It is a widespread misconception that travelling in Japan is expensive. Granted, Japan is one of the top 10 countries in the world for high cost of living . However, with some planning and know-how, it's possible to enjoy a budget trip in the land of the rising sun, without missing out on Japan's high quality of goods and services. This article lists five tried and tested tips.
1. Buy a Japan Rail Pass
Restricted to foreign visitors only, this is a very cost effective rail pass for long-distance train travel in Japan. It covers either 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days and offers unlimited travel on most trains operated by Japan Railways, including shinkansen or bullet trains, at prices that residents themselves can only dream of.
The prices are always the same in Japanese yen e.g. the Ordinary 7-day pass costs 28,300 yen and could be cheaper or more expensive for you, depending on the yen value.
However, please purchase the JR Pass before your arrival in Japan as it is not for sale within the country. What you will receive is an Exchange Order which you will have to exchange for the actual pass itself upon arrival in Japan (simply do so at Narita Airport in Tokyo or see this list).
**Tip: If you happen to be in Tokyo on business and have time for only one other city e.g. Kyoto, it's still cheaper to get the JR Pass than the regular train ticket.
**Another tip: Kyoto and Osaka are 30 minutes or less, away from each other. This is very handy to see both places within two days, or even the same day. You can opt to spend the night at one or the other.
2. Pre-book Low-cost Accomodation
Japan has a variety of low budget accomodation and it is recommended to book in advance. Hostels and dormitories can cost as low as 1,500 yen are usually characterised by a lively social atmosphere.
One can also opt for Japanese-style accomodation by staying in a ryokan (Japanese style inn) or minshuku (B & B). These cost between 5,000 and 10,000 yen a night. A few ryokans even provide meals and snacks for a small fee.
For a unique budget experience, book a night or two in Credit: mea capsule hotel - enclosed bunk beds that are "stacked" two high (see picture on the right). Each capsule might have its own television, electronic console and wireless internet connection and costs around 2,500-4,000 yen per person, per night. They are catered for guests who typically want only a good night's rest. However, they could also be an enjoyable and eye-opening experience for the tourist in Japan. Some capsule hotels cater to male guests only.
If that wasn't good enough, there are even budget onsens. Visit onsenexpress.com for budget onsen options that could provide meals and lodging.
3. Opt for Free Sightseeing Places
Believe it or not, quite a few sightseeing spots in Japan don't cost you a cent.
Tokyo: Tsukiji Fish Market, Imperial Palace and East Gardens, Sensoji Temple
Kyoto: Philosopher's Path, Fushimi Inari Shrine
Nara: Nara Park (where deer roam free), Heijo Palace
Yokohama: Kirin Beer Village, Chinatown
Nagoya: Toyota Factory Tour
Hiroshima: Hiroshima Peace Park + museum that costs only 50 yen to visit, Mazda Museum...
...just to name a few.
4. Eat Food on a Budget
Yes, we've all heard horror stories on how expensive food in Japan is, especially beer. Well, the tax on the latter is one of the highest in the world, so no wonder. Instead of drinking beer at a restaurant, opt for one of the local brands from 7-11 instead, which are open 24-hours and only cost around 100 yen or slightly more.
Some of the best and least expensive food in Japan can be found at noodle shops. These usually have a vending machine outside and plastic representations of their meals in the window display, so you don't get confused while purchasing your food. You can get a decent bowl meal for around 200-500 yen and iced water is on the house.
Fast food chains such as Yoshinoya or Coco Curry House are another option. A step-up from these would be family restaurants such as Dennys - you can get decent breakfast starting at 380 yen from there, which is quite a steal.
For cheap sushi, don't rule out supermarkets. The sushi there is not only a lot more affordable than going to a restaurant, it's also delicious.
P.S. I have had a decent lunch on-the-go of onigiri (rice balls) and fried chicken purchased from a convenience store outside the railway station in Kyoto. Can't go any cheaper or better than that!
5. Love Fashion/Shopping Discounts
Love Japanese vintage fashion and Harajuku street wear but are running on a tight budget? Check out a cheaper alternative at the Yoyogi Flea Market in Tokyo, located between Shibuya and Harajuku.
Probably the hippest of flea markets in Japan, Yoyogi Flea Market is only open to sellers of recycled goods; this market promotes environmentally-friendly practice of reselling used goods and is not profit driven. Think leather jackets for around USD$50.
Alternatively, Japan visitors can enjoy a 5% tax waiver when spending more than 10,001 yen at licensed department stores.
If you're a fan of certain Japanese brand cosmetics or beauty products, be sure to grab some as well- it's more likely to be much cheaper than in your home country.
If you have any other tips for inexpensive travel in Japan, please let me know. This article was written for non-luxury travellers like myself.