There is this myth that won't die, that travel in Japan is expensive. And it can be, especially when you visit Tokyo and Kyoto, all the temples that charge an entrance fee,  and take the bullet train between the two cities. It can also be very cheap. Japan has so much to offer and so many other, more affordable forms of public transport. Also, please note that prices in Japan have barely risen since the early 1990s, when the bubble economy collapsed. This means that Japan was a very expensive place to travel in the 80s and still for a good part of the 90s, but not in this century.

I have travelled extensively in Japan and spent now over half a year there within the past 4 years, and can confidently say that on average, travel in Japan costs about the same as in Eastern Europe. I always find travel in Japan way cheaper than in Germany and France, and much cheaper than the UK, US or Scandinavia, It's no Thailand and definitely the most expensive country in Asia to travel, but affordable and more than anything: Very good value.

Here's the proof:


Itinerary

My girlfriend and I have both been to Japan several times, and I am aware that this doesn't reflect a typical tourist itinerary, especially since we spent 32 out of 40 days in Osaka (although we did a lot of day trips within Kansai, so this will help you if you plan to explore that particular region, which I highly recommend). We flew into Tokyo Narita and escaped for Nikko right away. That's right, Tokyo is th one place in Japan I don’t like and will avoid at any cost. We spent 4 nights in Nikko and then took a bus to Hida Takayama, where we stayed 2 nights, with a day trip to Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. From there, we took another bus to Kanazawa and stayed for 2 nights. Then we took a train to Osaka, where we rented an apartment for a month and took day trips to Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, Koya-san, Arima onsen and also went for a few day hikes in the surrounding areas.


Accommodation

our very own old timey farmhouse!
We started with a guest house in Nikko, which turned out to be a small studio apartment with kitchenette, at £37 a night. We then spent two nights at a small country side cottage nearby (Nikko Inn - make sure to get a house away from the train line, though!) - these two nights were our most expensive ones, at £90/$135 a night... however, it was a great experience that I would absolutely recommend and well worth the money. We also stayed during "Silver Week" and paid peak prices, they are a bit cheaper usually. In Hida Takayama, we stayed at a traditional but basic inn, in a tatami room with shared toilet and traditional Japanese (read: share it in the buff) bath. The lady running the place included an amazing Japanese breakfast featuring the local beef, which sells for top dollar in the restaurants in town. In Kanazawa, we spent 2 nights at the Dormy Inn, which is an amazing business hotel chain that not only offers a great breakfast buffet, but also a free late night bowl of noodles (!!!) as well as a traditional Japanese bath, for about $30 per person and night. I've stayed at Dormy Inns as a solo traveller before and paid around $45 a night.

We then spent 33 nights in Osaka and rented two different airbnb 1 bedroom apartments. Both were in downtown neighbourhoods with great public transport and very spacious for Japanese standards - the kind of apartment a professional couple would live in when both are making decent money, not a single person or student. Osaka is my favourite city in Japan, which is great, because it's also the cheapest for just about anything. So our cheapest nights were those spent in Osaka at £37 a night for both of us - but note that we paid the same for the guest houses we stayed in (and just $5 more for the business hotel).

On average, accommodation cost us £24 per person and night, that's $36 or €33.


Transport

I mentioned that it's really not that expensive to travel in Japan if you ignore the super expensive and fast train option. The shinkansen, as well as the Japan Rail Pass, are useful if you want to travel long distances return trip in a short time. Other than that, you can get away with much much less.
The most expensive part of our trip was the train from Kanazawa to Osaka, which cost £36 for a 3.5 hour ride. You'd get this kind of price in Europe only if you booked your tickets weeks in advance, whereas we bought this on the spot. Trains from Tokyo to Nikko were about £15 one way, the buses between Tokyo and Hida Takayama as well as Kanazawa and were around £15-20, all well under $30 for 3-6 hr trips on very comfy buses.
most fun means of transport: Swan boat

Local trains, subway and buses in Kansai are very reasonable - you can go from Osaka to Kyoto, which is a 30-60 minute journey, depending on train type, for less than $10 one way. The most we paid for transport during our 5 weeks in Kansai was from Osaka to Yoshino and back, which ended up being around $30, and that includes taking a super fancy train back because we were freezing at night.

Overall, we did take some kind of public transport almost every day (although many days it was just the subway in Osaka) and spent £210 each on transport for 6 weeks. That's about the same price as for the Japan Rail pass for 10 days, and we did actually travel between Tokyo and Kansai and many other places (a lot of which are on train/bus lines that are actually not covered by the rail pass).

Food

Food in Japan is always amazing, no matter at which price point. I also love cooking, including Japanese food, so we did not eat out an awful lot during our time in Japan. We did, however, go for a fancy sushi + yuba meal in Nikko, which at £11 each was by far the most expensive food we had during our time in Japan.

dazzling Osaka supermarket
We did go to a lot of noodle and set meal places in Japan, which usually open for lunch and dinner. Prices at places like this are usually between $7-10 for a filling meal that includes a main (noodles and/or rice, fish and meat), miso soup, salad and pickles plus tea/water. You rarely need to order drinks in Japan, as water or tea is usually provided for free. Local beer is very affordable, though, and even exports will cost you less than in the UK, US or Scandinavia.

Other than that, we sometimes bought food from the convenience stores and food courts (recommended!) and cooked a lot ourselves. In Hida Takayama and Kanazawa, our accommodation included fantastic breakfast. We did sample a lot of Japanese microbrews and there might have been wine, too (which is cheaper in Japan than in the UK or US!). In the countryside, we bought a lot of groceries from farm shops, which is WAY cheaper than the supermarkets. We also indulged in a few "western" restaurants (Japanese-French and Japanese-Italian fusion is amazing) and visited the foodie streets and markets in a few cities.

Now here might be the catch about eating out: Apart from one or two places, nowhere we dined had an English menu posted outside. I think even if you are not familiar with Japanese food or language/writing, you should just go to whichever place looks good, don’t look for an English menu (although many places will surprise you find one somewhere). I've never had a bad meal in Japan and people are so welcoming and go out of their way to make sure you get something you like!

Overall, we spent £6.50 per day and person on food, which is just under $10 or €9.

Activities and other costs

This one surprised me, too: We spent very, very little, although we saw so  much! My attitude towards temples and shrines in Japan is: Why pay if you can see hundreds of thousands for free? We did a lot of walking, hiking and general exploring and were really never bored.

However, these are the things that we did pay for:
- Some of the temples and shrines in Nikko
- A swan paddle boat ride at Lake Chuzenji, Nikko
- A day tour of the UNESCO world heritage villages of Gokayama and Shirakawa-go
- Visiting an old samurai house in Kanazawa
- Some temples and shrines in Nara, plus deer cracker
- Spa World in Osaka
- Museum of Old Farm Houses in Osaka
- Instant Ramen museum in Osaka (actually, that's free, but we paid to make our own individual noodle cups)
- A traditional Japanese music concerts in the outskirts of Kyoto
- visiting the "gold spring" onsen at Arima
temple at Nikko

Apart from the Gokayama tour and Spa World, nothing cost more than 600 yen (£.3.50, €4.50 or less than $5). Overall, we spent just £75 per person in over 6 weeks. That's $110 or €100, and does not take account of visiting the amazing old districts of Hida Takayama and Kanazawa, wandering around Nikko, Kyoto, Kobe and Nara, eating and drinking ourselves silly in Osaka, or the many walks and hikes we took - the best things in Japan are always free!


Total: Our daily total travel cost for this Japan trip was £37 per person and day. That's currently $55 or €50. 

We didn't really watch our money and stayed in pretty nice accommodation. Our transport options were always comfortable. Staying in Kyoto or Tokyo or using the fast trains can easily double or triple that cost (we were so shocked by some of the food prices in Kyoto a few times that we just waited until we got back to Osaka. Even a bowl of ramen while changing trains in Tokyo cost as much as a nice meal anywhere else!). Other than that, I think this is a fairly good representation of the cost of travel in Japan. I've travelled in Southern Japan (Kyushu, Shikoku as well as Okinawa) by myself before and just paid a bit more as a solo traveller - rooms are usually priced per person, not per room, which makes Japan a good deal if you are alone.

Are you surprised by these numbers? Do you still think Japan is an expensive destination?
The amazing view from Yoshino, pretty even without the famous cherry blossoms




2 Comments

  1. I'm very pleasantly surprised by these numbers!
    I didn't really have a good sense of what the current prices would be like - I've only travelled around when I lived there and was earning and paying in yen, so I just didn't have an idea of current real costs, and now, of course, I want to go back IMMEDIATELY!!!!

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, prices in yen have not changed, and the yen being so weak makes it very affordable. We actually spent slightly more travelling in Korea and Taiwan, and a lot more in Vietnam (I've started compiling the data, as you can see).

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