Cheapest way to travel to Japan?
January 24, 2006 2:47 PM   Subscribe

I'm a student on a budget and considering a trip to Japan. How much money can I expect to spend?

I'm thinking of doing the JET program after I graduate college. I had some extra cash from scholarships, so I was considering visiting for a couple of weeks this summer to see if Japan is a place I'd want to spend my year off before grad school. My budget is very limited, and I've heard that Japan is expensive. What can I expect to pay for the bare essentials? What are the cheapest accommodation arrangements I can make?
posted by Candide to Travel & Transportation around Japan (22 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Just got back from a two week trip in Japan a couple months ago. You are correct in that Japan is quite expensive. Expect to pay around $100 a night for a budget hotel. Not sure about hostels or other cheaper accommodations. However, you don't really see the backpacker crowd in Japan like you do in Europe, so not sure if there's even a market for hostels. As for transportation, train tickets can run a couple hundred dollars depending on length of trip, if you take the bullet train, etc. We took a bus across Kyushu for about $80 round trip, so that's a somewhat reasonable from of transport.
posted by split atom at 2:57 PM on January 24, 2006

There are hostels and hostel-priced ryokan everywhere in Japan. Here are a few resources:

Also, Japan Rail Pass.
posted by Espy Gillespie at 3:10 PM on January 24, 2006

Japan is actually quite cheap if you know where to stay and what to eat. I managed to spend two weeks in Japan for less than $2000 including some expensive souveniers (mostly pottery).

First, get a JR pass and use the hell out of it. This will set you back about $300, but you will be able to go where you want in the country. Secondly, find capsule hotels or hostels in the city or minshuku in the country. They will usually run less than $50.

If you can handle eating the same thing a lot try eating most of your meals out of the convenience store. They will have hot water for noodles and a microwave for box meals. You can spend less than $12 on food a day if you are careful. However, you should save your money for a few really good meals.

Also, get a guide book and choose what you most want to see. It will give you a good idea of how much you want to spend.

I've been to Japan at least 7 or 8 times and I can give specific hotel recommendations. My email is in the profile.
posted by Alison at 3:10 PM on January 24, 2006 [4 favorites]

You can stay in internet cafes--many are quite nice, and have a flat rate for overnight stays (which generally corresponds to about $15 for six hours, plus a per-hour rate thereafter that's about $4/hour). At the good ones, expect private locking cubicles with reclining chairs, a kitchen with microwavable ramen for sale, bathroom with showers, an in-cubicle locker for valuables, maybe a tanning salon if you're somewhere particularly lavish.

On the other hand, use sites like Hospitality Club, Global Freeloaders, or Couch Surfing to find free accommodation. I've done this traveling in Europe and usually had fantastic luck: people put you up for free, but they also take you out, show you around their city, tell interesting tales about the history of the place, introduce you to their friends, cook you dinner, and in general give you a better and more intimate feel for the place you're visiting than staying in hostels with other travelers would.

Finally, though not particularly comfy, it's not at all uncommon to see businessmen who've missed their trains camped out for the night in some out-of-the-way niche in major city stations. It's probably not the most comfortable way to see Japan, but it's definitely safe & better in a pinch than shelling out for a hotel room that's way over your budget.

If you're not averse to hitchhiking, it's a great immersion method, and also quite safe in Japan. As a foreigner, you'll get rides more quickly from people who want to practice English or just think you're 'exotic.' Get a bilingual road atlas and look for parking areas, or just hitch from the roadside. As a woman who's hitched in Japan both solo & with a male partner, I never once felt unsafe or in over my head. One caveat is that people may try to give you money or offer to drive you halfway across the country out of concern for your wellbeing. It's easy to mis-recognize these offers as genuine, but they stem from a cultural obligation to take care of you, and if you accept you'll be taking advantage of a generosity that's more or less obligatory. Don't do it.

Finally, scamming JR local trains on long-distance trips by "losing your ticket" is quite easy, though ethically dubious.

Finally: have a wonderful time! Go to onsen in the countryside & don't spend all your time in the big cities, read Kwaidan: Stories & Studies of Strange Things for great English retellings of Japanese folktales, rent bikes from the train stations (~$3-6/day) to get around town, learn a little bit of spoken Japanese to ask directions & ask politely "do you speak English?," go to the hundreds of amazing tiny museums in Tokyo & all over the country... If you have questions, feel free to IM me & I'll be happy to help a bit more.
posted by soviet sleepover at 3:43 PM on January 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

If you're going to be staying in one city for any length of time, your cheapest option is a "gaijin house" or "guest house." These generally have dorm-style accommodations with communal kitchen and living space that should run less than ¥20,000/week. I lived in one of these for about 7 weeks when I moved to Japan, and it was a very good experience, as some of the longer-term residents (almost all of whom were really interesting people to know) helped me get the hang of the neighborhood, the train system, and even lined me up with a little under-the-table work.

By all means, do some travelling while you are there, but staying in one place will give you more of a sense of what your routine might be like day-to-day if you moved there. If you wind up in Tokyo, there are a lot of worthwhile day trips and one-night trips you can take from there. And of course Kansai is filled with historic sites.
posted by adamrice at 3:45 PM on January 24, 2006

The hourly rent sex hotels. No, I'm not kidding. Many of them are like $30 per hour, or $50 for the whole night. If you hit one up later at night, you might get a good price. They're often lavishly decorated and have very comfortable beds.

Also check out the ramen shops that are literally the back of some dudes truck. Often times, they have great ramen and it's cheap. ($3)

If you see an alleyway, don't be afraid to walk down it. I found some of the best little bars & shops down strange looking alleyways.

you can still find lockers at the train stations, rent bikes, and other fun stuff.
Bring a pad of paper too - if you can't speak Japanese, try writing out your questions or just draw a picture of what you're talking about. Works wonders. I lived in Yokohama, Japan for 6 years and absolutely loved it.
posted by drstein at 3:47 PM on January 24, 2006

(This thread is very helpful, thanks!)
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:53 PM on January 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

not too comprehensive or uptodate, but proof that japan is really not too expensive if you plan it right:
posted by suni at 4:56 PM on January 24, 2006

I'll echo what everyone else has said. I live in Japan, so I don't really make use of hotels, but there are cheap accomodations everywhere. If you're coming in the summer, you can also try camping in a park. They're usually quite safe, and while I've never done it I've never heard of anyone having a huge problem (though the police may ask you to move, depending on where you are).

Manga/internet cafes are indeed very cheap: anywhere from ¥1000 to ¥1800 for a set number of hours from midnight to the early morning. They're designed to attract people who miss the last train and are clustered around major train stations -- In Tokyo, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, and Akihabara have the largest concentrations. I recommend the Manboo -- they have either reclining seats or flat boxes (i.e. the floor is padded and there's no chair, or some kind of Japanese floor-seat), you can have all the drinks you want, there's TV and fast internet, a shower, and at the main Manboo location they'll give you a coupon for free ice cream or bread. (You can also make use of this for ¥315/hour 24 hours a day.)

Capsule hotels are reasonably cheap -- ¥3000 to ¥4500 a night -- but unless you're male you may have a difficult time finding a place that accepts women. The vast majority of capsule hotels cater to men, though this is changing gradually. The love hotels that drstein mentions are more expensive -- ¥6000+ for a "stay" -- but they often have crazy interior design and if you go with a friend are very reasonable. In Tokyo, Shibuya and Shinjuku have the largest concentrations.

And, of course, there are hostels and operations like Sakura Hotel. Hostels in Japan are cheap and fairly nice -- but the usual rules apply: out by 10 AM, eating together might be mandatory, get woken up early by loud music over the PA, etc. A Japanese-style inn (ryokan) is better but naturally more expensive. Travel guides tend to recommend good ones with owners that speak some English.

For food, after 8:00 PM the major department stores around the train stations -- Odakyu, Keio and Isetan in Shinjuku; Tobu and Seibu in Ikebukuro -- slash the prices on food by up to half. Most other grocery stores discount their food after 8 PM as well, and keep discounting until they close. There is also the wonderful Shop 99 chain of supermarkets -- nearly everything is 99 yen. And they have food -- rice balls, all kinds of dry noodles, vegetables, drinks, etc. etc. And they're open 24 hours a day. If you want to know where some stores are and can't navigate their site, let me know.

Japan is as expensive as you want it to be. I know places that sell ramen for ¥200 a bowl, where you can have all the gyoza you can eat for ¥500, where you can get a huge box lunch for ¥400, and where the sushi is ¥105 a plate. I'm a college student here, so naturally I am adept at finding the cheap spots to eat, drink, and have fun. If you want to know more about life here or how to survive on next to nothing, drop me an email and we can chat ;-)
posted by armage at 5:14 PM on January 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Club ToCoo is good for cheap places outside of Tokyo, but for cheap places to stay within Tokyo, you can't go wrong with love hotels (just make sure you are in a Love hotel district, like Shibuya's Dogenzaka) , and The Toyoko Inn is good too. The one I linked is in Shinjuku, super-convenient and about 60$ a night. If you are travelling with a significant other or super-cheap friend, and want to save extra extra money, reserve or walk-in ALONE and get a single room, then sneak your friend in later. In Japan, they will often charge you per person instead of per room. This does not apply to Love Hotels and the Toyoko Inn, I believe.

Another great great resource is the Tokyo City Atlas, because addresses are crazy and you will get lost.

My favorite cheap food is Maguro bowls (often with signs that say マグロ丼 or まぐろ丼). It's basically sashimi tossed on a bowl of rice. CoCo Ichiban Curry is also essential cheap eating, and always has an English menu. It is probably the most customizable fast food on the planet.
posted by ejoey at 6:58 PM on January 24, 2006

Japan is expensive. Estimate how much you need and take double. (Then again, I come from a country where everything is cheap, so YMMV)

I 2nd the suggestion to look for homestays or host families. They're generally friendly and SUPER generous - sometimes to the point of uncomfortable! - and they can be loads of fun too.
posted by divabat at 7:39 PM on January 24, 2006

I loved it the one time I stayed in a capsule hotel. It was about 3500 yen, and was actually a little room, rather than a coffin in a rack.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:49 AM on January 25, 2006

Justin's guide has some interesting advice along the lines of what has been shared above.

Man, I miss fresh homemade alley-way back of house/truck Ramen!
posted by shoepal at 8:54 AM on January 25, 2006

When I was in Japan and getting around by train, I got a ju-hachi kippu (that's what everyone was calling them. I don't know if it's the actual name). Basically, you buy ten days that you can use anytime (non-consequtively if you want) for unlimited train travel for that day on the local trains only. So if you don't mind stopping at every station on your way to wherever, it can be much cheaper than paying the ticket price, and you're not rushing to get all your train travel in, like you might with a weekly pass. I don't remember the exact price, unfortunately. I may have the details wrong, so hopefully someone can correct if they're more familiar with it.
posted by Lirp at 9:06 AM on January 25, 2006

Ok, here's the details on the Seishun juhachi kippu. It's actually five days for Y11,500, and only available during certain seasons.
posted by Lirp at 9:12 AM on January 25, 2006

I spent a couple of months in Japan a few years back. So some of this may be out of date. Without doubt the absolute essential was a Japan Rail pass. Only available outside of Japan. When you get there you will realise what a bargain it is. It even allowed you to travel on certain classes of Bullet train.
The other essential was a Japan rail guidebook written by a complete Rail Nerd (Geek). Which gave various routes, and exacts times and numbers of trains for set itineraries around the country. I've backpacked all over the world and used all the brands of guides and this book was the best researched I have ever used. I think it was this book - Japan by Rail I’m away from home so can’t check. Even the Japanese were shocked at how far I had travelled for so little money. Worth taking a conventional guide like a Rough guide to, as his research into hotels wasn’t as good
For cheap accommodation, the sex hotels after 11pm were the most reliable option. They aren’t brothels; they are actually for couples, as you don’t usually move out of your v small home until you have married, so you need somewhere to be with your partner. For some reason Japanese couples only use them in the day and even so it was easy to get a cheap bed in the late evening
posted by bluefin at 12:47 PM on January 25, 2006

Also Capsule hotels were mainly for businessmen who couldn't pay for the truly outrageous taxi fares to get home. Kind of depressing places, nothing like the fun futuristic spaces I imagined
posted by bluefin at 12:50 PM on January 25, 2006

As sad as it sounds, one of the cheapest places you can eat, is McDonalds :) Just fyi..

During the 8 months of nice weather, half the business men just sleep in Yoyogi park.. but I wouldn't recommend it :)
posted by lundman at 8:01 PM on January 25, 2006

Instead of McDonald's, one of the cheapest *good* places you can eat is Bikkuri Ramen. For the Japanese-impaired: one bowl of ramen for ¥180. Get a ramen and gyoza set for ¥367.

Why eat at a cookie-cutter McDonald's when you can have actual Japanese food? (The teriyaki burger is NOT all its cracked up to be...)
posted by armage at 4:35 AM on January 26, 2006

If you're coming through Kansai, I might (depending on the timing) be able to hook you up with a weekday-morning paid guest speaker gig for a group of English-hungry housewives. They'll probably send you off with a couple days of packed lunches as well if I give them your starving student backpacker sob story. Contact me through my blog in my profile a month or so before you come.
posted by planetkyoto at 5:44 AM on January 26, 2006

I've only been to a love hotel once, on love hotel hill in Shibuya, and discovered that once we'd paid for a set amount of time, the door was locked 'til the time ran out. I'm not sure how frequent this type of "vending machine" love hotel is (we put our money in a machine right outside the door of our chosen room rather than handing it to an old lady behind a curtain), but once you're in, you're stuck there & the doors are locked from both sides.
posted by soviet sleepover at 3:34 PM on January 28, 2006

You want Japan on the cheap? Shin Shizen Juku is the place for you. Free room and board plus a weekly stipend in rural Hokkaido (northen island) great skiing in the winter and beautiful summers. Mine-san, the owner, is quite a card. You do a bit of teaching in Kushiro and neighboring villages, do a bit of work on the farm opposite but most of the time is your own. I spent six months there (yikes it was ten years ago) and had a wonderful time
posted by zeoslap at 7:21 AM on January 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

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