I rarely see the words “Japan” and “budget travel” in the same sentence.
Most travellers assume that a trip to Japan will be pricey. On my first Japan trip, I expected to eat from 7/11 for every meal to stay within budget (not the worst idea, tbh). Instead, I was pleasantly surprised at how cheap Japan travel can be. Despite travelling Japan on a budget, I never felt like I sacrificed quality to save on costs. I still ate delicious food, stayed in comfortable hostels, and experienced amazing cultural activities.
On my most recent trip, I decided to “splurge” (my broke backpacker’s definition of splurging). I ended up spending about $85USD per day ($110CAD)! This covered all expenses except my flight (so accommodations, food, sim card, transit, and activities). If I skipped the expensive attractions (cough Universal Studios) and stayed in less bougie hostels (but, treat yo’ self?) I could have cut back to $65USD ($85/CAD) per day. While it’s still far from a cheap destination, it turns out Japan budget travel is totally possible.
Wondering how to travel Japan on a budget? Here are some tips to save those precious yen.
People travel to Japan for the food – and it’s so worth it. I find dining out in Japan is cheaper than in Canada. It’s easy to find delicious and well-balanced meals for under $10 USD (sometimes well under). When I eat a cheap meal in Canada, I usually feel like I’m sacrificing quality. In Japan, I can spend $20 – $30 USD on my daily food budget, and still be spoiled with variety.
Convenience stores: Budget travel in Japan = convenience stores. The most popular ones are 7/11, Lawson, and Family Mart. There’s a reason why they’re so infamous – the food is surprisingly high quality in these stores. Most of it is pre-packaged, but made with fresh ingredients. They also sell actual meals (not just the hot dogs and fake cheese nachos you’ll find in Canada). You can get all kinds of Japanese cuisine like onigiri, sushi, noodles, bento boxes, and sandwiches.
Convenience stores are truly for “convenience” – they stock a range of other items you might need. I’ve bought rain gear, hot and cold coffees and teas, and toiletries. I’ve even seen them sell clothing and underwear – you know, just in case of an *ahem* emergency, or if you’ve had a little too wild of a night out.
Supermarkets (My favourite option) : Oh. My. God. Bento boxes galore. Many grocery stores in Japan have a fresh meals section, with tasty classic Japanese foods prepared on site. It’s a little bit more expensive than the convenience store, but it’s a big step up in quality. When I’m in Japan, I buy a bento box almost every day. I’ve never paid over $10USD, and it is always a balanced meal with a protein, vegetables, and rice. The food is so good that it literally doesn’t even feel like I’m travelling Japan on a budget. My mouth waters just thinking about them!
Most stores discount their meals at the end of the day, so a cheap Japan travel tip would be to visit at dinner – you might save a couple hundred yen. Grocery stores also stock tons of individually packaged items. They often sell must-try Japanese food classics, but for half the price of eating at a restaurant. Of course, fresh made is best, but I really can’t argue with a half-priced and still delicious karaage or tamagoyaki.
Sometimes my English version of Google maps struggles to find nearby grocery stores. When this happens, it helps to try different search terms (grocer, grocery store, supermarket etc.). I have accidentally ended up at a specialty Western food store instead of a supermarket (English Google was just confused). If nothing shows up on Google maps, I search for the closest mall. Many malls have some type of grocery store or market in the lower basement floors. And here’s another budget travel in Japan tip: the lower floors are also usually where the cheaper food courts are located.
Fast Food: It takes one look at the fast food scene in Japan to realize why Japanese people have such a long average lifespan. Fast food in Japan is tasty, and it is easy to find healthy-ish options.
I always, always end up going for rice bowls (gyūdon, beef and rice bowls, are my absolute favourite). Sukiya and Yoshinoya are cheap sit-down options, and many are open 24 hours. It’s not Kobe beef by any means, but it’s warm and cheap. I also love udon and Japanese curry. Holy sh*t, I’m getting hungry just writing about this.
Eat with a local (or eat what the locals are eating): Firstly, they’ll know all the good spots. Secondly, English menus can be limited. If there is an English menu available, it’s often not a full menu (just the popular items).
I don’t worry about being charged more as a tourist in Japan. But sometimes, the English menu only includes the more elaborate (and therefore pricier) options. I don’t think this is on purpose, these restaurants are just catering to the tourist crowd.
An example of this happened to me in Kyoto at an udon restaurant. I was first given a Japanese menu with tons of options (that I obviously could not read). On the English menu, the cheapest udon was a set with karaage and a bunch of tempura on top. It was delicious, but it was a lot of food for one person. And it was pricier than the simple udon bowls that everyone around me was enjoying. Of course, one solution would just be to gesture at someone’s bowl and ask for what they’re having!
Street food: Japan has some of my favourite street foods in the world. I have happily suffered many a burnt tongue from eating takoyaki. Festivals and major tourist locations are lined with stall after stall serving delicious street fare. If you’re travelling Japan on a budget, I would recommend venturing out of the main tourist hubs for cheaper options. I realized this in Osaka, when I paid almost double for takoyaki on Dotonburi Street, compared to walking ten minutes off the tourist track.
Lunchtime Specials: I often saved my dining out for lunch, where I could take advantage of lunch set specials. It’s the same food as at dinner, just a bit cheaper. Win!
Rethink the JR Pass
For some reason, the JR Pass is the first thing people mention when I say I’m visiting Japan. It’s marketed as a great option for budget travel in Japan. But I definitely had a sticker-shock moment the first time I Googled the pass. Around $300 for a week of travel? Holy cr*p, is that how much I’ll be spending on transit in Japan? The answer is: hell nooo.
If you plan on changing cities frequently and taking the bullet train often, it may be worth the cost. The JR Pass is valid for consecutive days once started. Let’s say you have a 7-day pass (29, 650 JPY/~$272 USD), you’ll want to travel enough in those 7 days to at least break even.
There are a bunch of calculators online (like this one here) to help you figure out if a pass will be worth it.
But if travelling Japan on a budget is your #1 priority, I’ve always arrived on a resounding no!
An example JR Pass route that is worth the cost would be: Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and back to Tokyo. This would cost ~ 30, 530 JPY if you only bought one-way bullet train tickets. With a 7-day JR Pass, you’d save 880 JPY (~ $8USD). But that would be for an rushed and inflexible itinerary – the moment you knock off one of those stops in the 7 days, the JR Pass cost is no longer worth it. Not to mention, there are regular transit routes between Osaka-Kyoto-Nara for shockingly cheap.
I have a post breaking down if I think the JR Pass is worth it here. Overall, there are cheaper options (for example, taking highway busses like Willer bus). They take longer and are definitely less fancy than the shinkansen. But if your #1 priority is how to travel Japan on a budget, then I would skip the JR Pass
Take transit and – more importantly – avoid cabs
Cabs are notoriously expensive in Japan. A taxi from Narita Airport to downtown Tokyo can cost a heart-stopping $200 USD. In such an connected country, there is pretty much always a better option than taking a taxi. Transit is cheap and easy to navigate in major cities. Google maps works just fine in Japan. English signage is common in major cities and transit often runs late into the evening. There’s a reason why most people take transit in Japan’s major cities – it’s just the best way!
Stay in Capsule Hotels
I always see capsule hotels on “must-do in Japan” lists (including my own), and it’s usually presented as a fun activity. I love travelling to East Asia specifically because I LOVE capsule hotels. They’re not just a novelty!
In fact, a lot of the people I met in capsule hotels were locals. Some needed a place to crash after a drunken night out, or were just travelling for a weekend and didn’t want to splurge on a hotel. I stayed in capsule hotels for my entire one-month solo trip in 2019 and had an amazing experience.
Capsule hotels are my perfect in-between option. I need privacy, but I’m wayyy too budget for a hotel room. Capsules are not the weird space-tubes you’ve seen on the internet (although you can find a space themed one, if that’s your thing). I’ve stayed in capsules that are super modern and beautiful. A good one has all the amenities of a hotel (just as a semi-shared space instead of private) and I find them very comfortable. Capsule hotels do not have a party atmosphere in Japan: you are expected to be quiet and clean.
My biggest tip for booking capsule hotels is to book ahead of time – the good ones do fill up. On my recent trip, I was booking one month in advance and missed out on some pretty awesome places.
Of course, if you’re travelling Japan on a budget budget, there is also always the option of a traditional hostel as well.
Pre-order a SIM Card
A sim card is one of my must-have items as a solo female traveller. I’m the kind of person who can get lost in my own home. I’m concerningly dependent on Google Maps. I also spend an excessive amount of time Googling things in general, so data is my friend.
The thing is, that ish is expensive in Japan. Lots of tourists grab a pocket wifi, but they’re pricey (usually around ~$60 USD per week). And then you have to remember to charge and lug around a wifi egg.
Another option is a travel sim. One example is from Sakura Mobile, which will put you back 4500 JPY ($41 USD) for 8 days. Some major airports have Prepaid SIM card vending machines. This is great in a pinch, but it’s expensive and definitely not the best choice for budget travel in Japan.
The best option? Pre order from a travel website like KKDay or Klook. The prices are too-good-to-be-true cheap, and I was totally skeptical at first. Lo and behold, my SIM card worked just fine and I only spent about $45 USD for 16 days of unlimited data (so just over $20 per week – half the price of the other options). I ordered my SIM online and picked it up at the airport upon arrival in Japan – easy peasy!
Travel Off Peak and on Weekdays
Travelling during the off season is a no-brainer. It’s always cheaper. But I found this taken to another level in Japan. There were different prices on bus fares and capsule hotels on different days of the week. It usually peaked on Fridays to Sunday, and lowered mid-week. One of the capsule hotels I stayed in shows a $9 USD discount staying on a Wednesday instead of a Saturday. These little charges here and there can quickly add up!
I saved money by visiting expensive cities (eg. Kyoto) on weekdays. Make sure to research Japanese holidays, and try to avoid them at all costs. During Japanese holidays, tourists sites are packed and there’s always a price jump in accommodations. Travelling on a national holiday is a great way to accidentally throw off your Japan travel budget!
Take advantage of the free and cheap activities in Japan
So. many. fun. free. things.
There’s so many things to look at, learn about, and browse. I found myself fully entertained most days without having to spend more than $10 USD. Many temples and shrines are free to enter (except in Kyoto, where there is often a small entry fee). Japan loves festivals, and there’s almost always something going on. Japan is also full of natural sight seeing spots: bamboo forests, cherry blossoms, deer parks – all iconic to Japan, and cheap or free!
Travelling in Japan doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s completely possible to travel Japan on a budget and still have a fabulous time. On both of my trips to Japan, I found it easy to keep my budget under $100/day – and I didn’t even skip notoriously expensive activities like Universal Studios. The best part about cheap travel in Japan is that you can still find exceptional Japanese quality and hospitality, even when you’re on a budget!
Is the Japan Rail Pass worth the cost? Find out here