Japan isn’t an expensive country.
Did I just blow your mind? I should qualify that. I know a lot of people who want to visit Japan but have heard horror stories about how expensive it is. Frankly, it’s bollocks. Japan really doesn’t have to be an expensive country. If you’ve traveled in Scandinavia or the UK, Japan will seem like a bargain.
I was desperately broke while I was there, though. So broke that I would go to the Kyoto train station and eat entire meals in free samples. Then I would go change my clothes, don a wig (just once, actually), and return. I’m pretty sure I didn’t fool anyone, but at least my face was partially hidden under the giant afro.
My two favorite things in the world: pickles and free stuff. I’m helpless in the face of Japanese samples.
But! There are better ways, I promise. You don’t have to sell your dignity to afford a trip, you can see Japan on a budget. Here are my favorite tips:
1. In Japan, convenience store food is delicious and cheap. You can get inari, sushi rolls, and umeboshi for just a few hundred yen (a few bucks). Japan can be an extraordinarily luxurious and expensive experience – but it’s also totally possible to eat there for just $10-15 per day. Ramen stands will also give you a filling, tasty meal for really really cheap. Seek out regional specialties – okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, soba in Nagano…
Gorge yourself on sushi and pay per plate (it’s worth it, I promise).
2. The Japan Rail Pass is a phenomenal deal if you plan on traveling around a lot within a certain timeframe. You’ll need to plan ahead since it can’t be purchased inside Japan. There’s really no excuse not to get around via train, since the rail system in Japan is so damn cool.
3. Onsen (Japanese hot springs) are scattered throughout the country. Most will charge an admission fee, and extra if you need to rent a towel. A lot of the most amazing ones are free, though – seek them out away from major cities. Also, read up on onsen etiquette before you hit them up.
4. We hear so much about Japanese culture, but not so much about how phenomenally beautiful the place is. Most of the best things to do in Japan are going to be dirt cheap. I was astounded by the scenery there. Pack some hiking boots and take advantage of the free sights. And please, go to the Japan alps. The gorgeous trek between Magome and Tsumago won’t cost you a dime, and it will only take a couple hours.
Kurama and Kibune are two beautiful little villages located just north of Kyoto (you can access them for the equivalent of a couple bucks). The walk between the two is a pretty easy journey and absolutely lovely.
Okay, so I couldn’t afford to eat here, but the views alone were well worth the short train ride from Kyoto.
5. Accommodation will probably be your biggest expense. Couchsurfing isn’t huge in Japan, but it’s gaining ground. I stayed with one host who expected guests to cough up some dough to him, but that’s rare. By all means, try couchsurfing there – you’ll probably have some delightful experiences. But don’t rely on it completely. Keep in mind that a lot of capsule hotels aren’t really that cheap – you might be paying for the novelty of them. Worse yet, many of them are completely closed off to women. There are a lot of rules governing who’ll be rented rooms in general – a group of friends and I attempted to while away some hours having (completely and totally PG) fun in a sex hotel, and we were flat-out refused. However, comic book cafes can provide you with a relatively private and cozy place to sleep for dirt cheap.
6. Get off the beaten track. A lot of Japan’s reputation for being pricey comes from people who stuck with Tokyo and Kyoto. Once you hit the countryside (or less touristed cities) you’ll get much more bang for your buck.
The best things in Japan are free.
7. If you’re planning on hitting up Osaka (and you should), the Osaka Unlimited Pass is a great deal. Just be wary that when you purchase passes like these (and the Japan Rail Pass) you might be tempted to move too fast, rather than soaking it all in at a pace you’re comfortable with. Don’t try and do heavy sightseeing every single day.
Probably not best to rely on this sort of dough before planning your trip.
8. WWOOF Japan is a well-established chapter, and I know people who have done it (and heartily recommend it). Just beware of making the same mistakes I’ve made and please, make sure what you’re doing is legal (or, if it’s not legal, make sure you at least know that. Accidentally breaking the law isn’t fun). Read more about WWOOF Japan here.