Even if you have ample funds and a healthy credit card, there are good reasons to shop for bargains beyond simply saving money: Watching for bargains gets you out of your accustomed ways, puts you in the position to meet ordinary Japanese (and other travelers) and see how they live, introduces you to new habits, and gives you the opportunity to learn the value of a Yen. No one minds saving a little money.
As anywhere, certain holidays, especially New Year’s and summer vacation in August, are busy everywhere, and the weekends are busier and costs are higher. Above all, Golden Week, which coincides roughly with the popular cherry blossom season, is Japan’s equivalent to spring vacation, when the crowds are enormous and everyone is vying for the same hotel rooms, train tickets and restaurant seats that you are. To avoid the crowds, skip the last week of April and the first week of May, especially in Kyoto.
There are many Japan-specific tactics to employ to get the most out of your Yen. Here are ten to start with:
Get a rail pass: The big one is the Japan Rail Pass, which must be bought before you go to Japan, but you will be glad you planned ahead as it can pay for itself with just a few trips (Japan Railpass). If you’re planning to travel within a limited region, there are many regional passes (JR West). Another option, if you’re in the country during the three windows in which it is available, is the Seishun 18 pass (Japan Guide.com). Public transport is a world unto itself, but a good place to start with the nuts and bolts for the Tokyo systems is tsunagujapan.com.
Travel local trains and busses: Sure, the Shinkansen (bullet train) must be experienced, but what’s the hurry? There are many other travel options, including slower, local trains, from which you can actually savor the passing scene, rather than have it blur past. Besides trains, travel by bus is considerably cheaper and you will meet more Japanese and budget travelers, who often have the best stories – usually of comical experiences they had when trying to save money. Also, consider overnight busses, which can save a night on lodging and give one a different view of Japan.
Travel off-season: Consider travel in winter, when the tourist hordes at popular sites are smaller or non-existent, and unless you’re in the mountains or Hokkaido, it’s nothing like winter in Germany or Minnesota. Or travel during Japan’s rainy season, June and July. Rainy season doesn’t mean constant rain, and while it will be humid, there’s nothing quite like a post-downpour Japanese garden.
Eat where the Japanese eat: Ordinary Japanese eat out all the time, but they’re most likely to do so in the many budget eateries that are everywhere in Japan, and they’ll be eating things like ramen, soba, or gyudon (beef bowls) at prices almost always under 500 yen. Really hungry? Visit an izakaya (gastropub) for a tabehodai (all-you-can-eat) lunch. Food courts and department store basements are also good deals, with lots to choose from and many happy locals to meet. For cheaper sushi, try the kaiten, where the individual pieces appear on a conveyor belt.
Eat standing up: Eating on your feet is acceptable at the many tachigui soba places, and doing so will will cut the cost of a meal considerably. The same goes for drinking standing up at the bar in tachinomi places.
Buy prepared foods: Prepared foods in supermarkets and farmers markets can be fresh and delicious, not to mention quick. The Japanese love to picnic, and there are many beautiful spots to do so, especially in Kyoto and smaller cities. Likewise, vending machines offer surprisingly good food at reasonable prices. Note well, though: Food to-go is one thing, but eating while walking around is generally not done.
Dine earlier: As elsewhere, dinners are priced higher than lunches, for the same food in the same restaurants. A big lunch and a lighter dinner makes sense for your body – you need more food walking around than sleeping – and it’s also better for your wallet. This is especially true if there’s a high-end kaiseki you’ve been wanting to try: the prices for lunch will almost always be considerably lower, but the ingredients and the dining experience will be of the same high quality.
Stay in guesthouses: To some, the idea of sharing sleeping space is anathema, but as with many things, the Japanese have raised the notion of the dormitory to an art. Where other places might be cramped and institutional, many shared hostelries are beautiful and comfortable, located in renovated old houses and even monasteries. At $20-50 per night, the price can’t be bettered, and the camaraderie one can experience in such situations more than makes up for any lack of privacy. Such guesthouses (known as gaijin houses) are all over Japan (LonelyPlanet), and will bring you into closer contact with all sorts of interesting people – and what else is travel for?
Rent a bike: Public transportation is good in Japan, as are cabs, but the latter can easily blow a hole in your budget – just getting in a cab and riding one kilometer in Tokyo will cost more than 1000 yen. For the fun factor alone, try a bike rental, at least for an afternoon, which in some places will cost no more than that one kilometer in a cab. Beyond that, once you get comfortable on a bike – easier said that done in city centers – the possibilities are endless.
Get out of the big cities: Just as New York City is not the United States, and Paris isn’t France, Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka are just the beginning, and the rest of Japan can be considerably cheaper than those high-priced cities. Cities such as Nara, Kanazawa and Hiroshima offer many beautiful temples, restaurants and other sights at what are often considerably lower prices. Finally, don’t forget that despite the emphasis on urban life, Japan is a beautiful country with its own Alps and other spots for hiking and other outdoor (and low-cost) activities. Get out of town!
Make new friends: As everywhere, the locals know the best deals, as do local gaijin (foreigners) – especially if they’re students. Japan’s cities are densely-populated, so you might as well take advantage of this close proximity to other people, foreign and domestic, many of whom are more than willing to share their hard-earned money-saving tips.