Ok, so no one is saying it is the cheapest country in the world – flights to Japan alone make most people shudder – but on arrival and with a few ’in the know’ travel tips, you can get by in Japan on a budget. After all, this trip could turn out to be one of the most compelling experiences of your life as you absorb a country that is both technologically driven yet deeply committed to its historic traditions. So, take your travel essentials; accommodation, transport and food, and let’s see what cut backs we can arrange to make your travel currency go further…
Turn your attention away from the slick high rise hotels, especially in the big cities. Instead, look for cheap Tokyo accommodation in a local hostel, many of which are family-run and which operate on a friendly and more intimate scale. Suddenly, you will find yourself paying more like €15-€25 per person ($22-36 / 1750-2900 JPY), per night in a shared – and sometimes private – room in a hostel, than in excess of €50 in a hotel ($72 / 5800 JPY). You will still have plenty of great facilities to hand including air-conditioning, self-catering facilities, free Internet access and a central location. Geared to budget travelers, you can also quiz hostel staff on the best budget places to eat, drink and where to experience life as a local. You can find cheap accommodation all over Japan including a Kyoto hostel or the family-run ryokans some with traditional tatami sleeping mats if you fancy an authentic experience.
The efficiency of the Tokyo metro is infamous and late-running trains are almost unheard of. They are also a cost-effective way to get around and a one-day ticket for use on the Tokyo metro costs about €6 ($9 / 700 JPY). A combi ticket which includes unlimited journeys on the metro, Toei lines and buses will set you back €12 a day ($18 / 1400 JPY). If you don’t want to mess around with tickets each day, order yourself a PASMO card. Similar to the London Oyster card, this is a reloadable card which you place on an electronic reader as you go through the gates. You can use it on all Tokyo public transport too so it is very convenient. Purchase at ticket machines and station offices. But the ultimate cheap way to get around Tokyo is…on foot.
To travel further afield, skip Japan domestic flights, these are pricey. Instead, buy a JR Rail Pass before your trip – you cannot buy these within Japan – which permits travel on trains (except the fastest bullet train, ‘shinkansen’), ferries and buses too. You might also want to consider overnight buses which are not only cheap, they will save on a night in a hotel. However, this can be quite a tiring and uncomfortable way to travel.
Hit the supermarkets and pick up some ingredients to cook back at your hostel’s guest kitchen. These might include fresh produce, but you’d be forgiven if you reach for the ultimate cheap food in Japan – instant ramen noodles at about €2 pop! You can also pick-up little containers of pre-prepared sushi and rice balls from the supermarket too which are ideal for a picnic.
The conveyor belt sushi shops in Japan are a world apart from the stuff you are used to back home. As long as you can demonstrate some self-control – the bill starts adding up if you scoff too many dishes – you can expect to pay between €2 and €4 per plate ($3-6 / 233-466 JPY).
Standing will also save you money. You can slurp away at a bowl of hot noodles in low-key noodle shops and curry houses. The cheapest can be found down the backstreets, away from the main roads. It’s a sort of Japanese fast food with business men and locals after a quick bite before heading to the office. The yatai, small mobile food stands serve a similar purpose in the evenings, but while you might have experienced dodgy kebab vans or questionable hot dog stands back home, here, the yatai dish up grilled skewered fish, octopus legs and frozen yogurt.
Madeleine Wilson is a travel writer for HostelBookers, the budget accommodation specialist. She lives and works in London.