Vacationing in Japan on a Budget
You’re reading this because you have heard that Japan is not exactly the cheapest place to live on Earth. Indeed, Tokyo consistently ranks in many surveys measuring cost of living. Still, your next trip to Japan need not burn a hole through your pocket. Whether you’re taking your family for a vacation in the Land of the Rising Sun or you’re a single backpacker out to see Japan on a shoestring budget, the 15 tips below helps ensure you reduce your costs while enabling you to enjoy your trip. You won’t necessarily feel you’re depriving yourself or you’re missing out.
Tip #1 Take the bus instead of trains
If you’re going to be going from one city to the next or traveling the countryside, save big by buying a multi-day/multi-use bus pass instead of train tickets. Plus, the slower pace of the bus enables you to take in more of the sights and sounds of Japan.
Tip #2 Eat at Japanese fast food joints
There are many Japanese fast food chains (one of them being Yoshinoya) which offer ‘rice bowl’ meals consisting of meat/veggies/fish over rice. Many also offer ramen. If you want to reduce your meal costs to less than $7 per meal, these restaurants are the way to go.
Tip #3 Use AirBnB to save on accommodations
If you’re not very fussy or picky when it comes to finding a place to stay, check out the private apartment listings on AirBnB. On average, you can find decent lodgings for as little as $9 per head. Of course, your best bet, as far as savings go, is to travel in a group. The more people in your group, the cheaper your lodging costs per head. Don’t overdo this though-a small apartment can only accommodate so many people. At the very least, look for larger accommodations for the lowest pricing.
Tip #4 Use a rail pass for short vacations
If your trip is less than a week or two weeks, it won’t make much sense for you to save money by traveling on buses instead of rail. Rail would be more efficient. However, it’s more expensive. To cut down on rail costs, get a rail pass from JR Pass.
Tip #5 Walk as much as possible when traveling within cities
Stick to buses when traveling from city to city. However, when traveling within a city, walk around. Use Google Maps to map out a sightseeing itinerary. Load up on as many sights, attractions, and points of interests. This way, although you’re walking, it won’t feel like a hassle because you’re stopping every once in a while to take in the sights. It’s fun, interesting, and very cost-efficient. Walking around also makes for more memories.
Tip #6 Eat authentic ramen from packets
Go to a convenience store and buy low cost ramen noodle packets you can prepare yourself. Just add water. They cost a fraction of a meal at a sit down or even fast food ramen shop. In fact, they are cheap enough for you to double up on the servings. Mix things up by adding egg to your ramen noodle soup.
Tip #7 Buy sandwiches from corner bakeries
While bread isn’t exactly cheap in Japan, the weird thing is you’ll get a better deal (on a yen for yen basis) if you buy bread in the form of sandwiches or ‘filled bread.’ This is one tasty tip that gives you more culinary options and saves money. Please note that these sandwiches are not traditional Japanese dishes.
Tip #8 Drink beer in your rented apartment
A night out on the town in Tokyo will cost an arm and a leg. It’s not a question of ‘can’ but ‘will.’ That’s how expensive Tokyo nightlife can be. No worries, though, you can buy some cans of Japanese beer at a corner store and drink beer with your travel buddies in your apartment. Pro tip: if your unit has a balcony, drink at the balcony to take in the night landscape. Extra memorable drinking experience with no extra costs.
Tip #9 Use 7-11 as your vacation coordination center
7-11 convenience stores can be found in most Japanese cities. Use this fact to your advantage. They have clean bathrooms, a place to chill as you eat 7-11 food, and free wi-fi. Hang out at 7-11s as you make your way from city to city. Not to mention, the food they serve are also cheaper-especially if you buy soup packs which prepare on site at 7-11. You may think, based of your home country, the 7-11 serves nasty food. However, in Japan, this is not the case and many Japanese buy breakfast there.
Tip #10 Map out your trip around free attractions
Many temples, shrines, and tall buildings have free spaces. Some offer free tours. Research these in advance to save on walking tour or package tour costs. Some of these free tours even have English speaking guides. Regardless, whip out your mobile phone, get free travel information to ‘guide you’ as you make your way through free sightseeing attraction and sights in Japan.
Tip #11 Save money on airfare by going off season and traveling coach
The price differential between traveling to Japan on New Year, August holiday (Obon), and late April to early May (“the Golden Week”) is HUGE. Avoid these peak periods. Instead, travel during Japan’s Tsuyu Season or rainy season in June. Also, book coach seats to lock in on even lower prices.
Tip #12 Trade work for a hotel stay
Some hotels in Japan will waive some or all of your payment due if you clean or work some hours in the hotel. Keep in mind that this is done purely on a hotel by hotel basis and not all hotels offer this. Do advanced research and see if there are hotels in the areas you’re visiting that offer these. Also, make sure you’re serious about working because they require real work. You don’t just show up and burn time, you actually have to break a sweat. That’s just fair.
Tip #13 Just for kicks or out of necessity, try a capsule hotel
Whether you’re really strapped for cash or you just want to check it out for curiosity’s sake, try Tokyo’s famous capsule hotels. These morgue like accommodations are definitely trippy and make for great memories to be sure. They are cheap and offer a free outlet, toilet facilities, and a clean safe space to stay in.
Tip #14 Take slower trains for long trips
If you’re going to be staying in Japan for more than two weeks, it not only makes sense to take the bus but it also makes sense to take slower regular trains. Skip the bullet trains and take the slow train out to see the countryside as you travel from town to town or city to city.
Tip #15 Eat at sushi trains
Do you want to spend only $1 per sushi plate? Try sushi trains. These are conveyor-belt driven sushi restaurants that charge by the plate. Each plate is around 100 yen or $1. This is a great way to eat great authentic sushi on a budget. Since many sushi rolls have rice, you get full quick and this goes a long way in helping you save money.
Keep the 15 tips above in mind when planning your trip to Japan and check out our packing guide here.