Japan is a country that is full of wonder. Bursting with culture and totally enchanting in its own unique way. For this reason, you’ll want to dive straight in when you arrive, instead of constantly worrying about money. Yes, traveling in Japan on a budget is totally do-able.
It’s true that Japan isn’t a particularly popular backpacking destination compared to other places in Asia. This is because it ain’t cheap. However, with a bit of planning it’s possible to explore this magical country affordably and still have an absolute blast.
We simply didn’t have the option of splashing out or losing control of our budget during our time in Japan. What with the initial outlay for the JR pass (more about that here) and the accommodation we’d paid for in advance, we were already way over the daily budget we’d been aiming for elsewhere in Asia before we’d even arrived!
We spent 18 glorious jam-packed days travelling around Japan. Of course, we barely scratched the surface of the place, but during our time there and in our planning, we were able to come up with various ways to save money.
Here are 17 easy ways to keep costs down.
1. Make an itinerary
I’ve covered this in a lot more detail in this blog post but I can’t emphasise enough how vital it was for us to put together a detailed itinerary for our trip. Without knowing where you’re going, you can’t work out whether you need to purchase a JR rail pass which can save you a fortune on train journeys. Without knowing whether there’s suitable accommodation available in the places you’d like to visit, you can’t be sure you’ve made a decent plan. Your itinerary should include the places you want to visit, the best way to travel between them and your accommodation. If you leave out any of these components, you could end up with a really costly disaster.
2. Book Your Accommodation In Advance
Accommodation can be really pricey and places sell out quickly so unless you want to pay through the nose for a bed, it’s important to get accommodation booked and paid for before you go, as far in advance as you’re able. You’ll need to make sure that you can afford whatever accommodation is available on your proposed itinerary, so don’t just come up with a schedule and buy a JR pass based on that. Remember that as with anywhere, prices go up around special holidays or important dates.
3. Look Into Rail Passes
Again, I have gone into far more detail about the JR pass here. You pay a one-off fee for the pass which then grants you unlimited access to a majority of public transport across japan within a specific time-frame. The JR pass can only be purchased from outside of Japan. It’s important to calculate the cost of transport on your proposed itinerary and then compare it with the cost of the JR pass to see if it’s going to save you money. If you’re planning to make use of the Shinkansen (bullet train) more than a couple of times, chances are, it will. Be aware though, that depending on your choice, your pass will be valid for 1, 2 or 3 weeks and that time frame begins from the first time you use it. In other words, if you buy a two week pass, you don’t have 2 weeks’ worth of journeys. Your first journey will be on day one, the next day will be day two and so on.
Another thing to consider is that the JR pass is not valid everywhere. Equally, you may not choose to buy one. For this reason it’s worth looking into other passes that are available across the country. There’s a helpful list here.
4. Go wandering
It may sound obvious, but one of the best things we did in Japan was just to wander. Keeping in mind the “wherever you go, there you are” ethos, we spent hours just roaming around, getting lost. We saw some spectacular things because let’s be honest, Japan is entirely otherworldly. Most of the time we had nowhere to be and we loved it.
5. Visit Parks
Sometimes you arrive in a city and it feels like there’s nothing to do except spend money in shops or restaurants. Cities like Tokyo have an amazing number of beautiful parks. Many of them are completely free to explore. Check this article from The Culture Trip for 10 of the best.
6. Head To Convenience Stores
Convenience stores will be your new best friends in Japan. There is one on absolutely every corner and often there are several within a stone’s throw of each other. Seven Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson are the three biggest players. They really are everywhere. We found eating out to be way out of our budget a lot of the time, so we would sometimes rely on convenience stores for all three meals. For breakfast we often grabbed some sushi, lunch was regularly rice and beans which you can heat up in-store and we mostly cooked dinner at our accommodation using ingredients from convenience stores and supermarkets.
The streets of japan aren’t so big on benches and we rarely saw people walking and eating, so it’s true that we did look a bit odd eating our microwaved DIY lunches on street corners but it was delicious and it worked. We carried a little bottle of soy sauce and some chilli flakes around with us at all times – makes any meal a winner.
For vegan food there are a number of incredibly helpful youtube videos explaining exactly what you can eat and where. Also, a surprising number of convenience stores have free wifi, meaning you can use google translate to decipher ingredients lists.
We also really liked the coffee we got from most convenience stores which was a result because it was too heavy on the purse to buy it at most places and with all that stomping about we were doing, we often needed the caffeine injection!
7. Nab Free Artwork
A great way to save money on souvenirs is to take advantage of the beautiful free artwork which you’ll find in the form of posters at most tourist information centres. There are tonnes of posters and flyers advertising everything from art shows to markets and they all look amazing. We had a plastic A4 wallet with us which we put everything in and by the end of our trip we had a huge wad of goodies! If you’re an art fan, this is a no-brainer.
8. Consider Dorm Rooms
If you’re not used to sleeping in a shared room, Japan is the place to give it a go. Unlike hostels in other parts of the world which can be noisy and a bit overbearing, Japanese hostels place a lot of emphasis on giving you your privacy. The dorms we stayed in with bunk beds all had curtains which gave you your own little den to hide away in. Some places also offer pod-like sleeping arrangements where you’ll have a little section of a room or a capsule just big enough for a bed.
9. Indulge In Second Hand Shopping
We scored some real bargains rummaging through second-hand and thrift stores. It was in a second hand store that we found Bergen who would then go on to become our little mascot as we drove through New Zealand.
10. Visit Information Centres
I touched on this with the free artwork, but it really is worth popping into all of the information centres you stumble upon. Here you’ll find people who speak English and can recommend the best things to do in the area, including all the cheap and free ones! Japan has a fantastic tourism infrastructure. All you have to do is ask.
11. Make Use Of Booking.com’s Free Cancellation Policy
When you are in the planning stages of your trip, you’ll find yourself in situations where there’s just “one room remaining at this price” online. You may not be in a position to commit to accommodation if you’re still trying to work out your route and JR pass situation, however if the place you’re looking at comes with free cancellation and you’re not far off from knowing what you want to do, you can just book it and cancel it if you choose not to stay. That way you won’t miss out on any bargains. Obviously this isn’t ideal practise as far as hotel owners are concerned but as long as you’re not going to be a dick about it and can get yourself sorted fairly quickly, you could save a lot of money doing this.
12. Stay In Places With Kitchens
Unless you speak Japanese, the chances are you won’t know what 99% of the products in the supermarkets are because you won’t find a single word of English on any of the packaging. However, if you keep things fairly simple and stay in places where you’re allowed to prepare meals, you can whip up some great dinners in what will usually be pristine, well stocked kitchens. Most places will have the basics for you to use so you should be good for oil and seasonings as well as all utensils.
13. Take Day Trips
You’ve (probably) got a rail pass so use it! If you can’t find affordable accommodation in any of the places you want to stay, don’t give up straight away. The chances are you could base yourself somewhere else and visit via a day trip. For example, it only takes 30 mins to get to Osaka from Kyoto or 45 minutes to get from there to Nara. 2 Aussie Travellers have published a great blog post detailing 10 Of The Best Day Trips From Kyoto. It can be exhausting moving all your stuff from place to place all the time so it’s often nice to establish a base for yourself for a few days, whilst taking advantage of Japan’s amazing transport services to visit other places.
14. Visitor Guides
Online city guides are great for finding things to do. Time Out Tokyo seem to be pretty on it with up to date things to do in and around Tokyo, so it’s worth popping on there to help you plan your days. Japan Visitor is another good source of up to date information.
Workaway is an incredible site where you can sign up to work in return for food and accommodation. It gives users the opportunity to use their skills to experience a vast range of different working environments allowing them to participate in a totally organic form of cultural exchange. It costs $35 to sign up for the year (you can sign up as a couple) which gives you access to the whole Workaway directory which includes listings from all across the planet.
16. Couch Surfing
Signing up to couch surfing can be a great way to meet people and get a real insight into the local area you’re staying in. There is a $25 verification fee to get started using the site. After this you’re able to find people in the area you’d like to visit who are offering a bed for the night. Although there’s no payment for this, there is a couch surfing etiquette that users tend to follow so have a read up about it here.
17. Bring A Water Bottle
This isn’t necessarily unique to a visit to Japan, but what with the country’s excessive use of plastic packaging, you’ll want to do all you can to minimise your usage and of course save money. We have a Fill2Pure bottle which has a filter built into it, meaning that we can fill it with water from anywhere and any nasties will be filtered out as we suck through the straw. We absolutely love it.
So there we go. You can have a blast in Japan without spending your entire life savings, you just need to spend a bit of time planning it all out. Now go, plan your trip!