When I was 11 and in the sixth grade, I declared that I would one day visit Japan. I had an opportunity to do so in high school during one summer, but I made a delinquent decision that ruined that opportunity. So, fast forward almost six years and as a college graduation gift to myself, I said that I was going to make it happen!
I decided that I would spend two weeks traveling between Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. I sold my MacBook Pro, sold my all-in-one desktop, saved whatever money I could (it’s hard out here for a college student) and was lucky to receive some funds for graduating.
It’s no secret that visiting Japan could very well cost an arm and a leg, but with proper research and planning, anyone can enjoy Japan on their own budget! There were some mistakes that I made that could’ve saved me a lot of money, but you know what they say, you live and you learn!
This trip started out as a duo with one of my best friends, but it ended up being a solo trip. One thing I can say is that solo travel is awesome! You can do what you want, when you want and without anyone trying to deter you or hold you back due to their own issues. You also shouldn’t let your family try to deter you from seeing the world; venture out and discover more about not only other cultures, but yourself.
Keep in mind, at the time of January 2017, ¥100 = $1.14
Updated: November 2017 ¥100 = $0.88
** Always be sure to check the exchange rates!
***This post contains affiliate links to products that I personally use and recommend. I may receive a small percentage of a sale at no extra cost to you.***
The Best Way to Fly Overseas
When I’m taking a long-haul flight, I would prefer to at least do it comfortably. I don’t mean flying business class or first-class, which is great, but I did some research to find an airline that flew to Asia and had a comfortable economy class. Singapore Airlines came out on top for me and I didn’t regret that decision one bit! Unfortunately, Singapore Airlines doesn’t leave out of Orlando for a decent price, so I did some scavenging on Expedia and found a round trip from Orlando to Los Angeles for $276 (I have seen this route for way cheaper).
From Los Angeles, I flew Singapore Airlines from LAX to Tokyo Narita Airport with no stops. With LAX being a hub airport, there are more airlines that fly to Asia from there with better rates than other airports.
The roundtrip for this flight was $546.66, however, I used 43,732 Chase Sapphire Rewards points that I accumulated with my Chase Sapphire Preferred card to pay for this flight, so technically at no cost to me! Depending on the travel season you choose, flights to Japan can either be really expensive or fairly cheap (the lowest I saw around this time was in the $400s).
Hopper, Skyscanner, Kayak, Expedia, Google Flights and Airfare Watchdog are a few of my favorites for snagging a good deal on a flight. It’s best if you’re able to be flexible with when and sometimes where you fly to so that you can snag a better deal. I start looking for my flights at least two months in advance.
You’ve landed in Japan, now what?
I only have experience with the main airport for Tokyo, Narita International and from Narita there’s a bus that you can take into Tokyo. Despite being called Tokyo Narita airport, the airport is actually located about an hour out of the heart of Tokyo in Chiba Prefecture. One of the cheapest forms of transportation that I found was the Access Narita bus for ¥1000 (about US $9) for adults and ¥500 (about US $4.50).
This bus is really convenient because you just stand in line at the respective bus stop and pay for the ticket on the bus rather than having to go to a counter to get a ticket. There is also a bathroom on the bus, which is awesome for an hour ride after you’ve been stocking up on the free drinks from your flight. This bus will take you right to Tokyo Station, where you can then board a train to get to your destination in Tokyo.
The most common misconception about transportation
Typically, when you research transportation in Japan, you will come across what is known as the JR Rail Pass. This is essentially a pass that allows you to use some, not all, JR operated trains, including the shinkansen, but it’s not the cheapest option you have for travel. Not only that, but it doesn’t allow you to go everywhere like one might think. One way to save money on both transportation costs and accommodation costs if you’re not in a hurry would be to travel on overnight buses. Willer Express is the largest budget bus company that travels all over Japan and they also offer passes.
These passes are for 3 and 5 days for all days and there’s a 7 day option for traveling Monday through Thursday. These days don’t have to be consecutive, unlike the JR Rail Pass, so you can spread your trips out. Another convenience is that they may be purchased after arriving in Japan, which you cannot do with the JR rail pass. These passes range between ¥10,000 ($88) to ¥15,000 ($130) depending on how long you want to use it.
Aside from these bus passes, there are also city passes that allow you unlimited use of the buses, trams and trains. Sometimes, there are passes that give you discounts to certain attractions. For example, the Osaka One-Day Pass, ¥800 ($7) on weekdays and ¥600 on weekends and holidays, and the Osaka Amazing Pass ¥2300 ($20) for one day and ¥3000 ($26) for two days. The amazing pass gives you free admission to both Osaka castle and the Umeda Sky Building in addition to discounts at other attractions.
Moral of the story: Don’t be like me, folks! I made the mistake of not doing enough research and spent more money than necessary.
The main thing you need to survive your trip
Let me tell you: POCKET WI-FI SAVES LIVES! I REPEAT: POCKET WI-FI SAVES LIVES!! That is all. I purchased my pocket Wi-Fi with unlimited data from one of the stalls in the airport. It was a total cost of $135 for the entire two weeks. Having the pocket Wi-Fi helped me navigate around town, allowed me to call and text my family and friends via WhatsApp and Facebook messenger, and surf the internet on both my phone and laptop. This will save your sanity (and probably some family members’ too)! There’s also the option to rent a sim card for your phone, if you feel that would work out better for you.
Where is the best place to lay your head?
There are many ways to save money with accommodation in Japan: couch surfing, budget hotels, hostels, anime cafes, and of course, Air BnB. Booking.com is also a great way of finding accommodation since they offer reviews and search options to narrow down hotels based on budget, ratings, location, etc. They even offer an option that shows you hotels that allow you to book now and pay later at the hotel.
I mainly used Air BnB for my stay in Japan, with the exception of the first night where I wanted to give a capsule hotel a try. One night at Nadeshiko Hotel Shibuya cost me ¥5525 (US $50). It’s a really nice female-only capsule hotel that’s about a 15 minute walk from Shibuya station. The capsules were pretty comfortable and the bath was heavenly, especially since my trip was during the winter.
For the remaining 10 days of my trip, I stayed in a series of Airbnbs and I really enjoyed booking as many as I did because it allowed me to discover new areas of Tokyo and Osaka and feel more like a local as I strolled through the narrow alleyways of the neighborhoods. I also did a mix between having the whole apartment to myself and having just a room in someone’s home so that I could engage with locals and get cheaper rates.
Here are the Airbnbs that I chose:
- Kei’s place in Shibuya
- Yaeko’s place in Osaka
- Mizuki’s place in Osaka
- Saori & Yorihiro’s place in Suginami-ku
- This traditional room at Akemi’s place in Osaka
- A room at Yoshino’s place near Ikebukuro
While in Osaka, I found an apartment to myself for $20!
If you sign up for AirBnB here, you’ll receive a $40 credit on your first booking as long as the total is $75 or more. So, that could be a 3 night stay that totals up to $75 or more, OR one night that’s $75. The great thing is, even if you’ve used AirBnB before, you can still get the credit as long as you create a new account. The discount will also be automatically applied, so yay, no extra work!
Depending on your budget and comfort preference, you can always choose to go with a nice hotel or a hostel/anime cafe to better fit your needs.
The Best Part of Any Trip…Food
The cost of food was comparable to that of food here in the US, but it also depended on where you were. For example, the price of a tonkatsu meal in Osaka was approximately US $7 versus double that price in Tokyo. I feel as though food is one of the things you absolutely could splurge on (but not too much!), especially if you’re on an international trip and want to try the foods involved with the culture of where you are. Even the food in the convenience stores were tasty; definitely worth trying and it’s a cheap alternative to buying a meal at a restaurant. Yoshinoya is a chain restaurant that offers cheap meals 24 hours a day. For breakfast, I had a beef gyudon bowl and a piece of salmon for about ¥600 ($5). It was quick, cheap and filling. After a restless night of over excitement the night before plus jet lag, you’re going to want to stuff your face, but make sure you’re keeping an eye on your wallet. And remember, you don’t tip in Japan when you’re dining at a restaurant!
The Fun Stuff
Pssst, here’s some age-old advice: get off the beaten path and try to avoid some of those super tourist-y spots! Of course, you have to do some of the classics (I surely did), like Shibuya Crossing, visiting Tsukiji Fish Market, Meiji Shrine, Dotonbori, Fushimi Inari Shrine, etc. Everyone knows that the prices get jacked up for attractions that tourists normally flock to (I’m looking at you, Robot Restaurant). So, I think having a good balance between some cheap attractions that will be enriching and fulfilling, like museums, which are mostly free or ¥500 ($4) at the highest, and the weird attractions you always hear about (various animal cafés or a real-life Mario Kart tour around Tokyo, for example).
A cool spot that my friend Amane took me to after I accidentally blew most of my money on a random steak and lobster dinner and couldn’t afford Universal Studios, is TOKYO JOYPOLIS over in Odaiba, which is just a short train ride away from central Tokyo. It’s an indoor theme park that’s attached to a shopping mall and another fun attraction which houses the Tokyo Trick Art Museum. This museum is ¥900 ($8) for adults high school age, ¥600 ($5) for children age 4 through middle school age and free for children 3 and under. JOYPOLIS houses an indoor rollercoaster, three floors of fun and often intense games/rides, regular arcade games, and a few different cafes and eateries.
Taking a trip over to Odaiba for a day of fun can like stepping into another world. For general admission to JOYPOLIS, it’s ¥800 ($7) for adults 18 years and older and ¥500 ($4) for children 7-17. If you just do general admission, you have to pay for every game/ride, so you’d get a much better value by purchasing the “passport”. Regular passport prices are ¥4300 ($38) for adults and ¥3300 ($29) for children. The night passport is ¥3300 for adults (the option we chose) and ¥2300 ($20) for children, and the LATE night passport is ¥2800 ($24) for adults and ¥2300 for children.
One last fun tip: If you go across the street from JOYPOLIS, there’s another room mall and inside that mall is the Gundam Café. Guess what’s near the Gundam Café? A GIANT LIFE SIZE GUNDAM STATUE!!!!! So, go see it and take some fun pictures!
Seriously, with proper planning and some extreme self-control (there are SO many cute and awesome things you’re going to want to buy), you could have an amazing and probably life changing trip to Japan without going completely broke! It’s best to have an idea of the attractions that you want to see while you’re on your trip and that will give you an idea of how to budget. Now, start saving, planning and let me know all about your adventures after!
P.S. Look how cute these dogs are in their little kimonos!