For years, I’ve been putting off going to Japan because I was afraid of how expensive it was going to be. The rumors I’d heard about the country’s high prices made me hesitant to go there. I have always loved Japanese culture and I knew any visit would involve gorging on sushi and ramen noodles, visits to lots of temples, and heavy train travel through the countryside. And the thought of how much that would cost made me constantly think, “I’ll wait until I have more money to visit.”
But at the end of April, I had the chance to finally visit and was shocked to discover that, while it isn’t cheap, Japan isn’t the prohibitively expensive country people may think it is. In fact, I actually found Japan to be very affordable and on par with (and sometimes cheaper than) countries in Western Europe.
Here is how you much things typically cost in Japan and how you can cut down those costs to make the country affordable:
80 Yen = $1 USD
Transportation is one of the most expensive aspects of travel in Japan and comprised the bulk of my expenses. The bullet train, while awesome, comfortable, and fast, is not cheap. Individual tickets can cost hundreds of dollars. Yet I think train travel is the best way to see the country so in order to reduce your train costs get a Japan Rail pass. The pass is indispensable for travel in Japan.
These passes cost 28,300 Yen for 7 days, 45,100 Yen for 14 days, and 57,700 Yen for 21 days. (All pass times are for consecutive travel) Even if you just get the 7 day pass, it’s the same price as a round trip train ticket from Osaka to Tokyo (14,250 Yen each way!). Moreover, these JR trains also serve local city areas and so can be used intra-city. I used my pass to get around Kyoto and Tokyo instead of buying metro tickets. So even if you aren’t going to do much travel around Japan, buying a pass is better than buying individual tickets. While the high price of the pass can cause a lot of sticker shock, the alternative is even worse.
Most of the city metro tickets cost 100-200 Yen for a single journey. (The price varies by distance and may often be higher.) Fares were usually around 220 Yen to travel across Tokyo but less for shorter distances. In most major cities, you can buy a day pass, which gives you unlimited travel for 24 hours for around 800 Yen.
Buses are a less expensive alternative to the bullet train system in Japan. But while the cost is less, the trip will take more of your time. For example, the 2 hour bullet train ride from Tokyo to Osaka becomes a 10 hour bus ride. The price for that seat is 4,500 Yen, but at some point you need to think about how much your time is worth. For me, saving some 10,000 Yen was not worth the extra 7 hours of travel since I had such limited time during my visit. If I had more time, I would have simply taken the bus. There are also bus passes available that offer unlimited travel and begin at 10,000 Yen for 3 non-consecutive days of travel.
Flying is an option of last resort. There are many budget carriers now serving Japan and a flight search on sites like Vayama or Skyscanner will reveal them. In general, there prices are on par with bullet train tickets.
I think the train pass is the best way to save money on transportation for those with limited time. It’s still expensive but it’s the best way to optimize your travel time and see the country. For those with more time, take the bus and save money.
Surprisingly, I found food to be inexpensive in Japan. True, I have a sushi addiction, but overall, I found that I was spending far less on food than I anticipated. Since Japan imports so much of their food, I was afraid of paying through the nose but eating was actually the one thing that kept my daily costs down!
As long as I didn’t feed my sushi addiction, I found I could eat for less than 1,500 Yen per day. Some typical prices were:
Sushi lunch sets (sushi, soup, salad): 1600+ Yen
Traditional Japanese set lunches: 1,200 + Yen
Sushi Trains: 100 to 500 Yen
Small pasta: 399 Yen
Western meal set menu(sandwiches, burger, or pizza with drink): 1200 Yen
McDonalds Value Menu: 600 Yen
Ramen noodles: 700 Yen
Tempura dishes: 80 – 120 Yen
There is an array of cheap food options in the country and unless you go out to mid-range or better restaurants, you don’t really need to spend much money on food. You can save money on food by doing the following:
- 100 Yen Shops – There are many 100 Yen shops in Japan where set meals, groceries, water, toiletries, household items and more are simply 100 Yen. I did all my shopping here. Store names vary by region so ask your hotel/hostel reception where the nearest one is located.
- Sushi trains – Sushi in Japan is delicious at all levels. While I had a few fancy sit down meals, you can’t beat the sushi trains for value. At 100 – 170 Yen per plate, I could stuff my face for less than 1,500 Yen most of the time. I usually just ate here.
- Eat at 7-11 – 7-11, Family Mart, and other corner stores have a lot of pre-set meals for 100-300 Yen that make for a cheap lunch option. Additionally, supermarkets also have many set meals at similar prices. I noticed this was a popular eating method for many Japanese people.
- Cook Your Food – Hostels have kitchens where you can cook and cut your food expenses to less than 800 Yen per day, especially by shopping at the 100 Yen stores.
- Avoid Fresh Fruit – The one rumor about Japan that turned out to be true was that fresh fruit and vegetables were expensive. Outside of shopping for an apple or banana at the market, I generally avoided fresh fruits and vegetables. They were too expensive.
- Curry, Ramen, and Donburi – I essentially lived off these three foods during my three weeks in Japan. Curry bowls were as cheap as 280 Yen per plate. Donburi, bowls of meat and rice, are around 400-500. Ramen is never more than 700. These are the best ways to eat cheap and filling meals while in Japan.
Living costs in Japan are incredibly high. Limited space, lots of people, high housing prices. And that high costs transfers over into the tourism industry, making trying to find cheap accommodation a real pain the ass. Hostel dorms typically cost 1,900 Yen per night (sometimes as low as 1,500 Yen or as high as 2,700 Yen in Tokyo) and hotel rooms start at 5,000 Yen per night or more.
- Work for your room – Hostels in Japan let you stay for free if you are willing to clean up for a few hours a day.
- Couchsurfing – Hospitality exchanges are not as widespread in Japan as elsewhere in the world, but there is a small but active Couchsurfing community here. Make sure you request rooms well ahead of time to increase your odds of success. Click here to read more about Couchsurfing.
- Use credit card points – It’s times like these that those credit points I talk about often come in handy. Frequent flier miles and regular hotel points can be redeemed for lots of free nights. I used my free accumulated nights from hotels.com for two free nights of stay in Tokyo but with the large sign up bonuses right now for hotel cards, you can get up to a week’s free accommodation!
- Capsule Hotels – A step up from hostels and a step down from hotels, capsule hotels (pictured) are small tiny capsules you sleep. You share bathrooms and common areas. Your capsule has a light, outlet, and sometimes small television. They are frequently used by business men who work late. These capsules begin around 2,700 Yen per night.
Most of the attractions were very cheap. I didn’t spend more than 500 Yen per museum or temple. In Kyoto, there is a temple pass that gives you unlimited transportation and access to the temples for 1,200 Yen. It’s a good deal considering you are probably going to see a lot of museums in Kyoto. Osaka and Tokyo had similar passes for their attractions.
Overall, I found these passes to be the best way to save money on temples, museums, and other attractions. Additionally, there are many free gardens, temples, and parks! I hardly spent any money on attractions while I was in Japan.
How much do you need?
Japan has an image of being one of the most expensive countries in the world and if you are staying in hotels, eating out and traveling around a lot, it can be. You can easily spend over $200 USD per day by traveling that way. However, I don’t think a trip to Japan needs to be that expensive.
Staying in a hostel, buying a rail pass, eating relatively cheap food, and visiting a few attractions will cost around $100 USD per day. A 21 day trip would cost at least $2,100 USD (plus flight). For that much money you can go to Asia for months!
Instead, by utilizing the tips above, I think you can get by on $70-75 USD per day. This would mean more bus travel, a (very) limited amount of sushi, only cheap restaurants, and the occasional night Couchsurfing (or another method for free accommodation).
On a bare bones budget, you can get by for $50 USD per day if you stick to Couchsurfing, cheap food, bus travel (trains would be far too expensive), and free attractions. I saw lots of travelers in Japan traveling on the cheap. They did it and it’s possible — but you’ll never feed your sushi addiction if you travel this way.
To me budget travel is value travel. Japan is never going to be as inexpensive a destination as Cambodia, Ukraine, or Peru, but there are ways to save money in every place in the world and Japan has plenty. The country will never cost $20 USD per day but it also doesn’t need to cost hundreds.
Editor’s note: Two weeks of my trip was covered by G Adventures as part of my Wanderer in Residence partnership, though I paid for my own food. My third week in Japan was fully paid by me. You can get 10% off all their tours with the code “2014GONOMADIC“. Use it when you visit their website to save hundreds on any tour you book.