I’m really happy. Want to know why? Because I’m about to destroy your preconceived notions that visiting Japan is expensive. Settle in because this post is loaded. So, I recently spent 3 weeks (exactly 24 days) in Japan on $1,500, but for a clean number’s sake, let’s round up to one month on $2,000. At the moment (April 2013), $1 USD ~ 100 JPY.
To give you an idea, that $2,000 is all-inclusive: flights, food, accommodation, everything. The total cost also includes visits to 13 different cities/areas in Japan:
For my flight from NYC to Tokyo ($535), I used accrued reward points from my credit card to cover the cost, and my flight out of Tokyo to Beijing was kindly paid for by Skyscanner. Finding cheap flights from the U.S. to Japan for under $1,000 can be a challenge, but it’s certainly not impossible. Roundtrip airfares usually fall within the $800-900 range.
For best results, start searching for flights 6-8 weeks out from your departure date. If weather is no matter, you’re going to find cheaper flights to Japan during the fall and winter (October-February). Expect airfares to skyrocket for spring and summer departures. Cherry blossom season (March-April) is the most popular time to visit Japan, and for good reason. The downsides, as you might have guessed, are higher prices and heavier crowds.
For some affordable flight carrier options, consider flying with Japan Airlines, ANA, China Eastern Airlines, or Air China. If you want to fly with a domestic airline, try Delta, American Airlines, or United Airlines.
Use Couchsurfing and Hostels
Throughout my 3 weeks, my accommodation included a mix of couchsurfing, hostels, and an apartment rental. I couchsurfed in Tokyo, Yokohama, and Nagoya, and I stayed in hostels in Nikko and Osaka. For the same price as 7 nights in a hostel dorm in Kyoto, I rented an apartment for one week via AirBnb. It was great because I had the luxury of privacy during the day and the company of my host in the evenings.
Hostel dorm rooms in Japan usually run between $25-40 per night. Although nightly rates are more expensive than hostels in S.E. Asia or Europe, it’s certainly a much better option than paying $100+ per night for a hotel that you’ll only use for sleeping. Plus, many of the hostels provide a great community setting and atmosphere that make it easy to get to know other guests. Some even have a variety of activities like learning how to make sushi, kabuki nights, pub crawls, or calligraphy classes.
For an even cheaper, more unique experience, you can stay the night at a manga cafe.
As for Couchsurfing, yes, it is essentially free accommodation, but there are unwritten rules that you should either bring your host a gift, pay for a meal, offer to host them when they visit your country, or all of the above.
For more info on Couchsurfing, check out their website.
Unless you’re Lady Gaga, there’s no need to take cabs or private shuttles everywhere you go. The trains, metro systems, and buses in Japan are perfectly safe, clean, and efficient. Using your own two feet will get you where you need to go as well or if you really want to blend in, rent a bike. Do be aware that metro systems don’t run 24 hours. Service stops after midnight and resumes at 5:00am.
Local metro systems throughout Japan are pricey, usually ranging from $2-3 for a single ride. If you’re taking day trips like I did, one-day metro or bus passes are a good option. Keep in mind, you usually have to ride at least 5 times for most passes to pay off. Passes can be purchased at most JR train stations.
Japan has a phenomenal, extensive network of trains that reach nearly every inch of the country. It’s one of many things I envy about Japan. If I could get paid to ride the shinkansen (bullet trains) all day long and people watch, I’d take that job in a heartbeat.
As for traveling the country, you can take the shinkansen or buses. Buses and long-distance local trains are the cheaper options, but they take longer. Prior to my time in Japan, I bought a 7-day rail pass ($300), received another complimentary 7-day pass from JRPass.com, and I made good use out of both of them. You can still ride the shinkansen without a pass, but depending on how far you want to travel, one-way tickets will cost you anywhere from $50-$300+. If you’re on a super tight budget with some time to spare, traveling by bus would be the better option.
My biggest downfall, especially in Japan, is food. On this trip I spent more money on food than I did on sightseeing. From convenience stores like 7/11, I was overdosing on fresh pineapple (200 JPY), red bean mochi buns (110 JPY), and gyoza (dumplings – 200 JPY) every morning for breakfast. They also have bento boxes and other TV dinners for 500 JPY or less. My fresh fruit supply came from supermarkets but only on special occasion because fruits and veggies are expensive in Japan ($1 for 1 banana, are you kidding?). Throughout the day, I would snack on yakitori (chicken skewers), takoyaki (octopus balls – not often) and okonomiyaki (cabbage pancakes) from pop-up, street food markets (300-500 JPY). For dinner, I would either cook my own meals or settle in at a tiny backstreet café for ramen, soba, udon, nabe, green tea, or veggie rolls. Basically, you name it, I ate it. For 3 weeks, I made the effort not to spend more than 1,000 JPY on a meal, and as I reviewed all of my expenses, it turns out I didn’t even spend more than 700 JPY on a meal.
My suggestion for finding cheap food applies for any region of Japan, but in particular, if you’re in a popular area like Asakusa in Tokyo or Shinsaibashi in Osaka, the key is to walk away from the main avenues and covered shopping malls. Take random turns down alleyways, and enter a small restaurant where you see the Japanese sitting around a table bar noisily slurping their noodles. That’s where you want to eat, that’s where you’re going to find the best food because it’s quiet, local, and far away from the crowds.
The disadvantage to eating at smaller joints, however, is that they are not catered to foreigners aka they don’t have English menus. Some may have plastic displays out front or pictures on the menu so you have an idea of what to order. Worst case scenario, staff will have some idea of what you’re trying to convey in English/broken Japanese. To be really adventurous, point to something and say kor-ay o ku-da-sigh (roughly translated: “this please”). No matter what you end up with, it’s bound to be delicious.
To give you an example, the same bowl of noodles on the main street in front of Kaminarimon Gates in Asakusa, Tokyo will cost you 800-900 JPY, but if you walk towards Kuramae station (10 minutes), it will cost you 200-300 JPY. When I was in Tokyo, I walked from Yotsugi station on the Keisei main line all the way back to Kuramae (1.5 hour walk) where I was staying and stumbled upon fresh fruit markets and 100 JPY udon. It was delicious. Case and point, you have to be willing to steer away from the main roads to find the REALLY good stuff, and it will be worth it. I understand you may not have as much time as I did so you’re more willing to settle on the first restaurant you find that looks good. If money is truly your top priority though, you have to explore away from tourist grounds.
The first time I came to Japan, I went around and saw touristy things, but on this trip, I learned that Japan is 10 times more enjoyable far away from those areas. Especially in Tokyo and definitely during cherry blossom season, the crowds aren’t worth fighting. Sure, I went to see a couple castles and the Fushimi Inari shine in Kyoto, but this time around, sightseeing was not my priority.
So what did I do with all of my time? I aimlessly wandered around the back streets, went hiking, talked to strangers, took photos of cherry blossoms, window shopped, people watched, went to potluck dinner parties, and like I said earlier, I ate a lot of food.
The important thing is to pick and choose the places you want to see. There’s no need to pay to see every temple and shrine. As beautiful as they all are, after a while they start to look the same.
Look for the tourist loopholes aka free things to do. Seek out free walking tours and activities per the suggestion of hostels. Use Couchsurfing to find local meetups throughout Japan. During sakura season, join a picnic or hanami party. Instead of paying to go to a baseball game, watch school kids practice in a park field. Rather than pay 2,000 JPY to go to the top of the Tokyo Skytree, get a panoramic view of the city for free from the Government Building. There are a lot of ways around emptying your wallet so quickly, and the key to finding those gems is to talk to the people around you.
At the airport, you have the option of renting a phone or a sim card for the duration of your visit. Advance reservation is required. I have an unlocked iPhone so for 3 weeks, I rented a sim card from SoftBank at 105 JPY per day, $400 security deposit which I got back, and 1,500 JPY per day for unlimited data. Needless to say, I didn’t use data. Normally, I don’t bother renting sim cards in other countries, but because I was couchsurfing, I needed a way to contact my hosts. No matter how long you plan to visit Japan, you can get by just fine using apps like Skype or Viber to make calls for free to those who also use those apps. For a better guide on phone and sim card rentals, see here!
Perhaps the biggest complaint from business travelers is the lack of free wifi throughout Japan. It’s true that internet can be hard to come by, but the airports, 7/11, Starbucks, select JR train stations, Tokyo Metro Stations, and hostels all have free wifi. If you rent a sim card with Soft Bank, as mentioned above, you can get free wifi with the network 002 SoftBank where available. You can also get 14 days of free wifi with a login card from NTT East. More info here!
Abroad, I use my Charles Schwab debit card, and the best part about it is that CS reimburses all ATM fees so I never have to worry about losing a couple bucks every time I take cash out. While I was in Japan, I only had to use an ATM twice. That said, be sure to take out enough money at the airport so you don’t keep getting dinged with ATM fees and foreign transaction fees. As you might recall, I learned the hard way that banks and ATMs that accept foreign cards can be hard to come by, depending on where you are in the country. Best to keep enough cash on you at all times. While more and more establishments are starting to accept credit cards, cash still remains king in Japan so plan accordingly.