You have no idea how many times I’ve heard the phrase “I’d love to travel to japan, but it’s so expensive!” I know so many people who are dying to go to Japan, but postpone the trip until they’ve “saved up enough money”.
It’s true, a trip to Japan is a trip that most of us would probably need to specifically save up for. However, and here I’m going to surprise you: Japan really isn’t expensive. You can have the trip of a lifetime in Japan and stay here for two weeks, or more for less than $2,000. Let’s take a look how you can do this:
You won’t believe how much you can save on hotels. It all depends on how fussy you are.
Hotels in Japan, especially in the center of big cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, are not cheap. But if you’re willing to compromise a little on the location, or on the room type (I’ll explain shortly), you can save hundreds of dollars on your trip.
If you’re a people person, I recommend looking for hostels. It’s never a bad thing to sit around in the common area and exchange experiences with fellow travelers. If you’re traveling as a couple, look for a hostel with a private room – it could be a nice combination of company and intimacy/privacy.
It’s definitely an interesting experience when you’re in Japan. There are indeed hotels that are just a bed cubicle (capsule) and that’s pretty much it, but there are also hotels in the style of First Cabin, where you get a kind of mini-room that’s private and clean to sleep in.
Note that in capsule hotels, you’re required to be completely silent in the sleeping space because sounds aren’t insulated by walls. Still, it’s safe and convenient to sleep in capsule hotels (of course, be sure to do your homework regarding what hotel you sleep in), so there’s no cause for concern in that regard.
Capsule hotels are mostly very clean.
First Cabin capsules.
Free accommodation options
Two free accommodation options are:
- Couchsurfing – get hosted by locals.
Regarding volunteering – how does it work?
Search for a farm/hostel/NPO/organization and just send them an email. There’s no reason to pay websites to put you in touch with people looking for volunteers. With a little research, you can find them yourself. The whole idea, after all, is to save money for a trip to Japan, not to pay for services that are supposed to help you save money…
Note that when it comes to volunteering, most places will ask you to commit to a specific length of time (two, three weeks), so this is better suited to those of you who are planning a long trip to Japan.
Food and drink
You’re in for a big surprise here.
Food in Japan is way way cheaper than in any other developed country I’ve visited. It’s true that, if you want to dine at a Michelin restaurant it won’t be cheap. But at restaurants with food that’s completely fine, a meal will usually cost between 1,000 and 1,500 yen (around $10-15).
If you want to economize even more on food expenses, here are a few ways:
At what are known as “family restaurants” in Japan, you can find meals such as udon, ramen, donburi, pastas and other Italian dishes at prices that range from 500 to 2,000 yen (5-20$). Here are some chains scattered throughout Japan:
Coco Ichiba (some outlets have a vegan menu that naturally works for vegetarians too).
The word gyudon actually means a “bowl of rice and beef”, but these restaurants have plenty of other dishes. I myself, as a vegan, have found myself seated at such a restaurant, ordering eclectic dishes off the menu that I could eat (rice, salad, nori seaweed).
For the most hardcore savers, you can find meals starting at 500 yen (5$) at these restaurants. The chains that are easy to find throughout Japan are:
Needless to say, there’s always the option of McDonald’s, KFC etc. which are reasonably affordable in Japan.
If you really miss American food when you’re in Japan
For breakfast or snacks I can recommend bakeries, where prices range from 200-300 yen (2-3$) for baked goods, often even less.
By far the most affordable option. At the chains of convenience stores in Japan you can find onigiri (rice triangles), bento (lunch boxes) and sandwiches at prices that range from 100-500 yen (1-5$), depending on what you want to buy. Apart from food, the snacks at these stores are pretty cheap, and they have a broad range of beverages.
The chains scattered throughout Japan are:
So when it comes to food in Japan, if you aren’t dead-set on specific things that are expensive here (e.g. fruit), you can save a lot.
Okay, here we get to a more loaded topic.
The questions you want to ask yourself are: How quickly do you want to get from place to place, and how many places that are far apart do you want to visit?
If the answer is: Fast, and to places that are far apart, the ultimate solution for you will be to buy a JR Pass.
The train ticket that I’ll elaborate on more in future (there’s a lot to say about it) buys you free transport on most of the JR company’s modes of transportation. This includes JR’s bullet train (the Shinkansen), ferries, buses, metros and inter-city trains.
You can purchase a JR Pass for a period of one, two or three weeks and use it to travel throughout Japan. The period of validity will only start when you get to a JR station with your passport and booking and receive the physical card from the station staff. This means that, if you’ve planned to spend a few days in Tokyo or Osaka and only then to start traveling, you can activate the ticket only when you want to start traveling long distance. It currently costs $287 for a one-week ticket, $456 for two weeks and $583 for three weeks.
If you have time and would like to experience something different, there’s the delightful option of the night bus. As its name suggests, it’s a bus that travels through the night between the major cities in Japan and transports you long distances at very favorable prices. You can also see it as a way to save on accommodation 😉.
I’ve taken Japan’s night bus on several occasions, and I must say that, overall, it’s a pleasant experience. The bus was always clean, the other passengers were considerate, and most of the buses had convenient bathrooms (again – clean!). There are different levels of night buses at different prices, and all of them are cheaper than the bullet train.
If you’re interested in booking a spot on a night bus, you can do so through Willer’s website, which is the most user-friendly in English. There’s a whole range of websites, but most of them are in Japanese, so I recommend consulting a local or the staff wherever you’re staying in order to book tickets to the destinations you want to go to.
Never mind cheap, another free option is hitchhiking. But to be frank, this isn’t something I’d recommend doing. You just need one bad person to change your life completely. Don’t act rashly, because you could regret it.
Me, 10 years ago, when I was young, careless, and very lucky that nothing bad has happened.
In general, I’m not in favor of economizing on attractions in Japan. The main reason is that most places are very reasonably priced. Entrance to a temple for 500 yen (around $5) or a show for 1,000 yen ($10) will make you neither poor nor rich. If there are places you want to see – just go and see them. Otherwise, why did you come to Japan in the first place? 😉
However, there are a few rules of thumb that will help you make up your mind about places that aren’t crucial:
- If you’re deciding between a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple, and they’re equally important/interesting to you, note that entrance to Shinto shrines is normally free (but not always!).
- A show or festival – festivals in Japan are almost always free. Shows are not.
- Google every place you’re about to go to and add the terms “discount coupon” or “free entrance” to the search. That’s how I found out that if you go to the Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa at 5 AM, entrance is free (which works for early risers).
- If you’re a student/pensioner, always ask about student (have your student card ready) or pensioner discounts at the entrance. Most places don’t have any, but it can’t hurt to ask, right? The worst they can do is say no.
Hello Kitty World in Universal Studios Japan. Definitely worth the money.
Some of us just feel like we need to bring home souvenirs wherever we go. I personally feel bad if I don’t. I could pretend I’ve overcome my discomfort, but that’d be a lie.
After nearly 6 years of living in Japan, I still bring souvenirs when I go back to Israel for a visit. Of course, when it comes to family and friends, I love giving them things, but there are also people we buy souvenirs for because we “have to” or just feel bad if we don’t.
My advice is: just step into any “100 yen shop” and seal the deal there. You’ll find loads of things that are cute, practical, Japanese and even made in Japan that you can take back for the people who are more (or less) important to you. I personally love the fact that the stuff there, despite the low prices, is good quality and much of it is insanely “Japanese”. You’ll even end up buying souvenirs for yourself there – you’ll see.
If you’ve got any other advice on how to make traveling to Japan more affordable, or specific questions on the topic – write or ask me in the comments.
I’d be delighted to respond!