I made a mistake a year ago when I made my Japan travel expenses public last year: I didn’t explain anything. I just made the file public and messaged the friends that requested it.
So I’m going back and explaining it to anyone who has questions. The purpose is to help adventurous people travel around Japan affordably. Japan has a stereotype as an expensive country. It’s simply not true. It can be expensive, but if you know how to approach it, it’s cheaper than most of Western Europe. As a digital nomad, my living expenses here are lower than London and Hong Kong. Below and in my other posts, you can find tips on how to get an affordable and authentic experience.
Of course, I’m also hoping to give you enough information so that you can decide whether this is actually suitable for you. Travelling cheap isn’t for everyone. Also, ‘cheap’ can also be done in many different ways.
This is an open invitation. You can ask me anything about my shoestring backpacking spreadsheet, and I’ll copy my answer into this list.
How did you stay for free for so many days in Japan?
I did WWOOFing in Japan, which means I paid about US$50 for a membership, messaged farms, hostels, and nature reserves and arranged to volunteer in exchange for free room and board. I ended up at organic farms in rural areas such as Zushan in Northern Kyoto and Awa in Tokushima. That meant I didn’t pay for my lodging while I was there, and I wanted to see the countryside. It may not be for everyone, so check out my photos and learnings first. Also, many local farmers don’t speak much English, so if you want an English-speaking host I recommend Hello Farm Organics in Northern Kyoto, which is where I wrote about. The trade off may be that it’s really hard work!
I also spent 40 days walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage, and frequently did nojuku, camping.
Tip 1: If you have time, take a week to experience Japan’s countryside. There are lots of places close to Tokyo and Kyoto as well to do this. If you don’t want to get muddy, look for hostels and tour associations on WWOOF Japan. The countryside is where you’ll discover an abundance of local goodness you’ve never even heard of!
How did you have such low food cost in Japan?
Because I was WWOOFing, I ate the freshest harvested vegetables daily for free. One of my hosts was a monk and former chef, so he whipped up the most delicious (and massive) meals with the vegetables we’d just harvested in the morning.
When I was walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage, I often lived off of konbini (convenience store) meals and supermarket food because they tasty, easy, and affordable. When I travel, I tend to try to spend as little on food as possible and splurge here and there on a nice meal. By nice, I mean things like unagi (eel), kaiseki (high-end Japanese set meals) and reservation-only restaurants.
Tip 2: Once you leave Tokyo, the prices for food drop dramatically. One of my all-time favourites is Sanuki Udon, from Kagawa Prefecture. You can easily get a yummy bowl for ¥300 and if you get a large size you may go about ¥500. In the South, you’ll find fresh fruit and many local specialties that are reasonably priced.
Tip 3: Restaurant lunch; take out dinner. Lunches are much cheaper. In addition, noodles like udon and soba usually stay a fixed price because they’re the Japanese ‘fast food’. For dinner, head to a supermarket and get a prepared bento (box meal).
Where did you go in Japan? I don’t recognise most of the places.
The short answer is, I went all over! In 3 months, I covered much of Honshu (the main island) and all of Shikoku. There was plenty of time for top destinations like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya. Plus, I had time to go to the hidden gems of Kanazawa, Matsuyama, and Takamatsu. As you may have guessed, I spent most of it in rural areas that ranged from beach areas, to Japanese alps, to farms.
I was in borderline area in Kyoto, which is really a small village deep in the mountains. One of my favourite things about this summer was that I got to stay in many traditional Japanese houses for free!
Then, I spent almost two months on Shikoku, Japan’s 4th largest island. After WWOOFing at Awa, Tokushima, walked the Shikoku Pilgrimage for 40 days.
After that, I used a JR Pass and went to the less-travelled parts of Japan. The Izu Penninsula is a popular spot, especially for expats. However, places like Tsuruoka and Niigata are less visited – I went there to climb the Dewa Sanzan.
Shibu Onsen is just below Jyugadani Park – the one famous for the onsen monkeys. Toyama and Kanazawa are now becoming more popular since the Hokurikyu Shinkansen just opened. Of course, I returned to Tokyo after all that!
Tip 4: Take risks. Go visit the small towns you’ve never heard of. They’re usually gorgeous.
Your transportation looks pricy.
For 3 months and going all over Japan, it’s not too bad!
I got a JR Pass. That costed US$400 for 14 days. It sounds expensive, but it actually worked out to be about US$28 per day at the time. I spent almost US$1000 worth on rides in those two weeks. You can find that on the second sheet of my spreadsheet. If I hadn’t stayed at Ito Shimoda for a few days and then Toyama for a few days, it would have been much higher.
The other US$450 I spent throughout the 2.5 months because I was in rural areas in Japan and the trains and buses took me to different cities.
Tip 5: Spend a day in one city, and stay in another. The trains in Japan are so frequent and reliable. Google Maps for train times is accurate. Hop on and off with your JR Pass!
Tip 6: Go far, and go local! Your pass will make up for itself.
How do you stay in Tokyo for free?
I had friends there who lived on two opposite ends of the city. To not overstay my welcome, since they both frequently over-timed, I split my time between the two places. Before you brush this off and think it’s not applicable to you, it may actually be.
Tip 7: For Tokyo If you really want to shoestring, stay overnight at a manga cafe, as they are private and have space for laying down if you’re not too tall.
Tip 9: Make international friends now. I don’t mean target people from the countries you want to go. Just go out of your comfort zone and meet people from different places; get to know them, and naturally, you will want to visit the homes they speak so highly of. That’s often how I travel – just visiting friends.
But is it actually good? Well, each to their own. I love vegetables and well-done simple food.
What is the Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage?
It is a 1000-year-old pilgrimage going around Shikoku, the 4th largest island in Japan. The route now consists of 88 temples and pilgrims can complete it using any transportation method they like. I walked it over 40 days, and took some trains and buses in between as well.
Tip 10: Go on a hike. There are many places to choose from. A good day hike from Osaka is Mount Koya and I have a post on that.
Over to you! If you have any questions based on my Japan travel expenses spreadsheet, please leave me a comment. I’ll add my answers to this post.
Also join the Japan Forums Slack Community to ask questions and share info in real-time!
PS: After I travelled last year in Japan for 3 months, I’ve settled into Tokyo. I work remotely and at a local Japanese travel company. Due to time constraints, most posts focus on Tokyo, cafes, and niche topics like bookstores and vegetarian restaurants. What’s my life like?