In this guide we will tell you all about travelling in Japan on a budget, including what to see, where to stay and how to get there.
Japan is a country that caters to almost every kind of traveller. The bustling neon streets will attract the hardcore shoppers, stops like Miyajima and Mt Fuji will wow the nature lovers, and Hiroshima and Kyoto will delight history buffs. For us, the food and the incredibly friendly (and sometimes quirky) locals were the highlights of our trip.
Tokyo has been attracting travellers from all over the globe for decades and there is very simple reason for that – this ‘world city’ has an incredible amount of things to see and do! There are at least five full days worth of stuff to see in Tokyo, so it’s well worth having a rough itinerary before you arrive to make sure you don’t miss anything.
For beautiful Japanese gardens, head to the Shinjuku Gyeon National Garden and Ueno Park. For incredible traditional Japanese temples visit Asakusa, Meiji Jingu or Senso-Ji Temple. Getting a view of the never ending skyline of Tokyo from the Skytree is worth the price of admission. The National Museum of Japan is also a must see and will take up half a day on it’s own. But sometimes you will find that simply wandering the crazy streets of Harajuku or Shinjuku people watching is the best way to spend a few hours.
TRAVELATOR TIP: Your JR Rail Pass includes the trains to and from the Toyko airport. Check out our Guide to the JR Rail Pass for more info.
Traditional Japan at it’s best, few places will give you an insight into old Japan quite like the Gion district in Kyoto. Walking around the narrow alley ways lined with traditional buildings and restaurants, it’s not uncommon to see a modern day Geisha shuffling along to her next appointment.
The golden Rokuon-Ji Temple is a must-see, as is spending half a day exploring the Nijo Temple. Walking through the bamboo forests and feeding the cheeky monkeys at Arashiyama should be on your list as well. No trip to Kyoto is complete without the truly incredible walk through the thousands of bright orange Torii Gates at the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine.
TRAVELATOR TIP: Some of the best sushi we ate in Japan was found in a cheap, sushi-train style restaurant called Musashi Sushi. The restaurant came highly recommended to us by our hostel and while it may not look like much from the outside the sushi is amazing and cheap!
An easy trip from Kyoto by train will take you to Nara, a small town with some very friendly deer and stunning temples. Plan to spend the whole day here as visiting Nara Park, Toshodaiji Temple, the Kasuga Grand Shrine and stopping to feed the deer can take a few hours. Your day should finish with a visit to the Todaji Temple and it’s 500 tonne, 15m high Buddha statue. Standing in awe beneath the gigantic statue is a truly serene experience.
Osaka is often overlooked in favour of it’s more traditional cousin Kyoto, but those who visit the edgy city of Osaka won’t regret it. What it lacks in flashy temples and historical sites it makes up for with incredible food, some of Japan’s best shopping, quirky museums and the seriously impressive Osaka Castle. A hidden gem and easily one of the wackiest attractions we have visited is the Cup Noodle Museum, which is a short train ride out of Osaka. The highlight is the final stage of the museum where you get to create your own flavour of Cup Noodle!
TRAVELATOR TIP: An awesome half-day trip is a visit to the nearby Asahi Brewery. The brewery, located in the suburb of Suita, is a short train ride from the centre of Osaka. They provide you an excellent free tour of the facility (there are few English speaking guides, but almost everything is written in English anyway) and the tasting at the end is incredibly generous – you get 3 full glasses of beer!
Understandably, most people’s first thoughts of Hiroshima go straight to the tragic events that unfolded here during World War II and while the sobering Peace Memorial Museum and Park are the main sites in Hiroshima, there is also a stack of other things to see in this vibrant town. The Shukkei-en Garden is a beautiful escape from the city and the Hiroshima Castle, albeit a faithful reconstruction, is well worth a look.
TRAVELATOR TIP: One of the best day trips we made in Japan was visiting Miyajima, an island just off the coast best accessed from Hiroshima. A short train ride followed by a quick ferry will get you to the island to see the iconic floating Torii Gate and give nature lovers the chance to hike to the top of the mountain for some fantastic views.
Located to the north of Tokyo and easily accessed by train, Kanazawa offers travellers a chance to take a break from the chaos of Japan’s major cities. There is nothing quite like a peaceful stroll through the Kenrokuen Gardens, easily the best Japanese garden we visited. Make sure you get there in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds. If you can pull yourself away from Kenrokuen, the Kanazawa Castle and Myoryuji Temple are both worth a look, as is a few hours wondering around the cobble stoned alleyways of the Higashichaya Old Town.
Where To Stay
- Tokyo – K’s House Tokyo – well priced, spotlessly clean, comfortable, and close to the subway. The hosts are fantastic and will help you with whatever you need. Like most of Japan the private rooms are a little small but still comfy. Our only gripe was a lack of restaurants nearby.
- Kyoto – OKI’s Inn – OKI’s is an amazing little guesthouse located in the middle of a market in Kyoto. OKI’s provides you everything you need in a great location. The private room was huge with traditional Japanese bedding (mattresses on the floor). Ask the hosts for tips on nearby restaurants as they know some absolute gems!
- Osaka – Hana Hostel Osaka – the staff at Hana Hostel made Osaka one of our favourite spots in Japan. They are very knowledgeable and helpful. The facilities are top notch, especially the common room and kitchen. The private rooms are perfect and the bathrooms are immaculately clean.
- Hiroshima – K’s House Hiroshima – K’s House are a chain of hostels throughout Japan and offer very consistent standards across all of their branches. Their hostel in Hiroshima had one of the best common rooms we found in Japan and the location is fantastic.
- Kanazawa – Guest House Pongyi – Pongyi Guesthouse is one of those places that will stay with you long after you have left, offering the most traditional Japanese accommodation you will get on a budget. It’s in a tiny wooden house in the centre of Kanazawa with some of the friendliest hosts you will ever meet.
You could probably guess this one, but the sushi in Japan is absolutely incredible! There are sushi restaurants everywhere you look catering for all budgets and taste buds. They have varieties that you have never heard of and types of fish you never knew existed. For people who enjoy sushi at home, once you try it in Japan it will be difficult to go back!
Okonomiyaki is a Japanese savoury pancake that differs depending on which city you are in, although nearly every city will claim that their version is the original and the best. The are different variations but the basic concept is that the okonomiyaki it’s a layered pancake made up of noodles, meat, seafood, vegetables and an egg batter – try and find a restaurant where they prepare it for you on a hotplate on your table, it’s great fun!
Gyoza are delicious Japanese dumplings. They are steamed like a traditional dumpling but the bottom is fried to add a bit of crunch. Most gyozas contain a mixture of pork and some vegetables but if you look hard enough you can find varieties with pretty much anything in them, including dessert gyoza.
TRAVELATOR TIP: Harajuku Gyozaro in Shibuya in Tokyo is home to some of the best gyoza in Japan. It’s incredibly popular with tourists and locals alike so prepare for a line up but we can assure you that it’s worth it – we ended up going twice!
Another classic Japanese dish that you have most likely tried at home. Prepare for a true Japanese ramen to ruin anything you are likely to receive at home though. Ramen is a noodle based soup usually served with a pork broth, sliced pork and can be flavoured with miso or soy sauce. And it’s perfectly acceptable in Japan to slurp while eating. Delicious!
There are few countries on earth that have perfected domestic travel as well as Japan. This makes it incredibly easy to navigate your way around independently. Japan’s famous bullet trains (shinkansen) will take you between most major cities at a cool 300km/h. Other cities are serviced by the equally as efficient but slightly slower regular trains. Read our Guide to the JR Rail Pass for all the details on how to us it.
For locations further afield such as Sapporo in the north or Okinawa in the south Japan also has a great network of airlines. Examples include Jetstar, Peach Airlines and Vanilla Air. If you book ahead you can usually score a really good price!
Getting In and Out
Japan is incredibly well connected to the rest of the world by air. Flights from Tokyo will reach pretty much anywhere in the world, while Osaka and Kyoto are well connected throughout Asia but no so much further afield.
Budget airlines have recently started servicing Tokyo and Osaka making trips from Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and even Australia much more affordable than in the past. Jetstar is a great option.
It is also possible to reach Japan by ferry from South Korea. Most ferries depart from Busan in South Korea.
USD$120 (for a couple) will get you private rooms in great hostels, three great local meals per day, entry to major attractions and a JR Rail Pass before you head off.
Best Time To Visit
The always popular and incredibly beautiful Cherry Blossom season is during spring (March to May) but autumn (September to November) also offers excellent weather country-wide without the hordes of tourists. For snowboarders and skiers, the north of Japan is a snow sports haven in winter.
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