The world is changing in a way where the travel gods are now in our favor. Specifically, traveling to Asia has never been cheaper. Now all budget travelers alike can afford to hop on that plane and get their adventure started! Though Japan may not be considered a ‘cheap’ Asian destination by any means (compared to Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, etc.), it’s super easy to see Japan on a budget without breaking the bank.
In this post, I’ll reveal my complete list of tips and tricks on how to travel and experience Japan on a budget. You’ll find out how to leverage meal times to get the best deals on dining, how to find a home base that will save you money on transportation, how you can stay in apartments and B&B’s for free, and much, much more.
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Japan On A Budget: A How-To Guide On Traveling Japan On The Cheap
TRANSPORTATION & GETTING AROUND ON A BUDGET
Your biggest expense will be the flight itself.
Luckily for you, flights to Asia have been getting cheaper and cheaper over the years, to the point where $400-500 flights are pretty common. If you travel frequently, subscribe to Scott’s Cheap Flights to get email notifications on cheap flights to many locations around the world. (Has mostly international destinations, provides details such as travel dates and prices from major US airports.) Japan pops up every once in a while.
Consider the Japan Rail Pass.
Transportation across regions in Japan are not cheap, this is no secret. The JR pass can really come in handy if you’re planning to make stops in multiple regions across the country. Yes this pass is an investment in itself, but that also means you can take a bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo and back, as well as take a million other side trips at no extra cost. It can seem expensive upfront, but if you map out how many train rides you’ll need over the course of your trip, you can calculate what makes more sense— buying the pass or buying train tickets as needed. If you stay in Tokyo primarily, this will not make sense for you (see below). But if you plan on hitting up 3+ destinations within Japan, start itemizing individual train ticket costs and see if it adds up to the cost of the JR Pass. You can simulate train prices here.
Consider other regional passes.
Research extensively before committing to a Japan Rail Pass. Depending on your itinerary, there might be regional passes (or passes for a combination of regions) that suit your needs better, and for cheaper. Having gone to Japan twice, I’ve found JR passes have very limited use within a city, particularly in major cities like Osaka, Tokyo, and Kyoto (since they have their local transportation systems that the JR pass does not cover).
Get an IC card.
The IC card (or Suica and Pasmo) are rechargeable cards that can be used to conveniently pay fares on public transportation and to make payments at a majority of vending machines, as well as some shops and restaurants. Simply touch the card on a reader for about a second and you’ll have paid. The convenience of having this was such a luxury— no more fumbling for coins or bills, no more waiting for your credit card to go through! Don’t forget to get a refund on the stored value as well as a refund for the card on your way home!
Take public transportation to and from the airport.
The great thing about Japan is that their public transportation system is about the best in the world. Getting from the airport to the city center by bus or train is very easy and can save you a ton of money. Most airport websites provide clear information on how to buy tickets and get to the city center. Rather than spending $80+ for a taxi from Narita Airport to Tokyo, just take the train for ~$30 or the bus for $10.
Consider overnight buses.
Kill two birds with one stone–lodging and transportation for the price of one. Overnight buses are a significantly cheaper option compared to bullet trains and a very reliable way to get around. Going this route will inevitably save you time as well as on costs for a night of hotel. They’re usually pretty cheap, clean, and comfortable. If you’re able to sleep on a bus (they have reclining seats) or are willing to sacrifice one night of good sleep, then you’ll really accelerate your savings here.
Minimize the number of cities you visit.
If you’re staying for a week or less and Tokyo is a must-see for you, I’d recommend not leaving Tokyo–unless for a day trip. There’s so much to do and see in Tokyo that you really can’t fit in more without feeling rushed. I’ve only been able to see about 5% of Tokyo and I’ve spent a total of over 10 days there between multiple trips. If you have extra time, check out some of the smaller neighborhoods. There are literally tons of them, each with their own culture and flair.
If you’re looking to see more outside of Tokyo, some day trips from Tokyo include Hakone, Nikko, Yokohama, or Mt. Fuji. Even Disneyland and DisneySea can be considered a day away from Tokyo!
Nikko National Park 1-Day Bus Tour: Nikko Toshogu, Lake Chuzenji, Kegon Falls (highly rated and very recommended!)
LODGING & ACCOMMODATION ON A BUDGET
Stay at APA Hotels or hostels.
APA Hotels are cheap business hotels that are located all around Japan. I stayed in a couple when I was in Tokyo most recently, and though the room was smaller, it was clean and very modern. You don’t need much, since you’ll likely be out and about exploring all day, only using the hotel room as a place to shower and a bed to sleep on.
Hostels, or the new breed of boutique hostels, are by far the cheapest way to stay in Japan, and they’re actually quite nice, oftentimes with modern amenities. If you book early enough, you can get some really well-rated ones on Booking.com for cheap. The good thing about hostels is that they have a local and cultural component. They tend to share a lot of local knowledge (secrets places, hidden gems, local restaurant recommendations) and provide you with upcoming local events.
Stay at Airbnb’s for less than the cost of a hotel.
If you’re considering booking an Airbnb, make sure you stay within walking distance of a train station. Better yet, find one near the major train lines. This means you’ll need fewer train/bus transfers, saving you time and money. For example, the most ideal accommodation options in Tokyo will be the ones off of the JR Yamanote Line (the JR Yamanote line is probably the most popular and convenient way for getting around Tokyo, connecting all of Tokyo’s major city centers).
New to Airbnb? Get $30 off your first booking.
This is the ultimate Japan on a budget tip if you can pull it off. Housesitting is a way to avoid spending anything on lodging and accommodation while traveling. If you’re flexible with dates for lodging and accommodation, take a look at housesitting as an option. If you don’t know what housesitting is, it is an exchange in which a person (you) stays at someone’s home and cares for their pets and/or property while they are away. Usually, no money is exchanged between parties. Check out Trusted Housesitters, the main housesitting service out there today. Keep in mind though, you may need to be flexible with your travel dates to make this work.
Find free Wi-Fi and messaging options.
Many Airbnb rentals offer perks like free Pocket Wi-Fi during your stay. There are also free messaging apps like WhatsApp and Line, free Wi-Fi calling, as well as cheap international calling options through Skype.
FOOD & EATING ON A BUDGET
Grab some meals at the konbinis (convenience stores).
If you’re envisioning a basic 7-Eleven in the USA, get that picture out of your mind. Japanese convenience stores are so much more than that, as they carry a plethora of food options for daily working people to grab and go. Once you step foot inside a Lawson’s or a 7-Eleven in Japan, your perception of the convenience store will be changed forever. Convenience stores have significantly cheaper food compared to restaurants, and we often bought rice balls and egg sandwiches for breakfast and lunch if we were crunched on time. You can often eat for under $5 per meal by doing this.
Grab even cheaper meals at the supermarkets.
I’ve heard from many locals and exchange students living in Japan that they actually don’t go to convenience stores unless absolutely necessary. Supermarkets tend to sell the same items for a lot less (though in our opinion, convenience stores have a better variety of rice balls, sandwiches, and drinks). If you’re looking to save even more, check out supermarkets before heading to the convenience store and note the price differences for reference.
Take advantage of the time-sale.
You should totally go to the supermarket just before closing time. Why? Because when they get close to closing, they start to discount their food! It’s not just supermarkets; the same goes for the food courts in the basement floors of department stores (this is where all of the super delicious foods are, so definitely don’t miss checking out these areas for dinner). Every night, lunch boxes that are made fresh daily will be put on sale around 6-7 pm, starting at ~20% and going up to ~75% as the time nears closing. Food with a limited shelf-life such as ready-made bento boxes, side dishes, sashimi, and meats are all up for the taking. This does not apply to convenience stores though; with that said, your time sale options are still pretty plentiful.
Stop by the bakery for a quick snack too.
Japanese bakeries are also really inexpensive sources of food. Often times, they will have sandwiches or bread with meat inside. I found myself stocking up on bread and light sandwiches for $3-5. A great option for a light snack throughout the day.
Opt for more casual restaurants.
There are two kinds of restaurants in Japan: the ones where you simply go to eat and the ones where you go for the service, the ambiance, and the food. Since my partner and I are budget travelers, we often opt for the prior. Lunch and dinners are had at ramen shops, street carts, conveyor belt sushi shops, department store basement food courts, etc. By opting for these food options (which are undeniably delicious), you can shave a lot off from your food expenses.
If you’re worried about this casual food being unhealthy or not nutritional, this is simply not true. The Japanese diet is actually quite healthy, so these meals will naturally have lots of vegetables and protein.
Try instant ramen.
Most hotel rooms will have a hot water boiler. I’d highly recommend buying different types of instant ramen at the grocery store and spending one night pigging out and trying them all. Japan has some really amazing instant ramen options, and I can attest to the fact that they taste way better than the stuff we have here (get out of here, 25-cents Top Ramen). The instant noodles in Japan are very similar to the real thing found in ramen shops. I don’t know how they do it, but it’s something that everyone should experience for themselves!
Stop in at restaurants for lunch specials.
Most restaurants will have lunch specials that are significantly less expensive than their dinner options (with similar portions and quality as their dinner counterparts). These meals will sometimes come as a set with soup, rice, and even dessert. If you want to splurge on a meal, make that your lunch meal and keep your eyes peeled for those specials.
Look for restaurants off the beaten path.
Don’t be afraid to try out restaurants that are down back alleys or a bit off the beaten path. They can often be cheaper than those with alluring pictures and English menus on the main roads.
Avoid buying fresh fruit/produce.
For some weird reason, fresh fruit and vegetables in Japanese supermarkets were super expensive (similar to Japanese markets in the USA). If you are looking for vegetables, get them at a restaurant or at some other food establishment and avoid buying them at the market.
Do not get pressured to eat at a restaurant by a stranger.
Do not go into restaurants on main streets when beckoned by young boys holding menus. You may find yourself in a hostile environment, where you won’t be allowed to leave unless you pay up. Though this is usually not a problem throughout Japan, it could happen in the Kabukichō (red-light district) in Tokyo.
Go to a chain izakaya for cheap food and drinks.
If you love going to izakayas (Japanese-style pubs) but you think they’re too expensive for you—think again! There are a few chains such as Torikizoku or Kin No Kura that promise good food and drinks without breaking the bank. They also offer all-you-can-eat or drink courses as well for ¥2,000 (around $20-25 USD).
THINGS TO DO ON A BUDGET
Always carry cash with you.
It’s difficult to just get by with a credit card since everything is still so cash-based in Japan. In addition, you can make sure you have money loaded on your IC/Pasmo/Suica card). This tip might not save you money, but it will save you time and hassle.
Take a free walking tour.
“Free” walking tours can be found in the major metropolitan cities in Japan. Tokyo Localized has become one of my favorite companies, offering free day and night walking tours. A quick Google search can yield many other local and intimate walking tour companies. I usually like to go with the smaller ones, as I find that the guides are funnier and more engaging. These tours will usually provide you with the history of the city and will give you insight into the local culture, including off the beaten path activities and local restaurant recommendations. Tip the guide what you thought the tour was worth in the end!
Spend time at the local gardens.
Botanical gardens and parks are everywhere and free to enter for the most part. Small donations are encouraged at times, but it costs very little to experience these beautiful and peaceful Japanese gardens.
Carve out time to see less expensive cities.
Takayama, for example, is a thriving city far cheaper than Tokyo, as is Yokohama. Kanazawa has lovely geisha and samurai districts, and Matsumoto holds some of the oldest castles in history. Each of these towns will be cheaper than metropolitan/touristy cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.
Avoid tourist traps.
This might be obvious, but touristy attractions are often more expensive than cultural sites. Entry to temples usually cost around ¥500, while the tourist attractions can be three times as much. Some tourist traps I can think of off-bat are maid cafes and butler cafes. Often times there will be an X-item minimum, and the food really isn’t all that great. Plus, you’ll have to pay to take a picture with the maids or the butlers! What a money-sucker.
Robot Restaurant is worth it if you’re into lights, lasers, and kitschiness.
The cost to attend Robot Restaurant is relatively expensive and may sometimes be considered a tourist trap, but all of my friends had recommended it on the basis of pure entertainment value. After experiencing it for myself, it was worth every penny. I think it really depends on what you like. It’s kitschy and stereotypical but it will be a fun and energetic experience. You can frequently find cheaper tickets on discount ticket sites, so take a look before booking for full price. Side tip, eat and drink beforehand and don’t buy their overpriced food.
SHOPPING ON A BUDGET
Go vintage/thrift store shopping.
Tokyo (specifically Harajuku) has a really strong thrift/vintage culture. You can often find really unique fashion pieces there for a fraction of the cost of some new goods you’ll find at the mall. If you’re looking for a cheap yukata or kimono to take home, consider stopping by Chicago, a second-hand store, in Harajuku.
Don’t have time to shop for souvenirs? Head to a transit hub.
Airports and major train stations actually have some really cool shopping areas. The lower level of major train stations can be full-on shopping centers and food courts. If you’re waiting to buy souvenirs or seem to have forgotten some last minute, the airport is a good option. Unlike the USA, the goods here are not drastically overpriced or marked up.
Buy Japanese pens as souvenirs.
Japanese pens are such a useful and affordable gift. No one does pens as well as the Japanese. With all the ink styles and ink color, you can have a lot of fun picking these out.
Bring food back as souvenirs.
Souvenirs can end up being a large chunk of your budget. Yes, they have tons of cute and cool trinkets, but they are often pretty pricy. Consider bringing back Japanese candies, cookies, and snacks instead. These items will actually be used/consumed instead of sitting on someone’s desk or closet collecting dust.
Shop at Don Quijote or Cosmos for cheap superstore buys.
With both of these stores, you can find almost everything you need, and it will always be cheap. I often make a Don Quijote run (or two) for candy and souvenirs during my time in Japan, and can easily spend over two hours in there! You’ll be shocked at how cheap everything is in there compared to drug stores, department stores, and convenience stores. The best part is, if you happen to be stricken with jet lag and wake up early, there will likely be a Don Quijote open near you at any time.
You probably don’t need to tip.
Tipping is totally an American practice. In Japan, servers, taxi drivers, and everyone else is paid full livable wages, and it’s nearly universal that a service fee will be included in your bill.
Change your money once you get there.
When exchanging cash, most of the time it is better to exchange your money in the country you’re going to. You will usually get the best exchange rates at banks, post offices and possibly hotels. Avoid the foreign exchange stands you see everywhere in airports, train stations and touristy areas. They charge a fee for everything!
You will almost always get the best exchange rate when buying foreign currency with either ATM cards or credit cards, which will usually be 2 to 7 percent better than the rates you’ll get when exchanging cash.
Use credit cards without a foreign transaction fee.
Try to use credit cards whenever possible for large purchases such as hotel bills, tickets, and car rentals. The exchange rate is almost always one of the best, but make sure you charge in the local currency (yen), NOT your home currency.
Get an ATM fee-free banking card.
Most credit and debit card issuers charge foreign-transaction fees, which typically run between 2% and 3% of the purchase price, as well as ATM fees. That might seem like a minor expense per transaction, but all those extra charges can really add up.
You can avoid these fees by signing up for a Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking account. It does not charge currency conversion fees, and you’ll get a rebate for all your US and overseas ATM charges (this is what I use, it’s changed my international money life).
Bottom line: Japan on a budget
Flights to Japan and transportation throughout Japan remains your two greatest costs. The cheapest way to enjoy Japan is to stick to one main city like Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto depending on what you can find there. Cities in Japan are massive with plenty of shops, restaurants, and things to do.
Book Your Trip to Japan: Tips On The Logistics
Book your flight
Find a cheap flight by using Google Flights or better yet, Momondo. These are my two favorite search engines because they literally do all the work for you, searching through many websites and airlines around the world so you know you’re getting the best deal.
Book your accommodations
If you want to stay in a hostel, hotel or guesthouse in Japan, use Booking.com. They consistently return the cheapest rates, plus have the perk of free cancellations. If you are looking for an Airbnb, use this link for $30 off your first booking. These two are by far the best booking sites out there.
Looking for the best companies to save money with?
Check out my other post on all things travel planning: The Complete List Of Travel Planning Resources
Get some travel insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and trip cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. My favorite company offering the most comprehensive service and value is World Nomads.
Despite what many people say, cheap Japan travel is possible and I hope this article provided you with some tips on how to keep your travel costs low and successfully see Japan on a budget!