Journeying Through Japan on a Shoestring Budget

Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto Kevin Zhang

Before I experienced it for myself, I thought that living in the world’s largest metropolitan area would cost me.

If you asked my friends who have been to Japan before, they would regale you with tales of sky-high lodging expenses, costly services and novelty attractions. But when I got to Tokyo, I found that with some smart decision-making, I could live well—experiencing all that Japan had to offer without breaking the budget.

Let’s cover the basics first: 

Housing

My rent in Setagaya Ward, just 20 minutes west of Shinjuku station, was ¥50,500 (CAD$550) per month plus utilities (CAD$80). Compare that to Vancouver, where you’d be lucky to be sharing an apartment for CAD$1400 per month!

As Tokyo JET Programme Participants, we are assigned realtors who serve as intermediaries between us and prospective landlords. In my case, I had to specifically request the cheapest rentals. If you speak Japanese, you might fare even better by sidestepping the formal relocation process altogether. Initial startup costs were pricey, coming to around ¥200,000 (CAD$2,000). However, this included a refundable deposit, my first month’s rent and a realtor fee. 

Another option could be to rent a sharehouse, where you get your own bedroom while sharing the common areas like the kitchen, bathroom and living room with roommates. Because the total cost of rent is split between multiple people, you’ll find even cheaper options here. I’ve personally seen some sharehouse rentals go for as low as ¥40,000 (CAD$400 CAD) a month.

Furnishings

Furnishing the apartment on a budget became a fun adventure in itself. I scoured Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and Treasure Factory (a Japanese secondhand store) for used furniture. It was at Treasure Factory that I found a fridge going for only ¥5000 yen (CAD$50) plus delivery.

Food

My first year JET salary was approximately ¥225,000 (CAD$2,250) per month and I was careful with dining choices. Avoiding restaurants or even convenience stores, I shopped at grocery stores.

When I would eat out, I learned that restaurants near tourist areas could charge double for a bowl of ramen, so venturing into less populated districts not only saves money, but also lets you eat authentic dishes amongst locals.

Transportation

Tokyo's inexpensive train system became my main mode of transportation. Anything within 20 minutes, I'd simply walk. I never paid for a taxi; they are notoriously expensive in Japan. If I missed the last train during a night out, an Internet café or a capsule hotel provided an affordable place to rest.

Entertainment and travel

There's an undeniable allure in Japan's diverse landscapes and historic landmarks. Within a year, using only my paycheque, I set foot in almost half of Japan's prefectures.

Each trip is a story in and of itself, but I have listed some of the most memorable ones below, along with some money-saving advice:

• Kyoto: In the city of a thousand temples, my journey began with a night bus. In addition to saving on cost, night buses add a touch of adventure. I booked a hostel near a subway line, ensuring cheap connections to the city's temples and bamboo forests. Proximity to a Lawson (one of Japan's convenience store chain) also meant that a quick and budget-friendly meal was never more than a short walk away.

Mount Fuji: I armed myself with snacks and essentials before even stepping foot on the mountain, well-aware that prices for even necessities skyrocket with altitude. To get there, I took a direct bus from Shinjuku station, running me less than CAD$25 per trip. As a confident hiker, I also opted to do the "bullet climb," starting and stopping without sleeping at any accommodations overnight and bringing only a sleeping bag. This decision—while energy-intensive and fatigue-inducing— easily saved me some CAD$80 CAD in lodging.

Okinawa: Often coined "Japan’s Hawaii," my journey here was twofold: Exploring the island and getting a dive certification. Using flight-tracking tools like Google Flights and Skyscanner, I scoured the listings for discount tickets, ultimately securing a round-trip for half the usual cost. Once there, a pre-booked rented car allowed me to trace the coastlines, seeking out both popular and hidden views. The ocean became my playground, with savings courtesy of an independent diving instructor who was looking to log more lessons on the cheap.

Along the Shiminamikaido: Cycling, rather than driving, became my ticket to experience this diverse archipelago. For less than CAD$30 a day, I rented a sturdy bike that would soon be my mobile home base. Spread over two days from Onomichi to Imabari, I pedalled along, drinking in vistas of blue seas and charming islets. To rest, I slept in a hostel scouted on Hostelworld, which ran me around CAD$25 for one night.

Nagano: In the gateway to the Japanese Alps, I teamed up with fellow JET participants to split the car rental cost, making our snowy adventure wallet-friendly. Interestingly, our accommodation became one of the trip's highlights. We lodged at a traditional ryokan (or Japanese inn). With its tatami mat rooms and sliding fusuma doors, it was quintessential Japan. Our host, an affable woman with a motherly warmth, prepared a sukiyaki dinner (a beef hot pot dish) for us. As we huddled around the table, the savoury aroma of the bubbling pot melded with the laughter and stories of the guests we met. That same evening, New Year’s Eve, we joined her in a local tradition: temple-hopping, culminating with a unique privilege—ringing in the new year at a temple bell. The individual cost for the rental car split, ryokan, and food? Less than CAD$200.

The secret to experiencing Japan on a budget

The charm of Japan lies not in lavishness, but in its rich tapestry of experiences accessible to every traveller regardless of budget. This piece stands as a testament to the fact that with a bit of resourcefulness, you can immerse in the heart of this nation without emptying your wallet.

So if you've ever hesitated before, don't be afraid to dive in and let the Land of the Rising Sun craft its most unforgettable chapters with you.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Kevin Zhang

Kevin Zhang is a researcher specializing in visual cognition and intelligent behaviour. Passionate about how visual storytelling can inspire conservation, he has travelled more than 60,000km around the world photographing the intersection of traditional livelihoods and wildlife. He is currently in Tokyo, broadening his cultural horizons as a 2023 JET Programme Participant.

Website: https://www.instagram.com/kevin.zhvng/

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