Japan is renown world wide for it’s sushi, anime, manga, electronics and reliable automobiles. Its advanced industrial economy has led many political scientists to classify it as Western. And in some ways it is very Western. With a grand and seemingly endless skyline, Tokyo rivals that of any Western city. It’s society is affluent and a beacon of capitalist culture. However, incredibly, the rich traditions of ancient Japan continue to thrive. In the result, fantastic and often hilarious juxtaposition between the traditional and the modern can be witnessed. It will leave you in continuous laughter, awe, and curiosity of Japan and its people.
The cheapest flights are generally found through Japanese travel agencies. You can either go to your local little Tokyo or search the Internet. One of the largest agencies, with English operators, is HIS. This past February, I found a round trip ticket for only 600$ from Narita to JFK. Although February is often the cheapest month to fly, HIS offers good deals year round. On average, 1000$ round trip is the going price. Check out my guide to finding cheap flights here, How To Fly For Cheap.
Price Index (2011): 1 USD = 84 円
Bottle of Water: 1.80$ / 150 円
Pack Of Cigarettes: 5.20$ / 440 円
McDonalds Meal: 8.20$ / 700 円
Coffee at a cafe: 4.70$ /400 円
Beer at a Bar: 5.90$ / 500 円
Eat Cheap In Japan: The cheapest way to eat in Japan is to shop at supermarkets. Maruetsu, Ogino, Hanamasa (meats) and Tesco are four of the best large chains. If you do your shopping 30 minutes before closing time, almost all the dinner sets will be 50% off. Similarly, bakeries often sell their leftovers at greatly reduced prices just before closing time. If you are really broke, Tokyo, like most cities, has soup kitchens. Just follow a homeless man or unemployed salary man in order to find them. In addition, if you are really in a bind, you can piece together a meal from the many promotional campaigns in Shibuya and Shinjuku that occur on the weekends. For information on eating cheap around the world, see this runaway guide, How To Eat On The Cheap.
Sleep Cheap In Japan: Hotels are very expensive and hostels not much better. A low end hotel will set you back 10,000円/120$。A dorm in the cheap hostel is around 3,000円35$. If you plan to stay a month or more, an international guesthouse will be your cheapest option. After hours of research, I found “The Teachers Lodge” to be the most convenient and least expensive guesthouses in Tokyo. Monthly prices range between 40,000 and 50,000円/month 500$-600$. The rooms are only 3 to 4 meters squared and you will have to share the bathroom and shower. More, due to very thin walls, when your neighbor breaks wind, you will hear it with great clarity. You may even think he/she is sitting by your side.
Sleep The Street In Japan: In Tokyo and other large Japanese cities you may have trouble finding safe spots to sleep for the night. Tokyo is an urban jungle designed to maximize space efficiency. In the result, finding a quiet ally or secluded park is no easy task. More, since most train stations close at around 0:30, sleeping there is usually not an option. Your best bet is McDonalds. Many only close between 4 and 5 in the morning and so, for the price of a burger, you can sleep for most of the night. For more information on sleeping on the street in general, check out this runaway guide, How To Sleep On The Street.
Tokyo: The busses and metro are your cheapest means of transportation. The metro is the quickest and will generally take you where ever you want to go if you can figure out where you want to go. Determining metro prices is notoriously difficult. I would suggest investing in a 500円 Pasmo or Suica card, which calculates fares automatically. The cheapest metro fare is around 160円 but on lines such as the Yurikamome, you may pay up to 370円.
Outside of Tokyo: The most common means of transport in Japan is by train or bus. While the Bullet train’s speed is unrivaled, so are it’s ticket prices. They are generally equivalent to flights. Though you can purchase a Japan rail pass, compared to the euro rail pass, it is not much of a discount. The bus takes much longer but will save you loads. One of the cheapest bus companies is the Willer Express. They usually depart from Shinjuku and will take you to Kyoto or Osaka for as little as 3000円.
Hitchhiking In Japan: Hitchhiking is very uncommon in Japan. As a foreigner I wouldn’t even attempt it. You may get lucky on a small road in the countryside but your odds are slim. For a runaway guide to hitchhiking, check out A Guide To Hitchhiking.
Jumping Trains: Jumping trains in Japan is not an easy task and I would not recommend it. The Japanese, like the Germans, are very serious when it comes to having a ticket. If you are caught, which you probably will be, the agent will have you pay the regular ticket fare or fine you as much as 3x the normal price. If you can not pay, there is a good chance you will be sent to a police station to investigate your visa. For a detailed runaway guide to jumping trains, see How To Jump Trains.
Drugs and Alcohol: I am no proponent of drugs, but for those of you who are, here are a few tips. When it comes to drugs, marijuana and the sort, the Japanese government is extremely strict. If you do manage to get a hold of something and are later caught, you will be deported. Alcohol on the other hand is available in abundance. If you like to drink a lot, the cheapest option is a drink buffet party(nomikai) at an Izakaya. For around 3000円 you can drink to your hearts content. On the weekends, it is not uncommon to see drunken salary men in the streets or on trains. The legal drinking age is 20 but as a foreigner it is rare that you will be carded.
Free Fun Things To Do:
1. Stand in the middle of the crossing at Shibuya station.
2. Attend any number of traditional summer, fall, winter, and spring festivals. Such the Fire Festival in Fujiyoshida near the base of Mt. Fuji.
3. Window shop in Ginza, the park avenue of Tokyo.
4. Visit Ueno park to see giant lilly pads and old temples. Or Yoyogi park for street performers. 5. Wander the country side and dream of Japans samurai past.
6. Hunt for free samples at Japans many department stores.
7. Collect as many free tissue packs as you can.
8. Head to Odaiba for the best views of Tokyo’s skyline.
Be sure to check out this guide for arguably the best 3 day Tokyo itinerary.
Slang and Phrases:
1) Baka: Meaning fool or idiot. Can be used playfully or as an insult.
2) Su-gay: Slang for amazing.
3) Kak koi: cool
3) Kyo-wa geripi ga shii-te imasu: I have bad diarrhea. Literal translation, I am peeing out of my bum today. I have to give credit to the “Dirty Japanese” book below for that one.
Recommended readings and films:
Let Me Know What You Think!
In my times traversing the Tokyo megacity, I have slept on trains and in train stations, park benches (which are actually pretty safe), behind a Koban (seriously!), hostels, never in a hotel, but in a hotel lobby, and more importantly- Manga cafes.
I think all backpackers, unlikely visits to Tokyo, and just those that are beyond frugal should know about Manga Cafes/Kissa. So essentially they are Internet cafes.. for manga and games. But the joy of it is that you’re given your own room AND, you’re able to take a shower. Although the latter is great, it’s at an “at call” system, so you’re basically at the whim of the staff for a shower (my wait at one time was 3 hours for a 6 hour session). By the way, you pay by session on an hourly rate WHICH IN FACT is dirt cheap compared to many other options. For an “all night” option, you would go with the 6 or 7, depending on the cafe, and can cost anywhere between 1400-2500 yen. Today, the exchange rate is 1:100+, so you’re looking at 14-25$USD.. a night. Not even that if you think you’re okay with a 3-5 hour package.
I usually stay at the Manboo in Shinjuku near Shinjuku Gyoen, and I believe there’s another one up a couple blocks from the exit in Shibuya near the Hachiko statue.
If possible, I’d like to get some advice from you if you have some free time to exchange an email or two. I’m in Berlin now, but I check my emails 2-3 times a day.
The Runaway Guide says
Hey David, that’s great to know. Thanks a lot for sharing! I’m going to give that a try next time I’m in Tokyo and catch up on Naruto! Kage bun shin no jitsu!
Soooo well written ! I want to go to Japan so badly but it’s just so expensive, and I doubt I’d be able to deal with sleeping in one of those capsule hotels…
The Runaway Guide says
Thanks Owen! Yea, it is pretty expensive but you can eat for pretty cheap, and stay cheap if you’re out of the city. The capsules aren’t even cheap either, about 40-50$/night
Hmmm, I used to think about running off to Japan, enraptured by the culture and all the fancy stuff. I’ve backpacked in Key West and in NYC(very dangerous when on the streets), Key west couldnt have been an easier cooler friendlier place to travel (unless your dressed like the archtype gutter punk, but those kids rarely stick around for more than a week)
I’ve got to say it sounds like Japan isn’t that great of a place to go if your strictly limited as far as budget, so Im kindof reconsidering the idea. Normally I get by and escape bad scenarios, but somehow I feel like in Tokyo youd be trapped… —- I read this book years ago when i was a teenager called ‘The Road to Sata’ which was written by a british author who in the 70’s went from the top of Hokaido to cape Sata in the lowest island — ALL ON FOOT!! It was one of the most inspiring books I had ever read, and really fueled my desire to travel then. It seems like all the rural areas would be much friendlier and engaging. Because I must say (and I have friends who currently live in Japan) Tokyo seems like no place to go if your a free spirit!
Thanks for the blog info though, REALLY cool of you to take the time and work at something like this! – Jill
The Runaway Guide says
Yea, Japan can be really expensive, especially tokyo.The country side is the best, although some country folk will give you funny looks if youre a westerner. Thanks for the book recommendation, I am definitely going to read it. I hope you do head to japan one day, it’s definitely a place not to be missed. Let me know before you go and I will see if i cant find some good cheap tickets. Best, Leif
I just found your blog and i’m going through all the crap that interests me…its really cool!!
just a kinda personal question, you have a passport yes? so i take it you travel also by plane? i think it’d be pretty difficult to get to japan without a passport lols!! did you fill out a disembarkation card? when i did they asked for a cell phone number and address where i’d be staying and i had to put down all my friends details haha!
how long were you in tokyo?
The Runaway Guide says
Hey, yea, I have a passport. Your right, Japan would be really tough without one, it being an island and all. I usually just make up a hotel name when they ask me for an address, like “Tokyo Hotel” or something. Thanks for commenting! :)
Me and my boyfriend are literally thinking about travelling to Japan. We’ve done some backpacking before, but it’s only been around our state.
We’ve been checking out flights from where you advised, and they do have very decent deals.
The only problem we’re having about running away to Tokyo is the crime. Do you have any tips on that part?
The Runaway Guide says
Tokyo is one of the safest cities in the world. I really wouldn’t worry about crime. I once left 1000$ cash in an envelop on the street and it was returned to a police station.