As a few people close to me indicated their intentions to visit Japan in the near future, I thought I’d share my opinion on the destination and give advice on how to travel relatively cheap.
Japan is easily one of the most fascinating countries for me personally, maybe even THE most fascinating. While many people’s interest in Japan stems from an allure of manga or anime, my case is somewhat different. Since I was young, samurai tales and what I’ve learned about the sheer cultural differences between Japan and my own cultural background arose my interest. Of course, I had heard about people bowing instead of shaking hands, eating with chopsticks, taking their shoes when entering almost any kind of building, about the fusion of history and culture (e.g. countless temples and shrines across the country) in contrast to highly tech-savvy gadgets (e.g. electronic districts, robots etc.), and about modern architecture and amazing public transport (Shinkansen bullet trains, frequent local services etc.).
Often, Japan is associated with high costs. While it is true that it won’t compete against South-East Asian destinations, such as Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia in regards to affordability, it is by no means as expensive as commonly believed. Of course, one can spend a fortune in Japan, but that’s possible anywhere and if one is money cautious, there are a number of ways to have a great time on the cheap.
Top five tips of how travel in Japan on a budget:
- Transportation: Japan Rail Pass
While long-distance transport can be costly (trains and especially bullet trains are usually expensive), the Japan Rail Pass is heaven for anyone planning to visit several places in Japan. With the Rail Pass, the holder can travel unlimited on almost all trains across the entire nation for either 7, 14 or 21 days. A Shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Osaka/Kyoto and back costs about the same as a rail pass for seven days. Hence it mostly pays off to purchase one, even for visitors with non-extensive itineraries. The rail pass also offers great flexibility and makes it easy to incorporate a spontaneous day trip or to adjust the schedule while in Japan. Besides long-distance transport, the pass can also be used for some busses and subways within a city, such as the JR lines in Tokyo which is another bonus.
For whom the regular nation-wide Rail Pass is too much, other regional rail passes are available as well.
Important: The Japan Rail Pass has to be purchased outside of Japan (through exchange offices before you enter the country). One purchases the so-called exchange offer which will then be exchanged for the actual Rail Pass upon entering Japan (at the respective airport or harbour) upon presenting your passport with the tourist visa label inside. Only tourists are eligible for acquiring the pass!
For more information, please head to http://www.japanrailpass.net/en/index.html
Public transport for shorter distances (e.g. within a city) are rather affordable in Japan. For example, one can purchase a day ticket in Kyoto for 600 Yen (about US $5.50 ) which offers unlimited bus travel to all the (stunning!) major sights that the city has to offer.
In Tokyo, I would recommend to get either the Pasmo or Suica card. Sold by different companies, they work the exact same for any form of public transport in the city/region and offer a more convenient way of travelling (simply swipe at entry and exit points of subway stations or on busses) and are also slightly cheaper than paper tickets. You can purchase and charge the cards at any station (from ticket-machines) and a 500 Yen deposit (refundable) is acquired while the minimum charge is 1.000 Yen (about US $9).
- Accommodation: Hostels and homestays
If you are worried about finding cheap accommodation options, let me tell you that lodging in Japan can be way cheaper than you may think, at least outside of Tokyo (which is indeed rather costly). I would recommend www.hostelworld.com as a starting point for accommodation search. Personally, I then search for the respective hostel/guesthouse website and book directly with the accommodation after deciding on a place whenever possible. Direct booking, may it be on the website, via email or phone, saves the accommodation provider the commission for the Online Travel Agency (hostelworld, booking.com etc.) and besides their gratitude, you may even receive a discount or another form of bonus.
While couchsurfing is less common in Japan, there are several options to work in exchange for accommodation and food. For anyone planning to stay in Japan for a longer period of time and wanting to indulge deeper into the Japanese culture than “regular tourists” do, I highly recommend checking out WWOOF Japan and/or Workaway. These options provide the opportunity to work (usually half a day) while living in a Japanese household. There are many options for agricultural work, but other areas are available as well. Personally, I taught English in a private English school in Sapporo for three weeks through the WWOOF Japan program and had an amazing experience! Because no money is involved, no special visa is needed and even with a tourist visa it is possible to participate! While hosts can be searched for without membership, a membership (annual fee, about US $40-50 ) is needed to get the contact information and to apply for any position.
For more information:
- Food: Cheap eateries & supermarkets
Now it gets tricky. Japanese food is amazing and one of the indulgences when visiting the country. While it can be difficult to ignore some of the tasty and more pricey food, lots of affordable and delicious options are also available.
Basic, but still awesome dishes can be had in cheap eateries or noodle houses which can be found in any Japanese city. Often, there are ticket machines at the entrance where one pays and selects the wanted meal on a machine before the order will be collected and served in record time and (but fresh!) by the attentive and welcoming staff. A meal usually comes with free tea/water and sets you back only around 350-600 Yen, the eqivalent of around US $4-$6. Be aware that there is no tipping in Japan!
Another way to fill up for similar money are supermarkets and convenience stores. Pretty much every supermarket in Japan sells bento boxes, lunch/dinner boxes of various kinds as well as sushi and and other meal options (e.g. salad, pasta etc.) for very reasonable prices. Supermarkets often also discount the leftover boxes in the evening time which makes for an even better deal!
Tip: One-way (wooden) chopsticks are unfortunately the norm at most places in Japan. To help the environment, I would recommend to purchase your own pair of reusable chopsticks in a 100 Yen Shop (see below) and to use those whenever possible (declining the one-way chopsticks that are offered in eateries and supermarkets). Makes for a good souvenir to take home too!
- Shopping: Hyaku-Yen Shops
If you find yourself in Japan and needing almost any kind of item, may it be clothing, food, travel gadgets, power adapters, cooking ware, toys, souvenirs etc. (literally anything), I’d recommend you to look inside a Hyaku (100) Yen shop (e.g. Daiso or similar). You wouldn’t believe what you can buy for the equivalent of only around US $1 per item.
Tip: While I recommend to purchase a pair of chopsticks for personal use for environmental reasons, chopsticks also make for a great souvenir for friends and family back home. 100 Yen shops offer different designs and chopsticks are ideal as a gift, because they are part of the local culture while being cheap, light and small so that they are easy to transport. Be sure to check the packaging for “Made in Japan”.
- Sightseeing: Free and cheap options
While it might be difficult to save on major sights – often there is a fixed admission price for popular temples, shrines, museums etc. – Japan does offer free cultural sights as well. For instance, the stunning Arashiyama Bamboo forest or the Fushimi Inari shrine on the outskirts of Kyoto (both reachable with the 600 Yen day ticket) or Tokyo’s most popular shrine (Senso-ji In Asakusa) don’t cost a single Yen. Some museums and other local temples and shrines are also free and can be more atmospheric than the often crowded famous sights.
Also, city parks and gardens (such as Ueno Koen in Tokyo) are usually free and worth checking out, while simply exploring a city or neighbourhood on foot is my favourite way to get a feel for a place and this can be fascinating and rewarding at the same time.
Tip: Another cheap way to have a special “only in Japan” experience is the visit of a Sento, a Japanese public bath. Admission is usually around 400 Yen and provides a relaxing and highly interesting way to take part in a traditional, local activity. Beware: Tatoos are often not allowed and there is a strict procedure to follow when visiting a sento. If you are not familiar, please inform yourself beforehand.
With the above recommendations in mind, I hope you will have no excuse not to visit Japan anymore. It will be an unforgettable experience if you do and besides the advise I have given, I further recommend you to try to get in touch with locals and to ask them for their opinion and recommendations on food, sightseeing etc.
While communication is not always easy, making acquaintance with the Japanese, who are extremely kind and helpful, is the best way to get to know them and their culture.
Of course this is not exclusive to Japan, but true almost anywhere you go. Happy travels!