5 ways to travel cheap in Japan

That’s not a secret, Japan is less affordable than its southern neighbors. I have visited to the Land of the Rising Sun twice and discovered the city life in Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo.

Here are my 5 tips to lower down the bill, based on my experience exploring urban areas.

1. Transportation

This is probably the biggest expense you’ll have. Obviously, you’ll have to fly in & out of Japan and will secure the best deal online. If you can, I’d suggest flying in a city and out of another to maximise your time (Tokyo and Osaka for instance). It’s also often cheaper to do so. Once this is done, you have different options to get around the country.

Night busses are to me, the best option for the value, especially for longer rides.

– You avoid spending a day in transit: one more day to explore!
– You save the cost of a night of accommodation as you move and sleep at the same time (ok, maybe not very well).
– Often the most affordable option to begin with.
– Busses will get you straight to the city centre, no need for additional (costly) trains or shuttles.

 I rode Osaka to Tokyo in about 7 hours with Kosokubus (website in English). I arrived straight at Shinjuku station around 7am. I showered at a manga café, got breakfast and was ready for a full day in Tokyo.

Trains will often be the most expensive option, especially for long distances, such as the Shinkansen. As a foreign traveler you can get the Japan Rail Pass, but this is only worth it if you plan to extensively travel around the country, as it is quite expensive. Here you can find out if it works out for you. It’s worth mentioning that the JR pass will also work for the extensive train network in Tokyo, but not for the Metro. I would also suggest trains without the pass for shorter distances or day trips from a base.

For example, I took a day trip from Osaka to Kyoto for about 5 USD, and it took less than an hour. Ticket machines are hopefully translated at the Osaka Namba train station.

Local flights can be a good alternative if you only have one or two main connections within Japan and cannot stand overnight busses. If you book long enough in advance and fly low cost and carry on only, domestic flights can get quite cheap. Don’t forget you will have to pay for trains to get you to the city center and have to be careful about when you fly if you don’t want to be stranded after midnight or pay for an expensive taxi (it almost happened to me).

I did fly from Osaka to Tokyo and, even if the base fare was cheap, checked luggage and connecting trains ended up increasing the bill.

In all cases, planning is key in order to save some cash. Finally, to get around cities, public transport is obviously the best choice.

2. Food

Food isn’t where I want to make compromises when I travel, especially when the trip is short and it’s a new destination. What’s the point of travelling to Japan if it’s to eat instant noodles in a hostel kitchen?

Herewith my suggestions to find affordable, yet unforgettable food experiences.

Ramen bars are perfect for solo travelers, since the configuration makes it easier to eat on your own. Some of them facilitate the ordering process with a vending machine, where you can select your dish and pay in advance. It’s also quite cheap, depending on where you go (800-1000 yen for a good bowl of ramen). My personal favorites: Tonkotsu and Mazemen style ramen.
Pro tip: For even cheaper, you’ll find stand up noodle bars (500 yen)

Conveyor belt sushi restaurants were a surprise to me because sushis has alway been something fancy. For as low as 100 yen the plate, you can get quite full on sushis and it’s a very fun experience to spot plates you want to try out on the belt. You can of course order from the regular menu at the same price.

A quick lunch? Just walk into a convenience store (or konbini as they call them) and get yourself a rice ball or some makis. Lawson, 7-Eleven and Family Mart are amongst the biggest chains. Japanese fast foods are also a good option for pork bowls or curry.

Izakaya restaurants cannot be left out. It’s part of the business and entertainment culture. I have heard from a close friend that employees go there, get drinks and can say anything they want about their company, and no one will take them accountable for it. The beer is usually cheap, but locals like sake of whiskey highball as well. Plenty of tapas-style plates to share in a private alcove, and sometimes the vintage (or disgusting) smell of cigarette.

Street food: have you heard of the famous Takoyaki from Osaka? You’ll find it in stalls, but I have even been to a restaurant where you can make them yourself. There’s also the Okonomiyaki pancake, that is filling enough for a meal. Street food isn’t as present as in other countries I have visited but nonetheless as delicious.

3. Activities and sights

One great thing about Japan, is that sights and landmarks are often 100% free. Parks, Shinto shrines and temples are so worth the visit. Walking around and taking some photographs is an experience in itself as it is truly different from everything I have seen in the past.

Osaka

The Japanese city experience at human size. Less overwhelming than Tokyo, a bit more affordable and somewhat easier to explore than the biggest metropolitan area in the world.

The Dotomobori area is the center of shopping, food and nightlife in Osaka

Dotonbori (pictured above) is an iconic arteria of Osaka, located on the canal of the same name. You’ll find hidden karaoke bars, clubs, and so many restaurants.

Another great area to visit is the Osaka castle and its surroundings. The park is big and it’s also a free activity, unless you want to make it inside the castle.

Kyoto

Kyoto is an open air museum that englobes, culture, history, nature and local life. The good news is, you won’t have to spend much in Kyoto except to feed yourself if you want to have a great time.

Renting a yukata might be the only expense you wanna do to have extra special photographs.

– Arashiyama Bamboo Grove: this isn’t like anything you’ve seen before. The dream of every panda. I’d suggest going there when the sun shines for some good portraits. You’ll have to take a local train, as it isn’t in the city centre.

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– Fushimi Inari Shrine : Does it need an introduction? The 12 000 orange gates makes it the perfect half a day trip. Tip: try to get there as early as you can as it can get crowded past, as domestic tourism is quite strong in Japan. The first sunrays will give your pictures an extra touch.

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Tokyo

Again, temples, beautiful gardens and unique neighborhoods to explore are enough to fill your days in Tokyo. I made a breakdown of the uniques areas to explore in a few days timespan. And if it isn’t your cup of tea, there is always Disneyland (and why are you even here?)

Sneak peak on the famous Shibuya crosswalk before the lights turns green.

Asakusa is the cultural center of the megalopolis. Make sure to stop by the impressive Senso-ji temple and the neighboring streets. I went there twice already and found it magical. Tip: if you’ve ever watched Netflix’s Sweet  Tooth Salaryman, Kanmidokoro Hatsune is this the place to try a traditional Anmitsu.

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Sensoji temple in Asakusa


Akihabara 
is the temple of manga’s, video games and anime culture. If you’re after collectibles, that’s the way to go. And if you’re not, that will probably bring you a few childhood memories. Make sure to stop by an arcade and the main walking arterias. You’ll also find electronic shops and collectibles stores (I’m personally a huge Dragon Ball Z fan).

I would describe Shinjuku as a vibrant, fast paced part of the city. A lot of shops and things to do, and photo ops of course. Tip, if you’re after a quiet place after exploring all day, the Shinjuku Gyoen gigantic park is the place to go.

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Shinjuku CBD at night on a rainy day – If you are in for “Blade Runner style” shots, this is it.

Another unique neighborhood in Tokyo is Harajuku. That’s were you can see Cosplayers and Lolitas walking around and try some unique deserts on the well known Takeshita-dōri walking street. Tip: they have multicolor cotton candy you might want to try!

4. Nightlife

Now, of course it won’t be as cheap to party in Japan as in Thailand or Vietnam’s backpacker’s hubs. But there are still a few tips to lower down the bill and party areas to not miss out on.

As suggested above, Izakaya’s are a great place to start the night and drink affordably. Or you can simply have a drink at your hotel with drinks from the convenience store. Some places have deals in the early hours of the night, such as Jumanji or Bar Mist in the Roppongi area (Tokyo). If you wanna regret it the next morning, these places offer all you can drink (Nomihoudai) for 3 hours for just 1000 yen. Kampai!

Besides this, you spent the night in some unique areas, such as Dotombori, Osaka, or the Goden Gai streets of Shinjuku, Tokyo.

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The kind of vibe similar to Golden Gai streets – Shinjuku, Tokyo

5. Accommodation

I have tried two unique ways to affordably and comfortably stay in Japan : the capsule hotel and traditional apartment.

The first one consist of a big modular room with tatami beds, a compact bathroom that could be found in a motorhome and a small kitchen. Such a place can be found on Airbnb and is best shared to minimize the costs.

A traditional one room apartment in the heart of Shibuya, Tokyo

While in Kyoto, I experience another great and affordable way to stay : the capsule hostel. Unlike western shared accommodation (hostels with bunks), the capsule hostel offers privacy and comfort. Comicap is one with a relaxing lounge full of mangas.
As with Japan in general, the place was really clean with safety boxes for shoes and valuables. If you are looking to relax and meet other travelers while keeping some privacy, this is the place to go.

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Comicap hostel in Kyoto city center.

I hope you’ll find some useful information in this article. If you’ve ever been to Japan or have more tips to travel there on a budget, please share them below!

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