The budget traveler’s guide to Japan

Marguerite de Leon
Experience Japan on a shoestring budget with these tips

MANILA, Philippines – They say Japan is an expensive place to visit. The capital of Tokyo is notorious for its very high cost of living, and similar tourist destinations in the country aren’t too far behind. Prices are roughly twice what they would cost in Manila; if a can of Coke costs P35 here, it costs around P60 there. 

SODA SAVINGS. Most vendos sell drinks for 120 yen, but there are some budget machines that sell them for 100.

However, my recent trip to Kyoto, Japan’s former capital and treasure trove of temples, and Osaka, the food capital of Japan, taught me two things. One, it’s hard to see something as expensive if you get excellent quality (huge servings of delicious food; efficient and comfortable travel; unforgettable experiences) in return. Two, there are many relatively cheap (or free!) ways to enjoy Japan for days on end, and they’re not that hard to find. 

1) Promo air fare = P12,000 round-trip ($274)

Budget air travel is something many Filipinos are familiar with. The key is to act quickly. Once a promo pops up online, grab it. The travel period would usually be several months in the future, and that would provide ample time to search for and reserve lodgings, plan out an itinerary, and save up spending money. 

You do get what you pay for with budget air travel: no meals, no in-flight entertainment, and slightly cramped seating. Then again, a four-hour flight can pass by quickly enough as long as you have a book, cellphone games, and some snacks along. 

PRETTY AS A POSTCARD. Seeing this in person is worth any 4-hour budget flight.

2) Japanese visa = P1,000 per person ($23)

Getting a Japanese visa is pretty easy and cheap if you find the right travel agency to take care of things. Scour the agencies until you find the right one (ours was one of the many agencies on the fifth floor of Megamall). If you’re traveling in a group of 5 or more, you may even take advantage of special package rates. 

Soon enough, Japan may even waive visa requirements for Filipinos. They’re currently considering it, so keep your fingers crossed!

3) Guest house or hostel lodgings = 3,500 yen per night for a two-futon room (P1,499 or $34)

It’s also key to book lodgings as soon as possible, since rooms run out very quickly. It would also be best to travel on non-peak periods, when there are no festivals or holidays, since prices will get jacked up then. 

FLUFFY FUTON. It's always a good night's sleep in the tatami room.

I’d personally take guest houses or hostels over regular hotels any day, and not just for the price. Most of these places offer traditional (and very comfortable) tatami rooms and futons, lending an authentic experience. Wi-fi, air conditioning, and hot baths are standard, and all facilities are clean. It’s just like a nice house with lots of guests. The owners can also provide you with local travel tips or restaurant recommendations typical guides don’t offer. 

These lodgings are often a few minutes away from bus stops or train stations, so you can start your adventure right away every morning. 

4) All-day bus pass = 500 yen (P214 or $4)

Commuting options in Japan are ridiculously detailed, efficient, and worth every penny. Most areas in Kyoto and Osaka have a bus stop and/or train station nearby, so you’ll never need to take a cab (which are horrendously expensive at a 600 yen/P257/$5 flagdown). Bicycles are also an option for 500 yen per day, but if you’re not fluent in Japanese and familiar with the area, you’re bound to get lost (unless that’s what you’re going for). 

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A 500 yen all-day bus pass is super-sulit considering that a single ride to any destination is already 230 yen. A day’s worth of exploring can take around six to eight bus rides, so you definitely get bang for your buck. 

The bus system runs like clockwork; arrival times for every line are provided at each stop. Barring rush hour, most buses will have plenty of space and seats, since the (very polite, helpful) drivers rely on departure times, and not how many people he can cram into his vehicle. (Just make sure to always give priority to the elderly!) It might also please you to know that these buses are powered partly by electricity, so you won’t be coming across any smoke belchers. 

5) Train rides = from 120 yen for short distances to 1,200 yen for long distances (P51/$1 to P514/$12)

Similarly, trains are fast, efficient, and on-the-dot. Some stations, such as the humonguous Central Osaka station, are tourist destinations in and of themselves, linked to huge department stores and surrounded by cafes and restaurants.

FAR FROM THE MRT. Roomy, comfy, and always on time, Japanese trains are a world away from Manila's version.

Just make sure to wear comfortable walking shoes since you may have to switch trains from time to time, and that may entail going up and down many flights of stairs. Again, unless you’re there during rush hour, carriages should be spacious and comfortable. 

6) Large curry rice meal with tea = 680 yen (P291 or $7)

If you want quality sushi or tempura on a budget, think again. These would usually set you back at least 1,400 yen (P600 or $14). Fortunately, there are tons of other, cheaper options that have huge portions, are incredibly yummy, and are hard to find in Manila. 

SAUCY. Apparently, the Japanese have enormous appetites.

One of these is curry rice, a large plate with rice and your choice of meat practically swimming in Japanese curry. Most servings are safe for two; even big eaters would drown in all that curry. There are very few good curry places in Manila, so take advantage of their ubiquity in Japan. One place I particularly recommend is Sukiya, which is a fast food chain. Their prices are usually a 100-200 yen cheaper than regular restaurants, but are still super huge and super good. 

7) Conveyor-belt sushi = 130 yen per plate (P56 or $1)

While conveyor-belt sushi is far from the kind served in proper sushi restaurants, it still tastes really good, and the experience is definitely fun. Just sit and wait for your sushi or maki of choice to make its ways towards you, or order directly from the sushi chefs if your choice is too far away or hasn’t been replenished on the belt.

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The price is fixed per plate, so it’s easy to check if you’re within budget. A plate usually has two pieces, and six plates are enough to make you very full. Some plates may be more expensive, but they’ll be marked accordingly. 

8) Soft-serve ice cream = 300 yen per cone (P129 or $3)

YAY FOR GREY. Nope, this isn't cement -- it's yummy black sesame!

Now for dessert! The Japanese are crazy about soft-serve, and tourist spots are particularly full of ice cream stalls. If you love green tea, you’re in luck; green tea and green tea-vanilla swirls are the most common flavors available. But I also recommend the stranger flavors, like black sesame, peach, and rice tea!

9) Temples, shrines, and Zen gardens = either free entrance, or 400 yen on average per ticket (P171 PHP or $4) 

If you’re after lots of shrines and temples, Kyoto is the way to go. Formerly Japan’s capital in the olden days, there are many historical landmarks here, and most are quite close to each other. Some spots are completely free to enter, while others are a worthwhile 400 yen. Most of them are huge, sprawling compounds with beautiful bamboo groves and mossy knolls, so you’ll have lots to explore for a good hour or two. 

MAKE A WISH. What would you write on these blocks?

You can purchase wooden blocks or paper sheaves for around 200 yen (P86 or $2) on which to write wishes and hang by the shrines. If you’re on a very tight budget, though, it’s enough just to read others’ wishes (some of them are in English) or check out their cute drawings. 

WHAT DOES THE FOX SAY? If the ancients heard that song, they'd roll over in their graves.

My favorite of these temples was the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, famously known as the fox shrine. It’s an enormous area full of bright orange temples guarded by stone foxes, and boasts of a thousand torii, the classic Japanese wooden gateway. The torii form a very long path up and down a mountaineous area, with pit stops every now and then for drinks. It’s great exercise, but I wouldn’t recommend bringing kids along or wielding a heavy bag. 

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We also went to the Ryoan-Ji temple, which houses one of the most famous Zen rock gardens in the world. If you’re into meditation, you can’t get any better than this spot. It is one of the calmest, most mesmerizing places I’ve ever been. 

QUIET TIME. I could stare at this garden for hours.

10) Shopping, shopping, shopping = as low as 100 yen (P43 or $1)

If Filipinos have malls, the Japanese have shopping arcades and shopping streets. The arcades, in particular, are enclosed streets hundreds of meters long, with many different shops on either side. Hyakuen (100-yen) shops such as Daiso dot such arcades, perfect for stocking up on cute knickknacks for pasalubong

DOTOUNBURI, OSAKA. Shopping options 'til late at night.

If you’re more into Japanese street fashion, these arcades and streets are filled with unique boutiques too. You’ll have to save up a bit, though, because a t-shirt would cost around 2,000 yen (P856 or $20), while pants could go up to 6,000 yen (P2569 or $59). Go for the really unique styles if you’re really set on buying clothes, because if not, you’re better off sticking to shops in the Philippines. 

To give you a clearer idea, stores like Zara, Forever21, H&M, and Uniqlo are the “cheaper” stores in Japan. They cost the same as they would in the Philippines, but compared to local brands, they’re the budget options. (Then again, it seems like the Philippines is the only place where these stores aren’t the budget options.) 

TAKOYAKI! These savory octopus balls are served piping hot along many Osaka sidestreets.

If food shopping/food tripping is more your thing, prepare to shell out around 400 yen (P171 or $4) for eight pieces of takoyaki, or battered octopus balls, or a box-full of mochi, or glutinous rice cakes. 

Overall, I spent just a little over P30,000 ($685) all told over a week-long stay in two Japanese cities. I had clean, comfortable lodgings; I could easily travel to whichever landmark I wanted to visit; my stomach was always full from rich, delicious meals; and I was still able to buy ample pasalubong and a few items for myself. Pair that with good traveling companions and you have a perfectly lovely vacation in the Land of the Rising Sun! –

Photos by Geline Bawagan and Marguerite de Leon, videos by Marguerite de Leon

Have you ever visited Japan? What are your travel tips? 



Marguerite de Leon

Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon heads Rappler’s Life and Style, Entertainment, and Opinion sections. She has been with Rappler since 2013, and also served as its social media producer for six years. She is also a fictionist.