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I Tried Traveling Japan for $30 Per Day, Here’s What I Learned

Japan may have a reputation for being expensive, but for the hardy (and stingy) is it possible to travel the country for cheap?

By 5 min read 1

Japan is a notoriously expensive destination. According to the popular travel resource budgetyourtrip.com, even the most budget-conscious travelers in the land of the rising sun can expect to spend around ¥10,000 (about US $70 at current rates) daily.

For a 25-year-old skint backpacker, this estimation was unacceptable. I aimed to cut a meandering route from Sapporo in Hokkaido down to Fukuoka in Kyushu. I gave myself three months to cover this 2,250-kilometer journey and planned to spend ¥4,000 per day. Considering Japan’s leniency towards freedom camping, ample cheap food and myriad free attractions, I thought it surely possible to travel this road for cheap with a few strategic budget cuts.

Freedom Camping in Japan

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Camp under the stars.

First on the chopping block was accommodation. I acquired a NatureHike tent from Amazon for just over ¥10,000. The tent comfortably slept one person and had a small, stealthy footprint. Pitching a tent without permission on private property or in national parks in Japan is prohibited, though outside of these places, the legality of “freedom camping” is often murky. For the most part, camping outside campgrounds is unpopular to the point where there are seldom official rules prohibiting it. This map overlay, created by a dedicated community of backpackers, proved exceptionally useful. It shows free campsites, onsen and roadside attractions from Hokkaido to Okinawa. For tent-owning travelers on a budget, it’s an essential tool.

If you have the nerve to sleep on beaches, beneath overpasses or in parks, freedom camping is the most effective way to save money while traveling in Japan.

In terms of getting around, the nation’s highway bus network is a popular alternative to Japan’s speedy yet expensive railways. Willer, a popular service for inter-city transport, frequently offers tickets between Tokyo and Osaka for under ¥5,000-⅓ of the price of a train ticket along the same route.

Travel by Thumb

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Learn the rules of hitchhiking in Japan.

Though affordable, busing between cities avoids some of the best parts of traveling: spontaneous encounters on the road. Seeking these, I marched my pack to the curb and extended my thumb. Hitchhiking in Japan is prohibited along toll roads. Outside of these, however, provided you’re not obstructing traffic or presenting any other potential hazard, traveling by thumb is entirely legal. Throwing oneself at the mercy of passersby is a nerve-wracking prospect for even the hardiest travelers, so it’s hard to recommend hitchhiking in Japan to all but a few. However, those comfortable with the pitfalls of freedom camping might find it an exciting way to save a few dollars.

How To Stay Safe While Hitchhiking in Japan:

  • Never hitchhike after dark.
  • Trust your instincts.
  • Don’t be afraid to turn down a ride, even if it seems rude.
  • If camping alone, don’t reveal where you’re staying.

While many travel blogs emphasize castles, food, and museums as Japan’s best attractions, it’s crucial to remember that the nation’s most remarkable feature is its people. Without them, Japan loses its essence. Hitchhiking forces one into the company of regular, curious and, above all, kind locals. On my way to Kyushu, I rode alongside young couples, grandparents, priests, truckers, teachers, and, I suspected, at least one mafia member. I stood in the rain, missed ferries and was more than once left stranded amid rice fields after dark. But these drawbacks were worth it.

Now, more than ever, it feels important to remember that most humans are inherently good. Every ride, meal, and bed I received from strangers who steadfastly refused my offers to pay hammered home this truth.

Soul Food

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The cheapest option.

From sushi to ramen to lesser-known delicacies like adzuki beans or Kagoshima’s black pork, each corner of Japan has something delicious to offer the hungry traveler. It’s possible to save money on food while subsisting on more than cup noodles, especially by eating at chain restaurants. Conveyor belt sushi offers a sizable meal of 10 plates costing anywhere between ¥1000–1500. Alternatively, Sukiya, Yoshinoya, and Matsuya are famous for affordable bowls of meat and rice.

Noodles are similarly cheap. Marugame Udon is a popular chain offering a build-your-own-udon experience where customers can select broth, noodles, and toppings according to taste and budget. Ramen, myriad varieties of which can be found in almost every settlement, is rarely pricier than $10 and always fills the stomach after a long day. This isn’t mention Japan’s convenience stores, the best friends of budget-minded backpackers. For the almost three months I spent on the road in Japan, each day started in one of these oases with a $5 meal and coffee.

Run for the Hills

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Spend your day in nature.

In terms of cheap attractions, for a country of over 120 million people, Japan still contains marvelously untouched nature. It’s hard to imagine that the heaving cities of Tokyo and Fukuoka exist in the same universe, let alone the same island, as the tranquility one experiences in Honshu’s northern Alps or Kyushu’s western islands.

For those looking to save money in Japan, it’s well worth eschewing Japan’s cities for these equally exciting destinations, which one can experience for a fraction of the cost of a night’s clubbing. Before I knew it, I was at customs preparing to leave Japan. I’d left a little over 5,000 steps behind and, admittedly, more yen than I’d planned. Some days, I could stay within that ¥4,000 budget through the aforementioned cuts. Yet, I found my wallet significantly lighter on others, particularly one ending in a cocktail-charged stampede through downtown Osaka.

As Japan shrank into the horizon behind me, I eventually cared little about how much money I’d spent because the country had given me more than I could ever have paid for. On a daily budget of ¥4,000 or ¥40,000, your travels in Japan will introduce you to a fascinating culture, breathtaking nature, and warm, curious, altogether unique people. In short, the experience will be one thing above all else: priceless.

Have you tried these budget-saving tips? Let us know in the comments.

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  • Douglas Brooks says:

    Normally the first question a driver asks a hitchhiker is where they are going. In Japan I learned to always ask the driver that question before saying anything about where I was going. The reason? Because many Japanese, having stopped, will then feel obligated to take you where YOU are going, often at great inconvenience to themselves. I’ve also had Japanese rescind the offer to drive me because they couldn’t go all the way to my destination. I couldn’t convince them that getting part way to my destination was nearly as good as getting a ride all the way there. So ask first where the driver is going and then determine whether or not this works for you. I used to not tell people my final destination, but say that I was going right where they were going. Harmony preserved and at least I’d gotten further down the road.

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