I’ve always been scared of Japan. Not the country itself obviously but rather the price of everything that leaves you staring blankly at your bank statements. And part of that is very true. The country, even for industrialized countries, is quite expensive. And while it won’t be a place where the average backpacker will spend months on end, Japan can still be done on the (relatively) cheap.
But please please please don’t let the cost alone deter you. Japan is a cultural masterpiece. Your sushi gets served on something reminiscent of that train from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Grown men in their dapper business suits read the latest comic books on their daily commute. And you step into an Akihabara maid cafe with a sense of bewilderment like your first day of sex-ed.
But more about your budget. Realistically, a month riding the train from Sapporo to Hiroshima isn’t going to happen for most people. A week or two however? Absolutely doable.
Any trip to Tokyo, like to most major cities, will be slightly more expensive. I spent my week train hopping around the Kansai region, including the popular cities of Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Kobe. While certainly not Thailand or Ecuador, I was surprised by the end on what things actually cost me. (In a good way that is.)
Here’s how I spent my hard earned cash. As always, the cost of flights are not included.
Date of Travel: January 2016
Total cost: $410.44
Total Days in Japan: 7
Avg. Cost per day: $58.63
Excahange rate: 1 USD = 115 Yen
Getting around the country will take up a good chunk of your budget. Let’s break the options down into their respective categories.
Avg. cost per day: $12.04 | ¥1,384
- Trains: There are several train companies throughout Japan, JR Rail being the most popular although not always the cheapest. The idea of a JR Rail pass is tempting, although every traveller must cross reference their itinerary with the benefits of a rail pass for themselves. For me personally, it was slightly cheaper to pay for each journey individually. It also gave me the added benefit of arriving at stations closer to my hotel, saving my from a long walk or prohibitively expensive cab ride. If you plan to stay in one region for less than five days however, a rail pass will likely be a good deal. Every airport and major subway station has a JR Rail office where you can compare plans and shop for yourself. A typical one hour train ride, from Kyoto to Nara for example, costs about 1,100 Yen or about $10.
- Buses: Generally speaking buses are priced about the same as trains. Occasionally you will find long distance night buses, from Osaka to Tokyo for example, that allow you to save on accommodation and overall are cheaper. So unless you shop online for some deals ahead of time, you’re probably just better off taking the train.
- Subways: Single journey fares can be expensive, about $2-3. Major cities like Toyko and Osaka offer unlimited daily tickets for about 500 Yen. They’re a good deal and I always got my moneys worth out of them.
- Planes: Cheap plane flights are a pretty easy to find although it’s important to know the full cost of what you are buying. Airports are often more than an hour train ride outside your destination and the cost of the plane ticket + cost of train/bus to/from the airport + the possibility of a delayed flight + the hassle of airport security might not be worth the extra $20 in savings. For example, I bought a a $45 plane ticket from Osaka to Tokyo. But there’s hidden costs as well; like the extra $40 for the train to/from both airports in addition to my flight being delayed for over an hour. By the end of my trip I wished I had bought the $120 train ticket. The journey would have been much more comfortable. Check out Peach Airlines if you want to score some great deals.
- Taxis: The cost of taxis are usurious, reserved only for oil tycoons and tech millionaires. Fugetaboutit.
$20 per night always got me a comfortable dorm bed. Add a few dollars if you’re planning on Tokyo. Hostels were always clean with solid ratings on sites like Hostelworld or Hostelbookers. My last night I splurged on a private room and paid about $35. If your in a pinch or just want a fun experience, capsule hotels are a decent option. For about $30 you get your own sleeping pod along with access to a sauna and some sterling hot baths. Always good for a nice soak. Just be comfortable hanging out in your birthday suit.
Avg. cost per night: $19.71 | ¥2,266
I was expecting to go broke eating in Japanese restaurants. Ironically I didn’t cook one meal. I typically treated myself to one nice meal per day. Good sushi will put you back about $15. An awesome bowl of ramen will be about $6-7. Japanese curry houses and chain restaurants all have filling meals for about $5. Eating my way through neighborhoods was my own form of entertainment and it didn’t cost me nearly what I thought it would. Ramen bowls from convince stores are of a higher quality than their North American equivalent, but you’re better off spending a few extra dollars for the real stuff. Be sure to ask around for the best ramen restaurant. Once you find a good one you’ll never eat noodles the same way again. My most expensive meal? $60 for a 150 gram steak dinner in Kobe. Definitely worth it.
Avg. cost per day: $19.07 | ¥2,193
You’ll need to tap your retirement savings if you make a habit of nights out in Japan. I didn’t go out at all, but did enjoy a few well deserved beers after a full day of temples. Assume $50 minimum for a general night out and double that if you add clubs to the mix. Each city, Tokyo in particular, has some spectacular night life which unfortunately comes with a hefty price tag. $2 convenience store beers (or equally cheap whiskey) and some hostel drinking games are the most economical way to spend a booze filled evening.
Avg. cost per day: $1.16 | ¥133
About $3-5 for entrance to most temples or a few dollars to rent a bike. On a previous trip to Tokyo I made a stop at the infamous strip/robot show. The show itself if PG-13 rated, but the bizarreness off Japanese showgirls riding around on C-3PO’s cousin is a pretty indelible memory. Well worth the $45 or so that I paid. Budget just a bit more and take full advantage of somethings that embody the…ahhh…uniqueness…of Japan. Overall I kept my entertainment costs so low by splurging on reasonably priced food just about whenever I wanted. Well worth the sacrifice.
Total cost for the week: $16.24 | ¥1,867
Still trying to figure out why I need to pay to access my own money.
Total: $10.65 | ¥1,224
Lots of weird food and the obligatory bottle of sake make excellent gifts.
Total for the week: $19.61 | ¥2,255
And for those still reading, here’s the breakdown of cost per day. Day three was Kobe steak day.