Japan it’s a dream destination for many, but often I’ve heard people considering it impossible because of the high costs.
Even though Japan is not a cheap country this guide will introduce you to how to travel Japan on a budget. We stayed three full months there, the whole duration of the free Visa, with around 1,500€ for two persons.
Our trip was done bicycle touring, but most of this guide could be used by hitchhikers, walkers and all sort of backpackers with a little adventurous spirit.
Nothing could beat though the freedom of the bicycle, Japan it’s a very easy destination for bicycle touring beginners so consider buying a bike.
Japan is way more than Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and slow travel it’s the best way to completely experience this magic country. The real Japan is in the countryside and the small towns, and those are good places to go for a budget traveler.
This guide is based on our sole experience, so please contribute in the comments!
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How to sleep for free in Japan
We slept often in Jinja, or Shinto shrines. They are everywhere and you often can find a roof to stay dry and a water pipe, sometimes even electric plugs. Cemeteries are also another options.Anyway, we never really had problems in finding somewhere to pitch the tent (even though in the urban areas it could be hard and less nice, with highway bridges being the most obvious option).
Random host: to open his house to a stranger it’s a very uncommon thing for a Japanese. That being true, we have been hosted by people we didn’t know directly for almost a month in Tokyo area anyway. The thing is, we may say, that a Japanese is willing to offer his/her wonderful hospitality if you are introduced by somebody or first made friend with him/her.
Accommodations: hotels and B&B are crazily overpriced in Japan, this is where the stereotype of the expansive Japan becomes true. We hadn’t checked that so much but saw nothing for less than 50€ for one room in a love motel. So much overpriced they are, that outside the main touristic area you will see many abandoned hotels. Many Japanese prefer to sleep in the car for their weekend out. It’s pretty common also for families.
There are secret free or super-cheap accommodations in the center of Osaka and Kyoto.
In Osaka there’s a free campground in the Tsurumi Ryokuchi park (GPS coordinates: N 34° 43′ 00.2 E 135° 34′ 05.7).
It’s an official campground, all you need to do is register. This being Japan, the safest country in the world, you don’t have to worry much when leaving your belongings there and going to explore the surprisingly quiet city of Osaka.
In Kyoto you can stay at the student dorm for 200Y (1.5€), it’s a dirty place, but also very funny. Staying here you get to experience the real lifestyle of Japanese university students. In the dorm, there’s a kitchen (good luck) with a music rehearsal room inside, a pool table and draught beer. You can easily stumble upon some theater, art, or music performance. The campus’ gym nearby is free to access.
(Kyoto student dorm open to travelers GPS coordinates: N 35° 01′ 41.5 E 135° 46′ 42.2).
So even in Japan, if you know where to look there’s always chance to find super-cheap accommodations for those on a budget.
how to get cheap food
Japan is very famous for food and its fame is definitely deserved!
Restaurants though are not for the budget traveler, expect to pay 5€ for the cheapest bowl of ramen (Japanese noodles in broth).
So, how do we experience the Japanese food on a budget?
No problems, there are many ways.
Convenience Stores (combini)
In the beginning, it’s easy to stick to combini (7Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson and other convenience stores).
They have a choice of bento (all kind of precooked food) that you can warm up in the microwave at the store, you also can get free hot water if needed.
The food in this kind of places it’s not so good but there’s usually a lot of choice of rice and meat, onigiri (rice balls), various noodles and even some “Italian style” spaghetti.
Think at the convenience store as an all in one station: you have wi-fi (see “connectivity” below), toilet, drinkable water, food and drinks, and not less important a place where to throw your garbage, almost impossible to find elsewhere. But you wouldn’t experience much of the Japanese cuisine here.
But the best choice is for sure Supermarkets.
Japan has among the best supermarkets in the world, according to my experience. Here you can find almost everything you are dreaming of. Most of them, not just the biggest, have a kitchen and they prepare their bento on the spot.
Stuff is much more fresh here, it’s very easy to find eight very good pieces of sushi for 3€. A lot of choices and more similar to what you could find in a cheap/budget restaurant.
The secret hint? One or two ours before closing time they will give from 20% to 50% discount on all the bento. Eight nice sushi for 1.50€? Not bad I would say.
Moreover, if camp-cooking is your thing, in Japanese supermaket you can get all sort of ingredients from all over the world, and some are quite cheap!
Fruits and vegetable are infamously expansive but you always find up to 90% discount on expiring veggies and they are still good for one or two days. Not more they could live in my bags anyway.
We spent a lot of time in Japanese supermarkets figuring out how to get a great meal and we often succeeded.
Another secret tip for budget travelers in Japan are the Discount stores.
Those are apparently big cosmetic and soaps shops, but they always have a food department. Here you can find precooked udon and noodles for 17Y, sauces to dress them for 0.5€ (tomato sauce, carbonara, mushroom cream).
Sorts of jam for your breakfast, frozen onigiri and other frozen stuff that will quickly de-froze in your bags. Also, the cheap beer is to be found here.
Seasonal fruit and vegetables are easy to find for road travelers in the rural area. Just beside the roads there are stalls with packs of them for a cheap price, if there’s nobody there leave the money in the box. This is Japan.
But the best and only real way to experience the authentic Japanese cuisine is to have a Japanese person cooking especially for you, so make friends! Japanese people can be very shy but they are warm in their heart.
Drinking water it’s available everywhere since tap water is drinkable in Japan. Convenience stores (combini) and gas station also have toilets.
Having a proper shower is not hard, onsen and public baths are everywhere and can be very cheap, ranging from 1€ (even free in Beppu, maybe also elsewhere). You can stay here as long as you want, until closing time (usually in the evening).
If you are in Kyushu during the warm season, you can enjoy plenty of waterfalls and rivers where to rinse yourself from the sweat.
This is really hard. We can compare Japan to central Asia regarding the amount of English speakers, close to 1% probably. Some of them will understand if you write down some sentences. Speak very slow and very basic English, try to imitate the Japanese pronunciation (for “hot” they say “hotto” for example) and learn some basic Japanese, numbers and greetings will get you sincere smiles.
Free wi-fi connections are available at most convenience stores (7eleven, Family Mart, Lawson) upon subscription on a website, those usually have one hour per day limit but if you subscribe it all you will never be without the internet. There are convenience stores everywhere in Japan.
Free public wireless connection is not so common like in Korea.
Getting a Japanese SIM card and telephone number is instead impossible, only Japanese citizens can get those. You can rent a phone with a fixed SIM card but that’s apparently pretty expensive. So forget bout data connection, take a break from social networks.
Generically speaking, roads in Japan are quite good, though is not rare to find potholes in secondary roads. Long cycling paths are not as common as in South Korea and roads could be sometimes very narrow and with medium/heavy traffic. However, it’s often possible to stick to minor roads, wich are usually beautiful and with fewer vehicles.
If you’re bored by some busy stretch or in a rush to get somewhere and willing to throw your bike on a bus, forget about it. Normally long distance buses won’t accept bicycles as luggage and so will do the trains.
Moreover, they are both quite expensive, especially trains. That’s another thing that makes a bicycle trip by far the cheaper option to experience Japan on a budget, but you have to ride it all (if you want your wallet happy).
Hitchhiking is possible and safe but not super easy. Again the Japanese “shyness” maybe.
Criminal threats are the last of your worries here, Japan is the safest country in the world. You can leave your wallet on the table of the bar and go for a walk, no problem.