Japan for the Budget Traveler: It's Not as Expensive as You May Think
Whether immersed in fastpaced big city night life or cocooned by the serenity of an ancient shrine, Japan is a land filled with things you deserve to see without being stressed over expenses.
In the past few years, the U.S. dollar has gained considerable strength against the Japanese Yen. Today, 1 U.S. Dollar can be exchanged for about 120 Yen. Yet, even with a favorable conversion rate, many travelers still believe that Japan is too expensive to be enjoyable and checked off of their wishlist anytime soon. Let's debunk that myth right now. While being thrifty can be an extremely positive trait when cavorting around the Land of the Rising Sun it doesn't mean you have to settle for a sub-par experience. Japan is a land rich in culture, heritage, and more. Regardless of your budget, you deserve to sip from the cup of Japan's greatness. Now, to be fair, if you are in popular tourist areas and major cities you will almost always end up paying a little bit more. Listen well, because here is some advice on a variety of ways that you can see it all and not break the bank.
Timing Is Everything
Be Aware of What's Going On in Japan
The time of year you choose for your Japanese experience will drastically affect not just what you are able to see and do but also how much you have to pay for it. If you really want to see Japan as affordably as possible, keep in mind local holidays, major school breaks, and weather patterns while planning your trip. For the ultimate penny pinchers try to avoid some of these fun but costly times of the year.
New Years (Shogatsu) is the largest Japanese holiday. Even though it is an internationally celebrated time of year, in Japan it isn't just about waiting for the clock to strike midnight. Actually, the festivities begin on December 30th and don't stop until the soba and sake run out... or January 3rd arrives. This holiday lasts a few days past midnight because January 2nd is one of 2 days a year where the general public may visit the Imperial Palace.
Temples and shrines aren't free from the hustle and bustle which comes with popularity. They can become packed in the summer thanks to the Obon festival. Although not an official holiday, this three-day festival has dates which vary depending upon where you are in Japan. Obon Festivals take place throughout July and August.
Spring Break is usually in full swing around mid-March. Prices aren't necessarily the reason behind avoiding this time of year. Rather, it has to do with accessibility. When so many schools are on break and families are spending time together, attractions, parks, and shopping centers will all be considerably more populated. This also means that the various modes of public transportation will undoubtedly be more crowded. On the bright side, this means you'll have more people to ask for directions.
Golden Week unofficially begins at the end of April and lasts until the first week of May. Officially, it lasts from April 29-May 5th. By either calendar, Golden Week is hands down, the most intense time to be in Japan. Without question, this is the busiest time to visit Japan since several national holidays are celebrated in quick succession. Finding accommodation and transportation will be a considerably more difficult since many Japanese families go on holiday for a week or more.
Hanami, the act of deliberately viewing flowers, bring throngs of people to parks during early April and Mid-November. Although the blooms depend on the warm weather, these are often the peak times of the year for viewing Japan's renowned Cherry Blossoms and Autumn foliage.
There are a few different methods for traveling around once you reach Japan. How much time you have to spend in transit greatly affects the price of getting around. Each city has a local transportation card of sorts so be sure to check the local rates. If time permits, consider some slower transportation methods because you might discover hidden gems of Japanese history and culture when you take the less speedy route.
Medium and Long range buses are much more inexpensive than express railway travel but you have to have the time. If you know you are going to be on an overnight or multi-day bus ride, there is a Japan Bus Pass by Willer Express that has really great rates.
Japan Rail Pass
The Japan Rail Pass is a very effective way to see all or most of the country. For travelers who want to be cost efficient but not quite hike or bike their way around, this is easily one of the best options. To get your hands on one of these sweet babies, you'll need to do some pre-planning. You have to take an "exchange order" (which you can't get in Japan unless you buy one from certain Japanese based airlines) to a JR Pass ticket station once you arrive in Japan. Feel free to check out http://www.jrpass.com/ for current pricing information and instructions.
***If there is a major school break in effect it is sometimes cheaper to book a 5 day, unlimited, local train travel, Seishun 18 ticket.***
Consisting of over 6,800 islands it is no wonder that Japan has an extensive domestic ferry system. Don't count on English speakers being on staff but the ferries are a way to glimpse a different side of Japan. They are very cost effective. For example, if you want to bring a bicycle, typically it costs about 100 yen per hour of travel.
How to Stay
There are lots of options for the budget conscious traveller in Japan, but keep in mind that efficiency is king. So, while you may not have heaps of space in which to sprawl around, often the amenities and convenience of where you stay more than compensate for what we in the West might consider a lack of room. Did you want to see Japan? Then drop your bags off and go exploring!
These traditional budget inns are a great way to save some cash while getting a uniquely Japanese family bed and breakfast experience. Lots of Japanese hotel booking websites have listings for Minshuku so they are relatively easy to find. While visiting a Minshuku, make sure to take a dip in the traditional Japanese style bath. Weary travelers will feel their stress just dissolve away.
Stay in a Capsule
Now this is a novel experience! Actually, staying in a capsule is a lot like staying in a hostel. Privacy is minimum but they do graciously give you a privacy curtain. The workspaces and bathrooms are both in communal areas so you might get to hear people working on their karaoke songs at any time of day.
Do you love bunk beds and communal bathrooms? Are you comfortable in cramped quarters? If so, a hostel is quite possibly the ultimate budget-friendly option while in big cities in Japan. Hostels are a great place to meet other travelers and to catch traveler suggestions and trip advice. Especially for people traveling alone, hostels are an excellent way to meet new people and save some money.
Free is Fun
There are lots of free things that you can do in Japan no matter where you are. Here are 5 suggestions.
Free Famous Fish
The tuna auctions of Tsukiji Market are known around the world. If you want to check them out first hand you'll need to beat the sun and wake up early because registration begins at 5 a.m. and there are only 120 daily viewing places. You can, of course, arrive later in the morning. There is still a lot going on but if you want the premier experience check the website Tsukiji-market.or.jp to help you prepare this outing since the market doesn’t operate every day.
Big City Fun
Let's face it, people watching is still heaps of fun. Head to Shibuya Crossing and every few minutes a tidal wave of people will flow across Shibuya Crossing. If you don't want to Join the masses there is a bridge corridor linking Shibuya Station with the Shibuya Mark City complex which makes a perfect vantage point. From here you can also view Okamoto Tarō's piece of modern art entitled, "Myth of Tomorrow". Two spectator events for the price of none.
Advertising Museum Tokyo is a super interesting museum. One of the best features of ADMT is the entry fee or the lack thereof. If you are someone who has difficulty imagining the world in which a museum dedicated to advertising campaigns could be enjoyable, just remember the Super Bowl Commercials and Coke-a-Cola empires of the globe. They are some crafty fellows who have sparked interest with advertising generation after generation. This museum highlights some of their most brilliant projects.
Even if you don't have time to see a full Sumo match you can still watch them practice. There are various training halls, called "stables", where people often gather at the windows in the mornings to watch the sumo go through their daily exercises.
Japan has some immaculately manicured parks but sometimes a garden is just a bit more impressive. The Hotel New Otani has one such incredible garden. Amazingly, the glorious garden is older than its hotel by approximately 200 years.
Unless otherwise stated, these images are courtesy of FreeImages.com
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