Skyscanner contributor and traveler, Norina Masaki shares personal lessons and secrets gleaned from being a local and a backpacker in Japan.
Japan has a fearsome reputation for being one of the most expensive countries in the world for traveling, but in fact you can have a blast even if you’re on a very modest budget, as my husband and I learned in our younger days (which weren’t all THAT long ago)! Here are a few of the tricks that worked for us, and may just work for you:
1. Hit The “Conbini”
Frugal travelers know not to waste their money at fancy restaurants unless there’s something they really want to try there. Better to get your meals from the humble convenience store, known in Japan as “konbini.” They are everywhere, even in small rural towns, and they are nothing like the convenience stores you might be familiar with in your home country. They are always stocked with healthy, cheap and tasty meals like bento, noodles, sushi and the rice ball.
Another thing we always love to eat in Japan is the morning set. Typically served in the morning at old-school coffee joints, you’ll get a thick slice of toast nicely fried with butter, a cup of coffee, and sometimes a salad or boiled egg. It’s simple, and the old school atmosphere adds a bit of flavor to the whole experience. We love it!
Pro-tip: Hit any supermarket near to their closing time and you will score some really, really good deals as they try to clear out daily stock of daily-cooked food. If you’re feeling snacky during the day, hit those same supermarkets, where you can try out samples of different food. On a good day you can get what feels like an entire meal!
2. Go on a walking tour
One thing we did a lot in our travels was walk. A great thing about Japan is that maps are EVERYWHERE – every few blocks, you’ll come across a map of the vicinity which will help you orient yourself, though it helps to be able to read (or at least recognize) the kanji names.
Don’t think you really enjoy walking? Japan will change this. You’ll soon find yourself enjoying every walk you take and it becomes quite addictive because every time you go out you’ll run into a random, eclectic shop or stumble across breathtaking, Instagram-worthy scenes.
No matter where we went in our travels, we found that some of the most rewarding legs of the journey was on foot.
3. Try the “seishun 18” ticket instead of Shinkansen
Many international travelers splash out on the very expensive yet very amazing JR Rail Pass, giving you access to just about any type of transport the island has to offer.
Another far cheaper option is the “seishun juuhachi kippu,” which means something like “youth spring 18 ticket.” Originally intended as a cheap way for poor college students to get home, the tickets are generally for people looking to get around the country’s rail system for cheap.
The deal is you can ride any local train that doesn’t require a reserved seat, which for the most part means you’ll be taking local trains. But this is in fact a fantastic way to discover some amazing places in Japan you might have missed otherwise due to their remote nature.
It took us 19 hours to go from Tokyo to (nearly) Fukuoka – we would have made it all the way if not for one missed connection – but we were travelling with friends and loved every minute of the journey.
4. Internet Cafes as Accommodation
One super cheap option for sleeping is the internet cafe, and it’s something we always do whenever the weather got bad. The internet cafe was a lifesaver when that late summer typhoon rolled through the Shikkoku town we were staying in.
For less than S$20 per night, you get a high walled cubicle with a reclining chair and enough room to stretch your legs all the way out. The perks include all you can drink coffee tea and cocoa from the drink bar, some of the fancier places even have massage chairs, clean showers with toiletries and hair dryers, and a ton of privacy.
5. …Or Parks
Don’t be afraid to sleep outside. As one of the safest countries on earth, chances are no one will bother you if you find a nice patch of grass to take a nap on. This is not so advisable in the cities (good luck finding any grass) but it’s very easy to do in the smaller towns.
One morning on the island of Shikoku we were awoken from our slumber by a bunch of old men. We were all set for a scolding, but instead they invited us to help them set up for a festival being held that night. It was another amazing experience from a fantastic trip none of us will soon forget. Of course, don’t leave your common sense at home – clean up your messes, go with a friend, and don’t put yourself in any danger while trying to save a buck or two.
6. Need to get clean? Try the “sento“!
You don’t need a fancy hotel room with its own bath to stay clean and refreshed when travelling around Japan. For one thing, most towns have their own public baths where you can pay a few hundred yen (a couple of bucks) to join the local old folks in a communal tradition that dates back thousands of years.
Please note that if you have tattoos, some places may balk at letting you in, so you may want to ask before you pay. Some of the fancier ones come with saunas and even jet baths. Pro tip: Don’t shy away from swimming in the clean and refreshing rivers in the countryside, or a dip in the ocean too.
7. Save on bus fare and hitchhike
Once you’ve left the buzzing streets of the major cities of Japan, hitchhiking is a great way to get around, meet local people, and learn things you may not have otherwise. Unlike some other countries, it’s not illegal to hitchhike in Japan, and you may even find yourself being offered rides when you don’t even need them.
Once, in Ome, (a town that is technically in Tokyo, but has more farms and trees than people), we were offered a ride into town. We wanted to walk it though and said no thank you. People in the countryside are very accommodating and some may use the ride with you as an opportunity to practice their English. That’s a pretty cheap price to pay for a ride to your next destination.
8. Don’t cling too tightly to that itinerary
One of the most important lessons we learned on our trip is: don’t overthink it, and don’t overplan it. Of course, this led to a few tight spots and inconveniences, but these discomforts were a small price to pay for some of the most indelible memories of our lives.
Initially, our plan was to ONLY take trains and busses throughout Kyushu,, but we quickly realized some of the most breathtaking sites were pretty remote, and that renting a tiny car would actually be cheaper than the bus fare up and down the mountain.
So, we got a beat up old hatchback with a manual transmission (driving stick is a useful skill!) and headed up to the mountain. That evening, as the sun was dipping behind the mountains, we discovered that Takachiho, gorge of the gods, was completely empty.
We went for a quick swim, bathing our bodies in the sacred water, showed our gratitude, and drove up to a camping spot where we slept outside under the stars. What a night.
You don’t have to be mega rich to see the sights in Japan. With a little knowledge and some planning, you too can travel the land of the rising sun.