Finding a short term place to stay in Japan can be expensive. GaijinPot has a listing of short term apartments but if even these prices are too high for you, I have listed 10 options below for free or very cheap places to stay in Japan.
1. Internet Cafes / Comic Book Cafes / Manga Kissaten
Price: Around 800 yen to 1,500 yen per night (5 to 8 hours)
I stumbled upon this option one desperate night, having missed the last train home. The only hotel in sight was a Hilton, and since that was beyond my budget I took to the streets.
As luck would have it, there was a comic book cafe/internet cafe, which are known as “manga kissa” (漫画喫茶) or “manga kissaten” in Japanese, right down the street.
I walked into the dark building and was greeted by a large room filled with computer cubicles, nerdy-looking guys and shelves upon shelves of comic books. The receptionist told me it would be 1500 yen for a five hour stay with a private cubical. This also included unlimited access to the comic books, a shower, and all the soda I could drink.
I was sold. I grabbed a Calpis, took a quick look at the comic books, and then headed to my cubical to check my e-mail. The cafe was surprisingly quiet and since my cubical had a very comfy chair, so I was easily able to fall asleep.
A number of internet cafes have a “long stay” option, where you can go in and out of the internet cafe freely if you pay a set amount per week or month. I’ve been told that a small number of internet cafes even have beds. I did not take advantage of the shower, but I now feel like a more worldly person for the experience of sleeping in an internet cafe. Next time you find yourself without a place to sleep, ask around for a manga kissa.
Popular Manga Cafes
Price: From free to about 6,000 yen per night
The traditional refuge of the traveling poor (read: students), hostels are great places to stay in Tokyo. Personally, I mostly use Hostel World to book, but there are a ton of other sites, so be sure to shop around.
Unfortunately, I’ve heard that the hostel community in Japan just isn’t as vibrant and the travelers aren’t as social as in many other parts of the world. Overall, I’ve found Japanese hostels to be clean, well-staffed, and quiet (if that’s what you prefer).
As with any accommodation, it’s a good idea to check the reviews, hostel rules, and location, since there are a few bad apples, a few rather early curfews, and a few hostels that are far away from tourist sites.
That’s the “almost free” part. Now, on to the free part!
If you are familiar with hostels, you may know about the practice of volunteer work exchange, where you do cleaning or other tasks at the hostel for a small, set amount of time in exchange for a free or reduced price lodging.
Just to clear up any confusion about tourist visas ahead of time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan states that a tourist visa covers stays for “tourism…etc. that does not include paid activities”. However, please contact the hostel and immigration ahead of time to make sure of requirements and details.
Volunteer for Guesthouse/Hostel Accommodations (Tokyo)
3. WWOOF Japan (and Other Volunteer Accommodations)
Price: 5,500 yen for a one year membership
Less an accommodation, more an experience. WWOOF stands for “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms” and is a volunteer work exchange program. You work at a host family’s home, business, or farm on average about 6 hours a day, 6 days a week (although this varies with the host) in exchange for food and accommodation.
The membership costs 5,500 yen for one year, and having paid that fee, you get access to the online list of hosts looking for volunteers.
The two months I spent WWOOFing in Japan were among the most amazing times of my life. Many of the hosts are organic (or striving-to-be-organic) farmers, and farm work isn’t always easy. However, the hosts often take the volunteers to famous sightseeing spots, parties, or other interesting events and cultural experiences, and it is a great way to meet people who like to travel a bit off the beaten path.
There are other websites and programs similar to WWOOF Japan, which aren’t as extensive as WWOOF, but still seem to have a lot to offer.
Volunteer for Farmstay/Homestay Accommodations
Price: From free to about 8,000 yen per night
When you think of camping, this is possibly what most people imagine: bringing a tent or camper to a campground, renting an area to place said tent or camper, and spending fun times with your family/friends/lover/dog. Indeed, there are places like that in Japan as well. The cost to rent a space seems to be, on average, about 3,000 yen to 8,000 yen per night.
Yet this wasn’t quite the camping I was going for. Notice how the price I listed says, “from free…”
Slightly less legitimate than your typical bonfire-and-s’mores affair, this is a camping experience a WWOOFing couple told me about. Armed with a tent and Japanese learned from animated Miyazaki movies, the couple would attempt to hitchhike to their next WWOOFing location.
Whenever they were unable to get to the next scheduled location by nightfall, they would ask to be dropped off in a semi-populated area and then would proceed to ask local residents if they could pitch tent on their farmland. To my amazement, they said that they got permission a surprising number of times. If this bohemian way of traveling doesn’t intimidate you, it’s worth a try!
Not at all recommended and probably not even legal, is something called “nojuku”, which is basically just sleeping in a park or field. Equally cautioned against is “ekine”, which means to sleep at a station overnight. Those who have been to Japan before have without a doubt seen drunk businessmen or the homeless sleeping at the station, and there are even entire websites devoted to the endeavor. There are obvious dangers associated with this practice, one of which is having your picture taken by someone amused by your plight.
Couchsurfing is staying at a friend, family, or acquaintance’s dwelling for free, presumably sleeping on the couch, and the Couchsurfing website has turned this into an art.
You create a free profile, filling in details such as name and hobbies and whether you are willing to host, and then you’re good to start sending messages to hosts requesting lodging. There are ways to get “verified,” by providing proof of identify, and a section for reviews, which make you look more trustworthy as a host and guest.
I’ve known some people who were lucky enough to find hosts who’d let them stay at their place for weeks or let guests have run of the house while the host was away on vacation. It’s really a fascinating project!
6. Overnight Buses
Price: About 2,500 yen to 11,000 yen one way (one night)
The overnight bus, known as “yako bus” (夜行バス) in Japanese, is probably going to be the most expensive suggestion on this list. I feel justified in adding it because, in addition to having a place to sleep, you’ll wake up in a place far away that could have easily cost you over 25,000 yen or more by bullet train.
Since I’m someone who can sleep just about anywhere, the night buses suit me just fine. The major cautions I have are to double check the departure and arrive times and get to the pick-up area early, since sometimes it is difficult to find where the bus is parked.
Japanese Overnight Buses
Price: Free to about 50,000 yen per month
Home stays are a wonderful way to experience the Japanese lifestyle short-term and visit Japan without putting a strain on your budget. There are some websites devoted to matching travelers with households looking to host. Also, although homestays are often thought of as options only for students and the young but don’t let age be a factor in whether you look into doing a homestay, as there are many hosts happy to have you stay, regardless of age.
8. Capsule Hotels
Price: 2,000 yen to 5,000 yen per night (also available around 300 yen to 600 yen per hour for naps)
If you aren’t too claustrophobic (or too tall), then a capsule hotel, might be just the right for you. In your capsule, you’ll most likely have a TV, radio, alarm clock, reading light, and, of course, a bed. There are even curtains or little doors that you can close for privacy. Just try not to think about how you are mere inches from the person next to you, separated only by thin wall.
The only downside is that, because of safety and privacy issues, women typically aren’t allowed at these hotels. The capsule hotels are most often found clustered around stations, since they are most popular among drunk business men who’ve missed the last train.
9. Economy Hotels
Price: 2,500yen to 6,000yen per night
Often advertised in English as hostels, economy hotels, known as kanshuku (“simple accommodations”) in Japanese, are actually slightly different accommodations from hostels. While the bathrooms and dining areas are shared, all the rooms are private and typically are outfitted with tatami mats and futons.
Hotel rooms are generally small compared to US hotel rooms, and economy hotel rooms doubly so (although not as small as capsule hotels). At the one I stayed at in Tokyo, I could almost, but not quite, touch both walls while sitting in the middle of the room.
Still, they are a great deal for the price. The rooms often have TVs, a comfy futon, hangers, and sometimes a robe, and occasionally will have free breakfast.
Again, since economy hotels, like many other cheap accommodations in Japan, are aimed at traveling (or drunk) business men, they can be found clustered around stations.
10. Japan McDonald’s
Price: Free to about 700 yen (for one value meal)
You may think I’m joking about sleeping at McDonald’s in Japan, but, sadly, I’m not. One day, soaking wet from the rain, running on two hours of sleep, and miserable because my hotel reservation had been mixed up, I needed to sleep and since the hotel I had booked didn’t allow check-in until much later in the day, I wandered, dead-eyed, around the city.
Luckily, I stumbled upon a five-story McDonald’s. I looked up absently at the higher floors and that’s when I saw it: dozens of people asleep in their chairs in the McDonald’s upper floors. I couldn’t believe it. Needless to say, I rushed inside and ordered a shaka-shaka chicken, then made a beeline for the third floor, where I had seen the most people asleep. It turns out that many of the people there were students who had fallen asleep on their books. So, I got too it.
After eating my shaka-shaka chicken, I took out a book and promptly fell asleep. I got a good three or so hours of sleep there. I’m not proud of this fact, but I can honestly say McDonald’s saved my life — or at least my sanity. Seriously, thank you, McDonald’s.
Granted, fast food restaurants aren’t exactly the most recommended place to sleep, and it certainly could get you kicked out (actually, it is common practice in Japan to ask someone to leave a restaurant if they’ve been there for a long time and if there are people waiting, even at fast food places). So, while I can’t say that I advocate sleeping there, I will say that it is at least a good place to have a shaka-shaka chicken.
For one more extra suggestion, consider:
A popular option for students, dormitories in Japan are very similar to those on college campuses in the US, with individual rooms (although they may have the option for a roommate) and shared bathrooms and living areas. Dorms typically house students, college faculty, or factory workers — mainly people who are going to be staying for a month or longer.
However, several dormitories are available for non-students. Dormitories start at 30,000 yen per month for the cheapest. Dormitories are one of the more expensive options, but can be a deal if you plan to stay for a month or longer or stay in connection with studies or a job.
I hope that this list has given you an idea of the cheap accommodations options in Japan. Happy travels!