Despite the busy working culture and impressive technological innovations that are integrated into Japanese life, visiting Japan on a budget is still very much possible. The country has a great range of things to offer tourists such as beautiful cherry blossom parks, traditionally decorated temples and gardens, and the more modern culture of Japanese modern art and technology. If you use a mix of cheap transport options and cheap accommodation, there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to enjoy Japan on a backpacking budget.
Staying in Japan
Whilst there are plenty of the usual backpacker hostels and hotels in Japan, the best thing about the country's accommodation is the huge range of options travellers have. Dependent on your budget, you can rent a bed in a capsule hotel or an extravagant love hotel.
If you're looking for a unique but affordable sleeping experience, capsule hotels offer the ultimate efficient pay-as-you-live opportunity. With tens or hundreds of rows of sound capsules for their customers, the hotels usually charge around £20 a night for a small space to sleep (the capsule) and locker space for your belongings (as there is no room for these in the capsule). Alternatively, Japan also offers a wide range of opportunities for visitors to enjoy traditional hospitality such as the ryokan and minshuku inns - high wooden buildings with long verandahs, gardens and nicer bathing facilities. Although some of these may be reluctant to take in non-Japanese guests, they will provide accommodation if you speak a little coherent Japanese.
How do I get around Japan?
Before you try to navigate your way around Japan, be sure to download the popular transport app HyperDia, a service which offers the route and timetables of railways and planes throughout Japan.
The railway service in Japan is notoriously efficient and fast, thanks to the huge advances in technology which they have applied to their own public transport system. However the train network is only really as efficient if you can navigate it properly, which can be different when there are overlaps between several railway networks or two metro systems (in Tokyo) which can add to traveller confusion. The best way to avoid this is to familiarise yourself with understanding the maps and planning your routes thoroughly before you leave.
Bearing in mind that Japan is essentially a group of closely-located islands, boats are actually a relatively uncommon form of transport. Hovercrafts and ferries are available but usually more expensive than they're worth, as there is usually a better, and cheaper, option available. Bus: Buses can be a relatively inexpensive way to travel around the country, especially if you don't mind sleeping on them when visiting several major Japanese cities within one trip, so investing in a bus pass which offers you discount travel if you buy a week's worth of travel is worth it. For about £80 you can get a five-day pass which allows you unlimited bus travel throughout the country. You won't have much need to use the buses in local cities, as the rail network is more efficient and reliable, but in smaller towns local bus systems are more prevalent.
Japan's extensive rail network means that flying is more of a luxury for Japan's residents and as such is priced higher. However, if you intend to reach some of Japan's further outlying islands, flying comes in incredibly useful - the sparsely populated island of Hokkaido means that visitors often don't have a choice about flying around to various points, as there is no rail network there. Don't be surprised if the plane that you turn up to board for your domestic flight is a Boeing-747 jumbo jet. Japan are renowned for being the only country in the world to use these huge aircraft on short domestic flights of an hour or less.
How to get a discount on travel
If you plan on moving around a lot, you should buy a Japan Rail Pass which allows you unlimited travel on most networks, including stations nearest to the airports. It's worth noting that this pass can only be bought outside of Japan from specific valid vendors for around £164. On your purchase of the pass, you will be given an Exchange Order which can be exchanged at most larger stations in Japan, at which point you'll need to have your passport with you and know the date upon which you will want the Rail Pass to start. All days of travel on the Rail Pass must be consecutive unlike the similar Seishun 18, which allows you five days of unlimited travel for the equivalent of £67.
When purchased in advance, flight tickets can be bought at a significant discount to last minute fares. Airlines such as Japan airlines and All Nippon Airways offer 'Visit Japan' fares, where the purchaser of an international return ticket to Japan can also fly an additional number of domestic flights anywhere in the country for only £58 more.
Where is the best place to eat?
From a cultural and practical point of view, Japanese residents don't tend to eat at home much, which means that eating out in restaurants is cheap and there's an abundance of places to choose from. Most restaurants have fixed set meals which usually consist of a bowl of miso soup, pickles, rice, with a main meat or fish dish. Noodle bars and ramen bars are also popular throughout Japanese culture, and offer a decent meal for nothing more than a couple of hundred Yen (between 60p-£2).
If you're looking for stuff to keep you going throughout the day, convenience stores such as Family Mart and 7-11 are open 24 hours a day in the major towns and cities. They sell handy snacks, such as o'nigiri (rice balls wrapped in nori) and sandwiches for around ¥100 (58p!). You can also buy pre-prepared meals which can be heated in store, noodles to revive in hot water later on - which should be available in your hotel or hostel. Similarly, department store food stalls have other alternatives for cheap and filling food, including yakitori (skewered, grilled chicken), rice balls and sushi boxes.
What can I do on a budget?
The best place to visit if you're travelling on a shoestring is the Yakushima Island. A sub-tropical island off the southern coast of Kyushu, the island is covered by an expansive cedar forest that contains some of Japan's oldest living trees, including ones that are over one thousand years old and some which are over seven thousand. The island was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993, and most tourists come to visit the beautiful scenery and to hike for just a ¥9100 (£53) ferry fee to get to the island, and some additional fees for campsites should you choose to stay and explore.
You can use your Seishun 19 Kippu pass to visit Miyajima Island (Itsukushima Island) which is located just south-west of Hiroshima and accessed by a short ferry ride. Also a World Heritage Site, the island is host to the famous shrine gate of Itsukushima-jinja, which seems to float on the water. Along with the gate, Miyajima also provides visitors with the opportunity to hike, visit beautiful traditional temples and see brave deer which roam the streets.
Most people are as familiar with the sight of people swarming across the Shibuya Crossing as they are with the scenes of Times Square. Made famous in the Western world following the release of Lost in Translation, starring Scarlett Johansson, Shibuya Crossing is worth viewing from the bridge corridor that links Shibuya Station with the Shibuya Mark city complex.
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