With its fascinating culture, amazing natural beauty, delicious food and crazy themed cafes Japan is an incredibly appealing place to visit, but the high cost of travelling there often sends people running to cheaper countries in South East Asia. Here are my tips on how to travel Japan On A Budget, from finding cheap food to free accommodation!
- How much to budget for your trip
- Money-saving tips for before you go
- Where to eat & drink on a budget
- The cheapest ways to get around
- How to find budget accommodation
While you’re here, check out these posts to get ready for your trip to Japan;
- Backpacking Essentials Checklist: Packing Guide For All The Gear You Need
- The Cheapest Way To Fly From Europe To Asia
- Best Travel Apps For 2019
How much should I budget for a trip to Japan?
While Japan is definitely up there with the most expensive places we’ve been, we still found it possible to travel there without completely blowing our budget. You’ve just got to be smart about where you spend your money. There are so many ways to save money and bring your budget down to a pretty respectable $70 / £50 / €60 per day per person. Take a look at the tips below to see how you can travel around the country on a budget and still have an awesome time.
Money-Saving Tips For Before You Even Arrive
Time it right
Avoid visiting during a festival period or peak seasons (cherry blossom / autumn leaf), when accommodation prices will be sky high. Travel on shoulder seasons, just on the cusp of the peak periods instead. Going just a week or so before and after the seasons can mean that prices are much lower and there are less crowds there too.
Get a Guidebook
In my experience the more expensive a country is the more you need a guide book so that you can hunt down cheap places to eat and stay. Opt for guide books like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides which are written with budget backpackers in mind. They always have a ton of cheap and free suggestions for things to do and places to eat and stay.
I used ours mostly for the walking tours and to find cheap and free places to visit. There’s so much to see, do, eat and drink in Japan that it can be hard to narrow down what to do – backpacker guidebooks will give you your budget friendly options.
The Japan guidebook is absolutely huge, but you can pick up smaller books about specific regions you’re going to which are more travel-friendly. eBooks are also available to save on weight!
- Complete Lonely Planet Japan Guide – 928 pages, a comprehensive guide and what we bought for our month long trip. Currently On Sale for £11.88, down from £18.99.
- ‘Best of Japan’ Guide Book – Just the highlights, much shorter and easier to carry at 324 pages. Costs £9.97.
- Pocket Kyoto and Osaka – Very lightweight at just 184 pages, costs £11.
- Pocket Tokyo – a complete guide to Tokyo. Excellent for finding cheap places to eat and stay. 192 pages, costs £11.
*Don’t forget you can sell or swap your guide book before you leave the country! We always swap out ours at a book store to get a guidebook for the next country we’re going to visit.
Eating & Drinking On A Budget
What surprised me the most about Japan is how easy it is to eat and drink on a budget. It’s possible to keep your food costs down to around £20 / €23 per day with a little bit of work and research about where to go. Here are our favourite places to eat on a budget;
These is a fun (if a little confusing) way eat in Japan! Order and pay for your meal via a machine that has buttons which display a photo of each of dishes the restaurant offers. Select your dish, pay for your meal and you’ll receive a printed ticket to show when your food arrives. Here’s a guide on how to order on button machines.
Prices are low and portions are huge, you’ll get a big bowl of noodles for only 500 Yen / £3 / €4 and can add extras like egg or meat for an extra few pence. One of my favourite button restaurants in Tokyo is Ichiran Ramen – where you eat your noodles in your own private booth. Here is a blog post that lists some other great vending machine ramen places. We’ve tried most of these and they were really good, and cheap!
Conveyor Belt Sushi
‘Kaiten’ or conveyor belt sushi is one of the more expensive dining options anywhere else in the world but in Japan these can be really budget friendly.
Sushi Ro is a nationwide chain that serves budget friendly sushi (prices start at just 100 Yen / 70p / 60 cent. Genki Sushi restaurant, right by Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, lets you order your meals on an iPad and delivers them right to your table via a conveyor belt. Prices for individual dishes are cheap, much less than sushi restaurants nearby, and the quality is great.
‘Yakitori’ means grilled skewered chicken but most places that sell it usually offer all kinds meat and vegetables on a stick. You can often find Yakitori at street stalls, in dedicated restaurants called Yakitori-Ya, or in Izakaya (explained below).
Yakitori menus often come with photos so that you have an idea of what each dish is. Skewers cost around ¥150 / £1 / €1.15 each and 3-4 sticks with some rice or noodles should fill you up. Head to Memory Lane near Shinjuku in Tokyo (or Piss Alley as the Japanese call it!) to try yakitori. There are many little stalls and yakitori pubs along this 100m stretch that serve delicious skewers for around 750Yen / £5 / £5.50 per plate. Here is a list of the common dishes you can try at a Yakatori Ya.
These are so much fun to eat and drink at and can be so so cheap! In Japan an Izakaya is like a pub and it serves Japanese food tapas style – small dishes that are designed to share. Much like pubs at home there are high end Izakayas which are more expensive and ‘dive bar’ style ones which are more laid back and a lot cheaper. You can sit with friends and drink cheap (by Japanese standards) beer and order your food – usually by ringing a bell that’s attached to your table.
It’s possible to spend a lot at an Izakaya if you can’t stop yourself from trying everything, or else you can share a few dishes and have a really reasonably priced meal. The menus are usually vast and have pictures of the dishes with English text so it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s what. You can order anything from Sashimi to Okinomiyaki (kind of like Japanese Pizza), to Yaki Soba (Fried Noodles).
Izakaya usually have a really fun and loud atmosphere with lots of young Japanese people getting drunk and eating together. They’re such a great place to meet people and a good place to go if you’re new to a city and feel like a cheap, fun evening.
This convenience store chain is huge in Japan and a great place to get something quick, cheap and tasty to eat. Due to fierce competition between convenience stores in Japan, the quality of the food is very high. We used to get our lunches here on days when we were going to go over budget, or when we were too hungry to go looking for a restaurant.
You can buy fresh sushi, edamame, soba noodles. sandwiches, salads as well as hot dishes that they heat up for you at the counter, and many Family Marts have seating areas where you can eat your meal or have a coffee.
Wipe the idea you have of food courts from your mind. In many parts of Asia you can get high quality, delicious food in shopping malls and it’s really cheap too! If you’re sightseeing in a large city and struggling for cheap eats then just find your nearest food court and you can pick up a good meal for next to nothing.
Search Google Maps for your nearest mall and head to the food court for some cheap and yummy noodles.
Have A Picnic
There are many gorgeous parks around Japan where you can sit and have a picnic and a drink in the sunshine. Pick up a few beers or some sake in 7-11 or Family Mart, buy some convenience store or street stall food or even prepare some food in your hostel and stop in one of the beautiful parks for your lunch.
How To Get Around Cheaply
Japan’s train network is extensive, efficient, and unfortunately – expensive. Taking the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto will set you back £93 / €102 which is prohibitively expensive for most backpackers. However there are many cheaper alternatives for travelling around Japan, night buses are clean, comfortable and will save you a nights accommodation costs. Or hire a car, buy a tent and camp around the country, or even pick up a bargain internal flight for a fraction of the cost of a train. Here are my tips for getting around without breaking the bank.
Get a JR Pass
A Japan Rail (JR) pass is the cheapest way to travel Japan by train. These 7, 14 and 21 day passes give you free train travel around the country with certain operators and also free rides on some MRT lines in Tokyo and Kyoto. There are restrictions with the pass which you can read about here.
JR passes are expensive (29,110 Yen / £194 / €220 for the 7 day pass, 46,390 Yen / £308 / €350 for the 14 day pass and 59,350 Yen / £395 / €450 for the 21 day pass), but train tickets can be really costly so it could save you a lot of money if you are planning to see a lot of the country. They’re also worth it if you want to ride the infamous bullet train as these are almost 100 quid one way from Tokyo to Kyoto anyway.
If your plan is just to see 1 or two places in Japan then it’s most likely not worth it to get the pass and you should consider travelling by bus instead.There’s some info on buses below.
On our first trip to Japan we didn’t get the pass as we were just spending a week in Japan and only going to Tokyo and Kyoto (also we were REALLY broke!). On our second trip we stayed a full month and travelled all around Japan with the pass . It saved us a ton of money and we were really glad to have it!
You can get your JR pass from JapanRailPass.com and while you can buy them in the country now, you get a 20% discount if you buy online before you go.
Travel by Bus
If you’re on a really tight budget or you’re not travelling around the country a lot then skip the JR pass and take a bus to get from A to B. There are many bus companies in Japan and the standards are high. Willer Express is really popular and who we booked with. They have a 3, 5 or 7 day pass that allows you to take up to 3 buses per day and start at £67 / €75 per person. Plus the buses there are kind of wacky so they’re a cool thing to try out!
We opted for night buses so that we could save money on accommodation, and they were a lot more comfortable than buses around SE Asia. There’s even a little blind you can pull down over your eyes to help you sleep!
Get a travel card
When you’re using the metro check out your options for a travel card to save money on your daily trips around the city.
Don’t take taxis
Taxis are outrageously expensive in Japan so check out all of your transportation options before you opt to get one. Keep this in mind when booking hotels and hostels as if you’re not near transport links you might be forced to get a cab and drive your daily costs even higher.
Check out domestic flights
Internal flights, and even international ones, can be very reasonable in Japan. Before you decide to book a train check out SkyScanner to see the flight options, or Rome2Rio to compare the price of all of your transport options.
Finding Budget Accommodation
While travelling in Japan, accommodation will be your biggest daily expense, followed by transport, then food (assuming you eat at reasonable priced places), then sightseeing. Getting discounted temple passes or free meals won’t knock a huge amount off your daily budget, but finding cheap / free accommodation can more than halve it so do what you can to save money! If you want to stay in a hotel, book in advance to get the best deals and check out Air BnB and Booking.com for the best budget options.
While nowhere near as cheap as Thailand or Vietnam, hostels in Japan are a lot cheaper than the astonishingly high prices charged for hotel rooms. They tend to be quite clean with good facilities, but the rooms are usually quite small and basic. The ones we stayed in had kitchens which we could use to eat in and save more money.
Some hostels let you stay for free in exchange for a few hours of cleaning. Hostels that offer this are Asakusas Smile and LongStay Tokyo – or you can find more on Workaway.info
Stay in your own self contained capsule with a comfy bed, fast internet, and incredibly clean bathrooms for as little as £20/ €25 per night. Capsule hotels are becoming increasingly popular in Japan and are a great way to stay somewhere comfortable, clean and cheap. Bathrooms are shared and there aren’t usually many facilities like kitchen / common room etc so it’s literally just for sleeping and showering.
Book hostels and capsule hotels really far in advance to get cheap rooms. They can sell out quickly! Here are some of the cheapest capsule hotels I’ve found around Japan
- Shinjuku Kuyakusho-mae Capsule Hotel – ~2200 JPY / £16 / €18 per night
- Oak Hostel Cabin – ~2100 JPY / £ 15 / €17 per night
- Capsule ValueKanda – ~2500 JPY / £18 / €20
- Nine Hours Kyoto – ~2200 JPY / £ 16 / €18 per night
- Caphotel – ~2000 JPY / £ 14 / €16 per night
- Centurion – ~2000 JPY / £ 14 / €16 per night
I know it’s not the first think you think of when you’re planning a trip to Japan, but there are some seriously gorgeous places to camp here! There are over 3,000 campsites around the country and prices start at just £3 / €4 for a pitch.
See Japan has a great article that describe the camping experience in Japan with a list of popular sites. Hire a car for around £40 per day, buy a tent at a discount shop (try your nearest Don Quijote, we bought ours there) and camp your way around the country on a shoestring.
Here are some stunning campsites you should check out:
- Konashidaira Camping Ground – Kamikochi. A beautiful area 5 hours from Tokyo, this campsite is where you should go to escape the hectic buzz of the city. You can rent equipment and tents here if you don’t have one. 800 JPY / £5.70 / €6 per night to pitch a tent.
- Yagaji Beach Camping Ground – Okinawa. A beachside camp ground in the famously expensive area of Okinawa. Pitches are just 600JPY / £4.20 / €4.80 per night, and you can rent a tent for 1500 JPY / £10.50 / $12.
- Hikawa Camp-jo – Tokyo. 90 minutes outside of the city, surrounded by stunning mountains. There is a rental shop here where you can pick up equipment cheaply. 800 JPY / £5.70 / €6 per night to pitch a tent.
Stay for as little as £7 / €9 and learn about local people and culture by doing a homestay while you’re in Japan. Eat, sleep and live like a local with a host family in a traditional Japanese home. Meals are usually included in the nightly price, which brings down your costs even further.
Book your stay on Homestay.com, Homestay In Japan, or Homestay Web.
This is popular in Japan but it’s not something we have tried yet. Couch surfing has really taken off in various parts of Asia and is a great way to stay for free. It’s also a good way to meet new people – often couch surfing hosts will go out of their way to show you around the city. From our own experience, knowing a local in Japan made the experience 1000 times better!
Always be careful and stay safe when couch surfing. Make sure the person you’re staying with has plenty of good reviews and always trust your instincts. Check out CouchSurfing.com to find a place to stay.
As mentioned above, overnight buses are the best way to save on accommodation costs when travelling around Japan. If your budget is super low you can take an overnight bus and save a night’s accommodation – plus ‘overnight highway’ buses get you to your destination sooner.
If you need to freshen up after your journey, capsule hostels usually offer shower rates of around 300 JPY / £2.10 / €2.40 per person. Nine Hours Kyoto offer this if you’re doing the night bus from Tokyo to Kyoto.
There you have it, your essential guide to travelling Japan and not breaking the budget! It really is one of the best countries we have been to and we loved our time there so much. I hope this shows you how you can travel there without spending thousands and have a great time too.
Thanks for reading!
Great post Steph. I’m just back from Japan and wished I had read this before I went.