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Japan on the cheap: A user’s guide

Sunday, March 4th, 2007

Japan has long held the distinction as 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, and are geared more toward 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 JR pass. It is convenient, will get you just about anywhere in the country, and can be purchased (by non-residents only) and used year round. At $240 for a week, the pass in itself is not cheap. And since Japan offers no night train service you won’t save any money on accommodations. There is a much cheaper alternative for those with a flexible schedule.

I recommend the seishun ju-hachi kippu, which roughly translates to the youthful 18 ticket. Despite the name, the ticket has no age restrictions, but is only available three times a year during Japanese school holidays. The best time to come by far is the spring, with mild weather and the possibility of seeing some cherry blossoms. At only 11,500 yen (about $95 USD) it’s a real 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 last train. Because you won’t be allowed to take direct routes that bullet and express trains use, you’ll be required to transfer a lot if spanning long distances. If you have time and are reasonably comfortable negotiating foreign train stations, you shouldn’t have any problems traveling city to city with this ticket. I like the leisurely pace of local trains, the more remote places these routes often take you, and the opportunity to meet more 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 is cheap.


My favorite places to rest my weary bones are rogue camping, internet cafes, and love hotels.

Let’s start with the cheapest being free camping. I should say that this does come with some possible risks, but is pretty 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 in the medium sized town I used to live in. If you set up camp late and get up early the chances of having police run-ins are pretty low. Japan is one of the most non-confrontational places on Earth, so even if some early risers find you camped out, chances are they won’t bother you. Just be respectful.

I prefer camping in mountains to parks. Japan is mostly mountainous, and most of these are undeveloped and covered in a meticulous grid of industrial cedar with sparse ground cover; perfect for spending a night. You can use Google Earth to find more rural stations within walking distance of mountains. There are also a limited amount 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. There is more of an exclusive feel about the cafes here, and indeed some require a small introductory membership fee. This charge has its perks, with many cafes offering free drink service, showers, and even laundry. The internet is just 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 of shut eye, or even 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, so sleeping shouldn’t be a problem. Make sure you check with the cleanliness and amenities of the place before you sign up for your member’s card. Internet cafes are a great place to spend a night in the big cities if you don’t want to spring for a solo love hotel room.

This brings us to the most interesting accommodation in Japan. Love hotels range in price from 5,000 to 10,000 yen a night depending on room and location. These are comparable in price to business hotels but are far more spacious and fun. For couples traveling together the experience is a must. The rooms are often lavishly decorated and everything is clean despite most people’s preconceived images of by-the-hour sex hotels. Many also offer free karaoke and movie selections if you can figure out the remote control. Even if you’re traveling solo these places are a good bet. Also, 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, and the door unlocks. Some require money up front paid through a slot in the door, and others have vending machine pay stations in the room. In this country notorious for infidelity, discretion is crucial.


If your trying to see Japan on the cheap you can forget all of 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 sticker 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 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. I know it doesn’t sound very glamourous to travel all the way to Asia 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, and socializing with friends in izakayas. If you stick to 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:

Beer: 500-600 yen eating out, 150-280 yen in stores
Ramen: 450-800 yen
Convenience/grocery store bento/sushi 200-500 yen
Izakaya food 700-1200 yen each
The key to an enjoyable, cheap trip in Japan is to be flexible and remember that paying more doesn’t always ensure more 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 5000 yen and been stuffed at a noodle shop for 1000. And if you’re out to have a true Japanese experience, whatever this image looks like for you, realize that in modern Japan the 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, and regardless of how much you shell out, it will be unforgettable.

The walk home: Can there possibly be another final leg?

Sunday, January 7th, 2007

I caught the last train from Moriya to Mitsukaido on the Joso line at 1:10am. This was better than I had expected. Considering I boarded my first train of the day in Nara at 2pm, I had really done well in my travels. The problem is that I live in Ishige, five short stops north of Mitsukaido. I would have rather been stranded in Moriya for the night where I would have had no choice but to camp. Now I am stuck a mere 12 kilometers from my bed and shower. The choice is obvious. I can walk 12 km in less than 4 hours, the time before the trains start again, so walking it will be. The curry plate from 7-eleven isn’t treating my stomach very kindly. Probably not the best choice after going so long without food. This trip is all about starvation. My feet are well rested after my epic train ride. With a crack of the beer I’m off.

It turned out being a 2.5 hour, three beer (two tallboys and a shorty) trip. At the halfway point I was no longer fresh, I was dragging. But soon the white silhouette of the Ishige community center/castle could be seen standing out from the black night sky. No matter how long I walked it always appeared to stay the same distance away. But I made it.

From Seoul to my apartment, I traveled over land and sea approximately 1,060 miles (1,700 km), and saw a lot in these wonderful two weeks. It is always nice to return home.

Japanese travel: Kanto or Kansai?

Sunday, January 7th, 2007
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Saturday, January 6th, 2007
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The final leg: Train travel at it’s best

Saturday, January 6th, 2007
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Blue skies in Nara

Friday, January 5th, 2007

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I hate Japanese Giant Flying Squirrels, don’t you?

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Youthful 18 ticket travel (seishun ju-hachi kippu)

Friday, January 5th, 2007
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Osaka: Japanese life at a higher resonance

Thursday, January 4th, 2007
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Himeji Castle

Thursday, January 4th, 2007
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