Japan is one of my favorite countries to travel. It’s famous for efficiency, cleanliness, history, quirkiness, great food, beautiful nature, modern cities, friendly people and the world’s largest metropolitan area. It is also famous for being one of the most expensive countries on earth, but that is actually a little misleading. If you know what you are doing, you can spend less in Japan that you would in much of Europe and far less than you would in the US or the Scandinavian countries. I lived in Japan for three years and can’t wait to get back again for a visit.
- Tokyo: the capital of Japan and the world’s most modern city
- Osaka: Japan’s second city, famous for food and comedy
- Kyoto: former capital with countless temples and gardens
- Yokohama: Japan’s second largest city just south of Tokyo
- Fukuoka: the capital of Kyushu, famous for ramen and festivals
- Sapporo: the capital of Hokkaido and home to the Snow Festival
- Nara: first capital of Japan with many historic sites
- Hiroshima: first city to be destroyed by an atomic bomb
- Nagasaki: port city and the second to be destroyed by an atomic bomb
- Himeji: home to Japan’s most spectacular castle
- Nikko: home to the World Heritage burial site of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu
- Kamakura: seaside town and home to many temples, shrines and a big Buddha
- Miyajima: island near Hiroshima and home to the famous floating temple
- Mount Fuji: the symbol of Japan and its highest peak
- Mount Aso: active volcano and one of the world’s largest calderas
- Yakushima: World Heritage island with ancient trees and primeval forests
- Okinawa: Japan’s tropical islands
Best Time to Go
The climate in Japan varies quite a bit, from the tropical weather of Okinawa to the cold winters and mild summers of the northern island of Hokkaido. Most large cities in Japan are located along the Pacific Ocean coast, where the winters are mild with little snowfall. The Japan Sea coast, on the other hand, gets large amounts of snow.
Summers start with a wet and humid rainy season before becoming uncomfortably hot. This is the best season for festivals, but the worst for anything else—it is not a pleasant time to be in Japan, as the heat and humidity combine to soak whatever clothes you are wearing within minutes of stepping outside.
The best times to visit Japan are, without a doubt, spring and autumn. Temperatures are relatively mild and clear days are more common. Spring is also the cherry blossom season, but the fall colors are arguably even more beautiful. Late summer and early autumn is the typhoon season, which can bring transportation to a standstill.
Most nationalities can enter Japan without a visa. Upon arriving, you’ll receive landing permission, which allows you to stay in the country for up to 90 days.
Money and Costs
The Japanese currency is called the Yen and US $1 buys just under 100 of them. A quick way to calculate costs is to figure one Yen equals one cent. ATMs can be found just about everywhere, but many of them will not accept foreign cards. Many will also close overnight or on weekends. If you need cash, 7-11 stores are generally a good bet, as most of their ATMs are open 24 hours and accept virtually all cards.
Japan is a cash society, so you will definitely encounter difficulties trying to pay with credit cards.
Japan has a reputation for being incredibly expensive. While this certainly can be true, it doesn’t need to be. Accommodation costs can be as low as US $10 for a single room in certain locations, but in general, you can expect to pay between $30 (for a capsule hotel or a hostel bed) to $50 (for a single room).
Where you can really save money in Japan is on food. You’ll find countless restaurants that offer set meals for under $10 and they are generally very tasty and nowhere near as unhealthy as the budget food in most countries. You can get some incredible meals for very little money and if you wish to splurge, you can get get the best meals of your life in Japan.
Transportation costs are generally high, but you can save a lot by taking slower trains or buses and by planning ahead and getting the Japan Rail Pass or the Seishun 18 Pass before entering the country. See the transportation section below for more information.
Since Japan is an island, you can either arrive by plane or by boat. Most international flights land at Narita Airport near Tokyo or Kansai Airport near Osaka, but there are a number of other airports that also handle international flights.
The ferry between Busan in South Korea and Fukuoka (or Shimonoseki) in Japan is an excellent way to travel between the two countries. All other ferries—from various cities in China (Shanghai to Osaka or Kobe, Tianjin to Kobe, Suzhou to Shimonoseki, Qingdao to Shimonoseki), Russia (Sakhalin to Wakkanai, Vladivostok to Takaoka) or from Keelung in Taiwan to Naha/Ishigaki—are not worth it. They take a long time and cost almost as much as, and sometimes more than, a plane ticket.
Japan has the world’s best transportation system and there are few places in the country you can’t reach with relative ease. Trains are by far the most popular way to get around and the high speed rail network has made flying unnecessary to all but the most outlying destinations, which are usually small islands unreachable by land anyway.
Traveling by train is not cheap, but as mentioned in the ‘costs’ section above, there are several passes available to save you a bit of money. The Japan Rail Pass or the Seishun 18 Pass are the most popular, but be sure to look into these passes before entering Japan, as the Seishun Pass is only valid during certain times of the year and the JR pass has to be purchased from outside Japan.
Highway buses are also a great option for traveling between Japan’s cities. The prices are low, but the buses are generally very comfortable. They will take quite a bit longer than the trains, but an overnight bus can save you a night’s accommodation on top of the low ticket price.
In the major cities, you’ll find the subway and train networks can usually get you anywhere you need to go. In Japanese cities, a number of private transportation companies operate railroads alongside the government run Japan Railways and you can generally save quite a bit on fares by sticking to one operator for any given journey.
For anywhere not served by a train or subway, buses will get you there; but outside of Kyoto, the they are usually only signed in Japanese. Taxis are clean, safe, efficient and very expensive. I generally avoid taxis in every country and I did so even more in Japan. That said, they will never rip you off and having a driver in a suit is kind of nice for a change.
This will be your biggest expense in Japan, but you can save. In Kamagasaki in Osaka (Shin Imamiya Station or Dobutsuenmae Station) or Senju in Tokyo (Minami Senju Station), you can find rooms starting at $10 dollars for a tiny single, but if you can’t speak Japanese, $20 is a more realistic expectation. Note that these areas are laborer districts and are considered slums in Japan, but in reality, they are nicer than most areas in the US.
Apart from the “slums”, capsule hotels and hostels will be the cheapest options, generally starting around $35 to $40. “Love Hotels” are another fairly cheap option, with rooms starting at $60 or so. Business hotels are also a good bet, but can be pretty expensive near the stations. If you move further away, the prices drop and you can get a room for $50 pretty easily.
Any visitor to Japan should spend at least one night in a ryokan. These traditional Japanese inns are generally more expensive, starting at US $80 or so, but that price includes a very elaborate multi-course dinner served in your room, as well as a breakfast. A traditional ryokan will not have beds, but futons, which are simply mattresses laid out on the floor. They all have bathing facilities and in some cases these consist of natural hotsprings. The inn will provide guests with yukata and geta, the traditional robe and wooden sandals.
Minshuku are the budget version of ryokan and rooms here start at around $50. In exchange for the lower prices, meals are simpler, bathrooms are usually shared and guests have to lay out their own bedding. Sacrificing the two meals can drop the price to $30 in many places, making minshuku an excellent budget option. I used them extensively when traveling around Japan. They can be difficult to find though, as they don’t generally advertise and have no English signage.
In fact, many ryokan and minshuku—as well as some regular hotels—do not accept foreign guests, unless they can communicate in Japanese. This isn’t due to racism; they have simply found it easier to not even attempt to deal with the language differences.
Another excellent option to save money are short-term rentals. If you plan on spending a week or more in one place, check out some of the gaijin houses (lit. foreigner houses), which offer short term rentals at considerable savings over hotels. Conditions can vary greatly though. For Tokyo, check out the Sakura House website (monthly rentals only, but their other site Sakura Hotel has shorter term rentals, although I don’t find the prices any better than other hotels) and for the rest of Japan, try Gaijin House Japan.
Other options for those traveling in rural areas include camping and nojuku. Campsites are often inconveniently located, but can be perfect for those with their own transportation. Nojuku simply means “outside lodging” and, as the name implies, simply refers to sleeping outdoors, in places like train stations. With Japan being an incredibly safe country, this is a viable option and many Japanese college students actually travel the country this way. Public bath facilities are very common in Japan, so you’ll always have access to showers and toilets.
Finally, many people, usually after a night of drinking, will crash for the night in an internet cafe or a manga cafe. For around $10 (a special overnight rate offered at most places), you can get a comfortable recliner and a computer with high-speed internet, as well as all the free drinks (non-alcoholic – sorry) you can handle. Similar options include karaoke bars and public baths, but the net and manga cafes are generally your best bet.
Eating & Drinking
Most Japanese do their drinking at Izakaya and Snack Bars. Izakaya are basically restaurants where people order a bunch of plates and share the food, while drinking fairly heavily. Many, usually the ones aimed at college students, offer all-you-can-drink deals and can have quite a rowdy and fun atmosphere.
Snack bars are less fun. They’re basically incredibly overpriced bars that employ girls to flirt with customers. They seem to be very much set up for people with low self esteem, but these types of places are popular all over Asia, so I have to believe I’m missing something.
All big cities will also have numerous western-style bars and pubs as well as large night clubs. I heard somewhere that Tokyo has more bars than any city on earth and I can definitely believe that. It often seems that every doorway leads into a building that houses numerous bars.
Western alcohol is expensive, but there are cheaper options. Happoushu and “Third Beer” are both similar to beer, but don’t include some of the ingredients that are heavily taxed to make beer expensive. They taste a bit more watery and give you worse hangovers (they’re basically Korean beer, if you’ve ever been there), but they are much cheaper.
For hard alcohol, try shochu. It’s stronger than sake, but can be incredibly cheap (it can also be very expensive, depending on the brand). There are so many varieties of shochu that everyone will find one that appeals to them.
If there’s one thing Japan has more of than bars, it’s restaurants. You will find places to eat absolutely everywhere and the options are endless, from wonderful budget meals to incredibly lavish and expensive fine dining. Tokyo has more Michellin stars than any other city (more than London and Paris combined, apparently), so you will never go hungry. Menus are not often written in English, but most restaurants have plastic models of their dishes in the window, so you can always use the “point and grunt” method.
To save money on food, eat a lot of bento boxes. You’ll find a large selection of them in any convenience store or supermarket as well as department store basements. Most are quite good and cost under 500 Yen.
You’ll also find several chains, like Hokka Hokka Tei, that make bento boxes to order. Most will still be under (or just around) 500 Yen, but they taste even better than the reheated ones. If you have access to a rice cooker (as many accommodation options in Japan do), you can get your bento without rice and knock another 150 yen or so off the price. You can live quite well and quite cheaply on just bento.
Restaurants that dispense order tickets through vending machines (it is Japan, after all) are also very good deals, with many set meals going for 500 Yen or less. Meshiadon is one of the most well-known, but there are way too many to list.
Japan is the safest country on earth and the biggest danger you face is getting caught in an earthquake. Naturally, there are some scams and it is definitely possible to be robbed, but the chances are much lower than anywhere else. You should still take the standard safety precautions though.
One area that is notorious for scams is Roppongi, the night life area of Tokyo frequented by foreigners. If you want to play it safe, stay away from any establishments run by Nigerians, as many of these places are backed by the mob and have been known to drug customers or simply run up the charges. You can have a perfectly fine night there, but you need to be careful.
Tips for Saving Money
- take public transport to get around the cities, not taxis; the subway systems are fairly straightforward once you get used to them and they get you almost everywhere; try sticking to one transportation company for any given journey, as it can save you quite a bit on fares (i.e. use only trains run by JR or only ones run by Nishitetsu, etc.)
- if you plan on doing a lot of train travel, get the JR Rail Pass before entering Japan
- travel between cities by bus or by slow train; overnight buses can save you a night’s accommodation, are actually pretty comfortable and cost far less than most hotels
- eat at restaurants that sell meal tickets in vending machines; the set meals are cheap and very good
- stay in the Kamagasaki area in Osaka or the Senju area in Tokyo
- make use of Minshuku or business hotels located a bit farther from the stations in other cities
- try nojuku (sleeping outside) in the summer months to really save
- avoid western things while in Japan