Japan often gets overlooked by budget travellers as being simply out of reach. Too expensive. Too complicated. Too far away.
This is simply not true. You need to compare travelling Japan to travelling Europe or the USA. Many travellers compare Japan to South East Asia, but Japan should not be classified alongside holiday destinations such as Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Japan is a technologically advanced nation, with extremely efficient services and it is easy for travellers to make their way across the country in comfort safely. This is the key word here. You are 100% safe in Japan. On my first night in Japan I walked through the streets with my backpack on, in a neighbourhood I did not know but I never once felt endangered. This is not something I would do in parts of South East Asia and certainly not in South or Central America. You will not be scammed in Japan. You can drink the water fro the taps and there is very, very little crime. In-fact I felt safer in Tokyo at night than I do in some parts of Melbourne, and certainly safer than I have felt in regional Queensland. You will find more comfortable and clean hostels in Japan than Australia or the USA. So… how much would you expect to pay to travel Australia or the USA? About $50 (USD) per day to cover all food, transport, sightseeing, and accommodation? Well, that is how much Japan will cost you too, but you get the bonus of being in a culturally rich, eastern country. Still think Japan is out of reach?
So lets talk about how to travel Japan for $50 (USD) per day. I did it, so you can too. To find out exactly how much I spent on food and accomm, sightseeing and other unexpected cost, click here. For tips on how to cheapen up your trip, read on…
1. Take the bus between cities
Japan Rail (JR) passes are not worth it for most travellers. I saw many tourists blindly buying the J-Rail pass before they arrived in Japan, not even knowing that the busses were an option. They paid a HUGE amount of money for a pass that they really did not use all that much of. Here’s a simple comparison of the Willer Bus system and the J-Rail pass.
JR passes can be purchased for a number of consecutive days: 7, 14 or 21. That means that you must do all you intercity travelling within that timeframe. If you want to get your money’s worth you will also want to use it to get to and from the airport, as they are expensive tickets in Tokyo. These passes with take you almost anywhere you want to go in Japan, and will get you there fast! So jus how much are they?
- 7 day Japan Rail pass $358
- 14 day Japan Rail pass $571
- 21 day Japan Rail pass $731
Lets say that you are going to take the train on 3 major trips, and maybe a few trips around Tokyo while you are there. Those 3 trips will most likely be a triangle involving Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima, maybe with Osaka in the middle. You can pick you rail pass from the above to suit your timeline of travel. Or you can purchase a 3-trip Willer Bus pass for $125. This will allow you three long-distance bus trips between major cities and you have 2 months to use the pass form your first trip! That is a major saving.
It’s true that you cannot use this pass to get you around Tokyo on the convenience JR line, however in a week in Tokyo, including a run to and from the airport in Narita, I spent less than $35, and to be honest most of that was spent getting to and from the airport. The JR line in Tokyo is cheap, so you’re not saving much money by having a JR pass. In the long run, you’re probably spending a lot more, and not getting the thrill of learning how to purchase a ticket like a local either. You can also book overnight busses and save money on accommodation.
You can also purchase bus passes for 5 or 7 trips from Willer Express, and these work out really economically for the longer term traveller at:
- 3 trip Willer Bus pass $125
- 5 trip Willer Bus pass $158
- 7 trip Willer Bus pass $189
I can guarantee that once you tell your mates you are going to Japan, they will ask if you have booked you JR pass yet. Remember: never take other people’s advice on face-value. You might be surprised at just how much you can save by doing a little bit of research first.
2. No need to get a wifi device. At all!
Again, don’t listen to the hype about how BAD Japan’s wifi system is. It is perfectly fine. Most hostels have free wifi and if you download a couple of apps, you will have wifi whenever you need it. These apps pick up wifi from Lawsons, 7-Eleven and other major retailers, and provide it to you for free, and seeing as how there is a Lawsons or 7-Eleven on every corner in most towns, you will be covered in all the major cities and tourist hotspots. If you want to venture off the beaten track, then chances are that you’re not a wifi-reliant traveller and can cope with no access to facebook or Instagram while you’re in the Japanese country-side (you most likely want to go to the countryside to be away from the technology-driven modern aspects of Japanese culture anyway!).
The apps that I used are:
- Japan Connected-free Wi-Fi app – download here for apple or android – gives you access to wifi at over 100,000 tourist hotspots. Be sure to register before you leave home ( a great way to kill time at the airport before departing)
- Travel Japan Wi-Fi – download here – this app give you access to about 60,000 free wifi sites (and growing). You can have access to more free wifi sites by ‘going premium’ whcih means entering a code that you can get from major tourist destinations, or as I did, ansering a survey about your travels in Japan. So easy!
There is also
- Free Wi-Fi Passport – Two weeks (extendable) free access to approximately 400,000 Softbank hotspots – which can be downloaded here. I did not use this one as you have to call to register and that just seemed like too much work.
I also registered for free wifi with Starbucks before I left Australia (thank you for the free wifi to let me do this Brisbane Airport) which was always reliable and fast!
3. Walk! Get off your butt and walk!
You heard me. I saved a lot of money by not taking stupid tourist busses and tours. You also get to see and experience more when you walk (or cycle) around a new place. Trust me. Just for a few days a week, seek out a walking route to where you are going instead of taking the train, I guarantee you will have more adventure, more surprise encounters and more fun (ohh and save money too)!
4. Know how much you will roughly spend and change all your yen in one go.
Travelex can lower their commission and add you to the Buy Back Plus program for free, but does not mean that they will. generally they charge a large amount of commission and charge you be a part of their Buy Back Plus program. I struck up a conversation with the lonely and bored guys in the Traxelex at my departure point and they offered me to change my Aussie Dollars to Japanese Yen for no commission and threw in access o the Buy Back Plus program as a bonus! (now that I know they have the authority to do this, I will be pushing for it everytime). This Buy Back Plus program means that you can change your leftover Yen back into your local currency when you arrive home. They only accept notes for this tail-end exchange so try to use up all your smaller yen coins in Japan. Also ask about their bulk rates. For example, changing $500 or $1,000 can get you a better exchange rate than changing $750.
If you plan on getting money out of the ATM in Japan just be aware of the monopoly 7-Eleven has on that transaction and how much it will cost you. You are much better of taking out all or most of your yen in one transaction before you leave home.
5. Don’t just blindly rely on the JR lines in Tokyo.
There are other lines that will take you to the same place, and sometimes do it for less money! Also, know about the price different for travel in peak and off peak time. It maybe only a small saving, but it all adds up.
6. Eat local produce and meals.
I was at a severe disadvantage in Japan as I was unable to eat at local noodle houses, ramen houses and restaurants. I was also unable to east Sushi and the wide range of ready-made meals you can find in supermarkets and convenience stores due to to my shellfish allergy. However, if you have no food alergies, you can eat quite cheaply in Japan. A box of ready-made sushi in the supermarket (enough for a meal) will cost about 400 yen (or $4 USD), ready-made meat and chicken dishes with rice and salad can be found for about 600 yen (or $4 USD). My reliance on fresh fruit and vegetables from the markets actually made food quite expensive for me in Japan. I spent $190 (USD) on food across 2 weeks in Japan – which is a lot for me. Cooking myself was certainly more expensive than eating out in Tokyo. In Kyoto I found some slightly cheaper produce however the noodle houses and pre-packaged meals still would have been a cheaper option – it’s just shame that they could also be potentially deadly for me with my food allergy.
7. Make the most of your hostel’s facilities
Many hostels will offer free computer use, internet access, breakfast, tea, coffee, miso, maps, information, local knowledge and so much more. Make the most of these resources! I saw so many tourists who would walk out of the hostel, open up a map and try to figure out how to get to where they wanted to be. After failing they would hail a taxi and spend a fortune, when a small conversation with reception could have saved them time and money. The same goes for eating cheap local foods, finding cheap local bars and cultural activities. Talk to your fellow traveller about what they did yesterday and see it they have any hot tips for free museums, great free temples, amazing walks and a myriad of other activities that you can do… for free!
8. Don’t pay entry for temples, visit shrines instead and gardens
That’s right. Many temples will charge you an entry fee to see their major attractions, gardens or mail hall. Shrines do not charge a fee, neither do many public garden spaces, which are equally, if not more impressive than the temple gardens.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, a little bit of research will save you a lot of money.