Japan Travel Guide
Though very expensive, Japan is one of the most amazing, beautiful, and friendly countries in the world. From Mount Fuji to bustling Tokyo to zen-like Kyoto, Japan is a high-tech world mixed with the politeness and respect of their past. Honestly, I love Japan. It was a life-long dream to go there and it lived up to all my expectations. Japan has fantastic food, beautiful temples and shrines, zen gardens, national parks, and a culture with a long and rich history. It’s a wonderful place and, while it may be an expensive country to visit, there are plenty of ways to make this country affordable. Don’t get scared off by the prices. You won’t regret your visit here – it’s one of the most amazing places in the world.
Destination Guides for Japan
Accommodation – Most hostels will charge between $25-35 USD per night for a dorm room. Pod hotels cost between $30-50 USD for a tiny little room (that’s really a pod). A double room at a budget hotel is closer to $70 USD per night.
Food – There are many cheap places to eat out in Japan from the ramen noodle shops to miso and soba noodles. These food options range from $2-10 USD USD. Buying groceries will cost you $30-40 USD per week. Most restaurant meals cost around $16 USD. Mid-range restaurants can cost around $35 USD. Sushi trains cost between $1-5 USD per piece. Fast food is around $6.50 USD.
Transportation – Transportation in Japan is incredibly expensive. Trains are the fastest but most expensive way to travel. A train ticket from Osaka to Tokyo can cost $160 USD! Most of the city metro tickets cost $1-2 USD for a single journey. In most major cities, you can buy a day pass, which gives you unlimited travel for 24 hours for around $8 USD on select trains. Inter-city bus tickets cost around $20 USD.
Activities – Most temples and museums are free to enter, although some popular attractions cost around $10 USD. The temples in Kyoto can cost up to $5 USD. Many of the city’s parks are free, so take advantage when you can and spend the day there. You can buy city or temple passes that are valid for one day.
Money Saving Tips
Visit the free attractions – With countless museums, shrines, temples, historic neighborhoods and parks, Japan is filled with opportunities to become immersed in its culture. Many of the nation’s parks and museums are free.
Get a JR Pass – The bullet trains in Japan are ridiculously expensive with one way fares costing hundreds of dollars. If you plan to do a lot of travel around the country, get the JR Pass which allows you unlimited train travel and will save you a ton of money.
Take the bus – Buses are a far more economical option than the trains. They cost a fraction of the price but take a lot longer. For example, the two-hour bullet train ride from Tokyo to Osaka becomes a 10 hour bus ride. You can get unlimited travel passes for $100 USD for 3 non-consecutive days of travel. If you have the time, take the bus.
Shop at the 100 Yen ($1 USD) stores – There are many 100 Yen shops in Japan with set meals, groceries, water, toiletries, and household items. Store names vary by region, so ask your hotel/hostel reception where the nearest one is located.
Eat at 7-11 – A 7-11, or Family Mart, and other corner stores have a lot of pre-set meals for $1-3 USD that make for a cheap lunch option. Additionally, supermarkets also have many set meals at similar prices.
Cook your food – Hostels have kitchens where you can cook and cut your food expenses to less than $6 USD per day. Combining this with shopping at the 100 Yen stores will drastically cut your food costs.
Eat curry, ramen, and donburi – I essentially lived off these three foods during my three weeks in Japan. Curry bowls were as cheap as $3 USD per plate. Donburi, bowls of meat and rice, are around $4-5 USD. Ramen is never more than $7 USD. These are the best ways to eat cheap and filling meals while in Japan.
Work for your room – Hostels in Japan let you work for your room. You’ll spend a few hours in the morning cleaning and you’ll get free accommodation for as long as you want.
Couchsurf – Using hospitality sites like Couchsurfing that allow you to stay with locals not only gets you a free place to stay but lets you interact and learn about local life. Make sure you ask early – the response rate is not good!
Buy food at night – After 8 pm, supermarkets discount their fresh food as they have to get rid of it by law. If you buy your food after 8 pm, you can save up to 50%.
Top Things to See and Do in Japan
Visit the Tsukiji fish market – Tokyo’s fish market. This market starts bright and early at 4 AM and you can see the frenzied buying and selling of the world’s largest tuna market. Eat just-caught sushi for breakfast and marvel at the frenzied atmosphere. There’s nothing like it in the world.
Climb Mount Fuji – This 11,500 foot tall mountain is located near Tokyo, and it makes for a worthy climb. During the day it is often covered in fog and clouds, so ascents tend to happen early in the morning, but the lack of sleep is worth the jaw-dropping sunrise.
Spend a day in the Gion District – Otherwise known as the Geisha District, you can spend the day here for as much, or as little, as you’d like to spend. The area is filled with fascinating architecture and if you’re lucky you may be able to spot a geisha. It’s also a good area for window shopping.
Visit the Heian Shrine – The Heian Shrine is a popular tourist attraction so get there early if at all possible. The garden is filled with beautiful cherry blossom trees, known as Sakura, and a beautiful place for some pictures. The shrine is free but the garden nearby costs $6 USD Yen to enter.
Relax in Ueno Park – Ueno Park is a great place to spend the day and for free. Take your camera as it’s a perfect spot to record the many cherry blossom trees, and take a lunch too to save some extra money.
Stop by the Imperial Palace – For another free event, visit the Imperial Palace which is home to the Emperor of Japan and a perfect opportunity to learn about some of Japan’s history and culture.
Visit Miyajima Island – Be sure to visit this “shrine island” for all its scenic beauty. It can easily be made into a full day’s trip with the walking trails nearby. One way including the ferry to get you there will cost about $2 USD.
Visit the Bitchu Matsuyama Castle – The entrance fee is $3 USD and well worth it. See for yourself the only original, still-standing castle in Japan. It’s the country’s highest castle as well.
Take a trip to Kyoto – The city of beautiful temples and Japanese gardens, Kyoto is one of the top destinations in Japan. It retains much of the traditional Japanese lifestyle and is a good juxtaposition to fast paced and high-tech Tokyo.
Make a humbling visit to Hiroshima – Visit the bomb memorial and learn about one of the most controversial events of human history – the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima.
Hike around Nikko – There are great temples and shrines in the woods, and the woods themselves make for excellent hiking and meditating.
Ride the Tempozan Ferris Wheel – Located in Osaka, this 17 minute ride offers amazing views of Osaka Bay and the surrounding area. Between 1997-1999, it was the world’s tallest Ferris Wheel, but it has since been outranked. It also happens to be next door to one of the largest aquariums in the world, the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan.
Hike in Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama – If you are looking for a great hike in Kyoto, this is a hill that offers a bit of a challenge and an interesting attraction at the top. Beyond the panoramic views of Kyoto, this is an awesome place to see wild monkeys and get some fun souvenir photos.
Photograph the Hells – Also known as jigoku, this is a collection of natural, geothermal hot springs—located in Beppu. Each pool is a quasi-amusement park, with a unique theme. The purchase of a coupon grants access to nearly all of the pools. You can’t get in the water, but this is an awesome photo opportunity.
Pamper yourself in Maika – For the ladies, the gion district also offers pseudo-apprentice geisha treatments. You can go and have full make-up done and try on a formal kimono. Photos afterward make for an awesome souvenir—and you can even have stickers made. This is probably the most exciting way to learn about the ancient Geisha tradition.
Explore Tokyo – This is, essentially, the high-tech center of Japan—which is not to say that there isn’t a prominence of Japanese tradition here. Beyond all of the shrines, heritage sites, and cherry blossoms, you’ll find any number of interesting clubs, bars, people, technology markets, and fashion stores.