Japan was the first country we visited on our Big Trip, and what a way to kick off our adventure! While many long-term travelers opt to skip Japan for budgetary reasons, we found the country a perfect place to ease ourselves into Asia and learn to travel without training wheels. Japan is remarkably traveler friendly, irrespective of the number of stamps in your passport; especially for those without a lot of international travel experience, we can’t imagine many other places in Asia that would make one’s first month of travel so stress-free and easy (natural travel growing pains aside!). Perhaps the greatest culture shock you’ll experience upon arriving in Japan, is just how Western the country feels. Yes there are superficial differences here and there, and as you spend time in Japan, the richer more deeply entrenched cultural traditions that delineate their society from our own become more apparent, but we spent our first week or so in Japan remarking on how un-foreign it felt to us!
Communication was rarely a problem for us in Japan. There is a lot of English signage in train stations, hotels, and most sights you will visit, and every city we visited had an excellent tourist information office at the train station, staffed with at least one English speaker who could provide maps, directions, and answer any questions we had. Although not everyone speaks English in Japan, if you ever find yourself lost or in need of help, rest assured that the Japanese people aim to please and are extremely solicitous so you won’t be without assistance for long. Most people speak enough English to help a wayward traveler, and if not, they won’t leave you stranded and will seek out someone who can give you the information you need.
As with most places, a few basic Japanese phrases would not be amiss, and tend to be greeted with smiles and extreme enthusiasm. Japanese people really seem to appreciate it if you’ve made some attempt to learn even a fraction of their language, and the benefits you’ll reap from learning 5 to 10 phrases will greatly outstrip the time and minimal effort involved in learning them in the first place. Japanese is not a tonal language and so it is relatively easy to learn in a basic way, even if you feel you have little affinity for languages. During our time in Japan, the number of Japanese phrases and words we could understand and use tripled!
One thing we found extremely useful was to learn the kanji and Japanese words for the numbers 1 – 10. If you know these, you can pretty much read any number, which can come in handy if you venture into smaller, less touristed restaurants. You won’t always know what you’re ordering, but at the very least you will know how much your mystery meal will cost!
Food & Dining
Japanese food has a reputation for being some of the most delicate and delicious the world over, and it’s not just limited to sushi! Whether we were crunching on tempura, slurping ramen, feasting on extravagant kaseki meals or eating chicken parts skewered and grilled on sticks, we were hard pressed to eat a meal that was anything less than exceptional.
As a whole, hygiene and cleanliness standards are incredibly high in Japan, so you can feel confident eating pretty much anywhere at all. Moreover, tap water is potable, though you will undoubtedly want to try out the various beverages found in vending machines throughout the country. Clear Peach is the best.
Unlike many Asian countries, street food is not very common. Instead, look to convenience stores, train stations, and the top or basement floors of shopping malls for quick, easy meals. 100 Yen stores are also great places to stock up on cost-effective snacks (as well as virtually anything else you might need!).
If you are dining at sit-down restaurants, it is not unusual for many of them to have plastic models of the meals you can order on display outside. Take a picture of anything you might want to eat, because there is no guarantee there will be pictures inside (alternatively, be prepared to drag your waitress outside with you so you can point). On the other hand, we found that many restaurants wound up having English and/or picture menus on offer even if there was no indication from outside that this would be the case. We went into a lot of places at random and never once found ourselves in an establishment that couldn’t accommodate non-Japanese speakers in some capacity.
If for some reason you find yourself tired of Japanese food, it is possible to find Western and ethnic food, though you will pay for this privilege. By far the most common cuisine apart from Japanese is Italian.
Japan has many of the same lodging options you will find in other countries, with a few notable exceptions.
For budget travelers, much of your time in Japan will likely be spent staying in hostels (where a bed in a dorm will likely run you $30USD) or business hotels. For single travelers, another option might be the capsule hotel, in which your room for the night is essentially a coffin, which enough room for you to lie down but not much else. Although a capsule will certainly be cheaper than a business hotel, we found that they were generally on par or more expensive than a stay in a hostel (particularly as a couple where we would each need to have our own capsule). Another option is 24-hour internet cafes where you can rent a private room. Ostensibly this is to access the internet, but most of these rooms come with a chair that fully reclines, allowing you to grab a few hours of sleep.
Japan also features “love hotels”, which tend to be themed hotels where young couples can meet for some privacy. Generally these places are rented out on an hourly basis (romantic!), and visiting at weirder times (like 3 – 6 am, or 2 – 4 pm) offers better rates. A full night’s stay, while memorable, will likely be on par with what you would pay for a business hotel.
Most expensive in the world of accommodations in Japan are ryokans and minshuku. These are traditional Japanese inns, in which you can expect to sleep on tatami mats and bathe in communal, sex-segregated bathrooms. Although extremely pricey, many ryokans will include dinner and even breakfast with the cost of your room. The meals will be traditional kaseki (multi-course) feasts that would likely run upwards of $100USD in a restaurant, so although your first glance at the price might leave you with some sticker shock, a ryokan stay, is not quite as exorbitant as it might initially appear. Some of the nicer establishments may even include a traditional tea ceremony. While a splurge, this is one of those quintessentially Japanese experiences that many consider mandatory for visitors to the country.
Like most everything else in the country, getting around Japan is easy, enjoyable, and impressively punctual. A friend we met while CouchSurfing told us that over the course of the year, across all the bullet trains, the total delay is only 30 seconds! In keeping with these rigorous standards, Japanese trains are incredibly comfortable, even if you are traveling second-class. People turn their phones off when on the train or subway, so rides are always quiet and relaxing. We enjoyed our time on Japanese trains so much, we lamented that the rides are generally so short! When riding the bullet train, time really flies as you eat up the miles, but even on regular trains, we liked them so well we often felt our destination came too soon!
If you’ll be covering any kind of distance by rail in Japan, chances are that a JR Pass will save you money. It seems pricey, but rail travel isn’t cheap in Japan, and the pass will allow you access to almost any JR train, including most bullet trains, which definitely aren’t cheap! In a separate post, we will break down the cost benefits of the JR Pass, but the take-away message is simply: if you’re eligible, get a JR Pass. It will save you money, time, and make your life so much easier.
TIP: Hyperdia is an invaluable resource for foreign travelers in Japan, especially if you’ll be riding the rails. Input your city of departure, your destination, and the approximate time you’d like to leave, and Hyperdia will tell you which trains you need to catch, how long the journey will take, what rail systems you’ll use, and how much your trip will cost. Planning your journeys out in advance can really help overcome any unanticipated language barriers, and the site is especially helpful if your trip will require transferring at several stations. I would frequently write down when we were scheduled to arrive at our transfer station as well as when our next train would depart (sometimes the platform will even be given; if not, when we reached our transfer station, we’d simply check the departures board — generally entirely in Kanji — and find the platform of whichever train was departing at the time we had looked up on Hyperdia). In cases where the time between transfers was tight, we could be ready to hop of the train right when it rolled into the station (not always announced in English) and know exactly where we needed to head to catch our next train. Using this trick, we never once missed or got on the wrong train while in Japan.
Within cities, public transportation — particularly subways — is convenient, cost-effective, and easy to use. In most cases, your fare will be calculated based on the distance you are traveling, which is often not too difficult to figure out using the provided fare maps at the station. However, when in doubt, simply buy the cheapest ticket available and then pay the extra fee if necessary when you reach your intended destination. Navigating the subways, even in a place like Tokyo (where the map looks like an adder’s nest at first glance), was pretty intuitive, especially as most stations are numbered, meaning you don’t have to understand Japanese, you just have to be able to count.
Japan is often dismissed from many long-term travelers’ itineraries on the basis that it is “too expensive”. While Japan is certainly one of the priciest destinations in Asia, we don’t believe that it is TOO expensive to be included in your long-term travel plans if you have the yen to visit it (ha! See what we did there?!). There are many important ways you can cut your costs in Japan while still making a trip there worthwhile. Important ways we saved money while in Japan (and you can too) are:
- Save money on accommodation by CouchSurfing if possible
- If CouchSurfing is not feasible for you, check out hostels! You don’t have to stay in a communal dorm (though those rooms will always be cheapest); if traveling as a couple, private rooms are often just an extra $3-5USD per person per night.
- Cheap meals abound in Japan! For the most budget-conscious traveler, cheap but filling (and pretty tasty) meals can be had at convenience stores. If you would like a real sit-down meal, head to a train station or a shopping mall; the food is sure to be tasty and there will be many options to choose from in a variety of price ranges.
- If you’re considering a splurge meal, try to eat it at lunch rather than dinner. Many nicer restaurants offer excellent lunch sets that cost just a fraction of a similar meal if eaten at dinner.
- Tap water is safe to drink in Japan – even a spigot in a park is potable! Even though drink vending machines abound, carry a reusable water bottle to cut down on costs (and be more environmentally sound). At restaurants, drinks can be very pricey (especially if you want to drink beer), but you can easily save $5-10USD per meal by asking for water. “Omizu kudasai” is an indispensible phrase for the budget diner!
- Get a JR Pass. While it may seem like a lot of money upfront, the JR Pass not only makes traveling throughout Japan extremely easy and convenient, but you save a ridiculous amount of money. Although not immediately apparent, many Japanese train tickets involve several fees that might not be immediately apparent if you just quickly glance at base fees on a site like Hyperdia. At the very least a JR Pass will likely allow you to break even, and given the time and hassle you’ll save by simply being able to hop on and off of practically any train, it’s one of the best investments you will make during your time in Japan.
- DON’T save money by skipping sights and activities or by being overly frugal! You didn’t save money and travel all the way to Japan simply to sit in your hostel and eat meals limited to 7/11 sushi, did you? Understand that spending an extra $10 or $15 in order to actually experience the place you have made the time to visit is worth far more than sticking to a strict budget. Remember: it is far better to travel for 51 weeks and have an amazing, memorable time taking the trip you wanted to take, rather than to travel for 52 weeks only to look back and only have memories of all the things you didn’t sped money on!
Despite most travelers’ belief that Japan is a futuristic, technological wonderland, it is still a place where cold hard cash reigns supreme. Most establishments will not accept credit cards at all, so make sure you always have a healthy supply of yen on you. On the off chance that a place does accept credit cards, foreign cards may still be rejected for no obvious reason: during our time in Japan, credit cards were only accepted approximately 30% of the time, and in those instances, the transaction only went through about 50% of the time. Remember that Japan is incredibly safe, so you do not need to worry about carrying large amounts of cash.
To make things a little trickier, you can’t just get cash out of any old ATM in Japan. Many ATMs attached to banks will only accept local cards, so your best bet will be using ATMs in 7/11s and at Post Offices. The machines seem to automatically recognize that you are using a foreign card and will display all instructions and prompts in English on the screen.
Japan by the Numbers
Total Number of Days Spent in Japan: 27
Cities Visited: Tokyo, Nikko, Matsushima, Sendai, Matsumoto, Takayama, Furukawa, Kanazawa, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Kyoto, Koyasan, Osaka
Total Number of Cities Visited: 13
Average Daily Cost per person (including local transportation and any inter-city transport NOT covered by JR Pass; cost of JR Pass not included in this average): $81 USD
Projected Daily Budget: $88USD per person (yeah! $7 under budget!)
Cost of 14-day JR Pass (per person; purchased prior to departure): $578 USD
Total Japan costs per person (Daily costs + JR Pass): $2725 USD
A Note On Daily Costs: In our daily costs, we have separated out the cost of our JR Pass and included that value on its own. We did this because we paid for the pass in advance, and we were not actually paying for it on a daily basis while in Japan. We believe that including the cost of the pass would artificially inflate our daily average cost in a way that was not really reflective of our daily expenditure. We believe our Lodging, Food, Transportation, Attractions, and Miscellaneous Shopping costs are reasonable estimates that may be informative for other likeminded travelers; however, we believe the cost of the JR Pass is best considered a separate lump sum expenditure that will vary based on the length of your trip (as a 7-day JR Pass costs much less than a 21-day Pass).
(Also, the Miscellaneous Shopping category is one that many travelers fail to include, which we believe is shortsighted and misleading. Although it is true that on an extended trip you are unlikely to spend money on extravagant souvenirs, other unexpected but necessary expenses will crop up such as replacing toiletries and other daily necessities, or purchasing gear and helpful items that you may have forgotten or find you require. Although these costs are rarely extreme, it would be an oversight not to include them in your long-term travel budget. At some point on the road you will find yourself buying batteries or bandaids! )
Accommodation: In order to keep our lodging costs to a minimum, we stayed primarily in hostels when available, staying in dormitories about 75% of the time in those instances. In a few instances, hostels were not available, or a room at a budget business hotel was less than a dorm room, so be sure to explore your options! We also spent 4 nights CouchSurfing, and spent 1 night in a Buddhist temple.
Food: Our meals in Japan ran the gamut from convenience store meals-to-go to multi-course kaseki feasts. Although self-catering and “snack” meals can certainly be had for cheap, we generally ate at budget and midrange sit-down restaurants found in train stations and department stores, as well as the occasional izakaya (Japanese bar).
Transportation: These daily averages exclude the cost involved for the JR Pass, but generally speaking, traveling within cities is quite reasonable if you stick to public transportation. We walked a good deal, but in many cities, bus, subway and tram rides are less than $1.50USD per ride and are very reasonable.
Attractions: Temples run rampant in Japan, and unfortunately many of them charge an admission fee. In fact, most things in Japan cost money to visit, though there are certainly exceptions to this rule. We feel we struck a good balance between seeing and doing activities, and simply strolling about the various cities we visited and getting a good sense for them that way. In Kyoto, we visited only about 1% of the temples available, which was good for our mental health as well as our budget!
This figure plots our daily spending per person during our time in Japan so you can get a better sense of how our daily average evolved. I know it’s basic math, but so often we encounter travelers who pick a daily budget and then refuse to spend a penny more than that, even though you will certainly have days when you are well under budget. We hope this helps illuminate our spending habits, and will serve as a reminder that you can have crazy splurge days (like the day we spent almost $175 per person!) and still do ok. Caveat: $80USD per person per day is not the absolute cheapest you can visit Japan on – certainly some travelers get by on far less. But, for those travelers who want to enjoy themselves, have the occasional splurge, but still keep an eye on the purse strings, we think this is actually pretty reasonable. It is certainly easy to spend double or triple if you’ve got money to burn or are not as budget conscious.
Highs & Lows
Best splurge: Osaka Aquarium (Steph); Goshuin (temple stamp book; Tony)
Worst splurge: Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market (Tony); Having to buy new walking shoes after my initial ones proved to be painful (Steph)
Best surprise: Hiroshima! I didn’t expect to be so charmed by the city, nor did I think the food there would be some of the best we had in all of Japan. (Tony); Sake is delicious and very smooth to drink, not sharp and harsh like we expected. (Steph);
Worst surprise: How oppressively humid Japan is in the summer (Steph); the Tsukiji Fish Market & how underwhelmed we felt by Tokyo in general (Tony); the general lack of benches and garbage cans throughout the country… yes it’s all very clean, but carrying your trash around is a pain!; The lack of public WiFi spots throughout the country (Steph & Tony)
Favorite meal: Tsukemen in Hiroshima (Steph & Tony)
Least favorite meal: Okonomiyaki (Steph); Sushi at Tsukiji (Tony)
Best memories: Experiencing the beauty of Obon in Matsushima; Having our first wonderful experiences as CouchSurfers and experiencing Japanese hospitality at its finest; Capturing some otherworldly photos of Geiko in Kyoto’s Gion district; visiting the Arashiyama Monkey park; first Bullet Train ride;
Hidden gem: Don’t miss Furukawa and the Hida countryside; at some point you will get tired of temples in Japan, and when you do, you’ll be so glad you planned some time here. Furukawa is a little village that is gorgeous in that quaint, traditionally Japanese way. The food and sake in this area is unparalleled, and the natural beauty is breathtaking. The people are some of the nicest you will meet, and given that we’re talking about Japan, the land of impossibly kind people, that is saying something!
Best Lessons Learned: We pretty much summarized these in our post reflecting on our first month of travel, but the best thing we learned in Japan was that we need to slow down and not try to cram our days full of conventional tourist activities. One or two major sights go a long way, and some of our best travel moments happen when we give ourselves time to just go slow and really observe the world around us.
If we could do it all over again?
We would make few changes to our time in Japan, but we certainly would not want to visit during the summer months again!
By and large we are very happy with the itinerary we chose for our time in Japan. Although the pace was rather harried, most of the places we visited were ones we sincerely enjoyed and with few exceptions, we generally felt we spent the right amount of time in each place we visited.
The two places we were least impressed with during our time in Japan were Tokyo and Nara, and on a return visit, we would probably skip those as we left with no real desire to return (though feeding the deer in Nara was pretty cool!).
On the other hand, a week was hardly enough for Kyoto, and one day definitely was not enough for Takayama. If we ever make our way back to Japan, we would absolutely return to both to uncover more of their charms. We also refrained from staying in a traditional Japanese ryokan on this pass (opting for a temple stay instead), but on a return to Takayama, we would definitely make a night in a ryokan a priority.
Although we sampled the Japanese countryside quite widely, on a return visit, we would really love to spend some time exploring the more northern areas, particularly the Hokkaido region. Because we would not revisit Japan during the summer, with cooler weather, we would put a trip to a traditional onsen on the itinerary as well, perhaps in Kinosaki.
The Bottom Line
Japan is a beautiful country that is very accessible for foreign travelers and has a little something for everyone. Whether you’re a foodie, a history buff, an artist, a technology geek, or someone who loves the great outdoors, whatever your passion, it is hard not to see the very best of it in Japan.
Although your money may not go as far here as in many other parts of Asia, it is one of those destinations where you do feel as though you get what you pay for. Standards are extremely high whether they be in terms of food, transportation, lodging, or the care that has been put into preserving the historic and cultural sites that are abundant throughout the country. Quality of life is very high, so traveling through the country is effortless and a real joy. As many travelers tend to stick to more popular cities such as Tokyo & Kyoto, it is very easy to get off the beaten path and discover the country for yourself. That said, the infrastructure for foreign tourists is well-established throughout the country, meaning that travel here is never very challenging.
The biggest stress you will encounter in Japan is likely to your budget, but a visit to Japan does not have to completely bankrupt you or derail your long-term travel plans. It is a country full of cultural and historical attractions that will delight you, and people so generous and kind that if you are squirreling away some money for a splurge on your own Big Trip, it would be hard to choose another location more deserving.
Big Trip Stats
Number of Countries Visited: 1
Total Number of Days on the Road: 27
Total Amount of Money Spent Since Departure: $4294USD
Average Daily Costs: $159USD (for TWO people)
Total Costs to Date: $4294 (money spent on the ground in Japan) + $1156 (JR Passes) + $927 (plane tickets from USA to Japan) = $6377 USD (for TWO PEOPLE)