Japan is not your typical backpacking destination. Not only are the costs significantly higher than lets say many countries in Southeast Asia, the people you’ll meet in Japan are a totally different crowd too! Is it possible to go backpacking in Japan on a budget though? Well, traveling in Japan can indeed be an expensive affair, but a bit of planning & research can definitely help with reducing your costs.
Want to know how to turn Japan into a budget-friendly destination? Here’s an overview of typical costs for transportation, accommodation, food and activities and some tips to cut down your expenses!
Transportation is often the largest part of the cost of a trip. Japan is no different – transportation costs are pretty high, especially for long distance trains. Here’s a breakdown for all modes of transportation.
Travel by Train
JR Rail Pass – A lot of people opt for a JR Rail Pass when traveling in Japan, which is a very convenient and fast way to get around. Rail Passes are available for the durations of either 7, 14 or 21 days and have to be bought before you enter the country. The downside of the Rail Pass? It is pretty expensive! Prices for a 7 day pass start at around 250€ and go up to 500€ for a 21 day pass.
So do you need a Rail Pass? I’d consider it the best option if you only have limited time, as the Shinkansen (bullet train) is by far the fastest way to move between cities. However, if you are not in a rush and don’t mind longer bus rides, you can definitely do it without one!
Regional Rail Passes – Several Regional Rail Passes are sold within Japan. They all differ in duration of their validity, prices etc., but might be worth to consider if you are planning to travel around a lot in a certain area!
Tip: In case you want to move between Osaka, Kyoto and Uji, take the Keihan Railway trains. The tickets from this private railway operator are much cheaper compared to JR trains!
City Day Passes – In some cities, Day Passes are available. As with the Regional Rail Passes, these might be a way to save money if you intend to move around a lot in a particular city.
Seishun 18 Kippu Ticket – The Seishun 18 Kippu is a Seasonal Discount Ticket which is available three times during the year. It can only be used on JR local trains and JR rapid local trains (“Kaisoku” and “Shin-kaisoku”) – for exceptions see the website of the JNTO. The ticket costs about 95€ (11,500 Yen) and is valid for either 5 days of travel (consecutive or non-consecutive) or a group of 5 people traveling together on the same route (e.g. five people for one-day travel).
Travel by Bus
Busses are a less expensive alternative to traveling by train. The downside of their price advantage? They are much slower! However, if you are not in a rush, they are a good way to make your Japan trip more budget-friendly. By taking overnight busses for long distances you can even save money on a night’s accommodation, win-win! 😉
There are several bus companies that operate on long distance routes. Willer Express have quite an extensive route network and an easy to use English website. Kosokubus too has an English website, but some routes can only be booked on the Japanese website.
Willer Express also offers bus passes. Unlike the JR Rail Pass, these can be purchased from within Japan. The bus passes are offered for either 3, 5 or 7 days. Travel dates do not have to be consecutive , you can choose any 3, 5, or 7 days within two months to travel within Japan. Note that the bus passes do not include Hokkaido and Okinawa. Moreover, they are not available during Japanese national holidays (Golden Week in May, Obon week in August and Silver Week at the end of September)!
Travel by Plane
There are several low-cost airlines operating in Japan, such as Peach, Scoot and Eva Airlines. If you’re planning to book several flights with the same company or partner companies, try to book them all at once. You might end up getting a discount on the overall fare.
In case you still need to find cheap flights to enter Japan, check out Korean Airlines and China Airlines for flights from Europe. For flights from East Asia and Australia, you can try Jetstar Airlines and Airasia. Cebu Pacific is worth checking when coming from the Philippines. Of course, a search on Skyscanner doesn’t hurt either.
Prices for flights are likely to increase in peak season, keep this in mind when planning your trip. Make sure to book your flights well in advance if you intend to visit Japan during peak times such as cherry blossom season.
Note for all modes of transportation:
Japan has several public holiday periods when many people travel (because for once everyone is off) and prices increase. This concerns Golden Week at the beginning of May, Obon in mid-August and Silver Week at the end of September. The exact dates change every year, so check accordingly. During Christmas and possibly New Years prices may increase as well.
Accommodation will be your second major expense next to transport. Hostels are the cheapest option and will start at around 20€ (prices vary depending on the city and time of the year). This will add up quite quickly, but I do have to say that the hostels in Japan were the nicest ones I’ve ever stayed in! The staff was always incredibly friendly & helpful and the hostels were immaculately clean!
I did not stay in any Airbnbs in Japan, but I’ve seen a few hostels on there, so it is definitely worth checking out!
Capsule hotels are another type of accommodation you might want to consider. They are made up of many extremely small “rooms”, aka capsules, where you sleep in. Many capsule hotels are only open to male guests though.
Ryokans, Japanese-style inns, are usually quite pricey. I’m all for spending a little bit more on certain experiences, so if you’d like to experience what it is like to sleep on a futon and a tatami mat, I’d suggest to go for it, but only stay for one or very few days at a Ryokan. This way you can still experience Japanese Culture without totally blowing your budget.
Last but not least, there is the option of couchsurfing. It is not very widespread in Japan, but you might be able to find hosts in the bigger cities.
Tip for traveling in peak season: Book your accommodation in advance! Especially in popular cities such as Kyoto, everything will book out quickly.
Food can be as expensive or cheap as you want it to be! I ended up spending a lot less money than I had expected. Here’s a few ways on how to save money on food.
- Cook your own food! Most hostels are equipped with kitchens, so it’s a nice and convenient way to save money. If you’re not in the mood for cooking, check the supermarkets and 100 Yen convenience stores for take-away meals.
- Fresh fruit is fairly expensive in Japan. If you can’t live without it, try to find a farmer’s markets or check the 100 Yen Convenience Stores. These often carry a small selection of fresh fruit.
- On the go? Buy snacks and ready-made meals at one of the many convenience stores. My favorite snacks were Onigiri, rice formed into a triangle which is filled with different ingredients such as pickled ume.
- If you’d like to treat yourself to a meal at a restaurant, restaurant chains are your best bet. Budget options are “Yoshinoya”, “Matsuya” and “Sukiya”. These mainly serve rice dishes with meat – sorry fellow vegetarians, Japan is a bit of a tricky one! For Udon, try “Marukame Udon”, for Curries, “Coco Curry”.
- Cheap sushi? “Sushiro” and “Kurasushi” are sushi chains where plates cost 100 Yen each.
- Izakayas, Japanese-style pubs, are nother good options for budget meals. Menus are usually in Japanese but have lots of pictures, so ordering should not be an issue if you don’t know the language. For an overview of Izakaya chains see this article.
- If you’re looking for a specific restaurants of the ones I’ve listed above, just google them. In most cities, you can find them on google maps like this.
- Some of the historic temples charge an entrance fee, whereas shrines are usually free to enter. Entrance fees for temples usually average around 500 Yen. If you are in a city like Kyoto, which has over 2000 temples and shrines, I suggest to just pick a few – you can only really enjoy going to that many temples anyways! For an overview of the entrance fees to the temples in Kyoto you can check this website. An overview over temples & shrines in Japan, including entrance fees and how to get there, can be found here.
- Wander around. I’ve visited Japan during cherry blossom season, and had the best time strolling through parks, along rivers and Tokyo’s streets. Some parks may charge a small admission fee, but there are many you can visit for free.
- Do your research! Often, you can find free alternatives to expensive activities. For example, Tokyo’s Skytree which is heavily advertised costs around 30€! Luckily, there are tons of free observation decks in Tokyo which offer equally amazing views, so your expenses will only consist of a few bucks for the metro.
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