Budget Guide: Japan
Itinerary for 2 weeks in Japan
Japan is definitely a place where you don’t have to travel too far to be able to experience their country to the full. We had just over 2 weeks so we travelled south of Tokyo (all the way to Beppu) but if you only have 1 week or less you could easily just do Tokyo (or Kyoto or Osaka) and another small place nearby such as Hakone (view of Mt Fuji). All the main cities are all quite similar in building structure, balance of old and new and volume of shrines and temples. I wouldn’t recommend racing between all the cities just to see them, as that is a lot of expensive travel. Make sure you head to some of the smaller towns too.
Where to go in Japan
Japan is culturally diverse, busy and quirky. A great country for beginner and well-seasoned travellers alike. Tokyo is a must for as many days as possible. It is just so big you won’t be able to do as much as you want, not matter how hard you try. Then head south visiting cities and small towns until you get all the way to Beppu, a quaint hot spring town, that was my favourite in all Japan.
Transport Around Japan
The bullet trains are fast and quite the novelty, but they aren’t always the cheapest way to get around Japan. But the best way if you’re doing a lot of travel in a small amount of time is to buy a JR Rail Pass. Do your research; some of the places can be accessed by overnight buses, which are significantly cheaper, or by plane if there’s a sale. I bought a 1-week Rail Pass for the two weeks because I stayed in Tokyo for 5 days and then flew to Beppu in the South. That way I only needed a Rail Pass to get between the other cities, and I did that all in one week.
Even if you were doing this same Itinerary in Winter, Autumn or cherry blossom season (April-May) you would still see the best of Japan as there are many monkey sanctuaries with springs to see the monkeys bathe, cherry blossom filled parks and loads of rolling tree-soaked hills that would look stunning in Autumn.
Tokyo (5 nights)
Simply, Tokyo is crazy. You can do as much or a little as you want here but you will always have an adventure. The Japanese people are lovely, even in such a huge city. They will always stop to help you find what you are looking for. Tokyo offers an unlimited choice of shopping, dining, culture and entertainment while at the same time there are pockets of calm found in their frequent parks. I did find in Tokyo, that no matter how little I’d planned for the day I never managed to do it all. A park that I thought would take a couple of hours to cover ended up taking more than a day! Tokyo is packed with wonder and does not disappoint with its awe-inspiring mix of old and new and crazy, quirky inhabitants.
Things to do in Tokyo
The suburb of Ueno was possibly my favourite place. There is a huge food and clothing market nearby called Ameyoko, which is a delight to all of the senses when walking through. There are a ton of exciting street food stalls that hold strange but delicious looking food. Then across the road is Ueno Park; a seriously huge park full of temples, ponds, museums and even a Zoo. There is another food market here in one of the areas next to the pond, which has some amazing street food. The Zoo is spacious and cheap; only about 460 yen for passport holders ($4) and contained every animal you could think of including red pandas, panda bears and rhinoceros. It will take you at least a day to see every animal here. The park also features many museums and it is also a great place to head when travelling during the cherry blossom season as the entire park is adorned with the pretty trees. Shibuya crossing, the busiest crossing in the world, is also a great outing.
Where to Stay in Tokyo
Ace-Inn Shinjuku is a Capsule Hostel just a 20-minute walk from the heart of Shinjuku (restaurant and club area). It is a relatively easy walk but an even easier train ride. It’s a basic place with a floor dedicated to lounges, the kitchen and socialising. Prices ranged from 2,000 yen ($20) for a dorm room to 3,150 ($30) Yen for a private capsule bed.
Where to Eat & Drink in Tokyo
Eat: In Tokyo you can easily eat for 300 yen ($3) but a nice meal is usually 700-1500 yen ($7-15). On of my favourite cheap places to eat was Beef Bowl where you can get meat and rice with miso soup for 270 yen!
Drink: You can drink anywhere for around 500 yen for beer or 3,000 yen for a bottle of wine. But you can also buy 1lt cans of beer from any of the supermarkets and drink them on the street. Other than Shinjuku, Shibuya and Roppongi are the best nightclub areas. Feria, a huge, 7-level, crazy club in Roppongi was pretty great. Entry fee is 25,00 yen (includes 2 free drinks).
Travel around Tokyo
Travel is relatively cheap and the best way to get around is by train. It generally cost me about 700 yen a day more or less to get around. If you are only using one train line it could help to buy a day pass but generally I found just paying the price was usually the cheapest (because you can’t really fit that much travel in a day anyway since the places are so huge). The easiest way to get around would be to grab a Prepaid IC card at the airport. These cards don’t give you a discount but they enable you to ride almost any train or bus in Greater Tokyo (and even other cities in japan) with just a swipe of the card reader.
Best Tokyo Travel TIP:
When you get to a train station ask for an English rail map. This will show you all the train lines in Greater Tokyo as well as connections. It helped me to be able to see what stops were on similar train lines and to more efficiently plan our itineraries.
Hakone (1 night or day trip from Tokyo)
Hakone is one of the best places to get a good view of Mount Fuji and it also has vibrant, therapeutic hot springs, an impressive lake and a whole lotta natural beauty. Being less than 100km from Tokyo it’s a favourite for people getting away from the big city.
Things to do in Hakone
The foreshore areas around Lake Ashinoko have the best viewpoints of Mount Fuji. If you head to the town Moto-Hakone there is a foreshore walk between there and the next town; Hakone-Machi. Along this walk is a gorgeous Japanese garden (free), which has several lookouts over Mt Fuji. The garden is beautiful and worth the visit even if the clouds cover the view of Mt. Fuji, which actually happens often. On the opposite side of the road to the garden is the Cedar Tree walk featuring huge ancient cedar trees lining the trail.
Where to Stay in Hakone
There aren’t any hostels in this area and we had a really hard time finding anything within our price range. It may be better to do this as a day trip from Tokyo though one day isn’t really enough time to see the whole area. After endless searching we did find one place, B&B Pensione Hakone for 3,000 yen per night for a private room. Though it was quite far from the centre and almost impossible to get to after 8pm, but the hotel was cute, clean and set within a gorgeous garden. We had a lot of fun there eating meals from the vending machine, trying out their massage chairs and using the on-site Onsen.
Where to Eat in Hakone
Hakone is so spread out that I can’t recommend just one place. My best advice is to just search because most of the places are really expensive. But you can find hidden gems in most areas that charge around 700 yen.
Travel around Hakone
You will get around on a mixture of trains and buses in Hakone. It is widely spread out and can take hours on a bus to get from one area to another, so if you have your own car – take that! You can either buy the Hakone Free Pass in Tokyo (5,000 yen, wtf so expensive!?) or you can buy day passes for the buses once inside the Odawara area (around 1,700 yen).
Osaka (1-2 nights)
Osaka is Japan’s second most important city being an economic powerhouse for many centuries. It is also the third largest city, and could have been the capital had the Emperor of the time not been overthrown and the new government established in Tokyo. As a place to visit, Osaka is pretty similar to the other big cities. It is quite new and impressive with its large buildings and neon lights. It’s separated into two main parts: North and South and both have their own bustling downtown area.
Things to do in Osaka
In the Osakako Bay area is Osaka Aquarium; one of Japan’s most famous and spectacular aquariums and home to a Whale Shark. Marine life is impressively displayed in 15 well-organised tanks representing different regions bordering the Pacific Ocean. It features the aforementioned whale shark as well as giant otters, seals, dolphins playing with balls, squid, turtles, penguins, jellyfish, giant spider crabs and a huge octopus. Before finishing up you are led to a touch pool where you can stroke stingray and sharks. Right next to the aquarium is Tempozan Ferris Wheel, which is huge (112.5 metres) and offers far-reaching panoramic views of the entire city
Where to Stay in Osaka
I stayed in the South in the relatively unpopular area Shin-Imamiya. It’s dark, dingy and industrial with nothing going for it. I would avoid this area and stay in Namba or Umeda.
Where to Eat Osaka
Head to bustling, famous Namba for countless cute local eateries, good shopping, karaoke, bars and other entertainment. Make sure to try the Takoyaki (Octopus Balls) from one of the street vendors. They are delicious, fresh and hot and you can stand and watch them being made.
Travel around Osaka
Similar to Tokyo, Osaka is best surfed by train. It has similar layout and ticket prices too; with a city circle plus extra subway lines to other areas (ticket cost about 200 yen per ride).
Nara (Day Trip from Kyoto or Osaka)
Nara is located between Kyoto and Osaka, an hour from each, which makes it a great place for a day trip from either of those places. It was Japan’s first permanent capital and so it’s full of historic treasures, including some of Japans largest and oldest temples, including the 5-story pagoda Kofukuji Temple. But most people don’t come for the temples; most people come for the tame deer that live amongst the fields and gardens surrounding the temples.
Things to do in Nara
Wander around Nara Park and you will soon come across some deer roaming the park. They love the deer crackers that can be bought at the vendors located in the park. But the deer are wild and can get aggressive if they think you have food. Some of the deer have learned to bow to visitors asking to be fed and some will lift their front legs off the ground to catch the crackers with their mouth.
Where to Eat in Nara
I was surprised by how much good, cheap food places were on the streets of Nara. Upon arriving grab a tourist map with food recommendations. There are also market stalls around the entry to the park, which sell deer and temple paraphernalia.
Travel around Nara
After catching the train from either Osaka or Kyoto everything is accessible on foot.
Kyoto (3-4 nights)
Kyoto is one of the oldest and most famous Asian metropolises with a comprehensive mix of old and new. If you want to see amazing, colourful temples and shrines as well as beautiful gardens then this is the place for you. You can easily do many different day trips from Kyotos JR station. Kyoto is home to Gion (the Geisha district) as well as some of the most beautiful temples and shrines in Japan. Kyoto has a great vibe, it’s relaxed but still a big city, and a place you could easily spend a week.
Things to do in Kyoto
Spend a day in the Arashiyama area. There are gorgeous temples and gardens, a river with traditional boats, a monkey park atop a mountain with views to Kyoto, a bamboo forest and gorgeous market-style food places. You can hire bicycles to make your way around the little town easier. There are loads of mouth-watering food places lined up along the streets. Be prepared to spend a little bit of money here though – everything costs! If you have enough time on your way home drop over to Kikakuji (the Golden Pavillion) featured in all the Kyoto pictures. Another amazing place is the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Southern Kyoto. It’s famous for the thousands of orange torii gates that wind through the surrounding forest and mountain area. The gates are donated by businesses which, in return, have their names inscribed in black kanji. When doing the Inari gates you can either have a casual walk around the forest or you can make a day of it and hike the mountain. Mount Inariyama has countless vending machines along with the odd restaurant on various parts of the mountain that all have gorgeous views of the surrounds.
Where to Stay in Kyoto
J-Hoppers Kyoto was a great place to stay. Rooms are 2,500 yen for an 8 bed mixed dorm. These were the best bunk beds I’ve stayed in, ever. All hard wood with shelves next to the bed, curtains all around, big mattresses, lamps and power cords and enough room for you to take your backpack in, even on the top bunks. It doesn’t have too many lively drinking places close by but did have some really good, cheap places to eat.
Where to Eat & Drink in Kyoto
Pontochō Street is one of the most atmospheric places to eat and drink in Kyoto. Narrow but long Alleyway Street runs along the river is like stepping straight into a Hayao Miyazaki film! Generally all the restaurants on the riverside are expensive but you can find lots of cheap, cute places on the opposite side.
Travel around Kyoto
The best way to get around Kyoto is by bus and train, depending on where you’re going. Most places you can get to by train but some (such as the Geisha district; Gion) are only accessible by bus. A bus or train ride is usually around 200 yen for short distances.
Kanazawa (day trip from Kyoto)
Kanazawa is a beautiful small town featuring Kanazawa Castle, 21st Century Museum and Kenrokuen Garden; one of Japans most beautiful award winning gardens. This place can be easily done as a day trip from Kyoto as long as you get up early (the ride is about 2 hours).
Things to do in Kanazawa
Spend the first half of the day wandering Kenrokuen gardens and have lunch at a teahouse next to the pond. The garden is breathtaking, especially in autumn or Cherry Blossom season when the colours come out. The name ‘Kenrokuen’ literally means “Garden of the Six Sublimes”, referring to spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and broad views, which according to Chinese landscape theory are the six essential attributes that make up a perfect garden. Artificiality is an integral part of this garden. Most of the larger trees have blocks of wood underneath their branches. These wooden poles either hold the branches up so the trees can grow wider easier (which create spectacular views when they grow out over the ponds) or the wood is used to manipulate the trees into growing into a spiral shape (which make the trunk look stunning).
Travel around Kanazawa
After catching the JR train to Kanazawa you will be getting around on bus. We bought a day ticket for the park circle for 500 yen. Be careful though, we found the buses to be a little bit confusing and actually got hopelessly lost so make sure you have a quick chat to the tour office before you go to catch a bus.
Hiroshima (1 night)
The only thing I really wanted to visit in Hiroshima was the Peace Park, so only nominated one day there. The Peace Park was a mix of beauty and confrontation. Being an Australian I still felt an immense amount of guilt and anger about what happened to so many innocent people here during the war. The park is built on the open field created by the A-Bomb explosion. There are a number of museums, monuments and memorials as well as the A-Bomb Dome, which are the skeletal ruins of the former Industrial Promotion Hall. The Peace Memorial Museum is beautifully set out with most things written in Japanese and English. It displays belongings left by the victims, photos and other materials that convey the horror of the event, as well as exhibits that describe Hiroshima before and after the bombing as well as artefacts from the war and exhibits that present the current status of the nuclear age.
Most eye-opening part of the Hiroshima Peace Museum
Although shocking and hard to digest the museum has pieces of childrens and teenagers clothing alongside individuals stories about what happened to them after the blast. Most people did not die straightaway but died 1-2 days later. Those 2 days were filled with immense pain and confusion as to why their nails and hair were falling out. One story that really got to me was that of a young boy who’s nails had fallen out and amongst the confusion and rubble he became so thirsty he sucked the puss form his fingers. A very effective exhibit is that of a series of telegram protests against nuclear testing written by the Mayor of Hiroshima. Since 1968, each time a country conducts a nuclear test, the mayor of Hiroshima writes a letter of protest to that countries leader. It is sobering to see that there are over 700 letters.
Where to Stay in Hiroshima
J-Hoppers Hiroshima is 2,300 yen per night and is a very short walk away from the Peace Park. Though the 20-minute tram rise from the station isn’t such a breeze with backpacks. The rooms were big and clean and J-Hoppers has lots of nice extras, such as curtains around the beds, a basket near your pillow for phones and lamps and power points next to every bed as well.
What to Eat in Hiroshima
Hiroshimas specialty food is Okonomiyaki, which is a sort of hot plate fried stack of Udon Noodles, cabbage, egg and other delicious things, which is served with a sauce. A plain one is about 600 yen then you can have toppings of fried fish, chicken, etc. Hiroshima is also well known for it’s huge, thick, delicious oysters (kaki), which can be bought for around 500 yen and are served many different ways.
Travel around Hiroshima
Trams are the way to get around Hiroshima. They are quite cheap at about 300 yen a ride.
Beppu (3 nights)
Time to relax? Beppu is a cute small-ish sulphur-smelling town located between volcanic mountains and the beach. It is mainly famous for its relaxing hot springs and laid-back atmosphere. The main area is on the beach, but as you head towards the mountains you begin to smell the “rotten egg” and see more of the traditional-style housing. Despite Beppu’s smaller size there is still 3-4 days worth of things to do and see here. In the winter, it’s also a perfect place to see the monkeys bathing in the warm waters of the Onsen.
Things to do in Beppu
I came to Beppu for the Onsen. I love to soak in hot water and this hot water, with its nutritional qualities, was perfect. My favourite Onsen was Kitahama Spa Termas because it has a brilliant view from the spa of the city and surrounding mountains, and also because you can wear swim wear in the outdoor Onsen. Getting naked in the public Onsen was a bit traumatic at first. But once I did it a few times it became slightly more relaxing. Read about my traumatic experience getting naked for the first time here. Beppu’s main tourist attraction are the ‘Hells;’ spectacular, colourful hot springs for viewing rather than bathing.
Where to Stay in Beppu
Cabosu House Beppu Hamayu had to be the cheapest place I stayed during the whole trip. At 1,500 yen a night for a clean room with only four people in it, it was also the best value! Staff were friendly and it was very accessible (only 5 minute walk to any of the bus or train stations).
Where to Eat & Drink in Beppu
In Beppu I had the best Ramen I’ve ever tasted. It cost 800 yen with free noodle refills so would be easy to share. There is a great food strip in the main area but the price of food in Beppu was a bit higher than the cheap prices I’d become accustomed to in Tokyo. For drinking, this place is small-town. Get your karaoke on at the bars that double as social drinking places. Drinks are around 700 yen.
Travel around Beppu
Costs for transport here are quite low. There are 2 bus lines and a train line. The bus will take you around the hells and other mountainous areas of Beppu for a 900 yen day pass. After Beppu, fly back to Tokyo from Ōita Airport. Flights are around $80. Otherwise the train is your next best, but prices could be more expensive than a flight. Check both.
Best Japan reading material:
A Geek In Japan was a really useful guide for me while in Tokyo. It has a whole chapter with tips of things to see and do in Tokyo as well as another chapter on the rest of Japan. The book is written in a quirky and fun way and light-heartedly delves into the strange Japanese culture and mannerisms. Download it here.
Currency: Japanese Yen (JPY)
$1 USD = ¥108.77 JPY
I was there: May 2013 – Late Spring
If you were going to head to Japan, what season would you go in? Tell me in the comments below!
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