Japan is a notoriously expensive destination, but that doesn’t make it impossible for budget travelers to enjoy the quirky culture, amazing food and stunning sights the island country has to offer. When you’re smart about how you’re spending, you’ll get the most for your money during your time in Japan.
Aside from accommodation, transportation can quickly become your biggest expense, particularly if you’re spending time in the major cities like Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto. If you plan to do extensive traveling between cities, buying a Japanese Rail Pass (JR Pass) before you leave for Japan will be a wise investment. These passes aren’t cheap, but they allow unlimited travel on all Japanese Rail buses, trains and bullet trains during the length of the pass. Only visitors on a tourist visa can buy these passes and you must purchase them before coming, so do the calculations ahead of time to determine whether you’ll do enough traveling to make it worth the money.
If you’re planning to spend your time in a single city, avoid taxis whenever possible and opt for walking or hiring a bicycle instead. Taxis add on an extra surcharge late at night, so if you’re stuck away from your hotel after a night out, it may be cheaper to stay at a nearby capsule hotel than to catch that taxi back.
When looking for accommodation, remember that the closer you are to the center of a major city, the more money you’ll need to shell out. Getting out in to the Japanese countryside for part or all of your trip means you’ll pay significantly less for your hotel and you’ll experience a more laid back Japan than you’d see in downtown Tokyo. During your time in the cities, go for capsule hotels if you’re packing light or hostels and business hotels otherwise. Traveling during off-peak times, such as March, April, September and October, may yield cheaper prices and special deals on hotels.
Unless your breakfast is included in the cost of your hotel, plan to skip the buffet and head for the nearest convenience store or supermarket where you can purchase pastries and fresh fruit. Instead of Starbucks, buy some instant coffee or tea from the nearest grocery store and use the hot water kettle most hotels provide to boil water. If you plan to splurge on a few nicer restaurants, do it for lunch instead of dinner, and don’t overlook the set menu options; they’re often a better deal than ordering individual dishes. During dinner, when everything is usually more expensive, eat takeout from the basement food courts of the major department stores. Alternately, eat dinner early during an izakaya happy hour, usually from 3pm to 5pm.
Japan is littered with temples, shrines, parks and gardens, many of which offer free admission. Contact the local city hall or international association when you arrive in a city to find out what free attractions are around, and take advantage of them. If you’re in Osaka, buying an Osaka Unlimited Pass gives you unlimited use of Osaka buses and subway trains and discounts at dozens of city attractions and restaurants.