Eat All the Ramen, Don't Spend All the Money: Travel Tips for Seeing Japan Affordably

by Mikaela Ruland and Topher Yanagihara

When one thinks affordable international destinations, Japan likely doesn’t come to the top of mind. It can be expensive to travel to the ramen capital of the world, but if you’re savvy, you can experience our favorite country yet without breaking the bank. Here is how we traveled to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and the Japanese countryside, affordably.

Keep On The Lookout For Cheap Flight Deals

Normal round trip flights to Japan can run you over $1000 from the United States - yikes! We were able to fly to Tokyo round trip from Los Angeles for $561 each. Our advice? Start looking for flights a year in advance and be flexible with your dates and route. We signed up for Scott’s Cheap Flights and got an alert in February for November dates. We flew Xiamen Airlines, a Chinese carrier, from LAX, to Xiamen, China, to Tokyo. We were a little trepadacious about flying a Chinese airline, and having to go through Chinese customs, but we had nothing to worry about. It was a very smooth process and saved us $1000 combined. Subscribe to every cheap flight alert you can find, be flexible with your timing and push the trigger when you see a good deal!

Book Lodging Far in Advance

When we started planning our trip early in the year, we were finding fantastic deals on lodging (we’re talking $13/night on AirBnb) in super cute places. Wedding planning took over, and we didn’t start making lodging reservations until September. By that point, the selection was extremely slim and pricing was averaging $100 per night. This was our biggest mistake! Book your lodging when you book your flights for the best deals and selection.

Higashiyama, the district we wished we’d booked in advance in Kyoto.

Higashiyama, the district we wished we’d booked in advance in Kyoto.

Do Your Research on Restaurants

It can be incredibly affordable to eat in Japan, but Japanese cuisine can also be some of the most expensive in the world. We were very wary, with our limited knowledge of Japanese, of ending up in a “haute” restaurant. Almost every time we went out to eat, we did some internet research first and found an affordable and highly rated restaurant. The few times we didn’t, we ended up in total dives, with little exception. Bon Appetit had great suggestions for Tokyo, and then we used InsideKyoto.com and InsideOsaka.com (these sites are also very helpful for trip planning as a whole). We used a Google search when in doubt otherwise.

Shin Udon in Tokyo - one of our favorite meals of the trip

Shin Udon in Tokyo - one of our favorite meals of the trip

Be Smart When Using Credit Cards and ATMs

Having had many stressful situations abroad when it came to being able to access money, we did a ton of research before going to Japan and we found a system that allowed us to travel with no fees for using our American money. We applied for a Capital One Venture Travel credit and debit card before the trip. The credit card is a Visa and carries no foreign transaction fees, and you can use your points to knock travel expenses off your statement. However, credit cards were not widely taken in Japan, especially once we were outside of Tokyo. The debit card carried no foreign ATM fees and we learned that 7 Bank ATMs inside of 7 Elevens didn’t charge fees on foreign cards. In Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, there were 7 Elevens, or their ATMs, every few hundred feet. When you withdraw from an ATM, you are getting the market currency conversion rate, which will be a much better price than at a currency exchange counter, or even a Japanese bank. It was a completely easy and painless process to get 1000Y at a time (~$88) out of the ATMs so we always had cash. In the countryside, 7 Elevens were pretty much non-existent, so we used the ATMs at post offices, which also did not charge fees on foreign cards.

I confirmed when we got home, and we were not charged a cent over what we withdrew.

Take of Advantage of Markets

Some of our favorite, and cheapest, meals were found in street markets. There is still a wonderful market in Tokyo where the Tsukiji Fish Market used to be, and we also loved the Nishiki Market in Kyoto. We were able to fill up on all manner of delicacies from octopus, to eel, to noodle sandwiches on the cheap.

Near the end of our trip, we found the most amazing super market in the basement of the Osaka Train Station. They sold individually wrapped pieces of nigiri for fifty to eighty cents a piece. We stopped twice and made up huge bento boxes for less than $10 a piece. Most train stations have markets, be sure to wander through if you’re in need of a cheap or portable meal.  

Topher enjoying unagi (eel) on a stick at the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo

Topher enjoying unagi (eel) on a stick at the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo

Be Selective About Paying For Activities and Avoid Tourist Traps

We paid for very few activities on our trip. We could have spent a fortune on everything from maid cafes, to kimono experiences, but we were selective about doing touristy things and instead chose to do a lot of walking around. We made some exceptions: we paid for a few temple visits, we went to a traditional tea ceremony and we took an udon making class we found on AirBnb. There is so much to see and do just by wandering around. Be selective about the activities you pre-book and you’ll save a ton of money.

Book a Guest House

Our favorite experience by far was staying at a guest house in the hot springs village of Yunomine. It was definitely the most authentic part of our trip. We stayed in a house, where we had access to an onsen (hot springs fed bath) and where our hosts cooked us the most amazing dinner and breakfast, which we ate on tatami (bamboo) mats. We booked ours through Kumano Travel. It was $80 a piece, and included room, onsen, breakfast, dinner and a box lunch to take with us the next day.

The charming town of Yunomine

The charming town of Yunomine

Be Train Savvy

Japan has some of the best public transit in the world. And if you know what you’re doing, some of the cheapest. Anywhere you look about going to Japan, you hear about the illustrious JR pass to let you ride the bullet trains. Let me tell you, unless you are only in Japan for a week or plan to ride the snot out of the bullet trains, it's not worth it. The pass for 2 weeks costs $420 a person, whereas buying tickets on the bullet train straight up from Tokyo to Kyoto and back again will run you only a little over $300. This isn't even starting in on the limitations of the JR pass. It isn't good for the Nozomi Super Express, the fastest and most common line running from Tokyo to Kyoto, and regionally its only good on JR operated lines which excludes many of the in-city subways and buses. This does change if you’re going to ride the bullet train tons, though note the bullet train from Kyoto to Osaka is $30 and a local train will cost like $5 and only be a bit slower. So buy your bullet train tickets a la cart and for local trains, get an IC card. Branded as Suica, Pasmo or a few others, these reloadable fare cards are hands down the easiest way to handle local trains and buses without ever having to try to figure out the terrifying subway fare map. Simply load them at a machine and swipe on entry and exit. If you don’t have enough loaded for your fare, the gate won’t let you through and you can just go load more money on before exiting. The cards even work at vending machines.

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