Japan owes its existence to mountains. Thousands of years ago, Japan bubbled out of the ocean as the afterthought of energetic volcanoes along the Pacific Ring of Fire. The spine of Japan — the Japanese Alps — are still rising just as the tectonic plate below the sea is steadily sliding. But whether you climb on sleeping Mount Fuji, still an active volcano, or watch sunset from a small village hill in Japan, you are on a san (山), a mountain or hill. Some Japanese mountains are more famous than others, such as Matsumoto for its castle, Nikko’s alpine trails, or Nagano as host city of the 1998 winter Olympics.
There’s plenty of information on for travellers to navigate Japan without using any Japanese. But on the other hand, I think it’s missing out a little if you don’t know what locals are using. As a super-connected nation with virtually universal 4G connection, knowing what local Japanese are using for travel can open up the Japan that is not flooded with international tourists.
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?
1) Coach Buses / Kaisoku Buses 快速バス
Highway buses are hands down the cheapest way to get anywhere in Japan. A bus ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto can be 2,700 JPY in contrast to a Shinkansen ticket that costs 13,000 JPY. The buses are comfortable, timely, safe, and reliable. In addition, the stops at michi-no-eki, roadside stations, always have nice, clean washrooms and shops to get food and omiyage (local food souvenirs) from.
You can Willier Express, which has an English site, even has a Japan Bus Pass (for 3 /5 /7 days).
If you go on the booking sites, you can filter different types of buses, such as female only, WiFi available, etc. If you want more space, especially for overnight buses, you can choose 3-seater rows, san-retsusha 3−列車 instead of 4-seaters yon-retsusha ４−列車.
- Willier Express (English)
- Bushikaku (Japanese)
- Highway Bus (Japanese)
- Kousoku Bus (Japanese)
- Rakuten Travel Bus Booking (Japanese)
The JR Rail Pass is hands down one of the best ways to see Japan, especially if you want to see different parts of the country. This pass basically pays for itself if you do a round-trip between Tokyo and Kyoto, and another round trip to another city (i.e. Hiroshima, or Nagano). If you’ve been to Japan before, consider getting a regional pass (see #3).
If you currently live outside Japan and hold a foreign passport, and plan to spend at least a week outside Tokyo, I highly recommend a Japan Rail (JR) Pass for a first-time visitor. It is valid on all JR trains except the Nozomi and Hikari Shinkansen (there are trains every 20-60 minutes, and a total of 6 types of Shinkansen). The JR Pass allows unlimited travel for a your choice number of days (7, 14, 21) and works even for JR buses and the JR Miyajima ferries. It must be purchased before you arrive in Japan. Order the pass several weeks before you leave so it can be mailed to you. Note that you are receiving a coupon to trade for your JR Rail Pass in Japan. You can exchange this coupon on your first day of travel at a JR Rail Office (in the main stations of most major cities). Make sure you know which station to arrive at to trade your pass.
Leaving Tokyo are three main corridors: south on the Tokaido/Sanyo line towards Osaka, northward on the Tohoku line, towards Aomori and Hokkaido, and westward on the Joetsu line, towards Nagano, which splits to Kanazawa and Niigata. From Tokyo, it takes about 2-3 hours to get to Osaka, Kyoto, Nagano, Kanazawa, and Niigata, making it ideal for checking out different parts of Japan. For example, you can make a day trip of Nagano and Matsumoto and return back to Tokyo late at night.
3) Regional JR Passes
Below are the regional passes, which are cheaper than the nationwide pass and are excellent for exploring regional places more in depth. Beyond the metropolises of Tokyo, Kansai corridor (comprising Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto), Fukuoka, Nagoya, and Hiroshima, the heart of Japan is in the countryside. In every prefecture, there are villages to see, dishes to try, and natural parks, mountains, and beaches to enjoy.
The Seishun 18 is a limited-time offer of 5 flexible days unlimited travel for 11,850 JPY. Please take note of the sales and validity dates.
The Seishun 18 are a set of 5 tickets that allows unlimited rides on local and rapid JR trains (excluding reserved seats) throughout Japan. Although the Seishun 18 is not valid on Shinkansens and limited express trains, it is a great way to enjoy travel at a more leisurely pace, especially if you have small towns you want to get to in a specific region.
This ticket package includes five days worth of travel for only 2,370 yen per day. It can be used by 1 person for 5 days, or split amongst individuals. For example, 5 people can use it for 1 day.
The unlimited rides also include use of the JR Miyajima Ferry for travel from the mainland to the island of Itsukushima, popularly known as Miyajima.
5) ANA & JAL Welcome to Japan Flight Offers
Japan’s two flag carrying airlines, Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA) both have special offers for travellers holding foreign passports in Japan. If you are only planning to go to one specific place outside of Tokyo or Osaka, you may want to consider taking a flight rather than getting a JR Pass. The price difference between JAL and ANA are not significant. The available offers are below:
JAL Yokoso Japan Tickets (restricted to One World inbound travellers):
The JAL Yokoso Japan tickets are available for travellers coming to Japan with a temporary visa (i.e. not working in Japan). The tickets must be bought prior to arriving and are restricted to travellers arriving with a One World Alliance airline. If you are unsure, please check with your airline to see if they are a member. If not, then you can consider the ANA flight offers. There are travel date restrictions, so please check the site.
The difference between this ‘Welcome to Japan Fare’ and the Yokoso Japan Fare, is that travelers using the original ‘Welcome to Japan Fare’ can fly into or out of Japan using any carrier. This pricing is slightly more expensive than the Yokoso Japan prices because of the flexibility. There are travel date restrictions, so please check the site.
ANA Visit Japan Fare (dates restricted):
The ANA Visit Japan Fare allows you to buy coupons at a fixed price to be used while travelling in Japan. For example, you can buy 2 coupons for 26,000 JPY, 3 for 39,000 JPY and so forth. Please check the website for travel date restrictions.
The ANA Tabiwari tickets are available to everyone, including people living in Japan. These are essentially early-bird tickets to a given destination. This is a good option if you want to go far, and to a small town, as ANA flights go to remote areas as well.
6) Domestic Charter Airlines
Japan is also serviced by a good number of charter airlines that have domestic and international routes. Most of the international flights are to the Asia-Pacific region, and are a good option to go in and out of Japan.
- Skymark (Headquartered in Tokyo, Domestic only)
- AirDo (Headquartered in Tokyo, Domestic only)
- Jetstar (Headquartered in Tokyo, Domestic & International)
- Peach (Headquartered in Osaka, Domestic & International)
- Vanilla Air (Headquartered in Tokyo, Domestic & International)
- AirAsia (International only)
Do you have tips you’d like to share? Please leave a comment!
If you liked this post you can check out my Flight Directory and tips on saving money on flights.
There’s a lot of stuff on travel in Japan already, why another?
This for people determined to be adventurous through a mix of English and Japanese apps to make the best of both worlds.
Much of Japan’s best local favourites are in Japanese. If you take an extra step and use a translator to translate from English to Japanese and copy and paste the key words, you’ve opened all your doors.
Below, I have a complete set of apps I use every day to travel around Japan, and even just for daily life. It includes translating, getting around, lodging, weather, and food.
At the bottom, I have a bonus for regular internet access and information for more unique itineraries.
My top 10:
|1. Translation: Jsho – Hands down, my favourite dictionary. It inputs Japanese hiragana even as you type the pronunciation in English. It not only translates for you, but you can copy and paste the text into other apps to do searches. For language learners, it also identifies ‘common words’ and lists what grammatical function a word has (i.e. noun, i-adjective, na-adjective, suru-verb), and is therefore more accurate than Google Translate.|
2. Translation: Google Translate (Download the Japanese Offline Packet) I use this in addition to Jsho to translate sentences. It gets the job done.
|3. Getting Around: Google Maps, has very detailed maps of the large cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka, and Kyoto. These maps usually include the interiors of major malls, which you can search up and keep loaded after you go offline. Alternative: Yahoo Maps|
|4. Getting Around: Maps.me Offline map with very updated routes, and in rural Japan, even more updated than Google Maps. Its GPS tracker I find is also more accurate than Google Maps.|
|5. Transit: Y!乗換案内 (Japanese) – My favourite transportation app for Tokyo and all of Japan. It’s extremely accurate for times and pricing, and saves your previous searches offline so you can compare. Alternatives: Jorudan (Japanese), Bus Navitime (Japanese)|
|6. Lodging: Airbnb (English / Japanese) – The best way to see what local homes are like, and speak to local hosts. AirBnB is a great platform to try minimalist modern homes to traditional farm houses. If it’s your first time, try a well-rated host! If you are in Tokyo, you’re welcome to stay at my listing!|
|7. Lodging: Couchsurfing (English) – This is an even better way to stay with locals – for free! Join this free platform and stay with hosts in the cities you want to visit. Your host may have an air mattress or sofa, but some might have a spare room. Check their description first. Make sure you personalise your request, as you are asking a favour!
(Tip: Sometimes, the best hosts are in small towns, and it’s a great opportunity to see somewhere unique even if you’ve never heard of the place.)
|8. Weather: Y!天気 (Japanese) – Much more accurate than foreign / global English ones like Accuweather. It will update based on your current location, and locations you search and save (just copy and paste the Kanji (Chinese characters). It will save multiple locations. It’s also good for typhoon, tsunami, and storm warnings.|
|9. Messaging: Line – THE Japanese messaging app. If you’re communicating with locals, get Line.|
10. LocalFood: たべログ Tabelog (Japanese) – The Japanese UrbanSpoon, Yelp, and OpenRice. It also searches based on your current location, which is the word ‘現在地’.
Vegetarian Food: Happy Cow (English) – A Vegetarian Food App. Look up the ‘Tokyo’ restaurants.
Always Stay connected (for free!)
The usual recommendations are downloading the apps to access Japan’s free Wi-Fi (limited to 2 weeks): Japan Free Wi-Fi, Free Wi-Fi Japan, Japan Wi Fi. Get all of them and register the day before you leave your country. These apps do two things: 1) give you access to the network provider’s Wi-Fi system and 2) aggregate many free spots around major cities (i.e. in malls and JR Stations etc.). They work 50% of the time, and give you access to some networks that are password locked so worth a shot if you want convenience. They are also only reliable in big cities.
What’s worked for me for 3+ months in 50+ cities and towns in Japan: Use convenience store Wi-Fi at Lawson & Family Mart. It’s free. No registration needed. No strings attached. It’s fast. It’s all across the country. I just take an extra step and load the area I’m going to on Google Maps before heading out and making sure there’s a Family Mart or Lawson nearby.
- Tokyo’s Central Metro stations have Wi-Fi.
- Major cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka, and Kyoto often have tourism-promotion Wi-Fi networks. Turn on your Wi-Fi when you arrive or ask the tourist information centre.
- Big malls sometimes have Wi-Fi too.
EXPLORING and Sight-seeing like a local
- Tokyo Insight – The mobile version of Japantoday.com, one of the leading English magazines
- Odigo Japan – User-generated tips and verified locations with a customizeable drag and drop trip planner. (Disclaimer: I work here.)
- Best Living Japan – Great local events, such as flea markets and antique weekends that make up a truly authentic cultural experience
- Japan Travel Guide With Me – An offline travel guide (think e-travel book), which recommends places around the country in relation to your current location and includes articles on sights and attractions.
- Triposo – Japan Mini Guides, available for Android and iPhones
- Goodluck Trip Japan
- As a final tip, all the districts in Tokyo have a local cultural map guide that is free and available at the Ward Office. These are usually in Japanese, but some have English, and have great walking courses and introductions of local historical sites that are non-commercial.
Do you have any favourite apps? Please tell me about it!
If you liked this post, please share with friends to help their travel planning! Thanks!