How I traveled for less than $50 a day in Japan
In December 2013, I had the greatest pleasure to embark on my maiden trip to Japan. Planning the trip was no easy task as I could not find anyone who was available to travel with me on a short notice as well as on a tight schedule. I was sincerely warned by many people how expensive traveling around Japan could be so I did weeks of research and budgeting, optimizing my routes and places to visit.
I spent 10 glorious days in Japan. While there, I stayed with my friend in Tokyo and a Couchsurfing hostess in Kyoto. I count myself really blessed because the Kyoto hostess provided home-cooked breakfast and dinner in exchange for me doing the dishes. Both really helped my pocketbook.
Here is a list of things I did while spending less than US$50 a day in Japan:
1) Splurged on one meal a day. I packed food and made easy meals at my friend's apartment
2) Sought out restaurants and grocery stores that served local delicacies. I'm proud to say I spent less than 1000 Yen for most of my meals and left very satisfied
3) Used my God-given legs to transport me from one spot to another. At the end of the trip, I spotted blisters but each of them was worth it.
4) Purchased economical passes to get around. I bought the 7 day JR pass, Suica+N'EX card, TOEI one day economy pass, and the Kyoto one day sightseeing pass. The reasons why I got them were really simple:
7 day JR pass allowed me to travel all over Japan on most shinkansen (Japanese bullet trains) and JR operated local buses and trains
Since I had 3 extra days not covered by my JR pass, I bought the Suica+N'EX combo one-way card. The N'EX ticket enabled me to get to Tokyo from Narita airport while the Suica card had 1500 Yen on it for me to use on most Tokyo trains and buses as well as a 500 Yen deposit.
My friend's apartment was really close to a TOEI subway station so it made sense to get the one day economy pass
The JR pass was pretty much useless for traveling around Kyoto and its suburbs. I decided to buy the Kyoto one day sightseeing pass that had me hopping on and hopping off Kyoto's buses and subway trains. What I did not know but benefited was this card covered the additional fare to Arashiyama that the all day bus pass did not
5) To be honest, I was quite tired of seeing castles and shrines by day #7. I'm pleased I made a point to visit one or two shrines per day and three castles during my trip. This helped to reduce money spent on admissions fees. I walked for miles which was great since I got to burn some calories, gain muscles, and immerse myself in the regional cultures and daily lives of the people of Japan
6) I checked in at every tourist center in every city to gather maps and information. I carried a mobile Wi-Fi router and downloaded these mobile apps (Google Maps, Hyperdia and MapsWithMe) for navigation. Did not spend a penny on travel guidebooks :)
7) Lastly and most importantly, I visited the following cities and places that had free or affordable admissions:
Tokyo: Imperial Palace (note: reserved in advance for private tour), Tsukiji market, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ueno, Ginza, Harajuku, Ichigaya, Akihabara Electric town, Tokyo Metropolitan Government towers (great views of the city and Mt Fuji), Sensoji temple, Meiji shrine, Roppongi Hills, Yoyogi Park, Tokyo Station, and the bustling nightlife. Ate the following at ramen and sushi restaurants: spicy ramen, tonkotsu (pork broth) ramen, and fresh sushi and sashimi
Kyoto: Nijo castle, Nishiki market, Arashiyama and its romantic bridge and bamboo forest, Kinkakuji temple, Gion district and its geishas, Fushimi Inari shrine, Shirakawa canal, and its nightlife. Enjoyed homemade sushi, curry udon, soba noodles, okonomiyaki with bonito flakes and mayo, green tea, and desserts
Hiroshima and Miyajima: Itsukushima floating torii gate, Daisho-in temple, Mt Misen, Peace Memorial park and museum. A visit to the Peace Memorial museum is highly recommended. Sampled Hiroshima's famous grilled oysters
Nagoya: Nagoya castle and the city center
Yokohama: Minato Mirai district and shopping malls, Nissan show room, and Chinatown. I tried one of the best tonkatsu (fried pork) with my friend and her family
If you are interested in getting unique Japanese gifts, I highly recommend visiting:
shopping bazaar near Ueno station for food products such as seaweed, kelp, and miso
retail stores around Tsukiji market for kitchen products such as knives, chopsticks, and utensils
Tokyo Kyukyodo in Ginza shopping area for handmade paper products, cards, calligraphy tools, artwork, bookmarks, etc
Akihabara Electric Town for electronics, video games, and games accessories (my friend opined electronics in USA were cheaper)
Family Mart and Lawson for food such as noodles, seasonings, and spices
100 Yen stores scattered around Japan for toys, household and cute stuff
For useful services, do visit the official websites of Japan National Tourism Organization, JR Rail Pass, Tokyo Free Guide, and Visa Exchange Rates. They are useful resources for planning and budgeting!
Japan is lovely and it's definitely worth another visit. I know I missed other things to see and so do keep your suggestions rolling by clicking this link!
PS: Shout out to Adrian, Mikako, and Takahisa for your time and generosity. Couldn't ask for a better trip!
PSII: If you are like me, I found some surprising and fascinating things about the Japanese. It's hard to find trash cans on the streets. The best bet to find one would be in the train stations. Face masks are a common sight. Japanese women can bike with two kids strapped in the front and back of the bikes. The Japanese are generally very clean, tidy, and polite. Speaking English and getting around are not huge issues. And always let people exit the train or elevator first before you hop in. Else you would get horrible stares or occasional scolding from an elderly man. Oh, don't forget to carry hand sanitizer since it's very rare to find soap in the public restrooms and please, please, don't point with your chopsticks or disassemble the neatly prepared sushi rolls in front of your sushi chef. When in doubt, seek help from either the waiting staff or fellow diners. Lastly, as the idiom goes, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" and you would have a grand time like I did!
Modified on 1/30/2014
Update on Jan 8, 2019: I just finished watching a documentary called Ramen Heads, featuring the best ramen chef named Tomita Ramen in Matsudo, Chiba. His ramen's style involves dipping the homemade noodles in thick tonkatsu broth. Other top chefs were featured, notably Michelin-starred Tsuta ramen and Iida Shouten down in Kanagawa's Yugawara. You can read more on this write-up.
Tsuta ramen is known for Shoyu Soba, soy sauce ramen. It comprises of a chicken and seafood stock base, enhanced by a delicate soy sauce blend. Iida Shouten is also known for its shoyu and salt ramen.