Japan on a Budget

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Japan is easily my favourite country in the world. I’ve only been a few times, but I constantly think about heading back and find myself researching different areas and new attractions. I remember when I was planning my first trip in 2008, everyone warned me how expensive the country is. When I finally arrived, I quickly learned that Japan was pretty budget friendly. 

Sure, Japan isn’t as cheap as Southeast Asia, but if you read my guide on how much does it cost to go to Japan?, you’ll see that you can see the country without spending a fortune. But what about people who have limited funds? Is it possible to see Japan without spending a lot of money? For sure it is, here’s how to travel Japan on a budget.

Japan on a budget transportation

Japan on a budget – Transportation

Getting to Japan will likely be the most expensive part of your trip. You can’t really control how much it’ll cost you to get there, but you should be smart about when you travel. Avoid cherry blossom season and the summer as that’s when flights will cost you the most. As for ground transportation, you’ll be spoiled by your choices.

JR PASS 

The first thing to understand is that the JR Pass which is only available to tourists will likely be the cheapest way for you to get around the country. The JR Pass will cost you the following:

DaysOrdinaryGreen Car
7 consecutive days¥ 29,650¥ 39.600
14 consecutive days¥ 47,250¥ 64,120
21 consecutive days¥ 60,450¥ 83,390

That works out to roughly US $282/$449/$574 for a 7/14/21-day pass respectively. While that may seem expensive, the savings can be huge depending on how often you travel. 

For example, a one-way ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto costs about US $130. If you made a return trip with a 7-day pass, you’d almost break even. With the 14-day pass, the break even point is a round trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima. As you can see, it’s not hard to make your money back.

It’s important to note that the JR Pass is good for any train, bus, or ferry operated by JR. You will have no problem getting just about anywhere in the country with your JR Pass. That said, you may need to take local trains and buses at times.

Metro / Buses

In many cities, you’ll need to rely on trains or buses that aren’t operated by JR. In most cases, you’d pay per fare and by distance. Generally speaking, a one-way ticket will cost you ¥100-350 so it’s not that expensive. The easiest way to pay is to get a reloadable IC card from the first city in Japan that you arrive at. They can be used in most parts of Japan which is convenient.

While taking the bus between cities would be cheaper than taking the train, the time it takes may not be worth it. The bus to Kyoto from Tokyo will only cost you as low as US $30, but the journey takes 7-9 hours. For reference, the bullet train is only a 2 hour and 20 minutes journey.

Free passes

Despite the name, the free passes that are available still cost you money. What they mean by free is that you get unlimited access to local transportation for a single price. These free passes are available at select tourist destinations such as Hakone and Koyasan. There’s also the Kyoto Raku bus pass.

Flights

Japan does have a few low cost carriers in Jetstar Japan, Peach Aviation, and Spring Airlines. While the cost of tickets can be quite reasonable, it usually doesn’t make sense to use them if you already have a JR pass. The only situations you would seriously consider a flight is if you plan on visiting one of the southern islands such as Okinawa, or if you need to reposition yourself before you activate your JR Pass.

Japan on a budget – Accommodations

When you start to think about how to save on accommodations in Japan, you actually have quite a few choices. Hostels are obviously the cheapest option, but if you’re willing to commute a little, it won’t be too hard to find a hotel for just a few dollars more. Here are your best options if you want to keep your costs down in Japan.

Hostels

Japan hostels are similar to what you get in Europe but I find the rooms to be smaller, cleaner, and the guests to be more friendly. These are obviously all good things which is why I highly recommend hostels if you’re looking for a cheap place to sleep. Quite often hostels offer a cheap continental breakfast and happy hour in their lounge, so you can save on your food and drinks. Expect to pay about US $30 a night at hostels. Some hostels worth checking out include:

Capsule hotels

A slight step up from hostels are capsule hotels. These give you your own sleeping space but they’re in a pod. This is good if you’re just looking for something basic and want your own space. Capsule hotels are found in most major cities and near some airports. These hotels usually cost about US $40-50 a night. Some capsule hotels to consider include:

Local hotels

A really good value for accommodations is staying at a local hotel chain. Look for local brands such as APA or Tokyu Stay as they have locations throughout the country. Prices are about $75-125 a night, so it’s a good option for people travelling in a pair. If you choose a hotel that’s not in the main tourist areas, it might be even cheaper. Here are some great local hotels to try:

Airbnb

While Airbnb can be budget friendly and may offer a bit more space, local laws have complicated things a touch. Airbnb owners are required to register their units and you must send them a copy of your passport before you arrive. Alternatively, you can let them make a copy of your passport when you arrive. Some travellers aren’t comfortable with this so it’s up to you to decide if you want to go this route. I personally find Airbnb to be similar in price as local hotel brands so I just stick to hotels.

Japan trip budget attractions

Japan on a budget – Attractions

Interestingly enough, most of Japan’s attractions are either free or relatively inexpensive. Generally speaking, most temples and museums will only cost you US $5-7 to get in. That said, many temples are free to enter and quite often museums have one free day a month, so if you plan things out, you won’t need to pay any admission. There are some museums that don’t charge an admission fee.

What makes Japan interesting is the culture. You could walk any direction and find something interesting in 5 minutes. Why pay for attractions when you can wander Harajuku’s streets and people watch or take in the history at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima?

While it may be tempting to pay to go up a tower for views of a city, you might be able to do it for free at times. For example, there’s no need to pay to go up the Tokyo Skytree when the Tokyo metropolitan government building observation deck is free. In Kyoto, skip Kyoto Tower and go to the top of Kyoto station.

It’s worth mentioning that theme parks in Japan are cheaper compared to North America. Tokyo Disneyland costs way less than Disney World. Universal Studios Japan is also significantly cheaper than going to Universal Studios Orlando.

Japan on a budget – Food 

Food in Japan can be incredibly affordable. There are plenty of meals that you can get for less than $10. If you really wanted to, you could keep your food budget to under $20 a day. That said, since Japan has so much good food to eat, I wouldn’t recommend spending as little as possible just to save money. 

It’s worth mentioning that many quick service restaurants use vending machines to order. You purchase a ticket from the machine with your meal choice (there’s usually pictures) and then you hand the chef your ticket. Tax is included in the price and Japan is a no tipping culture so the price you see is what you’ll pay. Here are some of the cheaper meals to look out for in Japan.

Gyudon

Gyudon is beef and onion on rice. It’s a very traditional meal in Japan and is considered fast food. The beef is thin sliced and covered in sweet sauce so it might not be something you’ve had before but it’s delicious. Depending on the size you get, a bowl of Gyudon can be had for US $4-6. There are multiple chains that sell Gyudon including Yoshinoya, Matsuya, and Sukiya. 

Conveyor belt sushi

Outside of Japan, conveyor belt sushi is considered a delicacy, but in Japan, it’s fast food. A plate of sushi at one of these restaurants will cost you US $1-3 and will come with two pieces. It shouldn’t be too hard to fill up for less than $10. There are also some restaurants where you can order a la cart and then the sushi is delivered to you on a track.

Ramen

You can not go to Japan without having ramen. Admittedly, when it comes to cheap Japanese food, ramen is on the higher end with a bowl of noodles costing you about US $9. If you spend a bit more you can get a bigger portion of noodles or additional toppings. There are many ramen chains in Japan but my personal favourites are Ichiran, Afuri, and Kyushu Jangara Ramen.

Tempura 

There are many restaurants that specialize in tempura. For less than US $10, you should be able to get a set that includes tempura shrimp and/or fish, vegetables, and rice. The tempura batter in Japan is light and flakey so it’s a much tastier version than what you may be used to.

Bakeries

In just about every train station, you’ll likely come across a bakery where you’ll find pastries, buns, and onigiri (rice triangles) for $1-3 each. This is an inexpensive way to fill up or snack on the cheap. Note that not all bakeries have English signs so you may want to ask if you’re not sure what you’re getting. One time I bought a tuna bun!

Convenience stores

Convenience stores in Japan sell just about everything and are much better than what you see in North America or Europe. The food section will have bento boxes and preset meals for US $5 or less. Don’t forget to check out the snack section where the chip flavours are likely things you’ve never seen before. Grocery stores also have preset meals for cheap.

Final thoughts

This guide has focused on seeing Japan for as cheap as possible, but if you want to see what an average Japan trip budget looks like, check out my guide on how much does it cost to go to Japan? The country is likely less expensive than you imagined and now that you know all the tips to save, you can further reduce your costs.

For more inspiration, check out my Dubai on a budget and Bali on a budget guides.

Japan on a Budget

About Barry Choi

Barry Choi is a Toronto-based personal finance and travel expert who frequently makes media appearances. His blog Money We Have is one of Canada’s most trusted sources when it comes to money and travel. You can find him on Twitter:@barrychoi

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