How to visit Japan on a budget

Japan has a reputation as an expensive place to travel to, but it’s an image that doesn’t hold up on the ground. With a little strategy, a visit can be very reasonable – budget-friendly, even. Many of the country’s top sights, for example, cost nothing and free festivals take place year-round.

Some accommodations are more budget than others

Consider a business hotel

These economical (and to be honest, rather utilitarian) hotels offer the best prices for private rooms with en suite facilities: it’s possible to find double rooms for as low as ¥8000 (and single rooms for as low as ¥6000), though these will be a little more expensive in cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Look for places that include a free breakfast buffet – they can be substantial enough to keep you going for hours.

Book a tried-and-true guesthouse or hostel

Japan has fantastic guesthouses and hostels all over; not only are they generally clean and well-maintained, friendly English-speaking staff are usually on hand to offer near concierge-level service. A double or single room is comparable to a business hotel (but usually has shared facilities); dorm beds cost around ¥3000 (US$25). Some places do charge extra for towel rentals, so you can save a few yen by bringing your own. Note that rates are often slightly cheaper if you book directly rather than through a booking site.

Sleep in a capsule hotel for the ultimate Japan experience

Capsule hotels, which offer small rooms with enough space for just a bed, provide a budget-friendly place to spend the night. A capsule berth costs slightly more than a dorm bed in a hostel (¥4000 per night), but you get more privacy. You probably wouldn’t want to stay every night in a capsule, but they’re good for saving money in cities where hotels are pricier.

Go camping

If you really want to do Japan on the cheap, you can rely on its network of well-maintained campsites in rural or resort areas; Prices start from ¥500 to ¥1000 per person or tent. Note that many sites are only open in the summer.

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A hand holds up a passport-sized document labeled as Japan Rail Pass in front of barriers at a Japanese train station
If you’re planning a lot of shinkansen travel, the Japan Rail Pass is a bargain © YingHui Liu / Shutterstock

Look carefully at transport options to travel through Japan on the cheap

The Japan Rail Pass is a great travel bargain

Like the famous Eurail Pass, this is one of the world’s great travel bargains and is the best way to see a lot of Japan on a budget. It allows unlimited travel on Japan’s brilliant nationwide rail system, including the lightning-fast shinkansen (bullet train). There are also more regionally specific train passes that are cheaper, so examine your itinerary carefully before deciding.

Ride local trains for less with the Seishun 18 Ticket

Another great deal, but with very specific conditions: for ¥12,050 (US$105), you get five one-day tickets good for travel on any regular Japan Railways train (meaning not the shinkansen or any high-speed limited express trains) during a limited period of a few weeks; It’s only available at certain times during the year – during school holidays (the ticket is designed for students, but there’s no age cap). If the timing works, and you’re a fan of slow travel, this is a unique, ultra-cheap way to get around in Japan.

Swap a night in a hotel for an overnight bus ride

Long-distance buses are the cheapest way to get around and longer routes have night buses, which saves a night on accommodation. There are also bus passes, which can make this an even cheaper way to get around.

Consider renting a car if you’re skipping the cities

Highway tolls and petrol in Japan are expensive; However, renting a car can be economical if you’re traveling as a group or family, or are plotting an itinerary that takes you away from major rail hubs.

Look into discount flights

Japan has several budget carriers that offer bus-like pricing on some routes – just be sure to factor in the time and cost of going to/from the airport.

A young man walks down an urban street holding his phone.  There are many Japanese signs on the buildings behind him
From joining local events to creating your own walking tour, there are many free activities in Japan © JohnnyGreig / Getty Images

Many sights and activities are completely free

Japan’s fascinating, photogenic shrines and temples are free to visit

The vast majority of Shintō shrines in Japan cost nothing to enter. Likewise, the grounds of many temples can be toured for free (often, you only have to pay to enter the halls or a walled garden).

Join the locals at a traditional festival

Throughout the year, festivals take place at shrines and temples and through city streets. They’re free, an excellent way to see traditional culture come alive, and are well attended by cheap food vendors.

Stretch your legs and your budget with walks and hikes

Take advantage of free city parks

Urban parks are generally free to enter (and some gardens are, too) and are popular with locals on weekends; pack a picnic and settle in for an afternoon of people-watching.

Chart your own architecture tour

Japan’s cities, especially Tokyo, have some fantastic buildings designed by many of the big names in Japanese architecture.

Shop for cheaper goods at a local market

Many seaside towns have fish markets, some rural spots have morning markets and some cities still have their old-fashioned open-air markets – a great way to connect with local culture, and often a source of cheap, fresh food.

Aerial shot of two friends tucking into bowls of noodles in a restaurant
Noodles are always a great budget option in Japan, starting from as little as US$3 per bowl at tachigui counter restaurants © FilippoBacci / Getty Images

Find budget foods and cheaper places to eat

Eat in shokudō: Japan’s answer to the greasy spoon

You can get a good, filling meal in these all-round Japanese eateries for under ¥1000 (US$8.50). As is the case with all restaurants in Japan, tea and water are free and there’s no tipping required.

Benō are a budget alternative to a meal out

These “boxed meals”, which include a variety of dishes, can be picked up for under ¥1000 at supermarkets. Department store food halls sell gourmet ones for a little bit more; visit just before closing to buy them on markdown.

Discover why noodles are so popular in Japan

You can get a steaming bowl of tasty ramen for as little as ¥600 (US$5). Tachigui (stand-and-eat counter joints) sell soba (buckwheat noodles) and udon (thick white wheat noodles) for even less – starting as low as ¥350 per bowl.

Have a larger meal at lunchtime

If you want to splurge, do it at lunch when many upscale restaurants offer a smaller course for significantly less than their dinner course.

Get everything you need and more at the convenience store

The best friend to all budget travelers, convenience stores stock sandwiches, rice balls, hot dishes, and beer, all of which you can assemble into a very affordable (if not exactly healthy) meal. Accommodations always have kettles so cup noodles are always an option.

A guide to daily costs in Japan

Capsule hotel room: ¥4000 (US$35)
Basic room for two: ¥8000 (US$70)
Self-catering apartment: (including Airbnb) ¥6000 (US$52)
Public transport ticket: ¥170 (US$1.50)
Coffee: ¥400 (US$3.50)
Sandwich: ¥300 (US$2.60)
Dinner for two: ¥5000 (US$43)
Beer/pint at the bar: ¥800 (US$7)
Hour of karaoke for two: ¥2000 (US$17)

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