“Oh, Japan will be great,” a friend said to me. “But it will be expensive!”
I had sort of expected the second part of the sentence as soon as I heard the slight pause in his voice and then the rising inflexion.
When it comes to Japan, the two statements seem to go together like fish and rice. Nobody ever has a bad word to say about the place… except for the cost.
Now, I should point out that this conversation was happening in Southeast Asia – one of the few places in the world where a small amount of cash can still buy you luxury and safety.
In comparison, there are scores of countries around the world that would look expensive. So there’s a degree of relativity – but it was still something that was worrying me. I was about to spend a month in Japan and but didn’t want to spend too much else.
Well, the good news is that Japan turned out to be not nearly as expensive as people expected.
And in the dozen or so trips I have done to the country since, I have discovered plenty of ways to save money when travelling in Japan.
I think the perception of Japan as an expensive country comes partly from what people hear in the media about those studies comparing the cost of countries or cities around the world.
The biggest of them all, the Worldwide Cost of Living Survey, consistently has Japanese cities near the top – Tokyo was number 1 in 2013, and Osaka was at the top of the list in 2020. (Although, as a side note, both cities dropped out of the top 10 in 2022 because of the pandemic.)
But the problem is this survey takes into account things like household supplies, utilities, domestic help and clothing. It also calculates the results in the context of how much it would cost an expat to live in the style they are accustomed to at home.
None of this is relevant for travellers visiting Japan for a short holiday.
For tourists, one of the biggest costs in Japan as a tourist is going to be accommodation, but there are ways to minimise that. The same goes for transport.
But beyond that, sightseeing and food are very affordable – and often cheaper than you would find in comparable countries around the world.
So, let’s move on to the actual costs of travelling in Japan. I’m going to run through each of these four main expenses and see how much they’ll cost you, and how you can save.
As you’re about to see, there are many ways that Tokyo is actually much cheaper than visiting other big cities in the world like London, New York or Sydney.
So, is Japan expensive? Let’s see…
Accommodation can be one of the biggest factors in the cost of a trip and it’s true that Japan is going to be more expensive than most places in Asia. But it’s not as bad as you might think.
I’ll first use Tokyo to give you a sense of prices in the city, then talk about Japan more generally after that.
Prices obviously change at different times of the year, but in Tokyo, a standard four-star hotel will cost you around US$150 a night on average. In Shinjuku, for instance, Hotel Gracery or Daiwa Roynet Hotel are good examples.
Of course, if you want to stay at the top hotels like The Peninsula or the famous Park Hyatt, it’ll be about U$1400 a night! But an average five-star hotel is about US$400 a night – like the beautiful Tokyo Station Hotel or the Hilton in Shinjuku.
For those people on a backpacking style budget, you’ll find hostels in the main tourist areas of Tokyo for about US$20 a night for a dorm bed. Compared to Europe, though, there aren’t nearly as many hostels in Japan.
Another good option to save money on accommodation is with a ‘capsule hotel’. These are similar to dorms except the beds are in enclosed boxes, rather than an open room.
The problem with capsule hotels is that many of them won’t allow you to be there during the day – so they’re better to use for short stays or if you know you will be out sightseeing all day long.
Often on trips to Japan, I stay in ‘business hotels’. They don’t call themselves that, but it’s a common style of accommodation in the cities.
In modern Japanese culture, it’s common for local people to use hotels overnight if they’ve worked late, rather than go home. It means these ‘business hotels’ usually have last-minute availability and reasonable rates.
The rooms are not large but they’re very comfortable, clean, and full of amenities. The prices can vary a bit but you would expect to pay around US$60 a night in Tokyo. The APA Hotels are the biggest chain in the city, and this one in Shinjuku is a good option, along with this one near Tokyo Station.
So, all of the prices I’ve just mentioned are for Tokyo. It probably goes without saying that it’s the most expensive city in Japan.
As you travel around Japan and stay in other cities, you’ll find that the prices are less than Tokyo. Even Osaka – another big city – is about 25 per cent cheaper on average.
The only main city that isn’t necessarily much cheaper than Tokyo is Kyoto, but that’s because it is such a popular tourist destination. A bed in the cool Millennials capsule hotel is about US$45, for instance – while the Park Hyatt in Kyoto is about US$1800! But don’t worry, there are still lots of affordable options in the middle range.
If you’re looking to save money during a trip to Japan, one easy way thing to do is spend less time in Tokyo and more time in other parts of the country.
In prefectural capitals like Matsuyama, Oita, Kanazawa, and even Sapporo, you’ll find rooms in business hotels for as little as US$50 a night, and even five-star hotels from about US$150. Plus you’ll have the added benefit of seeing new and interesting parts of the country.
Unfortunately getting around Japan can be a little expensive – especially the long distance trips between cities. Because there isn’t much competition, there’s no need for train providers to offer discounts.
Still, the good news is that there are some cheap options for travellers, if you find the deals available specifically for foreign tourists.
Japan Rail Pass
The obvious way to save a lot of money is with the Japan Rail Pass (usually just called the JR Pass). It gives you unlimited travel on the JR network for a specified length of time.
You have to buy the JR Pass before you arrive in Japan, and have it sent to you. It’s available through several agencies, but I recommend buying it through GetYourGuide.
The shinkansen (bullet train) is an amazing way to get around Japan – but it’s not cheap! The three-hour journey between Tokyo and Osaka costs about US$105 one way, for instance, while Tokyo to Kyushu or Hokkaido is about US$170 one way.
Considering the 7-day JR Pass is about US$338, you will start to save money if you’re doing a few of these trips.
Obviously the decision on whether to get the JR Pass or not will depend on your itinerary and how many trains you’re planning to take, but it’s certainly worth considering – and it works out to b a good deal for most visitors.
You can see the current JR Pass prices in the table below for the Ordinary Car and the Green Car (first class). (Note: a child pass is half price.)
|Green (First class)
You’ll need to organise a JR Pass before you arrive in Japan so it can be sent to you (at home or somewhere else on your travels).
There are quite a few agencies that sell the pass but I recommend using GetYourGuide because they can send it around the world and have an excellent support system. You can buy it here.
If you’re only in Japan for a short time and you’re not moving around much, it may not be worth getting the JR Pass, which covers the whole country.
The standard local trains can be very reasonable and cost on average about US$5 for each hour of travel. So if you’re planning to base yourself in one city and just explore the surrounding area, transport doesn’t have to cost you much.
For example, subway rides in Tokyo cost around US$2 each (depending on distance), or you can even get a 24-hour pass for about US$6.
Something really useful to look out for are different transport passes into the different cities and regions of Japan. Quite a lot of them have great deals aimed at tourists, which will let you explore more of the area without having to pay a lot.
Around Osaka, you can get the Kansai Thru Pass for about US$40 for three days. This is a great deal if, for example, you want to go to Kyoto one day, Nara the next, and Himeji the next.
The pass covers the five main cities in the region (plus the broader area) and is valid for buses and trains within the cities so you can easily get around and pack those three days with lots and lots of sights.
Also, make sure you look at whether particular towns or sights you want to visit have special transport/admission deals.
Of course you’re going to go sightseeing when you come to Japan. Of all the things that you spend money on when you travel, I think visiting landmarks is worth the expense because they are what makes a destination unique.
Having said that, you still don’t want to spend more than you have to – and there are ways to keep the costs down a bit.
An obvious way to do this is to visit places that have no entrance fee. In Tokyo, that includes sights like the Meiji Shrine or Senso-ji Temple. In Osaka, places like the Shitenno-ji Temple are also free.
For the main sights in Tokyo that do have entrance fees, the costs can vary a bit. The National Museum of Western Art only costs about US$4 to visit, while going up the Tokyo Skytree is about US$23 (slightly cheaper if you book in advance).
What you choose to visit will have a big impact on how much you spend. But, to save some money on the big attractions, I would recommend using a city pass.
Just like the transport passes in different cities and regions, you’ll also find lots of specific tourist passes in various parts of Japan. It’s always worth popping into the visitor information centre to ask what’s available, because I find the deals are not always well promoted.
For example, there is this Osaka Pass that saves you money on some big attractions. There’s this Okinawa Pass if you make it down to the islands. And there’s even this Kinosaki Pass for the beautiful onsen town.
Here is the best news – the food in Japan is not only delicious but very affordable. In fact, I laugh when I compare it to the price of an average meal in Sydney. You never need go hungry in Japan.
If you look at standard lunch options, you’ll have a range of cheap options in convenience stores (don’t worry – it’s healthy and tasty, unlike convenience stores in other countries).
A bento box (a mix of rice, meat, fish and vegetables) will cost you about US$4 dollars; a rice ball with a fish filling will cost about US$1; and a tray of sushi will cost you about US$4.
If you prefer to eat in, you’ll find many quick restaurants where you can get a bowl of rice with some fried meat and vegetables for about US$5.
There is such a variety at these shops that you’ll be able to go to them day after day and not get sick of the meals.
With dinner options, there are definitely expensive restaurants available, but you don’t need to go near them if you don’t want to.
Noodle bars selling huge hot bowls of ramen or soba are great options where a meal should cost about US$7 dollars.
If you want to step things up slightly, a restaurant where you can share things like sushi, sashimi and tempura with your friends should set you back about US$15 dollars each.
And the ultimate value for money, the all you can eat shabu shabu, starts at about US$20 each (but be careful because there are lots of very expensive ones too!).
Any kind of travel or holiday is going to mean you spend money and it’s just one of those things you have to accept if you want to explore the world. But Japan shouldn’t be somewhere that you avoid or put off because you’re worried about the finances.
You’ll spend more on a trip to Australia, the UK, Scandinavia, or New York.
With such a special and unique culture, Japan is somewhere you should experience. It’s just lucky that you can actually do it quite affordably if you want to.