Japan is expensive, it is so expensive that it is left off many round-the-world itineraries, but it shouldn’t be. As backpackers travel through Asia scratching their head at illogical ways, reinforce nationalist beliefs of Western superiority and act as though locals should be there to serve tourists, Japan is humbling. It is a living laboratory of how things could be. While we cannot wish that we turn Japanese, there are things we can all learn from them, the least of which Asians can build a society that towers above the best of the West.
Japan is same-same Asia, but very different. Compared to it’s neighbors it’s extraordinarily expensive, it can be done quickly and within a budget. Here’s how.
10 days. 4 days in Tokyo (optional day at Mt. Fuji), 3 days Kyoto, 1 day Nara, 1 day Osaka, 1 travel day (1/2 day on each end of the trip to get to and from Narita).
What You’ll See
Tokyo: the world’s largest metropolis. It’s enormous, with a population rivaling Australia. There are some incredible sights such as the Harajuku fashion district that is the epicenter of all crazy Japanese fashions. Nearby is Yoyogi park which features the dancing Elvis’s on Sundays. The Meiji Shrine is a quiet respite from the busy city life, while the Yasukuni-Jinja Yushukan War shrine is a controversial memorial to Japan’s war heroes, that the rest of the world remembers as war criminals. At night catch a view of the city from the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Building (city hall) for free, then head over to Ginza for the famous lights or Shibuya for a night on the town.
The dancing Elvis’s of Yoyogi Park.
Kyoto: The historic capital of Imperial Japan, there are many historic sights in the area. To get around buy a 500 Y daily bus pass and grab the tourist buses around the city. Each sight costs 300-800 Y, so pick carefully. You can see photos of where we visited in the city to get an idea. Don’t get too ambitious about criss-crossing the city though, it takes much more time to get from place to place than you may want as the historic sights are scattered. Spend a day in Arishiyama to get close to nature and enjoy less touristic sights. Take a nighttime stroll in the Ponto Cho area, filled with quaint bars and great food.
Nightlights in Dōtonbori, Osaka.
Osaka: Osaka is Japan’s second largest city and has much to offer the budget tourist including a plethora of food options, some nice sights and budget accommodations. It makes a great base to visit Nara for a day, neighboring Kobe, or other coastal cities, which give a different perspective of city life outside of Tokyo. Spend the evening in Dotonbori, then stop by Amerikamura (“America Town”), Japan’s take on what America is like.
Just one of the many picturesque streets of Nara.
Nara: What you may have thought Kyoto would be, a gorgeous old-town with stone walled streets as you climb the hills from sight to sight. Amazingly preserved and restored, this is probably a better stop than Kyoto if you want to see what traditional Japan is like. It takes 4-6 hours to see the historic sights as a day trip from Osaka or Kyoto, but Osaka is substantially less expensive than Kyoto to stay and eat.
Hiroshima: We debated visiting Hiroshima, if we had a Japan rail pass we would have done it simply because we could, but reviews we have heard did not justify a trip for us. Apparently the city is like any city in Japan, except for the stunning Hiroshima Peace Memorial park and Genbaku Dome. If you buy a Japan Rail Pass, definitely go to Hiroshima, if not it depends on your budget.
Japan can be visited on a budget of $75 USD a day, per person, if you stay in business hotels or hostels. Staying at hotels could increase that cost by several times with prime hotels in Tokyo starting at $200+ USD a night, a luxury hotel can easily cost $500 per night. We tried using Priceline for Shibuya to find out that the average hotel price was over $200/night.
ATMs across the country dispense Yen for foreign cards, but many do not accept foreign cards. All ATMs at train stations, Post Offices and 7-11s apparently accept foreign cards, get your money when you are there, but credit cards are often accepted in a pinch.
Eating is a real budget drain. Sushi can cost $30-40 USD a person, but the conveyor-belt restaurants offer the greatest value. Before you start plucking dishes make sure you know the prices, based on the color of the plate as some plates are $1.50 and others may be $10. For budget eats check out the chains of Yoshinoya for rice dishes and our favorite, Saizeriya for road worn travelers seeking some Western foods. Throughout the country you can find inexpensive prepared foods at grocery stores or delicious meals at Soba noodle houses, rice bowl eateries and other noodle shops.
Japan is advanced in every way. The country has some of the world’s fastest internet speeds, but getting access can be difficult as everyone uses their phones. Internet in Starbucks and McDonald’s? No, not in Japan. Public WiFi hotspots, we found three in the entire country. Business hotels have to have internet, right? Nope. Internet cafes? Don’t really exist.
So where can you get internet access in Japan?
Look up high on buildings for “DVD”, “Video”, or “Anime” to find internet access.
Comic and DVD book “stores”. You will see these places everywhere, with ads for Anime and DVD Video. Since space is limited in Japan, there are stores just for people to have some space to watch videos, surf the internet, or read comics. Often these comics and videos are of the adult variety, so private rooms are available. These stores have computers for internet access, will allow you to plug your laptop into their ethernet, or offer WiFi. You can also check out Wi-Fi Finder to locate WiFi hotspots.
The trains and public transportation system in Japan is unparalleled, there is nowhere that a visitor would want to go that is not served by a train, subway or bus. However, such service comes with a cost. A single bus or subway ride in Kyoto or Tokyo runs 180-240 Y ($3-4 USD).
The Tokyo train map, there is a stop everywhere.
If you don’t like riding public transport, be ready to step up your budget significantly. I believe that taxis in Tokyo are the world’s most expensive. The flag toll for the first 2km is 1000 Y ($12.50). We took a taxi one subway stop and it cost over $20 USD, luckily a local who insisted on using the taxi paid the bill.
Getting from city-to-city is sometimes easier than getting around a city itself. The bullet trains allow you to cross the country quickly, for a price. A single trip from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Shinkansen (bullet train) costs $175 (13,720 Y), but there are night buses that can get you there for as little as $39 (2900 Y). These aren’t comfortable buses, nor will you get much sleep, but they are worth the price difference. That said, you need someone who can navigate a Japanese website or a Japanese person to make the reservation for you and direct you to the sop. There is no English on the bus companies’ websites (Sunshine Tour or English info). For more information on the economics of a Japan Rail Pass see this informative article on The Road Forks or for more general Japan train info see Seat 61.
Think of Japanese hotels as those in any world city such as London and New York, fairly expensive without all the benefits you would expect for the price. We didn’t stay in any “normal” hotels while in Japan, to keep to a budget we found these options:
Business Hotels: Japanese traveling for business do not stay at the Hilton, earn Starwood points, or run up their expense accounts, rather they stay in drab, small “business hotels” that are in every city. These run 50-90% cheaper than foreigner hotels and have the necessities. Very clean rooms with TVs and fridges, shared bathrooms and kitchen facilities. There are unexpected fringe benefits of these hotels such as cheap beer nearby and a wide range of porn available for rent, you think I’m kidding, but a rack of DVD’s greets you at check in.
Our tiny, but affordable, room at an Osaka business hotel.
Hostels: most cities have a selection of hostels at a wide range of prices. If you are in Tokyo I highly recommend Anne Hostel over the Hosteling International (YHA) affiliate. Read my review of the Anne Hostel here (LINK).
Couchsurfing: Unlike other countries in Asia, we had great success Couchsurfing in Japan. Contact hosts early as they get bombarded with requests, and you might find yourself with a great local host that wants to practice their English as well as help you navigate Japan.
WHEN YOU GO:
- Narita is far from Tokyo. It’s literally in another state, so give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport, be out of your door two hours prior to when you want to check-in. Seriously, we left 3 hours before our flight, we arrived after the check-in had closed and begged our way onto our flight to Korea.
- Many people speak English. They may not volunteer this bit of knowledge or be ashamed of their language skills, but like Americans who studied French, German or Spanish in High School, they know a little. Show them Japanese characters for where you want to go and they can help direct you. If not they will find someone who can.
- Never show up late for a train. Japanese trains run on the second, if you have a ticket that says you leave at 11:42, at 11:42:10 the train will not be in the station. Be there on time.