Japan is not as expensive as its reputation might lead one to believe. Misconceptions have led prospective visitors to place the country as the holy grail of destinations, a place that they one day may be able (or not) to afford. But Japan is affordable: cheaper or on par with much of Western Europe, the United States, and Canada. Here I’ll outline exactly what kind of travel experiences I had over the course of my trip around the country. You can judge for yourself if Japan is in your future.
I’m partly to blame for the misconceptions by posting things like this on social media. Shining a spotlight on a ridiculously-priced cantaloupe only leaves the impression to folks back home that Japan is an unaffordable place. If a cantaloupe costs that much, I can’t imagine how much a budget hotel costs. Well, understand it’s not a direct correlation. Fruit is expensive in Japan because it’s mostly imported. Fish eggs, a delicacy in most of the world, is relatively cheap. A budget dorm bed is surprisingly cheap.
In Japan, accommodation and transportation are your biggest expenditures. Food is a good value which I will explain more about below. A cheap hostel or capsule hotel bed will run you a minimum of US $20 per night but on average more like $25-30. The daily average of a 7-day rail pass is $42, but if you buy point to point rail tickets, you could spend over a hundred just on a trip from Kyoto to Tokyo. Buses are much less costly and if you find the right bus company, you can save quite a bit of money there. A decent set lunch will run you about $10, but you could squeeze by with a beef bowl and miso soup at a fast-food restaurant for a cool $4. Attractions like entry to a temple can run anywhere between $4-10, but if you’re planning to do something like the Tokyo Skytree, you’ll have to drop about $18.
I may have a reputation for extreme budget travel but this was not one of those trips. I ate well, I used efficient transportation, saw lots of attractions and I had a comfortable place to sleep each night. But, you should note that I was constantly mindful of my spending. With a $70 a day cap, you too can have a similar trip. You’ll be able to afford a rail pass for travel, about 2 meals out per day, entry to some attractions, and comfortable dormitory accommodation.
For those who haven’t stayed in a hostel recently, understand that there is a new generation of hostel out there. They are nice, comfortable, and stylish. They are good places to relax, meet people, and get good advice from knowledgeable staff. You can not only save a lot of money by staying in hostels, but the convenience of staying around using wifi after checkout and having a kitchen to prepare some meals is invaluable. If you’re traveling as a couple, many hostels have double rooms for about 20% more than the cost of a dorm bed. Hostels in Japan have good quality bedding, hot showers, and other comforts you may be used to. They are a great value at about $20-35 per night. This is a smart way to save money as long as you’re cool with using shared bathrooms and sleeping quarters.
As a general rule, the shorter and faster you travel, the more expensive your trip will be. If you stretch your trip out and go at a more relaxed pace, you daily budget will naturally become smaller. My trip was 16 days: 4 slow days, followed by a hectic 7 days of rail pass use, ending with 5 relaxed days. The days I was on my rail pass I spent the most. So the more time you spend in each place, the more you’ll save on transportation. Think about that when you’re in the planning stage.
Accommodation in Japan is something that I’m going to elaborate on in future posts, but right now, here’s what you need to know. Staying in hostels is a great way to save money. And most dormitory rooms have sectioned off bedding with curtains to give you more privacy. Just bring your ear plugs. Capsule hotels are the ultimate Japanese experience. They are little sleeping capsules for individuals and are always sectioned into male and female floors (although some are male-only hotels). Baths are always shared and occasionally capsule hotels have spas. Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns. Many of these are luxury, but often you can find comfortable family-run ryokan at budget prices.
Japanese trains are extremely clean, efficient, and also very expensive. Luckily, as a foreigner on a tourist visa to Japan, we are eligible for a Japan rail pass. These come out to about $42 per day for a 7-day pass and even less on average for the 14-day pass. If you plan to go anywhere farther than a return ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto on the shinkansen “bullet” train, you’ll end up saving money with a rail pass. Get one.
Surprisingly, you can eat a nice meal out in Japan for $8-11. My budget only allowed for one or two of these per day. What did I do for other meals? The secret lies in convenience stores. While I hardly ever use them at home, convenience stores are ubiquitous and are a budget traveler’s best friend. My go-to breakfast was the easy-to-find rice triangle snacks. These are cooked rice, usually wrapped in seaweed, with some kind of meat or fish. I love the ones with salmon roe, but they’ve got tuna, red beans and rice, and plenty of other varieties. Most of these come in at about $1-1.50 each. I needed at least two to fill me up. Look for convenience stores such as 7-11, Family Mart, Lawson Station, and the Daily Yamazaki.
Another friend of the budget traveler is Japanese fast food. I’m not talking about KFC and McDonald’s. These are places to get cheap donburi. Beef gyudon is a fast-food favorite and is served up quickly as a steaming bowl of rice topped with shaved beef for only about $3.50. Yoshinoya and Matsuya are chains that can be found almost anywhere in Japan. Sukiya is another favorite of mine which offers sashimi topped over rice in addition to the beef gyudon. Most of these chains have extended hours, so you’ll seldom see them closed.
If you can afford the international plane fare to Tokyo Narita or Osaka Kansai, then you can experience the wonderful world of Japan on $70 a day. You still need to be mindful of your spending, but on this budget, you can have a safe, comfortable, and interesting journey. If you’re creative and figure out a way to hitchhike in Japan, or use couchsurfing, you may be able to bring your budget much lower.
Have you been to Japan? About how much did you spend per day?