Japan on the Cheap: A User Guide – Japan, Asia
Japan has long held the distinction as being one of the world’s most expensive travel destinations. Many of my friends and family have expressed their long-held desire to visit me since I’ve moved here, but many seem to hesitate when it comes down to the question: “How much will it cost?”
This guide has a number of tips for budget backpacking and long term travel in Japan. My suggestions won’t always give you the most comfortable trip. They are geared to the backpacker, vagabond crowd with a loose itinerary. However, some of the information will benefit all travelers, and those foreigners already living here. I’ve broken it into three sections: transportation, accommodations and food.
The most well known and widely advertised multi-use ticket is the Japan Rail Pass. It is convenient, will get you just about anywhere in the country, it can be purchased (by non-residents only) and used year round. At $240.00 a week, the pass is not cheap. Since Japan offers no night train service, you can’t save money on accommodations. There is a cheaper alternative for those with a flexible schedule.
I recommend the seishun ju-hachi kippu, roughly translates to the youthful 18 ticket. Despite the name, the ticket has no age restrictions, but it is only available three times a year during Japanese school holidays. The best time to come is the spring, with mild weather and the possibility of seeing cherry blossoms. At only 11,500 yen (about $95.00 U.S.), it’s a bargain, if you’re willing to make a few of the necessary sacrifices.
The ticket is valid for either five days or five people. Each day or person will be counted and stamped on the ticket, allowing unlimited travel on local and rapid train service from the time of validation until the last train. Because you won’t be allowed to take the direct routes that bullet and express trains take, you’ll be required to transfer a lot when spanning long distances. If you have time and are reasonably comfortable negotiating foreign train stations, you shouldn’t have problems traveling city to city with this ticket. I like the leisurely pace of local trains, the more remote places you’ll see, and the opportunity to meet people as opposed to the reserved seats full of stuffy salary men on bullet trains. For those with a free schedule, this ticket provides a pleasant way to travel, and most importantly, it is cheap.
Let’s start with the cheapest – free camping. There are a few risks, but it is easy and a great way to extend your trip for no money. I recommend small city parks in the trees, or any mountains. I camped in a city park several times. If you set up camp late and get up early, the chances of having police run ins are low. Japan is one of the most non-confrontational countries, even if some early risers find you camped out, chances are they won’t bother you. Be respectful.
I prefer camping in mountains. Japan is mostly mountainous, and many of these areas are undeveloped, covered in a meticulous grid of industrial cedar with sparse ground cover; perfect for spending a night. You can use Google Earth to find rural stations within walking distance of mountains. There are also a limited numer of privately owned camping locations, but most remain closed until the approved camping season begins in the summer months.
Internet cafes have a much different feel to them in Japan than in the rest of Asia, an exclusive feel. Some require a small introductory membership fee. This charge has its perks, with many cafes offering free drink service, showers, even laundry. The internet is one of many ways these establishments strive to make you feel comfortable, as they are targeting the overworked, overstressed salaryman segment of the population. You can set up camp here undisturbed for a few hours, or take advantage of night packages that are increasingly available for between 1,500-2,500 yen. Private booths or small rooms are provided with reclining captain chairs, sleeping shouldn’t be a problem. Make sure you check the cleanliness and amenities of the place before you sign up for your member’s card.
This brings us to the most interesting accommodation in Japan – love hotels. They range in price from 5,000 to 10,000 yen a night depending on the room and location. These are comparable in price to business hotels, but more spacious and fun. For couples traveling together, the experience is a must. Rooms are often lavishly decorated, everything is clean despite most people’s preconceived images of by-the-hour sex hotels.
Many offer free karaoke and movie selections, if you can figure out the remote control. Should you be traveling solo, these places are a good bet. You won’t feel like a loser checking in by yourself because they’re completely anonymous. You pick the picture of the room you want, press the button, the door unlocks. Some require money up front paid through a slot in the door; others have vending machine pay stations in the room. In a country notorious for infidelity, discretion is crucial.
If you’re trying to see Japan on the cheap, forget those images of eating sashimi in small tatami rooms surrounded by rice paper doors. The traditional kaiseki, dining experience, is something even modern Japanese pay dearly for. Chances are you’ll find yourself in restaurant/bars called izakayas, family restaurants, and noodle shops being served by either a grumpy old woman or helium voiced 20-something rather than the diminutive Geisha.
A common problem is that the coolest restaurants and quaint izakayas often don’t have English menus. Even modest izakayas aren’t cheap, and if you’re ordering based on the recommendations of the staff, you could be in for a shock when the bill arrives. Be careful. Bars and izakayas often slip in seating charges for complementary food served with drinks, but sometimes they let the charge slide for foreigners.
When I travel, I eat at a combination of eating places – noodle shops specializing in ramen, soba (buckwheat noodles), and udon (thick flour noodles), family style restaurants like Coco’s or Denny’s, and convenience and grocery store bento boxes. It may not sound glamourous to eat at a 7-eleven, but if you include these in the meal rotation, you can save money to splurge on nicer meals and drinks at night. This is basically the way Japanese people eat out, sticking to noodle shops and family restaurants mostly, socializing with friends in izakayas. Stick with these, you’ll be living like a local.
Here are some common foods to look for with prices to give you an idea how to budget.
The key to an enjoyable, cheap trip in Japan is to be flexible. Remember, paying more doesn’t always ensure additional comfort or enjoyment. I’ve stayed in shoebox business hotels and spacious love hotels for the same price. I’ve scarcely whetted my appetite at izakayas for 5,000 yen and been stuffed at a noodle shop for 1,000. For a true Japanese experience, whatever this image is for you, realize that in modern Japan, wonderful people and quirky experiences are lurking around every corner, from the hole-in-the-wall bar to the perfect hillside camping spot. There is no place like Japan. Regardless of how much you shell out, it will be unforgettable.