This past spring, I crossed off a travel site on my bucket list: Japan. That place where cherry blossoms bloom in April (now March – thanks climate change). Where almost all toilets can clean your butt (seriously). And where it seems that if you love something, guaranteed there is a store dedicated to that thing: Kit Kats? Not a problem, here’s a store. Pokemon? Here’s a store. Capsule toys? Here’s a store.
The thing is: Japan can be expensive. In fact, I had spent close to $3,000 before even landing in Tokyo on accommodation, Japanese yen, and transportation.
At first, I thought I had made a serious underestimation of how much this trip would cost. But by the time I got home, I had spent only $690 more in Japan, for a total of $3,690 for 17 nights for an average price of $217 per day. That figure included food, hotel, airfare, souvenirs, admissions – basically the gamut of things you’d expect to spend money on when traveling. And we still stayed in some pretty nice places. Here’s a breakdown of what we spent and where we went:
The whole idea for travelling to Japan this year came on boxing day, when a direct flight appeared for just under $700 (as a reference, flights to Japan are usually $1500-$2000 regular price). Frantically, my girlfriend and I came up with a plan. The next day, I asked my boss for approval, which was granted, but flights went back to about $1200 per seat.
We were obviously heartbroken. We cursed, argued, and ranted against the limitations of 9-5 work. Then a few weeks later, another deal emerged, this time American Airlines with a connecting flight but at a cost of $869.
It was still a deal, just not a steal. We gave it some thought and went for it. The comfort of the flight surprised us (though I credit investing in this expensive neck pillow) as did the amount of food provided.
Pro-tip: we waited until 24 hours before to get our seats auto-assigned. Doing so got us premium seats that cost roughly $75 USD free of charge!
This is what surprised me the most: how cheap it is to stay in Japan.
In Tokyo, our Airbnb cost us each about $46 a night (really $92, but split down the middle between the two of us). In Kyoto, $37 each a night. I was pretty shocked at the incredible value these places also offered: units completely to ourselves equipped with kitchenettes and comfortably sized bathrooms. One Airbnb in Kanazawa (roughly $40 a night) even offered us free laundry and 2 bicycles to make it around town. Talk about value!
The value also extended to some hotels: we stayed in a three-star hotel in Hiroshima for a measly $36 each, and an inn in Takayama for $54 each for the night.
By saving buckets of money on accommodation on large portions of our trip, it let us go kind of crazy near the end: staying in a temple with monks ($148 each – meals and activities included), and a traditional Japanese ryokan or, as we might call in Canada a bed and breakfast ($175 each a night – gourmet breakfast and dinner included).
I’m a fairly frugal guy, so I’ll admit going crazy near the end there was a bit bizarre for me, but I probably wouldn’t change a thing if I could do it again. The Japanese really do customer service well.
Unlike other trips, where I resorted to buying groceries to save money, I was pretty much in eat everything mode on the trip. Luckily, Japan has tons of offerings and at really cheap prices: ramen, 7-eleven (really good, unlike Canada), Coco Curry, department store food halls that stretch for what seems like miles, all with good portions that sometimes led to us having leftovers, too. We’d end some days having spent only $25.00 for the day on food.
Our fancy restaurant meal at this restaurant in Kanazawa cost us $54 for two, which is not much when compared to what one might spend in Canada.
Recall, that if you so desired you could go crazy and spend like crazy on those three Michelin star sushi places (about $300 per person), but let’s be real: in Japan, all the food is pretty great. If you’re not ultra-wealthy and you can live as a tourist on $217 per day, why blow more than a day’s budget on one meal?
The Things We Did
Japan is pretty great for offering free activities or at a very low cost. A lot of it was simple exploring temples, hiking, or partaking in free cultural activities, like local festivals or the 5:30AM tuna auction.
What was expensive: getting around. Japan has those pretty great bullet trains that can travel over 300 km per hour. A two week pass was about $550 per person, but when compared to what locals pay, it’s a great deal. In fact, I was told that traveling from Tokyo and Hiroshima, a journey we took, would have cost a local Japanese citizen roughly the cost of our full two week pass!
Mixed in throughout our transportation were other companies that run local train lines or buses, all with their own fare system. To make it to our temple stay in Koyasan, we had to take a train and a cable car, which ran us $36 each just to get there for the day. Same with seeing the UNESCO heritage site of Shirakawago – that was $52 to get there and on to our next destination by bus. I would say that including our flight, almost 40% of our money was spent on transportation.
Lastly, as an added tip, make sure you book everything in advance if you can. Lineups are insane, especially in Tokyo.
You can view the abridged map of where we traveled here. I couldn’t add more than 10 destinations to the map, but obviously imagine we trekked back to Tokyo from Hakone to fly out.
As with all travel: it can be expensive if you want it to be. Originally, I had budgeted $4300 for the trip and came under at $3690. For a place as far as Japan, that’s pretty good value for 17 nights. In fact, I bet you could probably do better if you don’t splurge on fancy hotels at the end like we did!
Tip: Japan is a very cash oriented society. Don’t run out. I barely had the opportunity to use my Amazon Chase VISA outside of hotels and anything we had pre-booked.