Travelling in Japan provides you with all manner of cultural sights, landscapes and unique experiences. Whether you want to soak up the bright lights and the distinct buzz of the big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, wander the old, narrow wooden housed lined alleyways of Kyoto, stroll through the scenic smaller towns of Kobe and Nara, or relax within the beach towns and mountain ranges of the peninsulas and islands, Japan is vast and full of natural beauty and endless changing scenery; a diversity which means a single visit isn’t enough to conquer everything there is on offer.
I choose to travel there for one month, in order to really immerse myself in the culture, see a range of different places, spend a quality amount of time in areas that are both key highlights and some of the biggest areas to explore – Tokyo (one week), Kyoto (six days) and Osaka (three days) – climb Mount Fuji and have some beach time. Yet in one month, I didn’t get the chance to explore the far northern regions of Japan, the Alps, anywhere further south than Hiroshima, nor the outlying islands. Japan is much, much bigger than you think.
Despite some people finding the language barrier a huge problem (English is hardly spoken), I find it hard to list any major drawbacks to travelling here, except one – the cost. Many people have often asked since my return: “How much does it cost to travel in Japan?” so I will cut to the chase and admit that travelling here IS expensive, but will soften and blow and tell you that is absolutely worth the hefty cost – every single penny. Here’s why…
How does it Fare in Comparison to the Rest of Asia?
Japan has a reputation for being one of the most expensive countries to travel in when it comes to traversing the Asia region, and for that reason, many people choose not to travel here in favour of the more established and budget friendly Southeast Asia routes. In fact, backpackers and hardcore travellers are a minority here; most westerners being expats or those just visiting on business.
In reality, Japan isn’t going to get any cheaper; in fact, it may get even more expensive – and avoiding Japan for cost reasons alone means missing out on what is rated as an absolute must-see destination from each and every person I know who has visited.
In the Southeast Asia countries of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar you can look to spend on average of £500- £600, $800-$950 + a month on a budget. China and Nepal come in slightly around the same, as does Korea and Taiwan, dependent on transport options and the amount of activities undertaken.
A step up from that are destinations like Mongolia, Borneo, Singapore, Brunei and cities like Kuala Lumpur, where your budget would stretch closer to £800, $1,300+ over a month because they are places with stronger economies, where prices are naturally higher or where activities and options for travel are harder to reach or organise on your own (and thus they know how to extract the most money from you!).
In Japan, where independent travel was much easier than I had originally thought it would be, my total spend amounted to approximately £1,700, $2,700 over four weeks or £61, $98 per day, which includes the cost of a three-week JR Rail Pass.
For a slow and budget traveller, this hit my monthly outgoings hard, but I don’t regret a single penny spent and I would happily go back many times over and spend the same amount. Yes, it really is that incredible.
So where does your money go?
To Purchase or Not to Purchase a JR Rail Pass
If you are planning on visiting more than two or three long-distance destinations in Japan, then it is highly advised to purchase a JR Rail Pass, which gives you unlimited journeys on all JR Rail, JR Ferry and JR Buses throughout the country.
Many people are put off by the high cost of the rail pass, but individual rail journeys are expensive and when added together can actually cost more than the unlimited rail pass.
The average cost, sans JR Rail Pass, for a basic Tokyo – Kyoto – Osaka – Hiroshima – Tokyo round-trip (if not flying out of Osaka) = £339, $544
So, if you covered this basic route over 14 days, you save money by purchasing a two-week rail pass. If you were visiting these key places within 21 days, by booking ahead and planning your timings well, you could spend less than the cost of a three-week rail pass, yet it could still be cost-effective to purchase the 14 day pass, if you are spending a week in Tokyo, for example. The tricky part of travelling here is making decisions!
Other Transportation Costs
Food and Drink
Prices for food and drink varied dramatically dependent on location and whether you were eating a cheap bowl of noodles to a full meal at a standard restaurant or trying the delectable beef that Kobe is famous for, with a hefty price tag! Chain restaurants like the CoCo Ichibanya curry house do great deals, alongside local establishments, which might throw in a free beer if you stick to a certain menu. I’m not a sushi eater but have been told if you look hard enough, it doesn’t have to be an expensive option, as does tempura.
I’m used to paying around £3-£6, $5-$10 for a dorm room in Central and Southeast Asia or £10, $16 for a private, with the exception of Myanmar, where costs for accommodation are slightly higher closer to that of Japan.
In Japan, accommodation will be your biggest cost, alongside transportation.
However, this is a country that is quickly responding to the needs of the budget traveller, with more and more establishments becoming aware of the growth of tourism and a slow influx of more established backpackers looking for practicality over luxury. I found that hostels are prevalent in big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, and in many areas, old houses and traditional Ryokan are being preserved and turned into homely hostels and guesthouses, meaning you get to experience Japanese tradition, at a budget price.
I worked with Hostelworld to uncover the pick of the budget crop in Japan and to pull together a comprehensive list of options that cover all manner of budget tastes, from no-frills to luxury hostels, to traditional homestays and Ryokans, on a journey that started in Tokyo and which took me through various key hotspots in the country, all the way down to Hiroshima.
Below is an outline on where I stayed and the costs per night for a dorm or a single room as stated.
As you can see, there is a lot to decide before travelling to Japan – where you will go, whether to purchase the rail pass, and what kinds of accommodation who want to try out, from standard budget hostels to traditional Japanese experiences. Everything else along the way just falls into place, and if you look hard enough when it comes to food and other everyday costs, bargains can be found.
Japan may be more expensive than her Asian neighbours, but the incredible time you will have here will leave you saying the same thing long after you have left: “It was completely worth it”. I promise you that and I’m already looking forward to returning, cost and all.
During my time in Japan I worked on a partnership in conjunction with Hostelworld to help promote the budget accommodation options in the country, many of which are new and only just opening to this specific market of traveller. Each accommodation listed above, except for the mountain house in Fuji, was organised by Hostelworld and their Japanese agent. I was not asked to make any favourable reviews, and all opinions listed are my own.