Japan is a fascinating country, where history co-exists with modernity. Blessed with a unique culture, Japan doesn’t leave anyone indifferent and never fails in amazing visitors. From some of the oldest temples in the world to some of most modern shopping centers in the world, Japan has something to offer to everyone. Despite its beauty and uniqueness, Japan is also one of the most expensive countries I’ve ever been to in Asia. Therefore, we thought it would be a good idea to share tips about how to travel on a budget in Japan !
Ever thought about visiting Japan but held back because of it’s price tag? This budget travel guide in Japan was made for you !
We stayed for 24 nights in Japan, and we spent slightly less than 500US$ for the three of us, which means a little less than 7$ a day per person. Overall, we spent more than we usually do when visiting countries because we wanted to treat ourselves with the exquisite Japanese food. We spent around a 100$ on accommodation and less than that on transportation. Most of our expenses were food related or entrance tickets.
In this guide we will cover the 3 main sources of expense : Eating, sleeping and the transportation. On top of that we’ll give you a few extra tips on traveling in Japan.
For an Asian country, Japan is pretty expensive on food, but don’t get fooled, it’s much cheaper to eat out here than in Western Europe or the US! You can find many restaurants offering lunch or dinner for less than 10US$ per person. But if you’re a budget traveler you might want to consider some other options.
100 yen shop
My advice is to eat in 100 yen shops. The name is pretty clear, everything inside (should) costs a 100¥.
As of today 100 yen is equal to 0.77€. You can find a lot of different things in this kind of shop, from food to kitchenware or clothes. In terms of food, most of what they sell are unhealthy snacks, but if you dig you might find something suitable for you such as nuts, rice balls, bread or noodles. Some 100 yen shops are selling fresh products like fruits, ham and various other food that can be suitable to make a sandwich.
Don Quijote is not a 100 yen shop, but you can find a huge variety of food at a cheap price. They are usually located at the upper floors of commercial buildings near the main train station. They sell baked sweet potatoes at only 100 yen. It’s usually cheaper than a supermarket.
Traveling on a budget in Japan rhymes with Konbinis. A konbini is the japanese name for a convenience store, such as 7-Eleven, Lawson or Family Mart. It’s pretty cheap to eat in and the food is decent. If you’re hitchhiking, konbinis make a great starting point to exit a city as they are located everywhere and interestingly usually before a toll. Most Japanese love their konbinis and will stop there to get a snack, smoke a cigarette or use the toilets.
Supermarkets are a good place to eat at night, they offer big discount after around 7pm (time depends on the supermarket) on fresh food like sushi, cakes, lunch boxes…
If you want to eat on a budget, here’s a list of cheap ingredients to get while you’re in Japan :
- udon (a kind of noodle)
- sprout beans
It won’t be simple for vegetarians or vegans to eat outside, fish is omnipresent in the Japanese food. Cautious ! It often appears in the manner of fish sauce or fish stock (Dashi in Japanese), which are difficult to detect at first glance.
Sleeping in an internet café
One of the popular options among Japanese is to stay overnight in an internet café or manga café. They offer shower, drinks and food. This is one of the cheapest options to spend time, it will cost you about 2000 yen (15€) for a night. Be aware that some don’t have shower facilities.
As always the cheapest option out there. You can camp at service areas on the highway if you’re hitchhiking, otherwise if you’re inside the city you can head for the bigger park you can see on the map and crash for the night, and wake up before sunrise.
Airport – Train station
Sleeping in an airport works always very well in a developed country, but it’s often far from the city, meaning that you need to hitchhike or take the train to get there. Another less comfortable option would be to sleep in the train station if it’s big enough to be open all night.
Sleeping in a public bath
Similar to South Korea, some public baths are opened 24 hours a day, which means that technically you can sleep there.
Before coming to Japan, we were a bit scared because some fellow travelers told us it would be difficult to use Couchsurfing. Despite these warnings, we had no trouble to find hosts pretty much everywhere we went. Out of 24 nights, we spent 19 nights with 7 different hosts that we found through Couchsurfing and Trustroots. We were traveling with a toddler, and some hosts openly told us this impacted their decision to accept us. Be aware that popular hosts in touristic cities can receive up to 30 requests a day, so you’d better be the most original out there !
If you really want to do it on a budget I believe that you only have two options : Cycling or Hitchhiking. Of course you can also walk.
Japan is very suitable for cycling, actually you’ll see many workers going to work with their bike, or moms picking up kids from school. I loved it ! At least, Japanese will get to the closest train station by bike. Car drivers are well aware and I felt much more respect towards cyclists than in neighboring countries such as South Korea or China. Pavements are usually wide, with a lane for pedestrians and one for cyclists. Coupling it with camping it can definitely be a fun & cheap experience!
If you want to hitchhike in Japan, we wrote a complete guide on hitchhiking in Japan.
For our trip, we chose the hitchhiking option, and it was pretty easy! Japan has the reputation of being one of the best countries in the world to hitchhike in and I can understand why. If you have ever hitchhiked in Western Europe then hitchhiking in Japan is somehow similar, you have to abide by the same unwritten rules : Hitchhiking from a rest area to another on the highway is the fastest way. They are pretty strict on hitchhiking on the highway so you’ll need to stand before the entrance in order to get a ride. And usually there is not much space for cars to stop at the on-ramp. It does really sound like Europe!
But don’t get fooled by these similarities, your experience will be totally different than what you could experience in Europe! Communication is usually much more complicated here, so it would be a good idea to write a little note in Japanese explaining who you are, what you’re doing and where you want them to drop you. Otherwise an app translating works fine!
Another difference is that hitchhiking is not really popular here, even though it has become more common recently. You’ll probably be the first hitchhiker they’ll ever pick up, and they’ll try hard to be very nice with you. We often had people driving us past their destination to help us.
Plane / Bus / Train
Domestic flights are actually almost always cheaper than the train and can also be cheaper than the bus. A quick search on Skyscanner shows me that a plane between Osaka and Tokyo can be found at around 40$ one-way without check-in luggage. To be thorough you’ll also have to pay around 10-15$ each way and spend at least an hour in public transportation to get to and get out of these airports. Want to know the price of the train ? 14.000¥ which equals to 125$. The distance is about 500 kilometers and the train can cover it in just 2 hours and a half. The overnight bus will be cheaper on this route, but it will take around 8 to 9 hours. A bus ticket might cost you at least 3000¥ (25$) with a cheap company if you book in advance.
To move around the city on a budget, the best option is probably to walk as much as you can. It’s enjoyable since the sidewalks are well-maintained and wide. Renting a bicycle is also totally recommended !
Taking the train
To get to more distant places you can either use a bus or the train. The price is similar but it’s much easier to take the train. You can check the fare and timetable on Hyperdia. You can get pretty much anywhere with the train, but their system is confusing because multiple companies are operating in the same city. Transferring from a line to another is not an easy task, and you might have to get two tickets if you want to do so. Hyperdia will be your best friend !
Taking the bus
Taking the bus can be slightly unsettling at first because of the way it works. You enter from the back and get a ticket from a machine. You have to exit by the front door, first insert your ticket in the machine. It will tell you the correct fare to be paid depending on the distance you traveled. You can pay with cash or with an appropriate transportation card. I thought that was kind of like paying a parking lot.
There are lockers in every train station and most tourist information center. Bear in mind that you have to pay and they don’t come cheap (between 3 to 5$). Our tip is that we noticed they are often free in shopping centers. There are often shopping centers around the train station. Often, you’ll need a 100 yen coin that they’ll give you back at the end though.
If you’re not much into ATM fees, you’d better cash back at 7-Eleven ATM or in the JP Bank Post Office ATM since that’s the only two that don’t charge anything. The rest charges a fee when you cash back with an international card. That being said I once found a 7-Eleven ATM charging a fee in the Osaka airport.
Tourist information center
In Japan, tourist information centers are usually really helpful. Some might have some computers for you to use and plan your trip, or some might offer you special free activities like the one in Nara. I truly recommend to always talk to them no matter the city you are in.
You can easily take a shower in a Onsen (Hot springs). They are everywhere in Japan. The entrance fee starts from 600¥ (5$). A cheaper way to take a shower is to do so in the numerous public baths (Sento). 200¥ (1.70$) is the starting price.
Charge your phone
It can’t be difficult to charge your phone if you’re camping, even in Konbinis or restaurants they usually don’t let you plug your charger. Therefore I’d recommend buying a portable battery.
Although this is not directly related to budget travel, let’s talk about how easy it is to find Wi-Fi in Japan. First, be aware that in my experience, most cafés & local restaurants don’t offer Wi-Fi. I remember running around the city trying to find Wi-Fi in order to teach a French lesson, but after asking half a dozen of cafés I just gave up on the idea.
Many cities offer free Wi-Fi in their respective touristic areas. They almost always ask for registration through email, but some don’t double-check that your email is correct or not.
You can also head to a convenience store such as 7-Eleven, Lawson or Family Mart. They have Wi-Fi, but you have to register.