Food and transportation are my big budget breakers whenever I travel. In this part of my two part series on traveling through Japan on a budget, I’ll breakdown my costs for both food and transportation and give out some unsolicited advice.
Ah, food. From the Latin FOOD, meaning “gift from above”. Food plays a big and important role in my life, but with my tight budget I was prepared to make the noble sacrifice of not eating everything I wanted. Turned out, to my great relief, eating in Japan is extremely affordable. Well, it can be extremely affordable if you act smart about it.
I had ~$200 for 7ish days, which meant I had a little more than $25 a day. Here’s how I made that budget work:
Hostels with breakfast
One way I saved money was by staying at hostels that either offered cheap breakfast or included the cost of breakfast in the overall cost of my stay. Never did I spend more than $5 dollars for breakfast, and that was when I was splurging. These breakfasts weren’t like breakfast buffets, but they were more than enough to get me through to lunch.
Choosing one big/main meal
After breakfast I would have around $20 left for food for the rest of the day. With that I could either eat two okay meals, or I could eat one extremely mediocre meal and one awesome meal. I like food, but I love quality food so I usually go for the one mediocre meal and the one awesome meal strategy. It’s easy to find quality food for $15 in Japan. What’s picture below cost me ¥1,500 which is less than $15. So, what can you get with your last $5? That question brings me to my next tip….
Convenience store food
If you read this title and automatically when “Ughh”, then don’t worry fellow American, I understand your disgust. But here’s the thing, unlike American convenience stores Japanese convenience stores sell quality food. Seriously. And it’s extremely affordable. I bought a packet of curry, a bowl of rice, a bottle of water, and dessert all for around ¥600. Preparing the rice and curry involved the hard and complicated task of putting it in the microwave at my hostel. And as you sit at your hostel’s kitchen table eating your convenience store food you’ll look around notice, most people are doing the exact same thing.
I’m not sure how other people do it, but I plan where I’m going to eat ahead of time first, then plan everything else around my eating locations. For me, planning where I’m going to eat makes staying in my budget easy. When you know where you’re going to eat and for how much, the temptation to eat at other, more expensive places goes away. TripAdvisor gives great reviews and price information on thousands of places worldwide and makes finding an affordable place to eat easy.
I know I just said plan ahead so you can stay in budget, but food is my biggest budget breaker because I LOVE IT. So though I try extremely hard to stay within my budget, I always have a little extra with me for those times when I’m walking down the street and see something new and delicious I need to try. If food is your thing, plan ahead and have an “emergency food fund”. The word “emergency” makes it sound legit so you’ll feel better about yourself. You’re welcome.
The Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) is an amazing option if you’re planning on seeing multiple parts of Japan. The JR Pass allows you use JR trains to go in between cities for one flat, prepaid fee. While in Japan I traveled to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. A one way ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto is roughly $105. I didn’t do the math to see how much it would cost me to travel to those places without a JR Pass (mostly because I’m horrible at math), but without a doubt it would have been more than double what a JR Pass costs.
Things to know about the JR Pass
- You need to purchase it before you arrive in Japan. You purchase it, usually at a Japan based travel agency, they give you a receipt, then when you arrive at Narita or Haneda airport, you activate it at the train station.
- You can use it to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station by way of the JR Narita Express. It usually costs ¥3,000, so right off the bat (or plane) you’re JR Pass is paying for itself.
- You can use it on all JR trains/subways. In Tokyo, some subway lines are run by Tokyo Metro, others by JR. If it’s run by JR, you just show your pass and you’re can ride.
The Tokyo subway system is amazing. It can be a bit complicated to navigate, but just grab an english subway map from your metro and you’ll be good to go and become a pro in no time.
Things to know:
- Average cost to ride on the subway is ¥250. It may not seem a lot but it adds up.
- Get a Suica or Pasmo card. You can pay for the subway per ride with money, or you can get a Suica/Pasmo card which is a prepaid card. You can reload them any most stations, and you can even use them a convenience stores. They’re actually more like a prepaid debit card. Also, any money left on the card at the end of your trip you can redeem at the airport
- Unlike America, transit in Japan is private, meaning subways/rails are privately own. In Tokyo I believe the big two are Tokyo Metro and JR. This honestly means very little except that you can use your JR Pass on one and not the other. Also, the only difference between a Suica Pass and Pasmo Pass is that one is issues by Tokyo Metro and the other by JR (maybe, I could be wrong). But it doesn’t really matter because you can use both Suica and Pasmo at any station for any rail as long as you have enough money.
How to save money
- Plan ahead. Plan to do activities that are within walking distance of eachother, that way you only have to worry about taking the subway to the general area and from the general area. I’ve made the mistake before of visiting museums at separate ends of the city and then having dinner at the opposite end of those museums (think triangle), only to discover I had spent $15 on transit in one day.
- Stay in Tokyo. Obviously, if you stay in Tokyo there’s really no big need to the the JR Pass. There is plenty to do in Tokyo, especially for a week.
- Walk. I hate this word, but it’s a budget saver. The longest walk I did while in Japan was 1 mile. If you know me then you know I did not walk that by choice. But I saved money. Was it worth it? For me, no. I sweat a lot when I walk, and it was extremely humid when I was there and I’ll be perfectly honest, there was some major chub rub going on. But, for others, I am sure it’s worth it.
First of all, I just wrote ‘necessities’ correctly for the first time in my life.
Secondly, most of the $1,500 I spent on this trip was spent on what I consider necessities. Food, lodging, and transit. Below are ‘extra’ things I did/bought and how much they cost roughly.
Museums: ~ $15
Museums in Japan are extremely cheap and/or free. The most I paid for a museum was ¥600. Museums in Japan are also amazing. So much history, so much to learn, so little time. One thing I wished I had done was take advantage of the FREE museum tour guides. Some places will have it and you wont regret it.
Adult Beverages: ~ $30
I am not a big drinker. The only kind of alcohol I like is the alcohol that doesn’t taste like alcohol. But being in Japan I had to drink proper sake and plume wine, and nothing beats making life long friends over a pint (in my case a small cup) of Saporro. Buying alcohol at bars can be expensive. To save money buy it at a convenience store. If you’re a budget traveler, going out to party probably isn’t on your agenda. Instead, make a couple of friends at the hostel, go down to the corner store to buy a couple drinks, and then enjoy them together in the common area. Also, drink responsibly.
Pocket Wifi: ~ $90
After me, the Internet is the best thing to come out of the 2oth century. Though I didn’t have portable internet (smart phone) until I was in college, not having it is scary for me. A pocket wifi is a small device you carry around with you that acts as a wifi hotspot. Yes, having internet with me at all times in a luxury, but it’s also my safety blanket and I am more than willing to pay for it. I used the portable internet mostly to help me to get from point A to B safely and efficiently. And yes, I definitely used my pocket wifi to post photos of my food to Instagram and Facebook. How else are people supposed to know what I’m eating? TELL ME.
After all is said and one, I would estimate I spent a total of $1,700. This includes the pocket wifi, extra food money, and the giftsI bought for the fam bam. Not too bad for my first ‘budget’ trip.
My main purpose in writing this series is to inspire people to travel. I know traveling for a living or long term isn’t an option for most people, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t or can’t travel at all. No matter what you think, traveling internationally and enjoying it is possible on a small budget. I mean, I just wrote a two part series on it. If you have any questions (except math) I would be more than happy to answer them.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, I really hope it has inspired some of you to travel. If you do, let me know know, I would love to hear your stories.
Til next time.
Much Love. Always.