Though very expensive, Japan (Nihon-koku in Japanese) is one of the most amazing, beautiful, and friendly countries in the world. From bustling Tokyo and zen-like Kyoto all the way to laid-back Okinawa and wintery Hokkaido, 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 mouth-watering food, majestic temples and shrines, zen gardens, lush national parks, and a rich historic culture. 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 or the language barrier. You won’t regret your visit here – it’s one of the most amazing countries in the world. Let this travel guide help you plan an affordable trip to Japan!
Accommodation – Most hostels will charge between 2,500-4,000 JPY per night for a dorm room. Capsule hotels cost between 3,000-5,500 JPY for a tiny little room (that’s really a pod). If you’re looking for privacy, expect to pay around 8,500 JPY for a double room at a budget hotel. The price of accommodation in the big cities is significantly higher than if you were to travel off the beaten path (Okinawa, for example, is half the price of Tokyo). Airbnb can be found all around the islands, with shared-room prices averaging 3,000 JPY per night. A private apartment/home usually goes for 8,800 JPY. If you are looking for a more unique experience, consider staying at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese bed and breakfast. While they will be more expensive than a standard hotel, it will be a unique and memorable experience as you’ll get to sleep on tatami mats, traditional breakfasts, and more!
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 250-1,250 JPY. Buying groceries will cost you 3,700-5,000 JPY per week. Most restaurant meals cost around 2,000 JPY. Mid-range restaurants can cost around 4,350 JPY. Sushi trains cost between 125-620 JPY per piece. Fast food is around 800 JPY. You can also find plenty of cheap meals and pre-packaged items at 7-Eleven (that the locals actually eat!). Noodles, rice balls, tofu, and pre-packed sushi are all available for only a few hundred yen. If you are on a tight budget, 7-Eleven will be your go-to “restaurant.”
Transportation – Transportation in Japan is incredibly expensive. Trains are the most convenient, but also the most expensive, way to travel. A train ticket from Osaka to Tokyo can cost around 20,000 JPY! Most of the city metro tickets cost 125-250 JPY for a single journey. In most major cities, you can buy a day pass, which gives you unlimited travel for 24 hours for around 600-800 JPY on select trains and buses. Inter-city bus tickets cost around 2,500 JPY. Consider purchasing a Japan Rail Pass if you will be riding a lot of trains (but remember to buy it before you land in the country). JR passes come as 1, 2, or 3-week passes and give you free travel on JR lines. If you plan to do a whirlwind trip, this is the best way to save some money. If you are feeling adventurous, you can also hitchhike. While almost no Japanese hitch hike, many are more than happy to pick up foreigners. It’s a chance for them to practice their English and engage a new culture, so don’t be afraid to stick out a thumb!
Activities – Most temples and museums are free to enter, although some popular attractions cost around 1,250 JPY. The temples in Kyoto can cost up to 620 JPY. 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.
Suggested daily budget – 8,000-9,000 JPY / 65-75 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
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. It comes in 7, 14, and 21-day tickets. Keep it mind it can only be purchased outside of the country, so be sure to plan ahead!
- 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 Japan rail passes for 29,100 JPY, for 7 consecutive days of travel, but this is far more expensive than using the bus. Bottom line: 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 bottles, toiletries, and household items. Store names vary by region, so ask your hotel/hostel reception where the nearest one is located.
- Eat at 7-Eleven – A 7-Eleven, Family Mart, and other convenience stores have a lot of pre-set meals (including sandwiches, soups, fruit, and more traditional Japanese options) for 125-370 JPY 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 745 JPY 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 370 JPY per plate. Donburi, bowls of meat and rice, are around 500-620 JPY. Ramen is never more than 870 JPY. These are the best ways to eat cheap, filling meals while in Japan.
- Work for your room – Hostels in Japan often 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 they’ll let you stay. This is a great way to save money if you want to stay in the same area for a while.
- Couchsurf – Using hospitality sites like Couchsurfing.com 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 very good!
- Buy food at night – After 8pm, supermarkets discount their fresh food as they have to get rid of it (by law). If you buy your food after 8pm, you can save up to 50% on almost everything fresh.
- Hitchhike – Japan is one of the world’s safest countries, and many locals are curious enough to pick up foreign visitors. Hitchhiking isn’t really practiced by the locals, so you will stand out as a tourist which will increase your chances of finding a ride.
Top Things to See and Do in Japan
- Visit the Tsukiji fish market – Tokyo’s fish market. This market starts bright and early at 4am 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, so this a must-see while you’re visiting Japan!
- Climb Mount Fuji – This 3776m 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 or overnight. The lack of sleep is worth the jaw-dropping sunrise. Keep in mind the climbing season is short, from early in July to mid-September.
- 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. Don’t rush this city – spend at least four days here. There’s simply too much to see!
- 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 (a traditional professional entertainer). It’s also a good area for window shopping.
- 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.
- 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 600 JPY to enter. To see the trees in blossom, make sure you’re there mid-April.
- 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 – 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. Though you can’t go inside, the surrounding grounds and park are beautiful and you can see the changing of the guard.
- 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 tickets (including the ferry) to get you there will cost about 180 JPY. Be sure to hike up Mount Misen – it’s a great workout and the views are stunning!
- Visit the Bitchu Matsuyama Castle – The entrance fee for this ancient castle is 300 JPY and it’s well worth it. See for yourself the only original, still-standing castle in Japan. It’s the country’s highest castle as well, located 430m above sea level.
- 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. By far my favorite place in the country, see as many temples as possible and don’t skip the epic bamboo forest!
- 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. It’s a tragic past but seeing how the city has thrived gives you hope for the future.
- Go on pilgrimage – The 88 Temple Pilgrimage is an ancient pilgrimage route that circles the island of Shikoku. The route is over 1,200 kilometers and can take between 30 and 60 days. You can, of course, just visit some of the temples and not walk the entire trail!
- Hike around Nikko – A little off the beaten path, there are great temples and shrines in the woods, and the woods themselves make for excellent hiking and meditating. Nikko is worth a day or two of your time!
- Ride the Tempozan Ferris Wheel – Located in Osaka, this 17-minute ride offers sweeping 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.
- Learn to meditate – There are plenty of temples and monasteries in Japan that host daily meditations, some of which even offer accommodation and allow tourists to sample monastic life. It’s a really eye-opening experience. Feeling stressed or do you just want to chill out? Give it a try!
- 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. Adult admission is 550 JPY.
- Stay in a ryokan – A ryokan is a traditional Japanese bed and breakfast, usually found in the more scenic regions of the country. With their tatami floors and cozy interiors, ryokans make for an intimate and unique Japanese experience. Meals are usually included, as are the traditional Japanese robes and slippers you’ll wear during your stay.
- 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.
- Soak in an onsen – Natural hot springs are widespread throughout the country, and can be found both indoors and outdoors. Each has different mineral compositions and are a great way to soak in some traditional Japanese culture.
- Explore Daisetsuzan National Park – If you make it all the way up to Hokkaido, be sure to spend some time exploring Daisetsuzan National Park. The park offers numerous trails, and some of the most rugged and beautiful landscapes in the entire country. It’s a far cry from the tourist trail, so you’ll get to enjoy some rare peace and quiet.
- Relax in Okinawa – If you need a break from the fast-paced life of Japan, hop down to Okinawa. Considered the “Hawaii of Japan”, life proceeds at a much slower pace here. The climate is subtropical, and there are numerous nearby islands to explore.