A backpacker's guide to Japan on the cheap
Japan has a perhaps deservedly expensive reputation. But, having spent three weeks living on the tightest of shoestrings while being seduced by Japan’s charms, I have no doubt that travelling in the land of the rising sun needn’t break the bank. Here is my guide to a Japanese adventure on the cheap.
A Japan rail pass is a must for those wishing to do a lot travelling around Japan. I bought a 14-day pass for around £300. While this might seem pricey, the cost of individual journeys can be horrendously expensive and the freedom provided by a JR pass is second to none. And of course nothing beats the thrill of sitting back and watching the world whiz by at 300 km/hr! The passes are also valid on a JR line which loops around Tokyo, as well as certain buses and ferries.
Within the cities, Tokyo’s extensive metro system is an excellent (and cheap) way to get around. The same can be said for Kyoto’s bus network and Hiroshima’s trams.
Sights and activities
There is so much to see and do for free, that skirting around large entry fees shouldn’t be too difficult. Of course there are some exceptions, such as the majestic temples and shrines of Kyoto, and the cable car to the top of Miyajima island.
Tokyo / Mount Fuji
Tokyo is all about strolling about and taking the sights, sounds and smells of a city that is like no other. Shinjuku and Shibuya are Tokyo’s neon capitals, with the famous road crossing in Shibuya a superb place to try and get your head around it all. The noise and energy of it all is incredible, with pachinko parlours intermingling with karaoke bars, games arcades and altogether more seedy joints.
After a night on the tiles in Shinjuku you’ll want an altogether more relaxed environment the next day. Head to Asakusa, home of the beautiful Senso Ji temple, or neighbouring Ueno with its lovely park and bustling narrow streets for a gentler pace. Ginza, Tokyo’s shopping capital, with its skyscrapers, upmarket boutiques and the stunning Imperial Palace is another area that merits exploration. Visit the Sony building to sample some futuristic technology years before it hits the rest of the world. And all of this for free!
For a spectacular view of Tokyo’s never-ending sprawl, head to the observation decks on Shinjuku’s Metropolitan Government Building (free entry). On a clear day Mount Fuji, 60km in the distance, is visible. Alas it was not to be on our visit, but this is still a superb place to watch day turn to night and Tokyo light up below you. The bustling Tsujiki fish market is another experience to behold, though you’ll have to be up at the crack of dawn to enjoy it at its most vibrant.
Around two hours from Tokyo by bus and train, Kawiguchiko is a lake-side resort at the foot of Mount Fuji. While the town itself is nothing to write home about it's all about the views here. After two days of leaden skies, we took advice from the locals and rose at 5am on our final morning to fantastically clear skies. And what a view it is, the perfect snow-capped dome of Mount Fuji reflected in the calm waters of Kawiguchiko - surely one of the most beautiful sights anywhere in Japan.
While you’ll have to dip into the wallet to visit some of Kyoto’s spectacular temples and shrines, a wander around the atmospheric geisha district of Gion is free of charge. Some temples such as Kinka-ju, the ‘golden temple’ are must sees, but may leave you feeling harassed and jostled by the sheer number of tourists. A good option for some altogether quieter temple exploration is the serene Daitoku-ji temple in the north of the city (free entry to main temple complex).
Hiroshima is definitely worth a visit with its harrowing Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (around 30p to enter) and peace park. What is most inspiring about the place however is the way the city has risen from the ashes to become a vibrant modern society. Nearby Miyajima island with its wonderful views, wildlife and dramatic torri gate of the Itsukushima shrine makes for a great day-trip. Take the cable car to the island’s highest point for some monkey business with the resident Japanese macaques and spectacular panoramas of the Seto inland sea.
Sumo in Fukuoka
Nothing quite beats the pomp and ceremony of a sumo tournament, and tickets in the stalls (around £10 - 15) certainly won’t break the bank. Watching the pomp and ceremony of two 25-stone men dance around the before hurling themselves at each other in front of screaming crowds is certainly a sight to behold. I attended the November tournament in Fukuoka (on Kyushu island), one of the six grand sumo tournaments held through the year.
Where to stay
There is a multitude of backpacker hostels in Japan so finding a cheap bed shouldn’t be too tricky. In Tokyo, Kawiguchiko and Hiroshima I used K’s House hostels (www.kshouse.jp), which were perfectly adequate with dorm beds from around £10 per person. K’s House Mount Fuji in Kawiguchiko comes particularly recommended with spacious communal areas and a big well-stocked kitchen. It’s worth splashing the extra few pounds for a private room where you can sleep on wonderfully comfortable tatami mats.
In Kyoto the Guesthouse Bon is a brilliant option. With only around four rooms, this Japanese-style guesthouse is run by a wonderfully friendly bloke who is a mine of information about the local area, and even insisted on dropping us at the subway station at the end of our stay. Happy evenings were spent drinking sake (supplied by owner!) in the cosy living area. A comfortable room at the Bon will set you back around £15 - 20 per person. The guesthouse is situated just a minute's walk away from the Daitoku ji temple complex.
In Osaka the Hotel Taiyo offers cheap (doubles/twin around £11 per person), private rooms close to the main sights. Rooms are somewhat spartan, and you may find yourself stepping around a colourful assortment of characters outside the subway station. With the colourful delights of Namba close by however you won’t be staying in too much anyway.
Supermarkets are a great option for lunchtime snacks with palatable sushi, salads and tempura at bargain prices. The ubiquitous bento boxes are another great option for cheap food on-the-go.
Of course if you're staying in hostels you can save the pennies by cooking for yourself, but eating out in Japan is an experience that shouldn’t be missed and needn’t break the bank. There are numerous cheap back-street eateries, where food can often be selected by pointing at whatever takes your fancy from the appetising plastic dishes in the window. Most restaurants also serve free green tea with food so you won’t even have to pay for drinks.
There’s no substitute to local knowledge so ask around at your accommodation for cheap places to eat. The owner of our guesthouse in Kyoto recommended some wonderfully cheap places like an okonomiyaki (savoury Japanese pancake) restaurant around the corner. Happily munching on yummy okonomiyaki (around £1.50 a plateful) with the ancient, grizzled chef chattering away to me in Japanese (I barely speak a word) is an experience that I won’t forget for a long time! Sadly I will never remember the name of the place, but get off the tourist trail in Japan's cities and you'll soon ind your own slice of Japanese foodie heaven.