Maneki Neko cats in Japan

Is Japan Expensive?

I was terrified for my bank account upon arriving for my first trip to Japan way back when—and not just because I’d just returned from super-cheap Indonesia. I’d been hearing about how expensive Japan was for years.

Especially, strangely enough, from people who’d never been there.

What I’m about to tell you about the cost of travel in Japan today might shock you: Japan is not actually that expensive. While it’s also difficult to see Japan on a budget, intelligent planning—and a little bit of restraint—can ensure you keep your Japan travel costs at a bare minimum.

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Cost of Transportation in Japan

The bad news is that transportation in Japan (long-distance transportation in particular) tends to be expensive. The good news is that there are ways around this, most notably the Japan Rail Pass and Japan’s extensive train network. As of April 2018, a JR Pass costs $545 for unlimited use over three weeks; a single train journey alone (for instance, a train from Tokyo to Osaka) costs about 140 USD. I think you get the picture.

And what about the price of local transportation in Japan? It’s in line with other major world cities in Tokyo, where a one-way subway ride starts at ¥200 (about 2 USD). It’s easier to Japan on a budget in other cities such as Hiroshima and Kyoto, where unlimited day tickets for tourists are available.

Shinkansen in Hakodate, Japan

Also keep in mind that most Japanese cities are extremely walkable, so unless weather conditions are bad or you’re just in a rush, the secret to how to travel Japan on a budget is actually your own two feet! To be sure, if you buy a JR Pass and walk as much as possible in Japan, you aren’t going to spend much more on transportation in Japan than you would in any other developed country—you might actually spend less.

One unavoidably expensive aspect of transportation in Japan is the over-water sort. Excepting public JR ferries, private ferry transport (for example, from Kagoshima to the magnificent Yakushima island) is extremely, extremely expensive. Ditto for domestic flights within Japan.

Is Food Expensive in Japan?

Food is the second of what I call the “Big Three” travel expenses—and I’m happy to report that affordable food is surprisingly abundant in Japan. When it comes to the price of food in Japan, I like to think of it in three tiers.

First, there’s packaged food from convenience stores (Lawson, Family Mart and 7-11 are the big ones) and fast food, both international chains and Japanese ones like Mos Burger and Yoshinoya. If you use this method for eating, you can easily get a “meal” for between ¥300-500.

Secondly, there are modest sit-down restaurants. These include ramen shops at railway stations, in-and-out sushi and tempura joints and mid-range Japanese chains such as Coco Ichibanya Curry House. Here, service and ambiance are modest, but the quality of food is very good. You can expect to pay between ¥500-1,200 for a meal, which usually includes unlimited hot tea, water and rice.

Sashimi in Aomori, Japan

(A special note about sushi, particularly if you’re in Tokyo. If you want to find cheap sushi in Japan, search for a “conveyor belt” sushi restaurant. Individual pieces run around ¥100-200, so it’s a great way to sample a lot of delicious fish if you aren’t looking for a set meal.)

Finally, there are the mid-range and expensive restaurants, which really exemplify the idea of expensive food in Japan. From a simple breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market, where a sashimi bowl will set you back around ¥1,500-3,000, to Michelin-starred restaurants in Kyoto where you can easily drop ¥50,000 on a single meals, the most expensive food Japan has to offer exists in these sorts of places.

Cost of Accommodation in Japan

Accommodation is the third of the big three travel expenses, and unfortunately, it’s not only the most expensive travel cost in Japan, but also the most unavoidable: There’s no special pass for hostels or guest houses and prices for tourists are higher, if anything. For example, you can expect to pay at least ¥3,500 (or about 35 USD) for a dorm bed in a hostel in Kyoto.

With this being said, you can find bargains on hotels in Japan. For example, you can get a pod in a capsule hotel in major cities for between ¥1,500-2,000 per night. Alternatively, you can stay in a “Business Hotel” (or even, if you dare, a “love hotel”) and enjoy a modest rate in exchange for a small room and minimal ambiance.

For example, I once stayed in a comfortable room in Tottori (home to Japan’s strange desert) for ¥4,900 per night.

Ryokan in Kofu, Japan

Traditional Japanese inns (known as ryokan) tend to be expensive, running at least ¥10,000 per night for the best places to stay in Kyoto, but many of these include 1-2 meals per day and access to on-site services, which often including onsen hot springs, as was the case in the mountain wonderland known as Takaragawa Onsen.

Accommodation in Japan isn’t cheap, but if you keep your food and transportation costs down in the ways I’ve suggested, you can still travel in Japan cheaply, relatively speaking.

The Cheapest Time to Visit Japan

If you want to visit Japan during cherry blossom season, I’ve got bad news for you: The cost of travel in Japan is astronomically high during this period, second perhaps only to the “Golden Week” national holidays in early May. Likewise, Japan travel is expensive during the beautiful fall colors period, and also during snow season in ski destinations like Hokkaido and Yamagata.

There’s also good news, however. If you’ve got your heart set on seeing sakura or flaming maple leaves in Japan, paying the price of travel in Japan pays off in spades. Or, if you’re more flexible about how the natural scenery frames the “built” experience of traveling in Japan, you can visit during shoulder months like March and September, and enjoy relatively cheap Japan travel.

The Bottom Line

So, what is the Japan cost per day? Not including a transpacific flight, I calculate you will spend a minimum of 1,300 USD during a two weeks in Japan, for a cost of 87 USD per day. I should note that out of the dozens trips I’ve now taken to Japan, I’ve only hit this target once—most people can expect to spend well over 100 USD per day in Japan. Whether Japan is more or less expensive than you expected, however, the experience of traveling here is priceless.