Ah, Japan. Country of kimono and sumo, electronics and neon. Also home to the most expensive cities on earth. Thus, any budget traveler worth his bottom line must live Japan only through fantasy – and maybe someday after the get-rich-quick scheme has fulfilled its promise.
Time to dispel this myth. While Japan is an expensive country, it is entirely possible to live cheaply and well. The price of everything has dropped since the economy has stagnated and the yen deflated for over a decade, while other currencies have gained strength. What was once a faint-away number is now not so bad. If you’re willing to dig deeper into the culture, explore a little more, experience something closer to the true world of the locals while saving amazing amounts of money, then there is plenty of opportunity for you to enjoy Japan at a reasonable rate.
Before we look at different budget options, there is one thing that a traveler must keep in mind, that being Japan is basically cut in two concerning the price of a night’s sleep. On the one hand, you have Osaka and Kyoto, which both have a plethora of cheap hostels (with early curfews), guesthouses (with complete freedom) and cheap cheap hotel rooms, often under ¥2000 ($16.67) a night. Then, there is everywhere else (and most especially, there is Tokyo). While the recommendations below are certainly applicable in Kyoto and Osaka, you can do just as well picking up a Kansai Flea Market or Kansai Scene Classified and exploring the rooms on offer (both publications are free at any big book store). However, unless you don’t mind turning in at 9 pm to one of Tokyo’s hostels (which are usually booked solid anyway), you must be a bit more creative if you want to travel cheaply in the megalopolis of Japan.
First rule: if you’ve heard of it, avoid it. This is often a good guideline when a budget traveler, but it is even more important within Japan, land of the bandwagon and famous brand. Places that would be cheaper options in your home country will be pricey here.
The most popular option for Japanese couples on vacation is to find a love hotel. My, that does sound risqué, doesn’t it? Relax – basically, a love hotel is a room with no questions asked. There is no front desk – you almost always pay by vending machine. There is no room service. There is no need for a “Do Not Disturb” sign.
Selecting from a picture menu you can buy your room for an hour or overnight. For a night, the prices range from a low of ¥4500 ($38) to over ¥12,000 ($100), but most are around ¥7500 ($62.50). The biggest drawback is check-in – to stay until morning hotels don’t let you enter until about 8 pm, some later; before that, you must pay by the hour. Also, once you check in, you can’t check out until you’re ready to leave.
The rooms are generally huge (for Japan) and nicer than you will find at regular hotels charging twice the price. Love hotels always have a big bed, and usually have a sofa as well – some places will have doubles of one or both pieces of furniture. The bathroom is spacious with soap and shampoo, and most have something extra – like a jacuzzi, or well-placed shower jets. There are little reminders here and there that this place is used by couples seeking a quiet tryst – such as the condom discreetly placed in the ashtray by the bed. Or perhaps a mirrored ceiling. Or the porn channels one can find on TV. Even the occasional in-room vending machine of sex toys. If all this isn’t stimulating enough, many love hotels have a theme – think Disney World meets Playboy. The topper is a love hotel lets in as many people as you want. If you’re traveling in a group and not everyone is dead set on a bed, the price per person can get pretty low.
If everyone IS dead-set on a mattress of their own, another option is the capsule hotel or all-night sauna (often the same place). Long famed outside Japan as “sleeping in a coffin,” capsules aren’t nearly as bad as that. If you’ve slept on bunk beds, then you can handle one. They are exactly the same, but the capsule is larger, encased in plastic with a curtain that can be drawn and locked in the front. Unless you have serious claustrophobia, you should be fine. There will often be a coin-operated TV at your feet, and installed in the wall is a free radio and light for reading. The price will be somewhere between ¥2000 and ¥5000 ($16.75-$41.70) depending on location and quality. If you want to save about ¥1000 you can check in to just the sauna and skip the bed – spend the night instead on large fully reclining chairs. Either way you will have a personal locker for your belongings.
Included in any entrance fee are showers, multiple pools with different degrees of heat, a sauna and steam room, and massaging devices for feet, back, scalp... Ofuro provide soap, toothbrushes, razors, combs, as well as towels for rent (and sometimes included in the price) or you can use your own. Often they have an array of tonics, gels, sprays, perfumes and colognes unlike anything you’ve brought, or probably have owned.
One can check in at any time, 24 hours a day (and some have 24 hour restaurants too – a nice bonus for those arriving late). There is a catch; not all, but most sauna and capsule hotels are unisex, the one accepted sex being male.
Still seem a little pricey for ya? Well, it’s time to get down to road warrior specials, trading comfort for savings. The favorite option for many is to find a 24 hour internet café. Most cafés have spaces for rent with very comfortable love seats, and all of them will sell time in large chunks (usually 6-8 hours) for ¥1200 to ¥1800 ($10 to $15). A number of people use this option for a night – witness the disposable razors and toothbrushes provided in many internet café bathrooms. There are often massage chairs, and an all-you-can-drink bar (no alcohol, but yes ice cream).
Of course, you can’t leave your bag there for the day, although every reasonably sized train or subway station will have lockers you can rent for 24 hours, ranging in price from ¥300 to ¥600 ($2.50-$5) depending on size and locale. Just pack a daybag. Bring earplugs and a mask, for you must listen to the soft muzak piped in to the well-lighted place throughout the night.
For a little more, you can do the same thing in a karaoke palace. The big plus is you get your own room – not just a cubicle – and you can control the lighting. However, as far as comfort goes, the internet café is a better bet. Often the karaoke bar will only have chairs, or a carpeted bench, or sometimes just a floor. The music piped in is usually loud and has annoying defaults when nothing is selected, though you can control the volume a bit and of course you can choose from a dizzying array of tunes (minus vocals) to lull you off.
There are two more options for the daring. One is the family restaurant; if you happen to be traveling during a college exam period, you’ll find you are far from alone. Countless university students choose to spend their study nights closer to class, saving travel time. Buy the drink bar – ¥120 ($1) – and the staff will let you stay as long as you want (make sure your family restaurant is open 24 hours). Stick to the Japanese chains – Gusto, one of the most popular, is much more friendly to such college antics than, say, Denny’s. You shouldn’t have a problem with any of them, but you may find the waitstaff gossiping about you – if this gives you the willies, head elsewhere.
Finally, it isn’t so unusual for people to sleep out in the open. Assuming you aren’t in Japan during the rainy season (mid-April to early-June) and it isn’t particularly cold, then you’ll probably be quite comfortable. Japan is a very safe country, perhaps the safest in the world. While I wouldn’t try this as a single female (the crime that’s around is often sexual) any male or group should be fine. In addition to train stations there are countless underground malls in all the big cities of Japan, and though the stores close the concourses remain open, so you can sleep under a roof. There are plenty of parks as well, and many folk sleep there. You should be warned, though, that your companions will not be fellow travelers, but the growing homeless population. Feel out the situation; Japan may be the safest country around, but it is growing more dangerous. With increasing numbers joining the ranks of the trod-upon, that trend looks to continue.
All you need is a sleeping bag. If in a rural area, a tent would be nice as well. There should be numerous fields and small woods from which to choose, all undisturbed. Make sure no one is growing anything – enough plots of land are abandoned or lie fallow that this shouldn’t be particularly difficult. If you feel paranoid planting your stake without consulting someone, campgrounds start at around ¥500 ($4.20) but ask first; they can go up to ¥3000 ($25).
If you choose any of the above options which are without showers, don’t worry. Every city will have onsen (hot springs) and/or the previously mentioned ofuro (public baths) for you to visit. The cost for a few hours time begins at ¥300 ($2.50) and can go up to ¥2000 ($16.70), but most are well below that.
The favorite of many is kaitenzushi. These are the famed conveyor belt sushi restaurants found everywhere in Japan. Most offer a set price per dish – usually ¥100 (under 85¢) which gets you two pieces of nigiri sushi, or six pieces of makizushi. Some have different dish patterns to signify a range of prices. Just be careful not to get any of the ¥500 plates (which are rare) and you should be fine. A filling meal is under $10. Water and green tea is offered free, miso soup is the price of the cheapest plate, and one can get beer, orange juice, melon, cake, puddings… a plethora of items circulate along with the fish. While the conveyor belt is convenient, there are also sushi chefs that will take orders and make you fresh plates for the same price. And remember in Japan there is no tipping.
Another choice is the izakaya. Often called the Japanese bar, that description isn’t quite right. It’s more like a tapas restaurant, with the seating sections small and the atmosphere raucous and reserved (which only makes sense in Japan). What matters is there’s plenty to drink, plenty of small shared servings, the price is light, and the décor is fascinating. You can eat overtop babbling brooks or inside jungle rooms, behind aquariums or traveling gravel paths, to name a few. Dishes start under ¥200 ($1.67) and can go much higher, but they rarely break the ¥800 barrier ($6.67) unless you get a large sampler of sushi or sashimi.
If you’re in a major area like Shinjuku, let the hawkers of restaurants try to sell you on a place. Many times there are tremendous deals available (the competition is fierce). You can get two hours of nomihodai (all-you-can-drink, with alcohol) for ¥1300 (about $10.85). For comparison (and as a warning), one bottle of Bud Light at the Tokyo Hard Rock Café is ¥1500 ($12.50). Many times places with nomihodai deals also have pay bumps which will get you numerous small servings of varied dishes.
Let’s not forget our family restaurants; the atmosphere resembles an American one, as does the price, but the cuisine is entirely Japanese. One mustn’t feel that culture is being missed if you are inside any of the numerous Skylark chains – in many ways, this is as close to current Japan as you can get. There may be familiar dishes, but they all will be… well, best to let you find the corn on the pizza and the seaweed in the pasta for yourself. You’ll be stuffed for under $10 (and remember, that can include your night’s sleep – and each table has a personal Pay TV which has video games).
There are a couple of budget restaurant chains in Japan too. Many are straight knock-offs of American fast-food joints (which you also will have no problem finding), but not all are. Yoshinoya, for instance, serves all things pork.
The grungy looking family ramen shop might be the best bet. The seating is limited – it usually is a bar with six or eight stools around it – and the service might be a step down, but the price is great and the feel is warm. A big bowl filled with soup, noodles, various vegetables, and usually a bit of meat can be had for ¥500 ($4.20). Water comes free, and the beer ain’t too pricey either. Yoshinoya is a little cheaper, but the quality and quantity of the food shows it. The family ramen shop is gritty and delicious, and a great chance to mix with the locals.
There is little getting around this one. If you want to see the famous places, you must pay the entrance fee. However, there still are some good buys.
Sumo matches, long reputed to be an expensive ticket, can be had cheap. Show up early the day of your match (there are always seats available, even on the last day of a tournament) and buy the walk-up seats, about ¥2300 ($19.15). For that price you get upwards of six hours of sumo, more than enough. No one shows up for the first four hours, when the wrestlers are college competitors and the bottom tiers of the professional circuit. It is perfectly acceptable to sit in the front rows on the floor until the true ticket holders arrive, which will be just before the big names of sumo make their entrance. Indeed, if you are sitting in the upper deck during the early going you’ll likely find an usher encouraging you to a better spot.
The finer arts, such as kabuki, also can be had for a song. The performance of a kabuki play lasts anywhere from three to five hours – even Japanophiles have problems sitting for that long. Why not try the taster? For ¥600 ($5) you can sit in the balcony for one hour – long enough to get the feel of the show, without succumbing to the boredom of men playing whining women inside complex plots, all in Japanese.
Finally, while it is not true that Japanese temples and shrines are all the same, it is true the famous ones draw a premium audience, and charge accordingly. Kyoto’s sacred places are worth it, but not many others are. Often you can find grounds that are nearly as spectacular as the big names – and usually they are a more pleasant experience, as there are no crowds to deal with. This is especially true in Tokyo, where the famous temples aren’t actually that special, and the crowds surrounding them are as bad as you can find anywhere. Wander a quiet neighborhood and you’re likely to find a plethora of serene temples and shrines that will sooth your soul. And they’re 100% free.
Using these tips a trip should be reasonable to anyone who can afford the plane ticket. One of the golden rules of travel is the less you spend, the closer you get to the culture. For quite some time that has been forgotten or considered impossible on this Far East island. No more. Japan is now open to everyone.