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.

Whilst backpacking in Japan, I never once felt threatened, and I was rarely frustrated. This is such an amazing country.

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 spend an average of $30 a day over a three-week trip; I doubt it could be done for less, but there are a few travel hacks to backpack Japan on a budget and experience the country cheaply. There’s even one way you can travel around Japan for free!

I’ve written this Japan travel guide so that I can share my insider knowledge with you. I’ll show you how to travel in Japan cheaply and where you absolutely need to go. By the end of this guide, you’ll be armed with more tools than ninja assassin and will have everything that you need to have an amazing time in this country!

A traveller entering Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kyoto - a top sight in Japan to see
Now Entering: Backpacking in Japan

Why Go Backpacking in Japan?

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.

Every area you travel to in Japan is wildly unique yet still, distinctly (oh, so distinctly) Japanese. 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.

Backpacking in Japan
Most backpackers start their adventure in Tokyo…

Just a short way from Tokyo lies the ancient city of Kyoto and the first Japanese capital of Nara. In Kyoto, 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.

In the North, you’ll find Sapporo and many other ski resort towns, and to the South of the main island is Okinawa, a tropical paradise with white sand beaches.

Throughout Japan, you’ll find dense jungles, craggy mountains, and sparkling lakes. As well to the culture, many people visit Japan to see its sparse variety of landscapes and biodiversities.

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!

Best Travel Itineraries for Backpacking Japan

Honestly, there is so much to do and see in Japan. You can easily spend weeks in Japan, or even months, exploring the massive Tokyo and barely scratch the surface.

If you have the time (and money) I suggest spending extra time staying in Tokyo and Kyoto. If you don’t have the time, then check out these two awesome itineraries, which will give you some solid exposure to beautiful Japan.

3-Week Itinerary for Backpacking Japan: Mountains and the Central Highlights

3-Week Itinerary for Backpacking Japan
1.Tokyo, 2.Hakone, 3.Matsumoto, 4.Hakuba (Japanese Alps), 5.Shirakawa, 6.Takayama, 7.Osaka, 8.Kyoto

This is the perfect itinerary if you have 2-4 weeks in Japan to explore. Start off the adventure in Tokyo. I recommend staying here for 5 days at a minimum. Like I said above, you can spend weeks in Tokyo and barely scratch the surface, but it is an expensive city.

Get the Odakyu express train (2x hours) from Odakyu station to Odawara (the base town of Hakone). If you buy the Hakone Freepass and combine it with your normal ticket fare you can save a bunch of money. Hakone boasts stunning views of the iconic volcano Mount Fuji! Though only on a clear day, so make sure you plan your trip to Hakone accordingly.

Next, take a train to Shinjuku, followed then by a highway bus to Matsumoto, which is famous for its old original 16th-century castle Matsumoto, commonly known as Crow Castle.

japan sakura
Glowing cherry blossom

Next, head to the Japanese Alps, which has some of the best skiing in the world! That said, you won’t be here for the winter season if you are timing your Japan trip with cherry blossom or trekking season. The Alps offer hiking, canyoning, mountain biking, and kayaking in the summertime.

Then, head to Shirakawa and Takayama. Shirakawa is a remote mountain town and is also a UNESCO world heritage site, famous for its traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old. Takayama makes for a great day trip.

Finally, head to Osaka and Kyoto to finish up this amazing trip! The two cities are neighbours but couldn’t carry more different vibes if they tried. Visiting Osaka gives you a more laidback Japan – eccentric nightlife, quirky dialects, and less-reserved locals (within reason). You’d want to spend at least 4-5 days stay in Osaka and Kyoto.

2-Week Itinerary for Backpacking Japan: The Southern Highlights and Delights

2-Week Itinerary for Backpacking Japan
1.Tokyo, 2.Kyoto, 3.Nara, 4.Hiroshima, 5.Okinawa Islands

For this itinerary, you will also start by staying in Tokyo, where you should try to spend at least spend the weekend – preferably more. Next head to Kyoto, another amazing city in Japan and the ancient capital of the country.

Next up is Nara, a city filled with history and Japan’s 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. Then head to 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 the ruins surrounding ground zero.

Make sure 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 2 or 3 days to explore Hiroshima, but make sure you take a day trip out to Miyajima Island on one of the days.

The above itinerary is plenty to keep you busy for 2 weeks in Japan, but if you have a bit more time, catch a flight to the Okinawa Islands area. Okinawa is renowned for its incredible scope of activities: epic festivals and culture, year-round beautiful beaches, and off-the-beaten-path adventure.

What is the One Item Every Traveller NEEDS???

There is one item every traveller NEEDS. Some travellers don’t even know they need it, but those travellers need it more than anyone.

What is this forgotten essential of the backpacker-life? SPOILERS! Guess you’ll just have to click the button to find out. 😉

Find Out What It Is!

Places to Visit in Japan

You really can’t go wrong no matter where you go in Japan. Even a simple stroll down the road is guaranteed to contain something pretty and a tasty snack from the konbini.

Still, here are my top places in Japan to explore!

Backpacking Tokyo

Backpacking Tokyo is an awesome experience. 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 booking a ticket for the Tokyo SkyTree. Being the tallest tower in Japan, not only do you get to see amazing 360 views of the city from the observation deck, but on a clear day, you can even glimpse Mt. Fuji in the distance.

Sightseeing in Tokyo - local cosplay girls posing
Go absolutely bonkers!

Explore the food culture. Food in Japan is really a level up, delicate, balanced, and decorative… Each dish is 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 dining etiquette.

There’s a lot to do here so whether you’re spending a weekend in Tokyo or much longer, be sure to plan out your time properly.

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.

The nightlife is also typically insane in the endearing Japanese fashion, and Tokyo is a super safe city to get loose in. Some of the parks in Tokyo can be rather good fun to visit too, and it is worth wandering around Harijuku to catch a glimpse of the infamous ‘Harijuku girls’.

There are absolutely LOADS of awesome day trips that you can do from Tokyo. I would recommend staying in the Shinjuku area because it’s close to Shinjuku Station which goes to tons of cool places for day trips.

One of the coolest things about Tokyo is the incredible options of accommodation you have. As well as traditional ryokan’s (guesthouses) where you can sleep on tatami mats and rooms have multi-uses (a concept I can totally get on board with), you can also stay in sleep pods and capsule hotels in Tokyo.

Japan is the birthplace and founder of the capsule hotel, so you should definitely consider checking one out on your trip.

Have a nutty trip to Tokyo!

map iconCheck out Tokyo’s places to visit.

calendar icon Plan a killer itinerary for Tokyo!

bed iconHow ’bout a swanky Tokyo Airbnb apartment?

backpack icon Stay at an epic hostel in Tokyo!

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.

The Hakone township itself lies within the Fuji-Hake-Lzu National Park area & boasts stunning views of the iconic volcano Mount Fuji! The scenery here is incredible, and it’s also the cheapest place to conquer the summit of Mt Fuji.

Make sure you are loaded with plenty of water, enough warm clothes, energy bars, and great hiking shoes. Also, put yourself up in a dope hostel around Mt Fuji; somewhere you can rest your head before and after the climb and meet some other cool peeps.

backpacking Japan budget travel guide
Stunning Mount Fuji in Autumn

The climb is best attempted during the official season – From July to the end of August although this is the busiest time to stay in Mt. Fuji 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!

Backpacking Matsumoto

Matsumoto castle in Japan
Matsumoto’s Castle.

The city is famous for its old original 16th-century castle Matsumoto, commonly known as Crow Castle. Explore Matsumoto city, and visit 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.

Backpacking Kyoto

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

If you are planning a trip to Kyoto for the first time, 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.

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.

Kyoto Golden Pavilion
The Golden Pavilion, Kyoto.

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.

Kyoto upholds formal traditions like Kiseki dining with a Geisha. The bamboo forest is enchanting to stroll through & the nightlife is pretty good here.

There are hundreds of temples and shrines in Kyoto and you could spend a lifetime trying to visit them all. Among the ancient temples, you can also explore the hip, alternative side of Kyoto. Kyoto has a sweet underground scene too, though maybe not to the degree of Osaka.

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

For backpackers looking for an epic trekking adventure, consider going on the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trek. This 3-day hike takes you to 5 UNESCO World Heritage sites and even some hot springs so you can soak your weary bones.

Plan out the perfect visit to Kyoto.

Backpacking Nara

If you have a free day, you can make an easy day trip (by train) to Nara, Japan’s historical capital. Nara is full of historic neighborhoods, 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.

Check this picture:

Backpacking in Japan
Kicking ass with a shiny Katana…

That’s 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 travelling by 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 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 – the site where the first atomic bomb hit, and now just a skeletal reminder of the past. The park is free to get into and it costs under a dollar. It’s 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. That said, most backpacker hostels in Hiroshima have WiFi and computer capabilities.

japan backpacking
The aftermath of Hiroshima.

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 occurred here before booking somewhere to stay.

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.

Backpacking Osaka

Osaka is number three of Japan’s major tourist destination cities. Not quite as culturally encroached as Kyoto yet not quite as… insane as Tokyo, Osaka is the brash, rash, and oh so lovable youngest sibling of the three.

Osaka canals looking pretty at night
The Dotonbori is the place to be for nightlife.

The locals in Osaka pride themselves on being a touch less tightly wound than their kin across the isles. They have their eccentric slang, are looser with their tongues (relative to other Japanese people), and even enjoy the odd comedy show.

There is no shortage of cool places to stay in Osaka – it’s one of the places to go in Japan that are more suited to hosting backpackers. With tonnes of cool hostels and plenty of esoteric nightlife, it’s a very good part of Japan to visit if you’re feeling the isolation that sometimes creeps up when backpacking there.

Foreigner or Japanese, you’re bound to make some friends here, especially if you stay in a homestay in Osaka.

Before you travel to Osaka, learn a bit more about the city!

Backpacking Sapporo and Hokkaido

Most travellers don’t plan a trip to Sapporo and Hokkaido. In fact, Hokkaido gets way too little love in the backpacking scene in Japan, so I’m here to fix that! In summer, Hokkaido is a vibrant lush green wonderland of mountains, wildflowers, and fruits to pick.

Come winter, however… holy shit is it cold! But it’s a dreamy Narnia-like snowscape with some of the most majestic fields of powder and frozen lakes that you’ll ever lay eyes on.

The northernmost of Japan’s four main islands, Hokkaido is to Japan what South Island is to New Zealand: a sparser population in a harsher landscape where only the most chill and off-beat of Japanese choose to live.

If you’re looking for the off-kilter black sheep Japanese (particularly the ones that like a little greenery in their ciggies), you’ll find them in Hokkaido.

Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido island, and, honestly, it’s a pretty cool city. It doesn’t have quite the smashing of tourist attractions that a lot of other Japanese cities do, but there are still plenty of cool hostels in Sapporo, quirky things to do, and infinite amounts of unrelenting food comas to swelter through.

Sapporo tourist attraction - Television Tower and Odori Park
Sapporo is pretty in all seasons.

Also, it’s a pretty city! Mountains, greenery, and forest. Truthfully, I just have a real soft spot in my heart for my time staying in Sapporo.

Overall, Hokkaido is about as off the beaten path in Japan as you can get. Travelling it by hitchhiking is going to mean you meet the quirkiest and best of Japanese folks. And if you happen to travel it by motorbike, well, that’s just a rite of passage for many young Japanese seeking their first adventure.

Backpacking Okinawa

Well, we talked about the frozen north, so now we’re talking about the summery south. The Okinawa islands are considerably further than you may expect from mainland Japan: they’re about halfway between Japan and Taiwan.

As such, they have a much more temperate climate. I’d also go so far as to say that Okinawa’s beautiful beaches kinda blow Japan’s rather weak offerings out of the water. Much as Indians travel to Mauritius for their ultimate Hawaii-style holiday, that’s why many Japanese visit Okinawa.

Kouri Island, Okinawa
See!

EXCEPT, Okinawa is not Japan – not really. Long before its annexation and subsequent pilfering by American military bases, Okinawa was its own vibrant land with its own people, language, culture, and music (not dissimilar to many Polynesian peoples).

Travelling to Okinawa is both a chance to see a different side of Japan and to peek at the ugliness beneath the Geisha’s mask of perfection (on that note, ask about the Ainu people when you reach Hokkaido).

Artifacts of history aside, there are plenty of fun things to do in Okinawa and its surrounding islands. Most of them involve beaches, sure, but backpackers love beaches! Beautiful, blissful, sunny beaches. Diving, surfing, and lounging about getting tanned all day – what’s not to love!

Backpacking Ishigakijima

Ishigakijima is about 400km south of the main island of Okinawa. The colour of the ocean and the fragrance of the flowers are mesmerising. It has the clearest blue waters and if you go snorkelling you will be surrounded by coral and tropical fish.

This is a pretty sweet spot for a romantic getaway, with the peaceful waters, starry skies, and some of the best beaches in Japan that you’ll find.

backpacking Japan budget travel guide
The Hirakubosaki lighthouse.

Want to get into some scuba diving in Ishigakijima? The real magic of the island lies beneath the surface of the ocean. You can go for dives and earn your scuba certificate in just a couple of days, which enables you to go diving anywhere in the world after leaving Ishigakijima.

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.

Is This the Best Backpack EVER???
Osprey Aether

We’ve tested countless backpacks over the years, but there’s one that still stands the test of time: the backpacker-approved Osprey Aether.

Want more deetz on why it’s so damn perfect? Then read our comprehensive review for the inside scoop!

View on Osprey View on REI

Top Things to Do in Japan

Backpacking Japan is all about having unique and crazy experiences that you cannot have anywhere else in the world. Below are the top 10 craziest, must-try things to do in Japan:

1. Watch a Sumo Wrestling Match

Fight, fight, fight!

Large men pretty much-rocking thongs and battling it out. Where else in the world do you get to see something so delightfully odd?

2. Real Life Mario Kart

Travellers in Tokyo doing a fun go-kart tour activity
Damn street punks – they askin’ for a blue shell
Photo: Liz Mc (Flickr)

Get ready to race! Nothing like speeding around one of the world’s largest cities, in tiny go-karts, full-blown Mario Kart-style minus the blue shells and lightning bolts.

If you are looking for a bit of thrill and some fun then street go-karting is definitely something to add to your Tokyo itinerary.

3. Bathe in an Onsen

Onsens are hot spring thermal pools that are very unique to Japan. They are usually outdoors and are surrounded by beautiful zen gardens and soothing music. There is nothing more relaxing than soaking in the warm waters of an onsen…until a naked granny sits down next to you.

Full disclosure, you have to be completely naked to enjoy an onsen – no bathing suites allowed. Men and women are separated, so if you’re travelling with your loved one, you’ll have to separate. It’s not creepy or weird though, everyone is so monged out in zen that they won’t even notice you.

If you’re not cool about getting into a pool with naked people then you can get a private onsen which is basically like a bathtub.

If you have tattoos, you won’t be able to enjoy this experience since they don’t like tattoos in Japan. But you might be able to have a private onsen.

4. Find out What an Earthquake Feels Like

Earthquake damage done to a famous castle in Japan
Nature’s a bitch.

Keen to feel what a real live earthquake feels like without, you know, experiencing an actual earthquake?

Ikebukuro Earthquake Hall is definitely an interesting experience…. you get the feeling of being in an earthquake without any of the risks.

At the same time, you can learn about 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.

…Like Japan.

5. Get Lost in Another World

klook teamlab boundless
Look at all those colours!

Enjoy the colorful and eccentric world of teamLab Borderless. This unique immersion will completely stimulate your visual senses. Crafted as a living museum, one without boundaries, teamLab Borderless is an ever changing ecstatic experience.

6. Eat at a Cosplay Restaurant

The basic idea here is that it is 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.

7. Then go to the 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.

8. Random Robot-ness

If over-the-top performances and costumes are your thing then you need to check out the famous Robot Restaurant Show. It is hard to describe this full-on craziness. Everything from the entrance to the handful of extravagantly overdone floors is pushing this Vegas-like energy as you descend into the robot pit. The show itself is full of different themes and acts as two sides battle each other.

9. Go to the 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. This is one of the coolest things to do in Osaka.

10. Marvel at the Samurai Warriors

Photo not of the actual show, but similar to what you can expect.

Have you ever been awed by martial arts and wanted to see samurai warriors in action? Then you’ll definitely want to make sure you catch a Samurai Dinner Theatre in Tokyo.

This isn’t an ordinary dinner though, it’s on the sacred grounds of Kanda Myojint, and you get UNLIMITED drinks and a delicious meal. The show is staged, of course, but it’s still an authentic experience.

Small Pack Problems? 😉

My missus travels with all her clothes in ziplock bags: don’t be like my missus. UP YOUR PACKING GAME!

Packing cubes for the globetrotters and compression sacks for the real adventurers – these babies are a traveller’s best kept secret. They organise yo’ packing and minimise its volume too so you can pack MORE.

Or, y’know… you can stick to ziplock bags.

View Our Fave Cubes Or Check Out the Sacks!

Backpacker Accommodation in Japan

For backpackers on a budget, Couchsurfing is your best bet whilst backpacking in Tokyo. Outside of that, Japan’s hostels and backpacker accommodation are cheap-ish (depending on where you are) but also undeniably excellent in that typical Japanese fashion.

You’ll find the cheapest option would be to try staying at a homestay in Japan. Not only is this affordable but you get to stay with a local who can give you great ideas for things to see and do.

The hostel scene, however, is pretty awesome. It’s super diverse and they have some state-of-the-art amenities, some including co-working spaces and lounges to meet others in. You can expect hostels to cost around $15-$20 per night.

You can expect to meet some interesting characters while staying in a hostel. This is where you can trade travel stories and pick up tips about where to go next. In Japan, it’s quite common for hostels to be capsule-style, this means the beds will be facing inwards instead of along the wall (it’s a great space-saving idea, take note, Ikea!)

Capsule hotels are a thing of the future…

If hostels don’t sound like your thing – or maybe you just want to indulge in a double bed for a special occasion – Japan also has a range of great Airbnbs, but they will cost you a bit more.

You can stay in whole apartments for around $80 a night. You can find traditional ryokan guesthouses on Airbnb, which are much more affordable and another authentic Japanese experience. So it’s definitely worth checking out, even if you are travelling on a budget.

In between swanky Airbnbs and budget hostels are a bunch of great hotels and inns. Hotels tend to be the same everywhere you go, so if you want a unique experience, I highly recommend checking out some hostels for your trip.

The Best Places to Stay in Japan

Check out these awesome places to stay in Japan…

Where to stay in Japan
DestinationWhy visit?Best HostelTop Airbnb
TokyoTokyo is the capital of Japan and is full of quirky and excentric neighborhoods, delicious food and incredible nightlife.UNPLAN KagurazakaBright Condo near Shinjuku
HiroshimaAs well as being the World Cultural Heritage site known for its destruction by the atomic bomb, it’s also a great place to go hiking and dive into Japan’s delicacies.K’s House HiroshimaStudio near Peace Park
NagasakiNagasaki is where you go if you want to have total relaxation. It’s surrounded by volacnoes, which means only one thing – onsens!Nagasaki International Hostel, Nagasaki House BuraburaCentral Nagasaki Studio
Mount FujiIf you love nature, you’ll love staying in the peaceful Mount Fuji National ParkK’s House Fuji ViewRoom with a view of Mount Fuji
KyotoThis is the ancient capital of Japan and is where you will find the best temples and historic architecture. It’s the best place to experience traditional culture.Bird Hostel100 year old Ryokan Guesthouse
Ishigakijima IslandAlso known as Okinawa, is the place to be if you love beaches and relaxing in a tropical setting. Bliss!Guesthouse KISHABAEntire rental unit in Okinawa
Japanese AlpsThis is where you want to head to if you fancy winter sports.K’s House Hakuba AlpsHut in Minami
NaraMost people come here to feed the deer, but it also has a lot of great temples and ramen restaurants.Deer Park Inn, Oak HostelJapanese style room w/ garden view

Japan Backpacking Costs

Backpacking Japan on a budget is possible, but I have to admit it is going to take some well-calculated planning and some sacrifices. If you map out your route and the things you want to do, you can book discount flight tickets, a multi-day rail pass, and other helpful money-savers ahead of time.

It is possible to backpack Japan for $35 a day, but this will mean hitchhiking and wild camping while splurging on a few dorm beds, eating at convenience stores and food courts, and only picking a couple of sites to visit. Transportation is the largest cost, so staying put will help cut costs too.

backpacking Japan budget travel guide
Go slow, be Zen, and the rest shall be cheap… relatively.

But this is Japan. If you want to eat sushi and go to a Robot dinner show, soak it up in hot springs and visit several beautiful shrines, and have a couple of nights out on the town, you will want a minimum of $75 a day.

Were you expecting more? Many people think you need hundreds of dollars a day to visit Japan, but there are a lot of ways to save money and travel comfortably for well under $100 a day. Read on!

There are some good options set up for backpackers. A bed in a ten-bed dorm often costs around $30. (Hey cheaper than Western Europe!) 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.

I know a couple of girls who just hitchhiked and wild camped around Japan, so it’s definitely possible to camp. Just be wary of the wild boars! You’ll have to tie your food up in a tree, but the upside is that you’ll be able to sleep for free!

Travelling by Couchsurfing in Japan is a fantastic option if you’re travelling solo. There are plenty of gracious hosts ready to flex their hospitality cred. And finally, if you are travelling with a group, hotels and Airbnb may be an affordable option too.

Food can be expensive if you’re eating sushi all the time. Cheap 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.

If you don’t want to eat pizza slices all day, Bento boxes are also cheap and can be bought from any convenience store. You can also get Ramen and Udon for around 1000-1500 Yen. Food courts also serve cheap street food!

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 essential for getting around the country with ease and swiftness. A multi-day rail pass can end up saving you a lot of money.

JAL (and Oneworld) and ANA Airlines each offer special domestic fares exclusively for foreign visitors to Japan for not much over 10,000 yen per flight. Just make sure you book these tickets outside of Japan, so before your trip.

Not so much an itinerary planner? I recommend you hitchhike.

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.

Exploring traditional markets, visiting shrines, or absorbing the vibes in Harajuku are all either free or have really low entrance fees!

That said many major sites and attractions in Japan charge a hefty entrance fee, so either choose what you want to see carefully or get a day pass rather than a few individual tickets.

A Daily Budget in Japan

Not sure how much Japan is going to cost you? Here’s a quick overview of what you can expect for a daily budget.

ExpenseBroke BackpackerFrugal TravelerCreature of Comfort
Accommodation$10-$20 (camping advised)$20-$30$40+
Food$6-$13$14-$25$30+
Transport$3-$10 (hitchhiking advised)$10-$30 (JR Pass advised)$50+
Nightlife Delights$4-$8$10-$20$30+
Activities$0-$10$10-$25$35+
Total per day:$23-$61$64-$130$185+

Money in Japan

Fun fact! The Japanese 5 yen coin (the gold one with the hole in it) is called a go’en (i.e. go-yen abbreviated (with ‘go’ meaning five and ‘yen’ meaning yen). BUT ‘goen’ also means destiny in the Japanese language which is why a certain spiritual significance is placed on the 5 yen coin in the Japanese cultural traditions.

Is that relevant? Na, a go’en will still barely buy you four grains of a rice ball, but it’s kinda cool. If you’re visiting shrines in Japan, save up your goen’s to make a wish at the money boxes. Maybe you can wish for a slightly more useful denomination of cash!

A stack of the currency of Japan - the Japanese yen
Though not the most colourful, there’s a certain refined elegance to Japan’s currency.

As of May 2022, 1 USD = 130 yen, or if it makes life easier, think of it as 100 yen = 76 cents!

ATMS are all over the country as are convenience stores, banks, shopping centres, and just about anywhere else you could imagine getting money out. You won’t have to work hard to stay loaded up.

However, international ATMs in Japan do usually carry a chunky fee. Make sure you’re getting out fat stacks at once to save on fees and then make sure you’re hiding your money well when travelling. Even Japan has some buttwipes.

For all matters of finance and accounting on the road, The Broke Backpacker strongly recommends Wise – The Artist Formerly Known as Transferwise!

Our favourite online platform for holding funds, transferring money, and even paying for goods, Wise is a 100% FREE platform with considerably lower fees than Paypal or traditional banks. But the real question is… is it better than Western Union?

Yes, it most certainly is.

Travel Tips – Japan on a Budget

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

  • Cook your own food: I took a travel gas cooker with me to Japan and cooked a lot of my own meals whilst hitching and camping, I saved a fortune.
  • Couchsurfing: The best way to explore any country when you’re broke is to get on Couchsurfing.
  • Eat local: Avoid the big restaurants and stick to street food, food courts, and convenience stores.
  • Camp, camp, and camp some more: Wild camping makes a HUGE difference in Japan, and it’s super easy to get away with… you just take the right adventure gear!
  • 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.

Why You Should Travel to Japan with a Water Bottle

Plastic washes up on even the most pristine beaches… so do your part and keep the Big Blue beautiful

You aren’t going to save the world overnight, but you might as well be part of the solution and not the problem. When you travel to some of the world’s most remote places, you come to realise the full extent of the plastic problem. And I hope you become more inspired to continue being a responsible traveller.

Plus, now you won’t be buying overpriced bottles of water from the supermarkets either! Travel with a filtered water bottle instead and never waste a cent nor a turtle’s life again.

Save $$$ • Save the Planet • Save Your Stomach!
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Best Time to Travel to Japan

Japan is best visited between March to May and September to November. If you want to catch the famous cherry blossom season (and, yes, you do) your best bet is to go backpacking in Japan between March and May.

backpacking Japan budget travel guide
Delicate cherry blossom trees

The delicate cherry blossom season of spring and the vibrant hues of the autumn leaves are absolutely stunning!

What to Pack for Japan

Get your packing for Japan right! On every adventure, there are six things I never go traveling without:

Product
Description
Somewhere to hide your cash
Pacsafe belt
Somewhere to hide your cash

Travel Security Belt

This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off.

A travel water bottle
Grayl Geopress Water Purifier Bottle
A travel water bottle

GRAYL Geopress Filtered Bottle

Having a filtered water bottle means you can drink from just about any source. The GRAYL Geopress is hands-down the most effective one we’ve ever used as well!

For those unexpected messes
Matador Ultralight Travel Towel
For those unexpected messes

Microfiber Towel

Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight, and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.

When the power goes out
Gifts for backpackers
When the power goes out

Petzl Actik Core Headlamp

A decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples, or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must.

Sleep anywhere
Sea to Summit Pro Hammock Set
Sleep anywhere

Camping Hammock

Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks), and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere.

To stay a clean backpacker
To stay a clean backpacker

Hanging Toiletry Bag

I always travel with a hanging toiletry bag as it’s a super-efficient way to organize your bathroom stuff. Well worth having as it helps to have quick access to all your stuff.

Staying Safe in Japan

Japan is safe to visit – one of the safest countries in the world to visit in fact. Honestly, there isn’t much crime here, and people don’t really steal. You can leave your purse unattended in a metro station, and chances are, you’ll get it back.

That being said, you should exercise caution wherever you go. Even in Japan, there are dodgy areas. For example, Kabukich? is considered to be Japan’s “red-light district” and though it’s not legal, prostitution happens here.

Japan has a very low crime rate and most of the crime that happens here is petty crimes like bag or phone snatching. Just be careful when wandering around the cities at night.

Solo traveller in Osaka enjoying the nightlife while touring Japan
You’d be hard-pressed to have a hard time in Japan.

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 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.

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 music festivals in AsiaFuji Rock.

This festival is famous for its chilled open-air forest theme – rural Japan at its best! What better way to explore it than with a groundbreaking music festival. If you’re around in Japan in July, make sure to check this festival.

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!

Get Insured BEFORE Visiting Japan

Traveling without insurance would be risky. So do consider getting good backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure.

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How to Get Into 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.

japan guide
The ferry departing Busan en route to Fukuoka, 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!

Entry Requirements for Japan

Most countries do not need a Visa to enter Japan and will receive 90 days on arrival. All other nationalities need to apply for a ‘Temporary Visitor’ visa prior to arrival, which is generally valid for a stay of 90 days.

If you’re from one of the few countries that are not granted a visa on arrival, you will need to be invited by a Japanese resident and have a letter of invitation along with your visa application. You must then apply for the visa at your local Japanese embassy with all your supporting documents. It should take 5 days to process the application.

Be sure to check out the official page for visas for Japan, and then get the visa if required!

Travelling to Japan During COVID Times

japan covid
It was the best of times, it was the blurst of time.

After a long border close, I am so happy to say that Japan is FINALLY open again! From June 10th, 2020, Japan’s borders are open to tourists.

But, before you get too excited, it’s only for tour packages. Still, this is good news, since before you could only enter under special circumstances (either you’re a foreign resident or you have a exceptional reason to travel to Japan), which was a bureaucratic pain-in-the-ass.

At the moment, aside from those on special tours, only visitors intended for business or employment can enter. However, as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, these things tend to be as loose and uncommitted as marriage vows.

How to Get Around 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 a fairly expensive country, there are a variety of passes for foreigners that can make travel more affordable.

My advice would be to backpack Japan using the super cool bullet trains. Shinkansen away my friend!

A shinkansen bullet train speeds past Mount Fuji in the background - best public transport in Japan
Hitchhiking is still the best way to travel, but let’s be honest… those shinkansen know how to do it.

Trains in Japan are super fast and always 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 (JR Pass), which allows unlimited travel on almost all JR trains (bullet 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.

Buy your JR Pass before you arrive in Japan.

Japan’s excellent bullet train/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.

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.

However, the ferry from the north of Honshu – at either Aomori or Oma – to Hokkaido is a blast. Particularly, the ferry from Oma is sweet: you’re at the misty northernmost point of Honshu island here and a proper fishing village wayyy off the beaten track.

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!

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 available in Japan and a great way to get around

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

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 it can be fairly tricky. Though it is close to impossible to hitch a ride in Tokyo and other Japanese cities, it gets easier as you move away from most 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.

A Japanese backpacker writes a hitchhiking sign in Kanji before the day's travels
Prepping for the hitch.
Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

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.

That said, this is one of the safest countries you can ever travel by hitchhiking.

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!

Onwards Travel from Japan

Being a series of islands, Japan shares maritime borders with:

  1. China
  2. North Korea (less of an option though)
  3. South Korea
  4. The Philippines
  5. Russia
  6. Taiwan

Flights to any of these places plus other major destinations around Asia tend to be pretty cheap. And as a bonus tip, Japan is one of the best places to fly to the Americas and the US from on this side of the Asian continent.

Unless you’re heading to Western Europe, Japan is an excellent travel hub!

Working in Japan

While it’s a much more common country for backpackers to visit as tourists, plenty of travellers do choose to work in Japan. I did! Did I have a work visa?

Huehuehue.

It’s not a strict recommendation considering the infamy of Japan’s working culture.

Work visas for Japan understandably require some hoop-jumping. You’ll need to choose a work visa for your type of occupation (there are separate visas for different types of skilled occupations, a dedicated program for English teachers, and even a Japan working holiday agreements with a list of countries).

You’ll ALSO need a Certificate of Eligibility to obtain a work visa which will require a letter from your prospective employer or sponsor. Work visas for Japan usually run for 1 or 3 years.

I’d recommend this source on Japan’s working visas since it’s a complicated subject with a lot of ins and outs.

Alternatively, there is always the call of the life and times of a digital nomad! With ample WiFi, crackin’ services, and all the cheap ramen in the world, walking the life of a cyber traveller in Japan is an excellent idea! (Minus the hustle with accommodation prices.)

There’s no visa for digital nomads. You could tell immigration about your job and face that admin nightmare that awaits, but considering I tried explaining to a Japanese immigration officer that I was a volunteer and even that was too left-of-field for his understanding, I wouldn’t bother.

Besiiides, we didn’t become digital nomads to do admin and pay taxes. Enjoy your grey areas; Japan is a good place for it. 😉

Teaching English in Japan

Teaching English in Japan is one of the most popular forms of work for foreigners in the country. With the right qualifications (i.e. a TEFL certificate and a degree), you’ll find a lot of doors opening to you with some of the best wages too (relative to the standards of Asia).

The wage is good – enough to put some extra away in spite of Japan’s high cost of living – and you’ll likely be given a place to stay on a contract job too. That helps!

TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world with one! Broke Backpacker readers get a 35% discount on TEFL courses through MyTEFL (simply enter the code BACKPKR).

You’ll need a prospective employer to sponsor you (and to go on a contract too). Usually, English teachers end up working in learning centers or schools, but there are heaps of opportunities!

However, the credentials are high and they are nearly always looking for fluent English speakers with a degree and the right qualifications.

The two things you need to teach English in Japan are an undergraduate degree and a TEFL certificate. Now, possibly you can skip on the degree (he says imagining his diploma and what fine roach paper is made); having both is simply going to make finding a job much easier.

It’s also a tough working environment – don’t expect to work in Japan and have hours left in the day to have fun. Teaching in Japan is hard work.

That being said, a lot of people teach in Japan to save up some more of that travel dollar – so it’s still a good idea to do it for a while and save some money to blow on epic adventures. Of course, teaching English abroad is an experience in itself. There’s no better way to experience a culture than working in it.

If you aren’t ready to go full nomad, try out a gap year in Japan with an agency!

The Future of the SIM Card is HERE!

A new country, a new contract, a new piece of plastic – booooring. Instead, buy an eSIM!

An eSIM works just like an app: you buy it, you download it, and BOOM! You’re connected. It’s just that easy.

Is your phone eSIM ready? Read about how e-Sims work or click below to see one of the top eSIM providers on the market and ditch the plastic.

Buy an eSIM!

Volunteering in Japan

Outside of legal work or illegal work (some might say the BEST kind of work!), volunteering in Japan is another kickass opportunity that I also did. Guess what? It was sick!

A volunteer at an eco-project in Hokkaido plays with the children
Japan takes its Pokemon Go very seriously.
Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Finding volunteering gigs in Japan is pretty easy – even just talking, expressing interest, and (sincerely) playing the role of the inquisitive and well-intentioned traveller will land you some work with a place to stay and ridiculous feasts and hospitality.

As a further personal note, volunteering in Japan is a good way to live the local life and peek beneath the mask of perfection. Japan is very adept at only showing tourists what it wants them to see: volunteering can help you see the real Japan.

Alternatively, scooch on over to Workaway or any of the Workaway alternatives to find yourself a gig lickety-split! Agriculture, hospitality, tourism, volunteering with kiddos (which basically amounted to me going swimming and playing Mario Kart with kids for six hours a day) are just a few of the awesome opportunities you’ll find.

Aside from Workaway, Worldpackers also offers some substantial and rewarding experiences alongside a whole host of other community features unique to their platform.

Plus, if you join the Worldpackers community as a Broke Backpacker reader (use the code BROKEBACKPACKER) at the checkout, you get a fat chunk off the signup cost – 20% OFF your annual fee!

Hai, itadakimasu!

Worldpackers: connecting travellers with meaningful travel experiences.

Culture In Japan

While it is difficult to stereotype an entire society, there are some important things to understand about Japan.

Japan is organized into a hierarchy: age and status matter and younger people show their elders respect and honour. It is rude to refer to seniors with informal language.

In Japan, tone of voice and facial expressions matter a lot since spoken words can have several meanings.

A geish in Kyoto crosses that street at night in front of a konbini
Despite the elegant and pristine mask held on top, Japan is a deeply complex country of stormy dichotomies below.

Another highly ritualistic and meaningful custom in Japan is the gift-giving etiquette. Gifts are given on many occasions.

In business and social settings, punctuality is a must. Seriously, no one is ever late. Even the public transportatino is on time. Time management is important in Japan. It is courteous to show up to a business meeting or social gathering early.

Japanese people value harmony and etiquette in a highly structured and traditional society. Japan isn’t as “individualistic” as many Western countries. Your actions tend to reflect more on your family, community, and peers.

Make no mistake: Japanese culture is one of a kind. It’s extremely fascinating not to mention totally unique. With a good dose of curiosity, mixed in with the usual respect for local traditions, there will hardly be a dull moment for you while getting to know Japanese people.

Useful Travel Phrases for Japan

Japanese is not an easy language, however, learning a few travel phrases long way! Many Japanese people do not speak English well, or feel embarrassed too, so knowing these travel phrases will help you connect with the locals!

Learning Japanese though, that’s where it’s really at. Global Work and Travel offer the opportunity to learn Japanese in either Tokyo City, Kyota or Fukuoka.

You can stay anywhere from 2 to 12 weeks in Japan with small class sizes so you get MORE attention (you’ll need it, Japanese ain’t easy). Plus, what better way to learn than to fully immerse yourself!

  • Hello – Konnichiwa
  • Thank you – Arigatoo gozaimasu
  • Please – onegai shimasu
  • Yes – hai
  • No – iie
  • Excuse me – Sumimasen
  • 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?
  • No plastic bag – bin?ru-bukuro nashi
  • 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 – Kanpai
  • Fool/ Idiot/ Moron – aho, baka, bakayaro
  • Eat shit – Kuso Kurae
  • Pervert – Hentai
Global Work and Travel Promo Code

What to Eat in Japan

The food in Japan is both unbelievably diverse and un-fucking-believably tasty! Cheap instant ramen from the convenience store will be the greatest you’ve ever had. Find an actual steaming hole-in-the-wall ramen bar and its food coma country.

A late-night ramen bar serving food to the nightlife in Tokyo
Food coma country is the only country I want to go backpacking in.

Every area, town, city, ward, whatever – they all pride themselves on their signature dish. You can get ramen anywhere, right? But you can only get Sapporo ramen in Sapporo, and it’s bloody good ramen too! (I can confirm.)

Japanese food is never too anything; flavours are balanced in a delicate fashion, and Japanese people take their cuisine very seriously. It’s also rare to ever eat anything too spicy. Spice tolerance is not a thing in Japan, and most people will look at the gaijin (foreigner) snacking on wasabi like he just started breathing fire.

Must Try Dishes in Japan

But, man, the food, holy shit – trust me: you could forget the skiing, the theme parks, the nightlife, and all the other money-sinks. Just travel to Japan, eat like a Snorlax, and sit in hot springs/onsens (also probably like a Snorlax). You’d be one happy backpacker!

  • Sushi: most of you already know, sushi is raw fish served on rice seasoned lightly with vinegar. You might think sushi sounds all fancy but it actually originated as street food in Japan. Delicious sushi can be found all over Japan in every price range.
  • Ramen: 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!
  • Takoyaki: 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: Fresh river eel grilled over charcoal and with some sweet barbecue sauce. It 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!
  • 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: 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.

A Brief History of Japan

In effort to keep this section brief, I will only highlight Japan’s modern history and focus on the 20th century.

Japan and China have a long history of war. In the 20th century, Japan staged a bombing, known as the Manchurian Incident of 1931 to invade Manchuria, Northern China.

This occupation reached its peak with the Nanking Massacre. It was opposed by the US and other Western powers because of economic implications. Japan then allied with Germany during WWII.

Japanese soldiers in Taiwan circa early 1900s in a historical photo.
Japanese soldiers in Taiwan, early 20th century.
Photo: Wikicommons

The Japanese government was structured around imperialism, which also caused them to enter the Second World War.

They seized several Pacific colonies, such as the Philippines and Malaysia. Much of their occupation in other countries ended in the second war when Japan was forced to surrender because of the nuclear atomic bombings.

This is probably one of the saddest and most significant turning points in Japanese history. Hiroshima was bombed by the US first in effort to end WWII. They soon after bombed Nagasaki. These are the only nuclear bombs to ever be used.

After the world saw the catastrophic implications of nuclear warfare, it has been a constant tension since. There are many moral implications here, as most of the casualties and people affected were civilians, not soldiers. Truly a sad event in human history.

Relations with the US were restored with the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951. In the decades following the Second World War, Japan’s economy grew considerably. Japan still remains one of the world’s most culturally and economically vital countries on the planet.

Sunrise over a a famous shrine attraction in a lake in southern Japan
It’s always darkest before the dawn.

Some Unique Experiences in Japan

Visit Japan in all its kooky, weird, and wonderful ways! And the nature. Mmm, the nature.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima was one of the most monumental and destructive moments in Japanese history.

After the Second World War ended, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Hall was constructed in 1955 to remember those who lost their lives in this tragic event. Those who truly want to learn about Japan and all its history will need to include this on their visit to Japan.

Sitting in an Onsen/Hot Spring

Onsen Japan
An onsen bath.

Onsens are unique to Japan and East Asian countries. They are usually outdoors hot spring pools that are surrounded by gorgeous Japanese gardens, peaceful music, and naked grannies.

Don’t worry though, even though you are sharing a hot spring with other naked strangers, it’s not pervy at all. In fact, you usually have space to spread out and just enjoy being in the warm water.

Men and women are separated, and if you have tattoos, it is likely you will be turned away as they don’t like tattoos in Japan. Some onsen houses will allow people with tattoos to have a private onsen (basically like a bath in a private room), but this is dependent on the onsen house.

Tea Ceremonies

A traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

Drinking tea in Japan is not like boiling the kettle and throwing a bag of PG Tips in a mug. Tea ceremonies are known as chanoyu, or sado, in Japanese, and it represents harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity. The tea has been made in a way that best preserves the taste, and even the way it is drunk has a special technique.

Skiing in the Japanese Alps

backpacking Japan budget travel guide
Tackling a ski slope in the Japanese Alps

Japan is surprisingly a great place for winter sports. One of the most popular spots in 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, and most places offer coaching in English.

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 by 11 different mountains, so you’ve got quite a choice.

Unplan Village Hakuba is the place to stay during the snow season. They also cater for summer too with hiking, canyoning, mountain biking, kayaking, etc.

Stay in a Ryokan (Traditional Japanese Inn)

No visit to Japan would be complete without staying at a traditional Japanese inn and sleeping on a tatami mat. Since space is an issue in many traditional Japanese homes, rooms are often living spaces by day, and bedrooms by night.

You’ll sleep on a soft mattress on the floor, surrounded by authentic wooden sliding doors and paper walls. It’s an experience that you won’t forget.

Wear a kimono

From my experience, Japanese people are always willing to share their culture and history with tourists. One of the ways you can really experience the culture of Japan is by trying on a kimono. A popular activity among tourists is to walk the streets of Gion, the old town of Kyoto, in a kimono. This is the ideal place to get some photos of you in your finest gown, and you might even spot a geisha or two while you’re at it!

A woman wearing a kimono in Gion, Kyoto
DON'T DIE OUT THERE! …Please 🙂
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FAQs About Backpacking Japan

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    Final Advice Before Visiting Japan

    Just be a responsible traveler in Japan.

    Being a responsible backpacker is quite simple: be respectful of Japanese people and their culture. Japanese people value etiquette, respect, and punctuality. Abide by these things, and be respectful when you are visiting temples, shrines, and sites.

    The cities of Japan are the ultimate playground, with plenty of crazy and unique things to do, so enjoy yourself; just don’t be a drunk asshole!

    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!

    Classic postcard photo of a famous Japanese temple and Mount Fuji in the background
    Wish I was there, xx

    Updated June 2022 by Louisa Smith


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