It’s no secret Japan is on the pricier end of the scale when it comes to Asian travel destinations. You can’t expect Southeast Asian prices, where pocket change will get you a decent meal, a few cocktails and a room. But while Japan has the reputation to burn a hole in your pocket faster than the speed of a bullet train, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get around on a backpacker budget. All you need is bit of planning and know-how.
1. Plan ahead
Planning ahead is the key to keeping your costs down in Japan. Just turning up on the day expecting a cheap room to be available might not pan out as you’d hoped. If you’re travelling in the peak periods of spring and autumn, you’ll be competing against domestic tourists as well as foreign visitors, so booking accommodation and transport well in advance is vital. Otherwise you’ll find your options are limited and you could be forking out triple your budget.
2. Cheap sleeps
Accommodation is the top reason why you might burn through your money. Try to seek out places outside of the main tourist spots. In Tokyo, your best bet is to forego the Shinjuku and Shibuya areas and head a bit further out to Ueno or Asakusa for better deals. Aoi-so Inn in Kyoto is a traditional ryokan with a range of tatami mat rooms set around a lovely garden. Private doubles start at ¥5000. In Osaka, try the Dobutsuen-mae area (just a short subway ride from Shinsaibashi) for cheaper places like Hotel Raizan that offer private rooms at around ¥4000 for two. Reputable hostel chains throughout Japan are J Hoppers (j-hoppers.japanhostel.net), Khaosan (www.khaosan-tokyo.com/en) and K’s House (kshouse.jp) with dorms from around ¥2000 per person. And if you don’t suffer from claustrophobia, then try a night at a capsule hotel where you can rest your head for as little as ¥2000-3000.
3. Eat for less
While you might have to forego dining at a restaurant every night, you can still get a decent feed in Japan for next to nothing. You’ll find convenience stores stocking bento boxes, sushi and onigiri (rice ball wrapped in seaweed) on every corner. Onigiri is around ¥100 (US$1.20) and a typical bento with a piece of salmon, rice, pickles and some salad will set you back around ¥300-600 (US$3.70-7.40) - so find a nearby park and enjoy! There are cheap food chains everywhere where you can grab a quick udon noodle, curry or ramen fix for around ¥250-500 (US$3-6.15). Otherwise stock up at the supermarket and make use of your hostel kitchen.
Spending your nights knocking back drinks at a bar is not an option when travelling on a budget in Japan. Instead, head to a ¥280 izakaya (Japanese pub) where the atmosphere is smoky, loud and raucous and all food and drink is ¥280. Otherwise you can grab a beer at any convenience store or supermarket for around ¥190-250 (US$2.30-3) or the cheaper option of a bottle of sake or whisky.
4. Getting around on a shoestring
The shinkansen (bullet train) might be a delight for those pressed for time but it’s a real budget breaker. A lot of travellers decide to get the Japan Rail Pass (www.japanrailpass.net) in advance, which gives you unlimited travel on most JR train lines for a number of days (seven, 14 or 21-day passes available) including the shinkansen. While this can be cost-effective if you’re travelling for a short time and covering long distances, there are cheaper alternatives. Try Willer Express overnight buses where you can ride in a comfy recliner seat while saving on a night’s accommodation. Tokyo to Hiroshima is around ¥6000-9,000 (US$73-110) and Tokyo to Kyoto comes to about ¥4500-6000 (US$55-73) (www.willerexpress.com).
5. Save on sightseeing
When you arrive in each city, head to the tourist information office and ask about Welcome Cards and other discount passes for the area. Look into the Grutt Museum Pass in Tokyo which provides free or discounted admission to more than 70 museums in the Tokyo area. When you hit Kyoto for some temple-hopping, do some research beforehand and make a list of your top three choices to visit. Most charge an entry fee of around ¥500-700 (US$6.10-8.50) so if you set out to discover them all, your costs can quickly add up.