You might think experiencing Japan means spending a fortune, but with cheap flights and transport deals, free sights and a bit of inside knowledge, it’s more affordable to visit than ever..
After waiting nearly half an hour, I’m shown to a seat at a counter overlooking the kitchen and presented with a menu offering nothing but sardines, which can be served deep-fried, simmered, sashimistyle or in a hotpot.
Following the example of my fellow diners, I plump for the latter, and I’m soon presented with a bubbling casserole dish, accompanied by rice, miso soup and lightly pickled vegetables.
It’s simple, it’s sumptuous and, more surprisingly, it’s cheap. While the kaiseki dinner sets at Nakajima start at JPY8,640 (£63), the price tag for my Michelin-approved lunch comes to just JPY900 (£6.50). No wonder it’s so popular.
Geisha in Kyoto market (Dreamstime)
Japan may have a reputation as an expensive destination, but there are many ways for more budget-minded travellers to enjoy the best that the country has to offer. Whether you’re going for the traditional culture, the food, the hot springs or the karaoke, there’s a lot that can be done without spending much – or any – money.
This frugality extends to getting around, too. One of the prevailing myths about Japan is that internal travel swallows your budget whole.
But that’s simply not the case, with plenty of discount fares and deals on offer, which is why we’ve set out to prove that you can experience a classic Japanese itinerary, from trekking ancient trails in Nagano and strolling the temples of Kyoto to watching sumo wrestlers grapple in Tokyo, on a budget that won’t break the bank.
A train exits a tunnel in Karuko Gorge (Dreamstime)
Sleek, punctual and dazzlingly fast, the Shinkansen bullet train became a symbol of Japan’s post-war recovery, and it’s still the most convenient way to travel longdistance. The Japan Rail Pass covers unlimited trips on the nationwide JR network, including many shinkansen services, though it doesn’t include the country’s myriad private rail companies.
Starting from JPY29,110 (£212) for seven consecutive days, it’s best suited to people who plan on hopping between multiple cities, such as the popular Tokyo-Kyoto-Hiroshima route; remember that you’ll need to buy it before arriving, although there are rumours that this might be changing in the future.
If you don’t mind limiting yourself to a smaller section of the country, you can save significantly on travel expenses. For instance, the JR East Pass – covering the Tokyo area and the northern Tohoku region, home to some of Japan’s most unspoiled scenery – gets you five days’ worth of travel for JPY20,000 (£145). Since it can also be used across a two-week period (from date of purchase), you can take your time.
Downtown Kyoto skyline at nightime (Dreamstime)
Highway buses offer a cheaper, albeit rather less glamorous, way of getting around. You can normally travel from Tokyo to Kyoto for under JPY6,000 (£44) with operators like Willer Express (willerexpress.com) – considerably less if you book well in advance. And don’t rule out flying as an option: both JAL’s Japan Explorer Pass and ANA’s Experience Japan Fare both offer discount rates to overseas visitors from JPY10,800 (£78.50) per sector, putting distant locations like Sapporo and Okinawa within easy reach.
Public transport within cities is also efficient and relatively inexpensive. Only use taxis as a last resort, as they’re liable to sap your budget fast.
Akihabara district (Dreamstime)
There’s no shame in picking up a few cheap souvenirs at a 100-yen (75p) shop. Larger stores, such as the three-storey Daiso in Tokyo’s Harajuku, are vast grottos of delights, and stock distinctively Japanese tableware, stationery and ornaments.
For some slightly more stylish trinkets, try the 3 Coins chain, where most products cost JPY300 (£2).
The dried goods aisles of any mid-sized supermarket can also yield a welter of inexpensive gifts – dashi (soup) stock, dried kelp, miso paste, tea, noodles. Just be warned that labels are often only in Japanese, so it’ll help if you know what you’re looking for.
When making larger purchases, department stores and most major retailers will let you shop tax-free, though you’ll need to be spending at least JPY10,001 (£73; JPY5,001 [£37] for consumables) to be eligible. Make sure to bring your passport, too.
Dedicated bargain hunters can have a rummage through piles of antiques and pop-culture detritus at flea markets, one of the few places in Japan where haggling is permitted.
Try the regular weekend Tokyo City Flea Market at Oi Racecourse, the Sunday market at the capital’s Yasukuni Shrine, or the monthly market at Kyoto’s Toji Temple.
Finally, a visit to a venerable department store like Tokyo’s Isetan Shinjuku and Ginza Mitsukoshi or Kyoto’s Takashimaya is essential. The customer service at these retail temples is impeccable – staff bow to customers in unison as the doors open each morning – and the basement food halls teem with tantalising morsels. You may even snag a few free samples.
Japan is home to one of the most sophisticated culinary cultures on Earth, and even if you’re on a tight budget it’s worth permitting yourself the odd splurge. That said, the overall quality of the cuisine means that fast food can be pretty decent.
Try Yudetaro for buckwheat soba noodles, CoCo Ichibanya for Japanese-style curry and rice, or Yoshinoya for gyudon, a bowl of simmered beef and onions served over rice. All can fill you up for around 500 yen (£3.50), without the attendant guilt of a trip to McDonald’s.
For penny-pinching gourmands, the best advice is to save on dinner and spend more at lunchtime instead. Especially on weekdays, it’s common for restaurants to offer lunch sets for a fraction of what they’d charge in the evening, meaning you can make your money go much further. Around JPY1,000 (£7) is the norm, and even the more high-end places will often have sets for less than 2,000 yen (£15).
Tabelog, the local Yelp equivalent, lets you search for restaurants by area, cuisine and budget, and while the English interface is a little wonky, it’s a handy resource.
When you’re on the move you can pick up nutritious bento boxes and other prepared meals for a few hundred yen at supermarkets or one of the country’s 50,000-plus convenience stores. A couple of onigiri rice balls, the ultimate budget food, should keep you going for hours.
If your hotel doesn’t offer breakfast, look out for the ‘morning sets’ available at many old-school coffee shops, which include a complimentary plate of food with your drink. And speaking of coffee: you can get a respectable brew for JPY100 (75p) at almost any convenience store.
A matsuri at Kagoshima City (Dreamstime)
One thing you can count on in Japan is that you’re never too far from a mountain. There are ample hiking opportunities within easy reach of most major cities, ranging from challenging multi-day hikes in the Japan Alpes to gentler walks that can be completed in a few hours.
For a taste of earlier times, follow the Nakasendo trail in Nagano’s Kiso Valley, or the old Tokaido highway between Hakone and Mishima – routes that historically linked Tokyo and Kyoto. When the weather’s good, the trails along the north shore of Lake Kawaguchi in Yamanashi prefecture offer spectacular views of Mount Fuji across the water.
Hot springs (onsen) are equally abundant, and worth seeking out – especially after a walk. In Nozawa (Nagano prefecture) and Kusatsu (Gunma prefecture), there are public bathhouses maintained by the local communities, which visitors can use for free.
For the former, check out the centrally located Oyu bathhouse, while the bracingly hot Shirahata-no-yu in Kusatsu, is worth a try. In more remote rural areas, especially further north, you can still find outdoor baths that are open to the public, but you’ll need to shed your inhibitions along with your clothes to enjoy them properly.
Be sure to check the Japan National Tourism Organization website and other online listings to see if there are any traditional festivals (matsuri) happening during your trip.
These boisterous celebrations offer a fascinating window into Japanese culture, and there are hundreds of them taking place throughout the year – all of them free, of course. At the peak of summer, you can also catch spectacular fireworks displays almost every night.
Renting a bicycle can end up saving money on transport, while allowing you to enjoy your surroundings at a more leisurely pace. Just be sure to shop around: you should be able to find a bike for JPY500 (£4) a day in Tokyo or Kyoto, but some places will charge a lot more.
Keen cyclists should consider the Shimanami Kaido, an island-hopping 70km bike route that traverses the Seto Inland Sea between Hiroshima and Ehime prefectures. Bikes can be rented for ¥1,000 a day (£7.50), and bridge tolls are being waived for cyclists until 2018.
The Fushimi inari Taisha Shrine (Dreamstime)
Touring the famous temples of Kyoto – the golden Kinkakuji, the imposing hilltop Kiyomizu-dera, the serene Ryoanji – can drain your money faster than expected.
In this strollable city, it costs nothing to wander the traditional Higashiyama neighbourhood or the Philosopher’s Path, a pleasant stroll alongside a cherry-treelined canal, or to explore the sprawling grounds of Fushimi Inari Shrine, with its thousands of vermillion torii gates.
The same is true in Tokyo, which despite its seemingly endless crowds is actually quite pedestrian-friendly. You could spend a whole afternoon sauntering around the chic streets of Harajuku, Omotesando and Shibuya, or relishing the contrasts on a walk from Akihabara, Tokyo’s geek capital, to the more traditional neighbourhoods of Ueno and Yanaka further north.
Although many museums and sightseeing spots charge admission fees, some of Japan’s top attractions – the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture and Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, to name a few – are free.
Among the paid attractions, traditional gardens tend to be particularly good value; even the grand Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, widely considered the country’s finest, costs a mere JPY310 (£2.50) admission.
While the temporary exhibitions at museums and major galleries can be pricey, it’s worth paying just to see the excellent permanent collections at Kyoto National Museum (JPY520/£4), Tokyo National Museum (JPY620/£4.50) and Tokyo’s Le Corbusier-designed National Museum of Western Art (430 yen/£3), which was recently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Art lovers should go roaming around the galleries in Tokyo’s Ginza district: there are over a hundred, and the vast majority are free. Tokyo Gallery + BTAP is a great place to start; it has been around for 60 years and is great for contemporary art from Japan and East Asia.
Check the comprehensive listings on Tokyo Art Beat for more ideas.
For a rather different sight, look to the capital’s sumo stables. Many, such as Azumazeki Beya (03-36250033), near Honjo-Azumabashi subway station, allow visitors to watch their morning practice sessions for free, though you’ll often need to call in advance – and get up early.
You’ll have to get up earlier still if you want to snag one of the 120 slots available each day for the early-morning tuna auctions at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Market. Even if you miss out, the chaotic, bounteouly stocked market is an essential destination, and one that’s worth enjoying now – there are plans to relocate it in the future.
Kinkakuji temple, the Golden Pavilion (Dreamstime)
Transport aside, accommodation is likely to put the biggest dent in your budget. The concept of last-minute deals never really caught on in Japan, so it’s a good idea to book well ahead of time. That’s especially true in Kyoto and the surrounding Kansai region, which has been struggling to cope with the recent influx of international visitors.
Make sure to include japanican.com in your accommodation search, as it lists places that don’t appear on other sites. Booking hotel and travel packages can save you money, too, especially if you aren’t planning on getting a Japan Rail Pass.
Finding genuinely cheap lodgings can be a challenge, but if you don’t mind sacrificing a little comfort it’s certainly possible. You can get a berth in a capsule hotel – an experience in itself – for less than JPY3,000 (£22) per night, and hostels such as the Khaosan chain (khaosan-tokyo.com) offer dorm beds for a similar rate.
Getting a private room will cost a little more: expect to pay at least JPY5,000 (£36) per person for a minshuku, the local equivalent of a bed and breakfast; they’re essentially a budget alternative to staying in a ryokan, the traditional Japanese inns that usually come complete with tatami beds, sliding screens and onsite onsen (hot springs).
Lower-end ryokan can be found for a similar price, but bear in mind that you’ll save considerably if you book a room without dinner or breakfast.
There are plenty of bargains on Airbnb (at least until Japanese authorities decide whether or not to clamp down on the service, which currently occupies a legal grey area).
If you’re travelling as a couple, you could also treat yourself to a night at a quintessentially Japanese institution: the love hotel. Designed for illicit trysts, these discreet playpens aren’t for everyone, but you can usually get a suite, complete with king-sized bed, Jacuzzi and widescreen TV, for under 10,000 yen (£73) per night.
Main image: Chureito Pagoda and Mount Fuji (Dreamstime)