Doing Japan without busting your budget requires some research and in my experience, lots and lots of walking. I took a tip from my babysitting days and was on my feet all day checking out parks, neighborhoods and free attractions so I’d sleep soundly that night whether on a night bus or on a too-thin mattress in a capsule hotel.
When I visited, I stayed outside in order to see the sakura (cherry blossom) in full bloom and pretty much only ate udon noodles, since I didn’t pack heavy enough clothes and needed to warm up. The walking around part was planned, but the noodles were very much an unintentional and effective way of saving money. Saving on my food budget also allowed me to take nicer night buses.
Picking a neighborhood and promptly getting lost in it or trying to find it is my preferred method of travel. In Osaka, I got around with a multi-day train pass and spent the better part of two days wandering through Dotonburi, Tennoji and Namba. The Shitennoji temple has a small entry fee, and is just the beginning of temple fatigue, especially if you go to Kyoto, but is well worth the trip.
Nearby Nara is a great and nearly free day trip aside from lunch and transport. Well-marked trails wind through through peaceful parks and wooded areas to pagodas and temples. The whole experience is a great way to calm down if getting away from a stressful situation or just gearing up to face rush hour in Tokyo. Well, the pushy deer and equally pushy families kind of ruin the perfection, but that’s a tiny and enclosed area.
Also close to Osaka is Kyoto, which is doable in a day but can be stretched to more. Daily bus passes are available in the train station. The route hits all the major attractions, like the Toji Temple and Kiyomizu Temple. Both of these have reasonable admission fees, and are totally worth it. There are thousands of temples and shrines in Kyoto, so there are endless viewing combinations. Many are World Heritage Sites, so you’re guaranteed a few heart-stopping moments throughout the day. Luckily, gorgeous blossoms or foliage plus intricate designs helps slow the fatigue. If it’s just too much, walk along the river and veer into the narrow side streets for more modern sights.
Getting Around on a Budget
To get to Tokyo, the bullet train is always an option, but the plethora of buses allow for free accommodation. There are tons of kinds of buses, but I’d absolutely recommend the Ladies’ Bus (delightfully misspelled as “Ledies Bus” when I went). It’s more expensive than the eco or standard buses, but the seats are big and cozy, it’s super quiet, and there were only about four other women on it when I went. The eco buses are not worth the leg cramps.
In Tokyo, Asakusa, Akihabara and of course Harajuku are musts for a day spent walking. Start off the day at the Imperial Palace, which opens at 9am. It’s free, and is right near Tokyo Station, so grab breakfast after arriving around 7am and then head over. Asakusa is home to the giant Sensoji Temple, along with rowdy markets and all manner of shops. Akihabara is filled with electronics shops, and Harajuku is of course a fashion mecca. The outrageous styles also come with out-there prices, although there are few vintage shops with great prices at the end of the street. Before window shopping, take a breather at Yoyogi Park on the other side of Harajuku Station.
Do you have any secrets for staying within your budget in Japan?