Traveling on a Budget in Japan

Traveling in Japan on a budget doesn’t have to be difficult. Learn to make good decisions when traveling, eating, and sleeping in Japan.

“Seventy-nine yen to a dollar.” Red numbers flash like caution signals in front of the currency exchange booth at Newark International Airport. No matter the rate—Euro, Pounds, Rupee, or Baht—the numbers seem low. Seventy-nine yen couldn’t buy a candy bar in Japan.

travel in JapanWith the economy in limbo, travel seems challenging because money is harder to make and those greenbacks don’t have the same resilience that they had in past decades. Yet, exchange rates and account balances should not deter travelers. Many people believe that Japan is too expensive to visit. However for the savvy and patient traveler, there are several ways to make your money last in Japan.

Budget Friendly Train Tickets in Japan

Transportation is a substantial portion of any traveler’s budget, especially if visitors have limited time and long lists of things to do. In Japan, the farther the destination the higher the cost will go. Likewise, the faster the mode of transport, the bigger the price tag. A one-way ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto can cost over $250. However by using one of the following tickets, you might save hundreds of dollars.

* JR Pass: This ticket allows unlimited access to nearly all trains on the Japan Railways (JR) system that services a majority of the country. With the pass, hop on and off trains, ferries, and the superfast Bullet Train called the Shinkansen. Tourists must purchase a voucher before leaving for Japan online or through a travel agent. Once landed, bring the voucher to any JR Station Office and exchange the voucher for the official JR Pass. While traveling, keep the JR Pass available to show conductors and station workers. Passes come in varying lengths of time: from a week to two. For a flat rate of around $200, you could travel throughout most of the country.

* Seishun 18 Kippu: For those with ample time and an itch to see small-town Japan, the Seishun 18 Kippu is a book of 5 transferable tickets offered during spring, summer, and winter. Each ticket, which may be used on non-consecutive days, equals one-day of unlimited travel on local and rapid trains. The Seishun 18 Kippu costs about $100 so each ticket is roughly 20 bucks per day traveled. Friends can share a ticket as long as they travel together. Conductors are very helpful and will map out which trains to use over long distances. On this ticket, it’s possible to travel from Kyoto to Hiroshima in one day for $20 per person.

Accommodations With Extra Value

A clean bathroom and fresh linens shouldn’t break your budget especially considering how little time is spent actually in a hotel room. As a developed country, Japan offers a gamut of accommodation styles. Some will have your credit card begging for mercy. Others will help you wake up without a budget-busted hangover.

* Hostels: Youth Hostelling is a popular way to save money and meet other travelers. Before the age of Internet or TV, news traveled through hotels, inns, and taverns. Much in the same vein, a hostel can be much more than a cheap bed and common room. Hundreds of independent travelers use hostels and these people know the buzz about what’s happening around town such as concerts, restaurants, bars, and romantic sunset spots. So for a fraction of the cost of a high-rise hotel, you get ample information and camaraderie.

* Ryokan: Traditional Japanese inns, ryokan are charming retreats that offer tatami mats, painted sliding doors, and fluffy futons to sleep on. Inns are commonly run by families, some for several generations. Here, you’ll find true Japanese hospitality, culture, and tradition. Sip green tea, sit in a traditional sauna, and if you’re lucky, meander through a rock garden. Many ryokan can be booked online. If walking in, don’t hesitate to negotiate discounts on longer stays.

* Business Hotels: With the clash of a sluggish global economy and Japan’s samurai-like work ethic, the increased popularity of the business hotel offers unique options for visiting tourists. Rooms are appointed with TVs, refrigerators, and clean linens. Bathrooms are well cared for. Like the price, the space is economical. Business hotels are usually located by train stations or in popular city neighborhoods, convenient for sightseeing and catching outgoing trains. Many hotels have English websites and online booking. A great business hotel chain, Toyoko Inn has establishments open throughout Japan and a comprehensive online booking service. Free Japanese breakfast is offered daily as well as complimentary Internet, phone, and printing services.

Eating Like the Japanese

If steaks, burgers, and pork chops are indelible items from your daily diet, eating in Japan will consume your budget. While traveling, conform to the local palette, which means: rice becomes a staple, soup and vegetables major players, and meat a third-string bench warmer. During the midday meal, take advantage of bentos (boxed lunches sold at convenience stores and train station kiosks) and settos (lunch specials or set menus). Both offer a balanced meal of rice, veggies, and protein as well as green tea and miso soup if you’re in a restaurant.

Here are two more cost-effective strategies:

* Closing Time at Grocery Stores: Three to four hours before closing, head to the produce and prepared meals section of any grocery store. When workers place bright discount stickers on packages of sushi, sashimi, fried squid, salads, and BBQ pork, you can snatch up light snacks and full meals for half the regular price. Try triangular rice balls called onigiri and drive your taste buds crazy with sour pickled plums called umeboshi. Each week, supermarkets often close for a single day. On the evening preceding this day, prepared, packaged, and refrigerated items go on sale. Stock up for long train rides or sunset picnics in the park.

* Izakaya, the Japanese Pub: Like its international counterparts, the Japanese pub is all about food, drink, and friends. In an izakaya, expect an illustrated menu that you can peruse and then point to when the waiter asks for your order. Portions are tapas-style so order a few for the table to accompany large bottles of Sapporo or Kirin beer. This is a great way to sample sushi, sashimi, and shabu-shabu while mixing in unique house specialties that may include kimchi fried rice, spaghetti omelets, and fruity mixed drinks called chu-hi. Ask around for uniquely themed izakayas. Often menus and plastic replica of dishes are displayed outside so you can browse before committing. Prices can start as low as 300 Yen (US$4).

For more information on JR Passes refer to the Japan Railway Official Website or check out the boards at Japan National Tourism Organization.

Melissa Ruttanai is a future regular contributor at Vagobond. She lived as an expat in Japan for a while and has also lived in Thailand and visited 19 other countries. Melissa works hard and infuses her work with life-changing places, festivals, and cultures from around the globe. For more of her adventures you can visit her website.

This article is reprinted from at the suggestion of and with the permission of the author.

News Reporter

Melissa Ruttanai (@worldwinder) is a travel writer and SEO blogger. In 2010, with a tenured teaching position at a top middle school, she did the “unthinkable”—and quit. Now on a 2-year world adventure with her husband, Melissa writes in cafes and hostels, sharing her stories in hopes that others will think outside of conventional life, and travel. Her work has been published by International Living Magazine, Escape from America Magazine, DINK Life, Weekend Notes, and Flip Key Travel. You can also find her at You can also find her on Google+