WI’ve decided it’s time to dispel the myth that you have to be prepared to shell out money to travel to Japan. Don’t get us wrong – it may not be the cheapest Asian country to explore, but there are a number of ways to keep costs down, many of which involve following the example of the locals.
Embrace vending machine coffee
There’s not much you can’t buy from a Japanese vending machine, whether it’s a brand new shirt, flowers in the fridge, or a pair of pants. Don’t discount the hot drinks sold from these machines either. Coffee, tea and cocoa drinks aren’t just significantly cheaper than the stuff sold in cafes – they’re also top quality and hot. Additional buttons allow you to control how much sugar and milk is added, as well as the thickness of the liquid.
Buy fresh food later in the day
Japan is famous for its fresh food, many of which you will find in a department store fat man – impressive basement food halls, where you’ll find everything from yakitori (grilled meat skewers) to taiyaki (fish-shaped cakes filled with red azuki beans). The ready-to-eat, fresh fish and meat stalls are where you’ll find the best bargains, especially towards the end of the day. Most fat man and supermarkets slash the cost of their freshest food by 50 percent just before closing time – discount stickers generally start appearing around 7pm and discounts increase as closing time approaches.
Visit a 100 yen shop
You will find 100 yen shops in every city and town. Prices often stray slightly over the ¥100 mark, but still offer fantastic value. At the top end you have Daiso, a popular chain now also found in cities like Seoul and Bangkok. But the non-brand 100 yen shops you’ll see all over Japan sell the widest range of items, from toiletries and food to socks and stationery. Also look out for 100-yen shops branded ‘Lawson’ – these sell handy self-service bits like fruit, vegetables and milk at prices around 70 per cent lower than Japanese supermarkets.
Use your JR Pass regularly
JR (Japanese Rail) passes, which cover all trains operated by JR, are excellent value and can be purchased for periods of seven, 14 or 21 days. However, you have to buy them before you’re in Japan (after you order one, you’ll get something called an exchange order, which you then exchange for the actual pass at Japanese train stations). If you’re spending your entire holiday in Tokyo, where a single subway fare will cost you around £1.50, a JR pass won’t save you any money. But if you’re visiting multiple parts of the country, the savings add up quickly – especially as the pass also covers buses, airport trains and ferries operated by JR. For example, a seven-day JR pass starts at £173 – just £13 more than the starting price of £180 for a return trip from Tokyo to Osaka, one of Japan’s most popular rail routes. If you’re not sure if the pass is right for you, check out the JR Pass calculator, which can be found here: jrpass.com/farecalculator.
Travel by night buses
Japan’s long-distance coach services are often overlooked, but they offer a cheap, great and scenic way to travel around Japan – if you can manage an overnight stay, you’ll also save yourself a night in often expensive accommodation. Many of these are also covered by the JR Pass. If you are planning to travel by coach, the best sites for researching routes and booking tickets include willerexpress.com, VIPLiner and highway-buses.jp. Willer Express coaches include the superb luxury ReBorn coaches, launched in 2020: guests sit in personal seats equipped with reclining seats, footrests, electrical outlets, tables and blankets. A seat on one of these coaches for a one-way trip from Tokyo to Kyoto will set you back around £43 – significantly less than the same journey on the Shinkansen (bullet train), which costs around £80.
Use kinken stores
Kinken stores are thrift stores that sell everything from jewelry to electronics, but the majority of people come here for (legally) resold travel cards, train tickets, and sporting event, concert, and theater tickets. In fact, many kinken shops only sell train or bus tickets and event tickets. The former often sell for about 90 percent off, while event tickets are slightly less discounted (but you’ll still see some bargains, especially for sold-out concerts and sports games). Kinken shops are usually located in or near train stations and shopping malls and are fairly easy to spot – the windows will be full of tickets available for purchase, under a sign that reads “金券ショック” (ticket shop). If in doubt, ask a staff member at the hostel or hotel you are staying at.
Crashing into a ‘manga kissa’ cafe.
Hotels in Japan can compensate you well. If you have a layover in a city and don’t want to leave for a proper room, consider killing time at a manga kissa (kissa is short for kissaten, which means coffee). These cafes are usually open 24 hours a day and you can choose how many hours you want to stay. After paying for your chosen time, you’ll be transferred to a semi-private booth where you can freely sleep (most have sunbeds), read manga graphic novels, play video games or watch a movie. Many cafes have showers or even private rooms equipped with tatami mats – a bit like a quirky airport lounge. Expect to pay between £11 and £22 for a 10-hour package.
Learn some Japanese
Knowing even a few basic words and phrases can be a great way to avoid unnecessary extras when eating and drinking out. Enjoy ramen at a restaurant but still hungry after your meal? Ask for a “kaedama” and an extra serving of noodles will be added to your broth – a cheaper alternative to an entire second course. When ordering drinks in coffee shops, avoid wasting your money on wrong orders, remember that “aisu” drinks are frozen. The words oome (more), sukuname (less) and nashi (none) are useful when it comes to additional additives such as milk and sugar.