Among many travellers, Japan has a reputation for being one of the most expensive countries in the world and most people will tell you that it is impossible to stick to a strict backpacking budget for Japan. I’ve been to Japan twice now and after having travelled through a number of different countries, I can tell you that Japan’s reputation is a bit of a myth. My two trips were 4 years apart and even in that time, pricing hadn’t changed that significantly.

While I don’t consider Japan a cheap country by any means (eg compared to South East Asia), it is certainly not on the same scale as Australia, Western Europe or the US. It’s a country where you can definitely splurge and spend a whole lotta cash, but it’s also a country where sticking to a tight budget doesn’t mean you won’t have a good time.

Sticking to a budget in Japan is possible

1) Japan is a country with ridiculously high standards for everything. That means that the cheapest of anything be it accommodation, transport or food, is still going to be very decent (especially by backpacking standards).

2) Public transport in Japan is FANTASTIC, timely and convenient. It is my favourite public transport in the world because it is incredibly reliable. Search a route in Google Maps and you will get accurate details on times and prices so you can plan ahead.

3) A lot of what is great about Japan is being there, people watching and just enjoying it. This sounds super cliched but just soaking in the culture is an experience in itself. You don’t have to go to every tourist site, you don’t have to go to Disneyland and you don’t have to take the bullet train.

4) All prices include service charges so you don’t have to tip. Tipping is not customary, isn’t expected and will also likely be returned to you or politely refused.

Walking the streets of Osaka

Our Budget For Japan: What We Spent

Our entire trip to Japan was for Daniel’s birthday and it was before we were coming home to surprise our family for Christmas so we weren’t exactly strict with our budgeting. The entire trip was a bit of a “backpacker splurge” so we weren’t always trying to do everything as cheap as possible and definitely didn’t stick to a tight budget for Japan.

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On top of that, Daniel’s best friend also surprised him in Japan so there lots of celebrations and a trip to Niseko so Daniel could go snowboarding for the first time. We spent a week there and adding winter sports will always significantly increase the cost. So, I’ve divided our cost breakdown into 2 sections: Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka; and Niseko.

Note: ¥ is the symbol for Japan’s currency (Japanese yen) and all conversions are to USD unless stated otherwise. 

Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka cost breakdown

  • Transport in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka (including airport trips): ¥12,523 (~$125)
  • Accommodation for 10 days: ¥24,027 (~$240)
  • Entrance fees: ¥3,210 (~$32)
  • Food and drinks at meals: ¥14,000 (~$140)
  • Alcohol: ¥1,500 (~$15)

Total spent in 11 days per person: ¥55,260 (~$550)

Average spend per person per day: ¥5,000 (~38€ / $50 USD / $62 AUD)

Niseko cost breakdown

Our backpacking budget for Japan was pretty much thrown out the window here. As mentioned earlier, we didn’t go with the cheapest option for everything which is why our spending tripled per person. If you are planning on visiting Niseko, I highly recommend you bring your own gear (buy it second hand or borrow it from a friend) in order to save some money.

The ski pass is actually quite cheap given that you can snowboard all day and night with it. Japan is famous for its powder (often referred to as Japow) so snowboarding in Niseko is what you’d imagine riding a cloud to feel like.

  • Total spent on transport and flights: ¥23,092 (~$230)
  • Accommodation: ¥17,400 (~$174)
  • Food and drinks: ¥21,018 (~$210) including several splurge birthday meals
  • Ski pass (4 days): ¥17,500 (~$175)
  • Snowboarding gear hire (4 days): ¥15,712 (~$160)

Total spent in 6 days per person: ¥94,722 (~$950)

Average spend per person per day: ¥15,787 (~122€ / $150 USD / $197 AUD)

Transport: Get Around Japan on a Budget

Japan will very well connected by its public transport system and you can travel through almost all of the country on public transport alone. Google Maps also shows routes and costs for train travel throughout the country (long distance buses aren’t shown though).

TIP: Train etiquette is taken very seriously in Japan. Form a single line when lining up for the train and wait until passengers have stepped off before stepping on. You should not eat, drink or talk loudly on the train. It’s frowned upon to talk on your phone.

Tips for saving money on transport in Japan

  • Buy a train card and load it with some cash. This will save you lots of time since you can tap on and off and don’t have to buy individual tickets each time you travel (think of all the paper you’ll be saving too).
  • Walk!! No better way of seeing a place than just walking between locations. Get lost in the cities and just enjoy the surroundings. In Kyoto especially, we hardly used public transport because within a 5km walk, there are 10 different beautiful sites to visit!
  • Take overnight buses for long distances to combine your transport and accommodation for the night!
  • Search your route on Google Maps before travelling to make sure you’re taking the cheapest option
  • Take the “slower” train to and from Narita airport. An extra 30 minutes will save you ¥1,000 – 1,500.
  • Travel in one direction (eg start in Tokyo and depart from Osaka): this will save you having to make the long journey back.
  • Avoid taking taxis: they are extremely expensive and aren’t necessary given how convenient and easy public transport is.
  • Hitchhike in more rural areas where public transport isn’t accessible. Hitchhiking is generally very safe in Japan although you’ll have a tough time in the cities trying to get a ride. Out in more rural areas, you should get a ride within 30 minutes. I’ve hitchhiked in Niseko and Hakuba and had no issues. Exercise general common sense and precaution when hitchhiking, please. If someone stops and you feel uncomfortable, don’t get in.
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PLANNING A NIGHT OUT IN TOKYO? Even though Tokyo is very much a 24-hour city with plenty of things to do, trains stop running at midnight and don’t start again til 5 am. Plan ahead and get on the last train to avoid a very expensive taxi ride home. 

Plan ahead to avoid taking taxis

Breakdown of what we spent on transport (per person)

Daniel and I spent 17 days in Japan and visited Tokyo, Niseko, Kyoto and Osaka. We flew into Tokyo and flew out from Osaka so that we could travel in a single direction and avoid the cost of the journey from Osaka back to Tokyo.

Again, the Niseko leg of our transport is the highest. We took the express train to the airport because we had a whole debacle of leaving the drone on the train and missed the cheaper train.

If you are planning on visiting Niseko (which I highly recommend during the winter – the snow is out of this world), the best way to do it is to travel in one direction through mainland Japan first (eg Tokyo to Osaka), then fly to Sapporo.

From Sapporo, you can then depart directly to your next destination or return to Tokyo or Osaka for your flight home. This will save an additional airport trip.

Tokyo (4 days): ¥3,283 

  • Train from Narita Airport to Tokyo: ¥1,200
  • Total spent in Tokyo on trains (4 days): ¥2,083
  • Note: Trains within Tokyo vary from ¥160 – 400 depending on distances.

Kyoto (4 days): ¥7,260

  • Overnight bus from Tokyo to Kyoto: ¥6,600
  • Total spent in Kyoto on transport (3 days): ¥660

TIP: Kyoto is our favourite city in Japan and is best seen by foot. Walking an average of 5 – 8km will take you through some of the beautiful and scenic locations in the country! That way, you can see all the sites and then take one bus or train back.

Osaka (3 days): ¥1,980

  • Train from Kyoto to Osaka: ¥520
  • Total spent in Osaka on transport: ¥920
  • Train from Osaka to Osaka Airport: ¥540

Niseko (7 days): ¥23,092 

  • Express Train from Tokyo to Narita Airport: ¥2,470
  • Flight from Tokyo to Sapporo: ¥6,220
  • Bus from Chitose Airport (Sapporo) to Hirafu Welcome Centre: ¥2,600
  • Train from Kutchan to Sapporo: ¥2,084
  • Train from Sapporo to Chitose Airport: ¥1,070
  • Flight from Sapporo to Tokyo: ¥7,340
  • Train from Narita Airport to Tokyo: ¥1,308

Total spent: ¥35,615 (278€ / $320 USD / $446 AUD) in 17 days

Kyoto

Do I need a JR Train Pass for Japan?

NO.

The Japan Rail Pass is a special fare ticket that gives foreign tourists unlimited travel for trains and buses in the JR Group for a duration of 7, 14 or 21 days. Sounds pretty handy, right? You’re right, but let’s have a look at the cost.

Table showing cost breakdown of Japan Railway Pass
Current as of July 2018. The Green Pass is for superior class Green cars and the Ordinary Pass is for regular seats

The Ordinary JR Pass cost converted:

  • 7 days: 226€ / $262 USD / $365 AUD
  • 14 days: 360€ / $418 USD / $580 AUD
  • 21 days: 460€ / $535 USD / $745 AUD

The first time I went to Japan I was 22 years old and in my final year of uni. My best friend and I had a max of $1,000 AUD spending money for our two weeks there so there was no way that we were going to spend it on the highly recommended JR Pass. Everyone we knew who had been to Japan insisted that we get the pass but being the cheap backpackers we were, we decided not to and just to wing it.

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We were so bloody right to.

When Daniel and I went back again in December of 2016, we did the same thing – no JR train pass and spent a total of ¥35,615 on transport which included return flights from Japan to Sapporo, 3 airport trips and various train travel with different companies (not just JR Group). 

The JR Pass is also limited to lines with the JR Group only and this can often be an inconvenience because the JR line isn’t always the most efficient route to get somewhere.

So why do people recommend the JR Pass?

If you’re coming to Japan on a 2-week vacation and this is your only holiday for the year, you’ll likely want to splurge and just take all the bullet trains (Shinkansen) to save yourself time. If you’re planning on bouncing around the country very quickly, travelling in various directions and are on a very strict time limit, then perhaps it is worth it.

For backpackers, it’s an unnecessary expenditure that will take up a huge chunk of your budget. As much as we’d love to experience the bullet train, the cost/benefit ratio just isn’t worth it and we will pick the longer and cheaper option every time. So yeah, 2 trips to Japan and I’ve still never experienced the Shinkansen.

Shinkansen

Budget Accommodation in Japan

Accommodation is going to be your biggest expense in Japan. In general, rooms tend to be quite small and will basically just have enough space for a bed and bags. Common areas in hostels are usually more spacious and you’ll have a better time hanging out there than in your room.

Tips for saving money on accommodation in Japan

  • Book ahead of time: if you’re not a big fan of planning trips ahead of time, unfortunately, you might have to consider doing so for Japan. If you are travelling during peak seasons (winter or spring), it’s even more imperative to ensure you’re booking well in advance. Cheaper accommodation books out pretty quickly so aim to have accommodation locked in at least 1 month ahead.
  • Try Couchsurfing or Workaway if are planning on visiting Japan for a long period of time. This way, you can save yourself money on accommodation (and often food).
  • Travelling in a group can be cheaper than travelling solo in Japan because
  • Book an Airbnb using this link to get $55 AUD credit. 
  • Stay in dorm rooms as much as possible. You will often find a bed in a dorm room for a good hostel for less than ¥2,500 (~$25) per person.

TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES! It is customary to remove your shoes when entering any accommodation (someone’s house, a hostel etc). You will usually find a shoe rack and some slippers. While the slippers are optional, removing your shoes isn’t so take them off and leave those smelly things at the door!

Breakdown of what we spent on accommodation (total)

  • Airbnb in Tokyo for 3 nights: ¥20,841 for 3 people (private room)
  • Khaosan Kyoto Guesthouse for 4 nights: ¥24,000 for a private room for 2
  • Osaka JR Hoppers for 2 nights: ¥10,400 for a private room for 2
  • Lodge in Niseko for 5 nights: ¥43,500 for a private room for 3
  • Airbnb in Sapporo for 1 night: ¥5,350 for 3 people (private room)
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Average cost per person per night: ¥2,526 (20€ / $23 USD / $31 AUD)

Note: In June 2018, Japan passed a new law that requires Airbnb hosts to register their listing and display a license number on their listing page. Many non-compliant listings were cancelled although they are slowly starting to appear again as owners get licenses. Make sure you check that the property has a license number to avoid cancellation. Book an Airbnb using this link to get $55 AUD credit. 



Where to stay in Tokyo

Tokyo is a huge city with over 20 district wards but since it’s so well connected, you don’t need to be right in the heart of the city to enjoy it. You should pick a place that is within walking distance to a train line. A popular area (and my personal favourite) for travellers in Shinjuku.

Check out these options:

  • JGH Tokyo: A small guesthouse a little out of the city but very affordable. ¥1,395 for a bed in a female dorm or ¥1,695 for a bed in a mixed dorm.
  • Ace Inn Shinjuku: Wooden capsule beds in a good location. Mixed reviews so might be a bit of a hit or miss place. ¥2,216 for a bed in a dorm room.
  • Book an Airbnb using this link to get $55 AUD credit – personally, I prefer many of the options available on Airbnb.

Eating and Drinking on a Budget

Japanese food is one of my most favourite cuisines so you can imagine what I spend most of my time doing in Japan. If you are someone who hasn’t tried Japanese food before, I urge you to PLEASE just try everything – no matter how bizarre it may seem to you.

Delicious ramen

Tips for saving money on food and drinks in Japan

  • Go to Family Mart for cheap breakfast items like sushi triangles. Yes, rice here is eaten for breakfast too and western-style breakfasts aren’t common.
  • “Fast food” style eateries exist in Japan with food for under ¥500. These places offer quick eat-in meals so you sit down at the bench, order from a limited selection of food items, eat and dash. The food here is always pretty good (not the best but far superior to western fast food options) and you will generally find noodle dishes like udon and rice dishes.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol.
  • But if you must drink, buy alcohol from Family Mart, 7-Eleven or supermarkets because they are much cheaper than drinking when you’re out.
  • Bring your water bottle and refill from the tap (all tap water is drinkable in Japan)
“Fast food” in Japan

Note for vegetarians and vegans: you won’t have the easiest time eating out in Japan as most Japanese cuisine features seafood or meat. But don’t despair! Plan ahead, do your research and you’ll find that the options are there. By the way, ramen broths are usually meat based.

Food prices in Japan

A cheap meal in Japan will set you back around ¥350-500, an average priced meal is ¥1,000 and an expensive meal will start from ¥2,000 and can get up to some exorbitant prices. If there’s a place to splurge on food though, it’s Japan.

  • Sushi at a conbini (convenience store): ¥105 (~$1)
  • Onigiri (rice ball) at a conbini: ¥200 (~$2)
  • Fuku-no-Ken (Tokyo) for Tonkotsu Ramen: ¥390 (~$4)
  • Ramen-tei in Sensoji (Tokyo): ¥330
  • Ichiran for ramen: starting from ¥890
  • Sashimi set at Tsukiji Fish Market: from ¥1,000
  • Bowl of soba or udon noodles: ¥500 (~$5)
  • Lunch set (teishoku) with fish, miso soup, rice, tea, and pickled vegetables: ¥1,200 (~$12)
I’m obsessed with these custard tarts and spent waaaay too much here!

Drink prices in Japan

  • Tea: usually free with a meal
  • Tap water: usually free with a meal
  • Beer from a conbini: ¥150-300 (~$1.50-3)
  • Coffee: ¥300 (~3)
  • Draft beer: ¥600 (~$6)
  • Glass of sake: ¥800 (~$8)
  • Glass of wine: ¥1,000 (~$10)
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Breakfast in Kyoto

Entrance Fees for Temples and Sites in Japan 

One of the great things about Japan is that many places are completely FREE to visit and they definitely outnumber the sites with entrance fees.

  • Haramikyu Gardens in Tokyo: ¥300 (~$3)
  • Tenryuji Temple in Kyoto: ¥500 (~$5)
  • Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto: FREE
  • Arashiyama Bamboo Forest in Kyoto: FREE
  • Kifune Shrine in Kyoto: FREE
  • Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto: ¥400 (~$4)
  • Umeda Sky Garden in Osaka: ¥1,500 (~$15)
Umeda Sky Garden

Tips for sightseeing in Japan

  • For the best view of Shibuya crossing, cross the street to Shibuya Market City and you’ll see a small elevator lobby on the left. Take the elevator to the 25th floor and go straight to the glass window. It’s a much better view than Starbucks.
  • Try and visit some of the more popular spots (like the Bamboo Forest) early in the morning to avoid massive crowds.
  • You don’t have to go to every temple and certainly not to every paid one. Many of the small beautiful temples are also worth visiting.

Read more: If you’re keen to get out of the city, check out some of these day trips from Tokyo.

View of Shibuya crossing

Overall, Japan is a country that will meet almost any budget. While it can be a very expensive country to travel if you want to splurge, it’s also possible to travel as a tight backpacker and still experience Japan in all its glory. It’s all in the planning!

Let us know in the comments if you have any questions about a backpacking budget for Japan.

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