Japan is one the most culturally rich countries you could explore. The architecture, cuisine, people and popular culture is like stepping into a different world. But for backpackers who are used to places like South East Asia, Eastern Europe or South America, it can feel a little expensive. It doesn't have to be that way, and here's a guide on traveling Japan on the cheap.
What we're going to cover.
- Dining | Where to get cheap and delicious food
- Transport | How to get around Japan for cheap
- Accommodation | Quality and affordable places to stay
Dining | Where To Get Cheap & Delicious Food
Japan being the home of quality cuisine, you’ll find that even the snacks, convenient store food and fast food is delicious. Of course this isn’t all that we’re going to be eating on our cheap Japan trip, but it’s good to know about.
Japan is very much centered around convenience so there are 7-11 style stores everywhere like Family Mart and Lawson and they'll have everything you need. With options for all types of food drinks and snacks with 80%+ being under 300 yen or ($2.75 USD).
- Fried chicken 🍗
- Rice balls 🍙
- Sandwiches 🥪
- Salads and food bowls 🥗
- Beer, Spirits and Sake 🍺
All you can eat and drink
Japan also has all you can eat and drink BBQ and for an extremely good price. Learn the word Nomihoudai, which means "All you can drink." and Tabehoudai which means "All you can eat."
You'll find these places littered around cities, Tokyo and Osaka especially, and for 1200-2000 yen, you can get 2 hours of all you can drink alcohol and all you can eat meat, with indeed an exceptional range.
So for nights that you want to treat yourself, these are the places you want to be. With a little bit of research on Google, you can find cheap one near you when you want to go.
Japanese fast food
And finally, Japanese fast food. These fast food chains feel like home cooked meals sometimes, and they’re super cheap for a filling meal.
- Yoshinoya or Sukiya - Specializing in Gyudon, a dish that’s thinly sliced beef with fried onions over rice in its most basic form but can get quite crazy with toppings - these diners have a number of different rice bowls to choose from.
- Iciran Ramen - Go-to ramen joint 🍜 - you can customize almost every aspect of this ramen. From the noodle thickness, how it’s cooked, to broth base and how much garlic you want in it (a lot obviously).
- Train stations - Train stations are overrun by stand-in restaurants where you can order a bowl of udon or soba noodles by selecting what you want at a vending machine. You'll see the vending machines near little hole-in-the-wall joints, and you can get a full meal for 300-400 yen.
A great book that covers a lot of gems, especially when it comes to food is Lonely Plant's guide for Japan - Here's an Amazon affiliates link to the most up to date version: https://amzn.to/2EFDCa3
Highly recommend this book, and the lonely planet guides in general.
How to get around Japan for cheap
If you're reading this, you've probably considered getting a Japan Rail Pass, or you've at least heard of what it is - if not, don't worry we'll get to it but first, let's talk about the absolute cheapest way you'll get around Japan.
Night buses, although sometimes not the best option if you're horrible at sleeping on the move, are more than half the price of a bullet train to the same destination.
From Tokyo to Osaka, it costs 13500-14500 yen ($130) on the Shinkansen bullet train, but if you were to take a Night Bus using Willer Express, it would cost ~6000 yen ($55). Not counting the extra money saved on accommodation for the night.
Night buses go almost everywhere and you should keep them as an option, especially when doing Japan on a shoestring.
That being said, another cheap way to travel within Japan, especially if you're hitting multiple locations in a short time, is to get a Japan Rail Pass - full guide on that here.
The Japanese railway network is absolutely phenomenal, trains are on time, frequent, and reach every corner of the country. So traveling by train is quite efficient, and an experience I dare say. The Japan Rail Pass allows you to use this entire public network for unlimited trips during the days you have the pass.
This is a fantastic deal. It’s so good that locals aren’t allowed to get it. There are a few different options but only 2 or 3 that we’re concerned with. Which is the country-wide pass that’s either 1, 2 or 3 weeks.
|7 consecutive days||29,650 yen ($270)||39,600 yen ($360)|
|14 consecutive days||47,250 yen ($430)||64,120 yen ($585)|
|21 consecutive days||60,450 yen ($550)||83,390 yen ($760)|
At a glance, it seems expensive, and it can be, but when we do some number crunching it can be very much worth it. And before any of us work up some nerves and try to figure out every little destination to see if this is worth it, Japan Guide has beaten you to it with this handy calculator - use this to see if it'll be worth buying for you.
Although you've been able to get these within Japan in recent years, the easiest and most hassle free way to get this is before you enter, through a travel agent. There are also plenty of sites that sell them and send them to you online - and all of these are the same as they all get the passes from JR Officials.
How it works:
- You order it through a travel agent or official re-seller (lots of these).
- You receive an exchange order document
- When you arrive at the Airport, or Tokyo JR Station, you exchange this for you pass
Some other perks
- It can be used on local buses and trains as well
- It saves you from constantly buying train tickets, or needing to get train card
In recent years Japan's been booming with budget airlines that can get really cheap depending on the alternative. For instance, taking a train or bus all the way from Osaka to Sapporo may cost quite a bit and take a great deal of time away from your travel adventure.
But using budget airlines like;
And more, you can get flights as cheap as 5500 yen ($50) all the way across the country. These budget airlines re perfect, especially if you're traveling carry-on only. Using these with night buses as well may save a considerable amount of money.
Accommodation is one of the big expenses in Japan as a traveler or backpacker, hostels are a good option but even then, it can get a little expensive if you don't know where you're looking.
You can do a few things to manage and minimize these expenses.
- Don’t book accommodation in hot spots, for instance Shinjuku or Shibuya in Tokyo, or near Dotonbori or Shinsaibashi in Osaka etc. Instead, book in neighboring districts with easy train access.
- As an extension to not booking in hot spots - Find the districts that have more hostels in them, for instance, Ueno or Asakusa in Tokyo - both easy access to other districts and have more hostels on offer - expect prices to be around 2000 yen a night ($18 USD).
- Capsule hotels are a good alternative to hostels, although slightly more expensive at around 3000 yen, they offer some more privacy.
- Splitting accommodation costs with friends or travel buddies is also a great option as there are many Airbnbs available all over Japan, even in hot spot districts, that become very affordable when you’ve got 3-4 people to share the cost with.
The best places to find accommodation are:
And for more tips on finding cheap or even free accommodation, you can look here.
That concludes the Japan on the cheap guide! Hopefully you found some information here that's going to be useful for your upcoming trip. Until next time!