One of the things I have people asking me is: “Why the heck would you travel to Japan? It’s so expensive there!”
Ironically this was coming from people who had never traveled there. Anyway, on one hand – yes, it is more expensive than other countries in Asia, such as Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia etc. However, when comparing to many western countries in Europe and America, it was relatively cheap to travel around Japan. Yes, Ryokans (traditional Japanese hotels), upper class restaurants and taxis can be expensive. But there are cheaper (and not necessarily lower quality) options. If you are traveling on a tight budget, have a read through to see how you might be able to save money as you travel around Japan!
In many places we went to in Japan, we stayed in private rooms at hostels. A private triple dorm room with shared toilet and shower facilities ended up costing between 2,500 to 3,000 yen per person per night (between $25-30 USD, 100 yen is approximately $1 USD). This is cheaper than many hostels I have stayed in other parts of the world in shared dorms. While the idea of staying in hostels may be off-putting for some, the standard of Japanese hostels is actually better than many hotels in the world. There are usually many facilities which are available as well, such as kitchens and free wireless internet access. Most places usually provide bedding, and have plenty of staff proficient in English who are willing to point out good places to visit/eat/have a great time. Many also host events for guests, such as cooking Takoyaki or having tours in nearby areas. I highly recommend searching on Hostelworld or checking out the likes of K’s House/J-Hoppers. There are several alternatives, such as cheap Ryokans or Minishukus, but Hostels are likely to be the cheapest and most accessible. Capsule hotels are another option, though I kind of get freaked out at the idea of sleeping in a box/coffin. One downside of hostels is that the rooms are on the smaller side, but all were large enough to fit in our luggage (and we had a lot!) with enough left over space for us to move around. Note that sometimes, the price of a night’s stay isn’t the only deciding factor. Vicinity to transport hubs, cost of traveling to and fro from accommodations, novelty etc should also be considered.
A trip to the nearest convenience store is highly recommended for grabbing breakfast. They usually have a large selection of bread/bento/onigiri. 2-3 buns/onigiri and a drink would cost about 500 yen. An alternative of course are fast food joints, though you deserve a smack on the head if you pig out at McDs for every single meal (at least go to a Japanese chain like Mos Burger)! Convenience stores are also a good place to get lunch, especially if you are likely to spend the day on the move and do not have time to look for food. Supermarkets/train stations are also good places to pick up bentos, though these are usually harder to find than convenience stores. Bakeries are also a good option. Items from bakeries are usually quite cheap, and are of much better quality than what I get back home (which is also usually double the price of what you can get in Japan)!
Many small restaurants would have a decent size meal for a reasonable price, especially at lunchtime (between 500 to 1,200 yen). There are also cheap eating outlets, such as Yoshinoya (beef bowls), or places which you use a vending machine to place your order. Some restaurants also have special sets. I had a bowl of ramen and some Karaage on rice cost for just 850 yen near Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama, and it was more than what I could eat.
First rule of travel – minimize your journey as much as possible. Less long distance travel equals less money being spent. That said, this could be your once in a lifetime trip, in which case you may want to see as much as you can. The most efficient form of transport between cities are trains. These are much more reasonably priced than most plane trips over short trips, and are much faster than buses. Take advantage of several discounts available to foreigners. The most well known discount is the National JR Pass. There are different durations available (7, 14 and 21 days) as well as cheaper regional alternatives. Once you have paid for this pass, you are allowed to ride just about every JR train available, INCLUDING SHIKANSENS (bullet trains), and you can also reserve seats for no additional fee (only using national pass). Note that the pass does not work for all Shinkansen, so make sure you pay attention to what train you want to take before hopping on. Do also make sure not to get a carriage that allows smoking (I found that out the hard way back on my school trip in 2003…)
If you are in no rush, highway buses are a great alternative (though I usually get travel sickness in buses especially on winding roads). These are usually cheaper, and does service remote areas which may not be serviced by trains. Some buses run overnight, which would save you an additional night’s accommodation cost if you use it (trains have this option too, but the price is almost the same as an expensive ryokan). However, I would not recommend this if you are looking to cover a very long distance and are running on a tight schedule (e.g. from Kyushuu to Hokkaido). You surely do not want to spend too much of your traveling time riding a bus. Plane flights on the other hand are by far the most expensive option, though there are also cheap discounts for foreigners. For example, if you had entered Japan flying on Singapore Airlines, you are eligible to get discounts on ANA flights (10,000 yen tickets from Sapporo to Fukuoka for example) as both flights are a member of Star Alliance. JAL has a similar discount with members of One World. This price is usually 3-5 times cheaper than what locals have to pay. Planes are more efficient to use when covering long distances. If traveling over short distances, remember that while the flight itself may be faster than trains, there is still time wasted during check-in/waiting for luggage/security checks. In addition, transport to/from airports can be pricey and a hassle in itself.
For travelling within a city, always look to see if there are day passes which would help save a lot of money. For example, Kyoto has a day pass for buses for 500 yen within the city centre area. This is worth it if you are planning to take at least 3 bus trips in a single day. Tokyo has passes for its local JR train network, as well as separate passes for each of the major subway companies. Some cities also have reasonably priced bicycle rentals. Consider using these, as they are a great way to see parts of a city you would otherwise not see. Of course, walking is the cheapest option, and might end up being a quicker option too if you are just taking a subway/bus between two adjacent stops!
While you might not notice it at first, attractions can cost a lot of money. A temple entrance fee here, a guided tour there, and it can all add up very quickly. The most efficient way is to plan out your activities. After your initial planning, sit back, look at your plan, and have a think – do you really want to go to all these places? I have heard cases of people visiting about half a dozen temples a day, and getting completely bored of them within a few days. Remember, quality over quantity! Visit less places, and spend more time to appreciate them. You might also find something else along the way which might warrant a detour. In addition, consider looking for attractions which are free. Many shrines in Kyoto are free to enter, such as Fushimi Inari Taisha, Yasaka Shrine, and Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. The Asakusa district in Tokyo is another good free traditional area.
FURTHER ADVICE – DO NOT REGRET NOT SPENDING!!!
While it is good to save as much money as possible, you should not hold back on experiencing something you really want to try. If you want to try staying at an extremely pricey Ryokan, take a day trip to another part of Japan, have a nice Kaiseki Ryori meal, or visit another temple – THEN DO IT! You would have likely paid a lot of money on airline tickets to get to Japan, so why not spend a few extra hundred dollars on enjoying yourself? If you are missing out on all these experiences, you might as well stay home. This is the same for travelling anywhere else in the world in general. The worst thing you can possibly do is return home regretting not spending a bit more to try something unique, for wasting energy or time by not using more efficient means of transport, or for not buying that souvenir you really wanted. Remember – experience and memories are priceless!