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…
- Arriving in Japan
- Travelling in Japan
- Hitchhiking in Japan
- Entry Requirements for travel to Japan
- Backpacker Accommodation in Japan
- Where to go backpacking in Japan
- Backpacking Japan itinerary
- 8 Weird and Must try experiences when travelling Japan
- What to Eat in Japan
- How much does backpacking Japan cost?
- Budget tips for broke backpackers
- Learning Japanese while backpacking Japan
- Travel phrases for backpacking Japan
- Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in Japan
- Travel Japan for free
- Best time to travel to Japan
- Onwards travel from Japan
- Apps to download before travelling to Japan
- Japan backpacking resources
- Get insured before backpacking Japan
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, I recommend VisaHQ if you want minimum hassle.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Where to Stay in Tokyo
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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!!
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 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.
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!
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 Couchsurf. See 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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Peace and love!
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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