10 budget hacks: Japan

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This post comes from some work I have been doing on sidelinesapp.com. For the original click here

If you think that traveling to Japan will break your budget, think again. With an abundance of cheap local specialties and transportation deals for foreigners, you really can have the trip of a life time without breaking the bank.

1. JR rail pass

You can choose the duration of the pass for 1, 2, or 3 weeks. It covers as many stops as you’d like on the Shinkansen bullet train, JR line, and JR buses. The cost pays for itself in a single trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. There are interesting places like Shizuoka and Nagoya in between, and you can get a pretty good feel for Japan in a short, convenient trip. See Mt.Fuji, try the onsen (hot springs) in Atami, eat the best Maguro tuna in Shimizu, go department store shopping in Tokyo, and soak up the refined culture of Kyoto.

2. Bread shops

Or, as they are called in America – bakeries. In reality, they serve much more than bread, including sandwiches, a myriad of delicious pastries, savory filled bread (every shop has curry filled bread-curry pan), and an assortment of drinks. You will notice school kids with full trays of bread and drinks because it’s affordable. Most items cost around the equivalent of $1.20-1.50. Go crazy and try the seasonal specialties like the cherry blossom croissant-my personal obsession during spring.

3. Markets

Most cities have a farmers market or a local Ginza where you can find small mom and pop stores that sell amazing local food, produce, and goods at reasonable prices. They are a great place to try foods like sea urchin roe or a granny’s fried rice sold alongside her farm produce. These are the places I buy expensive gifts for myself because they are unique and region specific. I bought an expensive nabe pot at a Ginza close to where I lived nearly six years ago, and I cherish it almost as much as my first born.

4. Noodles

Choose your noodle: Soba, Udon, Ramen, Somen, and the list goes on. The one thing these noodles have in common is the price point. You can get a cheap bowl of great noodles, or you can find noodle “porn” and pay more for amazing noodles. Once, I accidentally walked into an Udon shop – the windows were clouded over with steam and I didn’t know what was inside. I was looking for anything hot to warm my rain soaked soul. I was surprised to see a man hand making Udon. Sheepishly, I followed people in front of me; they were choosing from a list of ways to have the noodles. I chose the expensive method at a little over $4 with broth and some veggies. The kickers were the batches of hot tempura veggies you could add to your bowl and the condiment table filled with spices, soy, green onion, and tempura bits.

5. Walk

Sometimes cities don’t use the JR bus- I am pointing my finger at you Kyoto. If you are in Hiroshima, you are in luck as there are multiple JR sightseeing buses right outside of the train station. Here is the way to get your walk on – go to the tourist information offices located in most train stations, get a map and start walking. Many maps don’t have a great legend, so you won’t realize how close everything is until you stumble upon them. Or, in my case get angry at how cramped the tourist loop bus is, get off realizing it was a waste of money because everything is within walking distance.

6. Bicycle

Renting a bike is also a great option, and it is fun. Especially in the smaller cities where the streets aren’t packed with cars. Riding gets you to your destination a lot quicker than walking and sometimes, quicker than the bus. What I like about riding a bicycle is avoiding travelers fatigue from dealing with huge groups of people and attempting to walk 13 miles trying to see everything. Renting a bike is about $5-10 a day. There are places to park you bike, they come with locks, and the best part is most bikes come with a basket, so you don’t have to carry anything.

7. The 100 Yen store

This dollar store is the place to get the bulk of your souvenirs. For a buck a piece, you can pick up anything from rice bowls to face masks. There are different stores and varying sizes – the bigger ones carry everything. If you are a crafter or love stationary, you will be stuck in aisles full of the most beautiful fabric tape, papers, and accessories.

8. Sightseeing

Many of the major tourist spots are not free, but many are. Be diligent before you go and check prices. Pay for what you want to see, enjoy the free places and take pictures of places you want to tell people you visited.

9. Supermarkets/department stores

If you want a cheap, quick meal, this is where you go. You can check out regional cuisine that you would never have known existed. There are many preconceived notions about Japanese food, and most people don’t know what the Japanese cook in their homes. Supermarket meals are as close as you are going to get to a home cooked meal. Japan doesn’t do low-quality food, so you are not sacrificing flavor.

I can spend hours checking out all the amazing things at a supermarket or the basement food markets at department stores called depachika. The food at a depachika is beautifully displayed, and there are drool worthy samples to be had. I am not talking about cheap samples, but high-quality items like flying fish roe (mentaiko).

10. Airfare

Obviously, airfare is one of the biggest expenses of travel. Fall and Spring fares can get you a deal for around $1000.00 round-trip. Planning your trip around the best air deals can bag you a very inexpensive trip. It might come at the cost of leaving on a holiday – Easter 2015 airfare was in the $800.00 range, but you might have to layover in Korea or China. A good way to observe flight price trends over a given period are on Google flight’s calendar and graph features. Google doesn’t sell the airfare but shows what carriers are offering.

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6 thoughts on “10 budget hacks: Japan

  1. Yes, I’ve always thought that traveling to Japan was REALLY expensive, but it seems comparable with most oversees destinations from America.

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    1. Hotels are also relatively cheap and for a quality one I have never payed over $100 a night. Hostels are also a great option and run around $18 a night and usually are family run and in a regular neighborhood.

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  2. Really useful tips, thank you. It’s true that many people, including myself, have this idea of Japan being very expensive. But I guess with the right hacks you can save money everywhere:)

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    1. High quality Soba noodles are gluten free as well as kelp noodles, and konyaku noodles. Actual gluten free noodles are difficult to find unless they are traditionally that way. Mochi is made of rice and could be a tasty and cheap alternative.

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