Japan frequently scores highly on cost-of-living surveys, and Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world. However it’s surprisingly easy to visit Japan if you are on a tight budget. This article looks at costs in Japan and how to put together a budget for your trip.
In each section we’ve highlighted a guide price. This is the cheapest you can get with minimal hunting; if you have time to research deals, wait for sales or save up coupon codes, you should be able to get things even cheaper.
This is likely to be one of the big costs of getting to Japan. We’ve put together some tips for keeping this as low as possible.
Flights: Guide price £550 return Tokyo – London
Research which airlines fly from your local area to Japan (if you are traveling from Europe, look at flights from major hubs like London, Paris and Amsterdam as well as your local airport) and sign up to their newsletters; they’ll often have flight sales which can significantly reduce the price.
Also use a flight comparison website like Skyscanner to find the cheapest routes and dates. Japan is a popular destination for business travelers, so avoid flights that get you in to Tokyo for Monday morning or leave on a Friday afternoon. Traveling at random times midweek will be cheaper. Avoid Christmas, New Year, Golden Week (the start of May) and Obon (mid-August) as flights and accommodation in these periods are always more expensive.
Finally think about using airmiles. Airmiles can be collected via flights, but also credit cards, bank accounts and even through Tesco Clubcard points or online surveys. We collected airmiles through every means possible, and combined this with a flight sale and flexible dates to get our tickets at half the normal price.
Ferries: Guide price £150 return to Shanghai
There are several ferry lines that run from Japan to China (Shanghai), Korea (Busan) and Russia (Korsakov). Prices vary depending on the route and the speed of the ferry, and there are often student discounts available to reduce the price even further. The downside is that you have to get to China, Korea or Russia first!
If you are really adventurous it is worth checking out container freight ships too. These can take weeks to arrive in Japan from Europe, and will often take a circuitous route around Africa or Asia to pick up new cargo. If you can persuade the captain to let you aboard, you can often travel the world for little more than the cost of your food.
Hotels: Guide Price £75 per night
Tokyo has some of the most amazing hotels in the world, but also the most expensive. An alternative are the business hotels aimed at domestic travelers. They can be cramped and bland, but allow you to stay centrally for reasonable rates. Rakuten Travel has some great deals and covers the whole of Japan.
Youth Hostels: Guide Price £15 per night
Youth hostels are a mainstay of any cheap travel guide, and Japan is no different. Hostels vary from the very basic to fairly upmarket places offering private rooms as well as dorm beds. Make sure you book in advance, as some close during quieter periods. Some hostels can be strict with curfews and set times for lights out; check before you book. Some will also offer meals which can be useful in remoter areas where there might not be restaurants nearby. Hostelbookers covers Japan and features ratings and reviews from other travelers.
Ryokan and Minshuku: Guide Price £40 per night
Minshuku are smaller and cheaper versions of ryokan, and are more like staying in a private house (ryokans tend to be purpose built as guest houses). The line between the best minshuku and the cheapest ryokan is quite subtle, so it’s worth doing some research to find what suits your taste and budget. Meals are often included in the price, which can make them good value in areas without many restaurants. See our post on ryokans to find out more.
Alternatives: Guide price £25 per night
There are several alternatives to staying in standard overnight accommodation.
Capsule hotels are perhaps one of the most famous. For around £25, you can stay in a tube containing a bed. Shelves and a tv are built in to the walls of the capsule, and privacy is guarded by a thin curtain. Most capsule hotels are men only, although some have separate floors for women. Luggage is kept in a locker, and the hotel is out of bounds during the day.
Love hotels are another option – after around 10pm you can rent a room until morning for around £50-60. Rooms are often themed and can be quite extravagant.
Temples and shrines sometimes take in overnight guests for small fees. Accommodation is basic and often does not include food (you might sometimes get a simple breakfast) but you can get a night’s sleep and an insight to temple life for £30.
A new option is AirBnB. This website lets you browse spare rooms and apartments to rent all over Japan. Prices range from a few pounds for a sofa bed to exclusive penthouse apartments.
Finally if you are really desperate look at internet cafes. These cafes are often open 24 hours and you can rent a private booth where you can snatch some sleep.
Eating and Drinking
Breakfast: guide price £2
If your accommodation doesn’t include breakfast, the cheapest way to eat is to find a cafe or bakery where you can pick up a pastry or toast along with a coffee for a few yen.
Lunch: guide price £6
Many restaurants will do set meals at lunch times, so you can stock up on a big meal here to see you through the day. ¥1000 (around £6) will easily get you a huge bowl of ramen, some gyoza, pickles and rice. Don’t order a drink as most restaurants will give out water or green tea for free.
Dinner: guide price £10
Dinner can get expensive, but look out for cheap vending machine restaurants or ramen shops if you didn’t fill up at lunch. If you just need a snack, then an onigiri or bento box from a convenience store will keep you going for around ¥500 (£3)
Drinks and Snacks: guide price £1
Vending machines selling drinks are everywhere in Japan, and most drinks cost under £1. Convenience stores also sell the usual chocolates, crisps and biscuits, often with a uniquely Japanese twist (sweet potato KitKat anyone?). Look out for street markets or izakaya bars selling yakitori and other snacks for a few yen per serving.
Rail Pass: guide price £160 (7 Day standard class pass)
A rail pass is a great way to get around Japan and can pay for itself in a return trips if you book carefully. For more details on the cost of a rail pass click here.
Air Pass: guide price £60
Two Japanese airlines offer discounted internal flights for foreign travelers. Like the rail pass, these must be bought outside of Japan and sometimes need to be bought in conjunction with international flights with certain airlines; the additional restrictions make these passes cheaper. These are really useful if you plan to check out some of the more remote areas of Japan like Hokkaido or Okinawa. The pass consists of coupons which can be exchanged for several short flights or added together to make a longer flight.
Local Travel: guide price £1.50
Walking is free and is easy in Japan, and you’ll often find signposts and area maps in English to help you find your way. However if you are traveling further local trains and buses are very clean, safe and efficient. Avoid taxis if possible as they can be very expensive especially if you have luggage. If you are staying in a city for a while, look out for pre-pay cards such as Suica in Tokyo. By touching in and out at stations, the fare is automatically deducted from the card, meaning you have no worries about buying the wrong ticket and wasting money. Handing the card back to the ticket office gets your ¥500 deposit returned too, handy for buying snacks on the way to the airport!
This is the really great news: the vast majority of Japanese culture can be experienced for free. It’s possible to spend a whole day out for very little money indeed.
Shrines and Temples: guide price £1.50
Most shrines and temples are free to enter to some extent. There might be a small fee to visit historic parts of the temple or shrine gardens. Look out for smaller temples and shrines where you can look round the whole complex for free but make sure you are respectful of worshippers.
Local tours: guide price £2
It’s worth visiting tourist offices in stations and airports to find out about English language tours. Many cities will have free leaflets of local walking tours, and if you are really lucky you will find guided tours for a few yen or even free.
Scenery: guide price free
Japan has plenty of stunning scenery, both man-made and natural. Hiking trails and viewpoints are free, but transport to access them can be expensive. In Tokyo you can pay to access observation decks around the city, but the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku allows free public access to the viewing deck on the 45th floor.
Looking around the shops in Japan is an experience in itself. Look out for big craft and artisan shops as these often have displays about the history of the product and how it is made. Kyoto in particular has several craft centres that have exhibitions as well as sales.
Looking around fresh food markets are a great way to get an idea about Japanese food as well as soaking up some atmosphere. Markets are a great place to pick up a snack or some cheap souvenirs; pretty chopsticks or kitchen gadgets can often be had for a few pounds. Check out the food halls of department stores for a more up market experience.
The Japanese equivalent of the pound shop, these are another place to generally marvel at weird and wonderful Japanese gadgets as well as pick up some great value souvenirs.
The Bottom Line
It’s possible to survive in Japan and have a decent time for around £25 per day. This would mean staying in a dorm bed in a cheap youth hostel and eating in cheap restaurants or getting take aways from convenience stores with the occasional beer or snack. Of course you could push this even further if you bought ingredients from markets and made your own food or were willing to camp out.
Reasonably a budget of around £25 per day on food, £20 on local travel/sightseeing and £100 for accommodation will see you eating and drinking well, doing most things that take your fancy and staying in a good hotel or ryokan. Most realistically, setting your budget somewhere between these two will give you the opportunity to try out most things in Japan, while having some cheaper days now and then.