Let’s face it; backpacking can be tough. Depending on how long you want to explore for, your budget could be stretched EXTREMELY thin. In our case, travelling for 8 months, we’ve limited ourselves to a budget of $50 a day, and through South East Asia have knocked that down to a meager $30 a day to offset the higher costs of our eventual ‘European leg’. I’m not going to lie, $30 a day was a very strict guideline to stick to, one that we would occasionally hit, but would usually slip past.
So imagine how we well we would stick to that budget when we decided to book a (semi) last minute flight to Japan and spend a week in Tokyo?
Japan is not exactly a place people would think of backpacking; the cost of accomodation is high, food and drink is expensive, and getting around the city can cost a fortune! However it doesn’t have to be!
Before I start this article, I want to stress that we were far from ‘budget backpackers’ on this leg of the trip: by golly, our 2 days at Disneyland was equal to nearly a weeks budget in other parts of Asia! But although my money anxiety has been running wild here in Tokyo, we haven’t regretted any of our financial decisions (except for eating at The Rainforest Cafe; that was very expensive and very underwhelming) and would do it all again if we could!
So, even though we were a bit boujee in Japan (I say that in the loosest sense possible), there are still plenty of ways to save some cash in one of the most notoriously expensive cities in the world.
Here are some ways we saved money in Tokyo, and some ways we didn’t.
WAYS WE SAVED MONEY
Finding free alternatives to ‘expensive experiences’.
There are a lot of free things to do in Japan. You could probably spend a whole day exploring and spend next to nothing, outside of food and transport costs (but more on that later.) In saying that, there are also plenty of activities that can leave a dent in your daily budget: Cat Cafes, themed bars, roller coasters, and highrise lookouts will quickly deplete your cash, especially if you try to knock them out over a few days. Luckily, there are plenty of affordable alternatives to save you some cash for that extra bowl of ramen!
For example: instead of soaring high into the clouds to see the views of Tokyo from the Skytree or Tokyo Tower (costing a mean 2060 yen, and a slightly more reasonable 900 yen, respectively), why not take a trip to CBD and ride the elevator to the top of Tokyo Government Metropolitan Building for a FREE view of city!
Instead of shelling out a fortune for tickets to a Sumo Wrestling match (not to mention risk waking up early, making your way to the sumo wrestling for 7am, only to find out the tickets sold out within 3 minutes, like I did on my first Japan visit), why not call ahead and reserve your place at a sumo wrestling training match? It’s free and definitely a more unique way of seeing the sport. Whilst we didn’t have the time to experience this, there are multiple guides online on how to do it yourself!
There are also a variety of free activities for you to seek out. You can visit Yoyogi Park on a Sunday to ride a tandem bicycle, enjoy a 1950’s dance battle by the local rockerbilly gang, watch a student rendition of West Side Story performed in broken English, or just take a Bento bowl and people watch.
Afterwards, you can walk down the crowded streets of Takeshitadori Street, or jump on the subway to Akhibara. So much of Tokyo can be enjoyed for the price of a metro ticket. Everything is fairly close to each other, and is easily accessible by Japan’s impressive subway and train system, which brings us to another way we saved some cash.
Buying a public transport card
The first time I visited Japan with my friends Jeremy and Joe, we planned a trip from one end of the country to the other. This meant that we would need to catch a few Shinjakens, or bullet trains. These trains can cost between $50-150, and if you’re taking a few during your stay, these costs can add up. Luckily for travellers making long distance commutes, there is a Japan Rail Pass which can be purchased for 30,000YEN-60,000 YEN (for one week or three week passes) which allows you to make trips on the JR line for free. This allowed us to make a lot train rides free of charge, but sometimes the Japan Rail Pass isn’t always worth it.
When Jemma and I visited Japan this time, we were basing ourselves completely in Tokyo, making a JR Pass pointless. What we did utilise, however, was the 72-hour metro card. The card covers all of the major lines in Tokyo, so for 72 hours, you can ride the subway to nearly anywhere in Tokyo for only 1500 yen. That works out to nearly $5.20 a day! This was by the far the most economical way to explore, as the price of Uber and taxis can get very pricy.
Working out what we NEEDED to eat
One thing we were most excited to experience in Japan was the incredible food scene. Sushi, ramen, udon, gyoza, curry, MosBurger… we wanted to try it all. Since we didn’t have an incredibly long time in Tokyo, it was important that we had a detailed plan of what we wanted to eat so that we didn’t waste money on meals we didn’t need. We wrote down a list of foods we wanted to try, and where the best (and cheapest) place to get them was. We mostly used TripAdvisor (I have list on my TripAdvisor profile of everywhere we ate in Tokyo), but apparently you can get some decent listings on CultureTrip.
Sharing our meals
One of the advantages with travelling with a companion is the opportunity to share food. Not only does it allow you to try more food (by ordering two meals) but you can save by ordering a large meal and splitting it two ways. A lot of the time, the meals we ordered were quite large and easily fed the two of us. Even if the meal isn’t that big to begin with, upsizing to a large ramen might only cost 200-300 yen more when the meal cost 700 yen in the first place, thus saving us nearly up to 500 yen.
Buying our lunches from 7-11
A common myth is that eating in Tokyo is extremely expensive. I’m not going to say it’s cheap, but I’d wager the price of food is fairly comparable to Australian prices. In Australia, however, I don’t eat out every day. A good way to save on cash is to buy your meal from everybody’s favourite convenience store 7-Eleven. 7-Eleven Asia-wide has a large selection of meals ready to eat, and it’s no different on Japan. You can get sandwiches, onigri, bento, noodles, a range of pastries, and even fried food like chicken and corndogs are available for less than 500YEN. We lived off of pizza flavoured steamed buns when we were there, and they only cost us 130YEN. SO GOOD!
But 7-Eleven is more than just food in Japan…
Pre-Drinking at 7-11
The price of alcohol is also a little expensive in Japan, but thankfully 7-Eleven has saved our arses again. Instead of spending over 500YEN (~$7AUD) on a beer or over 800YEN ($10) on a cocktail at a bar, why not save some cash by buying premixed drinks at 7-Eleven. Konboni’s (the Japanese term for convenience store) sell a variety of alcoholic drinks that are more affordable than buying drinks at a bar, and with Japan’s fairly lax public drinking laws, why not pick up a few bevvies and get your drink on in the local park! Chuhai, for example, is a 500ml premixed drink coming in a variety of flavours and can be up to 9% ABV and can really pack a punch. A few of those (or one, in our case) is enough pre-drinking to loosen you up without having to loosen your purse strings.
We spent a night prowling the narrow but bar infested streets of Golden Gai and we experienced first hand that drinking could be expensive, man. Even though the entrance fees for bars in Golden Gai can already be fairly dear (500-1000YEN cover charge), the price for drinks can start at 600YEN. The cheapest bar we found was a charming but seedy karaoke bar, Bar Champion. With no entrance cost, drinks for 500YEN and a song on the karaoke jukebox for 100YEN, after extensive first hand research, we determined that this was the cheapest spot to drink in the Gai (but don’t forget to watch out for various Happy Hour specials at nearby bars.)
Limiting your ‘big experiences’
As I mentioned earlier, there are many ways you can blow your budget in Tokyo; a lot of ‘big ticket’ items to eat into your budget. It’s stupid to suggest that you shouldn’t spend a little money here and there; after all, what’s the point in travelling if you don’t get to experience the local culture? However, if you feel like you NEED to eat at the Robot Restaurant, or see a baseball game at the Tokyo Dome, why not limit yourself to just a few. You can still stick to a budget of ~$70, even with some of these expensive expenditures added on to your daily itinerary. If you refer to the section earlier in this article regarding ‘finding free alternatives’, you can use some of the money you would’ve spent to experience the more expensive side of Tokyo, like visiting Tokyo Disneyland!
Visiting DisneyLand on a budget
OK, so this one definitely pushes the limits of ‘budget backpacking’ and puts us more into the ‘boujee backpacker‘ category, but as two theme parks performers, there’s no way we could go to Tokyo and NOT go to Disneyland.
Although exciting, the idea of going to Disneyland on our budget was a little anxiety inducing. To combat that, we came up with some ways to save serious dosh when visiting the parks. Obviously, we need to eat, so before visiting we did some research on where the best and cheapest place to eat would be. We settled on sharing a curry in Casbah Food Court whilst at DisneySea for 980Y, and sharing a calzone from the Pan Galactic Pizza Port at Disneyland for 840Y.
We made sure to grab a few pizza rolls for breakfast from the local 7-Eleven, as well as a large supply of snacks to keep us well fed throughout the day! We also saved our dinner (the more expensive meal of the day), and simply got a burger from the nearby McDonalds on our way home (as it was the only restaurant open at midnight.)
We saved ourselves a ton of money by not buying a lot of merchandise, which can set you back quite a bit. Our only souvenirs were a postcard for our family, and a Chip and Dale keychain set. If you feel the need to buy merchandise for your visit, consider buying last seasons stock from the Shibuya Disney Store!
WAYS WE DIDN’T SAVE MONEY
Going to Disneyland
Obviously this was going to be the main way we ran over our budget. Yes, we had an amazing time, and yes, it was absolutely worth the money, but our two days (including food and accomodation) did cost the equivalent of six days budget. Ce la vie.
Despite buying our breakfast and dinner outside of the park, as well as bringing snacks for during the day, we still spent a lot of money on food. There are a plethora of snack options available in park that were too good for us to pass up, and we wound up buying pizza spring rolls, churros, ice creams, and two flavours of popcorn across the two days we were there.
Even though our accomodation was very affordable, it still averaged at double the price of accomodation across the rest of Asia, and the room was significantly smaller (although that seems to be the standard for Japanese accomodation.)
Sharing small meals
I mentioned earlier that sharing meals is a great way to experience a large variety of food whilst saving a decent amount of our budget. Sadly, this bit us on the butt when it came to certain meals. Not every meal you buy in Japan will be big enough to split, such as our visit to a Gyoza restaurant, where we split a 6 piece gyoza and some cucumber in miso. This was a relatively expensive and unfulfilling meal, and it led to us snacking constantly throughout the day, which leads to the next way we wasted cash.
Yes, I mentioned earlier that snacks are cheap from convenience stores like 7-Eleven or Lawsons, but that doesn’t mean you need to snack every day! You can probably tell that we were obsessed with the food in Japan, and that extended to all of the street food and snacks you can buy throughout the city. Unfortunately, we’d gotten used to the prices of food in Thailand in Vietnam, and hadn’t ‘weaned’ ourselves off of getting the munchies everyday. A Coca Cola, and a chocolate in Tokyo will sadly cost you more than it would in Australia. If we snack one or two times a day, that can add another $6 or $7 to your daily budget.
Not learning the currency
The last time I visited Japan with my two friends, the exchange rate was approximately 100YEN=$1.10. I rounded that down to 100YEN equals $1 to work it all out a little quicker; whatever the price is in yen, just move the decimal a few places. Unfortunately, the exchange rate wasn’t as appealing this time around, and 100YEN was equal to ~$1.40. I, however, didn’t think to look it up beforehand and used the previous exchange rate to work out prices. It was a nasty shock checking my bank balance a few days later to find that our 1000YEN meal was $14 instead of $10.
As a golden rule before visiting ANY country, make sure you have a comprehensive idea of what the currency is valued at first. I use the app Currency Converter Plus and have found it quite accurate so far, and is a good way to work out the price if you can’t do it yourself. Double check before, however, as I used this app in Iran and the conversion was wildly inaccurate, but otherwise it’s always on the money.
Not planning ahead
The most prominent way we wasted money in Tokyo was by not planning ahead. Our trip was completely spur of the moment; we were originally planning on heading into Laos and Cambodia, but difficult and time consuming border crossing led us to the decision to book a last minute flight from Ho Chi Minh to Tokyo. It was a decision neither of us regret, but leaving it so late to book accomodation did leave us with very little options.
The hostel scene is not cheap in Tokyo (one couple we met said they spent 50GBP each a night for their dorm), and most AirBNB’s were either very expensive or booked out. We spent $80 a night combined for our relatively cramped private hostel room, that was quite a distance from the heart of Tokyo. As I recall, the AirBNB’s I would stay in on my last trip were affordable enough, and were centrally located, but these options were unavailable at such late notice, add to the fact that we chose to visit during Japanese school holidays.
This also is a reason you should plan ahead; we had no idea we were visiting at the peak of Japanese holidays. Everything was crowded, things got slightly more expensive, and accomodation was hard to find. If we had planned ahead, maybe we would’ve chosen to visit Japan at the beginning or the end of our trip.
Well there you have it, folks. A list of ways we saved money, and a few ways we wasted it. Hopefully this serves as a guide for you, future traveller, to affordably backpack around one of the most expensive cities in the world. More important than saving money, however, is enjoying yourself. Don’t let a tight budget stop you from having a good time!
If you liked this article, you may also want to read about the time Joe, Jeremy, and I snuck into an abandoned Japanese theme park.