Japan has a reputation as an expensive destination - but it is possible to enjoy a budget break in the land of the rising sun
Book a holiday to Japan and your friends will think you’ve won the lottery and selfishly forgotten to mention it. In fact, holidaying in Japan can be as cheap as visiting anywhere in southern Europe, as I discovered on my nine-day whirlwind visit to the land of the rising sun.
Japan is a country renowned for its ancient temples, martial arts, state-of-the-art technology and fantastic food. It’s also a place where you take your shoes off more times than Imelda Marcos trying on her footwear collection and where getting your head down for the night can be as much of an experience as getting out to see the sights.
Of course, if you choose to stay in five-star hotels, you can expect to pay a hefty price. But I found the cheaper traditional ryokan guesthouses can give a unique insight into both the culture and lifestyle and can cost from just £30 per person, per night. Yes, you do have to sleep on the floor - but that’s sleeping Japanese-style, on futons and tatami matting, and is infinitely more comfortable than it sounds.
The Japanese are meticulous when it comes to cleanliness, and staying in shoe-free ryokans does mean making sure you’re wearing a pair of spring-fresh, hole free socks, even if you have just got off an 11-hour flight from London. Ryokans are fantastic value and most provide bountiful extras, such as toiletries, slippers, and an endless supply of green tea, as standard. Plus, every guest is provided with a crisply ironed yukata or cotton kimono, which is worn normally after bathing and as pyjamas.
But why wait until bedtime to have a bath? Travellers in need of instant refreshment can visit the local onsen or sento, thermal public baths. Everyone from city stockbrokers to shopkeepers congregates in these segregated public bathhouses for total relaxation and to put the world to rights. The water is far too hot to swim, and be prepared to get naked and shed any Western inhibitions. It’s like going to the pub after work, but naked and without the beer.
It’s also worth pre-arranging a guide to show you the ropes. For those arriving in the capital, Tokyo Free Guide is a volunteer service that enlists students and housewives keen to practise their English to act as city guides free of charge. A pretty good deal for zero yen, so there’s no need to wrestle with both jetlag and orientation at the same time. There are also other volunteer guide services in Kyoto and other cities. Check with the tourist information in the city for more details.
Having a volunteer guide totally changed my perception of Tokyo. We ate in restaurants located off the tourist trail, I found out more about life in Japan, and picked up advice on sights to see in other towns. My guide also prepared me with some easy-to-remember phrases, as English isn't widely spoken outside the cities.
Evening meals rarely set you back more than £25 for tempting tempura or sizzling yakitori. However, not all the menus have English translations, and often you have to just point to a dish and hope for the best. For those on a budget, you can also feast heartily on bowls of steaming udon or soba noodles from £4 and lunchtime sushi bento boxes for just £5.
Another bargain to be snapped up, but only before arriving in Japan, is the Japanese Rail (JR) Pass. At just £217 for seven days, or £351 for 14, a JR Pass allows you to travel on any Sinkansen (bullet train), anywhere in Japan. I started my journey in Tokyo and my JR Pass took me effortlessly on to temple-laden Kyoto and the pretty island of Myajima as well as Nara and Osaka.
Carriages are spotless, spacious and comfortable, and trains are so consistently on time, you can literally set your watch by them. Travelling at speeds of over 300mph, you can quickly cover ground to see more of Japan than you think possible. Travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto (equivalent to the distance between Brighton and Edinburgh) takes under three hours. But set off early in the morning to leave the afternoon free for sightseeing.
Accounting for food, a little souvenir shopping and sightseeing, travellers on a budget can expect to spend around £80 per day (including accommodation) and still have plenty of yen left over to blow at the airport on the way home.
Japan is like the holiday utopia of new experiences that doesn’t have to break the bank. Plus the people are possibly the friendliest on the planet. The language may be difficult to learn, but the hardest word for me to say was “sayonara” when it came to taking the return flight home.