Backpacking Japan on a Budget: The Ultimate Guide

Japan temples

Towering mountains and mythological beasts, shiny robots and shinier samurai; Backpacking in Japan is a truly fascinating experience. Over seventy percent of Japan is covered by towering volcanic peaks and snow capped summits; and these mountains, which still hold important religious and cultural significance, provide nothing short of a paradise for budding adventure junkies.

Backpacking Japan can be an expensive affair but luckily there are a few travel hacks that will let you see the country cheap and there’s even one way you can travel around Japan for free! Read on budding explorer…

Backpacking in Japan

Most backpackers start their adventure in Tokyo…

Arriving in Japan

The most common flight destination in Japan is Narita Airport (NRT) which is about an hour from Tokyo. There are a ton of international ferries to Japan, from Korea, Taiwan, China and Russia but for backpackers, Busan (Korea) is likely to be the only practical destination from which to take a boat to Japan. Boats are generally cheaper than airfares but their schedules can be unreliable, and travel times long and tedious. Unless you’re travelling with cargo, spending two days on a ferry is really no fun. It’s fairly straightforward to sort out your Japanese visa before you arrive! 

Travelling in Japan

Japan has one of the world’s best transport systems. Getting around is usually very easy but transportation can really dig a hole in your pocket. Although Japan is expensive, there are a variety of passes for foreigners that can make travel more affordable. 

By train – Trains in Japan are super fast and always bang on time! The confusing aspect of Japan’s railway system is that several private railway networks overlap with the most popular – JR network. I would advise you to download Hyperdia to figure out train routes and schedules. Your best bet is to get a Japan Rail Pass, which allows unlimited travel on almost all JR trains, for a fixed period of 7, 14 or 21 days. This will save you a ton of money! If you are sure about your route, what you can also do is get local or regional passes. There are several types of trains available too, but the Shikansen or the bullet train is the fastest and the best! This is the most affordable way to backpack Japan on a budget. 

backpacking in japanBackpacking Japan – Photo Credit Kathmandu Post

By plane – Japan’s excellent Shinkansen network has rendered flights more of a luxury than a necessity. However, the only way to reach Japan’s outlying islands is by plane.

By boat – Given that Japan is an island nation, boats are a surprisingly uncommon means of transport. Most major islands are linked together by bridges and tunnels. 

By bus – Long-distance highway buses serve many routes covered by trains at significantly lower prices, but take much longer than the Shinkansen, and let’s agree, they are much less cooler! You could also take local buses in smaller towns. Be sure to check the price before you venture into one. They can be surprisingly expensive at times!

By taxi – There are taxis available everywhere in Japan. They are very clean and comfortable but can be pretty damn expensive. Taxi meters are strictly regulated and clearly visible to the passenger. Make sure to get a trip cost estimate from the driver. If you do this, some taxi drivers will stop the meter at the estimated price regardless of how much further the destination may be, which can save you money, but remember this doesn’t happen every time. 

Luckily, Uber is now avaliable in Japan! Uber is hand’s down the best way to get around cities, the price is locked in on the app so you can’t get ripped off and it will always work out cheaper than travelling by taxi. Click here and your first three rides are discounted (plus my next ride will be too – cheers!).

By car – Rental cars and driving in Japan are rare since the public transport is so kickass! Plus most major cities are riddled with traffic jams and the parking is expensive. So it’s best to give renting a car a slip.

My advice would be to backpack Japan using the super cool bullet trains.

So Shinkansen away my friend!

Hitchhiking in Japan

Hitchhiking in Japan is the key to true budget travel and the way to escape the country’s ruinously expensive transport costs but can be fairly tricky. Though it is close to impossible to hitch a ride in Tokyo and other large cities, it gets easier as you move away from major cities. Make sure to always hitch at an interchange or at a gas station and not on the expressways as it is prohibited to go there on foot and the police will rock up. Hitchhiking in Japan is still pretty uncommon so it is likely that you might be the first hitchhiker that your driver has ever even seen, much less picked up. The key to hitchhiking is to look as friendly as possible. 

backpacking Japan budget travel guide

Thumbing a ride!

Broke Backpacker Tip: Put up a sign in Kanji (Japanese script) that says Nihongo dekimasu which translates to ‘Japanese can’. Put smileys in between your kanji characters to earn extra brownie points and more rides!

Entry requirements for travel to Japan

A lot of countries do not need a Visa to enter Japan. All other nationalities need to apply for a ‘Temporary visitor’ visa prior to arrival, which is generally valid for a stay of 90 days. Be sure to check out the Guide to Japanese Visas for more information and then get the visa if required!

Backpacker accommodation in Japan

For backpackers on a budget, Couchsurfing is your best bet whilst backpacking in Tokyo. There are however some truly awesome accommodation options as listed below…

Tokyo Emblem Hostel, Sakura Hostel The Emblem hostel is pretty cheap and awesome.
Hiroshima K’s House Hiroshima
 

My top choice in Hiroshima for backpacker friendly beds is K’s House Hiroshima. It is a cozy and friendly backpacker’s hostel where you will get to meet other backpackers!

Nagasaki Nagasaki International Hostel, Nagasaki House Burabura  

The Nagasaki International Hostel is a beautiful riverside property with traditional historic temples around which you can explore on foot.

Mount Fuji K’s House Fuji View  

My suggestion would be K’s House Fuji View with Japanese style private rooms and shared dorms with a great lounge on the roof top. You could visit the five lakes around Mount Fuji from here.

Kyoto Khaosan Kyoto Theatre, Bird Hostel  

A great place to crash here would be the Khaosan Kyoto Theatre. Clean and comfortable with air conditioning, wifi and free tea!!

Ishigakijima Island   Shiraho Friends House  

This is the only real hostel property on this island It is a cozy little place with separate dorms for men and women.

Japanese Alps K’s House Hakuba Alps  

Awesome spot if you want to hit the slopes in the Japanese Alps. They have reduced lift tickets for sale at the hostel, as well as a 20% off voucher for rentals! There’s even extra space to dry clothes from snowboarding & an awesome kitchen to cook your own food.

Nara Deer Park Inn, Oak Hostel  

My favourite hostel in Nara was the Deer Park Inn, the only budget accommodation in the Nara World Heritage area. This place has a mountain-lodge feel and a great vibe. And like most hostels in Japan,  they have wifi and a shared kitchen.

Book Your Japan Hostel Here!

Where to Stay in Tokyo

BUDGET HOSTEL – A backpacker institution and a great place to meet people, the Emblem hostel is fairly cheap and awesome.

CAPSULE HOTEL – A quintessential Japan travel experience, crashing in a capsule hotel will make for a memorable night’s stay. I recommend Capsule Hotel Asahi Plaza Shinsaibashi in Osaka.

backpacking Japan budget travel guide

A cozy capsule in Tokyo!

SPLURGE HOTEL Wanting to splash out for a night of awesomeness, Shinjuku City Hotel with its five star amenities is the place to chill, or so I am told.

AirBnB in Tokyo – Much of the best value accommodation in Japan is found on AirBnBfollow this link for $35 free credit!

Where to go backpacking in Japan

Whether you are after a chilled day-walk or a harder, multi-day, trek; backpacking in Japan has plenty to offer; I never got a chance to hit up any of Japan’s hiking trails although I will be sure to have a crack at Mt. Fuji upon my return!  

For me, Japan has always been the land of the Samurai. I have long admired the staunch bravery of the Samurai and the sheer tenacity of the Imperial Army during World War II. The wonderful thing about Japan is the painless mix of traditional feudal scenes with that of a buzzing, technological beast of a country.

The cities in Japan are unlike any other; they crackle and pop with energy. Tokyo is a futuristic wonderland of gliding transport, soaring buildings and bright lights. Just a short way from Tokyo lies the ancient city of Kyoto and the first Japanese capital of Nara. In Nara, Geishas still patrol the streets in traditional dress, temples lie hidden in tranquil bamboo forests and it feels as though you may encounter a band of marauding Samurai at any moment. Here is a great Japan backpacking route:

Whilst backpacking in Japan, I never once felt threatened, I was rarely frustrated, the main challenge in Japan is trying not to spend too much money, it’s not a cheap country to travel in.

I managed to go backpacking in Japan for an average of $30 a day over a three week trip; I doubt it could be done for less but there are a few ways you can travel in Japan without breaking the bank…

So, how exactly do you backpack around Japan on a budget and what are your main travel costs going to be? Let me run you through it…

Backpacking Tokyo

Tokyo is an awesome city. There is a lot to do here but it definitely helps to have a Japanese friend to show you around. When I first arrived in Tokyo, I crashed with a CouchSurfing host for the first couple of days which really helped my budget and also helped me get the most out of the city.

Even if you only have a passing interest in Anime you really should visit the studio Ghibli museum, this needs to be booked in advance and can be booked from a machine in most convenience store chains.

The impressive Tsukiji fish market is the largest fish market in the world and is free to visit, get there bloody early!

It is well worth going up to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government offices as it is one of the highest buildings in Tokyo and provides superb views, it is free to go up and if you have time I recommend going up both during the day and at night.

Explore the food culture. Food in Japan is really a level up, delicate, balanced, decorative…each dish a small work of art. If you love sushi get ready to indulge, do your research in advance so you know what to look out for, what you might like to try and appropriate dinning etiquette. There is plenty of incredible food in Japan, go nuts!

The Kodokan (free entrance) is worth a visit although it’s only particularly impressive if it’s in use when you arrive; it is the largest Dojo in the world. 

If you happen to find yourself in Tokyo during the winter, be sure to check out the Marunouchi Illumination, where the cobblestone street of Nakadori is lit up beautifully.

There are plenty of temples and palaces and although these are worth visiting many of them have an entrance fee. If short on cash, I recommend waiting until Kyoto as the most impressive temples are found there.

Some of the parks in Tokyo can be rather good fun to visit and it is worth wandering around Harijuku to catch a glimpse of the infamous ‘Harijuku girls’. 

There is so much cool stuff to do in this city, I just can’t squeeze it all into one blog post. For further inspiration check out Lonely Planet’s Tokyo guide and for an alternative perspective, this gay travel guide to Tokyo by Nomadic Boys leaves no doubt there is something for everyone in this awesome city. 

Backpacking in Japan

Backpacking Hiroshima

Poignant Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is heartbreaking. The park tells the story of how Hiroshima, a previously untouched (by the war) city in Japan, was nuked towards the end of WWII by American forces.

In the park, you’ll find the Atomic Bomb Dome – site of where the first atomic bomb hit, now just a skeletal reminder of the past. The park is free to get into and it costs under a dollar, well worth it, to visit the museum.

You can store your bags in museum lockers for free. When visiting the museum, I recommend splashing out on the audio tour. There are two free films you can watch in the museum’s small cinema. You can get free WiFi here as well so it’s a good place to chill if you’re stuck for a bit.

There is a library in the park where you can use a computer for up to an hour for free.

I personally found visiting Hiroshima to be a really worthwhile but somewhat distressing experience; do some research beforehand so that you have a basic idea of what happened here. 

If you have a spare day on your hands, head off to beautiful Miyajima. An easy day trip from Hiroshima, Miyajima is a fantastic island covered in gorgeous woods. Hike up into the hills to escape the tourist crowds and discover some awesome views as well as herds of cheeky deer.

japan backpacking

Backpacking Nagasaki

Nagasaki is located on the southern island of Kyushu. Like in Hiroshima, there are museums about the bombing, a peace memorial, and a peace park with lots of sculptures and beautiful flowers. Nagasaki is a really nice city to wander around – there are lots of Buddhist temples, gardens and an interesting Chinatown area. It has a pretty chill and laid-back vibe. You could happily spend a couple of days chilling here. 

Book Your Nagasaki Hostel Here!

Backpacking Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji is Japan’s most iconic mountain and watching the sunrise from the top is on many a backpacker’s bucket list. Although it is one of the most popular things to do when travelling in Japan, bear in mind that it stands at an altitude of 3776m and altitude sickness is a real possibility even though the climb itself isn’t very difficult. Anybody with a reasonable level of fitness can climb Mount Fuji but, if you can, it makes sense to do a bit of training first. Start the climb from the fifth station around evening so by the time you reach the summit it is dawn and you can catch the awe-inspiring sunrise. Make sure you tackle the climb slowly, no need to rush. There are several rest stops on the way offering food, drink and a restroom and you can even buy oxygen (you’re unlikely to need it) at these huts if you have altitude sickness. Make sure you are loaded with plenty of water, enough warm clothes, energy bars and great hiking shoes. Check out my backpacking checklist to make sure not to miss out on essentials.

backpacking Japan budget travel guide

Stunning Mount Fuji in Autumn

The climb is best attempted during the official season – From July till the end of August although this is the Mt. Fuji’s busiest time and it can become crowded. At other times of the year, the trekking route is shut due to low temperatures and snow. If you’re looking for a quiet sunrise and to be alone amongst nature, Fuji is the wrong mountain for you. But I will say that if you are going to Japan, you really should try to fit in a visit to Mount Fuji. There is a popular Japanese saying – ‘One who never climbs Mount Fuji is a fool; one who climbs it twice is twice the fool’. So go ahead and give it a shot!

Book Your Mount Fuji Hostel Here!

Backpacking Kyoto

Kyoto is pretty damn special. It is crammed with temples, shrines, castles and legends… 

If you can you should try to stay in Gion, the Geisha district; it is crazy colourful. A Japanese friend gave me some tips on the correct etiquette when interacting with Geishas; Never talk to a Geisha or try to stop them for photos as this is considered extremely rude.

backpacking in japan

Backpacking Japan – Photo Credit YourKamaGraGuide

Kyoto’s famed Golden Pavilion is well worth a visit; it’s a stunning place to spend half an hour or so quietly contemplating the beautiful gardens set in the shadow of the impressive temple. Unfortunately, the entrance price is pretty steep and often it’s pretty crowded; arrive early.  

Nijo-jo is an impressive castle from the outside but is sadly rather empty on the inside, still worth exploring.

Kiyomizu-dera (free) is well worth visiting.

Dairoku-Ji was my favourite temple complex in Kyoto, it has wonderful bamboo gardens where you can sit and read in peace.

There are hundreds of temples and shrines in Kyoto and you could spend a lifetime trying to visit them all. For more info on the best things to do in Kyoto, chat to the locals or look online!

Consult your guesthouse to find out which temples are nearest to you. I have heard great things about Arashiyama’s bamboo forests, an easy day trip from Kyoto.

 

Backpacking Ishigakijima

Ishigakijima is about 400km south of the main island of Okinawa. The colour of the ocean and the fragrance of the flowers is mesmerising. It has the clearest blue waters and if you go snorkelling you will be surrounded by coral and tropical fish. It is a pretty sweet spot for a romantic getaway, what with the peaceful waters and starry skies. It is said that Ishigakijima has the most beautiful night sky in Japan! You could also go explore the Hirakubosaki lighthouse. This is the island to go to if you want to immerse yourself in the nature of Okinawa’s outlying islands.

Book Your Ishigakijima Hostel Here!

backpacking Japan budget travel guide

The Hirakubosaki lighthouse

Backpacking the Japanese Alps

Japan is surprisingly a great place for winter sports. One of the most popular spots is the Japanese Alps. I must warn you that it is not the cheapest to go skiing in Japan. There are plenty of resorts in the Japanese Alps where you can hire (or buy) equipment but it’s obviously cheaper if you take your own stuff with you. Although a bit expensive, you could take a snowboarding lesson, most places offer coaching in English.

Book Your Japanese Alps Hostel Here!

backpacking Japan budget travel guide

Tackling a ski slope in the Japanese Alps

Backpacking Nara

If you have a day free you can make an easy day trip (by train) to Nara, Japan’s historical capital. Nara is full of chilled out parks and more temples including Todai-Ji, the largest wooden building in the world.

Todai-Ji was the only building in Nara which I thought was worth paying to get into, most of the other temples are less impressive and yet still cost around $10 to get into.

Backpacking in Japan

Kicking ass with a shiny Katana…

The picture above? Me kicking ass with a Samurai I was introduced to through Couchsurfing. Seriously folks, in Japan; it’s all about having unique experiences and discovering cool places you wouldn’t normally hear about, my secret weapon for this is always Couchsurfing – it is simply the best way to get to grips with a new place and land on your feet with a social life.

Backpacking Japan Itinerary

Duration: 2 – 4 weeks

Best time to go: Late spring: March – May / Late autumn: September to November (unless you want to see snow!)

Suggested route: Tokyo – Hakone – Matsumoto – Japanese Alps – Alpine Route – Kanazawa

– Shirakawa – Takayama – Kyoto – Nara – Hiroshima – Miyajima Island.

Japan itinerary map

Tokyo

There’s no place better to start backpacking in Japan than Tokyo! It’s ultra modern yet still traditional & it’s neon-lit streets feel like you’re in a sci-fi film. It’s a city of the future, with sleek buildings popping up everywhere, trying to cater for the densely populated city. Tokyo is renowned for it’s fashion & pop culture, so rubbing shoulders with anime characters & ‘Hello Kitty’ is typical, especially around the Harajuku area.

Check out the worlds largest tuna auction at the Sukiji Fish Market, while backpacking in Japan. Try get some decent shut eye the night before as you need to start lining up at 3.30am! You’ll be amazed by the bizarre sea creatures for sale at the market & can indulge in the freshest, seafood sushi ever! If you’re feeling brave & dare to dabble in the famous fugu (blowfish), like on ‘The Simpsons’, find a restaurant that specializes in it & don’t stinge out on a cheap, dodgy restaurant. If the fish isn’t cut & prepared correctly, it could actually kill you! Tokyo is awesome; you’re going to love it! At least give yourself 3 days to get to know this crazy city. Get the Odakyu express train (2x hours) from Odakyu station to Odawara (the base town of Hakone). Remember to combine your Hakone Free Pass with your normal ticket fare & save a bunch of money.

Hakone

Hakone is located within the Fuji-Hake-Lzu National Park area & boasts stunning views of the iconic volcano Mount Fuji! The scenery here is incredible & it’s famous for it’s trekking. It’s also the cheapest place to conquer the summit of Mt Fuji. Use your Hakone Freepass to explore all the attractions in the city like the Odawara Castle & Open Air Museum or relax in one of the natural hotsprings. You’ll need to spend at least 3-4 days here, especially if you wish to do some trekking. Next take a train from Odakyu to Shinjuku (870 yen), followed then by a highway bus to Matsumoto (3400 yen)… It’s your cheapest option!

 

Incredible view of Mt Fuji

 

Matsumoto

The city is famous for it’s old original 16th century castle Matsumoto, commonly known as Crow Castle. Explore the city, visiting Nakamachi street, it’s lined with old merchant houses, the river is also a nice spot to eat dinner at night. You only need 2 days here to see everything. To leave, in the morning get a train from Matsumoto to Shinano-omachi. Then take the incredible Alpine Route to Kanazawa. Just FYI, the Alpine Route is only open from April to November.

Japanese Alps

If you’re hitting the slopes in winter, you’d want to head to Hakuba. It’s in the heart of the Japanese Alps & is where the 1998 winter Olympic games were held. You’re surrounded with 11 different mountains, so you’ve got quite a choice. Hakuba Alps Backpackers is the place to stay during snow season. But they also cater for summer too with hiking, canyoning, mountain biking, kayaking etc. Check out this post for some winter in Japan inspiration… 

Snow walls along the Alpine Pass

Kanazawa

Make sure you visit Kanazawa in spring when travelling in Japan as it’s cherry blossom season! Kanazawa is home to Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens. In winter it’s the end destination of the Alpine Route. There’s a few attractions around the city like the Ninja Temple, Samurai & geisha districts, but the garden is undoubtedly the best. You’ll only need a day or so to explore all of Kanazawa.

Shirakawa

This cute little remote mountain town is also a UNESCO world heratige site, famous for their traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old. There are a few museums here but not too much else, so you only need a day here plus Takayama city is just 50 minutes away.

Zukuri farmhouses nestled in the mountains

Takayama

Spend time exploring the preserved old district of town, check out the Japanese museums & indulging in food when visiting Takayma, whilst backpacking in Japan. The city is famous for it’s biannual Takayama Festival celebrating spring & fall. There are parades in the streets with beautifully decorated floats & celebrations citywide. You’ll only need to do a day trip to check out Takayama.

Kyoto

Kyto is so much fun, there’s a bunch to see & do in this incredible city. There are numerous temples, beautiful gardens, imperial palaces & bold, bright red gates at Fushimi-Inari Shrine. Kyoto upholds formal tradditions like Kiseki dining with a Geisha. The bamboo forest is enchanting to stroll through & the nightlife is pretty good here. But it does make it hard to wake up the next morning & go sightseeing. You’d want to spend at least 4-5 days here in Kyoto.

Glowing cherry blossoms

Nara

Nara is filled with history and was Japans first permanent capital. It’s home to some of the biggest & oldest temples in Japan like Todai-Ji, the largest wooden building in the world. Hang out & walk around the city among the deer that wander about the city. You’ll only need to spend a day or so checking out Nara.

Hiroshima

Hiroshima was largely destroyed by an atomic bomb during World War II, but has since been rebuilt. You can visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park visiting ruins surrounding ground zero. Make sue you visit the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb museum & Hiroshima Castle which is a fortress that is surrounded by a moat, next to a park. You only need a couple of days here, just make sure you take a day trip out to Miyajima Island one of the days.

Miyajima Island

It’s definitely worth coming here if you’re in Hiroshima. The island is forest like & filled with ancient temples. Just offshore is the big beautiful orange Grand Torii Gate marking the Itsukushima Shrine entrance.

Grand Torii Gate on Miyajima Island

8 Weird and Must try experiences when travelling Japan

Sumo Wrestling: Large men pretty much rocking thongs and battling it out – where else in the world do you get to see something so delightfully odd? Check out this site for up to date locations for different events.

Miyagi Zao Fox Village: It’s exactly what you think; a village of foxes. Seriously. The foxes run around freely, some curiously approaching visitors, while others sleep away in the bushes. You can also buy some food to give them, and part of the village is more like a petting zoo – and who can say no to petting adorable foxes?!

Sento: While Japanese Sentos are becoming less common today with the rise of homes in which showers are included, the tradition still lives on. For those who aren’t afraid of a little nudity, why not really immerse yourself in the culture, and check out a Sento? Be sure to read up on the etiquette beforehand so as not to upset the more traditional customers, and enjoy your public bath!

Ikebukuro Earthquake Hall: Keen to feel what a real live earthquake feels like without, you know, experiencing an actual earthquake? This place is awesome – you get the extremely interesting feeling of being in an earthquake with none of the risks while learning what to do should you find yourself in a real earthquake. And if you’re a traveller, you’re probably going to land yourself in some places where it could happen.

Cosplay Restaurants: The basic idea here is it’s a normal restaurant, except the ladies are dressed in French maid outfits, and address you as “master”. Any ladies reading this and not totally loving the idea? Don’t worry – they’ve got butler restaurants for you, too. Hell, there’s even one where chicks dress up as the butlers. Basically, there’s a rather strange themed restaurant for you, whatever your tastes, in Japan.

Cat Cafes: While the rise in popularity of this trend has it spreading across the globe, cat cafes actually originated in Japan (and for those of you who haven’t heard of this delightful treat yet, it’s basically a normal cafe, but there are a bunch of cats… so you can sip on your coffee, and pet a cat while you’re at it). But why stop the fun here?! There are also rabbit cafes, bird cafes, reptile cafes… there’s even a goat cafe. Don’t tell me your cappuccino doesn’t taste ten times better when your non-coffee sipping hand is patting a goat’s head.

Ramen Museum: Yep, this exists. Learn about the many flavours of Ramen, and, more importantly, taste them! This is so much better than the just-add-water kind we’ve all been rocking.

Meguro Parasitological Museum: Not exactly the museum you had in mind? Well, entrance is free, and it’s not exactly the type of museum you’re going to find anywhere else on planet earth. With 300 parasite specimens to view, save this for a few hours after your tasty Ramen has been digested.

Backpacking in Japan

Fox Village

What to Eat in Japan

When you go to Japan, you can’t not try the most obvious foods like Ramen and Sushi but you must try some of the weird shit they have out there as well! Here is a list of Japanese food you must not miss out on!

Sushi

As I am assuming most of you already know, sushi is raw fish served on rice seasoned lightly with vinegar. It’s available in a variety of flavours and textures and goes extremely well with soy sauce. You might think sushi sounds all fancy but it actually originated as street food in Japan. Rolled up in toasted nori seaweed or pressed into fat rectangular logs, delicious sushi can be found in every price range in Japan.

Ramen

Ramen is egg noodles in a salty broth and is Japan’s favourite late night meal. It is simple to make and is oh so filling! One of the most popular ramen shops in Japan is Enji, it has ramen noodles dipped in a thickly concentrated fish-and-pork-bone-based broth- YUM!!

Some soupy goodness!

Takoyaki

Takoyaki or Octopus balls is a widely available snack in Japan. A crisp exterior surrounding a gooey center of octopus, pickled ginger and scallions – this is truly delectable!

Unagi

Unagi is fresh river eel grilled over charcoal and with some sweet barbecue sauce. Unagi is said to be the ideal antidote to the heat and humidity of Japan’s exhausting summers.

Tempura

Light and fluffy tempura is Japan’s contribution to the world of deep-fried foods. It is usually seafood that is batter fried in sesame oil and served with either a tiny pool of salt or a soy sauce-flavoured broth. My favourite was the Prawns tempura!

Delectable, crunchy Tempura Prawns

Miso

Where would Japanese cuisine be without miso? This salty fermented bean paste forms the base of so many soups, sauces and marinades. Every region in Japan has its own special recipe.
Tonkatsu 
Tonkatsu is breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet which is melt-in-your-mouth tender. It is served with a side of miso soup and a mountain of shredded cabbage. This shows some sort of Western influence on Japanese cuisine.

Yaki-imo

Tokyo’s streets are filled with the nostalgic, nutty aroma of roasted sweet potatoes that are sold by these Yaki-mo trucks. It is the feeling of familiarity and home that pulls people to these trucks.

Yakimo street truck!

How much does backpacking Japan cost?

Accommodation: Accommodation is pretty expensive in Japan but there are some good options set up for backpackers. A bed in a ten bed dorm often costs around $30. If you have to book a hostel I recommend the chain ‘K’s House‘ – as they will give you a loyalty card allowing you to make savings throughout the country. Japan is a great place to CouchsurfSee the bottom of the article for plenty of accommodation recommendations or pack your camping hammock & sleep for free!

Food: Food can be very expensive, the cheapest food is available at one of the many 7/11s gracing every street. I mostly ate rice balls and pizza slices and was able to get by on around $8 a day for food. There are some cheap restaurants where it is possible to find a meal for around $12. See below for recommendations on mid-range restaurants to try out in Tokyo!

Transport: Transport can be a little expensive but if you plan ahead, you can definitely save your pennies. The best way to get around is by metro and train and buying a Japan Rail Pass beforehand can be a big money saver. It’s really wise at looking into this in advance of your trip. There are also some multi-day rail passes which are essentially for getting around the country with ease and swiftness. I found the timetables and connections between stations so good that I was able to cover more destinations than I’d originally thought possible in the time I had. Not a planner? I recommend you hitchhike. Cabs are also pretty pricey in Japan.

Although metro services are fairly reasonable, trains can be expensive unless you book them in advance. The best form of budget transport for major distances is bus; I recommend using Willer buses as they are the cheapest around and they operate night services allowing you to save money on accommodation. When booking buses try to book them in advance as this is always cheaper.

Activities: Many major sites and attractions in Japan charge a hefty entrance fee, choose what you want to see carefully. Or, if you have room for a bit of a splurge, you could always get a bad ass tattoo instead!

backpacking Japan budget travel guide

Gorgeous lake Ashi

Budget tips for broke backpackers

Japan can be a very expensive country, luckily though if you follow the tips below you can backpack Japan on the cheap…

Hitchhike: In Japan, it is so so easy to thumb a ride and it is an ace way to keep your transport costs down and instead spend it on smashing experiences. So hitchhike as much as you can when backpacking in Japan.

Cook your own food: I took a small gas cooker with me to Japan and cooked a lot of my own meals whilst hitching and camping, I saved a fortune. Check out this post for a breakdown of the best backpacking stoves.

Couchsurfing: The best way to explore any country when you’re broke is to get on Couchsurfing!

AirBnB: The best way to explore Japan with some comfort and to feel at home whilst travelling is to book an AirBnB. Use this code for $35 free credit.

Rail Pass: The best way to get around the country is having a Rail Pass. Once you have one you can travel without being constantly freaked out by the astronomical cost of buying individual train tickets. 

Eat local: Avoid the big restaurants and stick to street food and seven elevens!

Volunteer: If done properly, volunteering is an excellent way to cut down your costs on the road. I strongly recommend Workaway – you pay just $29 for the year and then have access to literally thousands of projects all around the world where you can help out in exchange for food and board. 

Pack your bible: Learn how to travel the world on $10 a day whilst you get your shit sorted, discover the secrets to longterm travel and build an online income. Check it out here.

backpacking in japan

 

Learning Japanese when backpacking Japan

Japanese is very useful while backpacking Japan. Though most Japanese people speak at least a little English. Knowing a bit of Japanese will take you a long way! It’s so much faster to communicate with the locals in Japanese and they tend to trust you more. Download the app uTalk Go . It is a super magical language learning app. Great to get to grips with the language and learn a few phrases on the go. 

Travel phrases for backpacking Japan

  • Hello – Konnichiwa
  • Thank you – Arigatoo gozaimasu
  • Please – onegai shimasu
  • Yes – hai
  • No –  iie
  • Excuse me – Sumimasen
  • Where is the __? –__ wa doko desu ka? 
  • I don’t understand – Wakarimasen
  • I don’t speak Japanese – Nihongo ga wakarimasen
  • How are you? – Ogenki desu ka?
  • Do you speak English? – Eigo o hanashimasu ka?
  • Where is the subway? – Chikatetsu wa doko desu ka?
  • Is the tip included? – Chippu wa fukumarete imasu ka?
  • How much does that cost? – Kore wa ikura desu ka?
  • Can you help me? – Tetsudatte itadakemasu ka?
  • Where is the bathroom? Ofuro wa doko desu ka?
  • Cheers/ Bottoms up – Kanwai
  • Fool/ Idiot/ Moron – aho, baka, bakayaro (all three are pretty colourful insults when in doubt, use all three!)
  • Eat shit – Kuso Kurae
  • Pervert – Hentai

These are just a few of the phrases I learned. I strongly recommend downloading uTalk  – the language learning app which I use for getting to grips with the local lingo all over the world, the basic membership is free and they cover over 170 countries and counting!

Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll in Japan

Japan is big on sex, alcohol, and pop music to an often extreme degree. What you will not find very easily though is weed. They have very strict rules around the possession and consumption and in Japan, you are guilty until proven innocent. The number of cops is insane and rumour on the street is that the cops are actively looking to bust anyone who looks foreign. So you’re probably better off avoiding getting high whilst backpacking Japan. Check out my article Blazed Backpackers 101, on how to stay safe whilst getting fucked overseas.

Tokyo has one of the world’s best concert scenes. The city is full of small and medium size concert halls called “live houses” in Japanese. There are plenty of genre specific venues in the city including punk, hip hop and jazz clubs. If you’re in town you should definitely check out a show — even if it’s a random band you’ve never heard of! Most small shows cost 2000 – 3500 yen and might feature 2-4 bands. Japan also hosts one of the coolest festivals in Asia – Fuji Rock. This festival is famous for its chilled open air forest theme – rural Japan at it’s best! What better way to explore it than with a groundbreaking music festival. So if you’re around in Japan in July, make sure to check this festival.

Dating in Japan

Tinder is pretty common in Japan. Keep in mind that the Japanese are pretty old fashioned when it comes to love and sex. They prefer to be physically intimate only after confessing their love for each other. Also, it is not uncommon for a woman to ask a man out. So yeah don’t be surprised if a Japanese woman is somewhat forward. Swipe away!

Travel Japan for free

Perhaps one of the best options for backpackers wanting to explore Japan long-term and experience living in this truly incredible country is to get a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course online. TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world.

Teaching English is a truly incredible experience and recently I interviewed a teacher with five years experience teaching English in Japan.

Broke Backpacker readers get a thirty five percent discount on TEFL courses with MyTEFL (simply enter the code BACKPKR), to find out more, please read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.

Alternatively, if you want to find a cheap way to stay in this incredible country for as long as possible, check out Workaway – for just $29 a year you get access to literally thousands of projects around the world where you can volunteer in exchange for food and accommodation.

Backpacking in Japan

Teaching English Abroad – your passport to getting drunk in foreign lands!

Japan is a truly intriguing land with something for everyone and will give you a million “what in god’s name…” moments – which is awesome. Japan is one of my favourite destinations and you should definitely check it out even if you are on a tight budget! And if all that wasn’t enough to convince you, check out this awesome video from Travel Ticker – you’ll be on the next flight to Japan to hike amongst the beautiful mountains of Nikko!

Best time to travel to Japan

Japan is best visited between March to May and September to November. If you want to catch the cherry blossoms, and yes, you do, your best bet is to go backpacking in Japan between March and May. The delicate cherry blossom of spring and the vibrant hues of the autumn leaves are absolutely stunning!

backpacking Japan budget travel guide

Delicate cherry blossom trees

Onwards travel from Japan

Being a series of islands, Japan shares maritime borders with China, North Korea, South Korea, the Philippines, Russia and Taiwan.

Apps to download before travelling to  Japan

Download the following apps as you go backpacking across Japan.

uTalk Go  – The backpacker’s secret weapon when it comes to learning languages, I cannot recommend uTalk enough; whilst backpacking Japan, this is your secret weapon.

Maps.Me – Prone to getting lost or taking that ‘shortcut’ that adds another few hours onto a simple walk? This app is definitely for you. My favourite offline maps app, download your map and route before you venture out to keep you on track while backpacking Japan.

Hyperdia – I would advise you to download this app to figure out train routes and schedules.

Uber: Hand’s down the best way to get around cities and always cheaper than a taxi. Use this link and your first three rides will be discounted!

XE Currency – I used this a lot when backpacking Japan. It is a great help while calculating expenses.

HIDE.ME I always have a VPN ready to go on both my phone and laptop, I personally use Hide Me which is one of the fastest and most reliable options out there. This particular VPN allows for up to five connections which is handy for keeping all your devices connected without having to purchase multiple VPN packages.   

While visiting the land of ice and snow, the Cloud can lead you to productivity. Try Cloud Based Windows Desktops by CloudDesktopOnline and SharePoint Cloud Services by CloudAppsPortal.

backpacking Japan budget travel guide

Surfing the web in private using hide.me

Japan Backpacking Resources

Books to read in Japan

The Backpacker Bible – Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building a life of long-term travel with an online income.  Shameless bit of self promo here but this book is basically my dissertation on backpacking, nine years of tips and tricks and your purchase helps keep the site going. If you’ve found the content on this site useful, the book is the next level up and you will learn a ton – if you don’t, I’ll give you your money back. Check it out here.

Lonely Planet Japan Travel Guide  It’s always worth having a Lonely Planet packed away, plenty of useful info on routes and where to go. 

A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, ZEN, and the Tea Ceremony – Comprehensive and well informed, the book covers a wide array of topics with numerous photographs, providing a lively digest of the society and the unusual culture of Japan.

Kaffka on the Shore – When you talk about Japanese literature, Murakami is the first name that comes to mind. A master craftsman of words, this guy is one of the coolest writers in the genre of magical realism. This book is an elegant and dreamlike masterpiece.

The Tale of Genji  – Lady Murasaki’s great 11th century novel, this is a beautifully crafted story of love, betrayal and death at the Imperial Court.

Memoirs of a Geisha – A masterful portrayal of the intriguing Geishas of Japan, this novel became the centre of a lot of controversies, but remains one of the most poignant portrayals of Japanese Geisha tradition.

Lost Japan – Originally written in Japanese, this passionate, vividly personal book draws on the author’s experiences in the valleys of Japan over thirty years. Alex Kerr brings to life the ritualised world of Kabuki – a classical dance drama.

Kokoro – Kokoro, meaning ‘heart’, is a tantalising novel about the friendship between a young man and an enigmatic elder whom he calls Sensei. 

I am a Cat – The world knows about Japanese and their obsession with cats! This book is based on a nameless cat’s observations of upper-middle-class Japanese society of the Meiji era, the essence of I AM A CAT is its humour and sardonic truths.

Here are some more amazing books to read during your Japan backpacking trip.

Get insured before backpacking Japan

Check out Backpacker Safety 101 for tips and tricks to stay safe whilst backpacking.

I always strongly recommend travelling with a headlamp, it’s hands down one of the most useful things in my pack – check out my post for a breakdown of the best value headlamps to take backpacking.

Before you hit the road and head off exploring, be sure to get some travel insurance (but don’t try to battle a sumo wrestler just because you’re insured, okay?). 

As a wise man once said, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you shouldn’t be travelling – so be sure to get your insurance sorted before you head off on a backpacking trip to Japan! I highly recommend World Nomads.

Exclusive 5% discount with World Nomads – one month only.

For one month only, I can offer you guys an exclusive 5% discount with World Nomads Travel Insurance – these guys are hand’s down the best travel insurance company out there! Simply visit World Nomads through this link and then use the discount code BROKE5 – This is a limited offer that is only running till September 3rd! *Please note – This coupon code will unfortunately not work for US or Canadian travellers due to financial service laws. This promotional code cannot be used with any other discount offer, including World Nomads Members*

 

Even if you don’t get insurance with World Nomads, Please do get some sort of insurance from somewhere, there are lots of decent options online.

Peace and love!

Want to learn how to travel the world on $10 a day? Check out the Broke Backpacker’s Bible…

 

Yay for transparency! Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation, buy a book or sort your insurance, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only link to stuff I’ve actually used and never endorse crap. Your support helps me keep the site going. 

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backpacking japan

31 Comments

  • Daniel Telford says:

    Hi! First of all thanks for the advices. I’m traveling to Japan maybe next week. I’m planning on staying there for about 2 months. If you have any more recomendations, please let me know. I’m definitely using couch surfing. Do u speak japanese? Is it easy to move around being an english speaker?
    Did you happen to here about Shirikawa village?

    Thanks!

    • Will Hatton says:

      Hey bro, my main recommendation is eat at seven elevens – haha! – nice and cheap! Seriously though, its an amazing country but it is expensive so you need to watch your budget; I didn’t get to Shirikawa village I’m afraid. I speak no Japanese although I can count to ten…

  • Ohh! I find your article interesting. Not only because I love Tokyo, but also because your tips are truly useful! Thought Japan is an expensive country, I will visit it in the near future!! <3

  • Nora Shelton says:

    Great post! I have been in Japan twice. I was born there and I visited it last year. Now I have business in London. I am so proud that I am Japan. Thank you for sharing your article! I am glad that foreign people could appreciate the beauty of my country. Best regards!

  • Christian Vielma says:

    Nice! My wife and I included Japan in our backpacking trip this year 2015, and was a great adventure. We posted our executed daily costs in our blog in case you’re interested: http://www.librethinking.com/2015/12/backpacking-asia-20152016-travel-budget.html

  • Love this post! I’ve been to Japan twice, once in Tokyo and another in Kyoto, and I am absolutely in love with the country and the culture!

    But what must have been an awesome experience was that Samurai picture you posted…how does one go about doing this? Please do tell 🙂

    Thanks and I enjoy reading your blog!
    Charles Jamerlan recently posted…Beijing, China – Riding Bicycles, Duck, and Dancing!My Profile

  • Dixie says:

    Hey Will! Your blog is indeed fantastic and helpful! Im planning to travel in Japan this coming August. but i heard it will be to hot & humid? which month did you travel this beauful place? Looking forward to your reply.. Thanks!

    • Will Hatton says:

      Glad its been a help, Dixie. For me the weather was no problem. Of course its great to visit places at the “best time of the year” but that isn’t always an option. The best plan of action is to make the best of a tricky situation. Hope Japan is awesome for you!

  • Nicolas P. says:

    Thanks for all the tips and useful information! Now I want to visit Japan >_<

  • I’m dying to get to Japan and this is all very useful info! I’m impressed with your budgeting skills. Awesome! ??????

  • Caroline says:

    Hey, Will! I was just wondering if you climbed any of the “Holy Mountains of Japan” (Fuji, Tate and Haku). I’m currently teaching English in Japan and want to try climbing at least one of them sometime.

  • Monika says:

    Awesome post with great info dear! Thanks for sharing with everyone. I know you have already mentioned, but I recommend to go to the basement of the Department store. We call there ‘Depachika’. You will find all kind of tasty foods including SUSHI, cakes, Japanese sweets and more

  • Daphne says:

    Really nice post!
    I’m planning in going to Japan next year and I’m trying to
    get all the info that I can. I just found this post and is very useful Thank you
    for share all your knowledge.
    Grettings from Mexico 😀

  • Agnes says:

    Hey! I wish I saw your blog earier, so many places that I didn’t know of! Also want to climb Mt Fuji next time. When I was there in April there was still some snow up there. Budgeting in Japan is hard, the food looks so amazing everywhere that it’s hard to resist. I’ve managed to travel for around $20-$25, but I was hitchiking a lot. I also couchsurfed a few times but it is still not very popular in Japan, comparing to fe South Korea.
    Anywho I live in Okinawa now and definietely would recommend you to visit (if you haven’t done it yet…)

  • Susanna says:

    Hi there, I am looking to hike and camp around Japan, particularly in the Kumano Kodo area, during my Easter holiday next year. I need some recommendations on websites. And of course I would love to write about my experience there for your blog, maybe in exchange for lending me a gopro or something.

  • kristy says:

    Can you tell me where you started to where you ended? so i can take the train accordingly?

  • Stuart Morlan says:

    After I finish college I was planning on backpacking through japan for at most a year, do you have a recommendation on how much money I should have and places I should see that are a bit more off the beaten path?

    • Will Hatton says:

      That’s a tough one… Japan is truly awesome and a year would give you the chance to do some really off the beaten path adventures – I’m heading back there myself soon with the aim to head out into the Japanese Alps and some of the outer islands (I’ll update this post once I’ve been) but I reckon your best bet is to head to the islands… Money-wise; man, it really depends – Japan ain’t cheap but if you hitchhike and camp and couchsurf, it can be. You could consider buying a scooter to get around; transport is the biggest cost.

  • Kimberly says:

    Wow this is such a detailed post so thank you for sharing your experience. I’m considering travelling Japan for a few months next year so it’s good to know that the best time to go is between March and May. It looks like you covered so much while visiting. The Capsule Hostel looks so cosy!

    If I was to go for 2 months and not work how much would you recommend I take money wise? Or would you recommend working as a teacher for at least a month?

    Also, is the food healthy or not in Japan?

    Thanks,
    Kim // http://www.sincerelykimberly.com
    xxx

    • Will Hatton says:

      The food is very healthy in Japan, lots of sushi and vegetables! Money-wise, it’s an expensive country but can be done on a budget of $1000 a month – less if you manage to couchsurf, camp or hitchhike.

  • Japan certainly isn’t an inexpensive country to travel to, but with a little creativity we can work things out, or even just save a little. Another great write up, Will, I love it how you have this “Dating in -” section, it kind of gives a little insight on how you should act around them.
    Agness of a TukTuk recently posted…How to NOT Get Robbed Abroad – Tips for Staying Safe while TravelingMy Profile

  • John says:

    Great review thank you! I’m coming into and flying out of Tokyo April 9/23. Want to tour Japan and looking to buy either a 7 day or 14 day pass. On a budget and wanted to know if you recommend 7 or 14 day JR pass?

    Also do you have any recommendations for my trip on where to go?

    Sample Itinerary: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2400_best.html

  • Jess says:

    Hey Will, thanks for the budget tips 🙂 did you camp much in Japan, and if so where did you set up your tent (in and outside? of cities)? Thank you 🙂

    • Will Hatton says:

      I slept rough a few times in cities and camped outside of cities often; well worth having a tent but in Japan, it’s couchsurfing to the rescue in cities for sure – apply well in advance, there’s not many hosts.

  • Marcel says:

    Hey there Will and fellow explorers, greetings from Canada. Im an explorer, its who i am, i cant help it, it permeates everything i think and do, i have always had a deep need, an unscratchable itch to live, see, and experience all the endless beauty of life in all capacities, be it exploring my constant lifelong love of learning to gain more knowledge and skills, be it exploring a beautiful story, be it my love of finding and exlporing rich life experiences, or among many other things my love of living in the thick of history/culture and travel. I have 7 major dream trips and endless minor ones i been planning since i was 3 lol, japan being my number one, i love japan, i always have, do, and always will, i deeply connect with japan more then any other place body/mind/spirit, from the history and culture to the language, food, philosphies, martial arts which i practice, and everything inbetween. but i have yet to go to japan, ive been all over Canada, but have yet to dip my toes into world traveling, but when i do its never gonna stop, lol, never, im the explorer who loves and imbraces the experience fully, includng the challanges, i get excited by challange, all rich experience come with challange, it enhances the experience, few things worth doing are easy, whats a mountain if you arnt a better person by the time you reach the top, i dont mind and actually love roughing it, and i don’t complain i embrace, complaining is one of the few things in life that has no posotive effect overall, all it does is further feed and foster a negative way of thinking, action solves problems, complaining does not lol.Adapt, overcome, and have fun doing it, one of my many mottos 🙂 also i have an interesting side goal for my travels of always seeing how i can do the most possible for the least amount of money possible, more money means i can do more longer and travel more hehe. Lifelong travel is one of my dreams/goals, and want to live it as well by learning and doing many things including, travel journalism of all kinds, farming, teaching english, translating, interperating, tourism…etc. my long term goals also include studying in and eventually living in japan long term, and man im so excited to finally take the plunge and start that journey, then i can upgrade my vegabond status and start sticking tacks in my map instead staring at it haha and im actually doing it this winter for a month maybe more, fitingly starting with my No.1 dream trip to tour japan from south to north, i love the winter and i want see japan in my favorite season, and do it on a budget, im searching for my ticket now, i saw one in the core of winter date ranges i want a few days ago for only 650ish Canadian which is amazing, but i have never booked a ticket before and am unsure how to go about it so that its done completly and well, whats all included? and what are the steps?, also i need insurance, how do i get that? im more excited by the moment actually for japan and my journey to start haha, i have been researching my trips forever and in doing came across your site, man is it amazing, the great info, the wonderful pictures, so detailed, clear, concise, a great way of laying out guidence from start to finish of your first trip and how to keep it rolling hard, and all with such a fun tone and atmosphere, i love it, i could easily use this as my sole source for learning how to travel as a whole as well as specifics, few others come close and fewer still are on this level, its helping me so much in learning and planning my first trip, and when i saw that you have a book too i got it too, just now actually, thats one of the reasons i decided to coment, thanks and keep up the great work man, like i said one of my goals is to travel longterm and do travel journalism as well, your good at this, i would love to learn from you, where do you think i should start? any words of wisdom? anything would help, i love love writing, photography, video, business, im not shy at all, im good at expressing myself, among other things, to give you an idea of some of my interests, also any extra advise on recomendations of awesome things to do from your own experiences in japan come to mind? Thanks again, nice to meet you, hope to talk again, and keep rocking it, be well, and keeping dreaming, dreaming builds the mind and the heart, and smiling never hurts either lol, Marcel “The Samurai” from Canada 🙂

    • Will Hatton says:

      Hey Marcel and thanks for your message amigo! Words of wisdom… Never give up. Nobody owes you anything. Forge your own destiny. Hard work is the only guarantor of a positive future. Work for your future but do not forget to enjoy the present. Best of luck man! Hopefully catch you on the road for a beer sometime soon!

  • Kyle says:

    Hi guys! Great blog and site Will, really enjoyed it. ^^ If anyone wants to stay in Tokyo long term out short term check out Tokyo Stay. 😀 http://www.tokyostay.co.jp/?lang=en

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