Japan is known as one of the most expensive countries in the world—and unfortunately, there’s a lot to this reputation.
From the cost of hotels and traditional ryokan in major cities to the fact that all but the simplest meals will set you back thousands of yen, Japan is not a country the most bare-bones travelers can afford to visit, period.
Smart budget travelers, however, can greatly cut their Japan travel costs by keeping a few simple strategies in mind.
Here are my top budget travel tips for Japan, which I’ll follow up with an overview of what you can realistically expect to spend on your trip.
Buy a Japan Rail Pass
Allow me to be as clear as possible: If you plan to travel in more than one city in Japan, you need to buy a Japan Rail Pass.
A JR pass, as it’s usually known, affords you unlimited* train travel in Japan, including on the super-fast Shinkansen bullet train.
The most important part of the Japan Rail Pass, however, besides being convenient and easy (you simply flash your pass at any JR ticket gate) is its value.
A one-week pass costs only slightly more than a single round-trip between Tokyo and Kyoto; two- and three-week variants provide similarly high ROI.
*There are some exceptions to this rule, such as the Nozomi variant of the Shinkansen, but they’re few and far between.
Learn the Many Ways to Eat Cheap in Japan
Japan is home to the best convenience stores in the world, from global favorite 7/11, to homegrown chains like Family Mart and Lawson, which have since spread across Asia.
The bento meal boxes, onigiri rice balls and various snacks sold at Japanese kombini are a delicious way to eat cheap in Japan, but they’re not your only choice.
Japanese fast food conglomerates like Yoshinoya offer donburi rice bowls for ¥500 or even less, while you can enjoy a simple sushi meal for under ¥1,000 all over the country, including in Tokyo.
To say nothing of Japanese street food like takoyaki octopus fritters and fried yakisoba noodles, which you can buy with just a few 100-yen coins.
Diversify Your Accommodation
Logic might tell you that the best way to sleep cheap in Japan is to always stay in hostels, as is the case in many parts of Europe, but this is not always true.
For instance, “business hotel” rooms in many cities, including Tokyo, can be had for under $100 per night, which can mean that your per-person accommodation expenditure might be less than you’d pay for a hostel bed.
Additionally, traditional ryokan guest houses have become more expensive as they’ve become more sought after, but they can be surprisingly affordable choices in smaller cities, such as Asahikawa in Hokkaido and Shikoku island’s Kochi city.
Still another option (perhaps the most uniquely Japanese one) is to sleep in a “capsule hotel,” which offers a private room…er, pod that’s often cheaper than a bed in a hostel.
Load Up on Free Attractions
Many travelers to Japan find themselves disappointed when they realize that some of the country’s temples (and there are a lot of temples in Japan) charge entry fees, often ¥500 per person or even higher.
While this is a bummer, Japan is full of free attractions and experiences, including some you might not expect to be free.
Ascending the JR Tower in Sapporo, for example, to enjoy a panorama of Hokkaido’s capital, is free.
To be sure, since much of the pleasure of traveling Japan comes from enjoying street life or nature, you might save money be strolling along Osaka’s Dotonbori pedestrian street, or hiking the Nakasendo Way in the Japanese Alps, for just a couple of prominent examples.
Take Advantage of Tax-Free Shopping
It might surprise you, since Japan is one of the world’s most expensive countries, but it can be one of the cheapest places in the world to buy certain items, namely electronics.
This is because hundreds of items in Japan are available to tourists on a completely tax-free basis, from digital cameras, to computers and beyond.
Conveniently, the tax is deducted at the point of sale (though you do need to present your passport), which saves you from having to wait in line at the airport for a refund, as you have to do in some countries.
Don’t Worry Too Much About the Season
Cherry blossom season is the best time to visit Japan, and the most popular, which makes most people think it’s inherently unaffordable.
In fact, the problem sakura travelers to Japan usually face is securing accommodation at all, as it can fill up weeks or even months in advance. Of course, while Japan in spring is a revelation, you can enjoy yourself in any season.
Likewise, with the exception of the national “Golden Week” holiday in May, none of Japan’s seasonal spectacles raise prices to a prohibitive level—they’re already very high, let’s be honest.
Leave Room for a Splurge or Two
Even if you’re traveling Japan on a shoestring budget (relatively speaking), you should leave some yen for a splurge on the finer things—Japan has more of them, perhaps, than any other country in the world.
You might decide to drop a lot of dough on an experience, such as riding Mario Karts through the center of Tokyo, or on a luxury experience like staying one night at a five-star ryokan in Kanazawa, or dining at one of the (at least) 234 Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo.
However you end up spoiling yourself, this should be great motivation to save on daily travel costs in Japan.
These Are Great Tips, But How Much Does Japan Actually Cost?
Generally speaking, the minimum you can expect to spend in Japan is $50 per person, per day—and that’s if you’re traveling using all the suggestions I’ve listed above, and as a couple or group of 3-4 that shares a hotel room most days.
You can expect to expect more if you’re a single traveler, if you indulge in more than a fancy meal or two or if you choose not to buy a JR pass.
In general, a more realistic target for the cost of travel in Japan might be $100 per person, per day. (Editors note: see how we budget for travel here)
The Bottom Line
Japan is not a cheap destination, no matter how well you plan or budget. You can save a lot of money on your Japan trip, however, if you plan carefully and travel strategically.
From big-picture strategies like ordering a Japan Rail Pass, to day-to-day hacks like eating convenience store bento boxes, smart travelers almost never pay rack rate on anything in Japan.
On the other hand, Japan is filled with priceless experiences and timeless destinations that will impact you far past the point you replenish your bank account.
Robert Schrader is a writer and photographer who’s obsessed with Japan. He documents his frequent travel to the country on Japan Starts Here, a new resource he hopes will inspire all your trips to Japan. Make sure to follow Japan Starts Here on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. All images are property of the author.