Backpacking Japan On A Budget

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Japan on a Budget

When we tell people that Japan was one of our favourite destinations in our round-the-world trip, we are almost always met with:

“Japan?!! It looks cool, but isn’t it SO expensive?!”

The short answer is, yes, Japan is expensive. Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to make your Yen last while exploring the land of the rising sun.

A lot of people we’ve talked with have put off travelling to Japan because there’s this idea that it is one of the most expensive countries in the world. While it is expensive, it really isn’t all the different from travelling through North America or New Zealand.

It is all about HOW you travel through Japan.

Like many other countries, if you stay at expensive hotels, eat at posh restaurants and go out drinking every night you can pretty much guarantee a blown budget. However, if you are willing to be flexible with where you sleep, try to limit your meals out, take it easy on the drinking and follow our tips you can let your mind rest easy and enjoy all that this incredible country has to offer!

Accommodations

Inside of a Ryokan in Nagano, Japan

We start with accommodation because this one tends to be the highest daily expense, so if you can reduce this as much as possible you should be in good shape.

Expect to Pay:

  • Hostels: $20-$35 USD per person for a dorm bed. $35-$50 USD per person for a private room.

Our Best Tips:

  • Couchsurfing – While we didn’t surf in Japan it is now my favourite way to explore particularly expensive cities, meet cool locals and get money-saving tips.
  • Work for your stay – Some hostels will let you work a few hours a day in exchange for a free night stay. This is HUGE! Try contacting them ahead of time vs. just showing up and asking as this option tends to be pretty competitive.
  • Air BNB: We love using Airbnb especially in countries where the accommodations are a little more expensive. It allows us to save money not just on accommodations but because we sometimes have our own kitchen, we save money on food as well. Plus, the owners are a wealth of information on the city and country and may even show you around. Let us refer you and you’ll receive $35 USD off your first Airbnb booking!
  • Beware of public holidays – We were in Kyoto during Golden Week (typically early May), locals and business travellers alike frequent hostels and guesthouses which mean they fill up fast, thankfully we were able to make reservations a week in advance.
  • Love hotels – Popular with young locals who need a night alone with their spouse, Love hotels are clean and some even have themes! You can pay for either a “Rest” or “Stay” depending on long you need (wink wink!). They are also fairly cheap with rooms for as low as $50 a night.
  • Capsule hotels – World famous capsule hotels, usually used by businessmen, are kind of like a weird space age dorm. Even though some market more to tourists, you can easily find basic options for as low as $20 USD per person. Plus, the experience of staying in the equivalent of a big dresser drawer is definitely cool quirky Japanese experience.
  • Video Game Cafes – Kinda like an internet café except 24hrs and you can rent your chair/computer for extended periods of time. Some even have shower facilities.
  • Splurge on a traditional Ryokan – Even though staying in a traditional Ryokan (pictured above) can be expensive ($45-$70 per person), it is well worth the experience even if you just spend one night. Japanese hospitality is definitely an experience in and of itself.
  • Book Ahead of Time: If you are somebody who prefers to have your some or all of you accommodations pre-booked ahead of time so you can breathe easy, then Booking.com is your best bet as there are no booking fees and often times free cancellation on hotel bookings.

Transport

Bullet train in Japan

Japan’s transportation system blew our socks off. The city subway systems are cheap, fast, extensive and make it so that you can easily get to where you need to with minimal effort (i.e. English signage! hooray!) . The Shinkansen (bullet trains) are whisper quiet, super comfortable, can reach speeds of up to 320 km/h and the view of the countryside cannot be topped.

Expect to Pay:

  •  JR Rail Pass: 1 Week – $270 USD, $430 USD – 2 Week Pass, $550 USD – 3 Week Pass
  • Intercity Subway – $1.40 USD one way in Tokyo (typically) or $7.50 USD for a 24 hour pass.
  • Taxi – This is dependent on how far you travel but a 15 minute trip cost us about $40 USD.
  • Flying – Low cost airlines now offer flights of approximately $55 USD for a one way ticket from Tokyo to Osaka.

Our Best Tips:

  • Get a Japan Rail Pass – If you’re planning on seeing more than a couple of cities during your stay, bite the bullet and buy a JR Pass from a local travel agent before you leave (see the costs above). I repeat, buy it before you leave your home country as the cost of buying it once in Japan is much more expensive. At $550 USD per person for three weeks of unlimited travel within the country on the bullet trains as well as travel on Tokyo’s JR subway lines and JR buses, we ended up saving a lot of money buying the pass.
  • Inner City Subway – Efficient, fast and safe, this is the best way to get around the major cities in Japan. You can expect to pay about $1.40 USD for a one way trip or if you plan on doing a lot of exploring you can buy an unlimited use, full day pass for about $7.50 USD.
  • Flying – Flying can be expensive but there are now low-cost airlines that are starting to move in. You can now fly one-way from Tokyo to Osaka for about $55 USD.
  • Buses – If you are on a very tight budget and also have a good amount of time, think about taking buses across the country. You will spend less money then the bullet train or flying but it will typically take a full day or night to get to where you need to go. Bonus points for extra time to soak in the views.
  • Don’t take taxi cabs – We ended up taking one during our time in Japan but that was out of sheer desperation given that we were lost in Odaiba at 3:00am. Even though it was expensive, I have to say, in true Japanese fashion, the drivers are the most respectful and honest in the world. Ours even spent an extra fifteen minutes driving around the Tsukiji Fish Market asking for directions with the meter off!

Food

Traditional elegant Japanese dinner

Reducing expenses in this realm is by far the easiest way to whittle down your budget. Despite what you might think there are tons of budget dining options and I promise you that even the cheap sushi here will kick the crap out of the raw stuff back home.

Expect to Pay:

  • Typical lunches (yakisoba, sushi sets, bento boxes) will cost $11 to $15 USD
  • Ramen will cost $4 to $8 USD
  • Typical rotator belt sushi restaurants cost $0.5 to $3.5 USD per plate (2-4 piece)
  • Vending machine drinks cost $1 to $3 USD.
  • Beer in restaurants cost the same as back in Canada, $4- $6 USD. Vending machines and 7Elevens are the go-to place for cheap beer at $3 USD per bottle.

Our Best Tips:

  • Use hostel cooking facilities – Just about every guesthouse we went to had shared cooking facilities. Even though Japanese food may be some of the best in the world, try to cook as many meals as possible to reduce your costs.
  • 7 Eleven – We never thought we’d say that 30% of our daily diet came from a convenience store, but fear not, Japanese 7Elevens have far more to offer than wrinkly hotdogs and slurpees… the Japanese 7Eleven is a mecca for cheap and fresh salads, sushi and hot meals. Bonus points for the workers who are a ridiculously polite treat, not at ALL like home! This was also our go-to destination for alcohol, a tall can of Kirin Grapefruit Strong will help fuel those wild nights to the ‘tune’ of a couple bucks.
  • Discounted Sushi – Many supermarkets have deep markdowns on their prepared foods after 8pm, the sushi was so cheap we’d stock up and eat it for breakfast!
  • Make lunch your primary meal – Most restaurants have lunch specials; we loved hitting up the conveyor belt sushi shops at 11 when the offerings were the freshest and we could snag a spot at the bar. The sushi at these places cost anywhere from $0.50 – $4.00 USD per plate, a very solid deal. Get your fill of fresh & complimentary green tea while you’re there.
  • Vending Machines – We are coffee addicts and Japan was an unfortunate place to go through withdrawal symptoms but in any case if you can stomach it, caffeine can be cheaply purveyed in hot & cold form from the ubiquitous vending machines. In some of the smaller towns you can still find alcohol in vending machines too.
  • Ramen & soba shops – cheap and delicious, do it the Japanese way in and around train stations; order from a vending machine and scarf it down at shops with no chairs.
  • ¥100 Stores – Great place for cheap cold drinks, snacks and toiletries.

Entertainment

Karaoke in Kyoto, Japan

There are heaps of castles, temples, gardens and museums to visit in Japan, many of which are free. When we did encounter entrance fees they were almost always very reasonably priced.

Expect to Pay:

  • Typically the entrance fees to most of the cultural/historical attractions will cost about $5 USD per person.

Our Best Tips:

  • Wandering is one of the greatest joys of Japan. We loved wandering around the cities, getting lost and seeing where the day would take us. The window shopping and people watching is enthralling and gloriously free!
  • Many parks, temples and gardens are free to explore.
  • Karaoke is almost a religion and the options to partake abound, but if you head to the chain with the smiley face (Uta Hiroba Karaoke) you can sing your heart out and drink your face off for less than $3 USD per hour before 6pm.
  • Our time spent at Tokyo Disneyland & DisneySea was memorable, but the $60 USD day pass is a bit steep, good news is that the price cuts in half after 6pm, so you have until 10pm to get in all the weird and wonderful attractions.   

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Our Numbers and Overall Recommendations

Average Price Per Person: $90 USD Per Day

Because Japan was our first destination on our round the world trip, we probably spent more than if we had visited later on. That said, we had an incredible time and saw everything we wanted to plus so much more.

We spent 30 nights in Japan and spent on average $90 USD per person per day and we lived well. We stayed primarily in private rooms in guesthouses, ate a lot of conveyor belt sushi and ramen, had a few drunken nights out, and went to almost every one of the “must see” spots. If you follow our tips, use cheap transportation, try and cook most of your meals and are lucky enough to find a local or a couch surfing host to stay with, you should be able to trim that budget down to about $75-$80 USD per person per day. If you can find work in a hostel in exchange for a free stay, that number will be even lower.

Make sure to check out our photo tours of Tokyo and Kyoto to further activate your wanderlust!

Cheers friends!

Ross & AlyseDressed like a geisha in Kyoto


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Ross

Lover of travel, photography, nature, movies, and nachos. If you love Star Wars and Lord of the Rings we'll probably become best friends.
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