Gone are the days when travel to Japan was exclusive to hedge fund managers and Nintendo geeks, and with it the assumption that it’s expensive, boring and difficult to travel here. In 2015, the country welcomed a record 19.73 million tourists, and the Abe administration recently doubled its goal to attract 20 million international travelers by 2020 to 40 million.
As the government carries out measures to make Japan more accessible to international travelers, we’re seeing transport get cheaper, hearing more foreign languages being spoken, watching new facilities being built and cheering as visa restrictions are relaxed.
What does this mean for thrifty travelers seeking the best in budget adventure? Here’s 5 reasons why you should choose Japan for your next bargain trip.
1. The food is seriously cheap
Japan has the highest density of restaurants in the world, amounting to nearly half a million places to find grub on the go. Best of all, it’s cheap. From ¥100 sushi-go-round (that still tastes better than any sushi you’ll find at home) to Michelin-starred ramen for under ¥1000, it’s ridiculously easy to feed yourself for cheap while traveling around.
Tip: Look out for chain restaurants that are popular with your everyday salaryman. Places like Matsuya and Yoshinoya serve protein-packed gyudon (rice topped with beef) for under ¥500 while izakaya franchise Kinno-Kura has a menu where everything – including alcohol – costs just ¥270.
2. There are discount passes galore
The JR Pass, which offers discount rail travel on pretty much the entire Japan Railway network is a steal from $277 for a 7-day pass. Jump on the shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto then down to Hiroshima and loop back up north to Hokkaido simply flashing your pass to the station attendants along the way. The pass also covers the monorail to/from Tokyo Haneda airport, the ferry from Hiroshima to Miyajima, local JR buses and discounts at JR-affiliated hotels.
Don’t want to take the train? There’s now also a similar pass for planes instead. The JAL Explorer Pass offers travel on Japan Airlines domestic routes for a flat fare of ¥10,800. This often works out cheaper than taking a train or highway bus, and you can reach far away destinations that aren’t served by these networks. Travel in bargain luxury to places like Okinawa, Kochi, Fukuoka and Hakodate.
Tip: On top of this, a lot of major Japanese stores like Uniqlo and Bic Camera offer tax-free shopping for those with temporary visa status. Show your passport and you’ll also be able to get discounts for different activities like cultural workshops, outdoor activities and tours with some travel agencies.
3. Options for cheap accommodation are growing
With Tokyo’s hotels reaching 83% occupancy, Japan is getting creative with its accommodation. Airbnb’s fastest-growing market saw a 500% increase last year, which means there’s a huge range of competitively-priced options to choose from across the country. Roomorama hosts a similar service. Traditional options are also getting a boost as demand rises; capsule hotels are getting more popular as a quintessential city experience; manga cafes, love hotels and minpaku (guesthouses) are getting in on the action too, advertising on online booking platforms.
Tip: Campsites in Japan tend to be dirt cheap. Popular outdoor spots in places like Toyama, Gunma and Daisetsuzan are full of low-cost sites. Wild camping, known locally as “urban camping” (nojuku), though technically requiring the landowner’s permission, is generally acceptable as long as you choose a spot out of the way and tidy up after yourself.
4. It’s safe
Japan’s well-worn reputation as one of the safest countries in the world (apparently the safest in 2014) still holds true and you’re generally much less likely to encounter scam artists, thievery or attacks than you would in other countries in Asia. Dodgy deals and tourist traps are pretty much non-existent so you don’t need to worry about being tricked into giving away your money at gems stores, being overcharged by taxi drivers, or getting a crappy deal for a tour or accommodation. Plus it’s always nice to see a drunk businessman adorably napping on the street using their wallet as a pillow.
Tip: If you lose something you have a very high chance of getting it back – just go to your nearest koban or police box to file a claim.
5. It’s incredibly, majestically, awesomely diverse
From Hokkaido to Okinawa, Japan soars in fragrant misty mountains through ancient cedar-forests, sweeping along roaring rivers above which mysterious temples precariously dangle. It’s neon and noise, the sound of a distant gong and the smell of incense in the rain. One minute you’re in a bullet train slicing from one city to another, the next you’re kayaking through tropical mangroves and sinking into a natural hot spring (with beer). All along the journey are super friendly people there to help you make the most of it.
Tip: Our recently launched GaijinPot Travel site aims to give comprehensive insight into travel in Japan, especially to lesser-known destinations that don’t get much love from guidebooks and other media. Plus, we’re right now giving away ¥100,000 in hotel vouchers to spend at anytime in one of 47 participating hotels throughout Japan. This is part of a running campaign where you could win prizes every two weeks – check here for more deets!