March 8, 2019

Ballin' on a Budget

While Japan has an image of being a rather expensive country to visit, it can actually be done quite cheaply if you know where to skimp.

If you’ve been dreaming of traveling to Japan, chances are you’ve seen some spectacular imagery. These days, social media is littered with shots of spacious rooms at luxurious ryokan, verdant foliage, exquisite kaiseki ryori course meals, and bullet trains whizzing by Mt. Fuji. Honestly, it’s the kind of panorama that makes one want to drop everything and travel to Japan immediately. At the same time though, these portraits also conjure the perception that Japan is an extremely expensive destination. While the country certainly has options for travelers with deep pockets, Japan remains an inviting destination even for those traveling on a shoestring budget. Assuming that you’re willing to skip on comfort and spend a bit more time trekking from one place to another, there’s a plethora of means to make Japan more affordable.

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty though, allow me to first begin with some cautionary words. I shouldn’t need to say this but NEVER go as far as sacrificing personal safety to save a bit of cash. This is just asking for trouble. At the same time, be sure to not make it obvious that you’re planning to travel on the cheap. Immigration reserves the right to refuse entry to travelers who they suspect might not be able to properly fund their trip. Arriving at customs looking like a scruffy backpacker is guaranteed to raise suspicions among officials so be sure to avoid this at all costs. Moreover, you’re also going need to record the address of your accommodations on the custom entry form. Here, you may want to fib somewhat and write a proper location even if you plan on doing something else. Otherwise, you risk being denied entry.

In addition to the above tips, you’re also going to want to ensure that you purchase your return ticket out of Japan prior to entering the country. Put simply, this isn’t the type of country you can casually enter on a one-way ticket and then purchase a cheap departing flight at a later date. While I’m not on a tourist visa, I’ve heard anecdotal stories of travelers being denied a 90-day tourist visa until they provided proof documenting their return flight. These days, more and more airline carriers are taking responsibility for this issue; in response, they will likely deny your boarding unless you can produce a departing ticket. Don’t play around here!

With the above obligatory precautions now clearly stated, let’s dive into how to experience all that Japan has to offer without needing to break into the old piggy bank…

Cheap Travel in Japan: Accommodations

Using a hostel for accomodations is a cheap form of traveling in Japan

Outside of your flight to and from Japan, the biggest strain on any budget will undoubtedly be where you stay. Frankly speaking, Japanese hotels are not cheap and many charge on a per person basis (instead of per room). If this weren’t enough of an issue for budget conscious travelers already, also note that since summer 2018, the number of listed Airbnbs have taken a significant hit. Nevertheless, you can usually find a good deal within the remaining stock for those traveling in a small group. That said, they tend to not be all too appealing for solo travelers and honestly, as a general rule, I only recommend reserving Airbnb accommodations when you plan on splitting the costs among several people.

So, what’s one to do instead? Well, the first thing I’d recommend is that you check the hostels. On occasion, you can find some really excellent deals and especially so if you’re planning on extending your stay a bit longer. Still, even if you stay at a hostel, you’re going to need to prepare to fork over about 2,000 to 2,500 yen per night. Keep in mind that the busier seasons will be even more costly. When looking at hostels, location matters. Often times, you’ll come across what looks like a killer deal only to discover the hostel’s inconvenient locale. In such cases, you’ll realize that you end up spending MORE money commuting by train than you would have spent on booking a more centrally located lodging. Be sure to run the numbers!

If hostels aren’t working out, the next logical option to explore is capsule hotels. While a bit of an experience unto themselves, this only-in-Japan style of accommodations does come with its own set of inconveniences. For starters, most capsule hotels do not allow daytime use meaning that you cannot use the facilities any time between checkout (around 10:00 AM) and the late afternoon. Also, many capsule hotels have recently started increasing their fees. Ever since the capsules caught on as a tourist gimmick, rental rates have increased accordingly. Moreover, you’ll find that many times the capsules are fully booked out, thereby defeating the original purpose of a capsule hotel as a last-minute place to crash.

For my female readers, you’ll want to know that capsule hotels are often male-only. Topics like gender discrimination aside, there’s a very good reason for this. Put succinctly, capsule hotels are a service that evolved to meet the needs of unfortunate salarymen who missed their last trains home. As such, the customer base has traditionally been overwhelmingly male. Additionally, capsule hotels typically provide communal bathing facilities; therefore, opening up to a female audience necessitates additional infrastructure. For this reason, many locations have stuck to their male-only roots. While it is becoming easier to find capsule hotels welcoming female guests, they remain the exception and not the norm. Luckily though, nowadays there are a number of hostels popping up featuring capsule-style bedding so consider giving one of these a try if you’re jonesing for the experience.

Using a manga cafe for accomodations is a super cheap way to travel in Japan

On an even tighter budget? Well, thankfully there are still some available options for you to consider (at least in major cities). To further cut down on costs, you’re going to want to look at crashing in an internet cafe. These 24-hour facilities have private booths and often come equipped with showers and free soft drinks. Simply, enter, register for a membership, and choose a plan based on the total number of hours you want to stay. Seeing you’re looking to sleep, I suggest you choose the option allowing you to reserve a private room. Lest you think that it would be hard to get some shuteye in an internet cafe, know that there’s an entire cohort of Japanese residents who essentially live in these facilities. Yes, they do tend to be on the fringes of society but it goes to show that you can get a good night’s sleep while staying in an internet cafe.

Note that many chains have food for sale and you can even rent bath towels and amenities to use in the on-site showers. Generally, prices vary based on the location, chain, time of day, and length of stay but you can typically expect to spend only 1,500 yen for a full night’s stay. Considering that this gives you access to a computer, as well as a large collection of manga, magazines, DVDs, and whatnot, internet cafes are a real bargain. Weekend prices are apt to run a bit higher than weekdays yet crashing at a place like this is by far the best bang-for-your-buck on the market. The downsides? You cannot store your luggage anywhere after you check out (see this article for a solution) and you cannot reserve a spot in advance for the following night.

In addition to internet cafes, there are also 24-hour bathhouses that can be another cheap alternative to traditional hotels. Though generally a bit more pricey than internet cafes, these options often provide a more comfortable stay. Typically, there will be a large communal bath and a variety of spaces to just lounge about and relax. Yes, you won’t have much privacy here but you can sleep soundly and safely stow your belongings in a locker. This is a particularly good option for weary travelers as a good soak in one of the hot baths can relieve your exhausted body and ensure a good night’s sleep afterwards. While you’ll be out of luck in some of the other regional cities, there are a number of options in bathhouses in Tokyo. Older facilities tend to be male-only but this is not the case with the more modern venues.

Osaka’s Nishinari Ward is a bit sketchy but it’s also cheap for budget travelers

Speaking of traveling outside of Tokyo, those who are visiting Osaka can really cut costs by staying at any of the rock-bottom cheap hotels in Nishinari Ward. The area has a reputation for being a little rough around the edges and many of the hotels there cater to Osaka’s day laborers. If you choose to stay here, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. First of all, the facilities are going to be bare bones basic and your room is guaranteed to run on the narrow side. Additionally, the bathing areas will almost always be shared (hours will be specified for men and women). Plan accordingly. As if this weren’t already enough to warrant spending a bit more on something more luxurious, know too that the buildings are often rundown and outdated. Lastly, while the Nishinari Ward hotels (if you can even call them that) are not adverse to overseas guests, don’t go expecting anyone to speak English.

One other cheap option for traveling outside the major cities is the site Homestay.com. Here, you can search for a Japanese host family that would be willing to put you up. While prices are a bit higher than what you’d pay at a hostel, they’re still quite reasonable. The major perk behind securing your stay here is that the host family will often offer to take you to places that would otherwise be hard to reach as a tourist. Similarly, you may have some luck with couch surfing but don’t expect there to be a plethora of options as it’s not a big thing here. Also, your personal safety cannot be guaranteed so this is definitely a “proceed with caution” alternative.

Cheap Travel in Japan: Transportation

Japan has all sorts of passes that allow for budget travelers to enjoy the country for cheap

Next up, let’s talk about transportation. Seeing as I’ve already covered budget travel options extensively in a separate article, I’m going to briefly discuss how to get around in the city. Thankfully, for those on a budget, Tokyo is not all that expensive to get around. Once you get beyond the outer rim of the central Yamanote Loop Line though, prices start to jump noticeably. As a general rule of thumb, the JR trains are usually slightly cheaper than using the subways. Additionally, the Tokyo Metro Lines are often cheaper than the Toei Lines. To figure out the cheapest routes, refer to Hyperdia or a similar service. Note also that buses rarely save you money unless they help you avoid having to make a train line transfer.

Now as ridiculously basic as this might sound, the best way to save money on train fares is to simply walk. Many of the stations within Tokyo are not that far apart and with regular usage of Google Maps, it’s not all that hard to navigate. Moreover, getting lost and exploring the backstreets of Harajuku and Shibuya is part of what makes Tokyo so much fun. For example, provided that you have a good pair of walking shoes, hoofing it from Shinjuku to Shibuya via Yoyogi park is a good way to kill half a day. Likewise, on the other side of Tokyo, the areas of Ginza, Shimbashi, and Yurakucho are all easily located within walking distance from one another. By hoofing it from place to place, you get to see the rarely explored side of Tokyo often hidden between the major stations.

When traveling by train is a must, be sure reference the maps to locate the stations within your destination. Chances are high that more than one rail company has a stop nearby. Finding the optimal route with the fewest inter-company transfers is key to reducing costs. For travel within Tokyo, Tokyo Metro offers hands-down one of the best daily pass deals exclusively for foreign travelers. For a 24-hour period, you can ride all Tokyo Metro and Toei subway lines for only 800 yen! It gets even cheaper if you buy a 48 or 72 hour pass which cost 1,200 and 1,500 yen, respectively. If you plan on frequent jaunts around the city then this option will save you a good chunk of change on transportation fares.

In addition to the Tokyo metro pass, JR also offers a pass that covers the use of JR trains, Tokyo Metro, and etc. for only 1,590 yen. This route is a bit pricier than the subway-only option, so there is little benefit to purchasing the pass if your plans target only central Tokyo. On the other hand, this pass may prove to be of good value if you are interested in exploring the outskirt reaches of the city.

Cheap Travel in Japan: Food & Drink

Convenience stores like 7-Eleven are a great option for budget travelers trying to enjoy Japan for cheap

One of the most impressive things about Japan is that no matter what your budget constraints are, it’s possible to find a decent meal at an affordable price. Many thrifty travelers recommend eating convenience store bento (boxed meals) to shave dining expenses. Though reasonably priced, these bento tend to be loaded with unhealthy substances and nasty oils that are anything but good for you. Lastly, opting for the convenience store will deprive you of the chance to sample Japan’s amazing culinary smorgasbord. With so many affordable alternatives, it’s hard to justify making a beeline for the 7-Eleven unless you’re short on time.

Still, you’re likely going to need to make do with convenience store fare at some point during your travels. Here are some of my favorites in a pinch…

  • Oden
    It’s hard to describe what exactly oden is. For starters, oden is slow-cooked a la carte food items such as tofu blocks, bundles of noodles called “shirataki,” thick slices of daikon radish, fish cakes, mochi pouches, boiled eggs, and skewered beef tendons in a light soup broth. You pick the items you like and put them into a takeaway bowl with some of the broth. Next, pick up some mustard or seasoning packets for added flavor. Oden is typically served during the colder months yet due to its popularity some conbini serve it year round. Oden is one of the best and most unique convenience foods to try in Japan.
  • Onigiri
    While convenience store are not the cheapest place to get onigiri (rice balls), they usually stock the most variety. These rice balls are commonly eaten for breakfast and cost approximately 100 yen each. Try to purchase some early in the morning before the stock gets depleted, otherwise you might get stuck with depressing selections like “tuna mayo” as the plum, grilled salmon, maguro wasabi, and other varieties get devoured first.
Budget travelers enjoy a bowl of udon for cheap in Japan
  • Cold Noodles
    Udon, somen, soba, and even pasta all come in variations meant to be eaten chilled. These cold noodle options tend to be available during the warmer months only. You can typically find these cold options available during the warmer months. Despite the accessibility of convenience stores, they aren’t always the cheapest options out there. This is especially true for lunch. In Tokyo, and other major cities, it’s really not difficult to find venues serving up something delicious for only 500 yen. In fact, many shops that specialize in noodles or rice bowls offer cheap prices throughout the day. Here are some chains to keep an eye out for.
  • Hot Noodles
    Other similar restaurants much like Hanamaru exist around Japan this chain is the most ubiquitous. You go in, grab a tray, and order your choice of base style udon noodles. Then, you can select individual pieces of tempura to add to your noodles. The regular sized noodles will be more than enough for most people. A meal here (noodles with tempura) will generally cost about 400 to 500 yen; the final tab can vary depending on what toppings you add.
  • Yoshinoya, Matsuya, Sukiya, Nakau
    These are cheap chain eateries scattered about everywhere. While Nakau has more noodle offerings on the menu, the other three chains focus on rice bowls (usually rice topped with beef or pork). Sukiya tends to have the best variety and Yoshinoya delivers the tastiest meat.
  • Coco-Ichi
    If you are a light-to-moderate eater, Coco-Ichi is another good choice for dining on a budget. Coco-Ichi’s typical menu tends to run between 800 and 1,100 yen yet options for half-sized portions available as well. If you are OK with the smaller amount of rice (which is still a pretty hearty size), you can scarf down on their curry-laden delectables for under 500 yen.
  • Sushi Restaurants
    Sushi generally doesn’t come to mind when thinking of cheap alternatives but there are actually some stellar deals around and especially so during lunch time. If you avoid the chain conveyor belt sushi joints and stay away from shops in train stations or department stores, you can actually find some affordable options. Many independent restaurants offer lunchtime rice bowls topped with slices of sashimi. Keep your eyes out for these affordable eateries while you’re out and about!
A budget traveler snags a deal at a supermarket in Japan

Lastly, those of you lucky enough to stay near a supermarket will be thrilled to know that you can often find some real steals. While convenience store onigiri will run you 100 yen or so, you can often snag these for just 60 yen at many supermarkets. Likewise, water and other beverages are much cheaper here too. What’s more, the ready-to-eat bento at these markets are often prepared on-site meaning that they are fresher than those offered by the ubiquitous convenience stores. As if this weren’t already enough reason to find the nearest supermarket, know that as the night draws to a close, the store will often discount any leftover bento. This is a great way to hunt for a discounted dinner so long as your taste buds allow for a variety of selections.

In addition to the supermarkets, one other thing to keep your eyes out for are the 100 yen Lawsons. As the name suggests, these convenience stores sell everything at 100 yen, alcoholic beverages included. You certainly don’t want to be eating all of your meals here but 100 yen Lawsons are the holy grails for cheap assery when it comes to quick breakfasts and snacks. Hell, you can even find bento priced at only a few hundred yen here!

Cheap Travel in Japan: Nightlife

A budget traveler enjoys a draft beer for cheap in Japan

Want to party until the wee hours of the morning but don’t have the money to drop on models and bottles? Well, fret not. Japan’s nightlife need not be excessively expensive. With that said, there are a few things that you should keep in mind. First of all, being on a tight budget is not an excuse to act like a cheapskate. Avoid being rude and doing things like showing up to a nightclub and trying to peek inside without paying cover. This isn’t going to go over well. Likewise, insisting on free drinks or trying to pilfer other patrons’ beverage is no way to act. There’s a big difference between keeping a night out cheap and acting like a classless jerk. Have fun but just don’t impede on the fun of others.

That out of the way, let’s talk about some ways to cut down on costs. In most cases, the biggest expense will be alcohol so consider pregaming with some booze bought at the convenience store. After all, it’s totally legal to drink outdoors in Japan so plan on taking full advantage of the law. Just don’t be an a drunken asshole; clean up your trash and don’t bother others. Note that the drink of choice for many foreigners looking to get buzzed is a unholy concoction called Strong Zero. If you don’t mind the artificial taste, these canned cocktails will put you on your ass in no time flat. You can find this fiendish invention at just about any place selling alcohol. Wait, there’s more, these beverages are totally on the cheap!

Is drinking on the street too crude for your refined budget tastes? Well, consider looking for what’s called a “tachinomiya.” These standing-only bars are usually the most affordable options on the market since the drinks are cheap and there’s no seating charge. One of the most popular standing bars in Shibuya is Tasuichi. You’ll find it located near the Outback Steakhouse. Alternatively, if you are in Shibuya and don’t fancy standing, try Coins Bar. Most drinks run about 300 yen and they have a rather extensive menu too. Tasuichi is located nearby Tokyu Hands.

Budget travelers party for cheap in one of Japan’s clubs

If you’re heading out for a club, it’s likely going to be an all-nighter for you. Trains stop after midnight and restart again around 4:30 AM or 5:00 AM. If you don’t want to pay for a taxi back to your place, pace yourself with the partying. Most locals don’t show up to nightclubs until around 12:30 AM. Many Tokyo clubs offer a hefty discount for early entry (though it may take a while for the crowd to pick up). Some venues also offer special discounts or even free entry for foreigners. If commercial music is your thing, look for the Camelot staff handing out flyers by the Scramble Crossing in Shibuya. The flyers usually include a coupon for foreigners. You can also head to Atom, where entrance fees before midnight is only 1,000 yen. Be forewarned though, you have to physically enter the club before midnight to get the discount, so don’t go last minute or you might get stuck in line only to find your discount has expired.

For other venues, you can search on iFlyer for discounts and pre-sale tickets. Tokyo’s biggest club ageHa also offers foreign travelers a discount at the door after showing a passport. There is a free shuttle bus to ageHa from Shibuya; a free return bus ticket is available once you enter the venue. Finally, one other route for getting cheap entry to club events is to scour Facebook and Twitter. Many DJs and performers will take guest list discounts which can lower the entrance fee by 30–50%. Try messaging them to RSVP in advance.

Cheap Travel in Japan: Getting Online

A budget traveler in Japan gets a cheap sim card for their smartphone

One of the biggest hassles frustrating many travelers to Japan is getting online access. Generally speaking, you only have two options, a pocket Wi-Fi router or a data only SIM card. Here, I typically suggest to go with the ever-affordable Sakura Mobile as they tend to provide great customer service. At the same time though, I realize that both the SIM and pocket Wi-Fi can be pricey for budget travelers. If you can forgo having a constant internet connection, there are some places throughout the major cities that feature free public Wi-Fi service. As a general rule, most major train stations and subways all have free connections available. Also, you can often access free Wi-Fi at convenience stores such as Lawson, Family Mart, and 7-Eleven.

One other hack that I have is to reserve an Airbnb. These days, many hosts offer pocket Wi-Fi routers with your stay as a means to up sell their listing. Should you not be so lucky with your Tokyo Airbnb, there’s still a way that you can get one for free. Just head on over to the Azumabashi Tourist Information Center (a.k.a the Visit Sumida Tourism Office). You will have to pay a 5,000 yen deposit but you can use the router for up to three days. When you return it, you’ll get your 5,000 yen back. You can even extend your rental simply by showing up on the scheduled return date and request to rent the Wi-Fi router again!

Cheap Travel in Japan: Shopping

A woman who is trying to travel for cheap in Japan goes shopping

Who says shopping in Japan needs to break the bank? With some strategic planning, you can land some pretty epic deals on a variety of goods. As far as clothing goes, there are two major sale periods when most stores advertise major discounts. The first of these is the New Year’s sales period, which usually gets under way on January 2. This is when all the fukubukuro (lucky bags) go on sale. If you are willing to get up early and wait in line, it is possible to get amazing deals. The downside? You don’t get to know the contents ahead of time so it’s a matter of luck. If you want to choose your own items though, you can still purchase items off the rack which are heavily discounted. The second major sale period usually starts during the first week of July and some sales continue throughout the month. This is by far one of the best sale periods for all types of apparel.

Thrift shops and used clothing stores are another option to check out. The secondhand stores in areas such as Harajuku tend to be expensive but the thrift stores on the outskirts of Tokyo have some real bargains. The best chain of thrift stores is King Family but unfortunately, most locations are quite a hike from the city center. Still, it’s worth a visit if you need some seasonal clothes during your stay in Japan (e.g., you live in a warm country but are visiting Japan in the winter and don’t want to spend a fortune on winter coats and sweaters). The King Family stores run a variety of discount promotions most weekdays. If you don’t want to make the trek to King Family, you’re more likely to find a Mode Off location within central Tokyo. Mode Off is slightly more expensive but still very reasonably priced for used clothing and accessories. Mode Off’s inventory includes many Japanese brand-name clothes and bags which tend to be in very good condition.

When it comes to electronics, if you are a foreign tourist in Japan, you can shop tax-free on purchases above 5,000 yen. This can knock quite a noticeable chunk off the price when buying electronics.You can also get some great deals on used electronics. Sofmap in Akihabara is the go-to location for resale. The condition and specs of computers and tablets are clearly labeled and a wide variety of devices are usually in stock. Alternatively, if you are shopping for books, magazines, manga, CDs, or video games on a tight budget, Book Off will be your best friend. The stores are generally very large and feature an array of good-quality pre-owned media. You can even find out-of-print books and CDs and video games for a bargain. Some locations even sell used tablets, cameras, gaming consoles, and accessories. Book Off reserves a section for English-language books.

Lastly, for make-up and the like, the legendary “discount store” Don Quixote known for its cheap prices is quickly becoming a popular place for purchasing cosmetics. However, many drug stores tend to offer considerable discounts too and are far more conveniently located than the Don Quixotes. Both options offer tax-free shopping for foreign tourists.