Japan has a reputation as an expensive place to travel to, but it’s an image that doesn’t hold up on the ground.
With a little strategy, a visit can be very reasonable – budget-friendly, even. Many of the country’s major sights, for example, cost nothing, and free festivals take place year-round. With these top tips on finding the best-value places to stay, the right transportation tickets for you, and places to eat that suit all tastes and wallets, you can make your yen go further on a visit to Japan.
Consider staying in a business hotel
These economical (and, to be honest, rather utilitarian) hotels offer the best prices for private rooms with en suite facilities: it’s possible to find double rooms for as low as ¥8000 (and single rooms for as low as ¥6000), though these will be a little more expensive in cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Look for places that include a free breakfast buffet – they can be substantial enough to keep you going for hours.
Book direct at a guesthouse or hostel
Japan has fantastic guesthouses and hostels all over; not only are they generally clean and well-maintained, but friendly English-speaking staff are usually on hand to offer near concierge-level service. A double or single room is comparable to a business hotel (but usually has shared facilities); dorm beds cost around ¥3000 (US$23). Some places do charge extra for towel rentals, so you can save a few yen by bringing your own. Note that rates are often slightly cheaper if you book directly rather than through a booking site.
Sleep in a capsule hotel in the cities
Capsule hotels, which offer small rooms with enough space for just a bed, provide a budget-friendly place to spend the night. A capsule berth costs slightly more than a dorm bed in a hostel (¥4000 per night), but you get more privacy. You probably wouldn’t want to stay every night in a capsule, but they’re good for saving money in cities where hotels are pricier.
Go camping in the summer months
If you really want to do Japan on the cheap, you can rely on its network of well-maintained campsites in rural or resort areas; prices range from ¥500 to ¥1000 per person or tent. Note that many sites are only open in the summer.
The Japan Rail Pass is a great travel bargain
Like the famous Eurail Pass, the JR Pass is one of the world’s great travel bargains and is the best way to see a lot of Japan on a budget. It allows unlimited travel on Japan’s brilliant nationwide rail system, including the lightning-fast shinkansen (bullet train). There are also more regionally specific train passes that are cheaper, so examine your itinerary carefully before deciding. Purchase a pass online or from a travel agent like JTB in your home country.
Ride local trains for less with the Seishun 18 Ticket
The Seishun 18 is another great deal, but with very specific conditions: for ¥12,050 (US$100), you get five one-day tickets good for travel on any regular Japan Railways train (meaning not the shinkansen or any high-speed limited express trains) during a limited period of a few weeks. The Seishun 18 Ticket is only available at certain times during the year – during school holidays (the ticket is designed for students, but there’s no age cap) – and can only be purchased from JR ticket windows in Japan. If the timing works, and you’re a fan of slow travel, this is a unique, ultra-cheap way to get around in Japan.
Swap a night in a hotel for an overnight bus ride
Long-distance buses, like those operated by Willer Express, are the cheapest way to get around, and longer routes have night buses, which saves a night on accommodation. There are also bus passes, which can make this an even cheaper option.
Consider renting a car to go beyond the cities
Highway tolls and petrol in Japan are expensive; however, renting a car can be economical if you’re traveling as a group or family, or are plotting an itinerary that takes you away from major rail hubs.
Take domestic flights with low-cost airlines
Japan has several budget carriers, like Peach, Jetstar and Air Do, that offer bus-like pricing on some routes – just be sure to factor in the time and cost of going to/from the airport.
Japan’s shrines and temples are free to visit
The vast majority of Shintō shrines in Japan cost nothing to enter. Likewise, the grounds of many temples can be toured for free (often, you only have to pay to enter the halls or a walled garden).
Eat cheap food and meet locals at a traditional festival
Throughout the year, festivals take place at shrines and temples and through city streets. They’re free, an excellent way to see traditional culture come alive, and are well attended by cheap food vendors.
Opt for hikes and walking tours
Going on a hike or a trek is free and can be the most rewarding part of your trip: explore an up-and-coming city neighborhood, walk old pilgrimage trails or rural lanes, or get up into the mountains in one of Japan’s national parks. Japan’s cities, especially Tokyo, have some fantastic buildings designed by many of the big names in Japanese architecture, and with a little bit of planning, you could chart your own architecture tour. Ask at a tourist information center or your accommodation for suggestions.
Spend time relaxing in the city parks
Urban parks are generally free to enter (and some gardens are, too) and are popular with locals on weekends; pack a picnic and settle in for an afternoon of people-watching. If you time your visit right, you could be bathing in the beauty of Japan's cherry blossoms.
Shop for cheaper goods at a local market
Many seaside towns have fish markets, some rural spots have morning markets, and some cities still have their old-fashioned open-air markets. Visits here are a great way to connect with local culture and are often a source of cheap, fresh food.
Choose the right dish in the right place to save money
You can get a good, filling meal in shokudō, Japan's answer to the greasy spoon, for under ¥1000 (US$7.50). A steaming bowl of tasty ramen can be picked up in many places for as little as ¥600 (US$5). Tachigui (stand-and-eat counter joints) sell soba (buckwheat noodles) and udon (thick white wheat noodles) for even less – starting as low as ¥350 per bowl.
Many upscale restaurants in Japan offer a smaller course at lunchtime for significantly less than they charge at dinner time, so for a bargain deal, have your larger meal then. In all restaurants in Japan, tea and water are complimentary, and there’s no tipping required.
Bentō are a budget alternative to a meal out
These "boxed meals," which include a variety of dishes, can be picked up for under ¥1000 at supermarkets. Department store food halls sell gourmet ones for a little bit more; visit just before closing to buy them on markdown.
Get everything you need and more at the convenience store
Convenience stores are the best friend to all budget travelers. They stock sandwiches, rice balls, hot dishes and beer, all of which you can assemble into a very affordable (if not exactly healthy) meal. Accommodations always have kettles, so cup noodles are always an option.
A guide to daily costs in Japan
Capsule hotel room: ¥4000 (US$30)
Basic room for two: ¥8000 (US$60)
Self-catering apartment: (including Airbnb) ¥6000 (US$45)
Coffee: ¥400 (US$3.50)
Sandwich: ¥300 (US$2.20)
Beer/pint at the bar: ¥600 (US$4.50)
Dinner for two: ¥5000 (US$38)
Hour of karaoke for two: ¥2000 (US$15)