Traveling to Japan on a Shoestring BudgetMay 2, 2005 (Updated May 23, 2012) Write an essay on this topic.
The Bottom Line It is very possible to travel Japan on a limited budget. Avoid the big-money tours, hotels, and Tokyo! I recommend Kyushu and Shikoku for low-cost travel.
Last week, I wrote and published a review about Fukuoka International Airport (http://www.epinions.com/content_181637975684). It got some good reviews from fellow Epinions members, but one member had asked if it were possible to travel in Japan without having to spend a lot of money. Well, I can tell you that it is possible, and it won't take hiring an accountant to set up your Japan travel budget. So (for lack of a better place to put this article except in this section of Japan reviews), I've decided to offer some advice on how to travel to and in Japan on a shoestring budget.
Now, I must dispel an egregiously false myth about Japan: Japan is NOT nearly as expensive a place to travel or live as people report. Most people report about Tokyo (which is exorbitantly overpriced in every aspect), but if you avoid Tokyo, you can actually travel and live on a reasonable budget AND still enjoy the time there. Here are my travel tips for seeing Japan inexpensively, arranged in semi-chronological order, from departure from your home country to departure from Japan:
1) Shop around for airfares: Traveling to Japan can be an inordinately expensive venture for the avid globetrotter. Mainly because Japanese airlines collude and set high prices (almost as if they were stuck in the 1980's -- the heyday of Japanese yen strength), round-trip tickets can run you over $1,000, which can severely cripple your budget. To counteract this, the simple thing to say is that you have to shop around. I often fly out of LAX (Los Angeles International Airport), so I tend to fly China Airlines or Korean Airlines. Typically, these two airlines are the cheapest, but you do sacrifice service. However, via China, you can manage a one-stop layover in Taipei, Taiwan (but an 11-hour layover!); likewise, one-stop flights via Korean Airlines stop either in Inchon or Seoul (try to get Inchon -- the airport is magnificent, with free Internet access and comfortable lounge seating). In the off-season of travel, you can get round-trip tickets of $500 to $700, which leads me to tip #2...
2) Travel during Japan's off-season: Over the last decade, Japanese travel abroad has increased drastically, considering that tour packages and fares for travel overseas are often cheaper than domestic travel; so, prices for traveling to and from Japan at certain times of the year can be unreasonably high. Watch for these peak travel times in the Japanese calendar:
a) Golden Week: Golden Week often coincides with the last week of April and the first week of May (I believe). This is the time that many college students, "office ladies," and young families travel. Avoid this time of the year like the plague!
b) Obon: Traditionally, Obon (which happens around the second and third weeks of August) is a time when Japanese people return to their hometowns to reunite with other family members and to await "the coming of the ancestral dead." Yet, nowadays, many Japanese avail themselves of this work off-time to travel, instead of returning home and partaking in ancestral worship. Avoid traveling around this time of year not just because of the prices, but because this time of year is the hottest and most humid time in Japan.
c) From December 26 to January 3: It may seem odd that the dates are so specific, but December 26th is often the day that many Japanese travel when, in the past, they used to prepare for New Year's Day celebrations at home. Unlike other Asian countries, Japan celebrates New Year's based on the Gregorian calendar, so December 31st and January 1st can be exceptionally busy days. After January 1st, some Japanese people will then visit three shrines within two or three days of the 1st -- this tradition is called sansha maeri, or "going to three shrines." This week or so of New Year's activity is worth avoiding, unless you happen to live in Japan -- then, local travel can be a refreshing alternative to the lines of traffic that lead up to shrines.
In my opinion, the best months of year to travel to Japan are March, June, and September through November. These are not only the months when travel is light and the prices are acceptable, but also the months when weather is the most agreeable. Yet, if you don't mind the cold snap of winter, January can be a good time to travel because most Japanese people are getting back to work.
3) Know your transit options from the arrival point: One of the biggest ways to waste money in Japan is by taking taxies. Though 2 or 3 kilometer jaunts in a taxi may be the more direct way to go someplace locally, do not fall into the trap of riding taxies for greater distances. Most taxies start out at 540 yen (about $5.20), and that's for, say, 1 or 2 kilometers; but, the denser the traffic and the longer the distance, the more the price increases, often in increments of 120-140 yen. Therefore, before you leave to travel to a Japanese airport (or as soon as you arrive at that airport), research the bus, train, subway, and streetcar routes that will take you to where you need to go.
Regarding buses, Japanese cities and towns have buses that are impressively punctual (but sometimes late, considering traffic). Also, some cities (like Kyoto) have buses that charge a flat rate to go anywhere on their routes. Remember that traveling far on a city bus can add up, so keep your eye on the fare board and the number on the slip of paper that is dispensed upon boarding. Don't fret about having exact change upon boarding, though, because almost all buses have on-board money changers.
Unlike city buses, highway buses can be an inexpensive way to travel in Japan. I used to take the overnight bus from Fukuoka to Osaka, and it cost only 8,900 yen, which was about 60% the price of a Shinkansen ticket over the same distance. You may have to tolerate some discomfort on overnight buses, but you'll be able to spend the saved money on Egg McMuffins and coffee at 6 o'clock in the morning (which was when that bus from Fukuoka arrived in Osaka!).
Concerning trains, this mode of transportation can be a mixed bag. On one hand, Japan Railways and regional railways, like Nishi-tetsu in Kyushu, are reasonably priced for local (futsuu in Japanese) and express (kyuukou or kaisoku) trains. Despite this, watch out for intercity commuter trains; these trains are the ones that are often colored and styled to distinguish them from local trains, and feature more comfortable seating, smoking cars, and "green" cars for dining. These tokkyuu (limited express) trains add extra fees onto the base fee for travel to a destination on a local train. Moreover, the Shinkansen, though a novelty, is exceptionally more expensive than buses or even domestic airline routes, so avoid the Shinkansen. Japan Railways runs Shinkansen and tokkyuu trains.
It is possible, though, to travel inexpensively via limited express or Shinkansen "bullet train" by buying a JR Rail Pass, which will afford two weeks of unlimited travel by paying one price up front. You will need to purchase this pass through a travel agent before going to Japan, but I advise the rail pass ONLY if you are going to see multiple, far-flung destinations in Japan over a two-week span. If you are going to stick to a few prefectures, then don't waste your money on a Rail Pass. For more information about JR Rail Pass, please check out http://www.japanrailpass.net .
Some Japanese cities have subways, most notably Tokyo and Osaka (the latter has a wonderfully efficient subway system). I have not spent much time in Tokyo, but I can say that Osaka has a wonderful deal that allows you to travel an unlimited amount of times on the subway in one day: just pay 890 yen (or more now, perhaps) and purchase a subway card. Each one-way subway trip in Osaka averages about 210-250 yen, so if you plan on making multiple stops in a day, the card will pay for itself once you exceed three rides. Look for these cards (though you may need help in finding out what the card is called, depending on the city). Of course, some cities may not have this card, but check for deals that can save you some money, as well as make intra-city travel convenient; for example, in Fukuoka, there is a Yokkanet card, which allows you to pay 3,000 yen for a 3,300 card, but the card can be used on subways AND Nishi-tetsu buses. Needless to say, knowing the subway lines and traveling by that means is quick and affordable.
Lastly, a few cities feature streetcars, like Kagoshima and Nagasaki. Streetcars are strikingly inexpensive, accessible above-ground, and run frequently. Plus, you get a street-level view of the city, which you cannot get from riding a subway.
4) Check out youth hostels and business hotels: For bare-bones accommodations that allow you to meet interesting people, have a hot breakfast, and sleep in decent conditions to boot, youth hostels in Japan are a viable way to go. Youth hostels are basically dormitories for travelers, where you share a room with up to 7 other travelers of the same gender. Quality depends from hostel to hostel, but Japanese hostels are actually quite tidy and safe, unlike hostels in other countries. Some hostels even offer family rooms (but you should call beforehand to confirm); and, thankfully, most hostels have English-speaking staff.
Prices for one night in youth hostels range from 2,200 to 3,000 yen per night, but you will have to mind the curfew of these places, which can be as early as 10 pm. Youth Hostel memberships are available to people under 26 years old, and reduce the price of staying at a youth hostel by 10% or so, but people over 26 are also welcomed at youth hostels.
Besides hostels, business hotels are a relatively inexpensive option, at around 5,000 to 7,000 per person per night. The rooms are small, but tidy, and feature TV and a fully-stocked bathroom. This option may get expensive with families, so research your options before choosing a business hotel.
Capsule hotels are also good options, though you get what you pay for and they are often only found in large cities (Tokyo, Osaka, Nakasu in Fukuoka): you sleep in a capsule, sometimes stacked in threes, and you share communal showers and toilets with others. And..., "love hotels" are actually good options for couples; at 3,000 to 5,000 per person per night, you can get a good night's sleep -- bare-bones, as it may be -- at a reasonable price. Oh, and you get that wonderful "love hotel" ambience (laugh).
Camping is yet another good, low cost option. There are places in Japan where you can camp, but you may try camping in a secluded, "non-camping" place -- say, on the edge of town (but this is risky -- I've been tempted to try this, but never actually did it). Some cities and towns have hot springs (called onsen) for bathing and relaxing, so camping is viable. But, this would REALLY be "roughing it. "For camping and travel, try to research national parks in Japan for camping. Smaller islands, like Iki and Tanegashima (off the coast of Kyushu) have excellent campsites WITH facilities...
If you are aiming to save money, try hostels and business hotels, but avoid ryokan, which are traditional Japanese inns. At around 10,000 per person per night, you get ambience, tatami-mat flooring, futons, and Japanese-style squat toilets, but you also get a hefty bill at the end of your stay. Likewise, penshon, which are Japanese "bed and breakfast" establishments, can be reasonable, but most are expensive: around 8,000 to 10,000 per person per night.
5) Eat smart: Basically, the best places to get food at good prices are supermarkets and convenience stores. Unlike U.S. convenience stores, which seem to feature nothing but junk food (including hamburgers and hot dogs), convenience stores have Japanese lunch boxes (called bentou), which have rice, various kinds of meat, seaweed, and pickled vegetables (tsukemono); onigiri, or rice balls, filled with different kinds of meat and fish; plentiful types of bread; and, sandwiches. Supermarkets also have similar food, though the selection of prepared bentou may be more extensive; plus, if you go to supermarkets up to two hours before closing time, you can get discounted lunch boxes, rice bowls, and sushi for up to 50% off the originally marked price.
You could also eat at fast-food places. Of course, MacDonald's restaurants are ubiquitous in Japan; Wendy's and Kentucky Fried Chicken are also highly visible. Unlike rumors that people spread, a Big Mac value meal can be purchased for about 500 to 600 yen (about $4.80 to $5.70 in US dollars). But, I do not recommend these Western fast-food restaurants for two reasons: 1) the food is not healthy at all; and 2) you miss out on Japanese food, unless, of course, you're not fond of Japanese food (which is okay because I, myself, am not overly fond of some Japanese food, but I love Japan).
6) Don't get fooled into buying trinkets: This is a travel tip applicable to most places. Japan is a country predicated on take-home gifts, or o-miyage, so it's easy to get your hands on non-food items like keychains, ukiyo-e kabuki illustrations, and replica samurai dolls. However, you will quickly run out of money and suitcase space buying trinkets. My advice: grab free pamphlets, take lots of pictures, and even spend some yen on local magazines. Pamphlets, tourist maps, pictures, and magazines are memorabilia that travel well in a suitcase, are inexpensive, and yet capture the mood and look of any place you visit.
If you must buy a trinket, though, go to department stores, like Daiei (a supermarket chain), which carry a lot of Japanese items at low prices -- things that are not only used in everyday Japanese life (nice chopsticks, earthenware dishes, black lacquer trays and cups), but also uniquely Japanese items, like zarusoba basket bowls, calico-type placemats, and even Japanese traditional music at 100 yen per CD (less than $1 US!). Look for 100 yen shops for especially cheap Japanese trinkets.
Two more places to check out are used CD shops and used book stores, where you can purchase J-Pop or Japanese traditional music and Japanese manga (comic books) at low prices. Since Japanese people (at least older people) have an aversion to second-hand things, Japanese young people and foreigners can take advantage of a depressed second-hand market to acquire, say, the latest Glay CD or some back-issues of Conan, Boy Detective, at almost half the price of new retail items.
7) Keep an ear out for local festivals: At various times of the year, you can catch local events, marking various holidays of the year. For example, in Nagasaki, the O-kunchi festival occurs in August -- it is free to walk through the various stalls and see certain exhibits. Also, in Fukuoka, the Yamakasa festival is a time when half-naked men carry mikoshi (the Japanese equivalent to "floats") to a local shrine. Both festivals are of religious significance, so if you are sensitive to such things, you can avoid the focus of the event and just partake of the stalls and streetside vendors, as well as see Japanese people living their daily lives.
I could go on and on about how to save money when traveling in Japan, but the most important thing to remember is this: simplicity. Simple accommodations, simple meals, and simple pleasures make for inexpensive travel in Japan. Avoid tours, expensive museum entrance fees (unless you've budgeted for it), and stay away from overly tourist-oriented places. I suggest getting lost in towns and on backroads; test your limited knowledge of Japanese, wander into run-down shops, and even check out a coffee shop you had not planned on seeing. Keep an open mind, be willing to get lost, and you'll find that you save money by simply watching Japanese life.
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