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Insider Travel Tips for Beginners Exploring Japan

Learn from this writer’s experiences — and "if-only-I-had-known" moments — so you can plan a more efficient and economical trip and still get out of your comfort zone.

By 6 min read

So you’ve come to work in Japan and are now wondering how to travel around this dynamic country in the most cost- and time-efficient ways? Great, let’s brainstorm together. Read on to learn about the pros and cons of traveling by train, car, bus and plane. We’ve even included insider tips for cheap accommodation and helpful forums for your trip planning.

Save big bucks on transportation

Domestic travel isn’t always cheap in Japan — especially when a lot of the mainstream discounts available for trains are only for people with a tourist visa (for example, the widely-known Japan Rail Pass). However, there are a few train passes that residents can use. The JR Wide Pass allows up to three consecutive days of unlimited travel on the shinkansen (bullet train) and local trains around Tokyo and the Kanto area for ¥10,000 (US$94). The Seishun 18 Ticket allows for unlimited local and rapid train rides across Japan for five consecutive days and is ¥11,850 ($115).

People living in Japan tend to avoid using the shinkansen if possible because the expensive tickets can drain your money pretty fast. For example, riding the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto with a reserved seat may take only 137 minutes, but it costs ¥13,910 ($130).

If you do decide to ride the shinkansen during popular holidays such as Golden Week in May, be prepared to stand all the way to your destination if you don’t have a reserved seat. I stood for five hours from Niigata Prefecture up north to Aomori Prefecture. I definitely would have spent a few more thousand yen notes to buy a reserved seat had I known!

Another option is to slow down and baby step it on the local trains — a good way to save money, get closer to local communities and see more of a region than you would zipping through it on a limited express or bullet train.

It ain’t fun to stand for hours on the bullet train, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do...

If you choose to drive, by all means avoid toll roads — but know that can also add time to your trip, sometimes significantly. If necessary, try to drive at discounted times —  usually late night and sometimes during holidays. If you have an ETC toll-paying card or drive a kei-class (less than 660cc engine) car, then you can enjoy an even bigger discount — sometimes more than ¥1,000 cheaper. Renting a car, though, will cost about ¥5,000 and up a day. Tocoo has very competitive rates.

If you decide to sleep overnight in your car, park at a michi-no-eki (roadside station). These rest stops are located along national highways and provide free parking spaces, restrooms as well as regional and tourist information for road travelers. Most of the time, these stations have local markets — so when you stop, make sure to stock up on some hyper-regional nosh. There are currently over 1,000 such stations throughout Japan. Grab some more insider information on these michi-no-eki and road tripping with GaijinPot’s article about travel by camper van in Japan.

Stop by a roadside station for a quick toilet break or local bites.

For those of you without a driver’s license, traveling on night buses may be the next best option. Willer Express buses cover a wide range of destinations all over Japan and with the company’s Japan Bus Pass you can book up to three buses a day through the company website for a period of three, five or seven days. This discount is available to anyone holding a non-Japanese passport, perfect for residents and one-time travelers.

Sometimes, however, it is cheaper to fly than to use travel overland. Use low-cost carriers such as Peach and Vanilla, or cross-check other travel websites for cheap international flights. In that case, Cheapflights and Momundo have pretty decent prices. Do note that seats on budget airlines are usually tight and the free baggage allowance is usually just seven kilograms. And don’t be afraid to get that scale out you’ve been avoiding to check the weight of your bag before heading to the airport. Avoid expensive charges at check-in (I once got charged ¥20,000 for overweight baggage!) by purchasing extra allowance in advance, if needed. Also, try to get some snacks and/or water before you board the flight; most budget airlines will charge you even for water — at a jacked-up price.

Domestic travel isn’t always cheap in Japan — especially when a lot of the mainstream discounts available for trains are only for people with a tourist visa…

Here are some other ways you can save your wallet from sobbing.

Other discounts and resources

If you’re an ALT on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, you’re eligible to receive a ¥1,000 discount when you book flights with STA Travel. Simply mention that you’re a JET member to a booking agent to receive this offer.

Also, rest assured that the JET travel insurance — according to its policy — offers comprehensive coverage for accidents that occur during travel abroad or temporary visits to your home country. You may even be able to claim back medical costs incurred minus a ¥5,000 deductible.

Most of us are travel bugs here. Use us for insider tips!

If you want to get tips and recommendations for your destinations, you can ask fellow JETs on the JET-setter Facebook page. The tips here apply to travel both inside and outside Japan. If you aren’t a JET, you can also seek out travel advice on other Facebook groups like Japan Travel, Friendly Discussion and the private GaijinPot Facebook group — both of which have around 50,000 members available to help you out.

Saving on accommodation

One or two nights may be okay, but not all of us can afford fancy hotels for an entire holiday. If you’re down for making new friends from all around the world and sharing rooms with other people, spend a night or two at a guesthouse. Regular prices for a dorm-style bed in a Japanese guest house range from ¥1,000 to ¥3,000. Some good websites to look for them are Hostelworld and Booking.com. Make sure you check out the reviews to see if you’re going to a secure place, but the overall quality of a hostel in Japan tends to be pretty high.

Additionally, if you do find a great place on one of the above sites, it can often be cheaper to then go directly to the hotel’s website to actually book it. However, be aware that these sites may not have English support.

Of course, Airbnb and Couchsurfing are available in Japan, too. An extra cultural note, though: the Japanese value gift-giving for house visits a great deal so know that there is at least a slight expectation on you getting a gift for the host family if you decide to couch surf.

For other types of cheap accommodation, check out this guide on 10 different types of cheap places to stay in Japan.

With all these tips and recommendations, it’s time to pack your bags. What more are you waiting for?

What insider travel tips do you have? Let us know in the comments below!

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