Japan on a budget: how to survive

Super tight budgets mean sacrifices. Everyone’s choice of what to miss out on will be different, and in general when backpacking you aren’t throwing money around on anything, but we largely skimped on food. I’m convinced that you could spend hundreds of pounds on food alone in Japan every day, but we were all about finding the best bargain. For that reason, three of our top 5 tips for visiting Japan on a budget are about food, but the rest are general tips that we hope you find useful.

Super cheap but super tasty bento boxes in Tokyo

Whilst in Tokyo we stayed in Asakusa, one of the few remaining old districts with lots of traditional style homes and shops. Next to the Asakusa Tsukuba Express Station (not the station with the Ginza and Asakusa lines) is a little bento box stand where you can get several varieties of delicious boxes for as little as 300 yen (less than £2) They were varied enough to not get boring day after day and big enough to be our dinner in the evening. Winner.

Matsuya and Sukiyama

Essentially the McDonald’s of Japanese food, don’t expect any taste sensations from either of these establishments. Do expect big portion sizes, salad, miso soup and unlimited water thrown in, a varied enough menu of decent tasting food, and for them to appear in every big town so you’re never caught without something to eat in an expensive, touristy area.

Check you definitely need the JR Pass

Use seat61 and Hyperdia to accurately predict the cost of your travel around Japan, and then work out if a JR pass is actually worth it. We saved 13,000 yen each by not buying the pass, which we could then spend on the many forms of transport in Tokyo and wider Japan that don’t accept JR passes without losing out. This worked for us because we weren’t returning to any destinations for onward transport (we arrived in Tokyo and left from Osaka) and because we were staying in Japan for 16 days, thereby requiring a 21-day pass which bumped up the prices. Make sure you do your research before you buy!

If you can, walk

There were days in Japan when we were on our feet and walking for 10 hours in a day. Not only did this save us a few thousand yen each, it also meant that we took in much more of where we were, and helped to slow us down after the frenetic pace of London. Although we’re all about the ‘doing’ in each place we visit, be it museums, cultural sites, galleries, great food spots etc, it’s so important to stop and just ‘be’ whilst travelling. Wandering through a residential area to get from A to B, or getting off the beaten track and getting lost every now and then, led to some of our best discoveries.

Check if things are free on certain days

The Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo is free on the first Sunday of each month, which happily coincided with when we were visiting. In Nara, we took shelter from a sudden downpour in the local Tourist Centre and were invited to take part in a tea ceremony for free as part of an ongoing initiative to introduce tourists to Japanese culture. It’s always worth checking if there are any free or reduced entry days or times to the most popular tourist attractions, particularly in Tokyo.

Bonus: Lawson 100 yen stores

100 yen stores are popular throughout Japan and are the place to pick up weird and cheap souvenirs. However, in Tokyo and Kyoto we also found Lawson 100 stores, which are the equivalent of Tesco Express (instead of Poundland) but everything is 100 yen. This allowed us to make super cheap breakfasts and lunches and saved us a ton of dollar. If you see one, don’t miss out on buying peanut cream. It isn’t peanut butter, but it is good.


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