Usually the first word that comes to people’s minds when they consider a vacation to Japan is “expensive.” There is much evidence to back up this general impression, but smart travelers know that even a pricey locale like Japan need not live up to its high-end reputation.
There really is such a thing as budget traveling in Japan; and one need not forego standard pleasures like Kabuki Theater, matcha tea ceremony, shrine tours, sumo matches, or a stop at the Imperial Palace. All the joys of Japan are within reach, without doling out a fortune. Here are a few of the secrets that make this otherwise expensive destination accessible to all:
Remember two words: Willer and Grutt. Repeat visitors and long-term tourists in Japan know these words well. The first, Willer, is the name of the famous discount bus pass that will help you get around the country for a pittance. Compared to trains, buses tend to be much cheaper, with or without a Willer pass. But the pass lets you to purchase a “package” of several trips that allow for cross-country travel within a wide time frame at a bargain-basement rate. View prices and itineraries of the various Willer passes here.
Grutt is the other word that savvy Japan-o-philes recognize instantly. It is to cultural tourism what Willer is to inexpensive travel. Museums, art galleries and other cultural attractions all over Japan can be a costly habit without a discount pass from Grutt. For the price of a couple movie tickets, you’ll be able to visit hundreds of fun, educational locations like national museums and big name art galleries. The pass can be purchased at most tourist information centers and at countless retail stores all over Japan.
Eat good food at super-low prices: Look for what the Japanese call “button restaurants,” semi-automated eateries where you buy a ticket for a meal from a vending machine. Don’t worry, you can simply select based upon the photographs. Enter the seating area, hand your ticket to the cook and wait for your number to be called. You’ll see Japanese office workers, students and other tourists eating at the button restaurants because the food is nutritious, delicious and very reasonably priced.
Check out the local fast-food chains: Unlike U.S. and many European fast-food places, Japanese versions tend to serve healthier fare. The prices are low and the selection is wide. There are dozens of chains to look for, but the ones you’ll encounter most often are Yoshinoya, MOS Burger, CocoCurry House Ichibanya, Sukiya, Matsuya, and Mister Donut. It helps to know a bit of “restaurant Japanese” to order at these local food outlets, but you can usually make yourself understood by pointing at the menu photos or using a standard phrase book.
Plan air travel in advance for big discounts: For travelers who are willing to give up frequent flier miles and other perks, the cost of an air ticket to Japan can be a real bargain. If you are absolutely sure about your departure and return dates, then buying a non-refundable, non-changeable ticket that offers zero or half the usual frequent flier miles will be much cheaper than a standard ticket.
Use the free guides: All over Tokyo, Nara, Osaka, Kyoto and other large cities, you can ask for a free tour guide. These folks are usually college students who volunteer in order to practice their English. They don’t expect tips or gifts, but it is a nice gesture to buy them lunch or a snack if they are with you for a good portion of the day.
Remember to take advantage of duty-free items: Duty-free goods are available in most major department stores, and all you need to do is show your passport. That means an instant 5 percent savings because you won’t be required to pay the Japanese sales tax. You can still buy all sorts of items at the airport’s duty-free shop before leaving, but the department stores have a much better selection.
Shop at flea markets and 100-yen stores: Unlike their American counterparts, Japan’s 100-yen stores carry useful, quality products that make great (and incredibly inexpensive) gifts for all your friends back home. Local flea markets are another place to acquire clothing, appliances, and anything else you might need during your trip at low cost.
Stay in a capsule hotel: Some of the best bargains for travelers are the ubiquitous capsule motels, tiny pods that come with bare-bones amenities, a common bath area, and wireless Internet connections. The capsules are all around town, primarily near big train stations, and cost a fraction of what standard hotels charge.
Walk: If you are in good health and have comfortable shoes for hiking, consider walking as an alternative to short bus or taxi rides. Japan’s cities are designed with pedestrians in mind, and even big metro areas like Tokyo are easy to navigate with a map and a comfy pair of sneakers.
Another reason walking makes so much sense is Japan’s unusually low crime rate. While a tourist in New York City might not even consider waking across town in the evening, a traveler in Tokyo has no problem hoofing it from Shibuya to Shinjuku, for example, at any time of the day or night.
Remember not to tip: Tipping is a no-no in Japan, so you’ll be saving quite a bit on this singularly pleasant cultural anomaly.
Japan is a country with two faces: one ultra-developed and technological, the other ancient and mysterious. Those who want to experience a hike up Mt. Fuji, a ride on the Bullet Train, a taste of home-grown sushi and the many pleasures of matcha tea can do so without breaking the bank.
Travelers should plan to take in a little bit of modern and ancient Japan in order to get a feel for the breadth of the culture. Careful planning and a modicum of research are the two ingredients for a successful “budget” tour of Japan, even in this age of high-priced hotels and expensive air travel.