It’s no secret to the backpacking community that Japan is an expensive destination. The purist budget traveler in me would stay away from it, but it’s hard to ignore the country’s rich culture, enigmatic cityscapes, and natural wonder. Despite its ridiculously high cost of living, I am still drawn and deeply attached to this country, which is why I keep coming back to it despite my lifestyle and limited resources.
The main advantage to being a shoestring traveler for many years is that stretching a budget and getting more for less would require minimum effort. Japan is no exception to that. If you avoid the tourist spots and peak seasons, you’ll realize how manageable it is to survive as a tourist even in the country’s most crowded cities. How do I do it?
Check out these tips.
Take Advantage of Free Tours
There are a handful of things you can do in Japan for free. From gardens and temples to museums and monuments, or just plain old people-watching in busy streets, you can have a good time without burning through your budget.
But you have to accept that fact that spontaneous tours won’t help you survive there. Getting lost in Japan is just as costly as getting around, so research and plan your itinerary carefully.
Upon your arrival, head straight to the local Tourist Information Center to get a list of museums, art galleries, and historical landmarks that don’t require entrance fees. Organize your list by setting a theme or grouping places according to proximity. These tours are not only free, but they are run by volunteers, as well, allowing you to get honest, insider’s information.
At the end of each day, you’d have visited five or more different types of places, spent only on the essentials, and had a great time.
Take the Cheapest Public Transport
Japan has one of the most efficient transportation networks in the world. This includes regular trains, subways, trams, the shinkansen (bullet train), taxis, and buses that connect the country’s major cities and each of its prefectures. If you have the money and time, you can basically make it between stretches of Japan without a hassle because of its efficient transport system. But while it’s notorious for being expensive, it’s still the cheapest way to get around, next to walking.
If you want to see as many places as possible, setting a reasonable budget for this is ideal. There’s a variety of rail pass schemes to choose from. So if you’re on a shoestring budget, go for the cheapest ticket. You’ll still get fast, clean, and comfortable rail service.
If you’re hopping from one prefecture to another, take the bus for shorter distances and regular trains for longer ones. The first thing you should do when you arrive is get a Japan Rail pass or IC card, a prepaid travel card which works on subways, trams, and buses within metro areas.
Scrimp on Hotels
In Japan, accommodation, food, and experiences are equally expensive. So you might want to scrimp on one or two of these things. But don’t get too intimidated. There’s a wide array of low-budget accommodations to choose from, including hostels, dormitories, Airbnbs, capsule hotels, manga cafés, and 24-hour baths (onsen). The golden rule here is to compare as many rates as you can and make reservations way ahead.
Explore Your Neighborhood
If you have a multi-city itinerary, the best way to maximize your budget is to walk around and explore hidden and budget-friendly spots in your neighborhood. Ask friends, your host if you have one, or ask for tips from the locals.
Whether you’re in a cramped metropolis or peaceful rural village, there’s plenty to see and experience that every dollar you spend is worth it. I can spend the entire day exploring public parks and temples or spend the night in a hole-in-the-wall sushi house, and I’d be overwhelmed by the variety of sights, sounds, and scents of Japan.
Whether you’re one for busy crowds or solitary spots or anything in between, Japan has it. If you’ve always wanted to experience this, you don’t need to miss out because of budget constraints. Just adopt these strategies, and you can fulfill your travel goals.
After graduating from university, Nikolaj went off to backpack across South East Asia to recharge himself for the next chapter of his life. Realizing there was more to explore, he ditched his return flight home and decided to wander some more. While he sees backpacking as an expression of freedom, Nikolaj gets easily attached to a place, and stay there longer than usual. Over the course of three years, he’s had several jobs, usually at hostels where he stays, bookstores, and restaurants. He’s met people from all walks of life and still keeps in touch with them. If he has time to spare, he reads and writes voraciously, much of which is dedicated to this blog.