Japan on a Budget, Tips for Cheap Travel!

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Here’s a non-exhaustive collection of ideas for travelling Japan without spending a lot of money. These ideas for cheap travel are somewhat random, and unordered, but take a look and you’ll be sure to pick up a tip or two to save money on your Japan holiday.

I continually test these out and look for more every time I travel in Japan, which is just about every week!

Things To Do In Japan

(For free… or cheaper than usual!)

Travel in off-peak times

Now this doesn’t mean you will be missing the good weather. Peak times in Japan are during the major national holidays and the school holidays.

The best time is April. This is spring in Japan and students are at school, the cherry blossoms are blooming and the weather is great. September and October are good times also, it is autumn in Japan and everyone is back to school and work.

Around the end of April and beginning of May is Golden Week in Japan. 4 national holidays over a week, prices for accommodation go up and shinkansens are booked solid – best to avoid this time!

Mid-July and all of August are summer holidays in Japan, which means peak domestic travel and hence, high prices on just about everything. It is easily the busiest time of year and also the hottest.

Read more detail about the best time of year to travel to Japan.

Japan Rail Pass

When people tell me they’re going to visit Japan, the first thing I ask them is – have you bought your Japan Rail Pass yet?

The JR Pass is available to anyone on a tourist (Temporary Visitor) visa and gives you unlimited travel on all Japan Rail buses, trains and shinkansen (bullet trains) – the only exception is you can’t travel on the fastest express services.

Japan Rail Pass

The Japan Rail Pass – just flash this pass at the ticket gates and stroll on through…

At first glance, the pass may seem expensive. Last time I travelled to Japan on a tourist visa I paid about $600 AUD for a 3 week JR Pass. Consider this example: a return trip on the shinkansen (bullet train) from Nagoya to Okayama is normally about 24,000 yen (about $300 AUD). Osaka to Tokyo is much further and more expensive. I did about 6 of these trips during a 3 week stay, so I saved about $1000 AUD and saw a lot of the country.

7, 14 or 21 day passes are available and conditions are you must be travelling on a tourist visa and you have to purchase the JR Pass before you enter Japan. Check costs and buy a JR Pass online.

Cheap shinkansen travel

If you can’t get a JR Pass, but you don’t want to take the bus, there are cheaper options for the shinkansen. You can buy an unreserved seat, which means a seat is not guaranteed. People tend to sit in the carriage vestibules and there is nothing wrong with that. Being a super fast train, you’re not in for a long journey! But if you travel in off-peak times, and during the day (i.e. not the morning or evening when shinkansen is used for work travel) then you’ll get a cheaper ticket AND a seat.

700 series shinkansen

JR West Shinkansen series 700.

See my detailed article on Japan’s bullet train (shinkansen) with photos and video.

Bus travel

If you can’t get a JR Pass (for visa reasons), or if you’re already in Japan without one, then bus travel is cheap in Japan, generally about 1/3 or less of the price of the shinkansen. I’ve travelled with Willer Express many times – good buses, good prices and you can book online through their English website.

Hello Kitty Hato bus Tokyo

This Hello Kitty bus was spotted outside Tokyo Station.

Hire a bicycle

This is a great thing to do even if you have a JR Pass, so consider it not only a form of transportation but of entertainment too! My funnest day in Kyushu was when a mate and I hired a bicycle each and rode around Fukuoka. It was only 200 yen for the entire day! Some cities can be more expensive though, like Kyoto where prices start at 1000 yen for the day.

Bicycle hired in Fukuoka, Japan. So very cheap and oh so much fun!

Read: Kyoto by Bicycle – The Definitive Day Trip Guide.

Walk

Not only is it totally free, you get to discover some great places you would never see when travelling via faster methods. Strolling around just about any part of Japan, business districts, shopping areas, residential, if Japan is a new country for you, will show what Japan is like off the normal tourist track. You’ll constantly discover cool things to do in Japan while you’re out on a walk.

My favourite walk is from the Gion area of Kyoto, north along the river to the Shimogamo Shrine, an amazing UNESCO World Heritage site (which is free to visit!).

If I’d taken a bus or the train, I’d never find interesting things like this… This canal runs parallel to the Kamo River in Kyoto.

Find the local international association or city hall

Just Google it for the city or town you are visiting. If they have a website in English then they will have a lot of information at their offices about the local area. Often there will be brochures on the local sights and attractions to see and any walking and cycling routes.

Travel with a friend

You can stay at hotels together, and save money on many meal deals.

Buy alcohol, snacks and more from a supermarket

Shop for your daily drinks and snacks at supermarkets.

Definitely go to a supermarket if you want to buy alcohol. Not only is it much cheaper than convenience stores and vending machines, there is great range and it’s also a very interesting way to discover more about life in Japan.

You’ll be surprised by what you find in the supermarket! In Aichi prefecture look for MEGLIA, in Kyoto look for LIFE. Usually there will be food shopping areas around major train stations where you can get cheaper-than-convenience store prices.

Cheap spirits and beer on the shelves in Japan

Spirits in the supermarket are at least 60% cheaper than in Australia. Beer is a little bit cheaper in Japan.

For more details, see our post about beer prices in Japan.

Buy toiletries and more from drug stores

Drug stores (as the Japanese call them, pharmacies or chemists as I would call them!) are easy to find in Japan. If you need to buy toiletries then head here, they are very cheap. They have many things, you can usually find drinks, snacks and sometimes alcohol here too.

One example is Sugi Kusuri next to Umeda Station in Osaka. They sell not only pharmaceuticals, toiletries and cosmetics, but also alcohol, snacks and drinks.

Buy one water bottle and carry that with you

Now there are a few reasons behind this one for me, predominantly I feel like I am being plundered and cheated every time I purchase bottled water. In spite of most Japanese people’s thinking (call it marketing conditioning perhaps), Japan has drinkable tap water from just about all their taps. If it isn’t safe to drink, there will be a sign saying don’t drink it. Buy one water bottle from a supermarket and then fill it up at free water bubblers on your travels, this will easily save you around 600 yen per day.

For a big night out…

Find an izakaya (Japanese style restaurant), depending on the price, you will usually find great value deals on all you can eat (tabehodai) and all you can drink (nomihodai). Not only is it a great experience and delicious, but it won’t end up being too expensive.

Yakiniku - a table full of beers and food, with beef grilling in process.

Yakiniku (a Japanese style beef) at an izakaya – a table full of beers and food, with beef grilling in process.

Buy travel insurance

What better way to blow out your budget than having to spend thousands of dollars on medical bills? Getting travel insurance before you leave is a must!

Stay at a capsule hotel or a hostel

Capsule hotels are really cheap and very comfortable. Hostels are available which are also very cheap. I’ve stayed at a great capsule hotel in Osaka that is really cheap. I just got back from Kyoto where you’ll also find a few cheap capsule hotels.

Capsule bed inside 9hours, Kyoto

The entrance to your 9hour sleep system at the 9hours capsule hotel in Kyoto.

See lots of photos and find out more about the 9hours capsule hotel in Kyoto.

Sleep in an internet cafe

Internet cafes in Japan are amazing. When you are in Japan you MUST visit one just to see what I mean. Anyway, you can buy cheap blocks of say 5 hours or more, enjoy free drinks and sometimes snacks, a comfortable private lounge or armchair and of course… the internet.

Many Japanese people themselves will sleep in internet cafes, as the trains usually shut-down between about 12:30AM and 5AM. Here’s a great net cafe in Osaka that is close to the Shin-Osaka station.

Internet Cafe in Osaka, near Shin-Osaka

A very short walk from Shin-Osaka station is this mega internet cafe.

Visit temples, shrines and castles

I just got back from yet another a trip to Kyoto, and saw the great Shimogamo Shrine. It’s free and it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are so many temples and shrines all over Japan, and most are free to walk around (but sometimes you can’t go inside).

One of my favourites is the free English speaking tour of the Kyoto Imperial Palace.

Castles are usually very cheap, if not free to visit. For a unique experience check out Bitchu Matsuyama Castle in Okayama Prefecture (300 yen for entry).

Shimogamo-jinja (Shrine) in Kyoto

A little north of the city, near a fork in the Kamo river you’ll find Shimogamo Shrine.

Another free and amazing UNESCO World Heritage site in Japan is Fushimi Inari Shrine a mountain shrine area with kilometers of paths lined with vermilion gates.

Here’s a list of historic sites I’ve visited and highly recommend. Entry to these sites is free:

Free observation decks in Tokyo

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku offers two free observation decks, high up on the 45th floor of this skyscraper.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building 『Tōkyō-to-chōsha, 東京都庁舎 』

Panasonic DMC-LX3 (5.1mm, f/3.5, 1/500 sec, ISO80)
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building 『Tōkyō-to-chōsha, 東京都庁舎 』

For more info: See all of Tokyo for free: Observation decks at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku.

Finally, plan ahead

I’m not saying plan every single stay and stop on your Japan trip… that is almost the opposite of what I do when I travel, I find spontaneity and the freedom to change or choose your plans creates a better trip. But if you spend the time planning where you’d like to go, you’ll find through your research many cheap and free things to do.

For example, while planning a trip to Kyoto I discovered you could get a free, English guided tour of the Kyoto Imperial Palace (A.K.A. Kyoto Gosho – the old Imperial residence of the emperor in Kyoto).

Take these tips and test them out for yourself!

Check out the ‘Why go to Japan?‘ post for more inspiration on what you can really do on a budget!

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