Well short answer to this question is, Yes, Japan is expensive. Expensive is a relative term. Japan is much expensive as compared to other Asian countries. In countries like Indonesia I could stay in pretty decent hotels in as low as 15S$ a night (yep, in Bali), on the contrary I paid over 40S$ (on an average) a night for a dormitory/capsule/hostel stay. Tokyo has been one of the most expensive city in the world. Be it local travel, travel between cities, entry ticket to attractions, food and accommodation, almost everything is in line with expense you might incur in a trip to Singapore, London, NYC etc. But careful and informed planning can go a long way in saving easy money and enjoying the vacation without being too lean on pocket.
How much I spent on my trip?
For my 15 days trip covering over 2000 miles by road and visiting a lot of place, I spent nearly 3000SGD (~2200 USD)
I love buying multiple souvenirs so my shopping involved a lot of expense which could have been avoided.
Money Saving tips
Local travel in Japan isn’t cheap. One bus ride in Kyoto costs nearly 300Y one way, similarly one train ride also costs nearly 500Y depending on distance traveled. Try to use tourist passes where ever possible. Many private train and bus operators offers concession pass. Few of these passes are only available to foreigners. Check this comprehensive list of available bus and train passes.
Kyoto has wonderful bus network. A one day city bus pass costs only 500Y per person for unlimited rides through out the day. Almost all tourist attractions in Kyoto are accessible by city bus (except Fushimini Inari Taisha). Bus may not be the fastest mode of transport in Kyoto due to traffic but they are most convenient.
Lake Kawaguchiko in Mt Fuji area is well covered by 2 day Retro buss pass. It costs only 2000Y per persona and covers unlimited rides on all places around Lake Kawaguchiko and Lake Saiko. This is a hop on hop off service so you can get down where ever you want and board next bus. Bus frequency is every 15mins.
Nikko is some 125 kms from Tokyo. It is well connected by Tobu trains. Tobu nikko pass is a wonderful option for traveling to Nikko and local attractions in Nikko. A 2 day pass costs only 2670Y and overall cheaper as compared to individual ticket buying. See list of all passes here.
Tokyo has extensive network of trains, run by private companies and JR. Unfortunately there is no single pass that covers all area of tourist interest. I ended up buying individual tickets for all rides. Try to buy single ticket for connecting trains, this was it is a bit cheaper.
Should I buy Japan Rail Pass?
This was the one of the biggest question that haunted me for days when I was planning my trip. JRP allows unlimited bullet train rides for the duration of validity and is only available to foreigners but we have to buy it before landing in Japan. At 370S$ for 7 days and 800S$ for 14 days JRP buying was a big budget deciding factor. JRP makes sense if I was making atleast two shinkansen (Bullet Train) rides in one week. Since I was flying in to Osaka and flying out of Tokyo, I had only one journey in which I could have used JRP. Although JRP also covers journey till Alpine route but that was out of my one week when I has to travel from Osaka to Tokyo. So buying JRP was not beneficial for me. Point to note here is that JRP doesn’t cover most of local travel to city attractions in Kyoto or elsewhere in Japan. I made a list of places I had to visit and compared there individual prices (using Hyperdia) against JRP cost and it was relatively cheaper for me to go without JRP. If your itinerary is decided I also suggest you a similar approach.
If you are atleast doing Tokyo to Kyoto return route JRP definitely makes sense.
Current prices of JRP
|7-day||¥ 38,880||¥ 19,440||¥ 29,110||¥ 14,550|
|14-day||¥ 62,950||¥ 31,470||¥ 46,390||¥ 23,190|
|21-day||¥ 81,870||¥ 40,930||¥ 59,350||¥ 29,670|
Inexpensive alternative to JRP?
A very cost effective alternate to Bullet trains is over night long distance buses or Highway buses (as known in Japan). Many bus operators like Willer, Fujikyu run comfortable over night buses for covering long distance or medium distance. Only way to book these buses is online or over phone. If you wish to take later route, most of these service providers have very basic English speaking telephone operators but they can loop in a English translator if you get stuck somewhere during booking process. Another big advantage of using over night buses is saving on hotel stay cost. I traveled using highway buses from Kyoto to Lake Kawaguchiko (Mt Fuji) and from Tokyo to Kanazawa. Thus reducing my local travel cost considerably and it also saved me two nights stay cost.
Overnight Highway bus from Kyoto to Kawaguchiko set me back by 6200Y and from Tokyo to Kanazawa costed me 5100Y. This is almost the same amount of money I have been paying for my stay.
For more details and available route check this site
The most expensive food I had in Japan was Indian Vegetarian food. So if you are open to trying Japanese vegetarian food, you can save quite a bit. A meal in Indian vegetarian restaurant used to set me back by 1200Y-1800Y whereas in Japanese eating joints it costed me 500Y -800Y. But there is a problem. Not all Japanese eating places understand English. On one occasion a Local Japanese eating place in Kyoto served me Pork, when all I asked him was Rice with fried vegetables.
I was carrying a lot of energy bars (Like Mars, Snickers etc), Instant noodles and Granola with me on this trip. Most of hostels have kitchen or provision for microwave or hot water for preparing Granola/Instant Noodles (Like Maggi). This was a great option for me on days I returned late from temples or had no vegetarian options nearby. Mostly on all days I stayed in Japan I had a breakfast of Granola. Its pretty fulfilling as a breakfast option.
If you are a coffee addict like me, you will end up shelling close to 500-600Y on each coffee from likes of Starbucks and established coffee joints. Fortunately there is a nice alternative. Most of convenience stores in Japan like 7 Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart are almost everywhere and sell coffee at 100-150Y. I found these places sell decent dose of caffeine in a reasonable price.
Another thing to note, Japanese people drink very light coffee. So if you have asked for a latte, all you will get is boiled milk/water with a pinch of coffee.
Save on accommodation
This is no brainier. If you are traveling solo, prefer staying in dorms/hostels/capsule hotels. Well rated hostels start around 35S$ and so on. On an average on my 15 days trip I spent 40S$ a night without breakfast. Not many hostels in Japan include BB unfortunately. My most expensive stay in Japan was in Lake kawaguchiko area, where I paid 60S$ for accommodation just next to the lake. I wanted to shoot Milkyway that night so had to shell out extra money to stay near to lake with Mt Fuji view.
Timing of Visit
Japan has two main tourist visiting season. Cherry blossom starting from 25 March to 15 April and Autumn starting from mid September to end of November every year. Since cherry blossom happens for a shorter duration it is also a peak time for tourist rush. I would not really recommend visiting Japan in any other season. Beauty of Japan magnifies in both of these seasons. Expense will reduce sharply if Japan is visited in visited outside these well known timings.
Apart from these timings, Golden week and Obon (mid August) in Japan is not really a good time to visit. In golden week, Japan gets four days of national holidays in one week. This makes all buses and train very crowded.
Save on entry fee to Temples
If you are not too religious or history buff try avoiding entry fees to temple compounds. Some temples/shrines charge entry fees to entire area while some charge entry to only for main halls. For example. Kofukuji temple(Nara), Osaka castle etc have entry fees to main hall only, while no fees is charged to visit pagodas and secondary halls.
Many temples in Japan are under construction, such as Rinnoji Temple (Nara). So I would rather avoid those temples or atleast not pay entry fees to view under construction or curtained sites.
Try to shop on local convenience stores like Lawson etc, Daiso or 100 yen shops. They have all items in lower quantity packing and have cheapest prices.
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