Despite it’s reputation as an expensive destination, it is definitely possible to explore Japan on a budget
Here are some suggestions for travelling around Japan on an adventure that can be fitted to your travel style with a tour of the country or a city break.
How To Choose The Right Trip For You
There are plenty of factors that you will need to consider before jetting off to Japan. One of the first things to think about is how good is your Japanese? Outside of Tokyo you will be lucky to find anyone who speaks more than a few words of English when you’re not in a hotel. Try to learn a few of the basics to make your life easier.
Expect to get lost (as you won’t be able to read the signs) and end up eating strange food…
The next thing to consider is how long you are going for, and who with? If you’re only going for a short break, visiting one or two cities in hostels or hotels is probably best, but if you’re going for a longer trip on a budget, you might consider doing a working holiday. Websites like www.workaway.info offer food and board in return for some part-time volunteer work which would suit a solo traveller or couple well.
Of course, you will also need to consider your budget. Staying in one place is probably the cheapest option, but if you want to move around, a night bus will be cheaper than the train, which will be cheaper than the shinkansen (bullet train).
A shinkansen ticket from Tokyo to Osaka will be around ¥14,000 one way (approx GB£95 or US$130) and the slow train ¥10,300 (£70 or $95). A bus will be between ¥4,000-8,000 (£30-55 or $35-75).
However you can find cheap airline tickets if you purchase in advance for around ¥4,000 – 4,700 (£27-30 or $35-40).
Once you’ve taken these things into consideration, it’s time to pick a travel plan.
Touring The Country
The three easiest ways to travel the country, in order of flexibility and price, are as you’d expect: car rental, trains, and buses. Travelling Japan on a budget will definitely mean lots of buses and some tactical booking of budget flights.
If you want to book a car, with an international licence, a week with a 5-seater rental car will cost around ¥32,000 (£220 – $285). There are motorway tolls so you will need to budget this in too.
However, if that isn’t an option then a JR Pass, valid on most trains around Japan, is available to order from abroad. The standard 7 days pass is £195. The pass only suits those doing a lot of long distance or shinkansen travel. Otherwise, picking up a free Suica card that you top up, or buying individual tickets, is your best option. Buses are cheap and fairly reliable too, but other than a possible automated announcement, there’s unlikely to be much English.
For a tour of the country, it will be easiest to stay on the main island of Honshu. As you are likely to be starting in Tokyo, with its major international airports, the best option is to choose whether you’d like to go north or south.
If you go south you can start in Tokyo and aim for Fukuoka, hitting all the major towns on the way: Nagoya, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, Hiroshima (and Okunoshima, the rabbit island, if that’s your thing).
If you’d prefer a northern trip, you could aim for Sapporo, visiting Fukushima, Aomori and Hakodate. Sapporo holds a snow festival for a week in February that involves impressive snow sculptures, with Hokkaido in general being a great place for snow and ski lovers. Remember to plan your time wisely, and decide if you will get a flight back to Tokyo on a cheap domestic airline such as Peach, or if you will travel with the same transport you used to get there.
If you want to stay in one place, however, a city break might be for you. Tokyo offers a wide variety of activities for people of all interests. It may be renowned for its skyscrapers and bustling city atmosphere but it also is home to a number of temples, shrines, and parks.
For those on a very tight budget, temples and shrines all over Japan are generally free or very cheap to visit, but in Tokyo it might be hard to refrain from spending your money on souvenirs and crazy cafés, such as cat cafés and even ninja cafés. These theme cafes are a common sight around Tokyo and normally have an hourly service charge of around ¥1,000-1,200 (approx £8 or $10). You will also be expected to buy a drink or food which is not included.
If your budget isn’t too tight you could even visit the Robot Restaurant, with a spectacular robot themed stage show. Entry is ¥8,000 with a meal an extra ¥1,000.
Alternatively go izakaya hopping (casual bars where food is served, a fave haunt of business men and tourists). At the cheaper izakayas drinks vary from ¥250-500 (£1.80 – £3.50 or $2.50-5.50) and single dishes will be from ¥200-600. Set menus can be picked up for around ¥2,500-8,000 (£15-70 or $22-80)
Expect to spend around ¥2,000-4,000 at an average priced izakaya on food and drinks.
If the city lights aren’t for you though, Kyoto is still a big city, but has a much more laid-back vibe than Tokyo. Kyoto is a great place to go and stay in a traditional ryokan (guest house), and get familiar with the Kansai region. Ryokans vary in price from ¥7,000 to over ¥100,000.
Make sure to visit Fushimi Inari, Kyoto’s famous road of red gates (free entry).
Another popular spot – though perhaps less well-known amongst Western travellers – is Sapporo. Mentioned above, Sapporo is great for a winter break, or for those who want to get away from the tourist-packed areas. Be sure to try their famous Sapporo beer!
For those who want to escape even further, some lesser-known getaways include: Okinawa, Fukuoka, Ogasawara, and Hakodate. Okinawa and Fukuoka make good beach getaways far from Tokyo. Ogasawara makes a good, quick escape from Tokyo via a 24-hour ride on a ferry. Finally, the northern Hakodate serves up beautiful views from Mount Hakodate whilst also being a lively town.
Japan Travel Tips
Wherever you end up in Japan, generally a queue outside a restaurant means good food, but some smaller restaurants can surprise you. The best thing in terms of food is to keep an open mind as Japanese food might be quite different from what you’re used to even if you’ve had Japanese food at home. However, in general, eating out can be pretty cheap, particularly the further away you get from tourist spots.
For accommodation, there are plenty of hostels and ryokan around Japan that can be quite cheap and traditional, and generally of a good standard, but AirBnB is a good go-to. Check out also Booking.com which usually has the best deals.
One last point to note is that most Japanese airports and some shops will offer short-term sim cards, which we highly recommend, even just so that you can use Google Maps to find your way.
No matter what kind of trip you’re looking for, there’s something for nearly all interests and budgets in Japan. Although learning a few words of Japanese before you go could prove useful, an adventure awaits, whether you know “konnichiwa” or not!
Average Daily Cost (Budget) In Japan
*All these prices are approximate. Currency fluctuations and economic variations mean prices can change quickly.
Cheap hotel: ¥2,700 (£18/$25)
Metro ticket: Tokyo, one day pass ¥300 (£2/$3)
Bowl of ramen: ¥500-800 (£3.50-£6/$4.50-8)
Bento box (Sushi selection): ¥1000-2000 (around £6-10/$12-20)
Soft drink: ¥100-150 (£1/$1.50)
Coffee: ¥150-400 (£1-3/$1.30-4)
Beer: ¥600 in a bar (£4-5/$5.50-7.50)
Expect to spend around ¥5,000 per day (£35/$45) on a budget trip in Japan.
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If you’ve got any tips about exploring Japan on a budget or any travelling tips for Japan then please let us know in the comments below. Don’t forget to share!