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Backpacking Japan

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Cycling and Backpacking Japan on a budget
a blog post to budget down your trip to Japan

Cycling or backpacking Japan is a dream 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 budget travel Japan. 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, or make one out of junk.

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!
Subscribe our YouTube channel for the upcoming travel videos about Japan if you like.

Check also

The perfect Itinerary in Japan for bicycle travelers and backpackers

13 off-the-beaten-path destinations in Japan


5 advice for cycling or backpacking Japan on a budget

  • Sleep in a tent, use hospitality networks
  • Buy your food in supermarkets
  • Get a shower in a cheap onsen or public bath, or straight from the waterfalls in summer
  • Move around by bicycle, walking, hitchhiking or use local trains
  • Use Wi-Fi connection from convenience stores
budget travel japan

free camping in the Shinto shrine. Is doable in Japan, mystical experience guarantee

Sleeping

How to sleep for free in Japan

Free camping (also called wild camping) is definitely the best choice in Japan. It’s allowed and it’s easy to find so many beautiful spots, especially if you’re out of the urban areas.
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).
Many Japanese, even families, sleep in their cars during their holidays, this is considered perfectly normal. If you plan on renting a car, be sure to get one suited for the purpose, that could save you literally thousands of dollars.

Warmshowers and Couchsurfing are widespread in Japan but many members don’t speak English and so often are shy about hosting you. Give it a try anyway, we met very beautiful people.

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 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. That’s why so many Japanese prefer to sleep in the car for their weekend out.


Where to sleep in Osaka and Kyoto almost for free

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. The dorm is open to backpackers and all sorts of travelers.
(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 cycling or backpacking Japan on a budget.

budget street food japan

homemade Takoyaki. There’s octopus inside!

food

Where to get cheap food in Japan

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). The convinence stores are your best friends when cycle touring or backpacking Japan.

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 won’t experience much of the Japanese cuisine here.

backpacking Japan

the Japanese supermarket experience

Japanese supermarkets

But the best choice to find budget food when backpacking or cycling Japan 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 fresher 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 hours 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 supermarkets 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 much 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.

budget travel Japan homemade Japanese food

nothing can beat the home cooking experience in Japan

Japanese Discount Stores

Another secret tip for budget travelers in Japan is 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 cheaper 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.

Japan trip budget cheap

water is not a problem in Japan. One of the many waterfalls of Kyushu

Water Supplies

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.

japan backpacking

making friend with Japanese is not so difficult!

Communication

This is really hard. We can compare Japan to central Asia regarding the number 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.


Connectivity

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 about data connection, take a break from social networks.

2018 Update! There are now several short-term SIM card options in Japan, check this article out to learn more.

cycle Touring Japan

the quiet roads of the Japanese Alps

Cycling the Japanese Roads

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, which are usually beautiful and with fewer vehicles.


Weather

Japan is a big country that stretches from the tropical climate of Kyushu and Okinawa to the Siberian winds blowing over Hokkaido. Thus bicycle touring in Japan is easy all year round. Go south in Winter and north in Summer, if what you’re looking for is not extreme climates, if that’s the case do the opposite. Cycling in Hokkaido must be amazing in winter, but you’ll need the proper gear. Autumn and Spring are great everywhere, red maple leaves the former and cherry blossom the letter.
japan budget travel

autumn in Japan and it’s wonderful colors

Budget Transportations in Japan

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 fast 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.


Safety

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.

Go to part two, our suggested itinerary for a road trip in Japan

cycle touring Japan

bicycle touring in Japan. A friendly country for your first bicycle trip

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Budget Travel in Japan

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17 Responses

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    I happened to my husband and wanted to go to Japan tomorrow. and I find articles that match with me on your blog. Can you recommend a cheap hotel in Japan? thank you

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    Congrats to Kelsey and Marina, and a huge thank you to the UMD Graduate School for their support!

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  5. Agriturismo

    Thank you so much dear for sharing about the budget travel in Japan. This could be it, I will share it with my friends and will ask them all to start off with these plans, we could go to Japan on minimum budget.

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  6. Team oufti

    Great read guys! We’ll defenitly use some of your tips! Can’t wait to get to Fukuoka

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    Its like you read my mind! You appear to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with some pics to drive the message home a little bit, but other than that, this is excellent blog. A great read. I’ll definitely be back.

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  10. Holly

    This is such a cool article and I love your pictures! I’m always looking for budget travel ideas so that I can travel longer than I would be able to otherwise. Also, as a side note, I was reading your back story and I hosted some Argentinean cyclists a couple of years ago who I believe are still making their way around the world on just their bikes. They are on Facebook as Ecovuelta en Bici. Thought you might find them interesting. Great post!

    Reply
    • Cycloscope

      Thanks a lot, Holly! We are glad you found our article useful, if you plan to go to Japan let me know, it’s such a beautiful country! I’ll check the Argentineans!

      Reply
  11. Marek

    “Getting a Japanese SIM card and telephone number is instead impossible”
    This isn’t true for at least a year now. You can buy a 3-month tourist data plan from Bic Camera, Yodobashi Camera or other stores. See https://t.iijmio.jp/en/index.html for an example.

    Reply

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