How to Make a Trip to Japan Affordable

There is a generally accepted myth that visiting Japan – especially for round-the-world travellers – is a budget-breaking experience.  And while it is true that Tokyo and other cities offer many temptations which can suck your bank account dry, the reality is if you are smart about certain expenses, you can afford to splurge a bit while in Japan.

Here are some ways I’ve managed to make my visits to Japan affordable.

Where are you sleeping?

As far as I’m concerned, the greatest expense in any trip (aside from the airfare or transportation costs) is the accommodations. And Japan is no exception to that rule.

The Intercontinental Tokyo Bay is a gorgeous hotel, but according to a Google search has room rates starting at ¥40,000 (C$400) per night. ©JNTO
The Intercontinental Tokyo Bay is a gorgeous hotel, but according to a Google search has room rates starting at ¥40,000 (C$400) per night. ©JNTO

Western-style hotels with the major American brands like Sheraton, Hilton or Hyatt near big transportation centres like Shinjuku or Tokyo Station can start at around ¥40,000 (C$400) per night!

Choosing to leave your preferred hotel loyalty at home during a trip to Japan and staying in an unfamiliar place or a little out of the way can net some major savings.

Japanese business hotel chains like APA, Sunroute, Chisun and Hearton have locations all over Tokyo and the rest of the country.  While many of the locations are next to major train stations, the great interconnectivity of Japan’s rail network means you could stay at cheaper locations away from the hustle-and-bustle of touristy areas in the suburbs and not be at a disadvantage when it comes to getting around. These hotels are far more reasonable starting at around ¥12,000 (C$120) a night.  While the accommodations are tinier, the cleanliness and quality of guest service is impeccable at many of these Japanese chain hotels.

For those on the backpacker trail, hostels are on the pricier end of the scale at around ¥3,000 (C$30) and up for a dorm bed. Airbnb isn’t much better of an option price-wise with many places around the C$50-100 a night range for a room inside a home. At that rate, it’s better to find a friend or two and book a few nights at a business hotel and split the cost.

The ideal situation to get the best taste of the “real Japan” (just like in any country) is to find people who you can stay with for a few nights. Couchsurfing has many members – especially in Tokyo. There are also paid homestay programs which will help you get a better sense of Japanese life for a slightly higher price-per-night than a hostel would cost.

How are you getting around?

A bullet train passes by Mt. Fuji. ©Akira Okada/©JNTO
A bullet train passes by Mt. Fuji. ©Akira Okada/©JNTO

If finding a place to lay your head for the night is the most costly part of visiting Japan, getting around is probably the next priciest thing (at least for tourists.)

Cabs and car rentals should be – for all intents and purposes – out of the question for your stay if you’re trying to save a few bucks. Taxis (and even Ubers, for that matter) are very pricy and can cost you an arm and a leg just to get a short distance. Car rentals would involve you being comfortable with driving on the opposite side of the road (for North Americans), not to mention being okay with rather expensive parking and highway tolls. Both are more hassle than I would want to deal with, especially in a country with a fantastic public transportation system.

If your stay in Japan is going to last 21 days or less, I highly encourage you to look at whether JR Rail’s Japan Rail Pass fits your needs. It is only available to tourists who are coming to Japan on a visitor visa (those here on a working holiday are ineligible to get the pass – and yes, they do check your passport when you exchange the voucher for the actual pass) and is only available outside of Japan (you can’t buy it once you get here.)

The rail pass is good for use on pretty much most forms of JR-branded transportation – including local JR trains, JR buses, and – most notably – the Shinkansen bullet trains which shuttle people across large parts of Japan very quickly. The pass does not cover services offered by other transportation companies (ie : Tokyo Metro subway, Keio trains, Odakyu trains and buses) – only the ones bearing the JR logo. Even still – this pass is worth its weight in gold.

One of many Japanese bullet trains. ©JNTO
One of many Japanese bullet trains. ©JNTO

As of this writing, there are three JR passes available :

  • A 7-day pass for ¥29,110 (roughly C$300)
  • A 14-day pass for ¥46,390 (roughly C$480)
  • A 21-day pass for ¥59,350 (about C$600).

 

I’ve compiled an extensive guide to help you determine if the Japan Rail Pass is something you should buy for your trip to the country.  Check it out by clicking here.

Also, be sure to bring a good, broken-in pair of walking shoes. Going places on foot saves money, and Tokyo is incredibly walkable.

What’s for dinner?

One of the biggest ways to save money on a trip – regardless of the destination – is to get out of the tourist hubs and eat like the locals do. Think about it – at home, do you go for a steak dinner every night or eat most of your meals at the Olive Garden or other major chain restaurant? Nope… if we’re eating on the go, we usually look for convenience and affordability. Take that same mentality on the road with you!

While 7-Eleven is the domain of teenagers looking for a Slurpee in North America, the chain is considered a high-quality low-cost option for food and other necessities in Japan.
While 7-Eleven is typically the domain of teenagers looking for a Slurpee in North America, the chain is considered a high-quality low-cost option for food and other necessities in Japan.

In Japan, cheap eats can be found in a number of places. Convenience stores (lovingly called ‘konbini’) like 7-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart all offer a rather stunning assortment of food items which can help keep you from feeling peckish throughout the day. Freshly made sandwiches, rice balls, and even bento box meals are always filling the shelves of the coolers in these stores. And – unlike in North America where we get queasy at the thought of eating something from the convenience store – konbini food in Japan is of very high quality. In many ways, grabbing a sandwich and a drink at 7-Eleven is a lot like getting lunch at a neighbourhood supermarket in London. Everyone does it because they know it’s cheap, and tasty.

A number of Japanese chain restaurants also offer very affordable meals. Sukiya, Yoshinoya, and Matsuya are three major chains which serve a popular dish known as gyūdon – or fried beef and onion on top of rice. You can often walk in to one of these restaurants and order a “set” meal (including soup and a salad) for under ¥600 (C$6) per person (and leave feeling full!) Saizeriya is another Japanese chain offering an Italian-inspired menu with sharable items like pizza, pasta, salad, and an unlimited beverage bar. An average bill here would run about ¥800-1000 (C$8-10) per person.

If you’re looking for a western-style menu, American chains are all over Japan. McDonalds Japan offers a very familiar menu which is decently priced (and offers lunch-hour pricing at some locations if you’re looking for a slightly cheaper Big Mac.)

Finally, be on the lookout for restaurants which offer a tabehodai (pronounced tah-bay-hoe-dye) menu. This is Japanese for “all-you-can-eat” – and it’s fairly common at places where you order group meals (like a Korean BBQ.) For a fixed price, you can eat as much as you can during a set period of time. This is a great option if you have a large group of people together for a meal!

Avoid the “Times Square-like” restaurants you find around tourist areas like Shinjuku, Tokyo Station, and Shibuya – they will drain your wallet and leaving you feeling less-than-pleased with your dining decisions.

Wanna party?

We all love to have a few drinks with friends. But pick the wrong place in Tokyo, and it can get very expensive, very fast.

Western-style pubs catering to ex-pats and foreigners think nothing of charging as much as ¥1,000 for a beer… which is a LOT when you consider that a tallboy of Sapporo or Asahi at the konbini will set you back maybe about ¥265. Couple that with the fact that drinking in the streets is not only legal but also not socially frowned upon like it is in North America or Europe, and you realize that konbini beers are a good way to grab a brew or two, and take a stroll with some friends while checking out the city.

That said, sometimes you want to go to clink glasses and shout “kanpai!” with your crew.  There are options for that, too.

Friends enjoy dinner at an Izakaya © JNTO
Friends enjoy dinner at an Izakaya © JNTO

Izakaya are a type of Japanese pub which offer salty food (grilled meats, french fries, fish and seafood) along with really cheap beer and mixed drinks. Nijyu Maru is a chain izakaya and is one of my favourite places to go with friends because they have an extensive drink menu which doesn’t break the bank.

Also, be on the look out for places which have nomihodai (pronounced no-me-hoe-dye).  The liquid-lunch sibling to the tabehodai which I mentioned earlier, nomihodai is an all-you-can-drink offer (similar to a beer bust in North America) where an establishment will let you have as much to drink as you want from a set menu of offerings (including beer, wine, mixed drinks, and soft drinks) for a limited period of time. Much like tabehodai, it’s a great way to get out and have drinks with a large group of friends (and is often offered in concert with a tabehodai at some restaurants) without worrying about additional costs.

Embrace the ¥100 store.

North Americans love their dollar stores, and the Japanese adore their ¥100 shops in much the same way. Many necessities-of-life (and souvenirs for the folks back home) can be found at these stores.

The king of the ¥100 chains is “The Daiso” which has some massive locations (the one in Harajuku is particularly huge) offering quite the assortment of products. They are a great place to get candy and beverages, and you can even pick up wine and beers at the stores.

Key things you need to buy at a ¥100 shop after getting to Japan : an umbrella (there’s no sense in spending more than a couple hundred yen on something that’s going to break anyway and not make the trip home with you), a pack of Hi Chew (Japan’s delicious alternative to chewing gum), and some wet wipes (when you’re a sweaty mess, it’s nice to wipe the gunk off your face.)  You’ll thank yourself later!

Not every great experience will break the bank.

Tokyo National Museum Front Gate ©Yasufumi Nishi/© JNTO
Tokyo National Museum Front Gate ©Yasufumi Nishi/© JNTO

It costs £24.50 (or C$50 as of this writing) to visit the Tower of London in the UK. It’s €18 (C$26) for a one day passport to Versailles in France. It’s €15 (C$23) to visit the Louvre.

In Tokyo, visiting the National Museum costs a mere ¥620 (C$7).

How’s that for value-for-money?

And while many experiences in Tokyo are low-cost like the National Museum, some are even no-cost. Lonely Planet has compiled a fantastic guide of free things to do in Tokyo (and I believe many of them are worth the time invested!) Most notably, the view from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building’s observation deck is as-good-if-not-better than the views from Tokyo Sky Tree or Tokyo Tower (on a clear day), and costs absolutely nothing.

I’m not opposed to spending money on great experiences – but sometimes it’s worth seeing what there is to do for free.

Leave your mobile provider at home.

Unless you’re a T-Mobile customer, roaming with your cell provider while in Japan will cost you an arm, leg and kidney. (T-Mobile offers a sweet international plan which doesn’t charge its customers roaming in a whole bunch of different countries – including Japan. If you’re an American, it’s worth checking out.)

If it isn’t already, get your phone unlocked before leaving home and then make your way to a major electronics store like Yodobashi Camera or BIC Camera as soon as you get to one of the major train stations. Once you’re there, look for the Japan Travel SIM – made by a company called IIJmio. For about ¥4,000, you can get a SIM card which will give you 2GB of LTE data (valid for up to 90 days) on the NTT DOCOMO network. Pop it in your phone, and start surfing! (And yes – your smartphone is a real handy travel accessory in Japan, especially for Google Maps’ transit abilities to point you in the right direction of the shortest and cheapest train routes around the cities.)
By spending less on these things, you will find yourself with the budget to be able to splurge on things worth splurging on in Tokyo! If you have other suggestions on how to keep costs under control, be sure to add them in the comments below!

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