.50 to £5.00.
Other decent places to try are Yoshinoya and Matsuya which have quite similar menus at similar prices. They both do set meals for example a beef bowl with rice, a miso soup and a side salad for just a couple of quid. They also provide free drinking water, or if you are after something stronger you can get a draught beer or highball for about £1.
Strangely enough, bakeries are really good value for small meals or snacks. I say strange because bread itself is not cheap in japan, but bread related products seem to be.
It’s not traditional Japanese food that they sell, but things like cheese-stuffed breads, filled naans and even just sandwiches are pretty cheap in local bakeries.
Cook at Home
Wherever you’re staying, if you have cooking facilities then you can make pretty decent meals for really low prices. Japanese kitchens are often extremely small and usually consist of a single electric hob ring, a microwave and a grill so don’t plan on making massive cordon bleu meals.
You can pick up reasonably priced food at local supermarkets or 7 Elevens, particularly if you suss out when they begin to discount fresh stuff (usually around 7PM) but remember to plan your meals around your limited equipment. Things like noodles, eggs and salads are simple to prepare, cheap and healthy.
Avoid Going Out for Drinks
Alcohol is very expensive in bars and restaurants and actually even most alcohol from supermarkets or off licences is still rather pricey.
Chilean wine is quite well priced at about £4-6 per bottle and Japanese whisky is also reasonable for the lower end stuff, but beer is quite expensive starting at around £2 for a single can.
Probably the best value alcohol in Japan is a rocket fuel spirit called Chūhai sold in alcopops-style mixed fizzy drinks and with an alcohol content of anywhere between 2-9%.
For a 500ml can of 9% Chūhai you will pay under £1.50, and believe me you’ll be feeling the effects afterwards! It comes in a huge range of flavours to suit all palettes, from the odd sounding but delicious salted lemon to more exotic fruit flavours like kiwi or lychee. It’s not usually packaged as Chūhai so look out for the cans in the alcohol fridges with fruit on the front, our favourite brand is fittingly named “Strong”. Just don’t drink too many!
You’re probably wondering why Sake is not on the list, the simple answer is that for anything remotely drinkable, it’s very expensive. There isn’t really a cheap way to try good sake, but some bars offer tasting menus which allow you to sample a selection of 3 or so small glasses for around £10.
Another thing to bear in mind is that many bars will include a table charge on your bill, so even their happy hour special offers are nowhere near as good as they sound – we got caught out with this when we spotted draught beers at £1 each in a nice bar, it turned out that this was £1 for the first beer rising to £1.50 for the second then normal price after that and there was also a table charge of £4 which meant we ended up spending £6 on two beers that we thought would cost £2!!
So drinking out was a very rare treat for us in our time in Japan, but when we did we would research bars that had special offers and no service charge.
Whilst drinking outside during the daytime is often frowned upon, many younger people often buy some drinks and take them to local spots to hang out. Our favourite spot in Tokyo was down by the river after dark, where lots of people would congregate to chat while gazing at the stars and enjoying a beer or can of Chūhai. It still felt like we were going out and socialising but it didn’t eat into our budget like heading out to a bar would have done.
4. 7 Elevens are Your Friend in japan
You struggle to go 50 yards in Japan without coming across a 7 Eleven and we found them fantastic havens for a number of reasons.
They’re quite cheap for buying snacks and drinks and extremely convenient because if you’re out and about you can always find one nearby no matter where you are.
7 Elevens in Japan almost always have a toilet as well, which is extremely handy when you are sightseeing for the day and have the urge to go.
They are also air conditioned and if you visit Japan during their summer months as we did, you will soon get to know that this is a real blessing in the sweltering midday humidity. Many also have a seating area where you can chill out for a while whilst enjoying an iced coffee or snack as you cool down, sometimes at the front of the store or sometimes upstairs.
They also offer free wifi! Yes, free! You have to sign up which is a simple process, and then you will automatically connect anytime you walk past one of their shops. Because there are so many 7 Elevens, it means you have coverage in quite a large area of the country!
5. Embrace the Free Stuff
We were truly amazed at some of the things that we didn’t have to pay for in Japan.
It takes a bit of research and planning but there is tonnes of information available online and at tourist information centres to help you visit Japan on the cheap that’s readily accessible – use it!
We found that many tourist centres offer free walking tours which are a great way to get to grips with a new city. They are often run by long term residents who can give you a real insider view whilst being a great source of information and able to answer any questions you might have.
Many tourist attractions are also free, we visited observatory decks with incredible views, many beautiful temples and shrines as well as lots of museums. We watched a Geisha show with traditional music and dance, spent lots of time in stunning parks that had festivals or celebrations going on and enjoyed world class hiking spots for absolutely no fee whatsoever.
We even received free training on what to do in the event of an earthquake, flood, fire or tsunami at a disaster prevention centre in Fukuoka! Valuable information but also a fun day out as there were various simulators that put you through a very realistic experience.
We spent 5 weeks travelling through Japan and there is no doubt that it is not the easiest country to visit on the cheap, but it can be done! If you are on a tight budget like us, don’t let the financials put you off.
We had an absolutely amazing time, met some incredible people and got to visit a country that we never thought was even a possibility on our budget.
So if you’ve been had a dream to visit Japan, what are you waiting for?
Have you been dreaming of visiting Japan but worried it'll cost too much? If you've been, have you got a budgeting tip we didn't think of? Drop us a note in the comments with any questions we haven't answered.