When it comes to incredible travel destinations, few places capture the imagination like Japan. From the sprawling streets of futuristic Tokyo to the historic temples of Kyoto to laid back beaches Okinawa, Japan boasts a mix of past and present like no other country in the world.
It’s modern, safe, easy to navigate, and really does have something for everyone. Best of all, most travellers only visit the same few cities, so there are tons of off-the-beaten-path destinations in the country too.
However, unlike many other countries in Asia, Japan is not a budget-friendly destination. That means that, without proper planning, you can easily overspend and break the bank here.
Fortunately, there are a handful of ways you can save money in Japan while still having a fun and adventurous trip. Here are 8 ways to save money in Japan:
- Skip the train
The most common way to get around Japan is by train. Their bullet trains are super fast and super clean — but they are also super expensive. If you’re on a budget, you’ll want to avoid taking the train as much as possible. There are lots of bus options (including night buses) which, while not as comfortable, will be a fraction of the price of a train.
If you are set on taking the train but want to save some money, get a Japan Rail Pass. They come in 7, 14, and 21-day passes and provide flexible and unlimited train travel. If you want to see a lot in a short period of time, get a pass. You’ll save a fortune over buying individual tickets.
- Head to the islands
If you’re going to be in Japan for a while, head south. Okinawa and the surrounding islands are half the price of mainland Japan. Hostels, food, transportation — they are all cheaper here. There is also a much more laid back atmosphere here too. Naha, the capital of Okinawa, is pretty much the opposite of Tokyo. It’s like the Hawaii of Japan so come here if you want to slow down, relax, save money, and beat the crowds.
Some of the best islands to visit are Tokashiki, Kume, Iriomote, and Ishigaki. While you might have to spend some extra money getting this far south, you’ll be far from the crowds and able to enjoy a cheaper daily cost of living. And a bonus, the beaches down here is world-class.
- Stay with a local
While there are not a ton of active locals on Couchsurfing in Japan, there are a lot of expats living here who use the app to connect with travellers. Since they are immersed in Japanese life and culture, they often enjoy a chance to connect with travellers who share their original language or culture. Use the Couchsurfing app to connect with locals or expats and get free accommodation in the process.
Even if you don’t want to stay with someone you can still use the app to connect with locals (and other travellers) to meet them for coffee, a meal, a visit to a museum, etc., it’s just a great app to be social and get tips.
If you’re on a flexible schedule and are feeling adventurous, try hitchhiking. While it’s not common for locals, many Japanese love to pick up foreign hitchhikers because it gives them a chance to practice their language skills. It’s super easy to do in Okinawa and the islands, but you’ll also have an easy time finding rides in the rest of the country as well.
And since Japan is a safe country, you don’t need to worry here either. Just have a clear sign and look presentable. Learning a few words or phrases in Japanese will go a long way too (though having Google Translate works as well). If you’ve never been hitchhiking but have wanted to give it a try, this is a great country for a test run.
- Eat cheap
If you’re on a tight budget, you’ll want to avoid eating out in Japan. Restaurants with table service are pricey so, while you might want to treat yourself on occasion when it comes to the rest of your meals, you’ll want to eat cheap. For that, head to 7-Eleven (or other convenience store chains).
They have basic meals like pre-packaged sushi, rice balls, tofu, and much more. You’ll see the locals buying them too because they are a great deal and an easy way to snack during the day.
You can also eat curry, ramen, and donburi for cheap as well. There are plenty of small food stalls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants selling them. I essentially lived off these three foods for three weeks in Japan because you can find them for just $3-8 USD — a bargain in Japan.
- Avoid the cherry blossom season
The most expensive time to visit Japan is in the spring when the cherry blossoms are blooming. Locals and tourists alike flock to see the blossoms anywhere they can be found. That means many areas get incredibly crowded and overrun. Accommodation prices also skyrocket during this time and need to be booked in well in advance.
If you’re on a budget, avoid visiting in April and early May to avoid cherry blossom season and the chaos that comes with it.
- Work for your room
Most hostels in Japan will let you work in exchange for your accommodation. If you plan on being in Japan for a while, working for your room can save you a lot of money. Accommodation is usually 30% of your budget (or more), so if you can trade a few hours a day for a free room, you’ll save yourself a lot of money. Hostels are always looking for help, so just ask at the front desk. It’s easy work and will save you a ton.
Other resources for finding hostel work exchanges are Helpx.net, Workaway.info, and Worldpackers.com.
Another tip is to stick to one hostel chain, there a few big hostel chains which have hostels in about every city in Japan, the more you use them the bigger the discount gets.
- Get free flights
If you’re flying from North America or Europe, flights to Japan aren’t cheap (they usually cost upwards of $1,000 round trip). That’s a lot of money for a budget traveller and is going to be a massive expense. But it doesn’t have to be.
If you have access to travel credit cards, sign up for them today. I’ve earned countless free flights, upgrades, and hotel stays thanks to travel hacking (I even stayed in hotels a couple of nights in Japan thanks to cashing in my points).
There are tons of awesome travel credit cards out there, and while the best ones are found in the US, there are lots of options for Canadians and Europeans as well.
And you don’t need to do any extra spending either. Just shop as you usually do and the points will add up. To give yourself a boost, sign up before the holidays. You’ll likely be doing a lot of extra holiday shopping which means you could be earning a lot of points (we just released our best gift for travelers guide if you’re looking for a way to rack up those points too!)
I had an amazing time during my visit to Japan. The nightlife was fun, the food was delicious, there was tons of history, and there were lots of weird and wonderful attractions that I had never seen anywhere else in the world. Throw in some beautiful nature, and you’ve got the recipe for an incredible country.
But as amazing as it is, it’s also very easy to blow your budget here. Going over budget can ruin your trip or send you home early — and nobody wants that.
So, if you can embrace some (or all) of the suggestions above you’ll be able to save a ton of money during your visit. Japan will never be as cheap as China or Southeast Asia, but it doesn’t need to break the bank either.