Japan is one of the world’s best travel destinations. There are incomparable natural wonders like Mount Fuji and Yaku Shima Island; world-class cities like Tokyo and Osaka; UNESCO World Heritage sites like Himeji castle and Gingaku temple; and a mysterious culture that is sure to both confound and excite you.
Unfortunately, most budget travelers don’t visit Japan because they figure it’s too expensive. What they, and perhaps you, don’t know is that a vacation in Japan can be quite affordable. The practical travel tips presented below were assembled by a foreigner who taught English in various parts of Japan for more than 10 years. Please note that prices are given in Japanese yen. Check here for current exchange rates.
The high price of airline tickets to Japan, especially for travelers from North America and Europe, usually scares people off. Japan, after all, is an island nation in the Far East. However, the airfare is going to fluctuate from season to season, so if you shop around and follow these tip, you’ll get a great deal.
- Avoid peak travel times. During holiday periods in Japan airfares and hotel rates increase dramatically, so avoid traveling during these periods if possible.There are three distinct holiday periods in Japan: (1) Year-end and during New Year holidays — December 27 to January 4; (2) Golden Week holiday season — April 29 to May 5 and bookend weekends; and (3) Obon festival season — three days centered on August 15.
- Fly regional or national carriers. Small, regional airlines and certain national carriers frequently offer discounted airfares. All airplane companies must adhere to certain standards and regulations, so you do not need to worry about not flying brand name. Some of the best options include China Airlines, Aeroflot Russian Airlines, and Asiana Airlines.
While you are in Japan, utilize public transportation. This will save you a lot of money since taxis and renting vehicles can be expensive. Consider buying a bus pass if you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing. This will save you money since bus passes typically offer deals when you purchase them. You can also consider renting bicycles, scooters, and any other form of transportation that is not expensive on the wallet but will allow you to get around.
- Trains. Railway networks are extensive, fast and efficient. Japan Railways (JR) connects all major cities nationwide while private railway companies operate in each region. Large cities also have their fair share of subways and monorails. The Japan Rail Pass is a very economical and convenient method of accessing unlimited travel on JR lines within Japan, including the Shinkansenm (the Bullet Train).
- Buses. In big to mid-size cities in Japan, like Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, and Osaka, buses function as a secondary means of public transportation, complementing the train and subway networks. In small cities, as well as in cities with lots of historical sites like Kyoto and Kamakura, buses are the main means of public transportation. Also, buses routes extend far into rural and infrequently accessed areas, so buses can be used to transport you to small villages, hiking trail-heads, and other places not usually visited by tourists.
- Travel Passes. There are several types of unlimited-ride passes.The Japan Rail Pass is a popular option for tourists because it provides unlimited travel on JR lines, including the Shinkansen. The pass must be purchased outside Japan from overseas offices of well-known Japanese travel agencies like JTB International and the Nippon Travel Agency Co. However, the Japan Rail Pass is expensive, starting at about ¥30,000, so unless you plan on touring the country by train, you should avoid the Japan Rail Pass. Better options are the Suica and PASMO cards. These are prepaid cards that can be purchased and reloaded at ticket kiosks in train stations. They can be used on most trains, subways and buses in East Japan. They can also be used as electronic money. With a quick swipe of the card, you can pay for goods in many convenience stores, kiosks, restaurants and fast-food shops. Increasingly, many vending machine also accept Suica and PASMO cards.
A wide range of affordable accommodations are available in both Japanese and Western styles. Rates range from around ¥2,000 per person for a bed in a dormitory to over ¥50,000 per person for high-end hotels.
- Capsule Hotels. With rooms not much larger than a coffin, capsules hotels are the very epitome of efficiency. Each capsule has a futon, TV, a small table and a few other amenities. A shared bathroom and coin lockers are usually provided. One important note is that women usually are prohibited from capsule hotels. Room rates are ¥3,000 to ¥4,000 per person.
- Hostels and Dormitories. Hostels offer room and board for the most frugal budget traveler. Japan Youth Hostels, a member of the International Youth Hostel Federation, operates more than 300 hostels across Japan. Room rates are ¥1,500 to ¥4,000 yen per person
- Manga Cafes. Manga cafes provide seats or booths where you can read manga (Japanese comics), play video games, and surf the internet. Many of them are open 24 hours and allow you to stay overnight for about ¥1,500 to ¥3,000 per person.
- Minshuku. These family-run bed and breakfast offer Japanese-style rooms, and often include one or two meals in the price. Prices depend on quality and location, usually from ¥4,000 to ¥10,000 per person.
- Ryokan. These are traditional Japanese inns with Japanese-style rooms. A stay at a ryokan usually includes dinner and breakfast and is recommended to all travelers to Japan as it gives you the opportunity to experience a traditional Japanese lifestyle. Prices range from ¥6,000 to ¥30,000 per person.
- Temples. It is possible for tourists to spend the night at some Buddhist temple lodgings (shukubo). Accommodations are spartan, but an overnight stay often includes two vegetarian meals and the opportunity to join the morning prayers. A donation of ¥3,000 to ¥10,000 per person is expected.
- Western style hotels, including international and Japanese hotel chains, can be found across Japan, especially in large cities. Budget business hotels are the least expensive, offering simple Western-style rooms. Some business hotel chains include APA Hotel, Route Inn, and Super Hotel. Rates during low season can be as low as ¥4,000 per room.
There are numerous interesting, convenient and cheap eating options for travelers in Japan. Below are some of the most affordable types of restaurant as well as the most popular convenient stores, where you can grab a quick and healthy bite to eat.
Specialized Japanese Restaurants
Many restaurants in Japan specialize in just one type of food like
- Kaiten-zushi are inexpensive sushi restaurants, where the sushi dishes are presented to the customers on a conveyor belt. Customers can freely pick the dishes that they like as they pass in front of them or order dishes which are not available on the belt. The sushi is priced per plate with differently colored plates corresponding to different price tiers (typically 100-500 yen per plate) or by a flat rate. In the end, the plates are counted and the total amount is determined. Prices range from ¥700 to ¥2,000.
- Soba-ya specialize in soba and udon noodle dishes. Most noodle dishes are served in a hot broth or come cooled with a dipping sauce on the side. The noodles may be ordered with different toppings (tempura, vegetables, etc.), and the menu often changes with the seasons. Prices range from ¥500 to ¥2,000.
- Ramen-ya specialize in ramen dishes, Chinese style noodles served in a soup with various toppings. Every ramen-ya has developed its own soup, the most crucial ingredient for a restaurant’s success. Several other dishes of Chinese origin, such as gyoza and fried rice, are also usually available at ramen-ya. Prices range from ¥300 to ¥2,000.
- Gyudon-ya specialize in gyudon (beef domburi). Gyudon-ya are among the most inexpensive fast food style restaurants and found all across the country. Prices range from ¥300 to ¥1,000.
- Yakitori-ya specialize in yakitori, grilled chicken skewers which are usually grilled to order over a charcoal fire. They are particularly popular among salary men after work, and, together with ramen-ya, a popular place to go for a late night snack after drinking. Prices range from ¥500 to ¥2,000.
The following are some restaurant types that offer a broader range of dishes than specialized restaurants:
- Izakaya, like pubs, are casual drinking establishments that also serve a variety of small dishes, such as robata (grilled food), yakitori, salads and other finger foods. They are probably the most popular restaurant type among the Japanese people, and many of them are found around train stations and shopping areas. Dining at izakaya tends to be informal, with dishes shared amongst the table rather than eaten individually. Prices range from ¥500 to ¥2,000.
- Family restaurants (famiresu), such as Gusto, Royal Host, Saizeria and Joyful, are casual dining restaurants that typically belong to a nationwide chain and offer a variety of Western, Chinese and Japanese dishes. Family restaurants are more commonly found in the countryside than in large urban centers. Prices range from ¥500 to ¥2,000.
- Yatai are movable food stalls that sometimes include seating space inside a tent. They are commonly found during festivals, but they also operate year round along busy streets. Fukuoka is particularly famous for its yatai. Commonly sold items include fried chicken (karaage), okonomiyaki, takoyaki, yakisoba, oden and ramen. Prices range from ¥500 to ¥2,000.
Many restaurants in Japan specialize in a foreign cuisine such as Korean, Chinese and Italian cooking. American style fast food also enjoys a great popularity.
- Yakiniku-ya specialize in Korean style barbecue, where small pieces of meat are cooked on a grill at the table. Other popular Korean dishes such as bibimba, reimen and chige are also usually available at a yakiniku-ya. Prices range from ¥500 to ¥2,000.
- Yoshoku-ya specialize in yoshoku ryori, Western dishes that were introduced to Japan during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) and were subsequently Japanized. Typical dishes served at yoshoku-ya include omuraisu, hambagu and hayashiraisu. Prices range from ¥500 to ¥2,000.
- Hamburger fast food restaurants can be found all across Japan. They include major American chain like McDonald’s and Burger King as well as local chains like Mos Burger and Lotteria.
Convenience stores, known as konbini, can be found on just about every street corner Japanese cities. Strong competition between the major operators, such as Seven Eleven, Lawson and Family Mart, constantly produces new innovative products and services and makes Japanese convenience stores truly convenient. Most convenience stores are open 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.
Some of the many convenient and inexpensive food options include
- onigiri (rice balls)
- obento (lunch boxes)
- instant ramen
- microwave meals and hot foods like fried chicken, nikuman and oden
While Japan has plenty of enjoyable sightseeing attractions that are free, most museums, temples, castles and gardens charge an admission of at least a few hundred yen. Yet there are a variety of discounts that can decrease your sightseeing expenses a little bit.
- Hiroshima. Hiroshima Peace Park with its almost free museum (50 yen), Mazda Museum and climbing Misen and visiting Daishoin Temple on nearby Miyajima.
- Kyoto. Fushimi Inari Shrine, the Imperial palaces and villas (Kyoto Imperial Palace, Sento Palace, Katsura Villa, Shugakuin Villa), Nishiki Market, walking the Philosopher’s Path and exploring the historic districts around Gion and Kiyomizudera.
- Nara. Yoshikien (foreigners only), Heijo Palace and strolling through Nara Park and Naramachi.
- Tokyo. Tsukiji Market, Meiji Shrine, Imperial Palace and East Gardens, Sensoji Temple, observation deck of the Tokyo Government Office and people watching and window shopping in bustling Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, Akihabara and Ginza.
- Yokohama. Kirin Beer Village and exploring Minato Mirai and Chinatown and the pleasant waterfront promenade in between, featuring Osanbashi Pier and Yamashita Park.
- Discounts for Foreigners. Look for discounts offered to foreigner travelers, such as some Tobu Nikko free passes that combine travel and admission to the sights around the Nikko and Kinugawa areas. Other notable discounts for foreigners include free admission to all the prefectural sites in Nara and discounted admission to selected attractions around Matsue. You should go tourist information centers to find out what deals are available, and note that you may need to present your passport to qualify for the discounts.
- Child and Senior Discounts. Many attractions offer child and senior discounts. Child rates typically apply to those younger than 12 years old, although some places also offer discounts to high school and university students. Students may need to present a school ID or international student card to qualify for the discount. Senior discounts typically apply to those 65 years or older.
- Grutt Museum Pass. The Grutt Museum Pass provides free or discounted admission to over 60 museums and zoos in the Tokyo area. The pass costs ¥2000 and is sold April – January at participating museums and zoos and at selected convenience stores and travel agents. The pass is valid for two months from its first use. A similar pass exists for the Kansai Region.
Traveling to Japan is not as expensive as you may think and you can easily enjoy a trip on a budget. The most important thing to remember is that you are wise with your choices and you avoid unnecessary things that you do not need. As long as you are flexible you will be able to enjoy Japan on a budget without spending all of your savings.