Traveling Japan on a Budget
Is traveling to Japan on a budget possible? Short answer – yes. Is Japan really that expensive? Short answer – no.
During a recent trip to New Zealand, one of the most expensive countries that I have ever been to, along with Norway, I was very surprised that most people assumed that Japan was even more expensive than New Zealand, a country where a bed in a hostel (often not even nearly as nice as the hostels in Japan) easily costs around USD 50 per night.
This perception about Japan is, however, not uncommon. It also took me a long time to visit Japan thinking that it would be an expensive trip and a very quick initial online research at the time often confirmed my fears. So when I finally bit the bullet in 2012 and decided to visit the country, I spent a lot of time searching online determined to find a way to make my Japan trip happen. After hours of doctoral level online research, I could finally secure a room in a decent hotel at a reasonable cost in Kyoto and only then I had the courage to book my plane ticket. At the time, although I did not find it to be as expensive as Scandinavia and particularly Norway, I pretty much agreed that Japan was indeed one of the most expensive countries that I ever visited. However, 11 years later, many things have changed that eventually led to Japan becoming a much more affordable travel destination for solo travelers.
Tips to travel Japan on a budget
Over the years, the tourism sector in Japan become much more accommodating towards solo and independent visitors. The approach led to a substantial increase in the number of alternative accommodation facilities better fit to meet the needs of solo/independent travelers. This was also followed by innovative and affordable transportation packages that mainly aimed to introduce the visitors to the rural parts of Japan that may otherwise be overlooked by first time visitors.
As a resident of Japan and a devoted solo traveler, below are some of my recommendations that may hopefully help you to keep your travel costs down while traveling in Japan.
Benefit from the hostel movement spread to even rural Japan
While the concept of capsule hotel where the guests get a bed in a capsule rather than a hotel room lowering the cost is not new in Japan, the country has over the last decade also joined the design hostel trend that turns the hostel experience into something much more than a mere money saving option, to something desirable. While the price of a bed in a hostel is still higher than in many other Asian countries, the quality makes up for the price difference. A bed in a hostel in Japan (including Tokyo ones) often costs in the range of USD 20 – 30 and I have never had a bad experience in a Japanese hostel. In line with overall hygiene standards observed in the country, the rooms and the common spaces are immaculately kept and there is often attention to design. I previously wrote about some of my favorite hostels in Japan.
As a matter of fact hostels were never rare in big ticket destinations such as Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto. But thanks to a movement that saw young Japanese people leave big cities and move to rural Japan, there is now also a substantial increase in the number of hostels opened in rural Japan. Two years ago, I interviewed three young hostel owners who chose to invest in their hometowns and/or rural Japan with the hope of reviving independent tourism in those often overlooked destinations. These hostels that often occupy renovated old Japanese homes are also great places to mingle with the locals. Both Ichi the Hostel located in Hiwasa in Shikoku and Kochi no Ya Hostel located in Aki in Shikoku offer bar/pub nights that host not only hostel guests but also the locals.
Look for hotels offering single rooms
If you are traveling solo, it is worth checking the hotels, which offer a single room option at a considerably reduced price. Most of these single rooms come with a single bed. While the rooms are often small, they are surprisingly comfortable and even commonly feature a desk space. The rates for single rooms at my favorite hotel in Kyoto, Hotel Anteroom (which also has a branch in Okinawa) sometimes go down to as low as USD 27 for single rooms. You get your own private space at hostel prices.
Business hotels are not as bad as they sound
Japan also has the concept of business hotels equipped to host traveling business people in single rooms. While they are usually very basic in terms of the design, you can often count on these hotels for very high hygiene standards, convenient location and breakfast. So when you search online, do not be discouraged by the likely not so pleasant looking photos of a concrete and uninspiring building. The rooms are usually decent enough and the nightly rate varies between USD 40-80. I often stay in the business hotels when I travel for writing gigs and have no complaints.
Do not limit your search with international accommodation booking sites
Guilty as charged, I also often use booking.com for my accommodation needs. This is mainly due to the convenience of keeping all my bookings in a chronological order in one app and the booking.com’s app’s user friendly interface, especially for date changes/cancellations. However, when it comes to booking in Japan, I also recommend that you check Rakuten Travel`s Japanese website (not the Rakuten Travel international site) and compare the rates displayed with those quoted by international booking sites including booking.com. There had been many cases where I could get a lower rate at the Rakuten Japanese website or could find a room when there was no availability shown on other international booking sites. The site is not easy to navigate (a common feature of many Japanese websites) and you need to use Google Translate but the outcome may still be worth the effort.
Consider buying your dinner at supermarkets
Japan is famous for its convenience stores that, as the name indicates, come very handy when you visit Japan. Selling everything from underwear to pre-cooked food, those are an integral part of daily life in Japan. However, if you are looking to take a break from eating at a restaurant, supermarkets are even better options than the convenience stores. Most mid to big size supermarkets have their own kitchens where lunch and dinners are cooked on a daily basis. From a large box of often delicious sushi at prices as low as USD 3-4 to cooked salmon, you will often have a wide range of food selection. LIFE and Livre Keisei are two of my favorite supermarket brands in Japan that can be a lifesaver when traveling and looking for a cheaper and/or faster food option.
Regional train passes may be a better option than the nationwide one
If you are interested in a trip to Japan anytime soon, you might have already heard the news of the massive price increase for the Japan Rail Pass. The 7-day pass which now costs 29,640 Japanese Yen (approx. USD 224) will sell for 50,000 Japanese Yen (approx. USD 374) starting in October 2023. The increase is substantial especially for a country like Japan where there is a negative inflation. Currently, the 7-days pass is equal to the cost of a round-trip Shinkansen ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto resulting in many visitors investing in the pass without giving much thought to their overall itinerary. However, with the new prices, one will need to study their itinerary more carefully to decide whether it is worth buying the Japan Rail Pass, which will likely not turn out to be an ideal option for those focusing on the Golden Route of Japan (Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto and Hiroshima).
With the drastic increase in the cost of Japan Rail Pass that covers the nationwide JR rail network, the regional train passes that have also always been available will likely become a more popular choice. During my first trip to Japan in 2012, I opted for Kansai Wide Area Pass as opposed to Japan Rail Pass, which provided a better deal for my Kansai focused itinerary.
There are today numerous regional train passes that either cover regional JR Rail networks or the lines operated by other rail companies. Some of the more popular ones of the regional passes are and you can access the full list here:
JR East Tohoku Rail Pass for 5 days
Available to both visitors and residents of Japan holding a foreign passport, JR East Tohoku Pass that costs 20,000 Japanese Yen (approx. USD 150) for unlimited use in five consecutive days is a wonderful deal. I have personally used the pass twice and while you need to change to buses for certain remote destinations, the pass still proved to be a great deal (especially when considering the cost of one way Shinkansen ticket from Tokyo to Aomori, the northernmost city in Tohoku – 17,900 Japanese Yen).
Tohoku is a wonderful destination in any season but it is particularly beautiful in autumn during the fall foliage season.
JR Hokkaido Rail Pass for 5 or 7 consecutive days
Covering the entire JR rail network in Japan’s second largest yet least populated island – Hokkaido – the JR Hokkaido Rail pass costs 20,000 Japanese Yen (approx. USD 150) for 5 days and 25,000 Japanese Yen (approx. USD 187) for 7 days. Available only to visitors (and not to foreign residents), the pass substantially reduces the transportation costs in Hokkaido – a destination full of vibrant cities but more importantly astonishing nature including Japan’s largest national park Daisetsuzan.
JR Kyushu Rail Pass for 3, 5 or 7 consecutive days
Starting at 17,000 Japanese Yen for 3 consecutive days, JR Kyushu Rail Pass covers the entire Kyushu Island. There are also options for regional passes at reduced cost covering either the south or north part of the island. As I spend most of my time hiking in the mountains while in Kyushu, I have not personally used this pass, which is in any case only available to visitors. However, in addition to its beautiful nature, Kyushu is also home to some remarkable cities including Nagasaki, Fukuoka and Kagoshima, among others. The pass makes it more affordable to visit all these cities during the same trip.
Look for reduced visitor fares offered by Japanese airlines
While I also dread the idea of taking the plane in a country so well served by an amazing train network, air travel may sometimes be your only option especially if you are short on time or intend to visit remote destinations such as Okinawa. Not widely known to foreign visitors, major Japanese Airlines such as ANA offer reduced fares for the visitors holding an international return ticket to Japan. Prior to my move to Japan, I many times benefited from Discover Japan Fare of ANA Airlines to visit locations that are either not served by train, or require multiple days on a train – such as Hokkaido. One way fare to most locations costs around USD 70 and ll you need to do is to show a proof of temporary visitor stamp on your passport and a return ticket to a destination outside of Japan (and your international ticket can be booked with any airline, does not have to be ANA or a Star Alliance flight).
These are some of the tips that will hopefully help you to keep your trip expenses in Japan at a reasonable level. While still not comparable with most destinations in Asia, Japan is not a destination as expensive as it is infamously portrayed to be and traveling Japan on a budget is perfectly possible as long as you do your research.