Home » A local’s guide to visiting Japan on a budget

A local’s guide to visiting Japan on a budget

written by Jessica Korteman August 8, 2017
Japan Tokyo

Japan is a dream destination for many travellers, yet all too often people delay or put off their trips entirely because of one looming fear: the cost.

Perhaps it’s the image of Japan as a futuristic tech hub, the Lost in Translation-esque city view bars where the cocktail prices are enough to warrant another ATM visit, or the idea of those $100 department store melons that seem to make the rounds of the Internet every so often.

The first time I visited Japan, I came with the same stereotypical expectations. I thought Japan was going to burn a hole through my pocket, and in some ways it did, simply because, as a tourist new to the country, I didn’t know the local alternatives.

Bamboo forest Kyoto Japan

The Sagano Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama, 15 minutes from Kyoto by train, is one of Japan’s most photographed sights.

After 8 years based here, I can say that Japan rivals many developed nations with its budget friendliness, and today I’m on a mission to show you just how affordable it can be with some of my favorite travel hacks for sightseeing and dining. So let’s do Japan on a budget.

Take advantage of free attractions and events

It may come as a surprise, but a lot of major attractions in Japan are actually free. With the notable exception of Kyoto, most temples and shrines around the country are free of charge. As are most natural sightseeing spots – like the deer park in Nara, the bamboo forest near Kyoto, cherry blossom viewing areas, and even Mt. Fuji.

Mt Fuji Japan

Visit Mt. Fuji and the surrounding Five Lakes area for some of the most iconic scenery in the country.

Traditional festivals are free too and are a fascinating window into Japanese culture. Summer is peak festival season, but you can find them all year round.

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BOOK: A BUDGET-FRIENDLY EXPRESS TOUR OF JAPAN

Sightseeing combo tickets & special offers for foreign tourists

Japan has an insane number of sightseeing tickets that include discounted transportation, and even entry tickets, meals or other services as a combo deal. There are some that run year round, while others change depending on the season or during special events.

A great place to start your search is by checking the ‘free passes’ available. They aren’t actually free but they usually refer to unlimited travel within certain areas. One of the most popular is the Hakone Free Pass, which allows you to explore the this popular hot spring area near Mt. Fuji with unlimited use of Odakyu-affiliated buses, trains, boats (it looks like a pirate ship, by the way!), cable cars and ropeways, and also includes discounts on various attractions.

Hakone Japan

Explore Hakone on its variety of transportation offerings for an all-inclusive price.

To find out about the multitude of deals on offer, head into one of the tourist information offices or ticket centers at or near train stations. Many of the best discounts are foreign tourist specific, so remember to bring your passport with you to prove you are visiting Japan as a tourist.

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Skip paid towers and go to free observation decks instead

The thing about popular towers is that they can be expensive, you often spend ages in line and then the view is so weather dependent.

Instead of Tokyo Skytree or Tokyo Tower, head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for a free city view instead – go to the south tower for the best panoramic view. In Kyoto, consider the station’s free Sky Garden, rather than the paid Kyoto Tower across the road. Bonus: you can capture these towers in your photos!

Tokyo Japan

Looking out at the view from Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku.

Visit attractions on free admission days or at a discount

Many museums will have a free admission day, either once a month or for special holidays or events. It’s worthwhile checking the websites of the places you want to visit and planning your sightseeing around free days or discounted times.

Insider tip: If you’re short on time but are looking for an authentic cultural experience, check out Urban Adventures for a local-led day tour. They have itineraries in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka!

High quality Japanese food at a good price

When I’m hungry and want to eat good quality Japanese food, I love to go to Ootoya. It serves delicious teishoku style food – a traditional Japanese set meal with rice, miso soup and pickles – and is a must-try on any trip to Japan. One of my favorite dishes is the black vinegar chicken and vegetables. You can expect to pay around $8-10 for a meal here in a comfortable, restaurant-style setting.

If you’re really hungry or just a big eater, request your rice oomori for a larger than average serving of rice at no extra cost. Ootoya is a chain that you can find all over the country.

Ootoya Japan

One of my other Ootoya picks, this one for a meal on the lighter side: the charcoal grilled basil chicken and vegetables.

Take advantage of lunchtime specials

Lunchtime is king for good-value meal deals. Japanese restaurants are renowned for having multiple menus. Be sure to sift through them all and locate the one with the daily lunch specials – usually called higawari ranchi. You can often find a set meal that also includes a drink and maybe even a small dessert for $5-7.

LOVE JAPANESE FOOD? CHECK OUT THIS 12-DAY CULINARY TOUR OF THE COUNTRY

Grab a ticket for a cheap meal

For a cheap meal on-the-go, you can try a vending machine restaurant.

Simply buy a ticket at the machine and then present it to the staff in exchange for your meal. Popular dishes at such restaurants include udon and soba noodles, and Japanese curry. You can find them everywhere and can easily get a meal for $3-4.

Vending machine restaurant Japan

Waiting for my meal at a station vending machine restaurant.

Here’s an example of a typical set meal you can find at vending machine restaurants. It is a cold soba (great for the hot summer season!) with tempura prawns.

Vending machine restaurant meal JapanDid someone say free beer?

Yep, you can even try alcohol for free by taking advantage of the various free tours offered by Japanese breweries and distilleries. One example is the Suntory tour in Tokyo where you can get a free tour of the beer factory (in Japanese) that concludes with a tasting of three of their beers.

A free shuttle bus is even provided from the south side of Bubaigawara train station, near the horse-mounted samurai statue.

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Conveyor belt sushi restaurants

For a sushi fix that won’t break the bank, head to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, where you can get a plate for around $1.

Plates usually include two pieces of sushi and allow you to try all kinds of sushi varieties that you may not have the chance to experience back home. I never spend more than $10, including a drink and miso soup, and always leave extremely satisfied.

Conveyer belt sushi restaurant JapanPart of the fun of visiting chain conveyor belt sushi restaurants is ordering your food via electronic screen. Just before your order reaches you, it will start playing a tune so you know it’s yours for the taking!

ANOTHER INCREDIBLE JAPANESE CULINARY EXPERIENCE: CONVENIENCE STORE FOOD

Eat street food

Grabbing a bite at street food stalls is not only fairly friendly on the wallet, but it allows you to literally taste Japan through its variety of snack foods. Osaka is one of the best places for street food in the country. (Check out this definitive guide to Osaka’s food scene.)

You absolutely cannot leave without trying takoyaki, balls of batter filled with octopus, and okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese-style pancake. Expect to pay around $5 for a light meal.

The experience is made all the more interesting with the gaudy, singing and moving sign displays along and around the Dotonbori shopping strip.

Takoyaki street food Japan

Takoyaki on the hotplate – one of my all-time favorite Japanese snacks!

Go to “family” restaurants & get the drink bar

Famiri resu are not just for families. They are often bustling at lunch and dinnertime with students, workers and couples because they provide some of the best value meals around. My favorite one is Italian style Saizeriya, where you can get pizza and pasta for less than 4 bucks a pop.

For less than $2, you can add the drink bar, which you’ll find at similar restaurants all over the country. This allows you unlimited soft drinks, juices, teas and coffees, including machine brews like lattes and cappuccinos.

Saizeriya also have the cheapest restaurant alcohol I’ve found anywhere – a glass of the house white or red is less than a dollar and 500ml decanters are around $3.60. Share a bottle of some of their ‘nicer’ wines with friends for just $10.

Tempted to visit this awe-inspiring country (even on a budget)? Check out our range of small group adventures in Japan.

(Hero image c/o Luke Attard. All other images c/o Jessica Korteman at notesofnomads.com)

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14 comments

Luana July 12, 2021 - 3:43 am

Thanks for sharing this kind of information. Now I’m getting hungry hahaha

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Maria Ortega February 26, 2019 - 2:53 pm

I have 3 teenagers that want to visit Japan this summer. Any recommendations or tips to visit Japan on a budget for a family of 5.

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Phillip Thorne October 25, 2017 - 1:46 pm

Re: Museums — Even if you can’t fit “free museum day” into your schedule, the admission fee tends to be much lower than in the U.S. For example, the Field Museum in Chicago is $30, but the National Museum of Natural History (www.kahaku.go.jp) at Ueno Park is 620 yen, as is the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (www.miraikan.jst.go.jp) in Odaiba; the Yokohama Museum of Art (yokohama.art.museum) is 500 yen. Aquariums (which are very common) will be more expensive.

Re: observation towers in Tokyo, Japan-Guide has a concise list of seven (two free, the others 620 to 3090 yen) (https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3057.html), and SoraNews24 has a list of eight that are free (https://en.rocketnews24.com/2013/10/23/eight-tokyo-observation-towers-all-free-all-awesome/).

At ground level, I can recommend the public gardens run by the Tokyo metropolitan government. Admission runs 150 to 300 yen, but they do an excellent job of screening the noise of the surrounding concrete jungle; the skyscrapers are a lot more picturesque when rising behind trees. Shinagawa (a bayside southern ward) operates a public park on the same scale that’s free, with lake, walking paths and sporting areas.

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May S October 23, 2017 - 3:20 pm

Great advice! If ones not sure where to find good, cheap food, try the many mom&pop restaurants/kiosks by the train station. Also if staying locally for a while, you can ask about renting bicycles from the train station. And get yummy cheap meals you can microwave at convenience stores. I agree with the sake/beer breweries that offer awesome tours and free liquor! Highway busses or express local trains beat the bullet train for reasonable travelling. Be open for adventure but also be street smart.

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Edward October 23, 2017 - 8:55 am

Great tips

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Anonymous October 23, 2017 - 12:07 am

Also live in Tokyo. I am always amazed at Saizariya’s wine (because it is not bad) and their pasta can be about $4. I usually get garlic bread also and spend about $7. For beds, another thing to check out are the business ryokan (Japanese style hotels). Even in Tokyo, a room in one of these with a shared, although large, bath, runs upwards from about $60 a night, often with breakfast. There are also youth hostels, capsule hotels and, if you are really broke, manga cafes where you can spend a night for $20-30.

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Rebecca Shapiro October 23, 2017 - 8:41 am

Amazing tips, thanks for sharing!

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Zain October 26, 2017 - 11:42 am

This is so right. The first time I went to Tokyo, I stayed in a standard hotel that was 15 minutes walk from Shinjuku station. The second time (this year), I stayed at a business hotel which was 2 minutes walk from a Tokyo Metro stop. The service was just as good but the pricing was lower-and it was far easier to get around. I love Tokyo and Japan. One of my favorite countries on earth.

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Wayne Emde August 15, 2017 - 2:57 pm

Not every hotel is $300 a night. When I’m traveling in Japan (and I always buy a rail pass before I leave Canada), I stay at business hotels, which are usually very close to the train stations. Rooms are small, but complete with television, full bath with soaps, lotions, even small tooth brushes), sometimes a computer and a breakfast buffet in the morning. All for about $60-80. Another source of inexpensive, but tasty food is the basement of the large department stores. The Joyful restaurant chain is another family style restaurant with a drink bar.

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Phillip Thorne October 25, 2017 - 1:29 pm

Seconded — I’ve stayed at ten business hotels on four trips, of various chains (B, Mystays, Washington, etc.). To keep in mind: They’re best for solo travelers (some hotels have rooms suitable for two or three, but you’ll be tripping over each other) and short stays (they have clothes hooks but not dressers, so you’ll be living out of your suitcase). When you arrive, be sure to scout the area on foot — you will probably find several convenience stores of different chains (look at them all — they carry different signature precooked foods), a coin laundry, a McDonald’s (if you get homesick for American food), a video arcade (usually near or adjacent to the train station), and all the different/intriguing local flavor (vegetation, architecture, utility panels cast with the town’s logo, traffic cones) that makes international travel fun.

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John August 13, 2017 - 12:36 am

Let’s not forget the $300-per-night hotels. Better add youth hostels.

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Andrea Midi August 9, 2017 - 5:55 am

I love this site <3

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Les Petits Pas de Juls August 8, 2017 - 8:19 pm

I dream about visiting Japan with you, Jess! Thanks for this little tour in the meantime!

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rick be August 8, 2017 - 11:51 am

You’re making me hungry & I really don’t care much for Japanese food.But Tokyo is on my list & this makes it more attractive.

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