The ultimate guide to discovering Japan on a budget
I was always interested in visiting in Japan, but admittedly knew very little about the country. And wanted to visit on a budget.
I had studied early Japanese cinema, and had developed a love for “J-Horror,” a genre of horror cinema which is popular in contemporary Japan. Karaage (fried chicken) and ramen (noodle soup) are staples in my diet, and from what I’d see in the romanticized film Lost In Translation (2003), Japan would be an adventure. But, I was by no means a Japanophile.
“Japanophile” is a term which dates as far back as the 18th century, and refers to the appreciation and love of Japanese people, culture, or history (in Japanese, the term is "shinnichi" (親日). Today, there are different degrees of Japanophilia: Weeaboo is a mostly derogatory slang term for a Western person who is obsessed with Japanese culture, especially anime, often regarding it as superior to all other cultures. There is also the term Otaku, which casual anime fans use in the context of being a well established fan who knows much about anime and manga. Wapanese describes a person who is “completely obsessed with Japan” and Japanese products.
These terms point to a practise of xenophilia (finding difference attractive) revolving around Japan. This degree of xenophilia for a country is rarely this extreme, and is also, of course, problematic. Cultural appreciation can very quickly wander into the realm of racial fetishization, and fetishization of Asian cultures has long been attributed to the colonial West. Remnants of this colonialism, and essentially “othering” of Asian cultures resonates today, potentially in cultural phenomenons like “Japanophilia.” My desire to visit Japan was in part inspired by my curiosity about other people's interest in Japan. I wanted to know what it was about Japan that so vehemently captured the fascination, and sometimes obsession, of Westerners living thousands of kilometers away. I was curious as to why I knew so little about Japan, but so much about other people’s obsession with Japan.
Nestled in our one-room apartment in Hong Kong, my partner and I snagged a seat sale to Tokyo. We worried about the notorious costs of traveling Japan, but as per usual we figured we would sort ourselves out. A couple days later we were on our way. We had booked nothing, and had no plans. The second we landed, we were disoriented. With no wifi, and no Japanese phrases in our vocabulary, we struggled to find our way to the Tokyo neighborhood Shinigawa, where we intended to stay in a share house. We stood on a quiet, dark street near Oimachi Station staring at our downloaded phone map. The issue was, our map was in English. The street signs? They were in Japanese. We were already lost in translation. Literally. A nearby door opened and we turned to see several men in black pea coats, carrying briefcases, leaving a microbar. We asked them for help, and the next thing we knew they’d whipped out their own phones and were trying, rather competitively, to decode our English map. They led us in various directions, laughing about our debacle, and they cheered when our alleyway street was finally found. Needless to say, we would break our budget the next day to invest in a SIM card - mobile data! Later that evening we stood outside a restaurant staring at a dizzying vending machine. Covered in buttons with Japanese script, we had no clue how to order ramen and a beer. A man dining inside saw our struggle and came out to guide us. We pointed at his meal and he smiled, hitting the correct buttons and asking us both, beer? This restaurant system is unique to Japan, designed to be efficient. You order your meal through a vending machine, which you pay, and receive a ticket from. When you enter the restaurant you take your seat and hand your ticket to the attendant. Thanks to the help of this local stranger, we overcame our first meal ticket challenge and enjoyed our first bowl of ramen in a cozy restaurant. The hospitable welcome of this first evening set the tone for a trip full of adventures, laughs, and challenges. Read on for a list of the most memorable and distinctly Japanese experiences we had in Japan, and how we managed a budget:
Purikura is a wildly popular activity amongst young Japanese. Simply put, it is a fancy photo-booth experience. Your photos are taken by a machine in a larger booth (tons of standing room) and are then sent to an “editing machine.” You have a set amount of time to edit your digital images, and can do anything to them from adding make-up to your face, to placing stickers and text around the image. We found a purikura parlour in Shibuya, Tokyo. We were ready to partake. As with everything in Japan, it was a messy game of hitting random buttons, but we did end up with some hilarious photos.
Tokyo is famous for its microbars, which have existed in the city since the 1960s. These bars are exactly what you imagine: tiny. The most famous area for microbars is called “Shinjuku Golden Gai.” This area is known for its 6 alleyways of microbars, many of them so tiny they have space for only four or five patrons at a time. Although many of the microbars in Golden Gai have shifted to accept tourists, these bars are known to serve their own communities of regular, faithful patrons. While exploring Golden Gai we popped into one such bar, aiming to visit one that didn’t have drink lists in English posted outside. Sure enough, we found ourselves in a 5 seater bar trying to chat with the elderly barkeeper. We used a translator app to communicate with her, and enjoyed a warm bottle of sake, served traditionally. Our hostess kindly introduced us to “gingko” nuts, providing us a small dish of them. Through our translation texting, she explained to us that we should not eat too many of them, because they can be poisonous. Soon after one of her regulars arrived, and we enjoyed observing the two of them chat the evening away. We also found an alleyway of microbars behind Oimachi station, and enjoyed a couple evenings there chatting with locals.
The deer of Nara are plentiful and you’ll find them wandering freely through all of the small city’s parks. These deer are famously known as Japan’s bowing deer, because they do exactly that. There is no evidential proof of how this behavior came to be, but it is assumed that initial deer learned to “bow” in exchange for food from human hands, and since then young deer have learned this behaviour from their parents. We visited Nara by train from Osaka and in no time had found ourselves some bowing deer. We purchased a bit of deer food from a nearby shop, bowed to the creatures, and got many bows back! It is endlessly entertaining, and if you luck out like us you might encounter some locals who are expert deer whisperers.
Pachinko (パチンコ) is a type of mechanical game which originates in Japan and is popular country-wide. It is used as a recreational arcade-style game, but also as a gambling device, comparable to a slot machine. Pachinko parlours are large and loud, reminiscent of a casino. We had many opportunities to visit these parlours, finding them in every city. They are easily identifiable for their bright lights and the noise. We never brought ourselves to try to play a game of pachinko, because the noise in these parlors was truly too overwhelming. We also ventured into gaming arcades in Osaka. These arcades are often entire buildings, filled with every game imaginable. We watched some pro gamers win big, and lost ourselves some yen, but worth it for the thrills.
We were keen to visit a Japanese bathhouse but given our strict budgeting, we had to find a local bathhouse, and be sure that we could enter despite tattoos. The debate around bathhouses with tattoos in Japan was split. We encountered many Japanese who told us tattoos were no problem, but we read about some bathhouses that indeed turned away patrons that had exposed body art. While in Kyoto we asked our hostel staff to send us to a local bathhouse. They obliged, and the price was right (around 8 USD to enter). We did find the bathhouse but on arrival we backed out. The place was almost too local!? We felt concerned that our lack of Japanese would embarass us as we tried to figure out who to navigate the pools. Alternatively, there are “tourist” bathhouses - these are less budget friendly.
No need to find karaoke in Japan. Karaoke will find you. There are tons of karaoke bars that include private rooms and parlours, but your average bar will have karaoke as well. We discovered karaoke in a small bar in Kyoto. The only other bar guest was a drunken businessman who sang some songs with use, gave us his business card, and introduced us to the Japanese sensation: Pikotara. If you don’t know what Pikotaro is… click here.
It is impossible to visit Japan without encountering temples and shrines. We were sure to visit a couple in each location that we stayed and were never disappointed. Visits to temples are free, and often mean leaving the city for a more serene atmosphere, making for a relaxing day. Out of Kyoto there are some hikes that can be done which bring you through the countryside and forests to various temples. We were in Japan at the beginning of the year, which is a specifically pertinent time to visit temples. It is Japanese tradition to visit a temple or shrine within the first three days of a new year. Locals visit dressed in fine clothing, sometimes traditional, and typically purchase a charm for good luck while there. Some will purchase an “ema” which is a wooden plaque onto which you are meant to write your wish or hope for the new year. This plaque is left in a designated spot at the shrine. This new year visit to a temple or shrine is called “hatsumode.”
Genki Sushi is a Japanese chain of conveyor belt sushi that has been around since the 1990s. We were excited to find one in Shibuya, Tokyo, and went every single day. These restaurants are quintessential conveyor belt sushi: using a small computer you browse the menu and put in orders. These orders are delivered to you within minutes, on a small dish that comes out via conveyor belt. None of the dishes are expensive (maximum 5 USD), making it endlessly fun to sample various items from classic sushi rolls to noodle dishes.
From microbars and genki sushi to purikura and karaoke, there is so much to discover in Japan.
What is so fascinating about Japan for the foreign tourist is everything that is ordinary to the Japanese. While there, my partner and I were never inclined to go to museums or designated tourist attractions, because wandering and exploring was entertainment enough. A toilet that plays music and releases a scent - completely ordinary to a local - was the opposite to us visitors. That toilet made our day. In our time in Japan we became very comfortable, so much so that we were envious of the life that is lived there. As a foreign visitor, Japanese life is attractive. It is orderly and safe, and Japanese locals are welcoming. Perhaps this is part of the Japanophile equation. As a visitor, everything is stimulating, interesting, different. We do not see the underbelly of a society. In the case of Japan, this underbelly includes high rates of suicide and exhausting work culture. The Japanophile is like many of us when we travel to a foreign country. We are elated by the new and feel attracted to what is different, and maybe, better. I did fall in love with Japan, and yes, I would live there in a heartbeat. But as with everything, I try to remember, we always want what we can’t have.
If You Go (On A Budget)
Japan is expensive in comparison to other Asian countries, but it is certainly possible to get by on a budget while traveling there. This is what we did to minimize our spending.
For budget accommodations you can book Airbnb’s, capsule hotels, and hostels. We found Japanese hostels exceptionally clean and private!
Travel by bus is your budget option in Japan. That said, we appreciated our one splurge on the shinkansen (speed) train. Although it was expensive, it was fast, and we were lucky to view Mount Fuji on the trip. If you are in Japan for a longer trip, consider the train pass.
Many cities are walkable, perfect for saving your travel budget. Osaka, Nara and Kyoto were all easily explored by foot, and even bicycle. In many regions, there are hikes you can do - for free!
It is possible to eat well on a budget! Our go-to for affordable meals were meal-ticket restaurants, Genki Sushi and 7-Eleven. It is possible to select a delicious pasta in 7-Eleven, and they will heat it up for you!
Fun, budget shopping: visit Daiso! This chain store is sometimes called the “Japanese dollar store.” We snagged some great souvenirs and essentials in Daiso.
Mobile data or wifi is essential for navigating. Buying a sim card in Japan proved to be complicated, so look into “pocket wifi” instead. Most Airbnb’s and hotels offer it, and it can be purchased for rent in airports.
To read more about how I pull of low-budget trips, click here!