If you're planning a trip to Japan, you know that Japan isn't cheap. We had an amazing and cheap trip around Japan where I was able to spend 15 euros per day on food and minimize costs within Japan. Keep read for tips for visiting Japan on a budget.
This guide for saving money into Japan is divided into two sections: how to save money traveling TO Japan (before your trip!) and how to save money in Japan (once you've arrived). This contains affiliate links.
How to save money when traveling to Japan (before your trip!)
Look into flights with layovers.
Be open to flights that have a layover and it can bring down the cost considerably. We flew via Helsinki on the way and London on the way back. Although it would have been faster to fly direct to Japan, we only paid 550 euros. This was timed over a Dutch public holiday, so it gave me more time to explore Japan without taking time off. (Click for tips on how to travel more with a full time job.)
Keep an eye on cheap flights using your local flight website.
I follow SecretFlying, Scott's Cheap Flights (best for USA), and Vacation Pirates/Holiday Pirates for cheap flights to Japan from the Netherlands/USA. These are best if you're flexible in terms of the dates that you want to visit Japan as they allow you to find out if there's a cheap flight to Japan that you can take advantage of. Typically, the exact dates don't work out for me, but I use the destination/month of travel as a basis for my trips. Momondo is one of the best travel websites for keeping an eye on price alerts if you have your dates in mind, but you're waiting for the price to drop.
Take open-jaw flights to Japan.
Fly into one airport and out of another airport. I flew into Osaka and out of Tokyo for the SAME price as a flight to/from Osaka. If I had flown into Osaka, I would have had to pay for a train back to Osaka from Tokyo, which was the ending point of my trip. This added $100 to my trip while it was cheaper to fly out of Tokyo, which also gave me an extra day in Tokyo instead of having to pay at least $100 and spending a day in transit.
Consider the time of year carefully before choosing your flight to Japan.
Avoid going in high season. I really wanted to visit in time for the Cherry Blossom festival as well as some of the other Japanese festivals, however the prices for flights and hotels were significantly higher. It is absolutely beautiful, however Japan is beautiful year-round.
Think your trip out carefully
Plan your trip carefully. I swear by making a spreadsheet where I put a large box for each day on the horizontal side. Then, I list where we’ll be visiting that day, what transportation is required (if any), if we need accommodations, whether things are booked, some other notes about where to go for food/sightseeing for later. I really like this approach since it allows you to well-research affordable food and just ensure that you’ve thought about transportation ahead of time. So, if you’re a good planner, I find the spreadsheet helpful for making sure that you booked everything ahead.
I had planned for us to stay in a traditional town in Japan, not too far from Mount Fuji. It turned out that I had horribly miscalculated how close Mount Fuji and this town were--and without a car, it was impossible to get there without spending four hours on a train. Two days before we left, I had to cancel our hotel and replan the trip entirely. We ended up spending considerably more than we had intended as we had to pay last-minute hotel prices.
Don't buy the JR Pass without calculating if it's worth it for you
The JR Pass is not necessarily the best way to travel in Japan on a budget. If you plan your trip carefully to avoid high speed trains, take slower local trains, and avoid back-tracking, you can minimize train costs. I had calculated the cost of the JR pass for a week (as I planned to spend more time in Kyoto) and I saved around $200 by not taking the high speed trains and optimizing my route to avoid taking the high speed train back to Osaka from Tokyo. If you plan out your trip using a spreadsheet, it’s easy to calculate if it’s worth it to get the JR pass or not.
(You must buy the JR Pass before your trip.)
How to visit Japan on a budget once you've arrived...
Take the slow trains in Japan
I never get motion sickness, but I really was not a fan of the high speed trains, which surprised me. We took one high speed train from Kyoto to Tokyo, which was cool, but expensive. After that, I was happy to continue taking the medium speed trains that have more stops and the slow trains that slowly wind through little towns in Japan. I always love looking out the window when riding a train, so I actually really enjoyed the slower trains, which are a great way to experience the scenic countryside of Japan on a budget.
Consider taking overnight buses in between cities
Buses are another great way to minimize costs. It certainly takes longer to travel through Japan, but you can get a steal if you have a longer trip and you’re willing to take an overnight bus. Personally, I splurged a bit for the trains as we had limited time in Japan and the trains go a lot faster in between cities.
How to find cheap accommodation in Japan
If you’re traveling in Japan with someone else, it’s often cheaper to get a hotel room than it is to get a hostel or even a pod hotel for two people. We did a mix of home-stays, Western-style business hotels, and pods during our time in Japan. The pod hotel can be a cheaper option, however the standard of behavior is very different than a traditional hostel. I especially enjoyed the homestay that we did that involved sleeping on the floor in the house.
Note that if you do a homestay, you need to be hyperaware of cultural norms, especially shoes/slippers in the home. It’s not okay to wear shoes in the house, so typically people have “house slippers” specially for the home. However, you always leave them outside of the bathroom and there’s a separate pair of slippers specific to the bathroom that should not be removed from the bathroom. I admit to messing up on this front quite few times, but I really loved the hospitality of our host who would bring us random snacks. Airbnb is technically illegal in Japan due to a government regulation at the time of writing, but it's still popular way to do homestays.
Pod hotels in Japan are primarily used by businessmen and businesswoman who work late or go out with colleagues and instead of going home, they stay over at a pod hotel until they can get home the next morning. For this reason, pod hotels are very clean, but they’re also very quiet and professional. It can be a good option for those seeking a quiet, clean place to rest their head, but if you’re looking for privacy or a social atmosphere, I would not recommend a pod hotel. It is still a really cool experience if you're traveling in Japan on a budget.
We tried couchsurfing, but we didn’t have much luck finding hosts. I have been part of the Couchsurfing community for many years and I think it really does matter if you’re traveling solo versus with a couple. However, I did hear from a lot of people that it was hard to couchsurf in Japan without sending a lot of requests. I’ve researched sleeping in internet cafes and love hotels, but for two people, I find it easier/simpler to book hotels ahead. If you're someone adventurous and you're traveling with your significant other, definitely be sure to look up the love hotels, which are certainly a unique part of Japan. (Osaka is famous for its crazy ones!)
Travel slowly through Japan
Travel SLOW. There is something said for staying in a destination for a longer amount of time. You’ll spend less on transportation and you’ll get to know the neighborhoods better. Instead of eating at the first place you’ll see, you’ll have more time to find hidden gems that are more affordable. We lucked out going into what was a private bar where the owner would cook a homemade dinner for patrons when buying drinks. I know this tip is NOT unique to Japan, but the major Japanese cities are very large and having extra time to explore is a good thing. You never know when you’ll find a secret shrine hidden behind a famous shrine.
Walk around the Japanese cities
Japanese cities can be very large and luckily, the transportation in Japan is fantastic (although a bit pricey at times). However, you’ll be amazed how many things you see and how much money you save in Japan on transportation if you walk around. We visited in summer and it was HOT. I ended up drinking a lot of cold beverages out of the various drink machines along most corners, however I’d still say that it was worth it as I’d end up discovering hidden temples around Kyoto simply by being curious about something that I passed. I swear by offline Google maps, which allows you to save points that might interest you, so you can design your own zig-zagging route through the city that maximizes your sightseeing without getting lost.
Pocket Wifi (when you get it for free!)
I didn’t want to pay for one ahead, but one of our Airbnb accommodations included a pocket wifi. It’s seriously life-changing as it enables you to look things up on the go. I’m a bit of a cheapskate when it comes to paying for data internationally and generally shut off my phone data unless I need it. Pocket wifi is exactly what it sounds like: your own personal wifi router. Personally, I don’t think that you need to have it all the time (which saves money), but it’s handy for looking up some good ramen places near you or things to do in a certain neighborhood. If you get it for free, great. If not, don’t feel obligated to get it.
Visit lots of temples.
Most local temples, besides a handful that have been turned into tourist attractions, are completely free to visit. In Kyoto, I’d end up finding temples en route to other temples, however the Fushimi Inari shrine was absolutely as amazing as I dreamed it would be (I recommend arriving there for the sunrise). (It's also free!)
Minimize drinking and cafe costs in Japan
Minimize drinking and going out to specialty cafes. I kind of have a minor cat obsession and I spent quite a bit of money going to the various cat cafes that I could find. Worth it? YES. Not budget though. It was considerably cheaper during the day than during the weekends. Similarly, I was able to save money at the cat cafes by going to ones further away from the city centres, where rent was higher and they would typically receive more tourists.
Similarly, alcohol can add up quickly. We had a couple of nights going out with friends, however the price tag at the end of the night meant that I ended up going to 7-Eleven towards the end of the night. Instead of alcohol, we'd drink fruity drinks and try different candies.
If you're intending to go out in Japan on a budget, be sure to look for bar specials and don't be afraid to go upstairs as many bars are hidden from street view. It's best to have a travel guide for Japan if you're unsure on where to go. We used Lonely Planet Japan, which was reliable for finding cheap bars hidden in basements.
Feast at lunch!
Eat more at lunch. Lunch is far cheaper than dinner out and I found that staying in a residential neighborhood (instead of a touristy one) gave me more affordable options for food. In the neighborhood that I was in Kyoto, I was able to find a woman selling bento boxes for about 4 euros for a very filling lunch.
Eating in Japan on a budget is very doable and delicious.
Take advantage of the many delicious cheap eats. I was shocked how affordable some of the cheaper dinner picks were. I know it’s not fancy or that nice, but conveyer belt sushi restaurants are a really affordable way to eat sushi, even in Tokyo. Similarly, I found that eating ramen was a reliable way of staying on budget in Japan while having a tasty meal. If you’re thinking of Ramen in the premade packaged food variety, think again as there’s many types of Ramen in Japan and there’s nothing like a fresh made bowl. Do your research before you go. You can often find many affordable take-out restaurants and casual restaurants in the basement of train stations. I stuck to a food budget of 15 euros per day, which meant that I missed out on some nicer meals, but I did still get to try many of the everyday stables of Japanese food.
Many local restaurants will not have an English menu, so be sure to download Google Translate for offline use. This will allow you to instantly translate Japanese menus and have no fear when it comes to ordering unknown dishes.
Carry cash on you and avoid tourist restaurants
You’ll find a 7-Eleven on every corner and you’ll be able to use the ATMs at 7-Eleven in Japan reliably even if your card is not accepted at other Japanese ATMS. It’s good to have a small amount of cash on you, especially if you have foreign cards. Japan is very safe, so if you're getting charged ATM fees as well as conversion fees (hopefully not), it's best to take out more cash at a time.
Similarly, you'll save money by not going to touristy places that accept cards (with a substantial mark-up). I found that many of the neighborhood/hole-in-the-wall places that we visited were cash only, so I often carried cash on me as it meant that I was also saving money in Japan.
Have you visited Japan on a budget? Any tips to add?
For more about our trip to Japan, consider reading our account of hiking in Japan's most infamous forest (NSFW).
For more Japan tips, visit YouCouldTravel for your perfect Japan itinerary.
Karen & Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Then, Paris. (Confusing, we know!) Now, we're back living in The Hague, the Netherlands.
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