Is Japan expensive? Probably not as much as you’re expecting, but don’t get too excited yet. Just because prices in Japan aren’t (always) astronomical, certainly doesn’t mean Japan is cheap or even especially affordable.
Over the next dozen or so paragraphs, I’ll explain both generally and in detail (I’ll answer questions, for example, like “is Tokyo expensive to visit?”) about the cost of travel in Japan, using anecdotes and examples from my own trips over the years. You’ll get an idea not only of prices of specific items in Japan, but what you can expect to spend on different categories of things and experiences.
Continue reading to the end, where I’ll help you come to a rough conclusion about how much your own trip to Japan will cost, keeping in mind specifics of how you like to travel. So, how expensive is Japan?
NOTE: Government policies related to Covid-19 are severely disrupting travel to and within Japan. While it’s possible that Japan will re-open to tourism later in 2021, I encourage you to read about visiting Japan in 2022.
Japan’s Reputation as a Pricey Place
For most would-be Japan travelers I speak with, the question “is Japan expensive?” seems patently ridiculous. “Of course it is,” they answer, without any particular evidence to support their assertion, assuming that prices in Japan are on par with Norway or Switzerland, with Australia or New Zealand. They’re shocked when I tell them that the cost of travel in Japan is typically much less than in these countries, particularly when it comes to dining and drinking in all but the fanciest establishments.
So, if the answer to “how expensive is Japan to visit?” is “not as pricey as you’re thinking,” where does the reputation come from? For starters, the Japanese yen was much stronger in early days of the internet (and of travel blogging) than it is now; less developed countries in Asia (such as Thailand) were also a great deal cheaper. Additionally, there were fewer hotels (not to mention, fewer restaurants with English menus) prior to the tourism boom that preceded the maybe-doomed Tokyo Olympics. Less competition=higher prices, in Japan or anywhere else.
Breaking Down the Cost of Travel in Japan
Hotels and ryokan
Is Japan expensive? When it comes to accommodation, the answer can be complex. In most cities throughout Japan, including Tokyo and Osaka, you can find functional business hotels for around ¥10,000 per night, or maybe slightly less. Ryokan can also be found cheaply in some places, even (if you book early and get lucky) in places like Kyoto’s historical Higashiyama ward and in traditional parts of Kanazawa or Hakodate. Of course, if you spend a bit more you can get a lot better experience. In general, I’d say the cost of accommodation for most travelers in Japan ranges anywhere from $50-250 per person, per night.
Transportation (including the bullet train)
Is Japan expensive to travel, literally? When you travel with a Japan Rail Pass, trains (at least those operated by the JR company) are surprisingly affordable. On the other hand, other aspects of travel in Japan can be expensive, particular long-distance buses and private trains. Additionally, there are instances where for logistical reasons, renting a car in Japan is a prudent option; this usually costs a minimum of about ¥7,500 per day, not including gas and toll fees. Assuming you don’t drive and that you do get a JR pass, you can keep your daily transport cost far below this.
Japanese food and drink
Most people who parrot the “Japan is expensive” myth, I imagine, dine in Michelin-starred restaurants, or their non-starred fine-dining cognates. The fact is that whether you get a tuna donburi in Tokyo, takoyaki octopus fritters on the streets of Osaka or down a bowl of tonkotsu ramen in Fukuoka, it’s possible and maybe even easy to fill your belly for less than ¥1,000 at a time. Likewise, many Izakaya sell entry level drinks like hot sake and whisky highballs for ¥400 or ¥500, so you can also get your drink on without going broke. As for those Michelin-starred restaurants? Prices at some are downright ridiculous, as you might expect.
Cost of things to do in Japan
Is Japan expensive for things to do? Yes, generally, I’d say it is. In addition to the fact that it costs money to enter most temples and even some shrines (albeit usually a minimal fee of under ¥1,000), these add up. Additionally, since many of the best places to visit in Japan are outside of city centers, this adds an auxiliary transportation cost to whatever the cost of the activity is, even if it’s free like, say, a visit to Miyazaki prefecture’s scenic Takachiho Gorge or a hike above the harbor city of Onomichi, an easy day trip from Okayama. With this being said, since so much of travel in Japan is exploring and taking in the culture, the impact of this fact upon your bottom line is likely to be minimal.
Other Japan travel expenditures
There are some gray areas when addressing the question “how expensive is Japan to visit”? For instance, you may get hit on your currency exchange if you complete it at a manned booth somewhere—automated machines generally offer better rates. Moreover, you’ll frequently need to pay ATM fees (albeit pretty small ones) as a result of Japan’s relatively low credit card acceptance rate*. Furthermore, gifts and souvenirs (shopping in Japan in general, really) can add up, particularly if you want to purchase authentic goods and handicrafts, instead of the mass-produced ones you can more easily find in the tourist centers of major cities.
*TIP: Get around Japan’s “cash-only” culture by setting up Pasmo in Apple Pay on your iPhone!
The Most Expensive (and Cheapest) Places in Japan
Whether you’re asking “is Tokyo expensive?” or are on the search for more general information about the cost of traveling specific places in Japan, I think you’ll find the guidance below valuable:
- Tokyo: How expensive is Tokyo? Although some of Japan’s most expensive luxury hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants are in the capital, there are also plenty of Tokyo hotel rooms under 100 USD per night, and many meals you can enjoy for ¥1,000-2,000, or even less.
- Kyoto: Kyoto definitely isn’t the cheapest place in Japan. Many ryokan in the historical Higashiyama ward of the city are ¥20,000 per night (or much more); if you don’t eat street snacks along the road to Kiyomizu-dera or on your way to Sagano Bamboo Grove in lush Arashiyama, you can also expect your food bill to be higher than in Tokyo.
- Okinawa: As a general rule, you can expect your Okinawa trip to be surprisingly affordable if you sleep eat in Naha city, and more expensive on outlying islands such as Ie, Tokashiki and especially Ishigaki and beyond. Transport in Okinawa also tends to be expensive, since there are no trains (and, therefore, the JR Pass doesn’t work).
- Hokkaido: Although Hokkaido has trains, it makes much more sense to rent a car here, which skyrockets the cost of travel. Additionally, accommodation in places like the lavender of hub Furano (during the summer) and ski capital Niseko (in winter) can be astronomically expensive.
- Shikoku and/or Kyushu: Hotels and meals on Japan’s secondary (but incredible) islands of Kyushu and Shikoku are marginally cheaper than what you find elsewhere; trains, especially on Shinkansen-free Shikoku are much cheaper. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon to need to rent cars on either of these islands.
Indeed, a better question to ask than “is Japan expensive?”, writ-large, is to inquire about the costs of traveling where (and even when: cherry blossom season, the autumn color viewing period and even the winter ski holidays aren’t cheap) you’ll be in Japan.
So, How Much Will My Trip to Japan Cost?
Rather than asking the general question—”is Japan expensive to visit?”, for example—let’s get even more specific. How much is your trip to Japan going to cost? Well, I’m not speaking to you personally right now, but here’s what I can say. The minimum you can expect to spend per day (for core expenditures like accommodation, transport and meals) is about 100 USD per person, per day, based on double occupancy, and assuming you either buy the JR Pass, or are using trains that don’t make its cost worthwhile.
And how expensive is Japan to travel for mid-range and luxury travelers? It gets a bit more complicated here. For those bougey boutique travelers who are older than backpacker age (i.e. mid-30s and up, like me!), anywhere from 200-400 USD per person, per day can get you a chic and comfortable trip. On the other hand, when it comes to super high-end Japan travel, the sky is the limit. Some of the nicer ryokan in the country cost as much as ¥100,000 per night!
Other FAQ About the Cost of Travel in Japan
How much does it cost to go to Japan for a week?
This largely depends on where you travel, and what your focus is. For example, if you spend a week in Tokyo can easily cost 1,500-2,000 USD per person, or more if you stay in fancy hotels and eat Michelin-starred dinners. On the other hand, you might be able to pull off a week in Kyushu or Shikoku for under 1,000 USD per person. (Flights between your home country and Japan are not included, in either instance.)
Is Japan expensive for US tourists?
For most of the 1980s and 1990s, when you described Japan, “expensive” didn’t even come close to the reality of costs in the country, which were astronomical. This has changed for Americans in particular in recent years, thanks to the relative strength of the US dollar and the weakness of the Japanese yen, which exchanged for as much as 125 to the USD during the mid-2010s. It remains to be seen, as of March 2021, how this dynamic will play once the coronavirus pandemic ends.
Why is Japan expensive?
Japan is expensive (or at least it has been, historically) because of natural truths about the country that impact its manmade fiscal policy. Building infrastructure in a densely-populated island nation (and to withstand the natural disasters that frequently befall it) is not cheap, to say nothing of creating a pension system that can sustain said population as it ages. These factors have combined to create one of the world’s highest debt-to-GDP ratios; interest on said debt is baked into the cost of every purchase made in Japan.
The Bottom Line
You navigated to this post with a specific question in mind: is Japan expensive? It’s a specific and seemingly simple inquiry, but more complicated than it appears on the surface. The good news is that prices in Japan are probably not as stratospheric as you’re expecting. The bad news is that you can still expect to spend a minimum of 100 USD per person, per day to travel in Japan—at least assuming you don’t want to sleep in a capsule each night, and eat every meal at 7-Eleven or another konbini. Optimize any trip to Japan for the budget you’ve set aside when you commission a custom Japan itinerary.