Japan is not your cheapest destination of travel, but there are ways to travel Japan cheaply. Here are useful tips to travel Japan on a budget and all the secret cost cutting methods to experience Japan with a tighter belt.
The article will be split into the sections as follows:
- Japan Rail
- Other transportation
- Japan Culture/Experience
- Other Tips
Flights are always the bulk of any travel expenditure. If you are interested to travel to Japan, create an alert to Japan with Skyscanner, Kayak, Momondo and AirfareWatchdog. There are also low-cost carriers from within South Asia or South East Asia. If you are flying from Europe or USA, you can consider flying to a hub like Malaysia or Singapore, and book another flight to Japan from there. Check out Scoot, Airasia, Jetstar, Cebu Pacific and Hong Kong Airlines.
Accommodation on a Budget
Solo Trevellers: You can try Couchsurfing in Japan, although it might be tricky about being hosted by a different gender. Couchsurfing is the cheapest way (essentially free) to find a place to stay in Japan, but I would recommend it more for solo trevellers.
Pairs/Couples/Friends Trevellers: Hostels are the best cheapest way to stay in Japan. Unlike the party hostels in Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia, hostels in Japan are clean and nice. Book them 4-12 weeks in advance, and you can find amazing hotels at great prices. They also have many tips for trevellers who are interested to explore the area, and information of any upcoming events and festivals. You get international trevellers and locals (Japanese from other parts of Japan) there, so it is a great place to mingle around. Use hotels.com or booking.com for your accommodation search and book weeks in advance. They range about 20-35USD per night if you book early.
Business/Non-Hostel Trevellers: APA hotels are business hotels. (ビジネスホテル). They are cheaper and nice hotels with basic amenities. This is a category of hotel with basic and comfortable room with a price of a motel in USA. APA hotels range about 30-45USD per night. Sometimes, you can find inexpensive restaurants inside too.
Outside of Major Cities: Japan is more than just the major cities. As you travel to quieter and less touristic destinations, you can find more local and cheaper accommodations. The ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and minshuku (Japanese B&B) are not that expensive. Minshukus are slightly cheaper than ryokan as they are usually family-run places. Dinners and breakfast are served with ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and minshuku (Japanese B&B), and that is a huge saving on meals in Japan! If you prefer the accommodation without meals, tell them “Sudomari” during your reservation, and you can get a discount. They cost about 75USD per night with 2 meals and all facilities, like a home.
As always when it comes to trevel, pack light. Bring only essentials in a backpack. To bring even less items, consider traveling in summer instead of winter, as you bring less bulky coats and jackets.
Be expected to walk a lot. Japan is such an interesting place, and you never know what you can find just around the corner. Carrying an easy backpack helps in exploring, compared to dragging a large suitcase all around the small quiet streets. There are also laundry services in hostels and minshuku/ryokan, so you can wash your clothes.
If you have no heard about it yet, the Japan Rail is the best way to travel around Japan for trevellers. This pass covers trains to cities. So, you can take the bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo for free! That being said, the pass is pretty expensive. So it depends on what type of treveller you are. A 7-day Japan Rail pass for an adult costs USD260.
Should I get the Japan Rail Pass?
The question you need to ask yourself is how would you like to travel. Some people like to maximize their trip with going to as many places as possible. Then this pass is good for you. If you would like to check out the cities nearby, then this pass is not for you. Simply put, do you want to travel to many cities in the least amount of time? If yes, get this pass.
As much as there is a huge debate on whether the rail pass is a good investment, it depends on how you like to travel and what travel plans you have.
For instance, maybe in 7 days, you want to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto to Nara and a few spontaneous day trips to nearby cities in between. If that is the case, the rail pass is a good investment for you.
If you are going to focus on Tokyo and Kyoto only, you should consider getting the night bus (next section).
Things To Note: Japan Rail Pass
If you are getting the Japan Rail Pass, take note of when it expires and how to activate it. You can activate it at designated locations like at the airport or at major train stations. Do note that you don’t have to activate your rail pass immediately at the airport. For instance, you want to spend 3 days in Tokyo before doing a 7-day rail trip to different cities. You should only activate your JR Pass on the start of your 7-day rail trip.
If you are only checking out a few cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka), you can just get a one-way bullet train ticket and fly out of Osaka. That is much cheaper (US100).
You can also consider using regular trains to check out neighbouring cities. E.g. Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Kobe. They are an hour away from each other on regular trains with proper planning. If you are doing that, you can get a tourist pass for regular train lines. They cost about USD8 for the entire day and unlimited rides on that line. Buy the pass for Hankyu in Kansai.
The night bus is one of the more popular travel options. It is very cheap, a replacement for a night in the hotel and a way to travel to a different city! The night bus between Tokyo and Kyoto is about US35, one-way. They are very comfortable and luxurious, as is Japan. You can use this site to book (in English, take note of promotion periods!), or if you have local friends, you can ask them for Japanese websites that might be cheaper.
You will have to be alert about the destinations and stops as they only speak in Japanese. It is also not as comfortable as trains and their blinking destinations.
Food/Meals on a Budget
Note: the great thing about meals is that there is no tipping, unlike USA. Tipping is generally frowned upon.
Quick Simple Meals
You can get a quick meal in konbini. They are Japanese convenience stores like 7-11, Lawsons, Family Mart. They have cheap ready-made food there. You can get breakfast there for a low cost. Their lunch boxes are also freshly made every day and go up on sale in the evening. They can become a good and cheap dinner: 20% discount from 6-7pm and all the way to 70% discount as the night goes on!
When it comes to other food places, you have ramen shops, street snacks, conveyor belt sushi, mom-and-pop shops, chain curry shops and more. They are great places to eat. For most restaurants, they have lunch sets and dinner sets that comes with main course, drinks and/or soup and/or desserts. Dinner sets are usually more expensive, so you should spend more on lunch with the lunch sets and have dinner somewhere else.
Another option is to eat at Japanese bakeries. You can get a curry pan for 3-5USD and that is great for one meal!
To get the maximum out of your stay in Japan, you should:
- Get breakfast from a hostel or your accommodation
- Splurge a little on lunch in a proper restaurant with their lunch sets
- Grab discounted daily made bento boxes from convenience stores from 6pm.
Cooking in Japan
The other method is to cook! That is usually a huge cost saving method in travel. Visit the supermarket in the evening for discounted food and keep an eye out for the discount corners in konbini and supermarkets. They are food that is about to expire but still good to eat.
If you would like a inexpensive activity that it in line with the Japanese tradition, visit the Japanese gardens. Gardens are everywhere and they are mainly free. Spend some quiet time away from the hustle and bustle of Harajuku and enter the quiet garden of peace and tranquility.
Temples are another place to visit where it is free. There are plenty of temples around Japan and they are beautifully designed and built. An idea by Japantravel, instead of spending lots of money on typical Japanese souvenirs, get a stamp notebook and collect stamps in the temple. Quoted from Japantravel,
Upon your first visit to a temple in Japan, you can buy a Goshuin notebook. You then hand your new book to the friendly monk at the temple. The monk uses black ink to hand-write the name and date using traditional Japanese calligraphy. Afterwards he stamps your book with a large red stamp that is unique to that specific temple. You pay (donate) a few dollars to the temple (usually ¥200-¥500) and then you’re given back the notebook with its beautiful black calligraphy and vermilion red ink. At the next temple you don’t buy a new book, you give them the one that you already have. The monk at the new temple will place his artwork directly next to the ones that you have already received. By the end of your trip you have this collection of original artwork that literally traces your journey through Japan.
Everyone’s notebook ends up being different. Aside from the names and dates being distinct, each monk and temple has a different style. The order in which you go to various temples also makes all the books look different. The best part is that the book unfolds like an accordion. Meaning it opens up like a folded scroll so that all the pages can be revealed at one time.
This is an inexpensive yet great local experience for your stay in Japan.
Unique Items to Buy Home
For cheap Yukata or Kimono to bring home, visit Harajuku Chicago, a second-hand store in Harajuku. You can get affordable and good quality items there. Also check out places like Tokyu Hands and record stores to find unique items to bring home!
Other Japan on a Budget Tips
Free WiFi: Check out for free Pocket WiFi when you book your accommodation. The Japan Wifi App connects you to 200,000+ WiFi hotspots across Japan. It also includes map with directions. It’s free.
Money: Carry cash on you. Japan is still a cash society, so be prepared to spend in cash.
Cheaper cities: Not all cities are super expensive. Travel to other cities for a cheaper and authentic travel. E.g. Takayama, Kanazawa and Matsumoto.
Day-to-day items: Shop at Cosmos. Cosmos is a huge drug store chain and you can find everything there at a really cheap cost! You can find the by typing “Cosmos” into your Google Maps.
Wholesale supermarket: Check if you have “業務スーパー” (Gyomu Super) in your area. It is a wholesale supermarket and everything there is super cheap!
Events: There are events happening all the time. Check Facebook events or see if your hostel has any event or festival flyers and join them!
Comment and share more on how you travel Japan on a budget!