This post is not the usual diary-style travel post. Instead, we want to share some of our experience about how to travel in Japan when you don’t have loads of money to spend. So if you are interested in this hold on and stay with us. Otherwise skip it and you won’t miss anything.
Whenever we talk to people about travelling Japan for seven weeks they are surprised and want to know how we could do that since the country is so expensive. We would say this is not necessarily true. It totally depends how people travel and what they do in the country. In our experience every country can be expensive. Overall Japan is roughly on paar with western Europe.
We spent 49 days in the country. Overall this cost us £3550 (with an exchange rate of £1 = ¥150). This is for both of us together and includes all food, transportation including one internal flight and the flight to Vietnam, accommodation and activities. It does not cover the one missed flight, souvenirs, postcards, postage for cards and a parcel and the money that dissapeared in Kyoto.
Considering we had nothing prearranged apart from two nights couchsurfing and a flight to Sapporo we don’t think this was too expensive. It was also autumn foilage (Japan’s second tourist peak season after the cherry blossom), which seriously impacted our accommodation options.
Of that sum we spent 41% on transport, 33% on accommodation and 28% on food. A mere 5% went into various activities. This was mainly entrance fees.
Japan’s infrastructure is impressive and top notch. You can set your watch by train departures and they always stop withing centimeters of where they should be (markings on the platforms). Busses don’t run to the second but are still impressively on time. The entire transport system is super efficient and runs very smooth. It definitely lives up to its reputation.
Unlike other countries where the sections were roughly equal, it is obvious how expensive transport in Japan is. To keep costs down, we used mainly highway buses to get between places. Five of them were night buses. One of the most useful websites for finding and booking buses is japanbusonline.com. Be aware though that it does not include all routes and bus companies. It is always worth searching a particular route to check which companies operate there.
Two of the biggest companies are Willer Express and Japanese Railways (JR). They offer modern busses with air conditioning and also quite often with wifi. Overall the bus network is impressive and widespread. When booking online, travellers should double check their stop on a map. We almost booked quite a few busses before we realised that they don’t actually stop where we wanted to get on but sometimes up to 40km away. Luckily the big operators have links to maps with the stops marked on their website. It is worth noting that it does not matter how far in advance you book your tickets; the price is the same but there are different seat options (unsurprisingly the cheap ones sell out fastest).
Travelling by (long distance) train is never the cheapest option. It is sometimes more convenient than the bus. When there are a bus and a train running the same route, the train wins in terms of speed. It is strange at first that there are local, semi-express, express and limited express trains running the same route. Going up in this order, they become faster more expensive but stop in fewer places. Reading Japanese train timetables is tricky at times so be careful which train you chose. Usually the different types are listed in different colours. Pre-booking trains is easy but not necessarily cheaper than buying them at the station.
Shinkasen (bullet trains) are famous for their speed but are also very expensive. A two hour trip from Tokyo to Osaka or Kyoto costs roundabout £150. Despite this, most of the 260 shinkansen that leave Tokyo towards Kyoto and Hiroshima per day are full.
There is some light at the end of the cost tunnel though: JR offers rail passes for foreign visitors lasting up to three weeks. They allow free unlimited travel within that time frame.There are numerous different passes available, some are regional, exclude the fastest trains or limit the travel days within a certain time period. They are almost always worth buying for normal tourists (up to three weeks stay) if you travel a fair bit. If you stay only within a region it might not be worth it. As a bonus they also include JR busses.
There is a small catch though: they cannot be bought within Japan. Tourist have to buy them (through an agency) abroad which then hands them a voucher/receipt which can then be exchanged for the actual pass upon arrival in the country. Like the busses, ticket prices are fixed and don’t get cheaper if you book in advance.
Domestic flights can be an attractive alternative to long distance trains both in terms of travel time and costs.
There are 43 flights from Tokyo to Sapporo/Hokkaido and also plenty of flight connections to Kyoto, Hiroshima and Okinawa.
As in other countries flights are a lot cheaper the further ahead you book them.
We really struggled finding cheap places to stay in some locations. The main reasons for this were that we were booking most of them with only two weeks notice and during peak season. It was quite depressing when we looked booking.com for a place to stay and were told that a place was 85% booked. When planning to travel Japan on a (small) budget we strongly recommend booking as far ahead as you can and making a travel plan. We met people who booked all of their accommodation half a year before they boarded the plane to Japan and then found lots of cheap places to sleep.
We couchsurfed 10 nights which both saved us plenty of money but also meant lots of fun time and new friends.
AirBnB was also fairly good place to look especially for longer stays in one place.
Manga kissaten (Manga internet cafes) can be very attractive options for singles or couples who don’t want to book everything ahead or if plans suddenly change. In some cities they can also be the cheapest option.
As a general rule: any place that is called something with onsen (i.e. has some hot springs) is expensive to stay in. We changed towns quite a few times because we could and did not want to spend £80 or more per night for a fairly standard double room.
We were quite shocked to see youth hostel prices of around £20 per bed without breakfast (yes, that is the members price!). This is bad value for money and therefore we never used them.
All accommodation (we stayed in) could be paid by credit card and most restaurants accept them too. We used Mastercard, but Visa is equally accepted. Smaller eateries like ramen shops and button restaurants are cash only.
Getting cash is easy as ATMs are widely available. It is important to point out that not all of them accept international credit cards and most of them charge a fee for cash withdrawls. We highly recommend the 7-Eleven convenience shop chain. They have a wide network of shops (most of them with ATMs) and most importantly they do not charge any fees!
Making your way around Japan is easy and so is getting information. Every train station we visited had a tourist information office with English speaking staff and leaflets. No matter how big or small the town was we could always bank on a helpful tourist info. The staff were super helpful in helping us finding train or bus connections, giving us the right information and maps we needed.
The Japanese love deals! No matter of what kind or how good they are. A coffee and donut chain had a bonus programme with a free coffee (worth ¥200) if you spent ¥20,000. Slightly ridiculous, right!?
Other deals are much better though. When we went to Hoheikyo onsen, we paid ¥1800 for a return bus plus entrance to one onsen. The bus alone costs roughly ¥1,600 and bathing fees at the end range from ¥500 to ¥1,000. So choose wisely and you are in for a bargain. There are many more combi tickets like these so spending some time on the internet hunting for them is always worth it.
Note: all price quoted are for adults. Children usally cost half as much!
Nowadays almost everybody has a smartphone and there are potentially more apps than sand in the deserts so we want to share our experience on the ones we used.
THE must have navigation app for travellers! With downloadable maps, offline navigation by car, bike, foot and since the last update even local trains (underground/subway). Maps contain a myriad of more or less useful information (who needs benches or bins marked?). The only downside is that it does not work equally well for all countries. We had it quite a few times (not in Japan though) that hotels were marked in the wrong place.
This little app is useful for logging into some of Japans free wifis. Especially the public ones (like Tokyo free wifi) which require registration. It helps finding them and saves you from registering over and over again.
Japan Tourism App
This clever little app was our go-to for finding public transport connections. It is great for finding trains, bus and flight connections between stations and also compares them to a typical taxi fare.
If they exist, the app lists up to four different options including travel time and prices. It can also be used to access timetables. Unfortunately it requires internet comnection to work but that is usually easy to find.
Whether you find the apps useful or not, we found two grwat sources of information about Japan were:
A fantastic encyclopedia of cities, sites and nature in Japan. We found their transport sections very useful to get between places either with or without a JR rail pass.
A budget guide to japan that helped us to find cheap place to eat, stay and entertain ourselves.
Japan is an awesome country to discover. There is so much to learn about the culture, history and cuisine. It makes for a great holiday destination, but bear in mind that you won’t see it all and may have to visit more than once. Travelling by train is easy, convenient and reasonably priced. It’s best to book accomodation ahead to secure something for your budget and preferences. Learning Japanese is tricky, but the basics of hello, thank you and goodbye are appreciated. The cost often puts Japan off the backpacker circuit but it should most definitely be on it. Couchsurfing, woofing and work away can keep costs lower and help you get in touch with some great people.