Location: Tokyo, Japan
Siu On and I have traveled through Japan twice so far, spending a month in Hokkaido as well as a jammed pack three week trip visiting the major cities (and then some) in Honshu, and I can understand the misconception of Japan being an expensive destination to the budget traveller. However contrary to popular belief, Japan doesn’t have to be as expensive as people make it out to be, if you know where to save your money and how that is. Allow me to confirm that, yes, you can save money on accommodation, transportation, food and drink, sightseeing and even souvenir shopping; and I know because I’ve done it! Japan can be as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be, so here’s a run down on how you can experience Japan without the price tag by planning ahead and getting off the beaten track.
First of all I want to mention the main websites that have helped Siu On and I with getting the best value for money experience in Japan, and should be your first port of call when planning your Japan trip. If you want to save, you’ll need to do a little planning.
- The official Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO) website: Great for its free to download maps, guides, and suggested itineraries (especially this one!)
- HyperDia: For all your transport planning.
- Japan Guide: More information than you can even begin to imagine.
These three sites in particular were a real goldmine for not only the advice that they contain, but also because in a fast moving city like Japan, information gets outdated quickly and these sites we found were always up-to-date.
My other two big pieces of advice (and this is applicable to any place you visit really) is to travel during off peak or shoulder seasons, which in Japan is late autumn through March (excluding the New Year period). Although Cherry Blossom season in Kyoto or Autumn Foliage season in Tokyo may be picture perfect times of the year, but they are the most expensive and busiest of the year. You’ll also want to avoid all of the Japanese holiday periods especially Golden Week in late April to early May, and Obon week in mid August. My other advices is to include or swap out some of the larger and costlier cities for smaller ones or countryside areas. Tokyo and Kyoto are both popular and expensive cities, but you can get a similar taste and feel for both these cities by visiting Sapporo (like a smaller Tokyo) and Koyasan (with it’s spiritual and traditional feel that’s reminiscent of a quieter Kyoto).
Space in all the Japanese cities is a premium that you will pay for. This will be one of your biggest expenses and the best way to save is through dropping your standards and kissing good bye your dreams of a Scar-Jo ‘Lost in Translation’ stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo (one of Tokyo’s most expensive hotels). Alternatively you can save on accommodation through hostel stays, couchsurfing or using AirBnB. Siu On and I on our last trip to Japan did a two week stay at a ski school in Niseko through the work exchange website, Workaway, which saved us a lot of money and allowed us to see an area more in depth.
Depending on how much and how far you plan on traveling within Japan, the Japan Rail Pass can save you a bundle on your transport costs; however it’s still wise to check and see if it will be economical for you, and you can read my Japan Rail Pass post here. In addition to the JR Pass, if you will be in Tokyo for longer than two days and using the subway a lot then consider purchasing either a SIUCA or PASMO card, which despite the upfront cost will save you some Yen every time you swipe it and make using the transport system easier. I also recommend taking advantage of bicycle hire as a lot of hostels and hotels offer very cheap bicycle rental in addition to your stay (which Siu On and I used in both Kyoto and Kanazawa). Lastly, although I have heard and read about people hitch hiking their way around Japan, it is technically illegal so I don’t really encourage it.
Food and drink
Fact: Japan has the most Michelin Starred restaurants in the world. So don’t eat at any of these places and instead look for meal specials at restaurants. Usually they will be for early meal times (i.e. late afternoon for lunch special or early evening for dinner) with a set menu, but the food is still pretty good and you can have some space and quiet while you eat your meal. Supermarkets are also great for specials as many will mark down food sets (such as sushi bento sets for 70% off) at the end of the day, and the basements of the major department stores are dedicated to fancy food brands and stores, with some giving free samples.
On a side note, despite the many beer breweries in Japan, beer is heavily taxed and expensive so it’s actually cheaper to buy spirits or wine. And if the quirky allure of those alcoholic vending machines are calling you (and who doesn’t want to buy a bottle of sake on a random residential street corner?!) be warned that they are ridiculously expensive! Alcohol can be bought for much cheaper at the supermarket or even the local SeicoMart.
Can’t resist bringing some weird Japanese souvenirs back for your family and friends? Neither can I. One of the awesome things about Japan is that a lot of their stuff is actually really well made, and even cheap things from the aisles of the 100 Yen store and the Daiso Store will make for great gifts at a low price. For items a little more upmarket and unique, you can’t go past Tokyo Hands, aka the Creative Life Store. This place sells everything Japanese and Japanese made on multiple floors of crafters heaven! It will either be a shoppers paradise or an indecisive’s nightmare (i.e. me crying on the stationary floor overwhelmed by the choice). The prices here aren’t too bad as they offer foreigners who present their passport a 5% discount, and certain department stores will refund you the Japanese goods tax on purchases over a certain amount.
As with most large cities, sights that will be free include parks, temples and shrines; although you can also add observation decks, unique neighborhoods and even cemeteries to the cheap list (and Japanese cemeteries are not morbid in the slightest) for things that are bit off the beaten track. And I’ve compiled for you a list of free sights (and is by no means an exhaustive list) that Siu On and I visited on both our trips to Japan and do recommend.
- The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building observation deck in Shinjuku, has free views from the 45th floor out onto Tokyo and beyond.
- Ueno Park to see the famous water lilly covered Shinobazu Pond.
- Yoyogi Park which includes the Meiji Shrine.
- At Yanaka Cemetery you’ll find the grave of the last shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Yoshinobu and it’s close to Ueno Park.
- Get some quirky Japanese popular culture in at Shimokitazawa or Harajuku (especially on a Sunday), watch the world’s busiest street crossing in Shibuya from the Starbucks opposite Shibuya station, and rub shoulders with pilgrims and tourists alike around Asakusa’s temple area; because people watching is free and in the slightest creepy in Japan!
- The Imperial East Garden is also free, and there’s usually free admission into the grounds of most shrines and temples.
- Visit a shrine or fifty, with Tokyo’s most famous including Meiji Jingu Shrine, Yasukuni Shrine, Sensoji Temple (in Asakusa) and Zojoji Temple (near Tokyo Tower); and all are free.
- Kyoto loves a good festival, and if you time your visit right you can enjoy some free festivities including the Gion and Giozan Matsuri’s (festivals).
- Check out the Nishiki Market, also called ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen’ for a gander at the different food on offer.
- See more shrines (if you haven’t already), including the Yasaka Shrine and Fushimi Inari shrine (the one with the line of red torii gates).
- More temples including Higashi (East) Honganji Temple, Nishi (West) Honganji Temple, Chionin Temple, as well as Shimogamo and Kamigamo Shrine, which are all free to visit.
- Wander the historical and authentic narrow lane ways of Higashiyama District and Gion-Shijo.
- Admire the foliage at Maruyama Park and follow the canals along the Philosopher’s Path.
- A little further afield from Kyoto is the ethereal Bamboo Grove in the Arashiyama neighborhood (handy tip, get there really early to have the place to yourself!).
- Dotonbori street for shopping, eating, people watching and seeing big neon signs (maybe avoid it at night if you have epilepsy, since even I walked away with a headache from the bright and blinking lights) and Amerika-mura streets for Osaka’s answer to Tokyo’s Harajuku.
- Wander the gardens of Osaka Castle Park for a break from the busy city.
- The Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome, aka A-Bomb Dome) serves as a permanent memorial to the atrocities of World War II and a constant reminder for peace.
- Hiroshima Peace memorial park is dedicated to the legacy of the first atomic bomb, and contains many memorial to the victims. I might also add that the Museum is only 50 Yen to enter which is the cheapest museum and probably the best one in Japan – so go!
- Omi-cho Market is great to wander around, although the prices are really good so hard to walk away without buying anything to eat!
- Higashi Chaya District (Geisha District) is a well preserved area of traditional Geisha entertainment buildings, and now houses many tea houses and shops.
- Nagamachi District (Samurai District) and the Ashigaru Shiryokan Museum (Takada Family Home), see the old Samurai houses and look inside one.
- See the free permanent exhibits at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art.
- Head out to Maruyama Park to see a variety of Japanese trees (especially striking during the Autumn foliage season), and is also home to the Hokkaido Shrine that is also free to enter.
- The Sapporo Beer Museum gives visitors a great overview into the history of beer making in Japan, as well as the company’s long history, although beer tastings are no longer free.
In addition to these suggestions, there are some free walking tour companies in the major cities, however, Siu On and I hadn’t done one so I can’t vouch for any. If you have done a free walking tour in Japan and thought it was an amazing money saving tool, leave me some comments on our Facebook page! And if you want to check out more of my posts on Japan, you can see them all right here.
All photography by Jelena Stipanicev.